I have been spending time considering the photograph as an object related to my research around Object Orientated Ontology, black and white images and a documentary aesthetic. Source magazine also have a writing prize, so I have put together a short article about the topic as i feel this would be a good way to explore ideas and also use writing as a process to present them:
Drawing Attention to the Photograph
When Robert Frank penned his application to the Guggenheim foundation leading to the hugely influential ‘The Americans’ trip, he wanted: “To produce an authentic contemporary document, the visual impact should be such as will nullify explanation” (Frank, 2012). This accomplishment was never in dispute. However, he also did something else: Frank showed the US photographed and by doing so, drew attention to the act of photography in challenging the stiff, formal technical proficiency of traditionalists such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and his mentor, Walker Evans (O’Hagan, 2014). Frank broke all the rules with his approach to process, As John Szarkowski points out: “what was being described had to be described because it was there, it didn’t have to be described according to the rules and formulations that were thought of as being good photography” (2013). Frank’s photographs openly display the act of photography by showing you the means of its production (showing you the strings): motion blur, un-level horizons, moving the depth of field from the main subject of the image, shifting attention. Things that are only shown through photographs, and considered mistakes by some, yet they cut through the illusion of perfection, making them relatable and placing Frank into the photograph as the photographer.
This idea of drawing attention to the photographic act might sound pretty obvious to anyone looking at Frank’s photographs, now part of the mythology of a documentary aesthetic: black and white inviting the reader to view the subject nostalgically, for example. These quintessential qualities of the photograph are opposed to the way that we interpret the world and a learned knowledge of their perceived importance, as Vilém Flusser notes: “Many photographers … prefer black-and-white photographs to colour photographs because they more clearly reveal the actual significance of the photograph, i.e. the world of concepts” (2000, p. 43). Of course, for Frank, black and white film was the primary means to photograph, yet it still highlights a contrast of the real world. Contemporary photographers such as Vanessa Winship, choose to utilise this conceptual suggestive power of black and white, clearly recognising the subjective act of photography, or as she puts it best, the area “between chronicle and fiction” (Winship, 2015), drawing attention to her photographs’ contrast of the concrete world and as objects in themselves.
Drawing attention to the act of photography separates it from the sea of images occupying our daily lives, perhaps one of the last bastions of differentiation that the photographer has. It is easy to take a picture, everyone has the means to do it, but the awareness of the photograph as an object remains with those willing to study it and then accentuate its qualities, both conceptual and technical. Photographers do this often with apparatus. For example, Joel Mereowitz considers the theatre of the 10×8 camera in which he captured Provincetown a significant part of that work, where even during the late 70’s and early 80’s must have seemed like apparatus from a distant time (Meyerowitz in Perello, 2020). This idea also led to Alys Tomlinson making a ‘break through’ in pursuit of her seminal project ‘Ex-Voto’ when she switched to large format black and white (Tomlinson in Smith, 2020).
The theatre of apparatus also draws attention to the photographic act, though not necessarily for the viewer. It is more of an interaction between the author and subject as it creates the means to interject the visual associations of candid and vernacular; apparatus invites intrigue, breaking down tension with a curious subject. It should be noted, this reaction may not have happened without its presence bringing up questions of subjectivity and representation as it is more an intervention by the photographer author, as Philip Toledano reminds us, “The art is always about you [the photographer] in some respect, it’s just a question of how visible you are in that photograph; how much you can see yourself or other people can see you” (Toledano, 2020). In our world of images, how does the photographer differentiate themselves from the vernacular and the sea of images? Going back to the example of Robert Frank, who’s subject was the vernacular – you draw attention to the photography within the photograph.
Flusser, V., 2000. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. 2018 reprint ed. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.
Frank, R., 2012. A Statement by Robert Frank (1958). [Online] Available at: https://americansuburbx.com/2012/07/robert-frank-a-statement-1958.html
[Accessed 15 July 2020].
Meyerowitz, J., 2020. The Candid Frame #500 – Joel Meyerowitz [Interview] (26 January 2020).
O’Hagan, S., 2014. Robert Frank at 90: the photographer who revealed America won’t look back. [Online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/nov/07/robert-frank-americans-photography-influence-shadows [Accessed 16 July 2020].
Szarkowski, J., 2013. John Szarkowski On Robert Frank’s Book ‘The Americans’” (1986). [Online] Available at: https://americansuburbx.com/2013/05/john-szarkowski-on-robert-franks-book-the-americans-1986.html [Accessed 16 July 2020].
Toledano, P., 2020. A Small Voice: Conversations with Photographers – 132 Phillip Toledano [Interview] (10 June 2020).
Tomlinson, A., 2020. A Small Voice: Conversations with photographers – 123 – Alys Tomlinson [Interview] (5 February 2020).
Winship, V., 2015. A Small Voice: Conversations with Photographers – 003 Vanessa Winship [Interview] (11 November 2015).