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The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
vol. 6 no 2 (1991)
Photogenic PapersEdited by John Richardson
In his book, Another Way of Telling, John Berger asks 'Are the appearances which a camera transports a construction, a man-made cultural artifact, or are they, like a footprint in the sand, a trace naturally left by something that has passed' (92)? His answer is that they are both. It is precisely this duality described by Barthes as "the photographic paradox"2 which seems to have energised and/or framed the theoretical inquiry into photography that has increasingly emerged during the last decade. Are photographs art form or communicative object; sign or mirror; record or artifact; cultural construction or objective rendition? The major theoretical thrust has been to emphasise the "cultural" character of photographic objects over and against the illusion of their "natural" status. Trachtenberg is typical in remarking that:
between an exposed photographic plate and the contingent acts whereby people read that inscription and find sense in it lies the work of culture, of the wider history within which the medium achieved its name as light writing. (6)
Consequently, much of the debate has been framed in terms of a polarity between the cultural and "natural" character of photographs, at least explicitly. Implicitly, the very terms of the inquiry have turned on the recognition of a specific character to photographs derived from their mode of mechanical reproduction. Yet the task of inquiry, as presented, has been to deconstruct this 'supposition of reality',3 this appearance of a window on the world, and to replace it with the analysis of all the ways that a photograph is "culturally produced", and "ideologically inflected". The photograph, as a "semiotic" object, now becomes merely the manifestation and the index of cultural codes, and/or the site of ideological and historical practices.4
It is, of course, far from my intention to argue against the idea that the photograph is culturally constituted. What I do wish to argue is that the terms within which much of the inquiry has been framed (be it structuralist or post-structuralist in inspiration) has systematically obscured a number of features that are central to the explication of photo-practice, some of which are located precisely in this juncture of mechanical reproduction/symbolic production that has been assumed, yet analytically displaced, in much theory. Despite a number of important, and insightful historical investigations of photographic practice, such as Tagg's and Trachtenberg's, among others, photo-theory and analysis has been marked, I believe, by conflations and problems that have closed out a number of fundamental and potentially important analytic tracks such that the character of photographic intelligibility has not been elucidated in depth. It is this issue which lies at the heart of the present paper.
Specifically, I wish to argue that:
1) What is missed in much inquiry, is the embeddedness of photo-practice in an array of other mundane practices, the specific character of which needs to be elaborated in order to make sense of the photograph as an object and as a course of production.5
2) The construal of a culture/nature dichotomy is misplaced: there is a whole order of intelligibility that is, for members, from within the course of their ongoing mundane activities (from within the natural attitude)6 naturally given. "Nature" and the "natural" are, in this sense, socially produced, yet phenomenologically distinct from that order of intelligibility which we may endogenously treat as cultural.7 The organisation, properties and logic of the "natural attitude", of what is "naturally given", perceived etc., and significantly, therefore, the socio-logic of the practical intersection (or mutual embeddedness) of nature/culture (and correspondingly that which may situatedly be treated as 'given' or as contestable) within the endogenous organisation of mundane activities and practices becomes an important set of issues to address analytically. Cultural studies analyses of the way certain kinds of "understandings" and "meanings" become "naturalised" whilst important, do not go far enough, and at times obscure, indeed fail to note, the deeply ramifying and implicative character and practical relevance of the "natural attitude" of everyday life.
3) The above points bring me to another problem in most accounts and that is the insistence on the unconstrainedly polysemic character of the photo-image, the plurality of meanings available within it (Barthes most importantly) - a significant thematic of post-structural and postmodern approaches. This connects strongly to the issue of the relationship between language and image that has been central to the semiotic literature, and I would argue, largely misconstrued in it.
What I would like to do in this paper, then, is to present an analysis of some photographs as a way of demonstrating an alternative approach to these issues, and suggesting some resolution to the dichotomies that are often set up. Specifically, what follows is an ethnomethodologically inspired analysis8 of photo-practice and the photographic object with a focus on documentary news photography.
Photograph #1 foregrounds a simple action - a young woman being "helped" by two young men on a wall - it is not necessarily clear whether she is being helped up or down (although it is most likely that she is being helped onto the wall because her assistance comes from above as opposed to being from below). Behind them, there are other young people, some smiling, not necessarily for the camera. Some are looking about. The scene, at any rate, evidences some kind of transition from one location to another; given the smiles it seems to be a transition that is significant for the participants, the subjects within the scene.
But what is the photograph a photograph of? What is going on within the frame - what is being/has been observed and photographed? A first observation here is that whatever is going on is not, indeed cannot be, wholly given in the particulars available within the frame - those particulars, in other words, that have been made available to possible viewers/lookers. Not all the course of action is enframed/in-frame (or in shot). On the one hand, one sees an "action", in a scene, and sees it for what it is.9 It is tellable at a glance, glance-available. We can say it is glance-intelligible, in much the same way that an ordinary scene of this sort might be out of one's window.10 If you suddenly looked up from working at your desk and looked out of the window for a moment and saw a scene of this kind, it would be similarly intelligible. On the other hand, it is a scene of persons engaged in an activity whose trajectory began, you take it, prior to the photographer's click, and continued after: a trajectory that has its own duration and endogenous organisation, which the camera's shutter (or your momentary glance outside the window) does not make/have available.
You can perhaps tell a lot from this scene, yet the constituents of the unfolding trajectory of activities, that which would provide for whatever it is they are doing in and by gathering on this structure, are not made available. The subjects within, and the subjects who look at, the photograph inhabit different temporal spaces. This is a frozen moment out of a flux. Nevertheless, and despite this, the photograph is (as most documentary photographs are at one level) glance-intelligible. What makes it intelligible is the perceptual/visual availability of categories within it. Its routine intelligibility is given in terms of the intelligibility of the categories of action and person visible in the photographed scene, rather than in any spatio-temporally (historically or biographically) specifiable particulars, much in the same way as what is recognisable to you from out of your window, or as you walk down the street (unless you are in a home environment where you know named individuals) is, in the first place, available in terms of category knowledge. There remain very significant differences between them, nonetheless, to which we shall presently return.
The fundamental point here is that the world is intelligibly available to our looking and seeing in specifiable ways, and that its intelligibility is scenically organised. That scenic organisation and constitution is locatable in our category knowledge of persons, places, actions and objects, and the ties between them. Indeed, this category knowledge is itself a perceptual and visual knowledge.11 Our naturally-occurring sighted practices, including those of mundane inquiry, take for granted and reproduce, in their unfolding particulars, the intelligibility and recognisability, indeed the visibility, of scenes and actions - in other words the scenic transparency of the social world.12
If we now look at figure 2, we can pursue some further points. This photograph shows a man taking a hammer to a stone structure. The scenic character and intelligibility of what it is that we see within this photograph is given in the visual intelligibility of the categories that constitute its available particulars, even though the actual trajectory of his action, as naturally given and produced is not present to us. Specifically, this photograph is glance-intelligible in terms of the embodied actions that constitute the scene.
Categories of objects are categories that organise our knowledge of activities for which objects are constituent activity-objects.13 In this photograph, the hammer, as an object, carries as part of its intelligibility, the uses to which it can be put, and the actions of which it is therefore a constituent. The object, here the hammer, is treatable as a collapsed trajectory of activity.14 In this case the posture of the man implies that he is about to use it. Thus, though the actual scene as it unfolded temporally in the real world, its naturally occurring trajectory, is not present, our category knowledge can be thought of as a knowledge of the "natural history" of events, objects and actions, and this enables us to understand the "scene". It enables us to see and construct a "proto-narrative" that suggests the prior and subsequent character of the visible action's trajectory. A photograph, in this sense, is "readable" as a proto-narrative when its constituent particulars that are visible (depicted) implicate their naturally occurring trajectory as part of the sense of the photo. It is readable as a proto-narrative, that is, where the photograph's intelligibility is given both in terms of a "before" and "after" that are routinely implicated and taken to be relevant, yet where the particulars present to the eye make relevant, in turn, the significance or possible inquiry into that "before" and "after" which is not visible within the frame, but nevertheless praxiologically present within it. The photograph offers us the elements of a full-blown narrative (if we would pursue it one way or another). Put differently, the actual naturally-occurring trajectory of the action is invisible yet "animates", and is embodied within, what is visible within the frame, and it is read in terms of the "natural history" of the particulars that are visible. The term "natural history" here might be understood as a way of talking about the expectedly routine trajectory of actions, and uses of objects etc. - specifically, category knowledge that is temporally constituted.15 It is such temporally-constituted category-knowledge, that makes available and relevant to the person looking at a photograph of this kind, a trajectory that is treatable as an unfolding particular instantiation/realisation of the natural history of the object, actions or settings depicted. It renders the photograph readable as a proto-narrative.16
Let me return to an earlier point. I suggested that despite the similarity, there remains a significant difference between the photographic scene and the scene you might glance at from out of your window, or as you walk down the street. Indeed, there are a couple of common sensically available, yet consequential, differences:
1) What you see in its naturally-occurring state is, of course, potentially available to you in its timed unfolding. Clearly, even if it is not given to you from within its endogenously developing order, as part of relevances and activities within which you are ongoingly enmeshed as a participant, but rather given you as only a witness, or merely a passer-by, you may be able to hang around long enough (say at the scene of an accident, or a commotion with police cars arriving, etc.) to "see" and "find out" what happened, and to observe further happenings and developments.17
2) Even if you don't hang around, and don't get involved, etc. scenes and their particulars are available to you always in context - some naturally-occurring context.18 Not so here for the scene depicted by and within the photograph, even though the photograph itself is available in a naturally occurring context: that of the pages of a special issue of an academic journal devoted to photography.
Here we come, I think, to an important point about photo-practice and photo-reading: As we encounter actual scenes in the real world, their contexts are available to us and are reproduced in the way that we treat scenes as intelligible. We navigate our way through a temporally unfolding spatial environment of scenes within which various courses of embodied activity converge, intersect and are co-located in various ways - scenes that are, indeed, constituted by such a manifold of simultaneously ongoing unfolding activities, some of which are co-oriented to each other, and all of which may, in significant ways that are unspecifiable in advance, intersect, converge, and co-constitute each other. The co-presence of these various temporal embodied courses of action presents and constitutes the specifically scenic character of the social world "out there": consider, for example, a market scene or a hospital setting, or the site of an auto accident. Crucially, of course, we may monitor various courses with an orientation as to how they might impinge on us (as we drive, for example) or an orientation as to how they might develop (out of curiosity, for example), all the time, navigating our way, or merely "wandering" (bodily or with our eyes), through this glance-available, glance-intelligible environment, with our own relevances, and our corpus of background knowledge, both biographical and social. That this is the case may well mean that there are orders of activity within a scene we traverse, or glance at, that may pass un-noticed by us. It is our relevances and our knowledge that organises much of our looking and seeing. Clearly then, there are many things that we may look at but not "see"; things that we "see" but whose details we do not "notice", and things that we see or even take minute note of but do not engage.
If the scene within figure 2, for example, were to been encountered in the real world, it would be apprehended (unless something had gone seriously "wrong") as a named and nameable, time-specific, location-specific environment. In the photograph, however, these particulars are not available within the visible enframed scene (although sometimes a landmark can give such a specificity to a photograph). Nevertheless, we minimally understand it in terms of a natural history which provides or, renders it as a proto-narrative, with a relevant before/after, and at the same time as a proto-narrative that is itself rendered as observable/reportable by and through the photographic casting and enframing.
The photographic act is then an act of excerptation and enframing - the photographed scene is an excerpt, a moment frozen out of the trajectory of a course of actions still to be named and located spatio-temporally for the subject looking at the photograph.19 The notion that the photograph represents a "freezing" or a "quotation" from the flux of everyday life is, perhaps, familiar.20 However, what this means, crucially, is that the photograph-as produced and as-read-and-made-intelligible is constituted visibly and simultaneously by, at least, two orders, two courses and trajectories of activity:
1) That order of activity of the subjects within the frame, which is visually rendered and understandable as a "moment" out of a naturally-occurring trajectory. Such a trajectory is read into the frame out of our knowledge, locally made relevant by what we see in the frame, of the natural history and natural properties of the objects, actions and persons depicted and visible. Our category knowledge, in other words, which is embodied and temporally-organised.
2) The order/trajectory of activity that involves getting/shooting the photograph and its production/processing - that order which consists in excerpting and enframing just this scenic "moment" out of its endogenously organised real-worldly course, by some putatively specific person, with a particular set of relevances and interests (the latter often remaining un-named and unspecified, being submerged by the named relevances and narrative of the producer/exhibitor).
The significance of the action or events seen/shown is, therefore, only partly recovered from particulars available within the photograph. It is also recovered from the fact that this action is being focused on by the camera/photographer. Why that? Why these people? Why this scene? In photographing this and in making it available, the photographer accomplishes, reflexively, the "interest" or "significance" of the scene. In looking at the photograph, you look at it for what makes it interesting. You re-interrogate and respecify the action, (e.g., the transition, the man taking the hammer to the wall) and the scene of which it is a constituent feature, as being photographable, notable and commentable, observable and reportable. In other words, that it is enframed already marks it out as having been the object of some observation and possible accounting, and constitutes it therefore as an accountable and observable action/scene. Our understanding of any photograph includes an orientation to someone's treating the subject as "of note".
These two orders simultaneously and mutually constitute the photograph as an object-to-be-looked at, where one turns on the other. In their simultaneous relevance and co-constitution, they provide both for the reportability/observability of the scene, and the presence of the photographer at the scene. The presence of the photographer at the scene attests to the scene/action's having occurred, having actually taken place, just as the presence now of the photograph, the "object", attests to the photographer's having been there and having taken note of the action/scene.
In other words, then, the photograph is an indexical object, but it indexes, simultaneously, two orders of events/actions. The two orders reflexively and simultaneously constitute the photograph as an object-to-be-looked at and inquired of. In that, there is also a mutually embedding constitution of a "documentary reality" of a particular kind: the intersection of the enframed subject/enframing act, producing just this object, attests to the photographer's having been there, been present, which in turn confirms the having-occurred character (the having-been) character of whatever particulars constitute the enframed scene. It is in this intersection that the "documentary" features of photography may be located and elaborated in the first place.21
But if we look again at figure 2 we can now talk of a third order, also simultaneously present to, and constitutive of, the reading/viewing. As we see it now, the scene is extracted out of its spatio-temporal context, its endogenous and local scenic environment. Although we may recognise actions at a glance as in the two photographs, what is being shown here, like all activities, are always reconstitutable in terms of other descriptions, which, as Austin suggests, bring in more or less of the consequence, or we can say, the context of the activity into the description. The important point here then becomes the following: it is not only the case that the photographic image, the enframed scene, does not carry intrinsically within it its naturally-occurring spatio-temporal contexts, while the photograph does - it is rather that indeed photographs are irredeemably available, when and as they are available, in some context of display, exhibition or use. Any and each time that you look at a photograph (as object/artifact), it is within some context of use (an art book; a museum wall; a news report; your mother's trunk of keep-sakes; a library, or a family show at a friend's dinner party) in some context of interaction, display, instruction, appeal, or inquiry, etc. There is always and unavoidably, some context that provides and makes available, if only implicitly, some account of the observability and reportability of the "scene".
Let me make this clearer. Take the present context, for example: that of a social scientific display of a set of photographs within an article about photography - a display that is meant to make some specific set of points about the character of photographic intelligibility. It is this context which provides for you what it is that I am holding up to view within and in those photos that are reprinted here. But note that it is only in seeing what they show that you can see what it is that I find in them and am telling about them; what it is that I hold up to view, what I am accounting for and making accountable. One form of intelligibility is predicated on the other, present only within and through it, even as it is simultaneously reconstituted by it.
Figure 3 (photograph #2 with caption added) makes this point clearer. The caption reads:
After nearly three decades as the cold war's premier symbol, the wall crumbles with breathtaking speed, the hideous partition that split Berlin falls to the pickaxe of reforms inspired by Mikhail Gorbachev.
Two points can be made here:
1) The text/caption provides the spatio-temporal location which now further reproduces the proto-narrative character of the photograph - gives us its historical location and context, so that we can now see the pickaxe within the frame as one that was among those that brought the wall down: this particular pickaxe becomes one of those, and its use within the actual trajectory of actions, a "moment" of which is now in frame, is available to us implicatively as a constituent feature of the natural history visibly articulated as and within this "proto-narrative". It is thus also made "visible", seeable and accountable as being a part of a course of actions of "bringing the wall down", and not merely hammering at it after the fact, or for the benefit of a photographer etc. But reflexively, it is the photograph that tells us that the "pickaxe of reform" is not merely a metaphoric one - it tells us how the wall, in part, crumbled, how, in part, the reform was practically instantiated. It makes visible the embodied dimension and course of "reform". This exhibits the mutual anchorage of text and image (a reflexive relationship missed to a large extent in Barthes' much referenced essay on "The Rhetoric of The Image," to which we will presently return).
2) Secondly, note that the text indexes, orients to and reproduces the scene as part of a naturally-occurring trajectory that can be read as accountable in terms of our ordinary knowledge of the natural history of activities and objects (their routine range of trajectories and circumstances). What the text says, and what we see are precisely accountable in terms of each other and in terms of the perceivedly natural social orders of such matters. It is in this then, that the photo-journalist's "looking" and "shooting" may get retrospectively constituted as accountable, reasonable, etc. for she has captured for us to see just what the news report is all about. And she may come off as "professional" in just these ways. The appropriateness of her choices, and her work, is located in terms of the visibility of the course of events given in the picture, which is just what the report is about, and which makes the "work" of producing it and finding/publishing the right picture visibly appropriate, professional, etc.22 It provides for a "seamless" text.
There are then, at least, three trajectories or orders of activity laminated into any photograph on the lived occasion of its "reading"/use, the three co-constitutive of its intelligibility.
1) the naturally-occurring trajectory of actions of the subjects within the frame out of whose flux the "excerpt" is excerpted or taken, now standing as an "index" of that flux, that trajectory.
2) the course of action of the photographer - the trajectory of the subject taking the photograph and the activities embedded in it. This too starts before the "photographic moment" and continues after it (the developing and selection, or selling, etc. of the photograph). The photographic object stands also as an "index" of that trajectory.
3) the trajectory of activity that is embodied in and constitutive of the context of use and display - at any "moment of reading" it articulates the present but it is a course of activity that starts before this present, and the orientable - to features of its lived unfolding. It is a course that is taken to have begun in the past, but with an orientation to a prospective reading, viewing, sense-making (embedded in and constitutive of all "publishing" practices). The context of use makes available a future-oriented past trajectory - a course of activity that one may take as having been oriented to (with more or less specificity) in the photographic course of activity (in trajectory #2), but not necessarily so.
These three trajectories mutually and reflexively constitute each other's sense and reference, and the intelligibility of what we see and read in and of each of them, on any lived occasion of photographic use or discourse. Indeed, various practices that embed and orient to photo-practice reveal the common-sense orientation to these simultaneously co-located orders.
Let me hold the foregoing against two points of emphasis that emerge out of the semiotic tradition, in particular from the work of Roland Barthes. He writes:
all images are polysemous; they imply, underlying their signifiers, a "floating chain" of signifieds, the reader able to choose some and ignore others. Polysemy poses a question of meaning and this question always comes through as a dysfunction.... Hence in every society various techniques are developed intended to fix the floating chain of signifieds in such a way as to counter the terror of uncertain signs [my italics]; the linguistics message is one of these techniques. At the level of the literal message, the text replies ... to the question: What is it? The text helps to identify purely and simply the elements of the scene and the scene itself. (38-39)
When it comes to the "symbolic message", the linguistic message no longer guides identification but interpretation, constituting a kind of vice which holds the connoted meanings from proliferating (39).
Frank A. Webster, following Barthes, writes that photographs
are characteristically open to many readings. Without words a landscape shot can be read on many levels - my home, the beauty of nature, holidays, etc. Because photographs are open to a variety of interpretations they have a desperate need for words which can fix a particular interpretation. Correspondingly, words added to an image can radically shift previous interpretations of an uncaptioned scene. (162)
There are a number of confusions here. Firstly, there is the implicit suggestion that somehow photographs can have some decontextualised status, and that in that state, they are open to a variety of interpretations, can be taken to mean many different things equally; it is in this way that the caption can determine the "meaning" of the photograph or fix a particular interpretation. This is something of an odd notion, since we irremediably encounter photographs in some context which lends them more or less meaningfulness (which is a distinct notion from that of meaning). There may be some occasions when we might come across a photograph in the street, for example, not clearly "belonging" to anyone or to any particular context, and only this might approximate the idealised example that seems to be implicit in these kinds of remarks. But of course, in that case, it does not mean that the photo-scene is utterly unintelligible. A scene of people sitting at a restaurant table will be recognisable (for the members of this culture) as just that, regardless of who they are, or what the occasion was and one might note here that "meaning" and "intelligibility" are two different concepts. Secondly, when we talk of the "meaning" or "interpretation" of a photograph, what exactly are we talking about? The "meaning" and "interpretation" of the in-frame scene, the actions within the frame? Or the meaning of the communicative act within which the photograph is embedded, the meaning intended by its use in discourse? Or the intention of the photographer taking the photograph? Given that the photograph, as we encounter it, is this laminated object, constituted by this collapsed set of trajectories, theoretical talk of photographic "meaning" needs to be clarified and discriminated in terms of these co-located orders that constitute the photographic object-in-situ. It needs to be discriminated also with respect to the notion of "meaning" itself which is a "catch-all" term: is it meaning in the sense of "reference" that is intended? Or sense? Significance? Implication? Relevance? Fullness of context? Intention? Consequence? When we talk of "meaning", in ordinary contexts, we can mean any of these things, and it is contexts that themselves make available what it is we are querying or seeking. Where photographs are intelligible (and for the most part they are), it is routinely a contextualisation that is intended when we attend to the enframed scene, not an interpretation: we are looking to locate the "fragment", the "excerpt" we see within a context that "belongs" to it, or to which it "belonged": the purposes, relevances and outcomes of the in-frame scene/action for example. Contextualisation is distinct from "interpretation". What we do "interpret", more properly speaking, is the photographer's, the exhibitor's, the news editor's purposes in using this photograph. In practice it is often the photographic object-in-use which is the locus of the query after "meaning" or "signification" - yet that is often read back into the constitution of the image itself. What I am suggesting is that much of the theorising about photographic "meaning" has involved the analytic conflation and elision of the laminated courses of activity that are implicated in the photograph-in-situ. The complex reflexivity, and reflexive relationship between the multiple and layered indexicalities of the photograph-in-use are too often submerged behind the quest for, or inquiry of, a generic "meaning".
The suggestion of a fundamental and thoroughgoing undecidability or indeterminacy to the photographic image, given its polysemous character, that leaves all photographs subject to an indefinite range of interpretations implicitly involves a particular conception of the relationship between language and image, and a particular view of the character of visual intelligibility and visual perception. It suggests a dichotomy between language and image, a dichotomy in which intelligibility overwhelmingly resides in language (now shorn of its embodied and scenic character). In this, the "image" (now gutted of its conceptual/linguistic body) remains inchoate to the viewer, producing that 'terror of uncertain signs' that Barthes talks of. Such a view seems to be incoherent. Barthes attributes to the caption or text accompanying the photograph the role and power to remedy just the undecidability of the meaning of the image: his notion of anchorage is given as a way for doing that. Yet it is clear that the relationship between image and text (whether in anchorage or relay), is not merely one way. It is both the constituents of the written/verbal text and caption, as well as the photographic image, that are indexical, and they mutually and reflexively constitute each other,23 as well as the overall emergent text/account composed of both of them simultaneously. We have seen how this works in the case of the photograph of the man with the pickaxe standing on top of the Berlin wall. It is clear that the scene within the frame is visually intelligible, can be understood as a proto-narrative, and thus enables the reader to anchor the reference to the "pickaxe of reforms" and "the wall crumbling down" that are given in the verbal caption, just as the verbal caption enables us to anchor the image in terms, not of what we see per se, but what about it we are meant to attend to. To say that a caption gives "information" or "meaning" not available in the image, is also at the same time to say that it relies on "information" or "meaning" given in the image, and only in that context can a verbal caption be said/seen to be a further move in an account, rendered by both image and caption. What this means then, is not only that there is a mutuality of sense and reference that can be located in the image/caption relationship, but that the notion of complete indeterminacy, omnirelevant polysemy in the image itself is somewhat incoherent, as is, consequently, the notion, that all photographs are subject to an indefinite set of interpretations (and that, as is sometimes therefore suggested, they are always and irremediably given within subjective interpretive frames).
I am trying to argue, in part, that there is an intersubjectively available character to the visual intelligibility of actions, persons and objects within the photographic frame, but that as excerptations from their naturally-occurring settings and courses, their indexicality shifts ground: the photograph-in-situ stands as an index of a putatively actual and independent trajectory of activities but one whose spatio-temporal specification and remedy is available only in and through, not its own context, but an account of it, given after the fact, by some one or more persons. The reading can turn on one or simultaneously all the three trajectories - can privilege one of them, focus on one indexical track (rather than the other) or visibly, manifestly, orient to more than one at the same time.
An important analytic consequence of this, is that one dimension of genre and form can be located in this conjunction of the three trajectories, and can be understood, in part, in terms of the articulation of these different orders of practice. In the kind of photograph we have been looking at, the documentary, the order of activity of the subjects within the frame is taken to be independent of the trajectory of the photographer - its naturally-occurring endogenous organisation distinct from the latter, even though, in some instances (in more or less specifiable ways) it may have motivated it. The two orders are taken to intersect within the photograph, their intersection at this specific juncture being contingent on the unfolding particulars and circumstances of each of the two trajectories. In some documentary photographs, this contingent intersection may be somewhat slightly different, in that one course may be visibly seen in the photograph to have momentarily extruded into the other, "ruffling" it, so to speak, as when the attention of those being photographed is caught by the camera (for example - a smile or a hand before the lens). Yet the course of the subjects in-frame is still treatable as an independently unfolding naturally-occurring trajectory. Some news-photos, as in press conferences, exhibit a somewhat different relationship, where the photograph's prospective production (and the production of the news-text itself) is oriented to as a constituent feature of the activity which is then the occasion for the photograph (as in a press conference). Here the reflexivity of photo-practice surfaces visibly.
The documentary photograph differs in this feature from the advertising photograph, in which it is the trajectory of the photographer that produces within the photograph, the trajectory of activities of the in-frame subjects. Trajectory #1, that is, is not independent of trajectory #2; it occurs within and from it, even though, in some advertising, it is produced to look as though it were a naturally-occurring activity that was merely "caught" by the camera (some of the advertisements for Newport Lights or Benson & Hedges, for example).
Along similar lines, one can distinguish photo-practice and form from other visual forms and practices; from the painting, for example, and the film. In the former, the mundane viewer, orients to trajectory #2, the production of the painting itself, and privileges it, for the scene or person within the frame is understood to have been wholly produced by the painter, even when it is taken to have been "motivated", at some time and place, by a naturally-occurring trajectory in the real world. In the article "Looking at Photographs," Victor Burgin writes:
The signifying system of photography, like that of classical painting, at once depicted a scene and the gaze of the spectator, an object and a viewing subject.... Whatever the object depicted, the manner of its depiction accords with laws of geometric projection which imply a unique "point of view". It is the position of point-of-view, occupied in fact by the camera, which is bestowed upon the spectator.... (146)
In the context of the foregoing analysis Burgin's suggestion of "object" and "viewing subject" is perhaps over-simplified, as is the assimilation of both painting and photography to a single framework. In photography, there are three subjects, and subject points of view, that are laminated into the photograph; the viewer's is the fourth one, and this opens up a space for a range of reflexive practices and features. In the painting, on any occasion of viewing, the subjectivity of the in-framed persons does not have the same status, even though, in some discourses, it may be mused over, imagined, etc. Although it is not present, however, the viewer is not looking at the persons depicted (when they are) as merely at an "object".
With film, there are yet further distinctions of interest, that turn precisely on the articulation of the different orders of activity that constitute the film text. The critical difference, perhaps, between documentary photographs, and documentary, news, or ethnographic film, is that the photograph is silent, and "frozen". In that respect, the exhibitor, user, etc. cannot but speak on behalf of the subjects in-frame. That his/her voice and discourse may not correspond to what the in-framed subject's is (or might have been) may not be as readily apparent for that reason. This is different in film and video where, clearly, the subject's own voice, the subject herself or himself can talk on camera. Critiques of didactic documentaries, and political critiques of, for example, international news coverage on TV, is often located here.
To sum up: the "reading" of a photograph has then a much more complex endogenous organisation to it than captured either by the naive view of realism (objectivism) or the semiotic/structuralist orthodoxy that insists, in opposition, on the indefinite interpretive possibilities, that need to be pinned down by a caption. It is best understood by a praxiological mode of analysis.
Figure 4 shows a poster whose caption says: 'Visit South Africa in the Autumn: It's a Riot of Color'. The centrepiece of the poster is a photograph that is readable as a proto-narrative. It shows a scene which some might describe as a "riot" - it is, at least, a scene of confrontation and conflict, in which people are running, there is a cloud of tear gas surrounding them, and in the foreground, a policeman bringing his stick or baton down onto a woman. The caption supplies the socio-historic location: South Africa. Through that we can "see" the category incumbencies of the persons within the scene as black and white, and moreover, as white policeman and black protesters. And through that the rest of the caption becomes articulatable as talking about race: "colour" here becomes the colours of race, not foliage. But this is so, precisely because of the scene given, for it is conceivable to produce a tourist caption poster for South Africa that talks about colour in a different sense: the colour of the seasons; of the landscape; of the sea and sky. It is the photo-scene that constitutes the "riot of color" as being a conflict about race, and Autumn now becomes simply a temporal timeline for when such events might have taken place. It is clear that we read the caption, not as a tourist ad, but in an ironic mode, an ironic display of South African life. The irony is accomplished in and through the juxtaposition of the photo-scene and caption, and relies on the visibility of the proto-narrative in the photo-scene. Whatever the caption would or could say here, it can only be read in terms of the photo-scene, and the photo-scene is itself readable as a proto-narrative, where the categories of action in it are glance-intelligible, visually available, and therefore describable (and redescribable) in terms that turn on the particulars given - that police are beating a woman, that there are clouds of fumes. Whether you will redescribe it as the forces of law and order keeping the peace, controlling hooligans, or the repressive arm of the state breaking up protesters, denying freedom of expression, police brutality - in either case, it is the particulars of the photo-scene, and the proto-narrative that they make available, that provide the pivot, the relied on features, the fulcrum, for the different accounts and descriptions that may be given of this scene/photo. It is not that the scene speaks for itself: but that it speaks itself in such a way that it can provide the ground and object (the topic and resource) of our speaking for and about it, in the various ways that we do. What I would like to say here is that there is a "moral order" to vision, and that this "moral order of vision" clearly partakes of, and is a constituent feature of the moral order at large. If you see a policeman beating a man vigorously, and you have other witnesses to the beating (in other words, if your veracity is not at issue) then that is perceivable and describable as just "what happened", and any judgement that does not incorporate this as fact may be accountably treatable as not "objective".24 Of course, people may differ as to what the beating constituted - brutality or self-defence, etc., how it might be redescribed, what may or may not have justified it in terms of motivations, expectations, fears, threats, prior acts, possible consequences, etc. But all these will turn on the fact of the beating, and that fact is given in its witnessed and witnessable character or witnessed and witnessable indices. The circumstances surrounding the discourse on the Rodney King beating bear testimony to this.25 Such a mode of 'objectivity' (one among others, culturally constituted, yet nevertheless treatable as given) needs to be addressed more in inquiry. Obviously, one cannot make just anything out of any scene - there are the intersubjectively given understandings and conventions that underpin all communicative activity, and embed various human practices: and some actions, some matters are morally implicative in given ways. Scenes, therefore, that constitute themselves as embodiments of certain kinds of morally implicative and morally articulable courses of action, are themselves morally implicative: they present themselves to our eyes in morally constituted ways: they are intelligible from within the moral order. But, as with all matters from within the cultural/moral order, there is no fixity, no logically determinable manner in which they may get taken up, judged or oriented to. This is where the notion of implicativeness is important. Vision then is "morally constituted" - it has a moral order. If we were to see a photo of bodies piled up in a heap on a country road with a caption: "Summertime in Vietnam", the photo-scene would "command" the caption and provide the auspices for how we are to read it.26 Can it be read in any way other than in an ironic mode - even by supporters of/or apologists for, the war in Vietnam? Some features of courses of action, and therefore of scenes as the embodiments of courses of action, are implicatively and interpretively dominant. They subsume other features, and that is embedded in the weave of cultural intersubjective understanding and in that particular "node" of it that is situatedly relevant. What is so judged as more significant, as dominant, is so judged from within specific cultural auspices and from within a local setting, yet it provides the horizon within which varying responses, readings and explanations, are produced and/or themselves, in turn, assessed and constituted.
Clearly then the notion that photographic "meaning" is independent of cultural understandings and interpretations does not make sense. But the emphatic elaboration of the counter-assertion has been systematically unenlightening; for it has focused in on a point that obscures the actual, complex and laminated order of photo-practice, assuming and taking for granted the point of elision between the different orders of activity and intelligibility (and of subject) and therefore subsuming it analytically. It systematically misses the layered/laminated indexicality that is the organisational principle of photo-practice and within which one can begin analytically to locate the loci of various related practices and discourses.
Critiques of photo-journalism or ethnographic photography then can operate within this context. They may orient, in the first place, to the multiple courses of activity that are present and laminated within any photograph on the lived occasion of its use/reading and to their possible discrimination from each other, their discriminability. Secondly, they orient to the moral order of vision, the possibility of seeing into the photograph something other than the discourse within which it is inlaid after the fact. The photo-object is treated as an index of the photo-journalist's preoccupations, his or her relevances and point of view, his or her discourse, but part of this turns on treating the photo-scene or subject differently, seeing the photo as an index of a different and independent natural/native course of events and actions that are spoken for differently by the photo-journalist, than they would speak for themselves in-situ. Berger, for example, writes:
For example, all over the world during the nineteenth century, European travellers, soldiers, colonial administrators, adventurers, took photographs of "the natives", their customs, their architecture, their richness, their poverty, their women's breasts, their headdresses; and these images, beside provoking amazement, were presented and read as proof of the justice of the imperial division of the world. The division between those who organised and rationalised and surveyed, and those who were surveyed. (97)
The restriction of cameras from politically sensitive areas (as in both South Africa and the Israeli Occupied West Bank and Gaza strip) are also practices that orient to the irremediably moral order of vision, as well as to the indexical objectivity of photographs. The camera box, or camera's eye is treated and treatable as "open" at both ends, so to speak: the camera is a passage, a conduit of images whose significance is intersubjectively available, moving from their naturally-occurring contexts to other contexts as images, from their naturally-occurring real world context, to real contexts in other spatio-temporal locations, and therefore whose manipulation may not always be ready to hand, or completely open.
It is clear then that in the photographic artifact or object there are three reflexively constituting, mutually visible, indeed, inter-visible courses of activity that are co-located to produce just what the photograph shows and tells on any particular occasion and to produce the photographic object/artifact itself as a lived occasion for use and discourse. This kind of lamination (and the indexicality and reflexivity embedded in it) is present within the organisation of social praxis more generally, but becomes, perhaps, a more visible and accentuated feature of mediated practices in particular. The analysis of photo-practice then demonstrates the ramifying and reflexive cumulativity of social praxis. It also demonstrates the reflexive and mutually embedded relationship between embodied and sighted practices (of which there is no space here to talk at length), and indeed, the pervasiveness of these as a foundational constituent of practico-moral-order-as-produced and made intelligible.
1. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the conference on "Current Work in Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis" held at the University of Amsterdam July, 1991. It is part of a larger manuscript on "visuality" currently under preparation by the author.
2. Roland Barthes, "The Photographic Message" in Image-Music-Text (16-20). Frank Webster picks up on Barthes' idea in his chapter "The Photographic Paradox".
3. The phrase used by Hubert Damisch (288). He goes on to describe the photograph as a "paradoxical" object, 'in a way, entirely unreal', yet one that we read as retaining something of reality.
4 See, as different examples, Stuart Hall, "On The Determination of News Photographs", John Tagg, The Burden of Representation and Victor Burgin "Photographic Practice and Art Theory", also "Looking at Photographs" and "Photography, Phantasy, Function".
5. See my similar point regarding media texts more generally, L. Jayyusi, "The Equivocal Text and the Objective World".
6. The term is used to describe the constitution of everyday commonsense knowledge, which takes the giveness of the social world for granted, and assumes a reciprocity of perspectives with respect to it, etc. The term originated in the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and was first introduced into sociological analysis by Alfred Schutz.
7. Being a "woman" or a "man" is, for example, treated as "naturally" given, even though gender status is interactionally accomplished and culturally constituted. It is so accomplished, and constituted, however, as a visible and taken for granted natural status. See in this respect H. Garfinkel, "Passing and the Managed Achievement of Sex Status in an Intersexed Person".
8. Ethnomethodology was founded by Harold Garfinkel in his Studies in Ethnomethodology. It is concerned with the study of practical reasoning and practical action within the naturally-occurring settings of mundane life. In this sense, ethnomethodological study can be characterised as a praxiological form of inquiry, concerned with the interactional and practico-moral logic and organisation of various social practices.
9. There are, of course, occasions when the camera's shutter delivers an action "awkwardly" - freezes it a point not ordinarily available to, or encountered by, our routine ordinary perception. Then the question is literally, what is going on? These cases are interesting for the inquiry into them would help clarify further the dimensions of photographic intelligibility in particular and mundane visual intelligibility in general. See M. Kozloff (5-7) for an interesting discussion of a particular photograph of this kind.
10. One might want to say that it is "recognisable". But a word of caution is in order here: the visual intelligibility of scenes, actions and objects may be spoken of, in some contexts, in terms of their routine and mundane "recognisability". Routine recognisabilities, however, do not translate directly into talk of "recognitions" on the part of speakers/actors. That only happens when routine and mundane recognisabilities are problematic or cannot be relied on or expected.
11. For a more elaborate rendition of this point, see my "Towards a Socio-logic of the Film Text".
12. See Jayyusi, "Towards a Socio-logic of the Film Text".
13. See Jayyusi, "Towards a Socio-logic of the Film Text".
14. This is a notion that draws on work in phenomenology. Henri Bergson, for example, writes: '... the objects which surround my body reflect its possible action upon them'(7) and 'Perception ... measures our possible action upon things, and thereby, inversely, the possible action of things upon us' (57).
15. In this sense, the term "natural history" is being used in a way that is cognate with its usage within the science of Natural History, where the term designates (in field zoology, for example) the study of typical habitats, ways and patterns of life of a particular species, which may then be used as a way to understand, orient to, "predict" and assess the behaviour of particular individual members of the species, but is not, in the first place, about such individual members or their actual behaviour.
16. Thus, the analysis of the ways in which we can assemble, read, display, use and orient to particular photographs (or particular kinds/genres of photography) can tell us much about the organisation of practical reasoning in various settings, and about the properties of different cultural practices and social activities, since our analysis and use of photographs would reflexively depend on, and utilise, just such knowledge.
17. We make sense of this through what Garfinkel calls 'the documentary method of interpretation', which is embedded in the temporal organisation of everyday life and experience. Thus, for our purposes, the particulars we do see provide for the account we can construct of them, and the account we construct provides the sense of the particulars, just as what we see as a first provides prospectively for the sense of what we see next and what we see next retrospectively reconstitutes the sense of what it was that we saw before. The documentary method of interpretation is a constituent feature of our interpretive and accounting practices and of the ways that we routinely make sense of our environment, and the contexts within which we act and participate and which we conjointly, with others, produce and constitute.
18. By "context" here, I mean the scene or activity's production context, not some extrinsic set of features that act on agents and their actions from a distance. In this sense, then, it would include the purposes, relevances and practical tasks to which actors orient, the setting's features which they rely on and 'incorporate' into their practical engagements, the 'business' at hand, the properties of the objects-in-use, the features of concurrent action etc. And indeed, it is in the production and constitution of action and talk that these contextual features are displayed, and "context" is therefore itself produced.
19. Max Kozloff puts this feature very nicely: 'No matter when the shot occurs in time, relative to the significance of an episode, the image is literally dis-ossciated from the business at hand. The relation of the image to the subject depends on how the subject is defined, but the photograph has unquestionably cut away from it, not only as a part is taken from the whole, but as an inert presence differs from an active process ... everything we see is "between the lines", temporally and yet capable of being explicit, spatially' (12). It is important in this respect that the terms we use for photography are specific to it, and are embedded precisely in this feature - we "shoot" or "take" a photograph, "get" a scene, "catch" a movement on camera. This is parallelled in other languages - in Arabic for example, the same terms, again, are used for "photographing" as the ones for "catching" and "taking".
20. John Berger has, of course, described the photograph in exactly these terms - he calls photography the "art of quotation" as opposed to painting which is the "art of translation". Another Way of Telling (111).
21. This, of course, does not determine that a photograph is going to be accepted and used as "evidence", but provides for what features of it make for such uses. It draws the horizon within which various evidential practices that turn on photography are possible - the grounding within which a photograph's acceptance or rejection as "evidence" is produced and made intelligible. John Tagg is absolutely right when he asks under what circumstances a photograph of the Loch Ness monster, of which there are many, is acceptable (The Burden of Representation (5)). The point is, however, that when such a photograph is produced and not treated as sufficient "evidence", that "treatment" that the photograph receives, and the discourse bound up with it, will be seen to turn, for example, on making an exception of this particular photograph, or this genre, or on arguing for how it is that what is visible in it can be given a different description/interpretation; or on how photographs can be "faked" (similar issues hold for the "sightings" (and photographs) of UFOs). This only re-establishes the "primacy", for common sense intelligibility, of the "documentary" properties of photographs. Berger captures this, in a sense, when he says: 'In itself the photograph cannot lie, but, by the same token, it cannot tell the truth; or rather, the truth it does tell, the truth it can by itself defend, is a limited one', Another Way of Telling (97). Thus, whilst Tagg's assertion that the fact that a photograph can come to stand as evidence rests on a 'social, semiotic process' (4) is absolutely correct, he misconstrues, to some extent, the character of that process when he counterposes this to the notion that the evidential character of a photograph rests on a 'natural and existential fact'. The social, semiotic process, after all, is one in which the "natural and existential fact" is a constituent feature of its intelligibility and is reflexively constituted by it. When Tagg insists, in this context, that the investigation of the "evidential force" of photographs is not phenomenological but historical (4-5), one is moved to point out that not all social practices are "institutional practices" and not all social relations are historical "relations of power". There are the pervasive, and pervasively mundane relationships and practices of everyday life, that merit a critical position in the inquiry into forms of "intelligibility" (including evidential force); for they constitute the fabric of practical reasoning and practical action, and are, thereby, at the heart of institutional practices, practices of "power", and lived historical contexts, - they are not set to one side, separate and cut off from these. It is not a question of either/or.
22. This is to say that "professionalism" in this context, whether attributed to the photographer, or to the editor who selects the photo for the text, or both, is a matter of deeper, more complex and ramifying cultural competencies (mobilised and perceived as "professional skills") than those which Hall identifies. He writes of the routines of news production: 'these routines, in turn, are conducted at all times "according to certain ideas". That is, the routines are framed by certain types of knowledge which facilitate the flow of news from source to text, and which enable the signifying process to take place. The type of knowledge we have in mind is that routinised and habituated professional "knowhow" which permits the everyday 'work' of setting the photo into context in a newspaper to get done under the tyranny of tight scheduling and "deadlines". The photographer must have at his command the technical-practical "knowhow" to produce a good clear print (focus, exposure, grade of film, developing techniques, etc.). But, as a professional, he will also mobilise the ground-rules of photographic composition to lend the photograph formal eloquence (angles, lighting, framing, composition, etc.). The photographer's ability to perform his routine tasks effectively within the framework of his professional knowledge constitutes his photographic competence'. (6)
23. That "indexicality" and "reflexivity" are constituent features of mundane practical actions was first elucidated by Garfinkel in his classic, Studies in Ethnomethodology.
24. The point here is not, however, "objectivity", or "facticity" "reality" versus "interpretive framework", "cultural constitution", nor is it "objectivity" etc. in some generic decontextualised way. Rather, the question is: within the arena of cultural practice, and therefore of photo-practice, what is, for ordinary members, treatable as in-situ given, real, "objective", "non-contestable", and what is the domain, for any particular lived occasion, of contestability?
25. The beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles policemen, on March 3, 1991, captured on video by an amateur photographer sparked an outcry, a trial, and then on the acquittal of the policemen (seen clearly on video beating King repeatedly while he was down), the Los Angeles riots of April 30 - May 1, 1992. There have, of course, been similar cases in recent history of significant events or actions captured on video and used therefore, by virtue of that, in giving evidence. The most notable, yet least publicised of which was perhaps the killings by Israeli border guards of Palestinians inside the grounds of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem on October 8, 1990 (shown to an audience of Security Council delegates). In this case, interestingly, it was not merely the scenes within the video (the visual particulars) that were significant but also the sound-track of calls for medical help and blood donors from the minaret of the Mosque that were concurrent with them. Video, even more than photographs, can be treated as "rescuing" the status of a scene from the "in-principle witnessable" to the "actually witnessed".
26. In fact, such a photograph formed the focus of a poster whose caption, laid directly over the photo read: 'And babies'? 'And babies'. Clearly, this caption has a somewhat different relationship to the image, than the one I am proposing by way of example. The relationships between image and caption are themselves worthy of analysis, for they cannot be reduced to the one or two simple and uni-vocal ones implied in much of the work on photography.
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Barthes, Roland. Image-Music-Text. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.
Berger, John and Mohr, Jean. Another Way of Telling. New York: Pantheon Books, 1982.
Bergson, Henri. Matter and Memory. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1911.
Burgin, Victor. "Photographic Practice and Art Theory", Thinking Photography. Ed. Victor Burgin. Basingstoke: Macmillan 1982. 39-83.
Burgin, Victor. "Looking at Photographs". Thinking Photography. 142-153.
Burgin, Victor. "Photography, Phantasy, Function". Thinking Photography, 177-216.
Damisch, Hubert. "Five Notes for a Phenomenology of the Photographic Image". Classic Essays on Photography. Ed. Alan Trachtenberg. New Haven: Leete's Island Books, 1980. 287-290.
Garfinkel, Harold. "Passing and the Managed Achievement of Sex Status in an Intersexed Person,". Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1967. 116-185.
Hall, Stuart. "On The Determination of News Photographs". Working Papers in Cultural Studies No.3. Birmingham. Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. 1972. 53-87.
Jayyusi, Lena. "Towards a Socio-logic of the Film Text". Semiotica 68 (1988): 271-296.
Jayyusi, Lena. "The Equivocal Text and the Objective World". Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media and Culture 5, 1 (1991): 166-190.
Kozloff, Max. The Privileged Eye: Essays on Photography. Albuquerque: New Mexico UP, 1988.
Schutz, Alfred. Collected Papers. Vol. 1. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1962.
Tagg, John. The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories. Amherst: Massachusetts UP, 1988.
Trachtenberg, Alan. Reading American Photographs: Images as History, Matthew Brady to Walker Evans. New York: The Noonday Press, 1989.
Webster, Frank. The New Photography: Responsibility in Visual Communication. London and New York: Riverrun Press, 1980.
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