Seeing the world through photographs
Photography truly is a medium unique of its own, “in Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there.” (Barthes. et al. 1993: 76). Photography is a tool for representation, it cannot deceive, what I see must be true and I cannot add nor take from it (Marien. 2002: 149). A medium able to administer the authentication of reality and acts as a “certificate of presence” (Barthes. et al. 1993: 87); the undeniable depiction. I acknowledged Sontag’s views on how we experience everything through photography, for providing an apparition of participation. “A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it- by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image” (Sontag. 2008: 9,10). Photography has furnished our perception of reality. It broadens our scope of experience, extending and expanding our natural vision vastly. (Sontag, S. 2008: 156; Snyder. et al.1975: 157). “an image-world is replacing the real one” (Sontag, S. 2008: 154). It is essentially uncommon for us to live a day without seeing a photograph (Burgin. 2003: 130).
The stillness in photography
The aspect of stillness in photography is an important relation to why we experience the image-world as the real one. In the early days of the photography medium, photographs were known as stills (Fig. 1) as it was necessary for subjects to maintain their posture without moving (Friday. 2006: 39). This form of stillness has disappeared due to the invention of faster optics.
Fig.1: Robert Cornelius Seated Couple c.1840 Fig. 2: Henri Cartier Bresson.
Gare Saint Lazare, Paris, 1932
However, another form of stillness lives within photography. In this aspect of photography stillness, the subject depicted in the frame does not progress or move (Fig. 2). This stillness is the instantaneous moment extracted from a flow of continuous moments (Friday. 2006: 44) and has a “lacerating emphasis of the noeme (‘that-has-been’)” (Barthes. et al. 1993: 96). This photographic stillness changed the way we experience everything. No longer do we desire to experience the world in its unique time and space. Instead, there is a fondness to bring every experience towards us, within our grasp, just so we could see it. This stillness “breeds an intolerance of distance and uniqueness” (Costello. 2005:174).
Photography stillness is also a corruption to progression, a collective ability to preserve its subject through time without decay (Wollen. 2003: 78). This incredible ability that resides within the stillness of photography is rebellious to the continuity of moments in our everyday lives; what we know as: time (James. 1881). We yearn to bring this flow to a stop, to allow one to have a free viewing time of a moment, rather than an imposed one. Therefore, this stillness is causing us to live in an image world of reality today.
Stillness and Aura in Photography
Aura is known as the exudation of an atmosphere or quality that surrounds a physical thing in its unique time and space, (Benjamin. 1986: 31) and was very much present in the work of Art before the withering of it. The work of art has always been about its uniqueness in its present time and space, its authenticity (Robinson. 2013). For example, The Thinker (Fig.3), a reproduced sculpture will not possess the aura of The Poet in The Gates of Hell (Fig. 4). Reason being, when we experience The Thinker, we are not experiencing The Poet, made for its unique time and space. Uniqueness of time and space in the work of art would be the artist’s intention. Therefore, when we experience a work of art in its auratic form, we are exposed to the manifestation of the artist’s intention; the artist’s gaze returning back on us.
Fig. 3: Auguste Rodin. The Thinker Fig. 4: Auguste Rodin. The Gates of Hell 1881
It was the stillness involved in early photography that Benjamin attributed it to aura. Benjamin claimed that the aura came from the stillness of the subjects (Fig. 1) as they “grew into the picture” (Costello. 2005:169), committing themselves fully to the medium as it stenciled its subject from reality (Sontag. 2008: 154).
The relation between photography stillness and aura was disrupted when faster optics were developed. Subjects no longer needed to be still for a prolonged time which lead to the conclusion that the aura experienced was just a “mere product of a primitive camera” (Costello. 2005:170). Benjamin resisted this conclusion and claimed that the aura resides in what is depicted. This claim was ironic because one simply could not assume that the subject possessed an Aura just from the depiction of it; even though his claim managed to emancipate aura from the product of slow cameras. This claim also suggest that the experience of aura is similar to Barthes’s notion of the punctum (Costello. 2005:169).
In Barthes’s terms, this punctum is the stressing importance of Time, of the ‘that-has-been’; “he is going to die… I observe with horror… “ (Barthes. et al. 1993: 96). Barthes felt the aura of the scene from experiencing the sting, the punctum (Gallop 1985: 396). Yet, when I look at this photograph, I merely observe a young man in cuffs. Therefore, the stillness in photography repels the existence of aura, it is only through the punctum that one might experience the aura from a photograph.
Fig. 5: Alexander Gardner: Portrait of Lewis Payne 1865
Stillness breeds reproduction in art
Even though the two terms seem to be on contradicting ends, stillness compliment the latter. Our definition of experience changed from auratic to ‘that-has-been’. We desire to experience everything in its stillness (Sontag. 2008: 24, 79). “Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction.” (Benjamin. et al. 2002: 105). This stillness encourages reproductions to satisfy people’s needs to ‘experience’, a reproduction with qualities that rein supreme over previous methods of it. A reproduction that removes all uniqueness and permanence to anything. “to destroy its aura, is the mark of a perception whose ‘sense of the universal equality of things’ has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction.” (Benjamin. et al. 2002: 105) The stillness in photography is the insistence of a reproduced which caused the death of the aura.
This death meant as a liberation of art from traditional art-culture. The structure of experience formed dissociate the work of art from its tradition, its enslaving dependence on custom (Costello. 2005:175). The priorities of the work of art were no longer the presence of work, to be felt; but the importance of works to be seen (Benjamin. et al. 2002: 106). “with the influence in which photography, as a technique of reproduction, had on art itself. It isolated art from the patron, delivering it up to the anonymous market and its demand” (Benjamin. et al. 2003:121). This photographic stillness dictated the change in experiences which influenced the demands of everything to be democratized; just like how a moment was photographed, for its sole purpose to be a spectacle. It is this stillness that exhilarated reproductions.
Art as commodity
Photography portrays itself as a universal language, to be read and fully invested by us (Burgin. 2003: 133). “it is language which speaks, not the author” (Barthes. 1977: 143). Thus the properties in photography changed the way we perceived, liberating all artworks from the returned of the Artist’s gaze. Art’s center was based upon its uniqueness, but photography remove art from its aura to be freed by its capacity to be interpreted (Berger. 2008: 11). Artworks followed the new autonomy that photography had acquired; specific ways of understanding were dismantled. Once there is room for multiple interpretation, the work of art has the capacity to sustain an eternal value, to live in its reproduction (Crimp. 2003: 423; Benjamin. et al. 2002: 109). Almost every work of art today is seen through photographs. The empowering stillness in photography has been underestimated, for it nurtured the lives of countless works of art.
Art became a commodity and was brought to the masses. Many works of art are known to us today through its capacity to be reproduced. This commodity is celebrated by our intimate mix pleasure of seeing and experiencing. Almost every work of art we are aware of today were not seen voluntarily but apparently. Art as commodity display themselves at no cost with no appropriate time and space allocated to them, just how “photographs offer themselves gratuitously. Artworks could be received freely rather than to be absorb in a specific time and place. (Burgin. 2003: 130)
For example, the works of Leonardo da Vinci (Fig.6), Vincent van Gogh (Fig.7) and Auguste Rodin (Fig.8) are still well known today due to the fact that Art is a commodity today. The original depend on its reproductions to survive, this survival means that the authentic becomes inexhaustible, anti-auratic, in its capacity to look back to confront the masses that are looking at it. (Benjamin. et al. 2002: 116 & Benjamin. 1986: 34)
The invention of photography, with its properties of stillness, transformed the entire character of art. Photography should be celebrated for its contribution to reproducibility. In the recent ICP exhibition: What is a Photograph, almost all the works exhibited are one-offs. Brandt’s work (Fig.9) was soaked in a lake it represents, being an exclusive photographic piece. Is that what a photograph should be known for today? An auratic object that seats in its unique time and space awaiting death. I sincerely believe photography has achieved, creating a new way of experiencing everything. Photography has accomplished this much – liberating every work of art from its aura – not to be thrown back into what it opposed (as shown in the ICP exhibit) but to be glorified in its capabilities to grant artworks its ubiquitous status. Photography today, is about its gifted ability to represent and reproduce; for our indulgence in its stillness as a form of experience. (Rexer. 2014 & King)
List of illustrations:
Figure 1. CORNELIUS, Robert. 1840. Seated Couple c.1840. Flickr [Online image] Available from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/seities/8041655839 [Accessed on 16th October 2016]
Figure 2. BRESSON, Henri Cartier. 1932. Gare Saint Lazare, Paris, 1932. WordPress [Online image] Available from: https://iconicphotos.wordpress.com/2009/07/26/derriere-la-gare-saint-lazare/ [Accessed on 16th October 2016]
Figure 3. RODIN, Auguste. The Thinker. Artble [Online image] Available from: http://www.artble.com/artists/auguste_rodin/sculpture/the_thinker
[Accessed on 16th October 2016]
Figure 4. RODIN, Auguste. The Gates of Hell 1881. Artble [Online image] Available from: http://www.artble.com/artists/auguste_rodin/sculpture/the_thinker
[Accessed on 16th October 2016]
Figure 5. GARDNER, Alexander. 1865. Portrait of Lewis Payne 1865. WordPress [Online image] Available from: https://thinkingphotographs.wordpress.com/2014/05/25/on-camera-lucida/ [Accessed on 16th October 2016]
Figure 6. DA VINCI, Leonardo. 1503. Mona Lisa 1503. 10mosttoday [Online image] Available from: http://10mosttoday.com/10-most-famous-works-of-art/ [Accessed on 16th October 2016]
Figure 7. VAN GOGH, Vincent. 1889. Starry Night 1889. 10mosttoday [Online image] Available from: http://10mosttoday.com/10-most-famous-works-of-art/ [Accessed on 16th October 2016]
Figure 8. RODIN, Auguste. 1902. The Thinker 1902 . 10mosttoday [Online image] Available from: http://10mosttoday.com/10-most-famous-works-of-art/ [Accessed on 16th October 2016]
Figure 9. BRANDT, Matthew. Grays Lake 2013. dthpham [Online image] Available from: http://dthpham.me/post/75215167263/matthew-brandt-grays-lake-2013 [Accessed on 16th October 2016]
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