The Photograph: A Strange, Confined Space (Introduction)


Price, Mary. The Photograph: A Strange, Confined Space (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994) 1-21


This is a book with two major emphases. The first is that the language of description is deeply implicated in how a viewer looks at photographs. Description may be title, caption, or text. The more detailed the description, the more precisely the viewer’s observation is directed. This leads to my second emphasis, that the use of a photograph determines its meaning. the language of description may reveal, impose, or limit use.

If use determines the meaning of photographs, as I believe it does, no single meaning is absolute. The discovery that differing descriptions and uses are possible ought not, however, to encourage arbitrary interpretations.


What the picture is of  limits meaning even while it encourages the exploration of meaning.


Discerning the ideas of photography revealed in described photographs will be an important part of this study. It will be my contention that photographs without appropriate descriptive words  are deprived and weakened, but that descriptions of even invented photographs may adumbrate a richness of use that can extend the possibilities of interpreting of actual photographs.


[In relation to the rest of the book] Three caveats must be entered here. First, the meaning of description  in this book is limited to description in words. […] Second, words within a photograph are not what I include in the meaning of description. […] The third caveat is the exclusion of motion picture photography. A still photograph stops time in two dimensions. A moving picture prolongs time in such a way that it must become narrative in what is apparently three dimensions. Projecting the rapid movement of frames so that the audience sees what looks like real people moving through time is different from isolating a segment of reality in a still photograph.


[further discussion of stills and moving image]

As soon as description is foregrounded, the question comes to mind whether the terms are to be confined to photographs, or whether they are equally necessary categories for, say, painting. The answer is threefold. First, it would be absurd to think description out of place for any work of visual interest. Second, public exhibition in one common use for all works of visual interest […] But third, a key difference is that a photograph is available for many uses inappropriate for painting. One reason for this is the cheapness and multiplicity of photographs, but the primary reason is that the photograph has a direct and physically governed relationship to the external world of objects.


The camera may be thought of as comparable to the eye. The difference is that the camera is not more than an eye. It does not think. Any connection with judging, choosing, arranging, including, excluding, and snapping has to be with the photographer […]


Because of this disjunction between the thinking, seeing photographer and the camera that is the instrument of recording, the viewer finds it more difficult than with other visual artifacts [sic] to attribute creativity to any photographer.

[Arthur Danto, in The Transformation of the Commonplace] formulates the possibility of two identical photographic negatives with different relations to their subjects. His photographs look the same but, according to Danto, are actually of different subjects. His point is that it takes more than visual resemblance to postulate identity of cause, or subject.

[discussion of Danto’s argument]


What seems most useful to me is how the act of description governs the associations necessary for looking at each one. Description provides the interpretation.

If description is necessary to complete the meaning of a photograph or to interpret the visual aspect by identifying its elements in words, the question might arise of who is qualified so to describe.

The answer is, Anyone who is persuaded to look.


Describing is necessary for photographs. Call it captioning, call it titling, call it describing, the act of specifying in words what the viewer may be led both to understand and to see is as necessary to the photograph as it is to the painting. Or call it criticism. It is the act of describing that enables the act of seeing.


There are no unicorns in the photograph, and if one occurs, disbelief is imperative. The explanation will not occur in the world of fact and object but in the world of mind and deception. The photograph will be an arranged fake, intentionally designed for the gullible viewer. Understanding and trust in the process of photography depend on belief in the integrity of the causal connection, but a simple belief in that connection is inadequate to explain what appears in the photograph.

Contemporary critics writing about photography discuss the one-to-one causal relationship between objects and print in terms such as index and transcription. Photographs are without code. All three terms, index, transcription, and without code refer to a neutral, affectless, physical impression  of light on film, without reference to an operative cause, that is, without reference to human control.


Transcription is the neutral term and the most exact way of thinking about the removal of an impression from objects to film.

Although transcription is direct, a discrepancy may be remarked between reality as it is perceived by any viewer and the photograph of that reality. The discrepancy in perception will be expressed by differences in description and interpretation. Directness is therefore no guarantee that viewers will agree on the meaning of the photograph.


I find transcription the most useful term because it suggests the schematic diagrams showing lines going straight from object through camera lens to plate or film, a literal cross-writing. Indexical, which refers to the same phenomenon, contains no visual image unless its connotation of pointing to the object becomes explicit.

Whichever terms are used, they can be applied to the whole body of still photography without regard to period or inventions because the reaction of light-sensitive surface to light is the same for the daguerreotype as for the Polaroid, and for all the physical and chemical photographic inventions between.


The third term, without code, is a purely formal or theoretical. It is useful in specifying an apparent lack of context for random segments of reality “caught,” “taken,” or “captured.” Uncertainty of signification is then interpreted as lack of signification. But in actually looking at, talking about, or writing about photographs, viewers both discern codes by identifying the codes into which the objects caught, taken, and captured can be fitted and identify their own codes by the structure of their discourse. Descriptions and uses will be coded.


[Discussion of Barthes’s and Tagg’s descriptions of photography]


One difference between the two statements is that Barthes is subtle, poetic and at home with both imagination and imaginative language, whereas Tagg seems afraid that if he entertains Barthes’s imaginative construal of the photograph he will relinquish both contingency and specificity.


[Further discussion/literature review of Tagg, Barthes, Burgin (similes), Lodge (parody), Goffman (sociology), Sontag (weapon/aggression), Krauss (Simulacrum)]

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