The Hand With Five Fingers: or, Photography Made Uneasy

15Nov11

Coleman, A.D. ‘The Hand With Five Fingers: or, Photography Made Uneasy’ The Digital Evolution (London: Nazraeli Press, 1998) 81-85

p.82

Up until 1888 – that is, for the first half-century of the medium’s existence – anyone who wanted to make photographs had to practice photography.

p.83

George Eastman changed all that, permanently, when he introduced the first Kodak camera in 1888. ‘You press the button, we’ll do the rest,’ read the slogan under which is was advertised.

Not only did this make it unnecessary for the camera user to process his/her own film and make his/her own prints, it actually made that impossible, at least at first: the film for this camera initially was such that amateur processing was impracticable.

Historians of photography are prone to celebrating this a triumph. I’d suggest that, in fact, it was in another sense a setback of major proportions. This was a time when a continually widening segment of the public was acquiring craft expertise in the first democratically accessible visual communications system. The Kodak No. 1 – by appealing to people’s capacity for laziness – allowed the ‘luxury’ of foregoing any study of that craft.

By permitting camera users to remain ignorant of the processes they were employing, this [Kodak’s] approach to photography remystified the medium – made of it a  prototypical ‘black box’ – right at the juncture when its demystification was underway among the population at large.

[I consider this a setback] because the camera is, on at least two levels, an instrument for the control of perception. Not only does the user employ it to tame and organize visual perception, but through its structure the originators of the camera and their descendants – those who design the cameras, films, and papers of our time – dictate how we will see.

p.84

The only truly effective way to come to an understanding of the degree to which ‘the medium is the message’ in photography is to study the medium itself – that is, the process of production. Only in that fashion can one discover the medium’s inherent biases – the kinds of ideas and information whose transmission it facilitates, the kinds that it inhibits or obstructs.

Globally, there is now an enormous population of camera users, only a tiny fraction of which actually practices photography.

Social historians of the far future will find it astonishing that in a culture which produces billions of photographs annually much of the population still believed that cameras take pictures, that photographs don’t lie, that seeing is believing.

They’re ideas of which an entire culture could be disabused by a widespread emphasis on media education.

The relationship to photography that this [photographic] industry promotes is one of rampant, event literal mindlessness. How else can one explain the fact that at least two major manufacturers are advertising their wares with slogans promising ‘decision-free photography’?

p.85

Decision-free information? Decision-free perception? Decision-free self-expression? Decision-free communication? By their nature, such acts cannot be decision-free – at best, the decisions they involve can be deferred, left in the hands of others.

The phrase ‘at best’ assumes, of course, that the avoidance of decision-making in a positive goal in life.

When did the premise of our public discourse change so drastically that ‘freedom from decision’ ceased to be a totalitarian threat?

Media education, including a study of photography […] is an oppositional force, an embrace of decision-making, difficulty, uneasiness.

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