Transformation in Photography


Savedoff, Barbara E. ‘Transformation in Photography’ Transforming Images: How Photography Complicates the Picture (New York: Cornell University Press, 2000) 47-128

Photography’s special significance lies in its documentary quality, in the fact that the photographer does not have the painter’s freedom to create and control.
But if this is true, we can only evaluate photographs as documents, as more or less true to the world. [Look up Joel Snyder, “Photography, Vision and Representation” Critical Inquiry I September 1974, 155, 154]
[Joel Snyder and Neil Walsh Allen] They deny that the photograph can be treated as a reliable index of what was in front of the camera by describing the many ways in which the photographic image diverges from what we see when we look at the world.
They not only claim that we can evaluate photography as art, they also claim that we can evaluate photographs in much the same way that we do paintings.
This denial of special principles, however, makes it impossible to fully account for the ways in which we actually experience and evaluate photographs. In what follows, I argue that we do experience photographs differently from paintings and that the critical demands of the two media diverge. I explain this divergence not by showing that photography is actually more closely tied to reality than painting, but by showing that we perceive it in this way.
[discusses photographs of representations (paintings, sculptures, mannequins, plywood paintings with faces cut out]
I will show that the phenomena of transformation depend on the photographs divergence from reality. Nevertheless, I will argue that the power and fascination of photographic transformation depend on the fact that we irresistibly see photographs as presenting us with a record of reality.
By showing that, unlike painting, we read photographs as documenting the world, I will be showing that photography cannot simply adopt painting’s principles. Photography demands a separate analysis.
[describes Walker Evans’ Torn Movie Poster 1930]
The grotesque effect of the photograph of the movie poster depends on the equivalence of object and it representation, of woman and picture-woman, that photography allows.
This equivalence between photographed object and photographed picture of an object is achieved primarily through the photograph’s flatness. […] in a photograph, pictures are reproduced in their two-dimensionality, whereas objects are reduced to two dimensionality. In this way the object and its picture are put on the same footing, they cannot be distinguished by the type of space they occupy.
The photograph leads to a double vision: we know we are looking at a photograph of a poster, but we see it as a photograph of a woman. The tension between the two incompatible ways of seeing the picture is disturbing and surreal in that it seems to represent the horrible and impossible – the person made object, the person breaking apart to reveal a wall.
The photograph thus presents us with a string of transformations.
[discusses photographs of billboards and paintings]
[discusses photographs of statues]
As with the photographs of pictures, the disturbing effect of these photographs of statues seems to arise from the creation of an equivalence of status between sculpture and person, but the reason for this photographic equivalence is not so obvious.
For both pictures and sculpture, equivalence – and hence animation – is encouraged by the photograph’s motionlessness, its lack of colour, and by our tendency to anthropomorphize objects selected for our attention by the photograph.
In real life, representations impress us as inanimate. They generally are stationary is a world where living things move. The still photograph minimizes this distinction between the animate and inanimate. Both people and things are presented without motion.
The use of black and white also promotes the animation of representations in both film and still photography. […] it conceals color distinctions among paint, marble, and flesh. Furthermore, the unnatural world of black and white facilitates our perception of unnatural “magical” animation. The farther removed the depicted world is from our natural world, the less we expect conformity with natural law.
Finally, the animation of representations is aided by our tendency to anthropomorphize those objects selected for attention in a photograph.This tendency is particularly strong when the object displays human features especially when those features are expressive. This expressiveness can be enhanced by camera angle, lighting and the prominence of the features within the photographic composition.
[describes examples of gargoyles/statues that appear more lifelike in photographs than the humans also depicted]
Because we readily think of paintings as constructions, we see the equivalence and transformations they show as products of the artist’s imagination. On the other hand, because we tend to think of photographs as objective records of the world, the phenomena they show, no matter how surprising or disturbing, are not as easily dismissed as imaginative fictions.
Rightly of wrongly, a photograph is thought of as having a closer connection to the objects and events it depicts than even the most documentary painting. Because of the mechanical nature of its production, the photograph seems to have a special connection with reality and an independence of the photographer’s intentions.
For this reason, a photograph is thought to verify the existence of its subject in a way a painting never could; the photograph requires the presence of a horse for its production, while a painting could depend wholly on the artist’s imagination.
[See Kendall Walton “Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism” Critical Inquiry II (Dec 1984)]
Whereas Walton uses these observations to provide evidence that photographs are “transparent,” I will use them to support the claim that photographs are perceived to possess an objectivity unavailable to painting.
The point is that as long as the works are identified as paintings, they will be seen as products of the artist’s imagination, to the extent that what they depict does not conform to what we know of the world. When, on the other hand, works are identified as photographs, they are seen not as products of the imagination, but as records of our world. This explains why photographs can have a peculiarly unsettling power and fascination. The disturbing images in photographs are seen as corresponding to a disturbing reality; they are not so easily dismissed as mere fantasy.
The painting is not seen as an object within the photograph, it is seen as the image presented by the photograph. The intrusion of the world surrounding the work of art, however, or the works own disintegration, introduces elements that can defeat a reading of a photograph  as an art reproduction and enable the animation of the pictured work.
[on the photo of a torn movie poster]
[…] the tear, the texture of the wall, and the creases lend a physical substance to the poster image: they alert us to the fact that we are looking at a bit of the world, not an insubstantial image. The intrusion of the world into the poster, instead of showing up the poster as a mere representation, imparts its own concreteness to the poster’s image.
In truth, photographs can be far from objective in how they present a subject; the photographer’s choice of camera angle, lighting, and framing all influence the way in which the subject will be seen. Furthermore, the characteristics of the medium itself – its two-dimensionality, the delimitation of its image, the use of black and white – all contribute to a divergence between what we see in a photograph and what we would have seen in person.
Nevertheless, our awareness of all these factors does not change the way we see photograph – as having a special connection to reality.
As Walton, Bazin, and Arnheim all point out, the documentary power of the photograph has to do with the way photographs are typically made; it does not reside in the exact duplication of appearances. Even a blurred photograph has a documentary value unavailable to a drawing or painting.
Our faith in the documentary character of the photograph is inappropriately, but irresistibly, transferred to the way that things appear within the photograph. In other words, not only do we believe that a photograph of a horse is evidence of the horse’s existence, we also believe that it shows us what the horse really looks like.
People with high fevers may know that their hallucinations are not real, but they may seem real nonetheless; that is why hallucinations can be so distressing. Similarly, we may know that what the photograph seems to show is not real, but we may see it as real, and that is what makes the photograph so disturbing.
[discusses images from Imogen Cunningham, Clarence John Laughlin, Magritte and Walker Evans]
The painting may be inventive and playful in the way it collapses space, but it cannot create the conflict of knowledge and perception we find in the photograph.
The difference in our reactions to paintings and photographs do not rest on differences in precision, persuasive detail, or compelling composition, although these characteristics may certainly be important. The fundamental difference in our reactions rests instead on our disparate beliefs about the genesis of each image.
[discussion of photorealist painting and painterly photography]
We read photographs and paintings differently not simply because of differences in the way they look and not simply because of what we know about their genesis – the two reasons are interrelated. Presumably we see photographs as documents because of the mechanical production of their image, but the detail and precision typical of that image allow for the confusion of the documentary and duplicatory functions discussed earlier.
If all photographers used, for example, the painterly techniques of Seeley’s and Kasebier’s gum bichromate prints, it is not clear that photographs would be given that much greater credence than paintings as indicators of how things look.
Straight photographs, altered photographs, and paintings admit of different readings, and these different readings result from the different conventions we bring to viewing – but conventions can change. Our present conventions and expectations depend on ideas we have about how photographs and paintings are typically generated. If altered or digitally manipulated photographs were to become the norm, our ways of reading photographs would significantly change.

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