Course Reading: Photography Texts

As a part of learning from and improving upon my tutors feedback from Assignment 3 I’m starting a series of ongoing posts with thoughts/comments on my course reading. I read the first chapter of, Photography: A concise History, by Ian Jeffrey & On Photography by Susan Sontag today.

Photography: A Concise History –

Chapter 1 ~ Seeing Nature

I made quite rough, extensive notes on this first chapter in my physical learning log, so here I want to try and consolidate those thoughts. The impression from the chapter is that Photography as a medium or rather photographers struggled to find their feet. There was a process of learning to capture things deliberately not just letting the camera capture and describe anything and everything. Jeffrey calls this “pictorial propriety” in which they “learned to compose, to edit and to avoid many of those distracting irrelevancies” (p.15, Jeffrey )

He also briefly touch upon the ‘instantaneous documentary pictures of our own century’ which reminded me of our use of Instagram today.

I made a note of the emergence of a scheme or subject in photography during the 1850’s-1860’s purely to try and keep some kind of track of developments. In p.23 Jeffrey describes this as a ‘pictorial code’, consisting of a figure, person placed centrally looking at or seated in some kind of house or monument or building, gardens etc. Two photographers who heavily employed this scheme were Fox Talbot & Bayard.

Bayard – more interested in understanding how we ‘see’, using photography to deduce ways of perception. The notion that seeing is an active thing, which involves consideration, care, calculation on the part of the photographer or person viewing.

On Photography: Susan Sontag

Chapter 1 ~ In Plato’s Cave

I’ll start my comments by saying this is perhaps the most interesting set of thoughts on photography I’ve ever read. I found reading the chapter insightful into our modern day obsession with photography and the impact or consequences of this. It was a challenging read – Sontag doesn’t soften her words for the reader!

It reads like a description of our modern condition, a few sentences at the end of the chapter were particularly revealing and apt, were she describes our need to have reality confirmed or reinforced by photographs as ‘aesthetic consumerism’ to which we are all ‘addicted’.

Interestingly she also tackles organised society here too, saying that Industrial societies have turned their people into ‘image -junkies’ describing photography as an ‘irresistible form of mental pollution’. I found this a compelling metaphor, often I do feel mentally foggy or clogged with the imagery of consumerism, advertising etc.

The chapter finishes with a sentence which I think should be considered by anyone before they consider taking another photo (I include myself in this…) “Today everything exists to end in a photograph”. Are we motivated to create or work or buy simply to create another photo opportunity?

I also found her comments on photography and family fascinating. She describes the way photography and family are strongly linked or encouraged as ‘Through photography, each family constructs a portrait chronicle of itself – a portable kit of images that bears witness to its connectedness” – On the one hand this seems like a good healthy habit. Why not capture moments with the family to remember or celebrate. The issue I think becomes when we cannot actually participate in ‘being’ with family or just everyday life because we are obsessed with capturing it in order to protect or preserve or control.

I could go on but I’ll leave it there until the next two chapters…

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