It's All Very Well But Why Do We Prefer Photography?

Tevfik Çağrı Dural
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An artist should use whatever medium s/he wants whenever, both in terms of sufficiency and potentiality.

This sentence, in which every phrase can be a matter of debate, preoccupied my mind in terms of the notion of sufficiency of artist's choice. In contemporary art, where multidisciplinary works become prevalent more and more, the mediums of choice are just as important as what is conveyed because they also embody their own subjective meaning in themselves. When the artists are contemplating and asking opinions on notions like theory-context, the exhibition space or its form; how much do they have a grasp of their choice of medium in terms of its conveyance? How can photography become the medium of preference for a specific kind of expression? How does photography effect the interaction between the expression and the viewer? Why does the artist choose photography for his/her narration (at least in terms of the choices within visual arts)? The emergence of these questions, the fact that I use mainly photography in most of the projects I try to do personally and seeing lots of photographs as an editor in a magazine focusing predominantly on photography, are the reasons the main theme of this essay occurred to my mind. I should also remark that I particularly abstain from making this distinction between artist and photographer. The issue I will try to explore and explain here, is the reasons and results of artists' choice of "photography" in their works either as a whole or in part.

As English critique Francis Palgrave (1788-1861) used the term "antagonist principles of art" for modern inventions including photography, an unnamed commentator in Edinburgh Review in its 1843 issue commented that photography "is indeed as great a step in the fine arts, as the steam-engine was in the mechanical will take the highest rank among the inventions of the present age."(1) Similar issues are discussed even today, this kid entering into its 2nd century - like Roland Barthes said - never hesitated to pry into its precursors  and successors from the time it was discovered by chemists. Firstly, it changed our visual perception, then inspired us to question what we had seen to this day and what we would like to show later on.

Norton Batkin points out that "paintings are not defined by stillness because they are not mechanical, automatic reproductions of nature. Paintings are based on artist's gaze, which cannot freeze time as photographs do."(2) Muybridge's well-known photographs of galloping horses appeared in a way that no painters could see and paint till that time. Similarly, Fred Ritchin commented on it as " Photography, freezing and slicing the visible into discrete chunks, has been a major player in a delineation of the real and as numerous antics have asserted, in an insidious destruction of our vision of it."(3) And on top of it, this problem child also brought various indisputable issues into question like the uniqueness of the work of art and brought the concept of authenticity into disrepute.

If we are to return to the initial questions, this necessity is relevant for the competence of the artist. However, I don't think I am adequate enough to decide on which artist is competent or not. That is why, there will be no photographs accompanying this essay. I divide the questions above into two basic categories.

The first one: The reasons for an artist to prefer photography; and the second one: What the viewer initially comprehends when s/he looks at a "photograph."

Why Does The Artist Prefers Photography?

"I paint what cannot be photographed, that which comes from the imagination or from dreams, or from an unconscious drive. I photograph the things that I do not wish to paint, the things which already have an existence."(4) Man Ray reveals decisively with these words, his choice of medium in his works even if we haven't seen his works. This statement demonstrates that the artist produce works with regards to photography's perception of reality. Similarly, Garry Winogrand's words "I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed" (5) I think, can be read both as the performative approach in photography and attributing some value to that object or distinguishing it from other objects.

Let's assess the reasons why the artist prefers photography firstly in practical, then in theoretical terms in a simplified way.

I guess, practical basis is the easiest to explain. Compared to other mediums, photography offers the artist possibilities for fast and multiple production and mechanical (scientific) transmission. This convenience can be a reason for preference especially in collective works and short-term commissions. In fact, these features create an apprehension that photography transmits the "reality" rapidly, and to me, the notion of photojournalism took great deal of advantage of this precept.

As for the theoretical basis, photography is incorporated more into contemporary art and studied. This precept contains reality and perception of time and dimension as well as representation. We can also include reinterpretation of practical basis into theory.

If we are to think in terms of multiple production, Walter Benjamin explains in his essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" : "...the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility." Through mechanical transmission photography is supposed to reflect reality, and with artistic transmission, medium of photography can be of help within the context of perception of reality. "A fake painting (one whose attribution is false) falsifies the history of art. A fake photograph (one which has been retouched or tampered with, or whose caption is fake) falsifies reality."(6)

Again, temporality emanating from practicality is incorporated into photography as it did in no other medium. At this point, photography can be compared mainly to cinema (moving images). I would like to interpret Roland Barthes' statement in Camera Lucida " the Photograph, something has posed in front of the tiny hole and has remained there forever...but in cinema, something has posed in front of this same tiny hole...": In photography, the notions of immortality-infinity originating both from the posing time and the  fixation of the pose are incorporated integrally twice. Whereas in cinema, something being posed in front of the tiny hole comprises a singular temporality. Another thing is, the time the viewer spends in front of the two medium. Supposing a movie takes an hour, that time elapses at the same pace; surely it can also elapse at a different pace, but in photography time (can) never elapse(s).

The concept of dimension is another matter of debate in photography. Reduction of 3 dimensional world into two dimensions makes me question the things an artist wants to or obliged to convey in his/her work. On the other hand, merging the objects standing in different distances from a photographic plane on a single plane, brings out a different condition in which several layers are merged.

Finally, let's discuss the notion of representation. Representation in photography is considered in general as the idea that the photograph represents that which is photographed. At this point, let's consider that which is photographed is an individual. When the photograph approaches an individual, what it conveys is different from other visual mediums like painting or sculpture. The "detached moment" is also detached from the individual. When an individual who is embodied in a photograph taken in a specific time and place, belongs to that individual maybe more than, certainly no less than it does to the photographer. This aspect ascribes photography the optimal medium to represent in visual terms.

What happens when we look at a photograph?

This section embodies what happens when we look at a photograph as well as more subjective views.

When a photograph is printed and hung on some wall, it becomes a reality to be photographed. I question why the artist offers a specific photograph for me to look at in terms of its singularity and narrative integrity. Why that medium consisting of a specific "time-space" and object is displayed at a specific time and space I am in? This time, all the practices and theories that photograph contains in itself, requires a reading through the apprehension of the viewer rather than the photographer's condition. I try at first to read the medium itself, similar to this statement: "Myself, I saw only the referent, the desired object, the beloved body; but an importunate voice...then adjured me, in a severe tone: 'Get back to Photography..."(7)

If you like, let's consider the practical basis, but this time within the scope of what I just stated.

As Benjamin indicates, the ability to reproduce a specific photograph, brought the notion of authenticity into question, and further promoted the novel notion of edition. Today, I guess, we mostly come across the notion of edition in the medium of photography. Edition is an agreement that a photograph can only be printed in given numbers in given dimensions specified by the artist and under the control of the artist. Therefore, that material being recognized as a work of art is under the courtesy of the agreement itself. Secondly, to me, the fact that a specific work of art is reproduced, grants a competence that it can be found in different places simultaneously. This state which reverses the physics principles, can be rooted in my preference for art works setting forth from the combination of art and science - they leave a sweet-sour taste in my mouth.

I think this child has lied easily since it started talking and from that day on, the majority believed that this child is telling the truth.

We tend to believe what photographs tell completely as long as we don't see any manipulation conflicting with our logic, because it only records what is there.

However, what photograph can utter is what has happened at its best. Maybe its use in advertisement from early onwards is based on our belief that what it shows exists in real, rather than mechanical production and we secretly expect that reality to happen. I think people who uses photography in advertisement immediately realized that this is the case. I have to say that whereas "fashion photography is based on the fact that something can be more beautiful in a photograph than in real life" (8) and what I mean by advertisement is not how we know it today, but transmission of premeditated perception. I can also implicate the case in which the modern elements are excluded to display the primitiveness in Edward S. Curtis' project based on documenting the American natives. Another well-known example is Yves Klein's photograph "Leap into The Void" where the artist manipulates our perception of reality covertly.

If we consider that time is linear and that photography infers the present or the future, every photograph we see can only belong to the past no matter how contemporary it is. It can only refer to the future or the present by inferring the past. As I mentioned earlier, photography encapsulates the notion of time in a way no other medium can. The fact that I am looking at a photograph with this guided perception, reminds me the questions "How long?" and "When?" unavoidably, for every photograph I see.

The fact that I am seeing a photograph in a book format or in an exhibition or in a magazine and as printed material, brings an integrity to this medium reducing the objects into 2 dimensions. It now becomes an object in itself. It forms a separate stratum from the plane where it is located, either a wall or a table. It materializes what it abstracted.

Lastly, I have not much to say about the notion of representation. I can only speak of two points. The first one is self-portrait, and the second is a photograph by an artist and in which there is someone I know. What they have in common is, if I see a photograph of someone I know I can talk about representation in photography, for I have to know what it represents. Or else, I can only get what is conveyed to me.

After all, the artist either prefers to incorporate the aspects I mentioned and what the viewer apprehends in terms of the medium when s/he looks at a photograph into his/her practice, or s/he prefers to misdirect or distort them consciously. Surely, I don't claim that the perceptions and aspects I mentioned in this essay should be incorporated into the medium of photography These are only personal ideas on the medium of photography which I tried to explain in this essay, and included perhaps what I fail to see and what you think as indispensable. Besides, I doubt they continue to be relevant in the future. For in an era where digital image technologies are improving everyday or where every individual can easily practice "photography," the possibility for the medium itself to be redefined is inevitable.

This essay was published in the 135th issue of YKY Sanat Dünyamız.