chapter  I
42 Pages

I

Anyone could capture an image; few could successfully manipulate that captured image to be on a par with painting or printmaking as a unique, soulful expression of a creative individual. Yet as early as the 1920s, many artists and the-

orists began to question this ideology, especially in light of the revolutionary political events of the day, including World War I and the communist revolutions. In the great disruptions of society in Europe and elsewhere, it quickly became apparent that photographs were malleable. The context in which the image was seen was recognized to be how the photograph’s meaning was determined The rise of the illustrated press in Germany and later America, the use of photographs in advertising, and the burgeoning of the cinema, universally described as but an illusion of light, quickly spread the idea of photography as a subjective medium that showed no more ‘‘truth’’ than any other. In fact, its ability to mimic what seemed to be the ‘‘real world’’ yet be unreliable as fact gave rise to an entire new image theory: that of photographic images as paradoxical. Many were content to let photography do what it did well-more or less effortlessly capture images from the everyday world (as evidenced by the huge commercial success of products for the amateur market)—and give photography its due as a supporting player in the drama of fine arts production. ‘‘Photographic vision,’’ the notion that the

human ‘‘eye’’ was now being influenced by that of the camera lense was first expressed with the rise of Modernism and the Neue Sehen (New Vision) movement in the 1920s. This notion arose out of the interplay between the practical applications of photography and the aspirations of some of its practitioners that it be recognized as an art medium equal to all others, but on its own terms. What photography was able to depict that the human eye could not capture undeniably influenced various modern art movements, from Impressionism to Cubism. Yet photography’s expressive qualities remained in doubt even as its subjectivity became increasingly apparent, especially to its practitioners and theorists. As a major component of advertising and pro-

paganda, photography’s subjectivity became harder and harder to deny, yet popular audiences for the medium remained vulnerable to photography’s claim to objectivity. Its optical-mechanical qualities were still recognized as scientific; what changed was a recognition that all human activity was inescapably subject to human manipulation and interpretation, a legacy of such post-World War II philosophies as Structuralism and Deconstruction. Considering each photograph as a cultural

artifact, that is, a product of a particular society and culture with its own particular set of codes, directly opposed the earlier notion of photography as a universal language. This a more politically driven critique than it might seem; as with photography their target is, from a Marxist point of view, what could be called the ideological superstructure of society. The question of photography’s objectivity did

not arise once and then become settled. The issue has been rethought and revisited in various ways during various eras. The shift from artisan activities to the commercial press in early twentieth century paralleled but did not define the reaction against Pictorialism that unfolded in the fine-arts photography realm as early as the first decades of the century. The ‘‘objectivity,’’ which would become the distinctive mark of mid-twentieth century photography, had its roots in the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement of the 1930s, a product of post-World War I society. The images that resulted from the ideology of this movement were paradoxical; many were so experimental or abstract that the average viewer may not see them as objective in any sense. Yet the philosophy held that in producing images that could be made only via photographic means (whether with a camera or through non-camera means such as photograms), true objectivity could be achieved, as the process was freed from the subjectivity of the human eye and experience. The quest for objectivity took a much different

path among American art photographers of the 1930s, exemplified by Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. These photographers believed that through the use of view cameras, small apertures and the care in exposing, developing, and printing that led to the zone system, objectivity was achieved through sheer technical skill. These decisions, which produced photographs that were considered at the same time objective and beautiful, in fact restricted photographic practice to a small part of what photography was capable of achieving. The belief that crystal sharp, black-and-white images that displayed the full range of tones from black to white were in fact the best, most factual representations of the real world showed the power of ideology. These images in many ways could not be further from ‘‘real,’’ as they deleted color, assumed that human vision is clear, sharp, and able to focus simultaneously on foregrounds and backgrounds, and presented images with degrees of perspective often beyond human vision. Yet Weston’s and Adams’s ideology shaped the perception of what is an objective image in virtually all types

of photography, especially architectural, advertising, and industrial photography, and set the standard for what was acceptable as a fine-arts photograph for decades. The tension between the subjective nature of

photography and those who believed the medium had authentic applications toward objectivity reemerged in Europe around World War II with photographers like those who would found Magnum Photos (including Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa) or Life magazine photographer W. Eugene Smith. These photographers, enamored of the possibilities of small format cameras, which could use available light and come close to the subject without the subject’s being aware of the photographer, dictated an entire school of photographic endeavor. This movement had many rules that claimed to be signals of whether a photograph could be ‘‘trusted’’ as straightforward, unmanipulated, and solely reliant on a combination of the medium’s optical-mechanical characteristics, shaped only by an alert guide. These rules included that the image should not be cropped, leading to the famous black border Cartier-Bresson included in his photographs to prevent publishers from cropping them, as these photographers had great conflicts with publishers arising from the way photographs would appear in the printed page. Yet this idealism had its practical limitations: W. Eugene Smith worked extensively on his prints, bleaching, dodging, and burning until he got the desired effect. The ability of the photographic negative to be manipulated to compensate for less-than-ideal conditions at the point of its exposure by no means is antithetical to the idea that photographs are objective. Yet as these very techniques are most often employed to smooth over the differences between the way photography can capture images and the way the human eye and brain process visual information, would indicate that photographs in fact are not, and perhaps cannot be, objective. A further confusion about authenticity and objectivity happens with montage, which presents disparate images as one. Now easy to achieve with digital techniques, this technological advance will create new ethical problems for photographers. In the late twentieth century, ideological con-

cerns about the photograph as an objective record resided mostly in the area of photojournalism, as postmodernism codified the position that all images are subjective given that they are human creations consumed in various cultural contexts. An example is that in the late 1990s the considerable success of Brazilian photographer Sebastia˜o Salgado, also a Magnum photographer, led some

to criticize him for posing or otherwise interacting with his subjects against the traditions of photojournalism in which the photographer should be an observer, not a participant. Yet Salgado also follows the ideology of the social documentarians of the early twentieth century, such as Jacob Riis or Lewis Hine, whose social and political agendas superceded the ideologies of fine-arts image making. Yet the debate that Salgado engendered demonstrates the continuing synergy between these two areas-the developing and perpetuating of image ideologies useful to photographer-artists interested in aesthetic expression and those useful to larger societal goals.