Photography is a method of placing texts into the world, where we understand a text as being a message, observation, art object or other creative artefact. Photography has aspects to it that make it recognisable as photography: it is undertaken by photographers, they use a camera and the outputs are visual. But beyond these descriptions of its distinctive characteristics, photography sits alongside other practices of cultural production. It is not greater or lesser than any other practices, nor does it have peculiarities that somehow place it at a distance from the other practices. It is one of the many modes of expression available to the creative person.
Many theorists have attempted to separate photography from the other arts, by claiming that the mechanical method of capturing the image makes it “peculiar”, an automatic process rather than a creative one.
Snyder and Allen are absolutely right to take on the automatism argument. They quote Stanley Cavell on the subject:
“Photography overcame subjectivity … by automatism, by removing the human agent from the act of reproduction”.
They go on to demolish Cavell’s statement.
In fairness, I can perhaps see where this idea of automatism came from. The studios of the daguerreotypists probably offered very little in the way of creative choices. People were put into the frame, the lengthy exposure was made and the resulting pictures all looked very similar. But photographers rapidly embraced mobility and started thinking creatively about what they put in front of the lens. This exercise of creativity, the observation, waiting, placing and timing is what refutes the automatistic concept of photography. Yes, the camera records what is placed in front of its lens, but that placement is key to the final image. A picture succeeds or fails, is distinct or mundane, based on the photographer’s creative act of presenting their subject matter to the camera.
The presence of a technical innovation within the path to the finished picture does not invalidate the photograph as a creative product. Painters and draughtsmen had used the camera lucida for many years to assist them in laying out their paintings and drawings. Music would be nothing within the instruments on which a piece is both composed and performed. Musical instruments are a direct analogue to cameras. Complex, precision devices made by craftsmen or production lines that are critical to the process of creativity and presentation.
So photography is not peculiar. It is a mode of expression. It sits alongside sketching, watercolours, charcoal, pastels, oil painting and collage as a way of expressing yourself visually.
Within photography, there is a multitude of practices. Many, many people approaching photography in different ways and with different outcomes. My practice sits within the multitude, it is not peculiar. I would certainly like to make it more distinctive so that my motives are better known and my work is recognisable. That objective will be achieved by better understanding how to use the visual language of photography and by improving my storytelling skills.