The Challenge of Photography

J.M. Colberg

Photography does not lend itself to defamiliarization easily, thus making it the unlikeliest of all art forms. As it happens, the challenge plays out on both sides of the process, for photographers and viewers. What happened to be in front of a camera lens can be found depicted in the resulting photograph. However, given the process itself and its myriad of choices, the photograph is little more than a manipulated two-dimensional representation of what previously existed in four dimensions (three spatial, one – often forgotten – time).

A photograph thus is not necessarily a document or fact, and it’s certainly not “the truth” (whatever that term might mean). It is a truth, one truth out of many others, a personal truth: The photographer’s. To assume that this truth then automatically translates into a larger truth is foolish. It might, or it might not.

In photography circles and beyond, photographs are said to be lying. This, however, only reveals a general lack of understanding that is common even amongst many of photography’s practitioners, let alone those who merely engage with it as disinterested viewers. Photographs do not lie any more or less than paintings do, or ballet performances, or these words. As I already noted, they present a truth, whatever that truth might be.

By construction, photography defamiliarizes, at least to some extent: we do not see the world as it appears to us in photographs. For a start, photography lacks the element of time. A photograph is a frozen moment. It is a short moment cut out from the endless arrow of time, forever moving forward. For us, time never stands still, so encountering frozen time in a photograph can make us come to strange conclusions: We still treat someone’s depiction in a portrait, for example, as if we were in the presence of that person, when in reality, that frozen moment is just one out of countless other ones. A happy person, portrayed in just the right (or wrong) moment might thus appear not to be happy at all (or vice versa).

When we see a painted portrait of a person, we take it as the likeness of someone, and we admire the skills of the painter. When we see a photographic portrait of a person, we take it as that person, usually completely ignoring the hands of the maker.

The problem we are dealing with has been made considerably worse by various critics and writers who have used photography’s inherent properties as means for an indictment (most famously Susan Sontag). Since those texts are widely used in the process of photography education, many of the medium’s practitioners leave school with what can only be described as misguided ideas of their own medium. I can think of no other art form that in the process of educating its next generations puts such major impediments in their ways.

For its viewers, the situation is hardly any better. Serious discussions of what the medium does and how, and how the use of photographs factors into what ultimately creates their meaning, are almost entirely absent from the same media that use photography on a daily basis. The best one can hope for (yes, I am being facetious here) are discussions of supposed manipulation in news photographs that typically center on essentially Ill-defined (and undefinable) criteria for what is allowed and what is not.

One need not expect any layperson to dive deeper into any of these discussions. Seen from outside the narrow defines of the world of photography, those discussions usually resemble theological arguments about church dogma. Perhaps not inevitably, distrust of the media has sharply grown.

As a result, a medium that is approaching its 200th birthday is as badly understood as ever by both its makers and viewers, the frequent noises about whatever academic/intellectual fad is being followed at any given time notwithstanding (at the time of this writing, it’s still postmodernism). Add to that the digital revolution, and the situation isn’t pretty.

The irony here is that photography is more widely used than ever. It is much more easily accessible than ever, in much, much larger numbers (those who note that such claims have been made before are correct, yet they miss the point entirely).

As it turns out, laypersons usually have a much better understanding of photography than critics or theorists. Whenever I talk to people who are not part of the world of photography, many of the concerns that appear to give theorists or photographers endless nightmares simply don’t appear to exist. Too many photographs? Who says so? Can there be a thing such as too many photographs, and why would that even be a problem?

None of the non-photo-world people I have talked to over the past years has ever even entertained the idea that their photographs on Instagram, say, would be comparable to photographs produced by professionals. People know the difference between apples and oranges very well. Yet in the world of photography, we seem stuck worrying about how since they’re both round and fruits, they must be the same, right?

So we need to go back and give that medium a good, hard look again. What does it actually do?  Not what we think it does, not what we want it to do. Instead: What does it do? And how does it do that? We need to think about that process of defamiliarization.

Instead of whining about the limitations of the medium, we need to start appreciating those very limitations. It is right here that the promises lie. Right here. And the promises are plentiful, much more plentiful than the limitations.

We take photographs out of this world we live in, and the moment we have done that they become something else entirely.