Review: The Unphotographable

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If you want to be completely literal about photography, a medium whose technical nature invites just doing that, then you can only take a photograph of something that is tangible. In fact, you could go a step further and start wondering at what stage a photograph ceases to be a photograph, or whether a photograph made without a camera is still a photograph, or whatever else you can come up with. Whether or not you find such exercises particularly illuminating depends on your own disposition.

I personally couldn’t care less about, let’s say, whether a photogram is a photograph. Sure, let’s call it a photograph! Let’s call anything that looks like a photograph or that behaves like a photograph a photograph (photography’s duck test)! And then let’s talk about whether it’s any interesting. As far as I can tell is that this inclusiveness vastly broadens what you’re looking at, and it gets in the way of the kind of navel-gazing that makes so much of the more art/museum-focused kind of photography look so tedious and/or boring and/or just… well, silly (“OMG, there’s a colour filter in front of the lens!”).

As it turns out, you can approach photography from both sides and still talk about the same pictures. I had to think of that when looking at The Unphotographable, a book that contains photographs of things or concepts or ideas you seemingly cannot depict. The reality, of course, is that given there are photographs in the book, apparently the book seeks out to undermine its own premise. It does, and it doesn’t. In five separate chapters, The Unphotographable presents images of things that can’t be photographed for all kinds of reasons, whether it’s given they don’t actually exist (like ghosts), they’re completely abstract, they subvert the medium itself, etc.

What you get from the collection essentially is a glimpse into how the human imagination works. This is where the real fun begins. This is where you can bring together photograms and photographs by famous artists and chance vernacular imagery to have all of these images talk about the same thing: not what’s literally in the pictures, but what we see in them.

It’s hard to see how robotic photography will ever reach the stratum of photography by humans, given robots or machines have no sense of imagination. Maybe some day, they will (it will be a Philip K. Dickean world!). But so far, regardless of what curious image a machine has produced, it always requires a human being to take it – out of all the others – and to then elevate it to something other than a datum.

And this really is the true essence of photography: not any of the technical stuff you might have to do to get your picture, but your sheer insistence – often coupled with utter irrationality – that this here, this picture, deserves to be looked at because you say so. That’s it! And if you say that it’s a photograph of an angel that somehow materializes in a cloud, then we all have to deal with it. To paraphrase Michael Faraday, nothing is unphotographable as long as it tickles someone’s imagination.

The Unphotographable; various photographers; 120 pages; Fraenkel Gallery; 2013

Ratings explained here.