The Enduring Illusion: One Hundred Photographs from the
Stanford University Museum of Art
When photography entered the scene during the heat of the industrial revolution, it presented the public a system of picture making perfectly consonant with the modern sensibility. The machine age brought an evolving notion of the preciousness of time, as industry developed faster and more efficient means of production. It seems inevitable that a swift and mechanized technique of making pictorial representations of the world would have emerged during that period of history. The seeds for photography's emergence were in the air. The camera obscura, with its crisp ground glass image of the world in miniature, had been in use as a drawing aid since the renaissance, and the camera lucida* had become a common companion to the Victorian traveller. One can almost hear William Henry Fox Talbot rail against the detail of the infernal leaves and tree branches as he sat with his camera lucida attempting to render in pencil the landscape of Lake Como during the fall of 1835. What he desired was a way to retain the beautiful image in all its seductive detail so that it could be brought home intact, undiminished by his inadequate skill as a draftsman.
Being, among other things, a chemist, Talbot knew that certain light rays have the capacity to effect chemical changes. He was familiar with the German chemist Johann Shulze’s experiments one hundred years earlier which proved that it was light, not heat, that turned silver chloride from white to black when it was placed in the sun. Of course, the sun’s potential to effect changes on various materials (skin, for example) has been recognized from prehistoric times. Talbot understood the wide variety of physical changes the sun can effect. When it occurred to him that his camera might render a fixed image formed solely by these active rays of light, he--for all practical purposes--invented photography. As we know his inspiration was not unique. In France, Niepce, Daguerre and Bayard were driven by the same notion. Hercule Florence, whose achievement was forgotten until the 1970s, came up with an idea remarkably similar to Talbot's working alone in Brazil in the late 1830s.
No doubt there were others whose experiences with the camera obscura led them in the same direction, and it is probable that some put their thoughts into one sort of action or another. The more entrepreneurial among them may have anticipated photography's potential markets: affordable portraits for a nascent middle class, a source of romantic views of far-away lands. Photography would shrink the world in the same way the railroad had and the telegraph soon would. In Bayard's case, a persistent memory of his father's peach orchard served as the inspiration for his invention. It seems that the elder Bayard grew magnificent peaches and, being a magnanimous soul, during harvest time he prepared a basket of ripe fruit for each of his friends. To personalize his gift he covered some of the peaches with opaque paper bags so that the fruit would be able to grow, but not mature. A few days before harvest he removed the paper bags and again covered the pale fruit, this time with an elaborately cut stencil bearing his initials. The sun, finally able to reach the fruit, drew Monsieur Bayard's initials in orange letters on the otherwise white fruit.
What Talbot and the others invented was a mechanized technique for producing drawings. These "photogenic drawings," as Talbot referred to them, differed from the media that preceded them. For the first time a drawing could be produced independent of the rendering skill of the artist. The picture would be drawn by the action of light, requiring no intervention by the human hand. That is to say, anyone could do it. Talbot, in the introduction to The Pencil of Nature, his aptly titled illustrated book of 1844, remarked,
It has been often said, and has passed into a proverb, that there is no Royal Road to Learning of any kind. However true this may be in other matters, the present work unquestionably demonstrates the existence of a royal road to drawing, presenting little or no difficulty. Ere long it will be in all probability frequented by numbers who, without ever having made a pencil sketch in their lives, will find themselves enabled to enter the field of competition with Artists of reputation, and perhaps not infrequently to excel them in the truth and fidelity of their delineations, and even in their pictorial effect; since the photographic process when well executed gives effects of light and shade which have been compared to Rembrandt himself.
Not only was Talbot’s invention relatively facile, but it made no difference how complex the subject might be. Everything--a simple silhouette, a complex pattern of intertwining branches, a loved-one's face--could be captured with absolute fidelity and with perfect perspective. One could include as much or as little as one wished in the picture's frame and the indefatigable camera would record all. The photographer had only to select a subject for a whole range of metaphor, emotion, and remembrance to be laid at one's feet.
The photographic drawing differed in another significant way from its predecessors. It was linked physically to its subject. As John Berger and others have pointed out, the photograph contains a physical trace of the objects it describes. To a great extent a photograph looks the way it does because it is an actual impression of the objects in front of the lens, a picture determined by its subject, rather than by the rendering skill of the artist. This distinction takes the problem of referring to appearances into an entirely new realm, a realm with its own assets and liabilities. It is precisely this dumb precision, this impartiality of description that liberates the photographer from the task of rendering, that also presents the gravest challenge. For without the human hand and mind operating to interpret the world through the visual language of drawing, how can the photographer turn verisimilitude into art? What enables the photographer to appropriate reality, through the photograph, and call it her/his own? What distinguishes one photographic vision from another? Is it merely a game of unexpected vantage points, or exotic subject matter?
The answer to these questions begins with the acceptance of the photograph's essentially fictive nature. A photograph is an illusion, as akin to fiction as to fact. The camera always lies. But it also tells the truth in a way that is so concrete and so immutable that it provides a unique way for an artist to react directly to the experience of seeing. It lies because our initial impulse is to believe that we are viewing a literal rendition of reality. As Garry Winogrand put it, "A photograph is the illusion of a literal description of how a camera saw a piece of time and space." A photograph is small, flat, and, perhaps most important, non-temporal. The world it describes is large, spatial, and situated helplessly in the continuous flow of time. A photograph is disembodied and without mass. The real objects of the real world may be light or heavy, but no one ever stubbed his toe on a photograph.
Compared with the other plastic arts, photography is singular in its intractability. In essence, there are two principal ways by which the photographer can exert plastic control over the image. It boils down to (1) where you put the camera, and (2) when you press the shutter. Certainly, the photographer has a few other options in his/her bag of tricks. These might range from darkroom manipulation, to control of lighting, to choices regarding focus, to actually fabricating objects in order to photograph them. Most photographers evolve a complex scheme involving equipment and materials in order to make the type of picture they want to see. But due to photography's inherent nature, it's nearly impossible to get away from those cohabitants-- lens and sensitized surface. Every time a photographer prints a particular negative the results can be either subtly different or an entirely new interpretation. But the skeleton remains. Whether it comes from Sears or Stradivarius, it's still a fiddle. The essential "truth" of a photograph cannot be denied. As the photographer Harry Callahan once wrote, "It's the subject matter that counts. I'm interested in revealing the subject in a new way to intensify it." This is the essence, the alchemy of photography.
When the photograph describes the base material of the world in a way that transcends the habitual, so that the viewer finds revealed something that was previously obscure or unknown, then something of value is created, something that enlarges our understanding of the world. It's important to note that the viewer plays a role in this chemurgical transformation. I can think of many unforgettable photographs whose meanings are independent of any intention on the part of the photographer. There are astonishing photographs taken by carrier pigeons, unmanned landing modules, and, I am sure, bank surveillance installations. Photography is particularly suited to capitalize on the chance event.
Given enough time all photographs will transcend their subject matter. The most banal snapshot made in the 1880s holds all sorts of revelations for the viewer of today. As any photograph moves away from the moment of its creation, its meaning becomes less tied to the intentions of the photographer and more associated with the historical period and culture from which it emerged. When we view a family of Mormon settlers posed in front of their humble cabin (pl._), or a group of Laplanders by their singular hut (pl.), or General Grant and his entourage self-conscious before the camera (pl._), we enter a state of revery and wonder. Democratic in its attention to every detail, the camera conveys far more than the photographer could have intended, and by doing so it provides an unimpeded glimpse into the past. Indeed, as anthropologists have long known, the photographer’s intentions and presumptions only serve to compromise the camera’s impartial eye. For the anthropologist using the camera, the challenge has been to mitigate the influence by the camera operator on the selection of subject matter.
For the artist using the camera, the problem is to make the selection of a subject into an original statement of personal expression. When Julia Margaret Cameron placed her large wooden camera before Cyllene Wilson(pl.__), she understood fully that every aspect of the situation--the lighting, the choice of lens, the costume, the moment--would contribute to her success or failure as an arist. When she was successful, as in this case, the intensity of the captured expression is undiminished more than a century later.
Through the use of "where", the photographer manipulates the form of the picture. By making a series of increasingly fine decisions regarding where to place the camera, the photographer molds and sorts the stuff of the world into a new configuration. The camera reduces the space of the world to a single plane, allowing the serious photographer to create original visual relationships between otherwise unrelated objects, and the casual photographer to produce nephews with telephone poles coming out of their heads. For years I held the memory of a snapshot of my uncle standing in the street wearing an elaborate Native American head-dress. As a small child it had never occurred to me to wonder why he might have been so attired. It seemed natural enough. Recently, by chance, I came upon the picture again. It still shows my uncle standing in the street, but now a distant palm tree forms an array of leaves, not feathers, around his head. This collapsing of space is one of the most useful tools at the photographer's disposal. A.J. Russell's picture, Hanging Rock, Foot of Echo Canyon (pl. #_), seems to show a man seated beneath a huge overhanging rock. In fact it shows no such thing. The man is distant, the rock near, and the picture is an early demonstration of what I have come to call "the hanging rock principle." Russell was using the camera to manipulate space.
The other means of control over the photographic image, the "when", allows the photographer to isolate a particular moment in time. In the earliest days when emulsions required hours of exposure to record an image, this was not a particular consideration. But the history of photography is partly a history of increasingly brief exposure times. It was recognized early on that the camera might unveil some mystery about the world if it could be used to "freeze" an extremely brief instant. Leland Stanford realized this when he commissioned Eadweard Muybridge to produce motion studies of his prized thoroughbred horses. Muybridge soon expanded the scope of his investigations and directed his cameras to a range of subjects as vast as his own prodigious curiosity (pl._&pl._). When photography evolved to the point where it was able to capture slices of time as fleeting as a gesture or a passing expression, photographers began to recognize that the isolated moment, crystallized and extracted from the continuum of time, could be the source for meaningful images. The pocket-sized Leica camera (introduced in the late 1920s as a device for cinematographers to test lighting and exposure with a short length of 35mm movie film) was understood by photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson to be the perfect tool for capturing the flux of life in the street. In the introduction to his classic book, The Decisive Moment, he outlines his principles:
%We work in unison with movement as though it were a presentiment of the way in which life itself unfolds. But inside movement there is one moment in which the elements in motion are in balance. Photography must seize upon this moment and hold immobile the equilibrium of it...
To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.%
For the photographer with sufficient perseverance, talent, intuition, and willingness to exploit chance, the "when" is a tool with limitless potential, although every photograph, regardless of which camera was used to make it, is the record of a distinct interval of time. The “decisive moment” that Cartier-Bresson refers to is part of an ongoing event. The event itself, being temporal, does not lend itself to the photograph's non-temporal description. The photograph is a poor container for narrative. The moment becomes decisive, then, when the objects involved resolve themselves into a powerful, geometrical, composition. For a photographer like Robert Frank, this impulse toward resolution of form for the sake of beauty was anathema. Frank was seeking a pure emotional response to life. Taking his cue from the Walker Evans photographs of America in the 30s, he would turn the quotidian stuff of American life in the 50s-- the jukebox, the tailfin, the chrome dinette-- into visual poetry. A simple postcard display at a gas station becomes a profound meditation on nuclear power and the effects of civilization on the natural landscape. It seems that wherever Frank looked he saw raw feeling beneath the surface. His friend Jack Kerouac describes Frank at work:
From the counter where we sat, he had turned and taken a picture of a big car-trailer with piled cars, two tiers, pulling in the gravel driveyard, but through the window and right over a scene of leftovers and dishes where a family had just vacated a booth and got in their car and driven off... The combination of that, plus the movement outside, and further parked cars, and reflections everywhere in chrome, glass, and steel of cars, cars, road, road, I suddenly realized I was taking a trip with a genuine artist...Outside the diner, seeing nothing as usual, I walked on, but Robert suddenly stopped and took a picture of a solitary pole with a cluster of silver bulbs way up on top, and behind it a lorn American Landscape so unspeakably indescribable, to make a Marcel Proust shudder...how beautiful to be able to detail a scene like that, on a gray day, show even the mud, abandoned tin cans and old building blocks...
The camera has produced a visual record of events great and small during the past century and a half. It has captured the events giving form to history, and it has been present at the personal incidents shaping private lives. The photographs collected here, each in its own way, expand our understanding of the world around us. Each possesses the sort of memorable recognition or elegant gesture that identifies a work of art. The photographer's eye, heart, and mind, working in concert with the camera's function to preserve a trace of the real, have produced images that leave us, at some deep level, renewed. On the one hand, the camera provides us with positive verification of what has been, while at the same time we are open to the messages carried by the abstract, by the illusion. As Roland Barthes put it, photography "is a prophecy in reverse: like Cassandra, but eyes fixed on the past." Though we may put our faith in the camera's ability to record, much as we might allow a tape recorder to serve as witness, ultimately the photograph will be just a picture, a reference to something, never the thing itself.
"The camera never lies" has always been a statement whose mild irony has made photographers smile, but as we enter the age of "Photoshop©" and other electronic systems for image manipulation it becomes universally clear that we can never presume the veracity of any image. Photographers should be thankful for this. Now, the expressive potential of the lens-derived image can be separated from the burden, weighing like a concrete lifesaver around its neck, of representation. The boundaries between the visual media are becoming blurred as photographs are incorporated into larger amalgams of painting, sculpture, video, and text. The digitized image, which allows the artist control over every bit of information, turns the photograph into a vast canvas that can be manipulated in ways that are just beginning to be imagined. As the exciting promise of digital photography is being realized, traditional photography will continue to evolve, much as painting proceeded undaunted after the invention of photography, or as black and white photography lives along side color photography. The inherent paradox of the photographic image, and the struggle between the obstinate world of reality and the resolute photographer's pursuit of clarity and truth, will continue to inspire the creation of images that help us give form to the chaos and complexity of our lives.
Joel Leivick September, 1995