Photography vs Photograph, Part I

This is the first of a three part essay exploring the different aspects and understanding of the act, or gesture, of photography, the photographer, and the photograph. I use material from Vilem Flusser, John Berger, Henri-Cartier Bresson, Ted Orland, and others to describe and comment on the different ways photography and photographs are perceived. This is one way to look at it. You’re going to have something different to being to the discussion or you’ll learn something new. We’re learning all the time.

Part I

Photography, like any artistic practice, is a multi-faceted activity involving materials, equipment, process, learning, technique, philosophy, a few other things, and the making of physical or otherwise visual representations of the photons recorded by the camera which, whether on film or digital sensor, are at first not visible to anyone (reviews on the camera screen notwithstanding). In this and the next one or two newsletters, I’m going to write about some different philosophies or approaches to the concept of photography versus photograph; the interconnected but also separate ideas of the process of photography and the product of the photograph. As you might already know or guess, there are, and have been, several different ideas throughout history about photography, its purpose, how it should be done, presented, and thought about, as well as the impact, importance, and relevance to the society, culture, and technology of the day. It’s a pretty big bundle to unwrap.

I’m going to focus, or try to, on just the concepts of photography and the photograph. There is spillover into other aspects of both, and I’ll try to keep that to only directly relevant offshoots. First, definitions. Photography I’ll consider to be the process involved in most of the activities NOT related to the creation of a physical photograph. I define the photograph as the physical or visual representation of a photographic image, whether that is a darkroom print, digital print, digital display, or some other physical or visual representation. In general, to keep the concepts as separated as possible for clarity of discussion, I’ll treat the image of the photograph as different from the process of photography. But first, we might need to delve into a brief overview of the long history of photography.

In some ways, photography has come a long way since its recognizable beginnings in the early 19th Century, while in other ways it has remained much the same. The arguments for and against photography and photographs in the 1800s are much the same in the 2000s; technological advances haven’t changed those arguments much but, in some cases, it has amplified them. The pursuit of photographs came about as a means to accurately record what we were looking at. The camera obscura, the first rudimentary camera device, or pinhole camera, required an operator to trace an image projected onto glass or onto a surface in a darkened room. The accuracy of the illustration depended on the patience and skill of the individual making the drawing, the technology used to create the quality of the camera obscura image (bare pinhole versus lens), and environmental conditions: the sun had to be shining for a bright enough image to be projected on the tracing surface. The camera obscura was first built and used in 1100AD by Persian (now Iraq) polymath Alhazen (Ibn al-Haytham) and used after that by several others in their process of discovering the properties of light. But the principle of the camera obscura was known since it was first described in 400 BC in China (Mozi) and 350 BC in Greece (Aristotle) and again in more detail by Leonardo da Vinci in 1550. Artists caught on to the usefulness of the camera obscura in the 15th Century, using the device to make drawings and paintings of landscapes, cityscapes, and portraits. There is evidence, though, suggesting pinhole images were used by prehistoric humans to make art as far back as 15,000 years ago. Light sensitive substances, such as chlorophyll from plants and other chemicals, were explored in the 16th Century, but it wasn’t until 1614 that an Italian chemist named Angelo Sala showed that silver nitrate, when coated on paper, darkened in the light of the sun. But, even though the camera obscura was in wide use by then, the two were not brought together until the 19th Century. So, the use of light sensitive chemistry to accurately record scenes and objects from the visible world is relatively new compared to other art forms like painting and sculpture.

The word photography was coined by Sir John Herschel, in 1839, from the Greek words photos, meaning “light”, and graphe, meaning “to draw or write”. As soon as the first permanent (more or less) image was made in 1839 (the date and maker of the first photograph is still debated today), photography became a much-argued technology. It continues to be debated today, regarding what constitutes photography or a photograph, and whether a photograph is actually art. For me, photography and the photograph are interconnected as part of a whole, an integrated process that includes both philosophy and practice, the metaphysical and the physical. But each can also stand on its own, separate from the other; photography doesn’t need to conclude as a photograph, and the photograph can be devoid of all but the technical and mechanical aspects of photography. Photography, capital P, is both art and science and can be a Way of life (in a Zen sense, as I describe in my podcast from a few years ago), or as Brooks Jensen, editor of Lenswork, describes in his podcast; a way of “living the Art life.”

This should provide a good foundation so far. I think this will be a three part essay. The general format will be to give an overview of the ideas of two or more individual’s thoughts on both the process of photography and the object of the photograph. These individuals will be photographers and non-photographers and will hopefully offer a broad look at how photography and photographs have been, and continue to be viewed in the world’s society. I’ll begin next time with philosopher Vilem Flusser (1920-1991) from his 1984 book, Towards a Philosophy of Photography, and critic, novelist and poet John Berger (1926-2017) from the 2013 book of his essays edited by Geoff Dyer, Understanding A Photograph. The remaining parts of this series will explore the thoughts of Edward Weston, Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams, Ted Orland, David Bayles, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paul Strand, Minor White, Gary Winogrand, Jay Maisel, John Paul Caponigro, Jerry Uelsmann, and others. In the end, I hope you might have an appreciation of photography in a different way than you may now, and maybe a deeper understanding of the history of photography as well as something to think about regarding your own exploration of this art form and practice.

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