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Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Theory for Photography, not against it

Following on from the previous post on Susie Linfield, Politics, Theory and Photography links to her new book, a collection of writings in which Linfield attempts to recover theory for photography rather than against it.

I wonder if the amount of critical theory on photography (and how it's exploitative, cliched, propagandistic and thoroughly wicked) is due to the rather grandiose claims made by photographers, especially the concerned variety (if you really care, there are better jobs where you can make a bigger difference) as well as the ubiquity of average images. And by the same token I wonder if the claims for its exploitative nature compare to those involved in the production of virtually any food, fashion or consumer goods.

It does seem odd that we focus so much of our attention on this sea of averages, when we should be looking (as critics do in film and cinema) at the truly outstanding work. True, there is not that much truely outstanding work, but then neither is there that much in literature or film (the great films of the last couple of years? I'll go for A Prophet - and after that?).

Here is Linfield's description of the book, which I look forward to getting my teeth into.

I teach criticism and read a lot of it, and some years ago I realized how different photography criticism can be in tone and approach from criticism of film, or music, or other cultural forms. Pauline Kael, Greil Marcus, and others are very immersed in their subjects; they write analytically and critically but with love. By contrast, Susan Sontag and her postmodern heirs in the realm of photography criticism were very removed from, even hostile to, the subjects they discuss. That observation, in concert with lessons derived from reading Brecht at the same time (albeit for different purposes), highlighted for me the antipathy to subject matter and the antipathy to emotion in books like On Photography.

Capa’s photos of the Spanish Civil War, or of China after the Japanese invasion, were very clear on political context. You knew what to do with your anger and your horror. Today, looking at images from Sierra Leone or the Congo, one can feel horror, disgust, and great sadness—but what to do in response is much less apparent. Which of the twelve militias now fighting in the Congo do you support? Visual atrocity is much clearer today, but we no longer have the political clarity to accompany it.

At the same time, a lot of what passes for “visual literacy” today is merely visual cynicism. People, especially young people, are very used to saying “photographs lie,” to pointing out how images are manipulated by Photoshop or other means. Such suspicion and skepticism isn’t entirely bad, but I don’t think of it as visual literacy. I don’t urge na├»ve acceptance or cynical rejection of photos of political violence; the book makes a plea for us to use photographs of atrocity as starting-points to engage with very complicated histories and very specific political crises. If we want to construct a politics of human rights that isn’t merely an abstraction, we need to look at these photographs of suffering, degradation, and defeat. We need to think clearly not only about the relationships among these images, how they function and what they communicate in aggregate, but about the specific conditions each one depicts, no matter how disturbing, shaming, and bewildering an experience that may be.

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