What is Photography

Frankfurt_Am_Main-William_Henry_Fox_Talbot-Zeil_in_Richtung_Hauptwache-1846

Henry Fox Talbot, Frankfurt am Main (1846)

In the Strugatsky brother’s sci-fi novel Roadside Picnic, a character proposes the titular phrase as a metaphor for humanity’s encounters with artefacts, the strange and powerful remnants of an alien visitation. He argues that humanity’s feeble attempt to understand and use these objects is like the behaviour of the animals that emerge from the undergrowth after a roadside picnic to encounter the discarded food wrappers, motor oil, clothes and other human remains that are utterly beyond their comprehension.

Notwithstanding the fact that photography is a thing mostly of our own making, many of my current difficulties with photography stem from a similar idea, the feeling that we have a huge amount invested in something that seems to so decisively and consistently evade attempts at convincing definition. If anything the fact that we have invented photography, and have played such a great part in defining its territory and limits, somehow makes its shape shifting resistance to definition even more perplexing.

What is photography? Most responses would linger on the purely mechanical, functional definitions. ‘A means of creating images through the use of lenses and photosensitive surfaces’, for example. This seems to me to be like responding to the question ‘what is the earth’ with the answer ‘it is a sphere’. It seems to miss most of what makes photography interesting, the things that makes it worth defining in the first place, in favour of what is patently obvious. So what other definitions are there? Here are two very provisional candidates I have been playing with.

One is that photography is simply a way of segmenting the world, of parcelling it off into digestible, two dimensional portions, recorded or simply viewed. Certainly this idea fits with some of the circumstances of the development of photography, with theorists like Batchen suggesting that the desire to ‘photograph’ in this sense pre-existed the necessary chemistry, in the form of devices like the camera obscura and Claude glass. Is it unreasonable to say that Canaletto, a frequent user of the camera obscura for painting, was as much as a photographer as Talbot? To view a scene through any object or mechanism that partitions it, is perhaps to photograph.

Another candidate is that photography is a means of doing something similar with the world but in terms of time rather than space. By fixing in some sense (chemical or otherwise) a trace of a moment in time, making it into a tangible object, and thereby making those moments physical and movable, they cease to exist as part of an irreversible flow of time. In this way it becomes possible to locate things, that are temporally speaking from impossibly different worlds, next to each other. Photography is able, for example, to bring together Canalletto and Talbot, inhabitants of worlds separated by time and geography, into the same location.

These are basic responses to an question that really goes beyond what I’m capable of answering. Thinking about this topic draws my mind into very grey areas, that leave me feeling like I have been trying to see the back of my own eyes. I suppose this post might at least encourage other people to think about the same question, to consider what photography is, and what this means for the way it is used.

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