What is a Photograph?

We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.

In today’s seminar we discussed what is a photograph. Johnathan began by telling us that we need to defamiliarise ourselves in order to understand, for example, the car was originally known to be the horseless carriage because there was no other word for it; people used what was already familiar and adapted it to their language to understand. However, this language changed through to motor car and then car: it is what we become accustomed to, yet, in today’s language we still march backwards into the future by referring to the power of a car with its ‘horsepower’.

The difficulty of understanding this concept hung in the room for much of the lecture. It was a sort of hysteria of language being bounced around in order to understand what McLuhan means by ‘the medium is the message’.

What he means is that the media is the environment and not the content. For instance, we see the world in rectangles: phones, doors, screens, signs, books, newspapers; however, when an image is taken, it is circular, yet we frame photographs into rectangles. Why?

Moreover, the purpose of a mobile phone is to talk and text. Communicate. But adding a camera; does this make it a camera or a phone? These are referred to as ‘camera phones’, much like horseless carriage, we adapt our language of the past to understand the present.

Origins: Photography is like no other medium; without watches photography would not exist. It’s capturing a moment in time. Yet this moment in time can have preconceived ideas and mimic styles of era and practice for example Cindy Sherman in 1978 created this self portrait in the style to mimic a film still such as that of Gloria Grahame. We, as part of the digital society, are already accustomed to making images appear old: settings on camera phones allow us to do this for example.

Gloria Grahame, In a Lonely Place, 1950
Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #21, 1978

There is a difference between analogue and digital: analogue images printed on silver gelatin have a life: they are presented in books or on the walls, they are passed around and they age. On the other hand, digital pixels don’t.

Lee Friedlander: House, Trailer, Sign and Cloud - Knoxville, Tennessee, 1971.

Photographs like those by Lee Friedlander flattened images to create a new medium: in this he flattened the image by linking the foreground and the background to create an ice cream shape.

Other photographers like Helen Levitt take the viewer around the image; how the sitters bounce off each other,  but never knowing what they are all looking at.

Other themes explore tension and dynamics and the consideration of cropping; seeing the world through the viewfinder.

From what was discussed today, I felt like I needed some time to digest it. I have ordered McLuhan’s “Medium is the Massage’ to conclude what is a photograph.

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