Art and truth in the discourse of photography
From Barthes to Baudelaire
'To try to capture fleeting mirror images is not just an impossible undertaking, as has been established after thorough German investigation; the very wish to do such a thing is blasphemous. Man is made in the image of God, and God's image cannot be captured by any machine of human devising. The utmost the artist may venture, borne on the wings of divine inspiration, is to reproduce man's God-given features without the help of any machine, in the moment of highest dedication, at the higher bidding of his genius.' – Leipziger Stadtanzeiger*
Images and Visuals
A paradox seems to insist, indeed overwhelm, the discourse of photography in our times. There used to be a time, not too long ago, when a photograph used to be called an image or, more precisely, 'a photographic image'. An image of something or perhaps of some being that is. For sometime now, they are talking of 'images' once more. They are talking no longer of any 'reality', of objects, but of images only. It is the same thing as though you are speaking no more of images but only of a 'reality' representing itself to itself without end.
These two discourses, one of images and the other of reality, seem to be opposed like the good old discourses of idealism and materialism. But in effect the two are identical but for their different names. In reduced form the argument thus runs: 'if there is now nothing but images, there is nothing other than the image.' 'And if there is nothing other than the image,' Jacques Rancière observes, 'the very notion of the image becomes devoid of content.
Thus we come to face the contrast between the image and the visual, where the 'image' refers to an 'other' and the visual refers to itself and 'nothing but itself.' In other words, visual is the same as itself. Thus a photographic image becomes truth by becoming visual. Television image has thus become an example of an image without an 'other' and cinematic image of an image with an 'other'. 'The Image here,' Régis Debray (with reference to the visual) says, 'has its light in-built. It reveals itself. With its source in itself, it becomes in our eyes its own cause.'2 Debray in fact takes the status of the 'visual' as the same thing as God or substance in Spinoza's discourse.
The stress now thus is on distinguishing the genuine image from its 'simulacrum'. Photogr-aphy was once understood as opposing its mechanical, soulless simulacra to the coloured flesh of painting. It is now taken as becoming full of soul itself or, to put it in traditional philosophical jargon, as the cause of its immanent transcendence. A photographic image today is not a pictorial artifice or representation, but is 'the very emanation of a body, as a skin detached from its surface, positively replacing the appearances of resemblance and defeating the efforts of the discourse that would have it express a meaning.'
The photographic image is not any more an imitation but instead an imprint of the thing itself, not a figure of discourse but a material presence of the senseless or the real. In other words, it is a truth that does not make sense of itself. It transcends itself. How is this glorious essence of the image possible? It owes it all to its mode of production, which is a pure materiality. On the strength of this argument Rolland Barthes, who once committed 'the sin of having wished to strip the world of its glories,' would lately be claiming that photography is not an art. However, despite his best intensions, the road to hell was enlightened by Barthes's later work Camera Lucida. It has become, in Rancière's graphic words, 'the bible of those who wish to think about photographic art.
How is this paradox possible? It is this question that prompted me to re-read one of Charles Baudelaire's well known essays on the photographer's art, or rather a section of that essay titled 'the modern public and photography'. Baudelaire in his anxiety took up claims for photography as art first. Finding those claims more or less ludicrous he would lend his weight to the view that favours photographic truth.
We will see that in insisting more on 'the modern public' Baudelaire understood photography as a discourse, as gaze, or as a way of looking. In fact he thus made up for much of what he lost out on the 'photographic unconscious' or on not grasping it as an 'imaginary signifier'. Thus Baudelaire is ahead of our times.
The origin of the paradox of our times can be traced back to the times ever since Niepce and Daguerre. It expressed itself in the form of an ambivalence or a dilemma, if you like, between art and truth 'The photograph is understood,' as a commentator of our times puts it, 'either in terms of the magical presence of that which is far away or vanished, or, on the other hand, as an image which is as artificial and fabricated as any other sort of sign.
For the true believers, a photographic image is the 'analogon' of the object photographed, its natural trace and its double. The mechanical nature of the photographic process, they would argue, guarantees the resemblance of images which are, by their nature, truer than paintings or drawings which depend on the freedom and invention of the artist. Photography imitates nature, or as Lamartine more graphically imagined it in 1858, 'plagiarizes nature' by means of optics. Optics has been taken as the agent guaranteeing that magic.
The photograph-as-truth view seems to persist. Sometimes it takes on trans-epochal significance. It takes an almost messianic import in, for instance, Walter Benjamin. 'The most exact technique,' he writes, 'could provide its products with a magical value which no painted image would ever have for us again. Despite the photographer's technical mastery, despite the concerted character of the attitude imposed on the model, the spectator is despite himself compelled to seek, in such an image, the tiny spark of chance, of here and now, thanks to which reality has, as one might say, destroyed the image character.
A more unabashed view is taken by Andre Bazin. Speaking of 'man's primitive need to have the last word in his dispute with death by means of a form which will endure', Bazin insists that the photographic image, finally, answers that need. For the phenomenological approach, to which Bazin acknowledges his debt, trusts that the photographic image is a sort of mystical revelation of the 'truth' or 'reality', an apparition of what is.
'Photography,' the phenomenologist has asserted, 'affects us like a phenomenon in nature, like a flower or a snowflake whose vegetable or earthly origins are an inseparable part of their beauty.' The apparition of what is as an epiphany, he seems to think, derives from a technically mystical process. 'For the first time,' Bazin has written, 'between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only the instrumentality of a nonliving agent. For the first time an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man.' Bazin's accent is unmistakable in its insistence: 'All the arts are based on the presence of man, only photography derives an advantage from his absence.
Rolland Barthes, in turn, seeks to introduce subjectivity back by means of the photographic object. He nevertheless does it within the horizon of phenomenology, that form of idealism which provided Andre Bazin with his vantage point for looking through the photographic image. 'The photograph,' for Barthes, 'is that class of laminated objects whose two leaves cannot be separated without destroying them both: the windowpane and the landscape, and why not: Good and Evil, desire and its object: dualities we can conceive but not perceive'.7 Barthes's kind of phenomenology hangs on the stubbornness of the referent always already being there and producing the essence he is looking for.
He wants to establish a straight liaison between the photographic image and the material way in which the photograph affects him as a subject. Barthes now distinguishes between a punctum and a studium, the first signifying the photograph-for-itself or the affect it produces in the spectator and the second as photograph-in-itself or the photograph's potential as an imaginary signifier.
'It is by studium,' writes Barthes, 'that I am interested in so many photographs, whether I receive them as political testimony or enjoy them as good historical scenes: for it is culturally (this connotation is present in studium) that I participate in these figures, the faces, the gestures, the settings, the actions.' On the other hand, he adds, 'a photograph's punctum is that accident which pricks me', something that defies language.
For all his ingenuity, Rolland Barthes doesn't escape the fact that the modern public and photography are bound in an inter-convertible relationship. It is precisely this point that, long before Barthes, Charles Baudelaire was making . The public and photography go hand in hand. For him the truth of photography is to be found in the bourgeoisie as the art par excellence of the masses must be sought in photography.
Walter Benjamin has already grappled with the question of punctum or contingency. But he placed it within studium or the language of photography itself. 'Yes, of course, another nature speaks to the camera in so far as it speaks face to face; and about all in another mode, because instead of space consciously elaborated by man, we have a space in which he works unconsciously. In general one is aware, for example, even in a crude way, of human behaviour, but it is clear that one knows nothing of their attitude during the fraction of a second in which their behaviour changes.
In 1859, twenty years inside the invention, Charles Baudelaire wrote a series of essays, in epistolary form, for the periodical Revue Française. Baudelaire was a frequent visitor to some of the more famous photographer's studios of his time. Nadar's photographs of Baudelaire are no less famous today. The poet nonetheless feared art would be corrupted by photography.10
The poet, however, was willing to concede photography some legroom as a technique, ingenuous no doubt, in the annals of human industry. But he would go no further. The photographic image, for him, was to be no substitute for the artist's imagination. A later generation attempted to invert Baudelaire's views by claiming that photography supplanted painting or other media of human imagination thanks to its power of exact reproduction of nature.
He was apprehensive, it would seem, not so much of photography as an industrial art but in its ambitions in the sphere of imagination. Baudelaire, sharply critical of the bourgeois narcissism in general, was no less scathing in his condemnation of that new bourgeois vogue. He considered the new art quiet equal to the stupidity of the masses, idolatrous in the guts. 'During this lamentable period,' the poet wrote, 'a new industry arose which contributed not a little to confirm stupidity in its faith and to ruin whatever might remain of the divine in the French mind.
In Baudelaire's view the bourgeois credo in the arts was already a mean view, a view only worthy of the meanness of that social class. The poet supplied that view its proper name, ie positivism, even though the pretenders to that credo loved to call their creed by other names like eg, 'realism'. For the bourgeois an industry that could give them a result identical to nature would be 'the absolute of art.'
'In matters of painting and sculpture,' Baudelaire wrote, 'the present-day Credo of the sophisticated, above all in France (and I do not think that anyone at all would dare to state the contrary), is this: “I believe in nature, and I believe only in nature (there are good reasons for that). I believe that art is, and cannot be other than, the exact reproduction of nature (a timid and dissident sect would wish to exclude the more repellent objects of nature, such as skeletons and chamber-pots)." Photography was the answer to their prayer, Baudelaire postulates. 'A revengeful god,' he writes, 'has given ear to the prayers of the multitude and Daguerre was his messiah.
'Since photography gives us every guarantee of exactitude that we could desire (they really believe that, the mad fools!), Baudelaire reports them as saying it, 'then photography and art is the same thing.' The poet calls these folks a bunch of 'new sun-worshippers' and their belief 'an extraordinary fanaticism'. 'From that moment,' Baudelaire observes in an undisguised reference to that stampede for daguerrotypes, 'our squalid society rushed, Narcissus to a man, to gaze at its trivial image on a scrap of metal.'
'Strange abominations,' as the poet calls certain occasions, followed on. Commenting on certain attempts to act out tragic or just charming scenes from ancient history by ordinary bourgeois mortals (those pretenders to divine heroism) Baudelaire lays bare his own moral standpoint. The poet views that early rush for the photographic art as a corrosive agent, equivalent to some 'cheap method of disseminating a loathing for history and for painting among the people, thus committing a double sacrilege and insulting at one and the same time the divine art of painting and the noble art of the actor.
Baudelaire thought photography as a technique par excellence matching egotism of the bourgeoisie. From self-love to pornography the distance was just a short one. Before long a thousand hungry eyes were crowding before peep-holes of the stereoscope, 'as though they were the attic windows of the infinite'. The magic-box infatuated the whole world. 'Love of the porn, 'no less deep-rooted in the heart of man than the love of himself,' as Baudelaire put it, 'was not to let slip so fine an opportunity of self-satisfaction.' And these follies were drawing not only children back from their schools but the whole pleasure-hungry world itself.
This universal infatuation has had its 'other' side, the air of a vengeance too. Baudelaire blames not only that mark of blindness, the imbecility, the infatuation of the masses, but what he called 'ill-applied developments of photography' also. Photography, he considers, represents a purely material development of progress and like all such material developments have contributed its fair share to the impoverishment of an already impoverished French artistic genius. By invading territories of art, properly so-called, Baudelaire argues, that virtuous industry called photography 'has become art's most mortal enemy.
The poet diagnosed that illness as a metaphor confusing their several functions, that is of poetry or art proper and progress of industry as expressed in photography. 'Poetry and progress,' for our poet, 'are like two ambitious men who hate one another with an instinctive hatred, and when they meet upon the same road, one of them has to give place.' 'If photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions,' adds Baudelaire, 'it will soon have supplanted or corrupted it altogether, thanks to the stupidity of the multitude which is its natural ally.'
Baudelaire sees the way out in the clear comprehension of their separate functions, in other words in their non-convertibility to each other. He calls on the new art to assume its proper function in good time. The true duty of photography, according to Baudelaire, lies in proving itself a servant to the sciences and the arts, 'but the very humble servant, like printing or shorthand, which have neither created nor supplanted literature.'16
Baudelaire sums up the domain of photography and limits it to the inventory of the factual. Walter Benjamin thought this was a 'more conciliatory view'.17 'Let it hasten to enrich the tourist's album and restore to his eye the precision which memory may lack; let it adorn the naturalist's library, and enlarge microscopic animals; let it even provide information to corroborate the astronomer's hypotheses; in short, let it be the secretary and clerk of whoever needs an absolute factual exactitude in his profession – up to that point nothing could be better.
He grants photography but one more function, that of the archivist and the record keeper: 'Let it rescue from oblivion those tumbling ruins, those books, prints and manuscripts which time is devouring, precious things whose from is dissolving and which demand a place in the archives of our memory'.19 If photography is allowed to encroach upon 'the domain of the impalpable and the imaginary', that is 'upon anything whose value depends solely upon the addition of something of man's soul', then – the poet cries – it will be the wolf, it is the end of the world!
Baudelaire is apprehensive of the fact that the contagion of art and photography is set to work in a rather perverse way, from an infatuated multitude to the individual artist. Perverse because the law as such is supposed to see the artist acting upon the public and to expect the public reacting upon the source. But facts, those 'terrible witnesses', counsel otherwise: 'Each day the painter becomes more and more given to painting not what he dreams but what he sees.' Thus Baudelaire concludes that invasion of photography and 'the great industrial madness' of the era of high capitalism cannot be absolved of their fair share in bringing about this deplorable state of affairs in the field and function of art.
Baudelaire's critique is felt even louder here in the pain-stricken intervention: 'Are we not to suppose that a people whose eyes are growing used to considering the results of a material science as though they were the products of the beautiful, will not in the course of time have singularly diminished its faculties of judging and of feeling what are among them most ethereal and immaterial aspects of creation?
Photography and modernity
When Baudelaire speaks of imagination as a preserve of art to which photography alas has no access, he is referring to some 'aura' or 'associations which tend to cluster around an object of perception' that one cannot produce at will. The aura is at home in the vicinity of memoire involontaire.
Photography, based on the use of optics, camera obscura, and other devices, is an industrial design which can only reproduce memoire volontaire at best. Baudelaire did not see as far as the photographic image as a component of montage. Photography, considered 'cruel and startling'21 to begin with would later be exerting an unprecedented influence on the masses which Baudelaire deplored. He must have sensed, imagines Walter Benjamin, the contradiction between voluntary and involuntary memories, between art as aura and photography as only a mechanical reproducibility. Baudelaire viewed photography as both a modern and an inferior thing. 'His willingness always to grant the modern its place and, especially in art, to assign it its specific function also determined his attitude to photography,' says Benjamin.22
Whenever he felt it as a threat, he tried to put it down to its 'mistaken developments', yet he admitted that these were promoted by 'the stupidity of the broad masses.' Allied with the masses, the photographer's art appeared not only as a threat to the professional artist, it in fact led to the destruction of some great forms of professional art, for example miniature portraits.23 This also signalled a new attitude to life.
Baudelaire in fact sensed the contradiction very well: 'As the photographic industry became the refuge of all failed painters with too little talent, or too lazy to complete their studies, this universal craze not only assumed the air of blind and imbecile infatuation, but took on the aspect of revenge.'24
SALIMULLAH KHAN is a scholar and writer whose influential publications include 'Jacques Lacan Bidyalay, vols 1 and 2' (2006, 2008), 'Shotya, Saddam Hossain o Srajerdoula' (2007), 'Adamboma' (2009), 'Eqbalnama: Silence on Crimes of Power' (2009), and 'Ahmad Sofa Shanjibani' (2010).
- J. Rancière, The future of the image, G. Elliot, trans. (London: Verso, 2007), p. 1.
- R. Debray, Vie et mort de l'image (Paris: Gallimard, 1992), p. 382; cited in J. Rancière, ibid., p. 2.
- J. Rancière, ibid., p. 9.
- Y. Michaud, 'Forms of looking: philosophy and photography,' in M. Frizot, ed., The New History of Photography (Köln: Könneman Verlagsgesselschaft, 1998), p. 733.
- W. Benjamin, 'A small history of photography,' One-Way Street and other writings, E. Jephcott and K. Shorter, trans. (London: Verso, 1997), p. 243; translation modified.
- A. Bazin, 'The ontology of the photographic image,' What is Cinema?, vol. 1, H. Gray, trans. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), p.13.
- R. Barthes, Camera Lucida, R. Howard, trans. (London: Vintage, 2000), p. 6.
- R. Barthes, ibid., pp. 26-27.
- W. Benjamin, 'A small history of photography,' One-Way Street and other writings, trans. E. Jephcott and K. Shorter (London: Verso, 1997), p. 243; translation modified.
- Gaspard Félix Tournachon (1820-1910) adopted the pseudonym Nadar while he was a caricaturist. He took up photography in 1853 and soon became the most celebrated portraitist in Paris; see B. Newhall, ed. Photography: Essays and Image-- Illustrated Readings in the History of Photography (London: Secker and Warburg, 1980), p. 109.
- C. Baudelaire, 'The Salon of 1859: Letters to the Editor of the Revue Française,' in Selected Writings on Art and Literature, P.E. Chavret, ed. (London: Penguin Books, 1992), p. 295.
- C. Baudelaire, ibid.
- C. Baudelaire, ibid.
- C. Baudelaire, ibid.
- C. Baudelaire, ibid., pp. 296-97.
- C. Baudelaire, ibid., p. 297.
- W. Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: a lyric poet in the era of high capitalism, H. Zohn, trans. (London: Verso, 1997), p. 146.
- C. Baudelaire, ibid., p. 297.
- C. Baudelaire, ibid., p. 297.
- C. Baudelaire, ibid., p. 298.
- C. Baudelaire, 'Some French Caricaturists,' Selected Writings on Art and Literature, ibid., p. 225.
- W. Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: a lyric poet in the era of high capitalism, ibid.
- W. Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire, ibid., p. 162.
- C. Baudelaire, 'The Salon of 1859', ibid., p. 296.