New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography

Scott, Grant ORCID: 0000-0003-2882-1380 (2019) New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography. Bloomsbury Academic Visual Arts, Worldwide. ISBN 9781350049314

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Introduction: The Narrative Eye “Seeing comes before words”. John Berger, Ways of Seeing. 1972 “In photography, like in all things, there are people who can see and others who cannot even look.” Gaspard-Félix ‘Nadar’ Tournachon "The camera seems to me, next to unassisted and weapon-less consciousness, the central instrument of our time." James Agee The mechanical and technical aspects of creating a photographic image have been at its heart since the first experiments with capturing and fixing an image and its advancements in these areas have been intrinsic in its development and growth. However, just as some theory writing has hi-jacked the medium to create its own genre of practice so the technical writer mired in lighting techniques, firmware updates, software hacking and post-production work flows and plug-ins has used photography as a vehicle for additional process knowledge outside of the immediate capture of the image. The resultant writing can be as dense and inaccessible as the most poorly conceived theory. Two opposite ends of the photographic spectrum falling into the same trap of believing that their view of photography is the correct one and that never the twain shall meet. I do not expect this book to bring those camps together but just as Berger outlined in his ‘Note to the Reader’ in his book Ways of Seeing my intention is to start or perhaps extend a process of questioning. This book is an attempt to not only question theoretical and technical barriers but to also provide a series of possible journeys for the visual storyteller utilizing lens-based mediums to embark upon. It is widely accepted that what we see and choose to document is a direct result of what we know, believe and have experienced through our lives at whatever point we choose to begin making those documentations with whatever choice of medium we wish to use. This is a basis of all teaching of the creative arts, the need to express the personal is at the root of self-initiated artistic expression. The choice of medium is just as personal, and it is the ubiquity of the camera in our everyday lives that makes it a first choice as a documentary tool. It is a device which the owner has an increasingly personal relationship with outside of its photographic functionality and therefore a choice which is both practical and subliminally emotional. Berger reflected on the fact that although every image created embodies a way of seeing, it is our perception or appreciation of an image that defines our true way of seeing. This perception and appreciation of photography within a digital age is defined by the device and/or platform we experience the image on, the context in which we engage with it and our own understanding of what photography is. This immediately demands a re-evaluation of how we see and perhaps more importantly evaluate the role of photography as an art form, its role within artistic practice and as a visual language. These are not new themes in relation to photography so an assumption that this book has little new to say could therefore be correct accept that my use of these words is within a new context and it is that context that I believe brings essential new understanding to both photographic capture and consumption. That context is the context of the ongoing digital revolution and a new box in which to capture light, to create and to disseminate images. The smart phone as camera divides opinions. Some believe it’s impact on photography is negative, a tool that should be held responsible for a devaluation of the photographic image. Others see it as a tool for fun, a smaller version of the compact camera acceptable for ‘snaps’ but for little if anything more. I disagree with both beliefs. I am not a smartphone evangelist, but I am a pragmatist and a photographer and filmmaker so to reject or decry any tool that can help me further explore my creativity and visual storytelling makes no sense to me. I have embraced the creative opportunities the smartphone has given me and in doing so re-discovered the fundamentals of photography and re-imagined my process of photographic capture. I call this process ‘photo sketching’, a process aligned with the sketching of an artist exploring juxtapositions, composition, light, texture, form, relationships, colour, tone and mark making. Just as the invention of the camera changed the way in which everyone saw painting so the way in which photography is perceived is changed by the smartphone. It is interesting as I write this that I am unsure as to how to refer to this device for recording images we keep with us at-all-times of the day and night. By referring to it as a smartphone means that most people will understand what I am referring to but of course that name indicates its principle purpose as being that of a telephone, a functionality that is not most people’s primary use for the miniature computer that it is. It’s ability to communicate with others through word and image is a far more important functionality to many as is its connectivity with both radio and film broadcast channels. If you then add its library functionality as a repository for music and images you will see that the smartphone as camera is just one of its functions in today’s digital environment. And yet it is most people’s one and only camera. A camera that lets them both share and store their images with a few taps of a screen, that requires no theoretical or technological knowledge to use. A camera which they have a personal bond with, that they would be lost without. A fact brilliantly demonstrated in a series of wry vignettes titled 5 Films About Technology created by the prolific video director Peter Huang in 2015. I will continue to refer to this device as a smartphone and the images created with it as photography for ease of understanding, however I feel that the term ‘lens-based media’ is perhaps a better description of the activity of what the first is creating and what the second has become. Whatever we choose to call the multi-functional box in our pockets as Berger first stated back in 1972 and as I believe even more true today we now exist in a world in which there is a language of images and what is important is not the arguments concerning what device was used to create them but what we do with them. It is therefore the intention of this book to bring together different strands of thinking from the past and present, to question the accepted, to spark debate concerning photography and to understand why and how we have entered a new way of seeing. It has no relationship to the John Berger book, but it does pick up on some of the ideas it put forward just as it put forward ideas first considered by the German critic Walter Benjamin in his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction forty years before Berger wrote his book. In that sense, I suggest that you see this book as the continuation of a conversation bought about by a need to question not provide answers and just as Berger’s book was structured to be read in any chapter order so this book like a passionate and vigorous conversation can be approached as something to dip in and out of or to engage with from beginning to end. The images included in this book have all been created by myself on a smartphone and are part of that conversation and should be viewed as punctuation points, nouns and verbs that help define the storytelling the words are attempting to convey. They are not created to exist as stand-alone images to be critiqued as such, they are part of my visual language, my visual communication with you the reader. Whilst writing this book I received a tweet from a well-respected photographer and film-maker who had been at the forefront of the convergence movement encouraging photographers to embrace the moving image with DSLR cameras. The tweet contained a link to a video extolling the virtues of a computational photography app that gave control of depth of field to smartphone camera users. It also suggested that the app was yet another nail in the coffin of ‘real’ photography. The tweet made me question why someone who had been so willing to embrace the ‘new’ just a few years ago was now so reticent to see that photographic image capture remains a constantly evolving practice. It also made me wonder what he meant by ‘real’, and after much thought and consideration I realised that I have no idea what ‘real’ photography is. Is it what we knew as photography? Is it how we first experience the medium? I think it may have connections to both of these questions but if so what we are discussing is an emotional relationship with the medium, a subjective not an objective viewpoint. What I do know is that the tweet started an online debate between two sides of the photographic community between the ‘Fors’ and the ‘Againsts’ where photography is going, all beliefs were staunchly held and vehemently argued but of course no solution was reached. This book exists as a series of fragmented thoughts some previously posted online as articles that are focused on a central theme and as such those thoughts may sometimes feel repetitive as I seek to interpret them across a broad spectrum of implementation. If this is the case, please read it in whatever order you wish. Alternatively, you could start at the beginning and finish at the end and travel the intellectual journey I have followed in writing it. The choice is yours, but I hope that the outcome will be the same. That you begin to question the capture and dissemination of the photographic image in the twenty first century. I hope that both the written and visual language contained within this book provoke similar debate to the one that Berger originally instigated, that of, conversation and understanding. Berger finished his book with the simple request that it was to be finished by the reader, I share his sentiment. Embrace the serendipity of chance.

Item Type: Book
Subjects: N Fine Arts > N Visual arts (General) For photography, see TR
Divisions: Schools and Research Institutes > School of Creative Arts
Research Priority Areas: Culture, Continuity, and Transformation
Creative Practice and Theory
Depositing User: Grant Scott
Date Deposited: 18 Mar 2019 10:32
Last Modified: 31 Aug 2023 09:22

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