There is no single approach to discovering the truth of an image.
Unlike previous approaches to photography, poststructuralist criticism (also referred to as postmodernist criticism), which emerged around the mid-20th century, posits that no single approach to photography
can be sufficient because the truth found in images comes from the individual responses of viewers. Rather than set, understandable content defined by the surface of the image, poststructuralists viewed photography for the moral, political, ideological, and cultural implications of the image.
The emergence of poststructuralist thought in photography criticism was, in part, a reaction against the preceding decades of modernism, which set out to define photography in terms of its formalist properties and carve out a place for photography as a high art that celebrated the capabilities of the medium, offering an alternative to the Pictorialist impulse to mimic painting. During the first half of the 20th century, photography critics such as John Szarkowski and Victor Burgin attempted to define the formal, structural, and temporal structure of the image, and focused in their criticism on how the meaning of a photograph could be understood by its surface and formalist properties. The “post-structure” thinking of the second half of the 20th century, however, saw photography as a less easily definable, and rather as a dynamic, discursive experience.
While modernist photography began to define and play with the aesthetic forms and the technological, structural impulses of photography - exploring how photography could be an art in itself, rather than mimicking the style of painting - postmodernist criticism represents a transition and a turn in art and theory away from structure and toward an epistemology of the image, turning theory and vision towards themselves and creating a self-conscious observation of the practices of looking. While modernism saw technology optimistically as a sign of progress, postmodernist expresses a feeling of being overwhelmed by technology, drowning in symbols, simulacra, and signs.
Although poststructuralism is difficult to map or contain and is largely ununified even in its own theoretical approaches, the emergence of poststructuralism represents a historical break and radical upheaval of readings of the photograph that swept up photography theory in its wake. Serious attention began to be given to the task of defining photography not just for its formal properties, but as a field and as having its own philosophy, ontology, and theory. Rather than an assumption of the photograph as an index, attention began to be given to how meaning may be constructed in a photograph. Poststructuralism highlights the sense-making activities inherent in interpreting images and views the photograph as an event comprised varyingly of the subject’s, viewer’s, and camera operator’s affective experience, rather than a set statement. As Stephen Bull summarizes: Modernist photography is about what lies inside the frame; Postmodernist photography is about what lies outside of the frame. (Middlehurst 2015)
A poststructuralist approach is influenced by the idea that human beings are not essentially rational subjects governed by grand narratives, but navigating a fragmented world decentered from its authentic, original reference, and instead consisting of copies and signs, and takes issue with singularizing indices and viewed the role of the viewer as active, instead of passive. Poststructuralism viewed the viewer’s agency in the photograph as disruptive or confrontational, and the power or “truth” of the image comes from the viewer’s own affect, interpretation, destruction, or reinterpretation of the traditional codes and conventions of the interpretation of the image.
While Carroll himself may not have been conscious of poststructuralist or postmodernist as
theoretical movements, Alice in Wonderland, due to its delight in plays with language and exposing the inconsistencies and irrationalities of linguistic structure and social conventions, has been read by many as anticipating poststructuralist concerns. In fact, Alice feels in many ways the perfect postmodernist novel, expressing concerns with identity, frustration with signs, symbols, and language, fragmentation and deconstruction of logic, self-reflection, and a generally playful nature.
Douglas R. Nickel, who curated Dreaming With Open Eyes: The Photography of Lewis Carroll," - a show of Carroll's photographs at SFMOMA and the International Center of Photography in 2002 and 2003 – views many of these same qualities in Carroll's photography.
In his introductory essay to the accompanying publication, Nickel noted that the show attempted reevaluate and to place Carroll’s photographs in an art-historical terms, lifting them out from beneath the cloud of Carroll’s character, sculpting out a territory for Carroll that lies outside of the binaries of Victorian convention or psychoanalytic thought. For Nickel, this territory can be found in postmodernism.
Nickel argues that, although modern scholars tend to read photographs as either literal or figurative, the Victorians understood "typological thinking" in ways that have fallen out of vogue. Many Victorians understood biblical references, and these references constituted a shared language and ideal. "For the Victorians, typological thinking enacted an everyday Neoplatonism, derived originally from their Protestant theology... but spilling over into a more universal belief in the "type" - the ideal example of pattern." (Nickel 2002, 41) Humans, therefore, are in the "type" of God - the materialization and incarnation of an idea, rather than just an allegory. Nickel therefore sees Carroll and Cameron's photographs as attempting to portray their sitters' inner character. The power of interpretation lies therefore both in the photographer and the viewer.
Nickel understands Carroll the photographer as an early postmodernist in the sense that Carroll was aware the artifice of the camera and the ability of the camera to create stories, staging his subjects as they play pretend and heightening the tension between the reality and literary allegory of the image. While other pictorialists might have staged their scenes and theatrics in ways that attempted to create full illusions, neither Carroll nor his audience forget that his subjects are actors playing pretend, such as the hints of Alice's true class present in "The Beggar Maid" or in other of his scenes, in which reality tugs at the margins – such as in the falling tapestry in Carroll's tableau of St. George and the Dragon.
As Nickel writes in his introduction to a retrospective of Lewis Carroll’s photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art:
“Victorian photography of the sort practiced by Dodgson and (Julia Margaret) Cameron is . . . ill served by the modernist taxonomy that separates their efforts into literal versus figurative categories," Nickel writes. "For them -- devout Christians both -- their subjects lay on a continuum of symbolic meaning, and their task as artists was to negotiate photography's naturalism and deploy accouterments such as titles to make more or less explicit reference to the spiritual residing within the corporeal." (Quoted Baker 2002)
In a contemporaneous New York Times article, Nickel continues: "By the standards of modernism, they're not very good pictures... But if we see them as deliberately doing something set up, rather than found, and theatrical, rather than authentic, they start looking a lot like Cindy Sherman. Through a series of reactions and counter-reactions, postmodernist photography gets us back to the Victorians."
1. Rather than imitating paintings, Modernist photographs aimed to exactly portray and document the world, while wrapping visual exactitude with detail as well as emotion. This purposeful shift away from the frills and aesthetic romance of Pictorialism moved the ideal of photography away from allegory and toward an ideal of interacting with reality. Carroll's images, when seen through a modernist lens, perhaps less easily fall into the realm of theatrics and tableau and begin to look alarmingly real.
2. Pictorialism remained in vogue until about the 1930s, when popular photography ditched the Victorian frills, theatrics, and blurred images in favor of sharp, composition-focused images which celebrated what the camera could uniquely achieve as an art apart from the traditions of painting, such as sharp, focused landscapes - such as this photograph by Ansel Adams. The f.64 group was founded as a purposeful counter to Pictorialism by Ansel Adams and fellow photographer Willard Van Dyke, and represents a modernist approach to photography. Taking its name from the smallest aperture on a camera, which allows for an infinite depth of field and the entire scene to be sharp and in focus, the group is known for their celebration of the camera as a technology capable of exactly, objectively depicting the world, their photographs of the American West, such as this image of Ansel Adams', as well as photographs of quotidian objects and nudes, such as those made my Alfred Stieglitz of Georgia O'Keeffe (see below). Douglas R. Nickel, in his retrospective of Carroll's photography, Dreaming in Pictures, notes that the first biographer of Carroll's photography, Helmut Gernsheim, was a "confirmed modernist, a champion of the straight aesthetic who brooked no manipulation of the photographic subject prior to exposure, and no touching or reworking of the image after exposure was secured. Photography, for him, was about representing the real; contrivance, artificiality, and any attempt to associate the medium with the painterly went against his articles of faith. Consequently, whole sections of Carol's creative activity emerged as problematic." (Nickel 2002, 31-33) Even still, Gernsheim reads Carroll's images as problematic for his aesthetic choices, although not necessarily for his interest in children as subjects. Still, Nickel argues, we tend to view 19th-century photography through a modernist lens.
3. John Szarkowski, the Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art from 1962 to 1991, attempted to bring a sense of formalism to photography - to raise photography to the status of high art, to discover and define its essential message, and to lend legitimacy to the medium. Szarkowski and similar modernist critics attempted to put aside artistry and affect in order to examine the camera’s role as a mechanical and technological tool, focusing their attention on the lines and compositional aspects of photography. In his 1966 publication, The Photographer’s Eye, Szarkowski gave critical attention to the formal properties of photographs, articulating a theory of photography which defined photography’s form, outcome, and style based on several key properties (“the thing itself,” “the detail,” “the frame,” “time,” and “vantage point.”) In 1978, however, Szarkowski put on a show called Mirrors and Windows: American Photography Since 1960 at the Museum of Modern Art which took a more nuanced view of photography’s formalist potential and emphasized the power of images to mean multiple things. The show attempted defined photographs as either artistically-inclined (“inward-looking mirrors”) or documentary images (“the outward-looking windows”), but also included those images which could not fit into either category. (Ritchin 2013, 17).
4. Modernist photography critics attempted to define the formal, structural, and temporal structure of the image, and focused in their criticism on how the meaning of a photograph could be understood by its surface and formalist properties. Modernist criticism discarded the Victorian notion of staging photographs as allegory as a misstep in popular aesthetics, and instead investigated how meaning could be located in the form of an image, which was thought to be self-evident and independent of a viewer's active role in interpretation. Victor Burgin's text Thinking Photography (1982), sought to bring an academic discourse to photography that focused on the materiality and historicisim of the photograph.
5. In the postmodernist journal October, Rosalind Krauss, in a two-part essay, "Notes on the Index: Seventies Art in America," discussed the photograph's role as an index, as well as its relation to time and space, its affective power, and simulacra. This essay is considered to be a seminal piece of postmodernist photography criticism.
6. Although he doesn't fit neatly into the category of Poststructuralism and rather seems to occupy his own category, Roland Barthes wrote many influential essays about photography that have influenced photographic criticism.
For Barthes, the code of the image is broken by the affective response of the viewer. By focusing on affect – rather than the historical or symbolic structure of the image– Barthes not only diverges from structuralist aims but relocates power internally. In his essays "The Death of the Author" - which argues that the life of a work is separate from the life, thoughts, and intentions of its author - and "Rhetoric of the Image" - which looks into the linguistic messages of an image and how it conveys meaning through signs - are included in the compilation of his writing, Image-Music-Text.
7. Although he doesn't fit neatly into the category of Poststructuralism and rather seems to occupy his own category, Roland Barthes wrote many influential essays about photography that have influenced photographic criticism. In Camera Lucida (1980), Barthes began to investigate the act of looking itself, and described the photograph as “a message without a code,” able to mean different things in different contexts. Barthes wrote of the index as a thing which takes time out of a linear sequence, and of photography’s power for temporal disturbance. Poststructuralist criticism in general is concerned with the viewer's encounter with the photograph as well as defining the unique philosophical attributes of the photograph. In Camera Lucida, Barthes develops what he terms the “studium,” the photographer’s intended point of interest, or the semiotic content, and the “punctum,” the emotional wound left by the photograph which reaches outside of the physical content of the image – the resonance of death and the passage of time and human connection. These terms have become two of the most-cited terms in photography criticism because they are what help to become the subjective break that led to postmodernist studies, which focuses on the irreconcilable gap between objective formalism and subjective experience and reading of the punctum is often personal and unintentionally coded in ideology. For Barthes, the photograph beings a new awareness of “having-been-there” - a “spatial immediacy and temporal interiority” that connects to the past, and which can lament an “anterior future. As Barthes writes, “I've read at the same time: this will be and this has been... the photograph tells me death in the future.... whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe." To employ Barthes’s terms, the “punctum” of a photograph of a child, for example, is often the idea that what exists in the photograph no longer exists in reality, and therefore wrapped in desire and nostalgia. For Barthes, the invisible and subjective punctum is as essential to an understanding of a photograph as what can be read on its surface. For example, Anne Kérchy reads the punctum in “The Beggar Maid” as the same sort of presence-in-absence that strikes Barthes: “Alice’s balancing on her bent toes, as if she was about to turn around and run away, change her clothes and dress back to her real self, or flee away to play undocumented, hiding in disguise as another. Already a shadow of her absence falls on her presence, she is there while almost not there, daydreaming herself into fictional elsewhere, on a photo attesting the elusiveness of the child as a fundamentally mobile, metamorphic being who cannot be freeze-framed as an idealized icon of innocence.” (Kérchy 2016, 130) As Kérchy writes, “It is my contention that if the portrait is fetishizable it is not because of the disheveled costumes erotic implications, but the spectators’ yearning is rather evoked by Alice’s ungraspably distant closeness induced by make-believing as an intermedial, inter-generational creative collaboration between the visual storyteller and the child in focus.” (Kérchy 2016, 130)
8. Photographer Cindy Sherman's work is often consdiered with a postmodernist lens. Known best for her project “Film Stills” taken in the late 1970s, Sherman played with the postmodern notions that all ideas have been done before and that the modern world is comprised of simulacra, Sherman photographed herself as though she were in stills from a movie. Her stills focus on postmodernist themes such as the critique of mass media, appropriation and recontextualization, intertextuality, disruption of conventions of framing, and self-reflexivity, and holds inherent irony and humor in its deconstruction of structure. It is Sherman’s sensitivity to the artificiality and theatricality of her photographs and her conscious pitting of the real against ideal that leads Carroll scholar Douglas R. Nickel to see a parallel between Carroll’s set-up, theatrical portraits with postmodernism. As Nickel is quoted as saying of Carroll’s photographs in a New York Times article, "if we see them as deliberately doing something set up, rather than found, and theatrical, rather than authentic, they start looking a lot like Cindy Sherman.”
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