Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Syntax of Photography

From The Keepers of Light by William Crawford, pp. 6-7.

[....] Are there "syntactical" rules of structure for the way we turn objects into photographs, rules that compel the infinite possibilities to fall along a finite line, just as there are rules for the way we turn concepts into statements? How you answer this question tends to determine how you approach the study of the history of photography.

My answer is that there is a photographic syntactical structure for the "language" of photography and that it comes, not from the photographer, but from the chemical, optical, and mechanical relationships that make photography possible. My argument is that the photographer can only do what the technology available at the time permits him to do. All sorts of artistic conventions and personal yearnings may influence a photographer—but only as far as the technology allows. At bottom, photography is a running battle between vision and technology. Genius is constantly frustrated—and tempered—by the machine.

Contemporary sensibility puts so much emphasis on photography as a "creative" activity that we can forget that what photographers really do—whether creative or not—is contend with a medium that forces them to look, to respond, and to record the world in a technologically structured and restricted way. I think that this point is essential to an understanding of photography. You simply cannot look at photographs as if they were ends without means. Each is the culmination of a process in which the photographer makes his decisions and discoveries within a technological framework. The camera not only allows him to take pictures; in a general sense it also tells him what pictures to take and how to go about it. It does this by restricting the field of view. The technology itself has blind spots and often stumbles through the dark. It is ornery and obstinate and sees only what it will. As a result, human experiences and natural wonders that the technology is not yet able to see go unrecorded—and even unnoticed. Each time the technology enlarges its sight, our eye grow wider with surprise.

Having struggled over the years with stereo photography, including long baseline (100-150 feet) stereo of moving objects, high dynamic range photography, and, perhaps worst of all, panoramic high dynamic range photography—photographic methods that, in some or all applications, show us visions (or versions) of reality that the human eye is physically incapable of seeing for itself, and all of them photographic methods that current technology struggles against, thereby demanding significant effort from the photographer in the attempt to impose them on the medium—these words ring especially true, and reinforce the understanding that whatever the available photographic technology, it will always fall short of some photographer's yearnings, and impose limits on the "human experiences and natural wonders" that can be recorded. However, I must admit that the "running battle" of realizing a vision against the limits of available technology is an aspect of photography that I find engaging, when I have the energy for the fight, and that those challenges make the successes especially sweet, even, and perhaps especially, as they ensure an overwhelming number of failures.

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