The Photograph by Graham Clarke – What is a photograph?

Having had a break from studying for a few weeks, I’m taking the Christmas break as an opportunity to catch up on some reading and have picked by Graham Clarke’s The Photograph.

Having read the opening chapter, I’m struck but how much the use of photographs and accessibility to both seeing and taking images has changed over time.  In 1900, Alvin Langdon Coburn said “Now every nipper has a Brownie” and “a photograph is as common as a box of matches”. I can’t help but wonder what he’d have made of camera phones and the fact that images are millions of times more common now.

Roland Barthes observation that a photograph was a “transparent envelope” hold true that the meaning of a photograph is dependent on the context in which it is seen. The example from Clarke that a photograph has a shifting distinction between its function as an image and its assumed value is especially true in the modern age. Not just in terms of monetary value, but in terms of popularity on social media – a quick snap on a camera phone of my cat sitting on my laptop keyboard will get loads more ‘likes’ than anything I might take as a composition for this course!

Social media applications, such as Facebook and Instagram, allow everyone to document their lives with images – John Berger said that “the photographic image has been sanctioned as an analogue of the ‘real’” and Delacroix suggested that the photograph was a “veritable catalogue of the world”. However, ‘art photography’ expresses something beyond the surface appearance of things. Clarke states that “the photograph mirrors back not a literal but a super- or spiritual reality”.  Siegfried Kracauer summed things up with his statement that “the power of the medium” lay in its ability “to open up new, hitherto unsuspected dimensions of reality”.

Clarke identifies six aspects related to the multiple existence of a photograph – summarised below:

Size and shape

Portrait or landscape?  Square? Borderless? The choices made alter the significance of the image, and the way it’s seen. Clarke observes that “we can never go outside the frame of the photograph”. ”Invariably it reflects the world it observes according to the principles of one-point perspective, but it does so in terms of the world in miniature.”

Surface

Always flat. Has illusion of depth. Clarke notes that Roland Barthes “complained about the frustration involved in the misplaced assumption that the closer we look at a photograph, the more we see”.

Canon and colour

Paradox of photography’s realism being communicated in black and white.  Traditional documentary image – “presence of colour lessens the sense of the photograph’s veracity as an image and witness”.

“Since the 1970s, the use of colour has formed part of a critical, not a representational vocabulary”.

Time

Hubert Damisch states the photograph offers “the trace of an object or a scene from the world”, “it isolates, preserves and presents a moment taken from a continuum”.  No before or after – only a moment in its own making.

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