it is not It that we see

It is not it that we see - Observations of the Observer

Marcus Colla

Long has it been observed that the photograph conveys more than the image itself. It fools, it interrogates, it illuminates and it awakens. Ostensibly, it reflects reality (or at least one version of it), and thus the straw-photographer’s task amounts to little more than that of a conduit. But what self-respecting artist would ever be concerned with anything so tedious and rudimentary as the real world? Or, indeed, as the more philosophically-inclined photographer may query, what artist even could? Photography’s purpose, we may surmise, can be reduced to proving the sheer ineffability of merely representing this reality. For the very act of creating the photograph introduces by necessity the subjective element. So far, so straightforward.
But it was Barthes who wrote ‘Whatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see’. The photograph, so runs the reasoning, is not the artistic entity in and of itself. It is defined by its ‘referent’ (the ‘real’ thing it depicts, spatial or temporal, made ‘meaningful’ through cognition), which itself assumes an objective quality; that is to say, the relation between the object and its representation. In being what Barthes brilliantly terms ‘the sovereign Contingency’, the photograph gains authenticity from the singular Necessity with which it began. (Dear Liam: I am not entirely sure if this is precisely what Barthes meant – Camera Lucida is hardly his most consistent work – but I do like the idea better. Please don’t be critical). The very act of creating the photograph, then, is what authenticates it. The photograph, writes Barthes, ‘does not invent’.

But note here the direct presumptions of an underlying reality. On some levels, perhaps, this seems fair – if there is no ontological basis for the photograph, then what is a photograph but so many Disneylands, an ‘inauthentic’ or ‘hyper’-reality (to reference Umberto Eco), too distant from the world-as-known to be considered a representation, but too uncanny to be considered mere fiction? And where, for that matter, does art overlap with this spectrum?

But let’s keep this straightforward. Following this reasoning, our attention is inescapably drawn to the role of the photographer – the observer, the performer, the manipulator or the alchemist, depending on your preference. Reading and re-reading Barthes’ assertion, it is impossible not to infer that he views the artist as secondary, even immaterial, as if she is as much the medium as the tools she employs. Yet this, we might say, is palpably nonsense. It is the illusion to beat all illusions. For the photographer can never be the mere observer, or even the mere transmitter. The very nature of the photographer’s work requires the passage through man and his technology. As such, the photograph is forever a human construct, and the photographer’s claim to ‘represent reality’ no more than the atavistic residue of a long-defunct empiricism. A self-aware or ironic photographer will recognise and exploit this. At its logical endpoint, she might even produce ‘pure’ photography – photography with no external content whatsoever (fear not – I won’t dwell on this. I promised to keep things straightforward, remember?).

Here things become a tad less straightforward (promises are made to be broken). For transcending the photographer is, of course, the viewer (or ‘spectator’, in Barthes’ terms). And what the viewer experiences is something different again. Put otherwise, experiencing the photograph is not to experience its content. Indeed, we can go one step further and argue that experiencing the photograph is not even to recreate the experience of the photographer. Kant once wrote that experience of the sublime (substitute ‘overpowering’ or ‘perilous’) is the key to recognising the power of our rational being. So, it must be asked, can experiencing the photograph be qualitatively identical to experiencing the sublime of that which it represents? One would have to think not. Gone, then, is the idea of the photograph as a window, as if that was ever a satisfying notion to begin with. But in its place we have a sense that the photograph acts as a distortion on our experience of reality. This seems to me more fruitful. But it does yield some unexpected consequences, especially for Barthes.

For one, spare a thought for the photographer in all this: if she is at once conscious of the travesty she has created and willingly dependent on her viewer, has she entirely capitulated to fiction and surrendered her impulse to convey? Put otherwise, can the artist as observer ever consider photography a viable medium? Kick and scream all she might, the proud viewer may argue, her work is about me, and woe betide the proud creator! But then – oh, but then! – retorts the high-minded philosopher, the photographer has recaptured her role as conveyer, and the thing-in-itself again regains its essence! The photographer is irrelevant, and the viewer and object wrestle only one another, in art as in life itself. Barthes is redeemed…sort of.

What, then, is left for the poor photographer? A cursory glance at my initial list yields just one answer – the artist as manipulator. Wrestle all you wish, says the manipulator, but you wrestle on a stage I have myself constructed, with your every move pre-determined by my genius. The photographer strikes back, and all that is lost is the autonomy of the viewer. But from this unfreedom emerges only a sense of chaos. We all, in this case, mouth the artist’s script. The photographer is sinister, the viewer abused. And yet (heckles that vexatious sceptic), is not life lived as a work of art? ‘No’, scream back in unison those who refuse to view the world solely in dichotomies, ‘return to us our independence of thought!’ The smirking artist, looking to detach himself from any sense of guilt, may hereby choose to chastise: ‘have back your independence, then! For now it is you who deplores, who hates, who sees the ugly, who bestialises, who sexualises, who objectifies!’ But, smirking, the shrewd viewer may simply retort: ‘most certainly I do. Yet if this is so, then it is also I who bestows beauty upon the sunset!’ The haughty photographer, accordingly, realises his fate – an anonymous medium, incapable of communicating, and thus limp in his art.

It is not it that we see is, at heart, a celebration of photography; its potential and its complexity, as produced by Tasmania’s finest. And if these thousand words sound terribly undergraduate (Liam – you be the judge), then I make no (well, few) apologies. Photography, as will be clear to you at this exhibition, is capable of extraordinary things. And if the extraordinariness of it all confuses you as much as it does me, then perhaps my previous ramblings won’t all be in vain.