Tampering with the image (what do experiments in photography mean - pre-digital processing).
The fore-grounded presence of the texture of the paper, the grain of the print, manner of finish and presence of marks, edges or even words, are traditionally read as reminders of the photograph’s existence as a construction, that is, a reminder that it is an artifact, artificial in its relation to reality. At its most pure this reading focuses upon a lack of truth value (the emphasis is on questioning the content’s reference). Conversely, there is the reading that such markings insist on the material itself as an integrally important part of the art work (the emphasis is on the means of expression, and its role in the presence of the art work). However this presence of the medium as mediator, whether interposing itself between us and the meaning (thereby becoming the meaning), or between us and the object represented in the image, misses a essential element; this is not only the presence of the technological medium in the image as part of the meaning process, for such is always the case, is unavoidable, is true of all photography, as of all art: it is the mark or presence of the maker and the reader in the image that we witness here. The maker en-codes the art work, coding the message, the meaning and feeling, into the art work, and the reader deciphers it. Both make meaning: though probably not identical meanings (much depends on zeitgeist, the distance of time, place and the culture of the reader…). Reading meaning from details, a reading involving the emotions, is what the reader does. So the ‘constructedness of the image’ as the image’s message is itself just one kind of reading - a choice of emphasis. But before this interpretation comes the recognition of the material as itself conducive to interpretation; the awareness of the image and its presentation together with an awareness of the experiments taken with the means of expression and their potentiality for interpretation. This awareness is accentuated by any and every dis-or re-illusioning of the image, beginning from its brute facticity as a recording (it always has some kind of base material existence) through to a variety of states of (obvious, or fore-grounded) alteration. What is it that such a fundamental awareness of the image-text’s materiality says to us and what relation does it have with experimentation on the chemical aspects of the photographic process?
Either the object is presented ‘raw’, in which case we have the illusion of directness at its limit, of relative unmediatedness (in colour as if unmediated in time, in clarity and uninterrupted proximity as unmediated in space). This despite the act of exclusion that constitutes its framing. Or there is alteration, visual ‘noise’, a marking of the image text (on the chemical level) such that we must include it in the meaning or feeling we experience. It is the same for colour (and its absence) as for other alterations; all signal the presence of the human agent in the image; whether the presence of us the reader at the final stage of the process, or for the maker at its inception - all human (this would include ‘accidental’ marking of deformation of the image material, perhaps a signifying Nature or Entropy, nevertheless the choice has been made to include the ‘damaged’ material in order to motivate this meaning). So it is the human element that is represented here, the sense of the image, of the represented object, to humans; but what can this mean? That the technology (which despite the choice of frame) would appear to have priority, is pushed into second place, a mere tool, by the marks on the text-matter. The mark of the human. Our choice to value (by the photographer in his or her choice to visit and frame, by ourselves in our choice to visit, look and ponder). To confer value first by choosing (or creating) an object by fixing in with in frame; then by altering it to convey a vision, a mood, a flavour, and again a sense of value (of value as such, a granting of status, an according of privilege, even priority). Most particularly in the case of black and white photography or its monochrome variation. A statement that encompasses both object and mood - a human taking of a thing. A valuation. And always a transformation…
A value-giving act, a choosing that begins with the act of framing, of cutting away, of cutting out. Of a tearing away from its original context (a tearing often reinscribed into the text by a chemical tear at the edges of the image). From infinite choice and detail we seize a finite portion. The first and most crucial act of humanising the object is its framing, its confinement to a square, or other form of spatial de-limitation (echo of our limited range of vision): then in its re-framing in the museum or gallery (or reproduction in the medium of printed matter, in a magazine or on a postcard) where we complete the process by reproducing it in our brains. Between these stages come the alterations; the signature of the human on the object’s recorded image. A record of the viewer (the first viewer, the photographer’s) sense of the object, his or her feelings, mood, attitude, manner of comprehension. On this most general anthropological level, we have the interaction of the human with its environment, a record of its feeling as made possible by a given technology. A vision and at once a value-giving - for all recording is a choice from a plenitude, an infinity, and so special. Violent. Sacred.
So in addition to the form (the marriage of the composition and its margin, its frame) and content (the recognition and associations the image evokes), we have the means of expression (to include the nature of the frame or outer edge itself) and their manipulation. With the constructed image, staging or digital editing, all is open to play… yet this reconstruction of reality is often performed as if it were itself real (‘illusionism’) as a clear view of an object. So in opposition to the received view that the image whose means of expression have obviously been manipulated is a denial of the reference or reality of the image (and alongside the view that this manner of image is ‘sculptural’ in its foregrounding of the material, of matter itself) it is suggested that it is our humanity (photographer and viewer) that is made present together with the object or reality that that is so presented (as if viewpoint and object presented could be separated). So what we gave is the return of the subject as sea on which all images are reflected. As, for example, has long been recognized in the case of the addition to the portrait of scrawlings, scratchings and graffiti, where the addition of the word is read as a mark of commentary or the expression of a problem in the life of the character or referent.
In natural landscapes the human is inscribed on the inhuman, on acculturated landscapes it is either the presence of the human or its opposite and compliment, an inhumanity that we have made, that is present as a critical vision, that is inscribed; either way, we are presented with a human response to the inhuman.
With this recognition (after all a self-recognition) comes the question of the manner of the human and the manner of their humanity.
And so it is that a process which first appears technological (even if the technology is now a little old), also rationalistic, formalist and scientific, in fact bears witness to our humanity, indeed inscribes it on the recording, and as we see with it we see with another’s eyes. Without it there is only reality itself; this we can see for ourselves (as we can see for ourselves). Indeed we see nothing else.
How we understand it is another matter. The matter of the experiment in the image.
Copyright, Peter Nesteruk, 2010