Editor: James Elkins
Review by Conrad J. Obregon
Even though I’ve studied philosophy and semiotics extensively I consider myself a photographer rather than a philosopher or semiologist. Yet I believe that photography, or at least art photography, should have meaning. Photography theory as a field has seemed to work at the intersection of philosophy, semiotics and art history. I’ve thought that it might provide insight into the way that photographs demonstrate meaning and that it might help me to be a better photographer and viewer of photographs. Over the years I’ve read the important works in photographic theory by authors like Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, and Susan Sontag, and more recently, Michael Fried. Although I often found photographic theory interesting as an intellectual and sociological exercise, nothing in photographic theory seemed to bear any relevance to either my own image making or my appreciation of images of others. Even though its utility to a photographer was suspect, I wanted to test whether my general impression was correct by reading the 2007 Photography Theory (The Art Seminar).
This book centers around a seminar of photographic theory academicians held at the University College Cork. The book begins with several introductory essays that were meant to lay the groundwork for the seminar, followed by a transcript of the actual seminar. This is followed by a twenty-seven so-called assessments meant to address the points raised in the seminar, and then two essays meant to wrap up the subject.
The seminar itself dealt with a number of subjects that most photographers would find esoteric. The base question was, “what is photography?”, and in attempting to answer that question a number of issues were raised. Typical was the question of the index, which to semiologists is a particular kind of sign or representation. Although the discussants dwelt on the subject at length, and although a few of the discussants asked what the use of the concept of an index was in a practical world, the discussion reached no conclusions. To similar effect was the discussion of Roland Barthes’ distinction between punctum and stadium, which again reached no conclusion and demonstrated a concept in search of utility.
The assessments were far more interesting than the seminar. A few assessors offered up what they considered clarifications or explanations of the seminar and a few chose to dwell on their own work without reference to the discussion. Many more felt that the discussion proved the non-utility (none of the assessors used the word “useless”) of either the current state of photography theory or the seminar.
After most of this I was more than ever convinced that photographic theory was of no help to me as a photographer, or even as a student of photography. Then the very last essay in the book arrested my attention. In “Photographs and Fossils”, Walter Benn Michaels, a literary theorist teaching at the University of Illinois, offered a synthesis of the topics discussed and even an explanation of the most recent work of Michael Fried, that placed the diverse viewpoints previously discussed into an understandable perspective. He suggested that the reason for the confusion represented the dilemma of not just photography but art at the current time as to whether the artist should attempt to wrest control of the image by forcing the viewer to accept the artist’s denotation of the image rather than the viewer’s connotations. (Those are my words, not Michaels’.)
Ultimately then, “Photography Theory” left me skeptical as to photography theory’s usefulness to the practicing photographer and viewer, although a single essay left me still hopeful. Unfortunately, Michaels’ work is otherwise unavailable, so the reader will have to determine if this wonderful paper is worth the aggravation of the rest of the book.
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