Informing Contexts – Week 2 (2/2)

The Index and the Icon (Cont’d)

And then we come to Joel Snyder and Neil Walsh Allen in their text Photography, Vision and Representation. They ask if there is anything particularly “photographic” about photography, and, if so, how important is it to our understanding of photographs.

Many people will claim they cannot draw, but would they say they cannot take a photo? This is what makes photography ‘peculiar’ and in need of its own methods of interpretation and evaluation. I would probably be one of those people who say they can’t draw – but I can, I just perhaps am not as good at it as an illustrator or painter. We can see the difference between a good or not so good drawing. In photography, due to its accessibility (particularly since digital) and its mechanical aspect (or potential ease of use) we find a plethora of images – so how do we determine a great photo from a dud. To do so, I would suggest we do need to consider them differently to a painting. But not because photography is any less or more than paintings but because it is a different way to expression, whether that be factual or imaginary. And even if image content is based on ‘real’ objects – they must have existed at sometime – are our imaginations not based on mental signs, ideas and symbols? For me, as a photographer that uses camera-less techniques and creates images not necessarily from what’s in front of me, is this not more akin to painting something that is not literally seen? Or because it still employs things that exist, it is as indexical as any other means of creating a photograph and is surely a combination of objective and subjective.

Looking at two takes on Diego Velaquez’ 1656 Las Meninas/Ladies in Waiting painting, one by Pablo Picasso and the other by Joel Peter Witkin, the first a painting and the second an analogue photograph, my first instinct is to say that the photograph is more authentic. I do so on the basis that I know (in theory) the people, the dog existed, much as they did in the original painting. But, as mentioned above, is Picasso not painting from what was once real? Perhaps it is the aesthetic of the images that create this response – never having been a huge fan of Picasso (although I do appreciate his talent) but a definite fan of photography, will I always be drawn to a photograph over a painting? That would also depend on the context – would I choose differently if viewing the images in the flesh rather than on my computer screen?

Diego Valaquez (1656) Las Meninas
Pablo Picasso (1957) The Maids of Honour (Las Meninas, after Velaquez
Joel-Peter Witkin (1987) Las Meninas/The Ladies in Waiting

Considering the iconic element of photography we have been shown a news image taken from John Baldessari 1973 film The Meaning of Various News Photos to Ed Henderson. This experiment aimed to see how Henderson would interpret the photographs, with the one displayed seemingly, in Henderson’s words, to show a fallen sculpture or bomb.  I can see what he meant as the item central to the photo resembles the top of a bomb, yet for me it could also be the top of a finger and the image is in fact not what it seems at all but perhaps two negatives together that create a new picture.

My own work does not always allow for certainty, but I am not working in a context where people would necessarily expect a straightforward image. Snyder and Allen said that “the poverty of photographic criticism is well-known” yet more philosophising on its reality, more definitive about seeing, more distillation’s of its nature are not needed. They claim the “tools for making sense of photographs lie at hand, and we can invent more if and when we really need them”. But what are those if not discussion? Our own interpretation of them give them meaning, just not always correctly.

The iconic and indexical are interwoven into photography. But it does not need to be tied to it. Where does abstract photography come into this? Are these constructions too?

As Batchen comments, “Photography will lose its power as a privileged conveyor of information,” in respect of our ability to manipulate and/or stage photographs. This may be an issue for the elements of photography where there is an expectation of truth, and we can only hope that those sharing images of the ‘truth’ do so truthfully. Humans will choose to believe in what they want to believe, some to the point of even when the truth is absolutely in front of them they will still not except it or even consider an alternative to their viewpoint. This can be applied to many contexts, not just photographic.

If trust is to play a part in our consumption and understanding of photography, perhaps Barthes comment, “Photography can lie as to a meaning of a thing but never to is existence”, we have to except, particularly in current times, the need to dig deeper into what we see and hear is our responsibility more so than those who create what we see and hear. If, of course, we are seeking the truth in our photography at all.

This is such a complex arena, one in which we can tie ourselves up in knots. Yes, photographs replicate what’s there but they also allow for freedom of imagination and I am glad we have a tool at our disposal that allows for both.


Snyder, Joel & Allen, Neil Walsh (1975) Photography, Vision and Representation in Critical Inquiry in Vol 2, No 1 (Autumn 1975).

Barthes, R. (1980) Camera Lucida, London: Vintage