Exercise: The myth of objectivity

Brief

“For the first time, between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only the instrumentality of a non-living agent. For the first time an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man… in spite of any objections our critical spirit may offer, we are forced to accept as real the existence of the object reproduced, actually, re-presented… ”.

(André Bazin, ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’ in What is Cinema? 1945: 7)

“If we accept the fundamental premise that information is the outcome of a culturally determined relationship, then we can no longer ascribe an intrinsic or universal meaning to the photographic image.”

(Allan Sekula, ‘On the Invention of Photographic Meaning’, 1997: 454)

Write a 250-word reflective commentary on the above quotes by André Bazin and Allan Sekula. Briefly compare their respective positions and record your own view on the issue of photographic objectivity.

Response

It’s tempting to take these quotes at face value as being oppositional. However, this would be a mis-reading – they’re not talking about the same thing. Language is slippery, but the meaning of ‘objective’ is key to this discussion.

  • Bazin’s quote is about an objective likeness:
    • he compares photography to painting
    • and is primarily concerned with the accuracy of reproduction
    • he is referring to what is inside the frame
  • Sekula’s point is about an objective meaning:
    • which is dependent on the intentions of the photographer (known or unknown)
    • and on the cultural context of both the photographer and the viewer
    • and so is really talking about what is outside the frame

It’s also slightly disingenuous to preset Bazin’s position as so absolute; the quote above is much edited, and the ellipsis in the middle contains the following clarifying statement:

“The personality of the photographer enters into the proceedings only in his selection of the object to be photographed, and by way of the purpose he has in mind. Although the final result may reflect something of his personality, this does not play the same role as is played by that of the painter. All the arts are based on the presence of man, only photography derives an advantage from his absence.” (Basin 1945: 7)

He is therefore conceding – though downplaying – the influence of the photographer.

Basin’s assertion about objectivity-from-indexicality is naive in its dismissal of the external factors that led to the photographer pointing the camera at the subject; “and by way of the purpose he has in mind” can cover a multitude of highly subjective considerations beyond the much-quoted ‘where to stand and when to press the shutter’.

I fundamentally subscribe to Sekula’s stance of no-fixed-meaning, though this is much more about what is happening in the minds of the human actors in the enterprise than what is framed in the photograph.

The two quotes are not oppositional, and it is theoretically possible to agree with both. The former is however more limited in scope (and naive) than the latter.

Sources

The Ontology of the Photographic Image http://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/bazin_ontologyphoto_0.pdf (accessed 03/03/2016)

On the Invention of Photographic Meaning http://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/sekula_photomeaning.pdf (accessed 03/03/2016)

 

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