Seeing Through Photographs

I am on first week of this course and jotting down my understanding of this week’s lecture(s). Doesn’t really stick to the 30 second rule but I would like to note down some interesting points from my readings.

  • Photography marked a departure from paintings. Paintings were more of an expression of what the painter saw and interpreted. Photographs on the other hand were ‘taken’. So they reproduced ‘reality’. However, of course, it depended on the photographer what he chose to capture and what he chose to leave out. So it was still not completely objective.
  • Paintings were expensive. They only recorded what was important (like the royalty maybe). Photography, on the other hand, was inexpensive and captured the mundane and routine things as well. For the first time in history of mankind, the commoners knew what their ancestors looked like.
  • A photographer learned in two ways – first, by understanding the tools of photography at his disposal and second, by looking at the work of other photographers. His own work would be a product of these two factors – the impression left by other photographers’ work would influence what he thought worth capturing and his ability with the tools of photography to successfully capture what he wanted to capture.

The history of photography as a medium can be considered in terms of how each generation became progressively aware of its features and challenges. It can broadly be described under five heads

  • The thing itself – The photographers do not create any art as such. What they do is appreciate that the world we live in is a work of art. Their creative capability lie in recognizing this work of art, anticipating and clarifying this and choosing what to capture. What they capture is but a small subset of the reality before them, and while what is captured is real, it is not the complete picture and what is captured suddenly has an exaggerated importance attached to it. The other setting of which it was a part would be forgotten, but this part of that setting has now been made permanent.
  • Time – Human eye can often not process what an object in motion looks like. Since all photographs represent a certain length of time, for the first time in history people were able to visualize what a galloping horse looked like or what a bird in flight looked like. Things we take for granted now. Cartier Bresson termed it as ‘the decisive moment’. It does not mean that something of great significance happened in that moment. Rather it refers to the defining moment in something visual for even something very trivial. e.g., the first step as the horse starts to gallop, the facial expression of an athlete etc. It is truly astounding to suddenly realize that for years and years people never knew what these looked like.
  • Detail – Capturing seemingly trivial things suddenly brings an undiscovered meaning to these trivialities. Photographs often fail to tell a story if they are deliberately posed or captioned to form a narrative. However, a photograph or a series of photographs that is able to honestly capture the details of a triviality (or just something as-is) can suddenly throw light on something hitherto overlooked. Such photographs have a more compelling story to tell than the former. The details captured can often be very telling of the situation or people or objects being captured. Like they say a photograph is worth a thousand words.
  • Frame – Because of the fixed size of daguerreotypes in the early years, the photographer had to choose what to capture and what leave out. The edges of the frame became a point of interest, truncating objects and the new shapes these truncated objects took. This cropping of a scene probably inspired or influence some of the inventive painters of the nineteenth century
  • Vantage Point – It is not just the clarity of the photograph but also the obscurity that can evoke interest. Unusual lighting, capturing the back stage etc. can often bring out something interesting.



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