by Richard West

Source - Issue 27 - Summer - 2001 - Click for Contents

Issue 27 Summer 2001
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"Only when this 'blind field' is removed (by the death of the photographer?), or made irrelevant by a mode of viewing photographs which insists they are more about enigmas of appearance than about the establishment of facts, can photography recover that fruitful ambiguity enjoyed, as of right according to many, by painting."

What exactly do photographs mean? Attempts to resolve this frequently recurring question have often concentrated on the relationship between photographs and the world they appear to replicate. The extent to which a photograph is a copy or imprint of the world is taken to be an indication of its inability to express anything about its subject, or alternatively, its importance as a means of recording. At the same time it is argued that photographs do not merely replicate the world but may also be an iconic representation of it, with all the sophistication and expressive power that implies.

The framework into which this argument is generally put is C.S. Pierce's semiological categories of index and icon. An indexical sign is in a direct physical relationship to its reference, like that of a footprint to a boot or a weathercock to the wind. An iconic sign by contrast need only resemble its subject and will be in some respect stylised and coded (i.e. culturally influenced) in meaning. So is a photograph an index or an icon (and what is the significance either way)?

Photographs, almost irrespective of context, are accompanied by language, either as informal explanation or as captions and titles. This language is attendant on the interpretation of the photograph and so should give us some indication as to how it relates to the world. Can we discern a discreet commentary on the ontology of photography in titles and captions? In particular do they reveal anything resulting from photography's recent migration to the art gallery? Finally, photographs, however they relate to the world, have an uneasy relationship to language as a result of the concern that they are subject to its designation. Is language an accomplice or an antagonist to photographs?

All of these elements are in play in the work of Vik Muniz. His method is to construct an image of a simple object, say a parcel, from some basic material, say wire. He then photographs his design and entitles it Parcel. It is unmistakably a conventional picture of a parcel. However, this picture is but one of a series, and the series is entitled Pictures of Wire. The apparent contradiction, that the picture of wire is an image of a parcel, describes very nicely the supposed literalness of photography. It is a picture of wire by virtue of the indexical power of photography to record what is presented to it, it is a picture of a parcel by virtue of the wire fashioner whose artistry we recognise but which the camera is incapable of interpreting.Vik Muniz, Parcel, 1995. From Pictures of Wire. Courtesy of Wooster Gardens, New York.Vik Muniz, Parcel, 1995. From Pictures of Wire. Courtesy of Wooster Gardens, New York.

I am shown a photograph of someone in a family album and then later introduced to them. On both occasions I am told, 'this is Mr. Bond'. What is the difference between these two introductions? In some respects there is no difference. Mr. Bond has been faithfully recorded on the print, the photograph is 'uncoded', it requires as little interpretation as Mr. Bond himself. The whole sequence is somewhat tautological such that if Mr. Bond had nothing to say for himself I might consider him merely a repetition of his photograph (rather than the other way around). Such is generally the role of photographs in the family, where they record its malleable history. Kept in close proximity to the family it is not easy to offer divergent readings of the photographs without potentially offending the family themselves. The photographs are therefore mute and powerless, accompanied everywhere by an official speaker to identify their meaning.

This is replicated with other institutionally housed archives such as those held by the police or hospitals. The context in which a picture is seen circumscribes what interpretation is available. Institutions, and to a lesser extent the family, do not want to have to wrestle with unruly readings of their photographs that contest the meaning they wish to put on them. Outside the institution it is the freedom of interpretation that presents the problem rather than its restriction.

The captioned photograph found in a newspaper or book is at least at one remove from its original context (where the picture was actually taken) and its caption is generally contingent on publication. If the picture is published three different times it will have a different caption on each occasion, depending on how the newspaper's caption writer wishes the photograph to be understood; perhaps in consequence of the news item it is illustrating. Despite this contingency photographs in newspapers still have the function of bringing readers a record of events that they could not experience for themselves. The ambiguity of the photograph is replicated in the variation of captions but unacknowledged by the newspaper.

By contrast with captions, titles are a privileged form of language. A title should not change when the picture appears in different contexts but be used consistently like a name. A title is the responsibility of the person that produced the picture and as such should be consistent with the intention behind its production. A title can therefore be considered as intrinsic to the photograph or 'part of the work'. Indeed a title is such a specialised attachment that if an object has one, then it is probably an artwork.

Titles come in all manner of forms from the denotative, straight title such as Woman and her doctor (a picture of a woman and a man, presumably her doctor) to the most connotative. However, the connotative title is really a modern invention; before the Impressionists if a work had a title at all then it was probably a straightforward description of its subject matter (The Hay Wain, The Last Supper). Since the 1920s all forms of title have been seen including direct speech (The elephants are happy because they have peace, but for how long will the elephants be happy?), random selections from encyclopaedias (Daughter without a mother) and many different forms of enumeration and classification. This would suggest, that through precedent at least, a title can take any form you like.

We have described how indexical photographs are accompanied by language but how do titles stand in relation to photographs that are also iconic? This is the problem for the documentary photographer. In 1940 Dorothea Lange described documentary photography as follows: 'It portrays... institutions - family, church, government, political organisations, social clubs, labour unions. It shows not merely their facades, but seeks to reveal the manner in which they function, absorb the life, hold the loyalty and influence the behaviour of human beings.' This is neatly contradicted by Berthold Brecht, quoted by Walter Benjamin: 'A photograph of the Krupp works or of the A.E.G. reveals almost nothing about these institutions.' Can a title contribute to the resolution of this argument?

A title of a photograph does not refer to it in a simple way. If we imagine Brecht's photograph of the Krupp steel works (perhaps with an industrial looking facade in the centre of the frame) entitled in plain, denotative language The Steel Works then this title refers to three different things. Firstly it refers to the place where Krupp steel is made, then it refers to the building as represented in the picture and finally it refers to the picture itself. The photograph is named after one of its component parts. Each of these three forms of reference have their peculiarities when applied to photography (for the same reference might be described for a painting). The first distinctive feature is that if you want a conventional photograph of the Krupp steel works then the camera must be in proximity to the real factory. It is easier to write a documentary account of The Loch Ness Monster and me than produce it as a photographic documentary essay. The second significant aspect of the way a title of this kind refers to a photograph is that it highlights something arbitrary about the picture. If you scrutinise the surface of the picture everywhere reality is teeming, attempting to assert its relevance, here there are clouds above the factory, there we see a newspaper seller or notice the peculiar windows in the factory's facade. Surely this is a picture with an infinite number of just titles?

To further confuse matters language itself appears far more precise in its relation to the world than the photograph. If we scrutinise the words that compose the phrase The Steel Works, then we discover that the more we look into the identity of these words the richer their definition becomes. The phrase is at the sharp end of a long history of the cultural usage of each word. By contrast the photograph, on closer scrutiny, might be about anything, its definition as The Steel Works is more like the summit of a mound of sand, as soon as we touch any individual grain it collapses into a heap of undifferentiated detail. It is only when title and image are considered together that greater clarity is possible. The photograph brings the specific to the semantic generalisation (irrespective of its rich inheritance) and the words mould the meaning of the image without diminishing its chaotic potential.

The documentary title is a subtly balanced negotiation to align what the photograph means and what it shows. Clive Scott suggests 'We might prefer the indexical title, the time and place title, because although apparently so uninformative, it has the ability to open up the channels to the iconic and symbolic, while preserving the latency of the photograph's perceptibility and semantic activity.' In other words we have some confidence in the photograph's reception. Too rigid a description and it may seem arbitrary. No language at all and the image may be cut adrift.

A common form of titling in the gallery has been what John Welchman calls, 'the silence of the specifically "Untitled" image whose materiality, form or expressive content is claimed as self-evident.' This is not the same as a picture with no title (which will generally defer partially to its context), but a particular, cultivated, greenhouse variety. An Untitled photograph declares its iconicity but may collapse into banality, indeed outside the gallery its silence might well provoke its rejection. Even inside the gallery it is a vehicle with no driver supplied and although it may take you anywhere (assuming you can get it started) there may always be the suspicion that you are doing more work than you should be. More recently the Untitled picture has generated a new hybrid which declares itself Untitled and then immediately gives some kind of designation, Untitled: A Machine for Living, 2000. It might be worthwhile to ask what conflicting motivations can produce a title with so blatant a contradiction?

In the 1980s a photographic subgenre arose that appears to be a deliberate counterpoint to the Untitled picture, the photo text. As in Magritte's famous painting This is not a pipe (of a pipe) the photo text multiplies its reference, with the title actually referring to itself (within the picture and as the picture). This has formed rich territory for Willie Doherty whose often blank and resistant photographs become 'closed circuits' around their restrictive titles while also expanding as metaphors built on the unyielding surfaces of Northern Ireland's political conflict. The road is a closed circuit as are the cameras, but so too is the endless media commentary repeating the same themes with the same words. It is the very blankness of these pictures that gives them their iconic resonance; a quality shared by both the words and the photograph.Willie Doherty, Closed Circuit, Sinn Féin Advice Centre, Short Strand, Belfast, 1989. Courtesy of the Artist.Willie Doherty, Closed Circuit, Sinn Féin Advice Centre, Short Strand, Belfast, 1989. Courtesy of the Artist.

Both the Untitled photograph and the photo text seem to be born of a residual distrust of language. The Untitled picture asserts itself as a 'thing in itself' repelling language to its perimeter. The photo text brings language into the picture, either so it is seen with the same scepticism as the picture or to acknowledge the picture's vulnerability. Both strategies imply that language, even in a title, cannot be an accomplice to an iconic picture but inevitably dominate or subvert it. This need not be the case.

Photographs, it would seem, are now more likely than ever before to present themselves as iconic. Not only are they more often seen in the decontextualised space of the gallery but we are also reminded frequently of the possibility of digital manipulation. At this extreme, where the pull of the subject is at its weakest, how do titles behave? Whereas a photograph that is seen as an indexical sign can contradict its title (or vice versa), the title of an iconic picture does not compete with the photograph in the same way. For the first time title and photograph begin to appear like equal partners.

The more iconic a photograph the stronger its claim to present its own unmediated meaning. With no space for mediation, the title is denied the role of interpreting a picture. So we return to the questions of the photograph's relationship to the world and the function of the title. Potentially it has none at all, or perhaps in an ever more subtle dialogue with the image. Should the role of the title be that of metaphor, inviting the viewer to understand the photograph as it is titled? No longer seen as a fencing partner, language could become an accessory to meaning.

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