Reflections on the peculiarities of photography

Asked to reflect on the peculiarities of photography, there are many features which, combined, could be said to apply to photography today, examples of which are listed here. As to whether these peculiarities apply to photography alone may be arguable, as, taken separately, it could be said that they also belong to film, painting, or other means of creative expression.

  • The camera/photographer’s often instantaneous action
  • The chance element
  • Photography as a mirror on oneself – the ability to independently review oneself from multiple angles e.g. ‘selfies’
  • The photograph as icon, in many cases; that typically an image depicts an object or scene that was physically present, though this is becoming increasingly disputable.
  • The photograph’s stillness
  • The camera’s ‘freezing’ of a scene
  • The photograph’s fast and efficient replicability
  • Photography’s mass accessibility via small, widely used, personalised devices
  • Photography’s draw; it engages on a mass scale
  • The photograph as preserver / prompter of memory
  • Photography as mediator, between self and world
  • The photograph as sign
  • The reductive nature of the photograph

Victor Burgin wrote that, as a medium, photography sits somewhere between painting and film (Burgin in Wells, 2003, p130). My view is that it shares its root with these and other practices/mediums in the depths of human nature; in our drives to communicate, share, create, reflect, remember, etc.

Considering the ‘real’ in my own photographs:

Of family photographs, personal portraits, etc. there is an element of authenticity in that the people and places were present at the time of photographing, though that is where the truthfulness ends.  The underlying conditions of the photograph, the wider scene, the variables of photographic processes, the dynamics of the relationships / situation depicted, all are unavailable to view.  Many of my own photographs also contain grain, dust, defects etc.  This is (most often) intentional; it is, after all, a photograph, and I feel more comfortable being blatant that it is such.  I also work with abstraction and constructed scenes from time to time where the reflection of a ‘truthful’  or ‘realistic’ scene does not form part of the rationale; the images can be quite a distance away from ‘real’ scenes, intentionally creating surreal or unreal scenes, but scenes that are still dependent on cameras and photographic processes.  In these scenes I want to escape reality rather than represent it.  They are not entirely unreal, as there are traces of something having been present, therefore there is often an element of that offers something slightly familiar.  But they are not what they at first seem, just like the photograph more broadly, only pushed a little further.

Burgin, V. in Wells, L. (ed) (2003) The photography reader
Abingdon: Routledge