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"Any new possibility that existence acquires transforms everything about existence." -Kundera

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"For it is certain that the infinitude of figures suffices to express all the differences in sensible things." -Descartes

Non representational art is the effort in art to leave the objective sensible world of figural art in an attempt to communicate subjective experience more personally and creatively. Although the aim of this style of art may or may not have been to ultimately find an absolute non representation, I wonder if this absolute is even possible. Descartes in his Rules for the Direction of the Mind points to the nature of figure as a way to see the links between all sensory objects. The painter Piet Mondrian illustrates this wonderfully in his career where we get the priviledge to see in many successive paintings of a tree, a figural abstraction step by step. Mondrian does this by looking at the common lines that create the sensible form of the tree. At the end of this abstracting chain we reach one of the strongest degrees of non representational art thus conceived.

However, thanks to Mondrians obsessive repetition of this subject matter, we can see how even the highest degree of abstraction still has a root in the figural. We can still locate the relationship between the sensible object (the tree) and the successive forms as it becomes more abstracted from this object. Descartes would have surely been a fan of Mondrians work with Descartes persistence on thinkers using successive method to reach conclusions. For example: A links to B, B links to C, C links to D, and therefore it can be said with confidence that A links to D through this continous movement of though.

My question here for non representational art is as follows: Is there a possible absolute non representation in which no causual relation can be found to objective sensible world? Is the artist capable of creating something that is unbound to sensory relations? I have the assumption that this is not possible. Assumptions however, are not worth much until proven through some branch of knowledge, so back to the drawing board to find if it can be proven true or false, plausible or implausible.


"It's hard to tell where you leave off and the camera begins.
A minolta 35mm SLR makes it almost effortless to capture the world around you. Or express the world within you. It feels comfortable in your hands. Your fingers fall into place naturally. Everything works so smoothly that the camera becomes a part of you. You never have to take your eye from the viewfinder to make adjustments. So you can concentrate on creating the picture.... And you're free to probe the limits of your imagintaion with a Minolta. More than 40 lenses in the superbly crafted Rokkor-X and Minolta/Celtic systems let you bridge distances or capture a spectacular "fisheye" panorama...
When you are the camera and the camera is you" - advertisement (1976)

  Welcome to the final installment of the What Photography Is discussion.  Yesterday I brought up the idea of a hyperreality. Hyperreality is an inability of consciousness to distinguish reality from a simulation of reality. As we study the camera's ability to create a simulation of reality, one in which the viewer of the photographer—to an extent even the photographer taking the picture—is one step removed from the referant that the photograph is depicting. So we must ask ourselves if photography is indeed creating a hyperreality in our contemporary society. If so, what does this mean?

"The promise inherent in photography from its very beginning: to democratize all experiences by translating them into images." -Sontag
"I see photographs everywhere, like everyone else, nowadays; they come from the world to me, without my asking..." -Barthes
"This, I think, is the photographic imprint: the nearly hallucinatory record of uncountable numbers of unnameable forms, impressed on my eyes with a senseless insistence." -Elkins

  Photography, when looked at with scrutiny, seems to not be as static and passive as it first appears. We discussed in earlier installments of this series that the camera is not objective because it requires a subjective operator. We also pointed out the possibility of the photograph as an empty vessel that is in itself an object-as-nothing. As we study photography closer there seems to be something more bizarre happening. The medium of photography, unlike any other tool for recording or image making, asks something of us as operators and viewers. Photography seems to have a strange grip on our ability to relate to our environment. It would be extremely rare for a person, other than an artist or writer, to experience a phenomenon and say to themselves, "I must write a poem or make a sketch that would illustrate how I am experiencing this moment." However, nearly everyone today when experiencing a phenomenon has some sense of desire to photograph it. Strong evidence for this argument lies in the modern activity of tourism.

"Photography develops in tandem with one of the most characteristic of modern activities: tourism. For the first time in history, large numbers of people regularly travel out of their habitual environments for short periods of time. It seems positively unnatural to travel for pleasure without taking a camera along. Photographs will offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that fun was had. But dependence on the camera, as the device that makes real what one is experiencing, doesn't fade when people travel more." -Sontag

"Kodak put signs at the entrances of many towns listing what to photograph. Signs marked the places in national parks where visitors should stand with their cameras." -Sontag

  Photographs became such a popular activity for tourism that Kodak began to put signs in national parks showing people where to stand, and in some cases showing examples of the exact framing needed to get the "perfect" picture. A photograph from a recent vacation is a wonderful thing to have to show friends and family but I don't believe that this is as benign of an activity as we assume. We discussed in framing desire that the photograph showing exotic places is loaded with ideological implications and can create a romantic voyeurism. More importantly though, the very activity of photographing is altering the experience itself. The camera becomes a intermediary between the phenomenon and the person experiencing it. Thus the experience has fundamentally changed and the person is no longer percieving the phenomenon but rather experiencing the act of photographing the phenomenon.

"Photography has become one of the principal devices for experiencing something, for giving an appearance of participation," -Sontag 
"A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it—by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir." -Sontag

  Today the world exists in family photo albums, newspaper headlines, Instagram feeds, Facebook vacation photos, billboards, television screens, travel brochures, and the front of the frozen pizza box. The photograph has converted experience into a souvenir says Sontag. Photographs cluster our visual field, showing us a reality that is removed from the one we are presently experiencing. Reality, through the photograph, is not something we are experiencing but rather an experience that is to be obtained. Many people complain that citizens of today's society are not living in the present, that they are constantly distracted and seperated from their immediate surroundings. Thus, it could be argued that photography is atleast partially if not significantly responsible for the creation of a hyperreality in which experience is set in the future tense and always slightly out of our grasp.

"We live according to a generalized image-repertoir. Everything is transformed into images: only images exist and are produced and are consumed." -Barthes
"Photographs do not simply render reality—realistically. It is reality which is scrutinized, and evaluated, for its fidelity to photographs. Instead of just recording reality, photographs have become the norm for the way things appear to us, thereby changing the very idea of reality, and of realism." -Sontag
"Essentially the camera makes everyone a tourist in other people's reality, and eventually in one's own." -Sontag

  So, if we are to agree, even just for argument's sake, that we are indeed trapped in a hyperreality that is created and perpetuated by photography, what effects have come from it?

"The omnipresence of photographs has an incalculable effect on our ethical sensibility. By furnishing this already crowded world with a duplicate one of images, photography makes us feel that the world is more available than it really is. Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted. Industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution." -Sontag
"Camera Lucida hides photography's non-humanist, emotionless side. Photography is not only about light and loss and the passing of time. It is about something harder. I agree with Barthes that at one of its limits, ordinary photography of people has something to do with the viewer's unfocused ideas about her own death. But I also think that photography has given us a more continuous, duller, less personal kind of pain. Again and again photographs have compelled people to see the world as they had not needed or wanted to see it. Photographs have forced something on us: not only a blurred glimpse of our own deaths, a sense of memory as photographic grain, a dim look at the passage of time, or a poignant prick of mortality, but something about the world's own deadness, its inert resistance to whatever it is we may hope or want. Photography fills our eyes with all the dead and deadening stuff of the world, material we don't want to see or name. Photography insistently gives us the pain and the boredom of seeing, and the visual desperation that can follow." -Elkins

  Personally, as an artist who has chosen to work predominantly through the medium of photography, these are very hard ideas to swallow. I chose photography because it gave me an outlet that allowed me to experience reality. The camera allowed me to go places, approach people, and see things in ways I would never have done without it. However, if my attempts to capture or create reality through the photograph are actually replacing reality, where does that leave me, or any of us? After several years of studying and practicing photography, I too feel the pain and boredom of seeing that Elkins felt. It has not brought me closer to the world as I hoped it would, although it has taught me to compartmentalize experience into nicely framed images. Yet, at the end of the day I still have a fondness for the medium. I imagine all of you reading this will too. We have seen through this discussions, the complexity and power of photography. I will never stop photographing, nor should any of you, and yet we cannot ignore these ideas we have looked at that so ruthlessly expose photography. So what do we do next?

"The powers of photography have in effect de-Platonized our understanding of reality, making it less and less plausible to reflect upon our experience according to the distinction between images and things, between copies and originals. It suited Plato's derogatory attitude toward images to liken them to shadows—transitory, minimally informative, immaterial, impotent co-presences of the real things which cast them. But the force of photographic images comes from their being material realities in their own right, richly informative deposits left in the wake of whatever emitted them, potent means for turning the tables on reality—for turning it into a shadow. Images are more real than anyone could have supposed. And just because they are an unlimited resource, one that cannot be exhausted by consumerist waste, there is all the more reason to apply the conservationist remedy. If there can be a better way for the real world to include the one of images, it will recquire an ecology not only of real things but of images as well." -Sontag

  Sontag believed there was a better way for photography and the real world to be in relationship with each other. She believed in making less photographs, or more concious ones. I think this is a strong start. Once we are aware of what photography is doing than we are more free to use it in new ways. We have been trying to discover what photography is. Is photography's essence in the photographic print? Is photography inextricably tied to voyeurism and desire? Is photography rooted in violence and atrocity? Is photography only a tool for imposing ideology? Was photography meant to bring upon us a hyperreality, a way of changing the very defintion and meaning of reality? Photography is certainly a little of all of these things. Perhaps the essence of what photography is, lies directly in its immensely complex, intertwined, and convuluted relationship to the human experience itself. Maybe photography may just be a completely empty vessel, it may be a void that is waiting to be filled with whatever we, the creators of our own experience, choose to fill it with.

"It does matter that the world given to me in these photographs is demanding, and its demands are inexplicable: in that dilemma I glimpse photography at work, insisting how hard is it to see the world, and insisting that I find that difficulty, which has always been there for me to discover, in photographs." -Elkins
"Life itself is not the reality. We are the ones who put life into stones and pebbles." -Frederick Sommer


  • Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida
  • James Elkins, What Photography Is
  • Susan Sontag, On Photography
  Photographs in order they appear:
  • Kodak picture spot sign
  Additional quotes relating to today's topic:

"The creations of man or nature never have more grandeur than in an Ansel Adams photograph, and his image can seize the viewer with more force than the natural object from which it was made." -advertisement for a book of photographs by Adams (1974)
"Photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all the objects that make up, and thicken, the environment we recognize as modern. Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood." -Sontag
"That most logical of nineteenth-century aesthetes, Mallarmé, said that everything in the world exists in order to end in a book. Today everything exists to end in a photograph." -Sontag
"The photographer is always trying to colonize new experiences or find new ways to look at familiar subjects—to fight against boredom." -Sontag
"The heart of the photographic enterprise lies in the very creation of a duplicate world, of a reality in the second degree, narrower but more dramatic than the one percieved by natural vision." -Sontag
"Reality has always been interpreted through the reports given by images; and philosphers since Plato have tried to loosen our dependence on images by evoking the standard of an image-free way of apprehending the real. But when, in the mid-nineteenth century, the standard finally seemed attainable, the retreat of old religious and political illusions before the advance of humanistic and scientific thinking did not-as anticipated-create mass defections to the real. On the contrary, the new age of unbelief strenghtened the allegiance to images. The credence that could no longer be given to realities unterstood in the form of images was now being given to realities understood  to be images, illusions. In the preface to the second edition (1843) of The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach observes about "our era" that it "prefers the image to the thing, the copy to the original, the representation to the reality, appearance to being"—while being aware of doing just that. And his premonitory complaint has been transformed in the twentieth century into a widely agreed-on diagnosis: that society becomes "modern" when one of its chief activities is producing and consuming images, when images that have extraordinary powers to determine our demands upon reality and are themselves coveted substitutes for firsthand experience become indispensible to the health of the economy, the stability of the polity, and the pursuit of private happiness." -Sontag
"We have not conquered reality at all. The idea that the photograph is representing it has to be attacked." -Hockney


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