Read Pierre Bourdieu’s essay ‘The Social Definition of Photography’ on pps. 162-180 of the course reader and make notes. Consider Bourdieu’s statement that:
“in conferring upon photography a guarantee of realism, society is merely confirming itself in the tautological certainty that an image of the real which is true to its representation of objectivity is really objective.”
What do you think this statement means?
This quote comes at the end of the first section of the Bourdieu essay, “An art which imitates art.” Bourdieu suggests that although photography contains elements of realism, society naively (and incorrectly) asserts that a photograph is a purely objective record of reality. Our perception of photographic reality is based on conventions inherited from painting such as perspective:
“photography is a conventional system which expresses space in terms of the laws of perspective (or rather one perspective.)”
Photography was assigned social uses which held it to be ‘realistic’ and ‘objective’, because of this the language of photography, and therefore our ability to understand the photographic image, was already present at its origins:
“the selection which it makes from the visible world is logically perfectly in keeping with the representation of the world which has dominated Europe since the Quattrocentro.”
Photographs are seen as real due to the mechanical nature of photography which deny the artistic role of the photographer – the quality of a photograph is often reduced to the quality of the camera:
“photography captures an aspect of reality which is only ever the result of an arbitrary selection.”
Because of photography’s use of traditional vison of the world, it is not surprising that it is seen as the most objective and true recording. The social use of photography is structured into categories that organize the ordinary vision of the world so photographic images are seen as precise and objective reproductions of reality:
“If it is true that nature imitates art, it is natural that the imitation of art should appear the most natural imitation of nature.”
“Naïve realism” means this representation of the real owes its objective appearance through conformity with the rules of socially conditioned forms of perception and not to reality.
Do you agree with Bourdieu’s statement?
The conclusion I have eventually reached about this statement is that Bourdieu is presenting a simple idea in a complex way and while the concept that photography has elements of truth within it is correct, this is not the full picture. Photography does contain elements of the real world, the contents of the frame show things and people that really exist. The problem arises when we blindly assume that because a photograph is based within the real world it is also the truth. Bourdieu makes the point that all we ever see in a photograph is what the photographer has chosen to show proven by the fact that a black and white photograph, which is clearly not how the real world appears, is the common way documentary photography is represented. (Admittedly this is less so today, but was certainly true at the time Bourdieu was writing. Despite the prevalence of colour photography it could be argued that black and white photography is still loaded with connotations of being somehow more truthful.)
Bourdieu makes much of how different classes respond to photography, much of which left me cold. It seemed that his division along very definite class lines does not translate easily to the modern world and I would argue that everyone in society is now a sophisticated reader of visual communication of which photography is an important aspect, even if they cannot articulate this clearly. Photography’s relationship to reality is something that interests me greatly and I am not sure that there is a simple blanket statement that can sum up the overriding view of this. While it is now accepted that photographs can, and are doctored and manipulated, and we therefore cannot always believe what we see, there is probably still a view that photographs are truthful when presented in some contexts, for example, newspapers.
I have really struggled with this project, I have found the text difficult and my ability to gain insight has remained seemingly just out of reach – just when I think I am about to gain understanding it seems to slip away. When I have been faced with this problem with other projects I have found leaving a little time and returning to the text has helped, on this occasion however this strategy has not worked and I have only managed to effectively put the course on hold. With this in mind I decided to progress with the next project – the lesson learned here that it can be difficult if not impossible to gain a full understanding of the texts we need to study for the course and it is the exploration that counts…this is an important consideration and one I will try to bear in mind when I will no doubt be faced with a similar impasse further in the course. This view was even spelled out for me in black and white in the notes for the next project in relation to the difficulty of the pieces which are to be studied: “the attempt is what really matters at the moment.” Maybe I should write this on the wall next to my desk as a reminder!
Keywords and concepts for further research:
Surrealism, Marxism, Situationism/Situationist International, Post-Modern
Buchanan, I (2010) Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York: Oxford University Press inc.
Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage
Macey, D. (2000) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory London: Penguin books
Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press