Centre for Media Research

What is a photograph?

Sarah Edge offers some thoughts on a round table discussion at Birmingham City University set up by a wider AHRC Networking Grant to investigate ‘The Application of Non-Representational Theories to the Digitally Produced and Circulated Image’, (27th December 2012)


I like the idea of a blog it allows for a kind of quick informal response to events where ideas, ruminations, questions can be put out there without the worry of, ‘Oh no, I might make a mistake’.  So here I go.

I was recently an invited guest to the Centre for Fine Art Research (CFAR) Birmingham City University at what was billed as, ‘An international roundtable event responding to the simple question ‘What is a Photograph?’ The day was chaired by Prof. Johnny Golding and advertised as an ‘intense, curious and experimental one day micro-laboratory which will include a series of presentations from invited speakers on the networked photograph.’ It lived up to its label.

All participants were requested to reflect on their own response to the question ‘what is a photograph?’ – thinking it through in relation to the recent work of Francoise Laurelle’s Non-Photography (2011), Isabelle Stengers’ Thinking with Whitehead (2012) and Sloterdijk’s Bubbles/Spheres (2011). (This was ‘homework’, I am afraid, that I did not manage to do but have certainly decided to now read Laurelle’s Non Photography)

What is a Photograph? Was organised as part of a wider AHRC Networking Grant investigating ‘The Application of Non-Representational Theories to the Digitally Produced and Circulated Image.’ The project aims to establish and facilitate a trans-disciplinary academic network in order to produce new insights into and understandings of the relationship between the photographic image and the Web.

So what is a photograph? A good question. But is it one with an obvious answer?  No, it seems not. It is a strange question and one which I find myself coming at from a slightly different position which is to ask is it a useful question? What do I mean by that? Well, what motivates the asking? Why are we asking ‘what is a photograph’?

I do not think we ever quite got around to addressing that at the roundtable. The combination of fine art practitioners (photographers), a curator and those who ‘study the subject’, primarily from a philosophical tradition, was unusual, and as the day progressed the participants shifted the question away from ‘what is a photograph?’ to ‘what can a photography do?’ … ummm, a shift which was getting closer to my interests. If we can work out what it can do, then could we also consider its effects? This all brings me back to my cultural studies tradition. But I have stumbled at the first hurdle with this question. How can I find out what it does if I do not know what it is?

A philosophical question perhaps … but I am not a philosopher. There’s plenty here in the room with me and I am fascinated to hear what they have to say. As a cultural studies person (and sometimes an artist, when I get time) I feel slightly like an outsider (this is an interdisciplinary event) but I know there is something important being considered here and if I can order my thoughts… theirs and mine, and think, I am pretty sure I will have something that is useful to me.

What is a photograph? The answer must surely lie in determining what are the photograph’s defining characteristics; what aspect of this form of visual communication marks it as unique from every other?

Of course it shares things; perspective, an imitation of perception, flatness, and all its cultural codes. But we can return to them once we can define its differences. Because by defining its differences maybe we can understand how this difference acts upon its sameness to other forms of communication.

So what is it that we see ‘persisting’ in the networked photography? It is, I would suggest, its stillness and its ability to capture information about the world through a physical link… a ‘trace’. Whether that trace was recorded chemically or electronically for me is not the issue. I do not care if the ‘latent image’ is there caught in the camera waiting to emerge through the printing process or caught in the space between me and the electronic sensor before it materialises on the screen for me to see. It is only a matter of time, I think.

The debate at the roundtable made me think about such terms and the need for my own clarity.

Indexicality is not just a matter of being linked to the object the sign represents (e.g. a piece of Christ’s cross can take on indexicality through an added narrative. When I tell you that this wood is a piece of the cross, it is only through this meta-discourse that the wood becomes linked with Christ). In photography it is also about a physical link to that which it represents. For example, the fingerprint is a physical trace of me. It cannot exist without me pressing my inked finger down on the paper, while the footprint of the bird in the sand can only be made by the physical presence of the wading bird. In its purist form no additional narrative is required to link the sign with the referent. If I was an ornithologist I would be able to read the trace of the bird and identify the species it belongs to but probably not the actual bird. If I were a criminologist I would have the training and knowledge to read the fingerprint for the exact human being it came from. (Indeed, they use to use a print from the ears).

Since returning from the day these thoughts have stayed with me and I have found myself pondering on them and their significance to the persistence of photography (as a still, indexically traced image on the web). A photograph is a still image linked to the physical world. A photographic trace of my mother was made by my mother when the instrument of the camera recorded (traced) her difference to every other human being on this planet. It is this that I see when I look at it. While I have leant to read the photograph I do not need to learn to read the trace of my mother, her uniqueness is there. Of course for all other viewers I must offer a narrative to locate its personal indexical quality for me but nonetheless what they can all see is the physical trace of another human. This is what dictates its persistence in the digital age. (The pre-Christmas rush for online published family albums bears testament to that).

Thus the photograph is not like the wood of Christ’s cross. It is not dependent on an external narrative or discourses to link it to the physical world. The automatic process of the photographic image does that itself. The uncanny of indexicality is in every photograph we view but none more so than the photograph of the human.

Why does it matter to me? It is because I am someone who studies photography in its ordinary everyday usage, part of networked culture in which the persistence of these two defining traits – a trace and stillness (take a look at Facebook) –  ‘speaks’, I believe, to a social, cultural and ‘human’ need that can only be fulfilled by the photograph. (Why was it invented in the first place?). If it didn’t it would have mutated, away from index and stillness into something else …perhaps a moving portrait of the kind familiar to fans of the Harry Potter films … long ago.

Once defined we can add these to all the other shared traits it carries and wonder how these act together thus asking what does the photograph do? Now the question meets my concerns, as a cultural studies feminist activist. I am not interested in what a photograph is in an abstract sense but for a purpose what does it do? How does it do it? And to what effect? Basically is this theoretical examination useful to me in understanding unequal relationships of power…a surprisingly old fashioned position nowadays… but making a comeback.  For me this is the place where photographic artistic practice meets theory.

Artistic photographic practices have, of course, always defined themselves against the normal everyday uses of photography.  This is nothing to do with photography itself but rather in order to signify its difference. Nonetheless there have always been artistic photographers who have sought to engage with the question of what is a photograph and what does it do? These photographers do what critical art should do; they test the boundaries of their subject. They expose, undermine, make visible or mobilise the inner workings of the photograph. This was the case made by the photographers who participated in the roundtable event whose creative work opened up the question ‘what is a photograph?’ and the fascinating, engaging artists who reveal there is a connection to be made here between these dense detached academic critiques and these experimental emotive and challenging photographic practices.

But again I find myself slightly uneasy I have clearly needed a definition of differences to mark out what is exclusive to the photograph. Artistic practices often work with the conventions of photography as its subject matter and to me it was no surprise how many times during the event, a film whose visual code reveals the patriarchal voyeurism of the camera – Michael Powell’s 1960 film Peeping Tom – was referenced to say something about photograph. Many artistic works employ aspects of the moving image – animation, sound, etc – to say something about photography, to perhaps even answer the question ‘what is a photograph?’ They borrow from the visual codes and cultural conventions of the photograph but, under my definition, they are no longer a photograph. Does this matter? I think not. But there existence should also not be used to undermine what we see around us, which is the very persistence of still photography in everyday networked culture.

To sum up then the CFAR roudtable was fascinating, engaging and a pleasure to attend as the beginnings of an interdisciplinary exchange about what is a photograph? I enjoyed myself, as all could see, I think.

I have never quite mastered the external posture of the serious male academic and find myself overflowing with excitement, enthusiasm, things to say, thoughts to quick to hold in my mind that need to burst out. I think it might be a feminine thing.

As an aside before I joined everyone at the event, I went to see an amazing painting housed in Birmingham City Art Gallery. I am currently researching; Work (1852–1865) by Ford Madox Brown. I am writing about photography and signs of Irishness, in particular a certain style of beard – the ‘Fenian beard’ – ‘traced’ in Irish prison photographs in the 1860s. In Ford Madox Brown’s painting it is in all its glory caught in the painting of the Irish navvy… a comment on the continuity of our cultural concerns across different mediums perhaps.



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