Saturday, March 16, 2013

What Is Meant By Reading Photographs

In 1951, Aperture Magazine was conceived. Publication began in 1952. The 1930's had been dominated by photography as social documentation, the 40's and even into the 50's by the photojournalist. Since the demise of the Pictorialists photography had been recognized and relied on for its verisimilitude, it's ability to convey a sense of reality. There were still art photographers but they were much less recognized, much less addressed. Aperture was the first art photography magazine since Stieglitz’s Photo Works ceased publication in 1917.

There were a number of noteworthy photographers involved in the birth of Aperture but one man was the driving force, Minor White. For a very long time Minor was a one-man-band and the magazine was his mouthpiece for the first several years. In 1957, Minor devoted the entire issue to a single subject, Reading Photographs. The introduction, What Is Meant By Reading Photographs, is not long but too long to share here but I would like to share a few of his thoughts. 

“In a very limited way, any time a person looks at a photograph long enough to identify the subject he is reading that picture. Or, to put it another way, any photograph that communicates does so because a person is reading it. This kind of reading can be an intellectual effort, an intuitive one or any mixture of both. In any case the effort is not likely to be a verbal one.”

[Addendum: I am putting words here into White's mouth. My understanding may or may not be accurate so read with caution. When White says "to identify the subject" I believe he is talking about the meaning, story, moral, statement of the photograph, not the subject matter. Our tendency is to stop with identifying the subject matter and I don’t believe that qualifies as “reading” a photograph and find it difficult to believe that is what White meant. I have been on a crusade for some time to distinguish the two meanings of the word "subject" when applied to photographs. One being, as stated above, the meaning the other actually meaning the subject matter, the objects depicted in the photograph. To often using words with dual or multiple meanings can confuse the clarity of a statement and I personally believe that may be the case here.]
“Such a broad use of ‘reading’ is too wide for the purposes to which the word is to be put at this time. So a narrower definition is required. First to make a ‘reading’ verbalization will be considered necessary. To make a ‘reading’ one will be expected to make talk or written words about one’s experience of a photograph.” 

“This means that one must translate a visual experience from the realm of visual thinking into that of verbal expression. And as might be expected slips are bound to occur during the translation… But predictable failure has never stopped anyone who wanted to translate a poem or read a photograph.” 

“Beyond personal preference there are two good reasons why the reading of photographs is undertaken. First, as a object lesson to thousands that more goes on in photographs than most of us guess. That, in addition to the information given, how a photographer handles both his subject and his materials are clues to his personality on one hand and to his inner message on the other. Second, to explore, sound out, measure however inefficiently, not good or bad, but what a picture says.” 

“If we leave the term ‘reading’ defined no more sharply than above, too much room is left for floundering around in the unessentials of a photograph. “So then, to ‘read’ means further to experience a photograph without evaluating it. Or state in another way, verbalization is based on a personal understanding and a private love of the picture that does not include its evaluation. The point here is a suppression of evaluation. Just as one does not stop to determine the degree of goodness or badness of a picnic one is enjoying, ‘reading’ is to be done without criticism. Obviously criticism and evaluation cannot be ultimately avoided, but is is to be prosponed with every effort at our command.” 

Minor goes on to discuss the critic’s place in reading photographs and ends with: 

“A shortened definition of the term ‘reading’ may be useful. Hence, to ‘read’ a photograph is to communicate, to the best of one’s ability to another person verbally or with written words what one has experienced visually in a photograph or group of them.” 

“A word that will serve to label one’s own discourse with pictures in his own private, non-verbal level is ‘experience.”  

Yes, I am aware that photography is much changed since 1957. Maybe I have lived well out of my time and Minor’s but I cannot see how photography can be approached any other way. It is still a method of communicating. To communicate requires knowledge of the method of communication, the language. The way to learn a language is to use it.

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