photographic poetics

Just when I'd decided to definitely give up using my venerable  Leica M4-P and 35m colour film,   and make  the definite  shift to the cutting technological edge of  hand held digital imaging, up pops this image.  

It is a simple and nondescript  coastal bush growing along the railway line  and the picture  was made on one of my early morning poodle walks at Hayborough, Victor Harbor on the Fleurieu Peninsula. It is what is  usually ignored or a disregarded  aspects of the contemporary coastal  landscape that would  be seen as the "unphotographable"  by many contemporary DSLR photographers. 

What popped up  is photography as poetics. Photography in a quiet voice. 

Therein lies the strength of a film Leica ---whether colour or black and white---in today's digital world where  the global trend is to product differentiation and short product cycles in which  companies  reduce costs by re-using as many components as possible.   We have reached a point where different digital cameras and systems converge to the same level of performance,  and the differences that exist are increasingly irrelevant for the average user.  In this world it is the camera's features that become the crucial markers  for the tech journalists ever on the lookout  for the next big thing to write about.    

Photography as poetics points to the mood, feeling and emotion that an image  creates or produces.  This is a revision of the classical Leica ethos  of a camera  designed to  record daily events as a visual memory: thirty-six memories on one roll of film that are an honest and detailed record of the world.

passing Collingwood

This picture was made  whilst I was travelling on the train to  Fairfield in Melbourne. 

I was going to the Photonet  Gallery to see about an exhibition and book for my Edgelands project. When I travel on the trains in Melbourne I take usually take snaps  of the city through the windows of the train. 

At this stage I had more or less decided to give up using 35m film and switching  to  digital. I was in the process of using up the stock of Kodak Portra 400 ASA that I had stored in the fridge.  Then fini. 

the post photographic

The post-photography emerged  in the late 1980s as a result of the emergence of digital technology.  

Digital technology has allowed for the image to be severed from its referent,  re-contextualized and re-presented. The theory goes that notions of representational truth in photography have well and truly been destroyed in light of technology that recasts the image as a fluid entity. The emergence of new digital technologies has undercut our  trust in the photograph, which  more than any other kind of image as faithfully documenting the reality of the material world.  We have relied on it to describe places, to prove things existed, and to recall the memorable. This confidence we have warranted in traditional  photography, was  irrecoverably shattered by the emergence of new digital technologies --hence the concern over the ‘loss of the real’. 

However it was not the digital camera that gave birth to the post-photographic, it was the scanner as digital cameras have only become sophisticated enough to be taken seriously in the last decade. In the 1990s  scanners were generally used to digitize portions of chemically processed images that were then manipulated and assembled in Photoshop. The combination of this hardware and software meant that artists were almost forced to supplement montage for traditional straight photography that depended upon the indexical power of photos. It is this  technology and workflow,  and not digital photography per se, that  was the condition for the emergence of  the post-photographic.

the post digital world

The heyday of the Leica photography  was 1930 to 1980, a period when the Leica M rangefinder  reigned supreme as the best performing 35mm camera-system for snapshots, reportage and street photography that rested on the principles of craft.   Today Leica, as a  small-scale camera maker  in the digital age,  with its shortening of product cycles,  has  become a niche product for the cognoscenti and a select group of professionals.

 Being ‘critically sharp’ is no longer a standard feature of Leica photographs, nor is  the M digital  camera unique in its compactness or unobtrusiveness or ease of use, as these are also characteristics of the Sony Alpha mirrorless  cameras. The latter can also produce the desired qualities of a picture--qualities as tonality, crispness of fine detail in the midtones, separation of highlight and shadow detail and depth preservation-- and they can use the M + R Leica lenses, which are some of the best lenses ever made. Digital gives photographers  more resources and it evens the playing field.

The  cognoscenti and a select group of professionals include art photographers who continue to use old media technology such as 35m film  in reaction to the  in-your-face, super-saturated, super-contrasty glossy imagery that appears to be the digital norm in photography.  Film, it is argued,  has a different aesthetic---a different look that is softer and grainer---  and it remains more craft-based with a slowness of process. Though digital has a different look to film ---its much more crisp and clean---photographic software can mimic the look of film.  Digital has developed an ‘analogue aesthetic.’ 

Continuing to use 35m film in a digital world  is not limited to grandparents and hipsters hooked on retro,   as it is also grounded in nostalgia for a different world; one in which there was a strong tradition in precision engineering, optical technology,  photography and quality cameras.  One aspect of this nostalgic reaction is a flight away from the complex problematics of a period of crisis and toward the cosy certainties of an earlier age;  another is the rejection of the recombinant media strategies of re-use, appropriation, media-critique, re-presentation, cut-up, “deconstruction,” etc. (often all lumped under the umbrella term: “post-modernism”); another strand  is the desire for purity in reaction to consumerism and the slick digital surface.      

Is this the emergence of a post digital aesthetic that attempts to transgress the shiny facade of a technology promising perfection but which has lots of glitches and bugs in practice including the  deficiencies of digital files?  A post digital aesthetic no longer considers digitalness revolutionary,  and the term “post-digital” best functions  as a descriptor of the reaction of arts to the cultural impact of digitization, rather than  implying  only one single moment of a historical break.   


image and text

The early nineties was the tail end of cultural postmodernism, prior to contemporary art’s globalisation. Now  we have a flood of photographic images that many see in terms of photographs as dissolute fragments and photography as a totalized mass. Most of the photographic images we see around us in our visual culture  today are  consumed rapidly.   Photographs are exhausted and discarded quickly,  and their meanings are meant to be obvious and formulaic. They are not meant to be  looked at closely and for long.  There is no space for slow informed  looking.  

The turn to  an emphasis on intuition and spontaneity --- especially noticeable in street photography--is a  turn away from institutionlised photo-theory to embrace a naive  state, which expresses an aversion to thinking about photography,  to language and to  text.  Digital technology expanded the possibilities of photography well beyond the confines of art theory. Video is beginning to become an integral part, a logical extension of the work of  photographers who will thus redefine the field of photography.  The photographic now encompasses moving as well as still images. 

Despite the visual  turn in our culture there is no  replacement of language by photography only new new modes of interrelation from the Life magazine photo-story. There is now a  thorough intertwining of image and language, which is the nature of most of our photographic culture. 

For  much of the medium’s artistic history the ‘work’ was not thought to be the print but the publication, usually the book – an edited orchestration of images and text.  The renaissance of photographic book making in the last decade or so has again produced works that are affordable and with relatively little to do with the selling of editioned prints.

reading photographs

Our language is never simply just ours.   

For something singular to emerge, it can only emerge by passing through what one inherits. As photographers, we borrow, cite, and improvise  on  the language of the previous photographers. Photography itself is a mode of citation and we  try to make a difference whilst using a visual language that does not simply belong to us. It simultaneously reproduces and alters what it cites.

snapshots of history

Photography is well known for its capacity  to freeze time as well as movement.  The word snapshot suggests that a tiny slice of time is recorded for posterity. The snapshot takes an instant out of time, and  by holding time still it offers us an opportunity to see what  once was. The image is understood as historical in that history happens when something becomes present in passing away. 

The snapshot gives us a glimpse of the history that we have lived and it helps us to remember that history and to see how things have changed.  Snapshots of history represent the the survival of the traces of what is past and they depend on our ability to  interpret these traces  as traces embedded  in a  particular place and  our forgotten memories.

looking back

The  return to the past--to a historical artistic culture of  the 20th century -- is a precarious one: in seeking stimulation from the past we are in danger of being overwhelmed by it, and that   we become epigones—a copy or a replica---and caught up in nostalgia.  We can also make creative use of history by fashioning new metaphors/images to fashion a  provisional  visual vocabulary for the present.

 What immediately stands out in looking back on this journey into a photographic/visual  culture  is how  the digital disruption  has  changed the way we look at images. They have become disposable, easy to make, and  there has been an explosion  of images on the internet.  With the digital camera photography has been thrust into our visual culture at an impossible to keep up with. Though film based or analogue photography--- in its different forms-- belongs to a different era  it survives as a niche practice and a form of resistance to a mass digital culture. 

What then stands out is  the way that artists are reprogramming existing work, inhabiting historical styles, making use of images, using society as a catalog of forms and investing in fashion and media. These practices have in common the recourse to already produced forms. They testify to a willingness to inscribe the work of art within a network of signs and significations, instead of considering it an autonomous or original form. The already existing materials is the data to build their practice on and so we have a new culture of reusing the existing. 

institutional precariousness

One characteristic of the art  institution in Adelaide is the deficiency or the lack of an artistic apparatus. There  is a marked  paucity of spaces to discuss, study, produce, display, and commercialise art in areas far away from consolidated art centres. It has meant that artists  photographers and art  professionals who decide to stay in their local area  need to  find creative solutions to overcome the precariousness of their institutional field—by organising artist-run spaces, exhibitions, magazines, and communities. 

The turn to the internet (social media and the  blogosphere) meant departing from the art institution's established art centres and its canonical rules, especially since these marginal spaces sometimes do not conform to (or are not interested in) the rules and narratives instituted by canonical art history. However, many  fragmentary online spaces have a short-lived existence, and the instability of these art practices reflects the conditions of “liquid modernity”.  

closed rather than open

Contrary to the view that  Australian national  culture  has disappeared as a side-effect of globalisation a common idea of Australia  retains its power. This is the view of national  identity in that Australians being-in-the-world see  the world as threatening and irrational,  interpersonal relations as fraught with danger, individuals are the passive victims of their social and institutional environments and that we trapped  in the middle of a beautiful but alien wilderness, full of strange noises and impervious to penetration, conquering or settlement. 

It is a garrison or fortress mentality with its  strong sense of isolation,  impotence and claustrophobia.  Australians  maintain a fundamental distinction between “society” and “wilderness”--- the vast alien desert  or scary outback.  We sit huddled  together on the coast with  a negative sense of the frontier compelled to  construct real and symbolic buffers against the terror evoked by an unconquered nature.  Closed rather than open.