Why be a photographer?
© Werner Hammerstingl, 1998
"Recently, photography has become almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing which means that, like every mass art form, photography is not practiced by most people as an art. It is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power". Susan Sontag 'On Photography' page 8
Susan Sontag is right to call Photography a mass art form and she makes many more valuable and insightful comments in her book (by now a classic) 'On Photography'., a book that should be compulsory reading to every student in this course.
While not unique as a medium which accommodates the practices, needs and aspirations of amateurs, professionals and artists, photography throws up unusual difficulties when we attempt to distinguish between the products of these practitioners .
Unlike writing, drawing or playing a musical instrument where the medium is, as it where, "difficult to apply successfully", where the end-result usually informs of the degree of experience and proficiency, photography can, in certain circumstances, mask such distinctions. It is sometimes very difficult to distinguish, purely on the basis of the visible evidence if the product is a "lucky fluke" by a raw amateur or a "distinguished image" by a trained and experienced expert. The public has experienced such crossovers and is now often uncertain how to value photographers and their products.
I disagree therefore with the philosopher Hegel who, in the preface of Principles of the Philosophy of Right said of philosophy:
"No other art or science is subjected to this last degree of scorn, to the supposition that we are masters of it without ado".
It seems to me that photography is caught in the same condition. The "I could have done that " response surrounds the medium in all but a few aspects.
Nothing is more directly opposed to the ordinary image of artistic creation than the activity of the amateur photographer,who often demands that his/her camera should perform the greatest possible number of operations for him/her, identifying the degree of sophistication of the apparatus that s/he uses with its degree of automatism.
However, even when the production of the picture is entirely delivered over to the automatism of the camera, the taking of the picture is still a choice involving aesthetic and ethical values: if, in the abstract, the nature and development of photographic technology tend to make everything objectively 'photographable', it is still true that, from among the theoretically infinite number of photographs which are technically possible, each group chooses a finite and well-defined range of subjects, genres and compositions.
In Nietzsche's words:
"The artist chooses his subjects. It is his way of praising."
F.W. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, p.245
Because it is a 'choice that praises', because it strives to capture, that is, to solemnize and to immortalize, photography can not be delivered over to the randomness of the individual imagination and, via the mediation of the ethos, the internalization of objective and common regularities, the group places this practice under its collective rule, so that the most trivial photograph expresses, apart from the explicit intentions of the photographer, the system of schemes of perception, thought and appreciation common to a whole group.
Pierre Bourdieu Photography: A Middle Brow Art pp.5-6
Memorializing the achievements of individuals considered as members of families (as well as of other groups) is the earliest popular use of photography. For at least a century, the wedding photograph has been as much a part of the ceremony as the prescribed verbal formulas. Cameras go with family life. According to a sociological study done in France, most households have a camera, but a household with children is twice as likely to have at least one camera as a household in which there are no children. Not to take pictures of one's children, particularly when they are small, is a sign of parental indifference, just as not turning up for one's graduation picture is a gesture of adolescent rebellion.
Through photographs, each family constructs a portrait chronicle of itself a portable kit of images that bears witness to its connectedness. It hardly matters what activities are photographed so long as photographs get taken and are cherished. Photography becomes a rite of family life just when, in the industrializing countries of Europe and America, the very institution of the family starts undergoing radical changes.
At the very beginning of the practice, there was little that could effectively distinguish amateur and professional photography, but such distinctions were keenly established by individuals and groups who had a vested interest in setting themselves and their practices above the level of the amateur.
Given the popularity of the medium, especially after the 1880's when the technical complexities of the photographic equipment and process were effectively removed by Kodak ("you press the button-we do the rest") and other companies that followed this example, something had to be done about the demarcation between amateur and professional.
The means employed by photographers to claim the artistic of professional 'high ground' have only marginally changed in a century. They include the following:
All of this however is merely background to the question under debate. I have chosen to examine to analyse the idea of being a photographer in the light of filmic examples ranging from "Blow-up" to "Proof".
The questions below are from Hanna Beloff's book Camera Culture (page 27) where she asks about the role of the photographer:
If we can come up with useful answers to these questions we will be a significant step closer to answer the question" why be a photographer?".