Jeremy Mohler is a writer living in Washington, DC. After receiving a B.A. degree from the Philip Merrill Collegel of Journalism at the University of Maryland, he has self-published essays and poems at www.jeremymohler.org. His essay on Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti is forthcoming in the next issue of The Johns Hopkins University literary journal The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review. Today we share his recent essay titled, An Illusion of Division.
An Illusion of Division
Photography is far too expansive and elusive of a concept and practice to talk about in dogmatic language. It is known most collectively as art; but it’s safe to say that a majority of photographers are simply, in their eyes, documenting experience, and communicating that experience in the bright complicated ball of protean stimulus that is the contemporary culture. Because when words fail us – as they often do – photos are for obvious reasons the more precise, “authentic” method of reaching each other. I quote the word because that a photograph can be authentic is pretty complicated, and amputated from the actual practice of snapping a photo, pretty irrelevant. But I think I know what people mean when they say a photo is an “authentic” documentation of the world at a particular time and in a particular place. When taking a photo there is a sense that one is standing somewhere outside of the cage of subjectivity and peering into the cage of objectivity. One feels as though she can escape self, because, outside of a self-portrait (which, self-consciously named as such, is another way to escape the container of self), the picture taker cannot be in the photo, so, the photo is inherently recording the-world-minus-the-self. This is a default sense when looking through a lens and it’s hard to avoid. With this mentality, actuality is a zoo and the photographer is a tourist.
Though, contemporary photography (and pop culture as a whole) has attempted to move outside these theoretical bounds. Today’s photography is often described by calling it contemporary, which, of course, is tautological, and tautological theories are how movements of the present are labeled until a large enough paradigm shifts the field and makes us wonder why we didn’t see that everything contemporary had a homogenous style, method, or defining trait that can be reduced and subjugated, and so, tamed. And then, of course, when a style is classified and labeled, with all the life sucked out of the practice, artists have a clear sense of how to violate the new norms and an anti-school is created. But, to many an artist’s confusion, this ping pong has broken down into a big untidy mess in what some refer to as postmodernism, which blatantly is a catch all word to gather up anything after modernism, and is a very loaded term. So, how can we get a handle on the art form?
Here’s my attempt: a flock of conceptual art methods currently circles the decomposing body of conventional photography. Abrasive computer manipulation (I’m not talking about touchups) works on the same illusion that conventional photography does, that what is in the frame is supposed to be actuality, because the trick in a “Photoshopped” image is that the eye sees the manipulation and hesitates about its realness. The whole thing works because the average viewer is expecting a photo to be of something real. Both “Photoshopped” work and manipulation of prints (cutouts, drawing on the photo, etc.) display a self-consciousness about the work being a piece of art and the photographer being an artist that is utterly postmodern. It gets ironic and recursive fast. A photographer wishing to avoid manipulation is left with either an attempt at “objective” photojournalism, or the double entendre of taking a photo with an affectation that says, I know that you know that I’m a photographer so I’m going to mock myself doing it. There seems to be no pure, “authentic” place to run to, now, as a photographer.
So, then, maybe it’s about the viewer? Where do most people look at photography: In a gallery? On an iPad screen? On someone’s blog? And what do they even see? In a democratizing world mired by a late, distorted capitalism, these questions are harder than ever to answer with any authority. A computer screen shares an essential feature with the photograph: it is not the computer screen we see, but what is in it, just as we do not see a photograph but what it is a photograph of. I wonder what it felt like the first time I saw an actual print: did I see the print in my mother’s hand, or did I fall for the illusion and see my uncle sitting on the couch holding me, as depicted in the photo? And photographs online are even more souvenirs of reality than actual prints are; there is nothing even tangible about them, they “exist” on a screen and come and go with a click.
Some more substantial questions, I think, must then be answered, since I can’t seem to make words out of the direction photography is headed. How do we communicate with each other, trust each other, believe in each other, when we’ve been taught from a young age not to trust authority for the sake of it being authority? And how do we communicate with each other deeply when nearly everyone is always taking a picture? A near ubiquity of image in pop culture makes it tough to look at photos with any trace of openness. It also renders what is photographed and experience itself as convenient, disposable, and worse, logical. With infinite and free access to images online, the seduction of parataxis (juxtaposition between words or images) melts into a flattened plane of relative image. It takes work to disconnect and look at a book of photography, or go see a thoughtfully curated show.
This may all sound conceptual and jargon-y, but it’s true, for me. I need space from visual stimulus to see more in a photo and to appreciate the art of photography. Parts of my brain become lazy in the daily onslaught of image. After a detox from the visual, I look at a photo and can cherish the self-consciousness of the photographer; I appreciate that they realize (consciously or not) that they are mediating the image and thus can do whatever they want with it. It seems that from these observations that I can say with little doubt that the near ubiquity of image in our current culture makes it harder to not look at a photograph with cynicism AND not take a photo with an ironic affectation. The most important point of art, to me, is to remind us that the act of asking a question is the answer. Actuality is not supposed to be in a photograph, it is here (there) and now (then).
To view more writings and poetry or to read more information about Jeremy please visit his website.