Saturday, 8 October 2011

A somewhat off topic musing on photography

I ask only half facetiously (bear with me): What about a photo that was taken accidentally, when you accidentally set the camera off when its pointing at your feet or when its in your bag or something? (We've all done it, I'm sure.) Would that photo be 'staged'?

Of course such a picture probably wouldn't be very good and would hardly qualify as 'photography' but I've seen weirder things in art galleries and I think it raises a conceptual point that could do with being worked out.

If it is staged then that would imply that the staging at the most basic level occurs either (a) in the design and basic materiality of the camera, which precedes taking the picture, or (b) in the interpretation of the photo after it is taken. It doesn't seem possible that such a photo could be staged (c) at the moment of taking it if the taking was accidental and no consideration was given to what was being photographed and how (Freudian slips of the finger notwithstanding).

Can the camera really compel its user to perform such a particular and complex function just because it is what it is? Perhaps this could be true to an extent but staging is surely more than whatever we could attribute to the unilateral powers of the object itself. The second option would imply something like backwards causation, which I know your occasional interlocutor Colin Wight gets all worked up about. More than that (let's avoid that discussion!) it would mean that the photographer doesn't necessarily conduct the staging, which would seem to run counter to your argument.

In short: neither of these options seem very acceptable to me so it seems as though such a picture would be, in fact, unstaged, which then begs the question: at what level of intentionality does a photo become staged? Is there a purely 'accidental' state which can be clearly bracketed off as an exception to the rule or do all photos, because the photographer never knows just how they'll turn out (isn't this the excitement of it all?), carry an unstaged-ness -- an immanence to the unpredictability of the situation -- in them?

If this is so then it becomes legitimate to discuss the extent to which a photograph was staged, because this extent would be linked to intentionality and preparation, and we should then consider modes of staging, as not all stagings happen in the same way and are not directed towards the same ends. And this is where things like this start to get interesting, philosophically at least, as we move from a quite negative argument 'nothing isn't staged' to a more creative and challenging one 'things are staged like this and that and the other'.

I hope that I'm making at least some sense.

I'm just thinking 'out loud' really but if I were to state a real opinion it would be: saying that all photographs are staged is not enough without a counterpoint that tries to understand the element of surprise that the photograph always springs upon the photographer, the element that they did not and could never expect or plan for. Otherwise it just seems like all photographs are equally staged and in the same way, which is a rather dull and homogenising manoeuvre (and I doubt this is what you're trying to say at all).

Isn't a really good photographer one who lets themselves be surprised by their own photographs, who lets go, who doesn't try to master the frame but takes the risk of letting their heart race and their trigger finger do its own thing? Isn't this why many photographers don't like digital photography because it eliminates the excitement, the delay in gratification that comes with taking your films home and processing them? If, as with most digital cameras, you can see your picture immediately and discard it as if it was never there then aren't you mastering the frame by commanding supreme destructive power? The right to immediately ordain the life or death of the photo! Mastery par excellence. With film each photo is given its own unique life, even though most will eventually be discarded somehow. Even if it lives only for a short time each captured moment must be taken seriously. It is precisely because so much in it is not staged and can never be staged that this excitement is possible at all.

No photo (besides perhaps the blind, accidental one) is purely unstaged, sure; every photo is taken in a certain way due to the photographer's training, experience, political or unconscious predispositions, absolutely. But by detracting from the surprise of the event and thereby neglecting most of the many and varied vectors that swarm into the frame quite beyond the control of the photographer aren't we doing a disservice to photography, even as we make an important political point (which I understand to be: don't use 'reality' or 'objectivity' as a crutch; it's silly and lazy; take responsibility for your clickings, however frenzied and in-the-moment)?

I'll shut up now. Alas, everything begins in politics and ends in mysticism!