I got my copy of this book in the post a few days back and ever since am unable to put it down. I have been reading and re-reading the textual part of it which is not much but whatever there is blows your mind by its sheer simplicity. I am putting forth my understanding of it in the following post. It talks about the development of photography and how it was a fundamentally different way of recording pictures yet. The painters, with their visual skills along with their paints and brushes created paintings, from their imagination, mythological and historical references or a set-up staged scene whereas the photograph had no such attachment – it was taken rather than made and depended solely on the selection rather than a combination of factors that other mediums of recording history depended upon.
As expected, it brought in its wake a lot of criticism as a medium especially with the staunch supporters of other art mediums who were not only skeptical of this new technique but also regarded it with anger and suspicion. The practitioners of this new technique were often looked down upon as lacking the old artistic traditions and skills that an art form like painting held.
“This industry, by invading the territories of art, has become art’s most mortal enemy.”(Baudelaire, 1859)
The book talks about how photography as a medium was developed not by artists or people who had allegiance to traditional pictorial standards but by people who had no common connection in either the tradition or training in the medium. The inventors of this medium were scientists and painters, (https://archnasinghexpressions.com/2020/04/30/origins-of-photography/) who were curious to find ways of drawing pictures other than the traditional medium of sketching or painting and its practitioners were a totally different and mixed lot. The practitioners of this immensely popular medium as it became, that stands true even today, were professionals from various and diverse professions. Thousands of these professionals, who had no training whatsoever in any sort of art tradition, took to this medium. They had nothing to lose, nothing to unlearn – and what resulted was a barrage of images, some of them a result of great experiments, backed up with skills, vision and sensibility, while others resulted merely by curiosity, accidents, improvisations or luck. Whatever may be the source of inspiration behind these photographs, it was surely seen as an enormous assault on the traditional methods of art and ways of seeing.
The history of the camera and its progressive development in the years that followed, further opened the doors for this medium to be adopted by even more people, as Photography had become easy and its practitioners had nothing to loose. From this massive deluge of accidental photographs that emerged, some of them did appear to have semblance in their peculiarity, leaving an impression on the mind – they became unforgettable and seemed to have a sense of importance within their restricted objectives. Some of these photographs which left an indelible impression forced the mind to enhance its capabilities of seeing the world with different eyes, of allowing it to perceive the possibilities of seeing more than met the eye. The immense popularity of Photography as a medium resulted from the fact that compared to traditional art mediums like paintings, that were the domain of the elite and the influential, were limited in its scope and also expensive, Photography encompassed all the people alike, with an unlimited scope of vision and being cheap and easy for the masses to adopt and practice. Recording an image no longer remained the privilege of the rich, the poor man’s picture could now be equally immortalised just by pressing a shutter button for the first time in history.
The photographer learnt from the understanding of his instrument, and from the unending deluge of other photographs that he had access to. The pictures in the book were made over a century and a quarter, by various people, varying in their professions, talents and skills – the only common factor amongst whom is their shared success which is their photograph within this book. Not bound by schools of thoughts or by any artistic or aesthetic traditions and training, these photographers vision was only developed while at work, as the possibilities of the medium enhanced their minds with possibilities. It would then not be wrong to trace the history of the medium of photography in terms of the various characteristics and limitations that they faced, five such issues or problems are discussed then.
The Thing Itself
“The first thing that the photographer learned was that photography dealt with the actual; he had not only to accept this fact, but to treasure it; unless he did, photography would defeat him. He learned that the world itself is an artist of incomparable inventiveness, and that to recognise its best works and moments, to anticipate them, to clarify them and make them permanent, requires intelligence both acute and supple.”(Szarkowksi, 1966)
Szarkowksi goes on to discuss then how the photographer also had to realise that no matter how real his photograph was, it was different than the reality itself – the reality was either left out in the little black and white image or enhanced and exaggerated so intensely that the subject and the photograph appeared different. Basically, the photographer only strives to record the merest surface of a scene whereas the camera can pick up details that even the naked eye can miss. After all, the remembered reality is the photograph itself and the subtleties that the camera as an instrument that captured at that moment. In other words, the camera lays your soul bare in the picture that it records which might be the complete opposite of a picture that you present to the world of yourself.
This iconic Tigress, Noor in Image 1 above, is my favourite Tigress and I have been documenting her for several years now. As we were waiting for her one hot afternoon in the Indian summer, she suddenly appeared out of nowhere, right next to the jeep, too close to me. The light was unbelievably harsh and I had a big zoom lens in my hand. Afraid to loose the moment to pick up another camera, I started to shoot her. It was a tight frame with only part of her head fitting into it. The result was this. I have chosen this frame as what I was seeing was the entire Tiger and the scene in front of me which is so different than what this frame captured.
The other challenge that the photographer faced was that he could only record things as he found them in nature – scattered and fragmented, isolated and unexplained. He could only document them as found, not as a story but as possible clues to one. The convincing clarity with which the trivial was documented perhaps strived to give these objects greater meaning and significance than they actually had, filling them with great undiscovered meaning. In fact the decline of the narrative painting was attributed to the rise of photography which the author finds strange as photography was never successful at narrative according to him. The function of the heroic documentation of the World War II for example, was not to make the story clear but to make it real through the power of a single photograph, sans the narrative.
I had the hardest time spotting him. Though I knew he was up in the tree somewhere, the canopy was so dense and the light was going down pretty fast as the sun blazed one last time before it set. I panned through my lens in vain to spot him but with their incredible camouflage one could not see anything with the naked eye. Just as I was all ready to give up as it was getting late and we had to leave is when I met his gaze. Whoa! be still my heart. A bright burning amber eye just glared at me through the lens, so intense was his gaze that for a moment I backed up to look away. But his eyes were so intense that I could never look away. An unforgettable moment between us when time stood still.
“The central act of photography, the act of choosing and eliminating, forces a concentration on the picture edge – the line that separates in from out – and on the shapes that are created by it.”(Szarkowksi, 1966)
The framing of a picture was an interesting practice that created a story within the chaos that separated it from the rest of the world via the photographer’s frame. What the photographer chose to contain within that frame established a relationship between those subjects that did not exist before. This happened due to the fact that photograph was not created in the mind first but was selected and what the photographer chose to contain within the borders of the frame became a new story.
It was a usual busy morning inside the Ranthambhore National Park, with a large number of safari jeeps. It was too crowded to get a glimpse of this beautiful Tigress in between the crowds. Making a conscious decision to get away from the crowds, we moved to a place where the sunlight was filtering through a part of the forest and waited as we watched the cacophony of jeeps manoeuvring to get a glimpse of her. The golden morning light, peppered between the trees created such a fabulous stage that a Tiger walking through that would be a photographer’s delight. If the Tigress did decide to come this way, I had a pre-visualised frame in my mind. I underexposed my settings by 2/3 of an f/stop and waited. Aware of the usual movement of this particular Tigress, we expected and prayed for her to come our way, and she did!
The importance of time within a photograph is discussed next and the notion of any image being instantaneous does not exist. In fact each one of has a time frame involved in terms of its exposure – lasting from a second to several. A photographic is the realistic depiction of that one moment in time in history that it was made. The accidental images of the nineteenth century that caused motion blur and time lapse resulting in unique exposures were hugely ignored by the art historians whereas the same techniques adopted consciously a century later by photographers like Edgerton and Mili were embraced and are hot techniques to explore even today.
The freezing of the frame, the most famous and earliest example being Muybridge’s galloping horse in 1878 holds fascination even today where the flight of a bird, the drop of water, the jumping of a boy caught in mid air, are all experiments with time – capturing a slice of that time and making it timeless. This fragmentation of time resulted in the photographer discovering something else – that there was not only a satisfaction attached to this fascination that he held but also a joy and beauty in this freezing the time technique, which had nothing to do with what was happening. Suddenly the lines, shapes and patterns that were hidden in the movement earlier were crystal clear in front of the eye. Cartier-Bresson had given his devotion to this beauty a phrase “The decisive moment,” that has since then been misinterpreted as a dramatic climax which it is not – its simply a visual one depicting a picture rather than a story.
As we headed out of the park as the time was almost up, this honey Buzzard in Image 4 above, came flying from the sky and landed on the track ahead to have a drink of water from the puddle that had formed by the rain water. Just as she landed and was calling out to her mate, I captured this image.
The importance of the vantage point is the fifth point in the introduction of this book which points to the fact that the clarity of the picture is often been discussed but little has been said of its enigma – the unexpected vantage point, which has been shown to us by photography itself. The earlier photographs of the nineteenth century were passed on as mere photographic distortions as mostly the vantage points rose out of necessity than to experimental visions of the photographer, but soon enough it was being looked upon with a sense of wonder and astonishment. It is noteworthy that most of the accidental images of the nineteenth century are the foundations of great experimental photography today and something that they produced by accident and rejected is still looked upon with a sense of wonder today.
Talking about unexpected vantage points, Image 5 above was taken from exactly down below this leopardess who’s meal was snatched by a Tiger moments before. She had been forced up this fragile tree by the Tigress who was still around with the Leopard’s kill. Not realising that the Leopard was right above me as I got busy taking pictures of the Tigress ahead of me. It was only when I noticed the Tigress constantly looking up that I looked up to see what was it that she was looking at. My heart froze as I met the eyes of this angry leopardess right above me. The tree looked like it will collapse any minute and the Leopard looked like it was going to make me her next meal. Crouching down to the floor of the jeep, I slowly picked my camera and took this shot. And I am alive to write this story.
“The history of photography has been less a journey than a growth. Its movement has not been linear and consecutive, but centrifugal. Photography, and our understanding of it, has spread from a centre; it has, by infusion, penetrated our consciousness. Like an organism, photography was born whole. It is in our progressive discovery of it that its history lies.”(Szarkowksi, 1966)
Szarkowski, J. (2018) The Photographer’s Eye. (7th ed.) New York: The Museum of Modern Art