Disphotic

Probing photo murk.

Disphotic is Moving

Disphotic is migrating to a new home, in a subdomain of my main website, you can find the new blog at disphotic.lewisbush.com

From next week the original address, disphotic.wordpress.com will redirect you to the new site.

When I started Disphotic about two years ago it was just a little corner of the internet for me to dump my ill formed thoughts and pictures, which were relatively disconnected. Since then my words and images have grown much closer, to the point that the two deeply inform each other, and as such it increasingly makes sense to locate them within the same site. The new site will also offer opportunities for future expansion, customisation and functionality.

Not much else will change about Disphotic for now. I hope to continue to develop my writing, making it more focused and concise while continuing to explore similar topics and themes, to publish posts on a more scheduled basis (most likely a new one each Wednesday and Saturday) and start to review relevant exhibitions, books and films on a regular basis.

Please continue to read, comment and follow. Although I started out writing for myself alone, your responses have been thought provoking, encouraging and have often given me the motivation to keep going.

Thanks!

Lewis/Disphotic

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What is Photography

In the Strugatsky brother’s sci-fi novel Roadside Picnic, a character proposes the titular phrase as a metaphor for humanity’s encounters with artefacts, the strange and powerful remnants of an alien visitation. He argues that humanity’s feeble attempt to understand and use these objects is like the behaviour of the animals that emerge from the undergrowth after a roadside picnic to encounter the discarded food wrappers, motor oil, clothes and other human remains that are utterly beyond their comprehension.

Notwithstanding the fact that photography is a thing mostly of our own making, many of my current difficulties with photography stem from a similar idea, the feeling that we have a huge amount invested in something that seems to so decisively and consistently evade attempts at convincing definition. If anything the fact that we have invented photography, and have played such a great part in defining its territory and limits, somehow makes its shape shifting resistance to definition even more perplexing.

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Henry Fox Talbot, Frankfurt am Main (1846)

What is photography? Most responses would linger on the purely mechanical, functional definitions. ‘A means of creating images through the use of lenses and photosensitive surfaces’, for example. This seems to me to be like responding to the question ‘what is the earth’ with the answer ‘it is a sphere’. It seems to miss most of what makes photography interesting, the things that makes it worth defining in the first place, in favour of what is patently obvious. So what other definitions are there? Here are two very provisional candidates I have been playing with.

One is that photography is simply a way of segmenting the world, of parcelling it off into digestible, two dimensional portions, recorded or simply viewed. Certainly this idea fits with some of the circumstances of the development of photography, with theorists like Batchen suggesting that the desire to ‘photograph’ in this sense pre-existed the necessary chemistry, in the form of devices like the camera obscura and Claude glass. Is it unreasonable to say that Canaletto, a frequent user of the camera obscura for painting, was as much as a photographer as Talbot? To view a scene through any object or mechanism that partitions it, is perhaps to photograph.

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Canaletto, Campo Sant Angelo (C18)

Another candidate is that photography is a means of doing something similar with the world but in terms of time rather than space. By fixing in some sense (chemical or otherwise) a trace of a moment in time, making it into a tangible object, and thereby making those moments physical and movable, they cease to exist as part of an irreversible flow of time. In this way it becomes possible to locate things, that are temporally speaking from impossibly different worlds, next to each other. Photography is able, for example, to bring together Canalletto and Talbot, inhabitants of worlds separated by time and geography, into the same location.

These are basic responses to an question that really goes beyond what I’m capable of answering. Thinking about this topic draws my mind into very grey areas, that leave me feeling like I have been trying to see the back of my own eyes. I suppose this post might at least encourage other people to think about the same question, to consider what photography is, and what this means for the way it is used.

This is Not a Photo Opportunity

I spent last weekend walking in the area around my family’s cottage in the Devil’s Bridge area of mid-wales. I’ve been lucky to visit many beautiful places, but Wales has a strange aura which for me is unlike any other, a beauty which is never showy or obscene, but which is just ancient, effortless and indifferent. Glacial hills, barren moorland, immortal woodland.

Walking for mile upon mile through these surroundings, usually carrying a camera, I’m often minded to remember the inability of photography to directly convey things. Standing at the head of a steep valley after a long climb, looking down through barren deciduous trees scattered with snow, to the sun dappled floor a thousand feet below where an icy river tears past old lead mine works, the thought alone of taking a photograph, of treating this place as another photo opportunity, seems somehow sacrilegious.

And that’s because regardless of the talent of the photographer, irrespective of the specialisation of their equipment, a photograph will never be more than a poor surrogate, a shallow replacement for the real thing. It is inevitable, no camera I have ever come across can convey what the human eye can, cameras operate in wholly different ways, under-performing in some respects, over-performing in others, but always producing something quite different from what is seen. It calls to mind the Winogrand claim to ‘photograph to see how things look photographed’ and the result is often disappointing.

But it is not just the consequence of optics or chemistry. The feeling looking out over that valley is a product not just of radiation, of energy, coalesced into dark and light, but of adrenaline, hyperventilation, exhaustion, cold, euphoria. All of these things come together to make something unique, an experience which cannot be conveyed by a two dimensional print or an image on a screen. Just as the camera is never ‘objective’ nor is the observer. The cameras depiction of these views is maybe even more objective than my own at the end of a long climb, but it is strangely the worse for it.

Clearly few people would claim photographs are a stand in for reality, but it is still common for people to imply as such in their language. A photograph is perhaps more of a taster for a prospective visitor, or a primer for the memory of someone who has already been. A photograph is like a flashcard, or an ink blot test, a fragment of something (or perhaps not even that).

Despite my earlier comment that to photograph in these beautiful environs seems somehow taboo, I must confess that I still often can’t resist taking a picture or two. Not so much because I still want to try and record or the preserve the beauty of what I see in front of me, but more because I am curious to test the limits of the camera. To see, in other words, how badly the camera will fail to do justice to what is in front of me, so later I can compare the failed photograph to the memory in my head, itself I should admit, also often wholly inadequate.

Done Walking

I’m just back from a very pleasant four days of walking in mid-Wales. It was also a good chance to stop and take stock of things, and an amazing place to write. If I’m ever in the position of needing to write something of length (perhaps in a few years a thesis) I’ll be doing a sizeable chunk of it here, where the distractions are few and healthy.

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Speaking Without Words II

Another extract from my ongoing image conversation with my friend and fellow photographer Amin Musa. We take turns to exchange images, gathered from any source we wish. All that matters is each image responds to the previous one in some sense, symmetrically, asymmetrically, recapitulating a theme or driving the conversation forward into new territory, turning the discussion from the profound to the profane and back again. I’ve found it leads to many interesting thoughts about the nature of images, their uses and their readings in relation to each other. (Part I here.)

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Gone Walking

Time to stop and take stock. I  have a few maybe publications and exhibitions lining up for the rest of the year including potentially quite a large one. More details when they materialise. Also I’ll be contributing the odd blog post to the Duckrabbit blog, although everything will continue to be posted here. And I’m plugging away at several different projects while trying to make a living. That last one is probably the hardest bit.

Anyway I’m off to my family’s cottage in mid-Wales hills for a week. Know and love London as I do it grinds me down over time and it’s good to escape somewhere I can walk for several hours over misty hills and not meet another person. I find walking is a great way to clear the mind, forget problems and prepare yourself for new ideas. Along the way I’ll probably take lots of mindless, pretty photographs as usual, here are a few from the last couple of times.

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Image Fixity

I’ve just been reading this excellent article on the various photo-scandals that have already unfolded this year. In light of some of the examples and issues it raises, I began to wonder once again about the motivations photographers hold for condemning image manipulation.

Aside from the obvious ethical concerns about changing the meaning of images, the reality is that many high profile cases of image manipulation are just boringly aesthetic changes (for example the case of Stepan Rudik) and don’t really seem to do any more to change the meaning or substance of an image than many of the choices the photographer already made before they took the photograph in terms of equipment, positioning, timing, editing, and so on.

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Press Photographers, 1929, – Bundesarchiv Bild 102-08739

I began to wonder if by professing the fixity of a photograph’s content and claiming unaltered, unadulterated continuity between the moment of shooting and the audiences subsequent viewing that the photographer somehow feels they are making the image more real. More real because in making the image unchangeable it becomes more like the irretrievable and unchangeable reality it depicts, and less like the very malleable, changeable two dimensional visual artifact a photograph actually is.

I wonder also if condemning manipulation as a perversion of photojournalism’s mission to represent the truth of things offers a handy distraction from the more profound problems of photography, and of course the inherent unaccountability of much journalistic image making, which makes it all so easy for photographers like Paollo Pellegrin to accidentally or intentionally miss-caption images without it necessarily ever being noted. How many photographers have done this to some extent and not been caught, I wonder? Probably all of us, I know for certain I have mistakenly captioned images in the past in ways that have implications for the images understanding, or captioned them with less information than I might have done.

It seems to me that one of the real strengths of photography is its non-fixity of substance and meaning and its reliance on context, maybe either embrace this or stop using it?

Brizzle

Had a nice weekend break to Bristol recently, a city I’ve meant to visit for years but never managed to make it to until now. It’s a pleasant mixture of things in a nice small package, liberally scattered with pubs and coffee shops, perfect for wandering around on cold days with a Rolleiflex.

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Book Redesigns

I’ve finished a final redesign on three of my books (Canvey, Camera Obscured and The Memory of History) and now all are available to order on a print on demand basis via my website. Only small tweaks to Canvey and The Memory of History to remove errors, while The Camera Obscured has been considerably added to and expanded, all rephotographed for my website along with the limited edition box, here are some pictures and deets:

The Memory of History box – Comprises 56 inkjet prints along with 12 chapters of text, each a short essay dealing with a subject related to history, memory and time. Contained in a handmade box bound in grey hessian. Limited edition of 27, each named and corresponding to one of the 27 EU states.

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The Memory of History book – Self-published through Blurb. Hard cover with dust jacket. 120 pages full colour printed on premium paper. (softcover version also available through Lulu)

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Canvey Island Self-published through Lulu. Soft cover, perfect bound. 58 pages full colour.

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The Camera Obscured – Self-published through Lulu. Soft cover, perfect bound. 114 pages black and white.

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Symbols of an Intractable Conflict

Ten years ago today activist Rachel Corrie was killed by an Israeli Defence Force bulldozer while attempting to prevent the demolition of Palestinian homes.

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This post isn’t intended to prothlesize for either side or to talk with any authority about a complex conflict in a part of the world that I know very little about, all I wanted to remark on is the strange power of symbols to stand in for complicated issues, and the way the mind selects not always the most obvious, commonplace image for this purpose.

For me, images of the Caterpillar D9 armored bulldozers used by the Israeli Defence Force have come in a strange way to symbolise the conflict and its two sides more than any photograph of stone throwing children, Merkava tanks or even the much photographed wall. The armoured bulldozers, squat, incomprehensible monstrosities, seem to symbolise the intractability, the slow but seemingly unstoppable destruction, the apparent non-negotiability and perhaps above all the foreign influences that lie economically, politically and historically behind both sides in the conflict.