Photography – A Sceptical Manifesto

I wonder if photography has any relationship with reality at all. Or whether this thing that emerged out of the same Gothic imagination shared by Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker has not actually achieved a more far-reaching, far more ambiguous mythological function, as an agency of forgetting.

I sometimes regard this process – photography – as one of devouring the real, of destroying it utterly, and then, from its atomised components, reconstructing it as a trophy. Photographer as taxidermist.

For time is the most real component of reality, and, whereas memory contains time, the photograph can only demonstrate its suspension. In any photograph – in particular, a photograph of a person, but this applies as much to a photograph of a rock, or a tree – the discomfiting volatility of life, of actuality, of timelessness, is substituted with the beguiling stability of temporal suspension – the frozen moment. There is no circumstance in the natural world in which such a stilling of activity does not indicate death. ‘Frozen’, in this sense, is quite inappropriately descriptive, since there is no question of the photograph ‘thawing’, of returning its subject to the time-continuum from which it has been extracted.

And yet the experience of scrutinising a photograph, generally speaking, is, far from being morbid, one of delight, stimulation, inspiration, curiosity, amusement, alarm, disgust, nostalgia, pity, awe, anger – is, in other words, confirmatory of a sense of being human, and of being alive, not least through the delusion of possessing something, and therefore being in control of that something. What that something is represents a preferred, simplified digest of reality, something more in the nature of a faire-oublier than of an aide-memoire.

A photograph is a singularly insignificant event, containing little information, if any at all, worth speaking of. Those events – and they are legion – which defy verbal description are no better served by a picture, much as the prevailing anti-literate, pro-imagistic orthodoxy would persuade us otherwise. The cliché of the logoclasts – that one picture is worth a thousand words – is, it ought to be recalled, nothing more than a contentious joke (a quintessentially Chinese joke) aimed at the calligrapher – remember that a Chinese word is a picture – who spent a very long time indeed in constructing a thousand words.

And yet…..and yet…..