Photography’s USP.

The fact that photography is unique within the visual arts is without doubt. Just exactly what it is that makes it unique is more difficult to pin down. For example, the idea that it is a more truthful representation of the world than say, painting, has long since been debunked. I will only go so far as to mention in passing black and white photography, the different reactions of different film emulsions to the same spectrum of light and contrast, the effects possible and errors probable in the darkroom, and of course the choices made by the photographer with respect to aperture, shutter speed and filtration. All the above are only easier ( some would say more obvious ) since the advent of digital.


Several years ago I gave a talk at a Light and Land ‘Discovery Day’, during which I championed the early photographs of Jacques Henri Lartigue in their ability to delight by using the shutter speed to freeze people in the act of doing things ( e.g. crashing go-carts ) in a way that had never been seen until that point, and which we are quite blasé about these days. I pointed out that we should never lose sight of the magic we felt when we looked at our first photographs, even though with time we can become habituated to it, and experience might make us feel we should ‘move on’ intellectually. I was recently reading an article by David Ward in OnLandscape ( ), and for some reason this article bumped me a bit further along in my thinking.


What photography has that no other medium has is precision on the time-space continuum. 


To take painting by comparison ( since it is this to which photography is most often compared ). Painting has no real validity in time or place. It is impossible to say at what point in time a painting has been made with any kind of precision at all. It may have taken hours or days to paint in the field during which time the lighting may have changed and the subject may have moved, or it may have been created from several sketches or photographs that were taken at several different, unspecified times. It is not even certain that all the physical elements of a painting ever had the spacial arrangement that was given to them by the painter. Indeed painters often bring in elements from elsewhere ( including their imaginations ) to help them create a composition.


We can say precisely where, and within exactly what time frame a photograph has been taken… and this combination can never be reproduced. Ironically, being able to give this information instantly makes it redundant: although we can go back to a location, we can never go back to a time. The interpretation of the scene at that place was only valid at that time. Even the same photographer would probably never make the same exposure at any other time. Even exactly a year later, the antecedents would be different during the months, days and minutes prior to the photograph ( temperature, humidity etc ) rendering light, foliage, clouds, water levels etc probably totally different. Interestingly, it also means that we have to redefine what we mean by a “fake” when applied to photography: since a photograph is created by the application of light to a sensitive substrate, which we can never reproduce, whereas a painting is created by the application of paint on a surface, which we can reproduce. The best we can hope to achieve is an exact copy of a digital file by physically assigning the numerical data to each pixel space. Otherwise known as  hitting the “copy” button on our computer. Images on film are even more problematic. Of course we can make copies of photographs, but that is not to say that any resulting reproductions ( on screen or in print ) will be the same as what the photographer created any more than any of the millions of printed copies of the Mona Lisa are faithful to Leonardo’s original.

But I digress. I propose that where a photograph is taken should be irrelevant to anything other than a documentary or journalistic photograph, even though this is often the only caption a landscape photograph gets. We expect to know where the photograph was taken. But surely this should have no bearing on whether we are moved by the image, unless we actually want to be affected by any prejudices we have about that place? Knowing where it was taken might allow us to go there ourselves or to seek out other photographs of the same place, but it should not inform how we look at the image. Precise timeframe information is, at least, more useful. It might tell us how quickly the water was flowing, how windy it was, and may give us an insight into the creative choices that the photographer was moved to make ( the shutter speed could be considered an analogue to the physical application of paint to a canvas )… but more importantly,  being able to control exactly when the image is made and how long the physical process takes is unique to photography, and in combination with the location information it is unique in every photograph ( since we tend to not actually stand on one another’s shoulders at even the most popular locations ).
I am no great follower of the Cartier Bresson ‘capture the moment’ thesis, each photographer at each particular point in time might find a different moment or period of time important to them: there is no Great Unifying Moment. But it is something we have absolute control over, and which no other medium does.

What are the implications of this? I am not sure. I shall have to think about that. But I shall try labelling my images differently and see how I feel. Maybe just numerical coordinates and the exact time frame. If anyone is moved to find out where an image was taken then they can, but they are going to have to want to first rather than deciding whether they should like a photograph depending on where it was taken, which seems to be the current conceit .