Depth of Field:  The philosophical musings of a photographer

What are the limitations that define a photograph’s ability to communicate? The answer to this question is multi-faceted. First, the process of photography is not simply light writing. It is framing, focusing and editing. It is choice. The very act of choice is to select from multiple possibilities and that act of choosing is never completely impartial. Every photographer has a history. They have a role in the society they photograph. Both their history and their role play a part in the creation of an image. Both affect their point of view. Both affect what is seen. In his book, “The Photograph,” Graham Clarke writes,

First, we must remember that the photograph is

itself the product of a photographer. It is always

the reflection of a specific point of view, be it

aesthetic, polemical, political, or ideological. [1]

Documentary photographers seek to be observers, to remain detached from the scene before them and to be non-participants. But the very presence of a photographer in a place changes it. It gives that moment an importance it wouldn’t otherwise have. In his,

Understanding a Photograph,” John Berger states,

Photographers bear witness to a human choice being

exercised in a given situation. A photograph is a result

of the photographer’s decision that it is worth recording

that this particular event or this particular object has

been seen. [2]

There is a relationship between the subject and the photographer in every photograph taken. A viewer may not immediately sense this relationship but its presence is there and the meaning of the subject is altered.

In the visual language of photography, the subject is the figure within the boundaries of the photograph from which meaning is derived. The meaning is further informed by the relationship the subject has to its context, the environment it inhabits. A photographer becomes a part of that environment and in turn becomes a part of the context that gives the subject meaning. Other components surrounding a subject such as setting or time of day provide further context. For example, let us examine an image of an apple. The apple is sitting in a basket on a table in a kitchen. There is other fruit in the basket, oranges, bananas and lemons. From these other figures we get a sense of scale as we compare the apple to the them and eventually to the basket. The context of the kitchen gives us the impression the apple is for food; it is meant to be eaten. By putting the apple in relation to these contexts we gain more information about it as a subject.

What then happens when such signifiers as the basket and other fruits are taken out? What we get is a photograph more like Edward Weston’s image of a pepper. “Pepper,” is a simple black and white photograph. The pepper, dramatically lit, is the only figure in the image. It fills the space of the photograph. The image has become about the beauty of the pepper and the richness of the smooth skin.

Which photograph represents the truth, the one where the apple is seen as food or the one that shows the subject as an object of beauty? Can both be true at the same time? Each of these photographs focuses on a specific aspect of its subject to highlight and communicate. It is as though in describing a person who is both shy and talkative, we choose only one characteristic, talkative, to tell someone. A truth has been told, that the person is indeed talkative. What about the other characteristic? What has happened to that truth? Our image of the person is incomplete in relation to the reality.

[1] Clarke, Graham. The Photograph. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997

[2] Berger, John. Understanding a Photograph. New York: Aperture Foundation, 2013

Over the next few weeks I will be posting the contents of a paper I wrote for an application that will hopefully result in the continuation of my photographic education. The paper is an exploration into the idea of truth within the confines of a photograph.

The borders of a photograph represent boundaries of time and space. Within those boundaries only so much information can exist. Therefore, when a photograph is taken it captures only a single moment of time and excludes all others. The edges of the photograph further decide what is seen and what is unseen. The result is an exclusion of information and the de-contextualization of the information being communicated. In documentary photography this can create certain problems for the viewer. Namely, can a photograph represent the truth?

In the “Allegory of the Cave,” Plato saw truth as the light, the ultimate wisdom. According to Plato, truth does not exist in the material world we in which live. All we see are shadows, evidence of the reality beyond our sight. These shadows are only partial-truths. In order to see the whole truth Plato believed we must break our bonds from the material world in which we live and move beyond to travel outside the cave.

Plato’s discussion in the “Allegory of the Cave,” is set between Socrates, his teacher and mentor and his brother, Glaucon. Socrates describes people as prisoners chained inside the cave facing a blank wall. Behind them there is a fire. Objects passing before the fire casts shadows upon the blank space. In their confinement these shadows are given names by the prisoners and ultimately become their reality. Plato has Socrates describe how a philosopher is the one who is able to break free from the chains and see the truth of the shadows before him. The other prisoners do not make moves to break free of their imprisonment at first because they prefer to live the life they know. Eventually, though they too follow and discover the light.

The very nature of photography is like the philosopher, to seek the light, to capture it, to bend it, and to record it. The translation of the word photograph from the Greek is ‘light-writing,’ a representation of photography’s technical process. A photographer uses a camera’s mechanics to focus and record light onto a sensitized surface creating what we know as the photograph.

A photographer’s mission in taking photographs is to reveal and inform the viewer about the world we live in. A photographer sees what a viewer may miss and makes it seen. We take photographs to try and capture the light beyond the cave, an attempt at unveiling the truth.

But a photograph is more than just a record of light, it is also a record of shadows. It captures not only the truth, the light beyond the boundaries of the cave but also the shadows, the half-truths that encompass our reality. The confines that exist within the physical space of a photograph, as well as the process of its creation construct a paradigm in which the whole truth cannot exist. A photograph can only be a representation of a partial truth.

I have been in love with photography since I was first handed a camera as a young teen. Nearly every paper, every project, every piece of art I’ve been asked to create has found its origins in the realm of photography. I have studied the art of photographic creation and the science behind its ability to communicate.

During my times at USM and SU, my interest in a photograph’s relationship with the art of storytelling began. At SU, especially, my education focused on using the still photograph by itself as well as in conjunction with other mediums to tell cohesive stories. Storytelling has been a part of human history since the very beginning. Our traditions have ranged from an oral history to the more physical elements of painting and sculpture to the present when we are developing storytelling in the ethereal world of the internet. Photography is a more recent part of storytelling’s history but has developed into a medium that everyone can relate their experience.

I want to follow and explore that path from the time of Brady during the American Civil War through Dorothea Lange of the Great Depression to the present day Lynsey Addario and see how photography has developed as a storytelling technique. This blog will be an outlet for the journey I take along that path.

The Reading List

  • Understanding a Photograph, by John Berger

  • Towards a Philosophy of Photography, by Vilém Flusser

  • The Photograph:  A Strange, Confined Space, by Mary Price