Friday, September 29, 2006


Also like Ben, yesterday's posting was only a mention of a failure to post the previous day. I feel like this is not acceptable and so would like to make up for it with a substantial post today. Don't really know what I want to write about though, and I don't really have - or really shouldn't have - time enough at work to make a serious entry. However, I am thinking of writing about this essay on photography in the Boston Review.
I think it's an interesting essay and I am still formulating my response to it, but I don't agree with it in many ways. At the least with its way of arguing, since it would be hard to disagree with at least some of Susie Linfield's conclusions that
It is precisely because these photos are so confusing—such utter failures at providing answers—that they are so valuable: by refusing to tell us what to feel, and allowing us to feel things we don’t quite understand, they make us dig, and even think, a little deeper. In approaching photos such as these, the point is not to formally disassemble them in the hope of gaining mastery; nor to reject them as feeble, partial truths; nor to deny the uncomfortable, unfamiliar reactions they elicit. Instead, we can use the photos’ ambiguities as a starting point of discovery, a tool with which to delve into the larger historic realities at which the images can only hint. By connecting these photographs to the world outside their frames, they begin to live, to breathe, more fully; otherwise they simply devolve into spectacles.
This argument is not all that controversial. The rest of her article, however, addresses photography critics who appear to hate photography or at least approach it with extreme distrust and without any of the pleasure with which critics of other mediums approach their sources. Linfield argues that, like Pauline Kael for film for example, photography critics should engage photography with all of their senses, using their critical faculties to examine their emotional responses. I don't necessarily disagree that it shouldn't happen in that fashion, I disagree that it hasn't been happening.
I think that the critics that she quotes write sometimes about photography with seeming vitriol precisely because they don't want photography to become a static document, a harbringer of some reality. The critics were reacting to the early perception of photography as a strictly documentary medium, one which conveys exactly what it means to. And because photography is a more recent development, which Linfield does point out, the struggle with presentation / representation etc. took place more visibly to us. I also don't think that it hasn't been an issue with film, or with the other arts that she mentions actually, but the audience approached film as a medium for fiction much faster than they did photography.
As far as Linfield's method of arguing goes, I'll provide a couple of examples. She begins the essay with a description of positive critical approaches, including film. But when later she gives reasons for the critical antipathy toward photography, one of the most significant is its base in technology and modern man. A statement that is surely true even more for film.
Also, consider this passage:
There is much that is bracing, and revelatory, and so wonderfully challenging about Brecht’s emotional astringency. Who can not admire a man who, in one of his very first poems, announces to the women in his life, “Here you have someone on whom you can’t rely.” What is often forgotten, however, is that Brecht—like Moses—was a particular man who lived in a particular time and place and who observed particular things.
"a particular man who lived in a particular time and place and who observed particular things" that is fairly vague, but what gets me is the drop in "like Moses." I mean, what? I suppose one could follow the analogy - Brecht, like Moses with the Jews, wanted to lead the German people from the oppression of growing ideology - but it is so strained and so awkwardly placed that it immediately destroyed any semblance of a coherent flow to the argument.
This is not a substantive critique, I am aware, way too vague and lacking examples. I don't really have time right now to look for some. But I want to develop this further, so I might post something else, or edit this as the day wears on.
Comments are welcome.


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