Photographic Arguments

06 Mar

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Let’s begin with a cautionary tale: as wonderful as this technology is, and as many great things we can do with it, like repairing damage, accenting with color, and making our own art, we have to be aware that it can go too far.  Case in point: this photo.  Yes, her kneecaps have been digitally erased.  Let’s not go overboard.

I was downright gleeful when reading this series, a very rare feeling for me in this class.  Morris makes precisely the argument I do – photographs are NOT objective texts. They are just as biased and manipulated as textual sources. Every aspect of a photo is staged. Take a look at some photos I took this summer.  Without context, do you know where this is?  Or what it is?

How about now?

It’s the point Curtis made in Part 2, and Morris made in Part 5.  Photography, all photography, is constructed, and we as historians need to be aware of that.  The photographer chooses a subject, arranges the shot, adds or subtracts elements, and takes the shot.  The addition and subtraction doesn’t need to be physical.  As Morris pointed out, just by selecting certain elements to include, the photographer is editing the scene.  It’s not reality.  As historians, we need to remember that every photograph is as constructed as a text document.  It’s not only a good idea to remember, but it leads to an excellent question: WHY did the photographer choose to compose the shot this way?  Photographers, even amateurs, bring their own argument to the shot and construct it to reflect that argument.  Do you know what the argument of the first photo is?

To go back to Morris’ point in Part 5, it’s not just the composition of the image, but the selection of which image(s) to publish.  What if I’d provided this series?  Do you know what the argument of the first photo is now?

The whole series makes it clear what the subject is, and the immediate reactions would related to the artistic composition, rather than “What am I looking at?”  And the argument behind the photo is clearer.  Most of the photographs we’ll use as sources won’t be snapshots taken on vacation – but even those are composed.  Conscious thought went into these photos, where we stood, the angle of the camera, the position of the sun, how the reflections would work, all to create this more interesting photo.

Coffee on me for the first person to figure out the first photograph’s argument.


Posted by on March 6, 2011 in Readings


6 responses to “Photographic Arguments

  1. Greg

    March 6, 2011 at 11:17 pm

    In all honesty, the moment I saw your first image I knew what it was. I’m from St. Louis though. Cheating I guess. As for the argument…?? Lovely photographs though, and fine points made about photos in general and what their use entails. Your point about the photos that are chosen to be published made me recall Curtis’ comment in Part 2 about the difference between the massive collection of (largely) unedited photos placed in the F.S.A. archive taken by Rothstein, versus those you would find in a collection of Ansel Adams’ work that have been picked over, edited and chosen carefully.

  2. abradsh32

    March 8, 2011 at 4:49 pm

    Okay, here it is: I think that your meaning was that the gateway to the west was nothin more than just a sliver of significance in the overall story of America. Okay, I just lost right there in the middle of that statement and found that i had to end it some way. I’ll stick with it, though, and will be awaiting my coffee this evening!!!!

  3. erika

    March 8, 2011 at 5:22 pm

    great graphic explanation of objectivity is bunk.

    and st. louis is a line in the horizon that divides us only momentarily..

    i like my coffee black with splenda. 🙂

  4. Alexa

    March 8, 2011 at 5:25 pm

    So my question is this: if you were assembling a photo album of your trip to St. Louis, would you include all the shots of the arch, or would you select one “representative” image? For most of us, digital photography precludes the necessity of being selective; we can just keep thousands of images trapped on our hard drives and CDs, and never let them go. Until they come for our storage units.

    • zaynawoman

      March 8, 2011 at 5:41 pm

      The originals are on my hard drive, and the album of the “good stuff” is online. I deleted a few that were completely unidentifiable, but only if we had a better shot available. All the shots of the arch are in the online album. I find online storage works best for me, simply because of my packrat tendencies. But these issues of editing and storage are the same for prints or digital copies – some people (packrats like me) will keep everything they can, and others will purge everything after 3 months. Both tendencies will cause a lot of angst for future historians.


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