BA Phot

Unified Theory of Photography

Back - Definitions - Itself

Photographer - Object - Gaze - Subject - Photograph - Channels - Versions - Choices - Viewer

O'Kane - Szarkowski - Shore -

[ spellchecked 10Jul22] ]

Box A
Unified Theory of Photography

[17Sep21] I have been thinking about The Thing Itself, having found two references in Weston's Flame of Recognition (1982) in a Brighton bookshop earlier this week (it's on order). Last night it came to me that:
each Photographer has their Itself, what spurs them to ake a particular photograph; and: each Viewer has their Punctum, pursuit of personally meaningful imagery.
put them both together and we have a UTP.

This was first stated at the beginning of LPE, though drawing on notions deriving from earlier modules. It is likely to get its first outing in the Book of I&P. [10Jul22 it didn't.]

And that brings us to the Sontag / La Grange quote,

photographs do not seem strongly bound by the intention of the photographer Sontag, On Photography, quoted in La Grange (2005) p.37

noting the clarification here.


1. Photographer

The photographer, obviously, makes the most important choices in the process. John Szarkowski in The photographer's eye (2007) defines these as:

The Thing Itself, The Detail, The Frame, Time and Vantage Point.

That is as good a starting point as any and better than most. Stephen Shore and Paul O'Kane have their versions and there are plenty more.

The notes are copied from those made early in my studies and will do for now.

The Thing Itself This is the object, see #2. The important point for Szarkowski that a photograph is not reality but it "evokes the tangible presence of reality … a simpler, more permanent, more clearly visible version of the plain fact" (p. 12). This needs to be taken in the context of its time: pre-digital, pre-Photoshop.

The Detail — The photograph is not narrative and the photograph does not explain. The photographer chooses what seems "relevant and consistent" (p. 42)

The Frame — The frame isolates the subject although reality extends beyond the frame. "If the photographer’s frame surrounded two figures, isolating them from the crowd in which they stood, it created a relationship between those two figures that had not existed before" (p.9). There is a glorious analogy, "The photographer edits the meanings and patterns of the world through an imaginary frame. This frame is beginning of his picture's geometry. It is to the photograph as the cushion is to the billiard table" (p.70).

Time — Szarkowski makes two main points here, firstly that photography offered a view never seen before, citing Muybridge's horses as a key example. Second, and more important nowadays, there is "a pleasure and a beauty in this fragmenting of time that [has] little to do with what [is] happening". This ties in with Cartier-Bresson's decisive moment which Szarkowski clarifies: "the phrase has been misunderstood; the thing that happens at the decisive moment is not a dramatic climax but a visual one. The result is not a story but a picture" (p. 10).

Vantage Point — Photography has allowed otherwise unavailable sights and views, sometimes because of constraints on the photographer, sometimes because of the imaginativeness and insight of the photographer. Photographs have influenced artists (Francis Bacon is cited) and photography itself. "From his photographs, he [the photographer] learned that the appearance of the world was richer and less simple than his mind would have guessed. He discovered that his pictures could reveal not only the clarity but the obscurity of things, and that these mysterious and evasive images could also, in their own terms, seem ordered and meaningful (p. 126).

Stephen Shore (2007) specifies The Physical Level, The Depictive Level, The Mental Level and Mental Modelling.

Paul O'Kane (2014) lists the aspects as Chemic, Digitality, Graphic, Photic and Semiotic

There are numerous ways to describe the photographer's role and activities. They are the starting point of the photographic transaction.

2. Object

The difference between subject and object was one of the issues that disturbed my understanding since the beginning of the course (see here). The term subject tends to be used generally for whatever is in front of the camera, but that is blurred by concepts such as subjectivity and objectivity and by issues of the objectification of subjects, often by means of the male gaze.

I take the view that in technical terms, whatever is before the lens is the object of the photograph and that is why, or perhaps because it is called an object lens.

The choice of object is sometimes the photographer's alone, sometimes entirely the choice of a third party and often a combination of the two.

As will be seen below, object + gaze = subject.

3. Photographer's Gaze

and concerning the thing itself

In his essay The Thing Itself (1988), Bill Jay states that,

Photography performs one function supremely well: it shows what something or somebody looked like, under a particular set of conditions at a particular moment in time.

The photographer is, first and foremost, a selector of subjects.

[the photographer's] immediate emotional or intellectual response to the subject matter is at the core of photography. Its periphery is the photographer's manipulation of framing, focus, exposure, lighting, and all the other variables, in order that a bland record is invested with depth through the production of an intriguing image. Bill Jay, The Thing Itself, 1988

Gaze has two aspects, the descriptive and the pejorative.

As a descriptive tool was developed by several writers during the 1980s and 90s and that is described in my notes in I&P Part 3, Page 2 and in my book of the course, A Fair Likeness, 2021 pp.22-28. The gazes include the audience, averted, bystander, camera, direct, editorial, internal and spectator.

The gaze as a pejorative largely rounds on the male, imperial and touristic, that are seen to affect the way in which photographs are made, what they depict and what they imply to the viewer. It is suggested in the I&P essay that while inequitable attitudes can be manifested and reinforced by the camera, the fact that two identical photographs can be taken by two people of different backgrounds, then necessarily, any judgement of this type is subjective and / or post-facto.

Notwithstanding the above preliminaries, the photographer applies his or her gaze, via the camera, to the object and in doing so makes selections of viewpoint, lighting, lens, background, depth of field, framing and so on.

4. Subject

Edward Weston wrote repeatedly of The Thing Itself (1971, pp. 12, 41),

the camera should be used for a recording of life, for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself, whether polished steel or palpitating flesh …
To see the Thing Itself is essential: the Quintessence revealed direct without the fog of impressionism – the casual noting of a superficial phase, or transitory mood.
This then: to photograph a rock, have it look like a rock, but be more than a rock. – Significant presentation – not interpretation. Weston, 1971, 12, 14

I suggest that the photographer takes an object, applies their gaze and in doing so it becomes their subject 1 . This transformation applies with a single photograph, a series or a typology. Weston's approach, emerging from turn of the 20th century pictorialism, is strictly representational and documentary 2 , but photography has moved on since his writings in the 1920s and 30s.

In addition to the strictly representational arm of the craft there are also more subjective approaches, first crystallised by John Szarkowski as Mirrors and Windows (1978), an analysis charactered by this writer (probably amongst others) as the look at this / look at me schools. Szarkowski emphasises that there is "a continuum, a single axis with two poles" and "[m]any of the pictures … live close to the axis" (p.25).

In the gradual revolution that became Postmodernism, subjective and self-centred photography became a key strand of the craft, building on and ultimately redefining what began in 1950s Germany with Steinert et al. who sought to resolve the paradox of combining the camera's innate objectivity with the photographer's wish for subjective self-expression (Mora, 1998, p.187).

The effect on photography in recent years of identity politics combined with mobile telephone cameras and social media has yet to be understood, much less resolved.

1 Badger (2010, pp. 11, 15) seeks to distinguish between subject and subject matter, but in this writer's view, that brings no clarity to the issue of object and subject.
2 Weston ignored his own advice in some of his later pieces.

5. The Photograph

A photograph, if not discarded, will reach its final form in the photographer's hands, usually printed or online, after selection and editing (cropping, image enhancement, perhaps manipulation and so on).

The photographer might prepare various versions of an image for different audiences. This or these are then distributed.

6. the Gazes of Channels

In the same way that a photographer might manifest an influencing gaze, another might be present in the delivery channel (and in the viewer too). An obvious example would be a newspaper, where the selection and use any photograph would be affected by editorial policy, the picture editor, the journalist writing the story and the sub-editor writing the story title and picture caption. Where the story appears in the paper is also relevant.

Similar considerations apply to all other deliveries, even family snapshot where pictures are selected for distribution to other family members, labelled and juxtaposed.

7. Versions of the Photograph

A photograph can be distributed in many forms:
printing at all sizes from a contact print to filling a gallery wall, including newspapers and magazines;
on digital screens, from telephones to multi-screen displays;
projected in a cinema or on the sides of buildings
viewing stereo pairs is in there somewhere.

There may be secondary and tertiary and so on ad infinitum channels with new versions of the image, for example a newspaper report of a gallery exhibition or the spread through social media.

8. Choices of Channel

Each channel (if more than one) will be directed to its audience (even a box of old family photographs or a snap in a wallet might get an occasional outing).

Each person who views a particular image on one of its channels will interpret it in their own way.

A viewer's use of a channel and encountering of an image can be direct or indirect.

The viewing will be indirect if, for example, it results from travelling on a system that displays a piece of advertising or picking up a magazine in a dentist's waiting room or appears on a television in a bar.

Examples of more causally direct, wilful viewing would be an image displayed in an exhibition the viewer chose to attend, displayed in a newspaper or magazine the viewer bought (rather than encountered) or seen through intentionally watching films and TV programs.

The viewer will attend or read sources likely to satisfy them (through pleasure, stimulation, amusement and so on) and will refine that selection process over a lifetime and their taste may alter over time. Similarly, galleries and publishers and other channels will refine their display strategies and advertising campaigns to appeal to and attract their niche audiences.

9. Viewer

La Grange (2005 p.37) paraphrases a statement of Sue Sontag, "photographs do not seem strongly bound by the intention of the photographer" 3 ,
or as Grundberg (2021, p.8) put it, "photographic meaning [is] contingent rather than absolute".

How the viewer interprets a photograph depends on their opinions, experience, state of health, mood and any number of other factors. It is possible that a photograph might trigger a strong emotional reaction in a way never intended or foreseen by the photographer (and that is Barthes' punctum.)

As noted in Choices of Channel, the viewer chooses some of the channels they consume — which galleries and exhibitions they attend, which newspapers and magazines they read, although they will be beset by advertising in the latter. Through these choices they will tend to reinforce their prejudices and occasionally, maybe by chance, find some new avenue of taste to explore. They will always be in search of something to twang their punctum (see Walsingham).

3 I have been blithely touting the quotation for a couple of years, attributing it to Sontag and citing laGrange. To be more precise, laGrange writes,

… photographs do not seem strongly bound by the intentions of the photographer; they are created by '…a loose cooperation … between [the] photographer and subject - mediated by … [a] machine' (p. 53). La Grange, 2005, p.37

and Sontag actually wrote,

Unlike the fine-art objects of pre-democratic eras, photographs don't seem deeply beholden to the intentions of an artist. Rather, they owe their existence to a loose cooperation (quasi-magical, quasi-accidental) between photographer and subject - mediated by an ever simpler and more automated machine, which is tireless, and which even when capricious can produce a result that is interesting and never entirely wrong. (The sales pitch for the first Kodak, in 1888, was: «You press the button, we do the rest." The purchaser was guaranteed that the picture would be «without any mistake.") In the fairy tale of photography the magic box insures veracity and banishes error, compensates for inexperience and rewards innocence. Sontag, 1973, p. 41

laGrange added the "the" and "a", I added the parentheses.


[date] text



UTP References

Badger, G. (2010) The pleasures of good photographs. New York: Aperture Foundation.

Blackburn, N. (2021) A fair likeness. London: BAPhot Publishing.

Grundberg, A. (2021) How photography became contemporary art. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

Jay, B (1988) The Thing Itself. The fundamental principle of photography [online]. Available from [Accessed 17 September 2021].

Mora, G. (1998) Photo SPEAK. NY: Abbeville Press.

La Grange, A. (2005) Basic critical theory for photographers. Burlington, MA: Focal Press.

O'Kane, P (2014) Where is That Light Now? London: eeodo.

Shore, S. (2007) The nature of photographs. 2nd ed. London: Phaidon Press.

Szarkowski, J. (1978) Mirrors and Windows. New York: MoMA.

Szarkowski, J. (2007) The photographer's eye. Revised 3rd ed. New York: MoMA.

Weston, E. (1971) The Flame of Recognition. New York: Aperture

author, (year) Title. Location: Publisher.

author (year) title [online]. website. Available from url [Accessed nn January 2020].

author (year) Title. Location: Publisher.

author, (year) Title. Location: Publisher.

author (year) title [online]. website. Available from url [Accessed nn January 2020].

author, (year) Book Title. Location: Publisher.

author (year) Title. Journal. Vol, pages.

author (year) Title. Newspaper. Date. pages.

Page created 17-Sep-2021 | Page updated 05-Aug-2022