Mindmap of visual studies
Three social uses of images that define visuality as a primary mode of understanding, and also of our production as cultural beings.


Communicating the essence of environment

Recent emergence of ‘green’ readings of Romantic poetry argue that the mind has evolved through being rooted in and shaped by the same underlying processes that can be identified in nature. The proliferation of images in our society, coupled with the ever-increasing speed of technology, has led scholars to critically examine the role of visuality in the moulding of ideas about nature. Images of nature make their impact through museums, magazines, TV and movies. However, it can be argued that for most people photography has a major influence. It therefore seems appropriate to begin to explore the language of photography as an environmental communication system. .

Photography begins and ends with what Cartier-Bresson described as `the decisive moment'; that fraction of a second when the shutter clicks. The photographer then works technically to see what the view she has captured can look like when photographed. The process takes an appearance from a continuum of appearances in the real world. By choosing sights and things to remove from her environment, the photographer aims to archive experiences and phenomena. Photographs are therefore representation of what was selected through the viewfinder as objects, signs, symbols, places, people, shapes, textures, patterns and strangenesses (ostragenie). As a collection, the appearances comprise a personal statement about the photographer's understanding of her environment. Each photograph yields a new understanding when the viewer makes a connection with his particular experiences. He adds a past and future to the appearance thereby creating a story, which is unlikely to be the same as that which motivated the photographer to take the picture in the first place.

A photograph presents an appearance of what once was. It is a representation extracted from a continuous flow of appearances beginning before the photographer arrived and continuing after she has gone. It has meaning in the mind of the photographer as one of her ideas. For example, she can take away a biographical artifact, a pictorial record as an aid-memoire, or an expression of feeling.

Most photographs fall into the category of snapshots to be assembled as part of a personal biography of illustrations. Photographs taken to express a feeling generated by a particular appearance have been described by John Berger as 'quotations'. That is to say, a photograph is an expression of language in the form of a pictures taken to support the photographer’s attitude towards her environment. This was John Berger's answer to the question, 'What kind of means of expression is photography?' Photographs are quotations because the camera `articulates' an unmistakable meaning to an appearance in the viewfinder. Because it was created to contain meaning, the image behaves as what Berger calls 'a half language of appearances'. Photographs are quotations of various lengths, the length being determined by the wealth of ideas instigated by the appearance. The length of the quotation is also defined by the intensity of the expectation of further meaning being generated in the viewer's mind.

The language content of a photographic quotation consists of two basic parts; the subject, which has been defined as the `studium' or primary meaning; and the `punctum' or secondary meaning. The primary meaning is the literal denotation of the appearance and its elements, such as a mountain or a Parisian street. The punctum is the connotation of the appearance within a particular culture and/or the memory of the viewer. These two meanings have also been described respectively as 'the sight' and the `irrritant. The irritant is an element within the appearance that stands out in the mind of the viewer as something that calls for a special cultural explanation of the appearance. For example a classic photograph by Robert Doiseneau shows an ordinary street with a conventionally attired bride and groom in the distance about to enter a café restaurant; there is only one other figure in the foreground. The message of a photograph may have been included fortuitously with respect to the viewer reading a message into an image where none was intended. However, where the photograph shows one thing and means another this usually results from the cropping or filtering devices deliberately employed by the photographer, often to encapsulate a statement of visual irony.

In summary, photographs are ambiguous. They are the meeting place of the photographer, her subject and the viewer and these three interests are usually contradictory. Because of these contradictions and the fact that the appearance is a discontinuity in time, where what was going on `before the shot' and how things continued 'after the shot' were unknown to the photographer, a photograph goes with any story one chooses to invent. Photographs are a kind of language to be read in the context of the viewer's experience and it is he who thereby permeates the picture with feeling. Following Berger’s ideas, a photograph is interpreted and becomes tractable through the imagination of the viewer. No matter what the motivation of the photographer, a photograph only gains meaning in the minds of those who see it. In this context, an important task of a photographer is to make cultural space readable. The biology of picture taking is therefore bound up with other cultural practices that involve the collection of objects to help the collector gain a deeper understanding of a culture.

Transfering things from the environment

The urge to collect is a ubiquitous phenomenon, more common in men than women, which has anthropological, sociobiological and individual psychodynamic roots. Systematic collecting may be distinguished from addictive, obsessive and messy collecting, and from related phenomena such as perversion. The mode of collecting and choice of object are important indicators as to the unconscious psychodynamics of a collector. Collecting is a very difficult pastime to intellectualise. The museum curator collects because it is part of the job. But this is not personal collecting; it is an almost dispassionate accumulating of material culture in whatever form, to teach, to chronicle, to challenge and to enliven. But personal collecting is another matter. Taking photographs is bound up with the question, why do people collect things and what do they collect?

Some of the things which people become fascinated with may seem trivial, but we should remember that very often the trivial is part of a wider story. A focus by an individual on, say, Claris Cliff pottery, will provide more in-depth information on that subject than a wide-ranging museum collection, which may contain only a few examples. The explosion of popular collections seems to be a product of the late twentieth century where the commodification of objects had increased through mass production. Items were produced specifically for people to collect. It was in this early commercial environment that photography had its beginnings in the commercial development of the camera for a mass market, so it is part and parcel of the commodification associated with industrial production to meet human wants. Photographs quickly became time capsules of knowledge as a combination of skills and selection that anyone could produce or acquire.

In relation to collecting photographs as a photographer and/or viewer, Susan Sontag wrote;

“Photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all the objects that make up, and thicken, the environment we recognize as modern. Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood”.

This points up the social value of photographs as material tokens of knowledge. In the past, objects that functioned as material carriers of tribal knowledge represent a specific design of high quality based on great skill in craftwork. The objects produced are based on diverse natural material and are made as distinct representations of a traditional way of life. For example, the Sámi of Northern Norway specific produce objects, such as baskets, that have a clearly practical function. Even if this object is recently made it is loaded with information about cultural traditions, which can only be adequately collected and secured through fieldwork - observing, recording and interpreting people´s narratives related to the object. Thereby the object can talk, it conveys a culture-specific message. The definition of ‘knowledge objects’ is applicable to the production of photographs. As an expression of social evolution, they function as cultural artefacts used to transmit explanations of human behaviour from and between knowers and learners. They can be read in various ways as symbols of human culture, illustrating its past and present reality, and can be uses as mental scaffolds upon which to elaborate a personal body of knowledge as a professional critic or an enthusiastic amateur.

Berger, J, Mohr, J. & Philibert, N., (1882) Another way of seeing, Writers and Readers
Clarke, G (1997) The photograph, Oxford University