Monday, 15 April 2013

Starting the Debate - What Is A Photograph?

What is a photograph? 

Sleights Church, near Whitby, North Yorkshire
Some time ago, and in a couple of different arenas, I made an attempt "To define a Photograph". It is a concept that is still active in my mind, so I'll give it another go here.

After thirty years as a photographer, what I nowadays find most interest in is not particularly the photograph as artefact (although I anticipate that such considerations will occupy at least some of my time), but rather the photograph as cultural construct. Thinking about the photograph raises many questions in my mind. What differentiates the photograph from any other kind of image? Why is it not the same as a painting, a drawing, a sculpture, a pictograph? What conditions have to be met for an image to qualify as a photograph, and possibly more contentiously, what disqualifies an image from being called a photograph? Are such distinctions important?

If you have found your way by some accident to this page, and your curiosity has been piqued, you might use the comments box to make statements, ask questions, or give references to any and all things related to the overall question. I may speculate, quote passages from books, magazines, web sites, or even TV programmes, that can further the project, and if I receive any contributions via the comments box, I may respond to those views or statements.

Whitby Harbour at night
An obvious aspect of this project will be to think about how we read photographs. Some of the photographs that I take for myself, and some of the work of other photographers that I discover in my meanderings through photography, might be used to support (or undermine) some of the ideas that I explore in this examination of "What is a Photograph?" As a start to this new site, I will start with an initial response to the original question from a friend, Graham Winder. Graham suggested the following link, and the quote from Andreas Feininger:

"Photography as a hobby

If photography is your hobby you are an amateur. An amateur is defined as a person who does something because he loves to do it - he does it for the pleasure of it. If you are to be successful as an amateur you must have pride in your work and derive a feeling of self-respect and satisfaction through doing it. The only way to reach this desirable state is to do original work.

As an amateur, you have an advantage over other photographers - you can do as you wish. You have no boss. No one to tell you what is wanted; nor to suggest how it might be done. This should make amateurs the happiest of photographers.

Unfortunately, this is rarely true. Very few amateurs realise their unique position and take advantage of it. Most of them are indecisive, lacking in both purpose and goal. To compensate for lack of direction they look desperately for guidance. This inevitably leads them into imitation of the work of others in the thought that what worked well for someone else will work as well or better for them. Once a photographer competes on this level, he will quite likely end by being part of that society for mutual admiration, the photo-club. If this happens, he gives up the chance of becoming a photographer with something of value to say.

To avoid the trap of imitation, don’t concentrate your attention on what some other photographer does, whether he is your friend or a stranger whose work you respect. People are different, and another’s approach or interest may be totally wrong for you. You are you - so be yourself, and be proud of it. Listen to criticism, but analyse it carefully and accept only that advice which you are convinced applies to you - your kind of work, your temperament and personality, your goals."
Andreas Feininger - The Complete Photographer"

So, to finish, a couple of technical definitions:

(From "The Focal Encyclopedia of Photography"; Desk Edition 1960, Edited by Frederick Purves).
"PHOTOGRAPHY. Literally, 'writing with light" (from the Greek, phos, photos - light + suffix graphos - writing). The term is generally accepted as any method of producing a visible image by the action of light - for example, on light-sensitive silver salts. The use of the term was suggested by Sir John Herschel to William Henry Fox Talbot in a letter dated 28th. February, 1839. It was also used in the Vossische Zeitung of Berlin on 25th. February, 1839, in an article over initials which point to the astronomer Johann von Maedler, who was a correspondent of Herschel's."

"PHOTOGRAPHY. (from Greek φωτο and γραφία) is the process, activity and art of creating still or moving pictures by recording radiation on a sensitive medium, such as a film or an electronic sensor. Light patterns reflected or emitted from objects activate a sensitive chemical or electronic sensor during a timed exposure, usually through a photographic lens in a device known as a camera that also stores the resulting information chemically or electronically. Photography has many uses for business, science, art and pleasure.

The word "photography" comes from the Greek φώς (phos) "light" + γραφίς (graphis) "stylus", "paintbrush" or γραφή (graphê) "representation by means of lines" or "drawing", together meaning "drawing with light." Traditionally, the products of photography have been called negatives and photographs, commonly shortened to photos."

 Of course, the digital 'revolution' means that some of the stages in the traditional, or 'analogue', process have either changed or disappeared, and that may give rise to disagreements in terms of definitions.

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