Saturday, January 10, 2009

Kracauer on Photography

Siegfried Kracauer was a cultural analyst and member of the applied social sciences group at Columbia University. His work laid the foundation for modern film criticism and he is the author of several works including Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality. One of his first essays on photography appeared in the Frankfurter Zeitung in the 1920’s and was latter published in The Mass Ornament.

Underlying Kracauer’s analysis was his tenet that the inconspicuous, quotidian expressions of a culture reveal more about it than its own self-pronouncements. Everyday phenomena such as photos or the nature of popular literature and film are unmediated representations of a culture. Drewniany and Jewler (2008, p 185) remind us that in creative design, a picture is worth a thousand words. Kracauer extended his analysis beyond film into advertising, tourism, city layout, and dance.

Regarding the photograph, he observes that if we enlarge its resolution, we can make out the dots in it, which are matrixed together into recognizable shapes. However, Kracauer observes that the photo attempts to be more than just a reference to the dot matrix shape. It tries to represent the subject matter of an event, which it can not. Without a supporting history or a memory that is associated with the subject matter, the shapes on a photo are not adequate to recreate an understanding of the event.

He believes that photos are a history lacking context or meaning. They are particularly unlike memories, which are retained because of some personal significance. Someone organizes memories according to the personal significance of those memories, while a photograph is an inventory of every spatial detail of a place at a moment. Memories are never only spatial and the significant information in a memory is usually not spatial but in any case cannot be fully condensed to the simplicity of a spatial representation.

There is a variance between photos and memory. Memories are only incomplete fragments to the photographer and often without a spatial representation. They appear as fragments, though, only because a mechanical process like photography does not understand meaning and so cannot incorporate it. However, when memory fragments are associated with a common meaning they become a relational whole.

Memory in turn has reason to doubt a photo. Photo’s usually contain irrelevant litter, and are a jumble of relevant and irrelevant detail. Often the irrelevance is spatial in nature and not just a lack of meaning. [The need for photographic editing software attests to this.] A photo by itself is a suspect truth. It ignores the history of the subjects before the scene. Here there is a partial correspondence between memory and a photo. A person’s memory likewise omits characteristics and determinations of a history, but only those which are not related to the reality the person perceives in their activated consciousness.

A photo is the attempt to reduce the entire circumstance into one graphic image from one viewpoint. An artist using a camera can surmount the abovementioned shortcomings of photography by adding meaning or theme to the elements in a photograph. An artistic composition fashions the elements of a photograph “to a higher purpose. “

The artist uses different rules than the photographer, whose main concern is with the technical details of the process. The Art rules use associations to penetrate the surface cohesion of the photograph to give it a meaning. The photographer, in contrast to the artist, generally does not explore the elements or create a composition to highlight their associations. The result from a photographer is a stockpiling of unconnected elements. Without a substantive understanding of the elements in the composition, photographers are dilettantes who ape an artistic manner.

Can a photograph become timeless? Kracauer quotes E.A. DuPont, “the essence of film is the essence of time.” Because photography is a function of time, then its implications may change depending on the timeframe applied to it. In a new time period, the understanding of the scene in an old photograph is difficult to reconstruct, or as Menander put it “You can never step into the same river twice.” The subjects have moved on or the associations have changed so the image no longer recreates the desired effect. An old photo is then a diminution of its previous essence.

Kracauer argues there is a correspondence with how time affects photography and how it affects fashion. Both a photograph and a fashion are transparent when modern and empty when old. It is only the very old that obtain attention as having the beauty of an antique. Antique is beautiful because it is different in a world where there is a constant selling of newness that is the same. There is a risk with the recent past that the meaning of the composition has changed because the associations or the elements themselves are now outdated. While such is just as outdated as the very old, it still claims to be alive but Kracauer concludes it is merely ludicrous instead. It painfully tries to hold ground that is already lost. In contrast, the antique has surrendered that ground.

Drewniany, B and J Jewler (2008). Creative Stratgey in Advertising. Wadsworth.

Kracauer, S and T. Levin (2005) The Mass Ornament. Harvard.

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