Theory, Binary Oppositions and Spectrums – some thoughts…

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Bubion; Alpujarras, Spain – 2008

While it may not be too apparent on this blog, I’ve been doing rather a lot of reading while I’ve been studying for Context and Narrative. As I have done so, it’s become more and more apparent to me that many (if not most) ideas in photography occupy positions somewhere between a set of poles. Some are binary (ie thing and not thing) while other are situated on a spectrum (thing, a little less thingy, even less thingy, a bit un-thingy, very un-thingy, not thing).

To give a few examples, you could take:

  • Mirror and Window
  • Naked and Nude
  • Inside and Outside
  • Pictorialist and Straight
  • Street and Studio
  • Subject and Object
  • Hot and Cold

And so on and so on…

This strikes me as a useful tool to use when applying your critical faculties to a photograph or a body of photographs.


For example, you could take Vernacular and Art (from a photographic view).

In Badger (it may be in the BBC TV series, rather than the book – I’ll amend the reference if this I find this is the case, after another re-watching), these are defined as Art = Photographs taken for display within the discourse of “art”; and  every other use of photography. This gives you a neat – if starkly binary – opposition. There are pictures that are taken to exist within notions of what is “art” and there are pictures that have been taken for any one of a number of other reasons.

From Victorian times, people have been taking photographs with the intention that the resulting picture should be more than just a simple record of what is in front of the camera. Often this involves making things seem less than perfect reproductions (the blurriness of Julia Margaret Cameron’s pictures, say) at other times this has involved an emphasis on technical perfection (the amazing depth of focus in Weston’s pictures of peppers or in Ansel Adams’ pictures of the wild western landscapes found in American national parks) or of “not being able to see the join” in the massive composite pictures of Gursky or Wall. Whatever form this takes, the determining factor of the art photograph is the “made-ness” of the photograph calling attention to itself, or rather to the person operating the equipment.

Then, throughout the history of photography, you have had pictures that have been taken for a vernacular reason (any series of pictures published or commissioned during the 30s or 40s by Life or the FSA for political purposes; Muybridge’s galloping horse, taken to settle a bet) which then get plucked from their original context and put up in a gallery with enough prestige to transform them into Art, a process often initiated by John Szarkowski while he was working at MOMA in New York.

The elevation in 1964 of Jacques Henri Lartique’s snapshots (taken when he was a child) would be a case in point: I have been aware of him since I first saw his picture of a speeding racing car, taken in 1912 and displayed in a double-page spread among the plates in a paperback copy of Eric de Mare’s Photography which I bought in a Glasgow second-hand book shop sometime in the early eighties. This is the 7th edition of de Mare’s book. The first edition (published in 1957) almost certainly wouldn’t have contained a single picture by Lartigue; this one actually has two: there is the bourgeois woman dressed in black with her dogs in the Bois du Boulogne as well, although this  is only reproduced over half a page.

Rather than undermine the binary nature of the opposition, this instead reinforces it. The pictures that seem to exemplify some characteristic of photography that has become relevant to the gallery can cross the divide and gain immortality while the rest will vanish into obscurity or at any rate gradually go yellow in boxes in attics or on the pages of old magazines. Of course some discarded images are then discovered as the definition of “Art Photography” continues to change and comes to value other things and they come to fit the latest idea in turn .

The process does not seem to work in the opposite direction: Art Photographs don’t get demoted; there is no Vauxhall conference for pictures. They just don’t get included in big exhibitions any more and become of interest historically rather than exemplifying some aspect of “photography” that is still viewed as crucial. What is seen as the “Art of Photography” (or its genius, or its nature) at any given time may not necessarily recognise a particular form that Art Photography has used to signify artiness (or the presence of an Artist, which is not quite the same thing). But this is a process of curation rather than one of photography.

By way of illustrating this, here is a picture that leapt out of me from the TV version of The Genius of Photography (it’s not reproduced in the book but it is easy to find online):

Nell, Marks, Carie, Abe - Lake Conesus, 1893

Nell, Marks, Carie, Abe – Lake Conesus, 1893 (George Eastman House, Rochester, NY)

This is marvellously vernacular. It is alive, with people who you can imagine knowing. It is a photograph that – moustaches and the women’s bathing costumes aside – could be taken today. You wonder if Marks and Abe are holding Carie up out of the water, or if she is the only one standing. You wonder who took the picture, or – if early Kodaks had one – if it was done with a timer, and the camera perched on a rock or at the end of a pier. It’s brilliant; it’s a picture I would love to take.

I find it much more attractive as a picture than anything I’ve seen by Julia Margaret Cameron, say (who was, admittedly, working 30-odd years earlier and who is credited with at least filling the frame with the heads of her subjects in a very modern – if often out of focus – way) and this comes down largely to the naturalness and good nature of the snap when contrasted with Cameron’s appropriation of the seriousness of Victorian painting, both in subject matter and formal things like composition. As Dickens had Mrs Malaprop say, “Allegories should stay in Egypt.”

Which links neatly into my Victorian control pictures for this comparison between Art and Vernacular. It’s not the freedom gained with a relatively portable, easy to use camera that I can identify with here so much as the experience of making pictures. The photo at the top of the post was taken with a 60s SLR during a holiday to Spain in 2008; I immediately felt a kinship with J.B. Greene (best known for his pictures of archaeological sites in Egypt) when I saw his pair of plates of the hilltop village of Constantine, Algeria (1856) as part of the exhibition Salt and Silver at Tate Britain last year. Like Cameron he was working with the unwieldy infrastructure and workflow that goes with a large-format, plate camera, but unlike her he was not taking pictures from inside the intellectual space that constituted the Victorian art-world.

While his photographs were possibly intended as a composited panorama, I stood looking and remembered the sensation of looking at something while on a trip abroad that was definitely a photograph but having difficulty in working out where to put it in the frame to make it work. For the record, I don’t think either of us quite got it, but that’s not really what’s at stake here: neither of us were taking pictures for exhibition on a gallery wall; both of us took the pictures, probably running through similar things in out heads. “Art” photographs are taken with one set of things in mind, vernacular work with another; the vernacular approach is more likely to transcend time than the one that is trying to create art in ways controlled by the dominant artistic discourses of the day.

So. You have two approaches: one characterised as Art; the other as Vernacular. One – I feel at least – is easily identifiable as a position from which to make pictures; the other is more difficult to imagine as a place where I would be comfortable to make work.


Looking through the photographers examined in part three, there are obvious places to slot in some of these oppositions: Elina Bortherus offers opportunities to look at Naked (Annonciation) and Nude (the Model Series); Francesca Woodman’s pictures seem to be both Windows and Mirrors (often at the same time); Nikki Lee offers a chance to look at Inside and Outside and so on.

Every one doesn’t neatly help illustrate an opposition, and I’m not going to try and force this any further than feels right. But in a lot of cases, it does seem offer a useful perspective on how to read pictures and – as such – something I’m sure I’ll return to in part 4…


References: –

  • Gerry Badger – The Genius of Photography (Quadrille, 2007)
  • Polly Fleurie (ed) – Salt and Silver (MACK, 2015)
  • Eric de Mare – Photography (7th Edition, Penguin Books, 1980)

Fixing the Shadows 1800-1914; The Genius of Photography (1/6, BBC TV,  October 26th 2007) – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0084lk4

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