Thoughts on Photography and Consciousness

The truism “Every picture tells a story” is untrue. Pictures do not tell stories. Our minds make up stories about pictures when we look at them. Photographs are generally not as ambiguous as inkblots, but what happens when we look at them is not dissimilar.

The inference of a story from a photograph is more fundamental than the story itself. From this point of view, the freight of literal political presumptions is relieved, opportunities for considerations based on connectedness are revealed, and pragmatic ethical conclusions derived from connections can be deduced.

Photography has long been freed of every reliable measure of objectivity. This has presented photographers with a wild creative liberty and offered the possibility of a new standard of criticism, based on intent rather than content, empathy rather than exclusion and liberated curiosity rather than foregone concept.

In some ways it can seem the response to this liberation has been a retreat into topical narrative or narrow conceptual collars. This is generally more a response to institutional protocol and market pressures to establish a brand than it is to creative curiosity. Rebecca Solnit writes, “The straight line of conventional narrative is too often an elevated freeway permitting no unplanned encounters or necessary detours. It is not how our thoughts travel, nor does it allow us to map the whole world rather than one streamlined trajectory across it.” Or, more succinctly, “The stars we are given. The constellations we make.”

Photography takes place at the intersection of subjective mind and objective mechanism. The stillness of the photographic image makes the interplay of personal intent and technological reproduction open for scrutiny. A photographer senses something intriguing, directs a camera toward it, trips the shutter and the mechanism portrays every hair, twig, speck, blur, shadow, twinkle, angle and inflection. The resulting image can then be decoded to reveal the source of the initial intrigue and/or unintended information. Optical technology records more than common attention can afford, and then affords attentive consideration. Mechanical empiricism is directed by opinion, and then reforms opinion with particular information. Pictures are portable and relatively permanent, which is to say their information can be placed in otherwise impossible contexts at any time. We can see a wildfire in the comfort of a living room on a rainy day. Famously, a senator has been juxtaposed with a terrorist. A nude body reveals itself in the back of the store. A day at the beach can be recalled in the dead of winter. The compelling persuasion of images is in the way the mind selects, interprets and fills in the gaps. Mind, or, more precisely, consciousness, is the fundamental effect.

Julian Jaynes offers a useful definition of consciousness in his book “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.” He starts by explaining what it is not, what it is not necessary for. With simple observations, analogies and examples he makes clear how startlingly little of our existence ever enters the threshold of our awareness. In fact, so little of experience arises into consciousness that it is easy to conclude that it is not necessary at all. Not only are ant colonies, beehives and schools of fish possible without it, so might Babylon have been.

Then he gets to the meat of the matter: “Subjective conscious mind is an analog of what is called the real world. It is built up of a vocabulary or lexical field whose terms are all metaphors or analogs of behavior in the physical world. Its reality is of the same order as mathematics. It allows us to shortcut behavioral processes and to arrive at more adequate decisions. Like mathematics, it is an operator rather than a thing or a repository. And it is intimately bound up with volition and decision.”

He uses the term analog as it applies to a special kind of model, like a map. A map “is not a model in the scientific sense, not a hypothetical model like the Bohr atom to explain something unknown. Instead it is constructed of something well known, if not completely known. Each region of a district of land is allotted a corresponding region on the map, though the materials of land and map are absolutely different and a large portion of the features of the land have to be left out. And the relation between an analog map and its land is a metaphor. If I point to a location on a map and say, “There is Mont Blanc and from Chamonix we can reach the east face this way,” that is really a shorthand way of saying, “The relations between the point labeled ‘Mont Blanc’ and other points is similar to the actual Mont Blanc and its neighboring regions.”

Finally Jaynes defines the functioning nature of consciousness in a kind of carnival mirror jolt where consciousness zeroes in on itself: “A cardinal property of an analog is that the way it is generated is not the way it is used –obviously. A map maker and a map user are doing two different things.” Consciousness functions like someone using and creating a map, scanning the data of sensation and memory to choose an analog narrative direction of action. “It is by the generated structure of consciousness that we then understand the world.”

It is interesting to note that Julian Jaynes published “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” the same year that the Museum of Modern Art published “William Eggleston’s Guide” with John Szarkowski’s introductory essay. Szarkowski concludes that Eggleston’s perfect photographs are “irreducible surrogates for the experience they pretend to record, visual analogues for the quality of one life, collectively a paradigm of a private view, a view one would have thought ineffable, described here with clarity, fullness and elegance.”

The relationship between Szarkowski’s words describing Eggleston’s work and those of Jaynes defining the functions of consciousness is similar to the relationship of a map to a guide. Szarkowski quotes Robert Adams: “The form the photographer records, though discovered in a split second of fact, implies an order beyond itself, a landscape into which all fragments, no matter how imperfect, fit perfectly.” A photograph is in fact a kind of map in and of itself. Modern map making relies on photographs. Both carry implications of location, journey and narrative.

The overriding tendency in photography is to tell a story and, in the case of photography designed to sell, to do so with a brandable autographic style. Eggleston’s work transcends mere stylish narrative without abandoning it. While his pictures describe his world, they also suggest a description of description, a consciousness of consciousness.

Nevertheless, the narrative in photography is a kind of constraint, a formula that keeps the uncertainties and routines of awareness carefully cooped up. A few photographers have hacked away at this tenacious narrative objectivity with varying degrees of success. Szarkowski wrote that “Edward Weston’s best ideas are given to us as pure sensation.” Aaron Siskind specifically pushed his work toward an extreme formalism that addressed what he called “the vast common realm of memories that have gone down below the level of conscious control.” Eggleston has published “The Democratic Forest” and “Los Alamos” which both resist topical outline. Subsequent to the publication of “The Americans” Robert Frank began making pictures that challenged precepts of narration. More recently Wolfgang Tillmans has notably focused on disrupting the descriptive role in photography. The precariousness within the direction suggested by such work is that it can quickly become an arbitrary, solipsistic and pictorialist pastiche of painting, or dry discourse in formalism. Intelligence, discipline and force-of-will can mitigate the risk. But once the exquisite rendering capacity of photography is compromised, the potency of its ability to imply an order beyond itself is generally reduced. Andreas Gursky’s photographs take the opposite approach, offering breathtakingly epic tableau banquets of minute detail, built around grand themes of globalization and post-modern analysis. His use of digital technology to manipulate scale and content calls up questions of veracity, provoking an interesting consideration of credulity. Once again, the prospect of mere parody arises once the punch line has been divulged. Glaring manipulations of fact inevitably make severe demands on the willing suspension of disbelief.

Over the past decade some photographers and critics have begun to make mention of  narration’s existence outside the image. In writing about Roe Ethridge’s work, Martha Schwendener wrote that “viewers create, in their minds, a fully drawn narrative from fragmentary information.” Ethridge explores territory opened up for him by his experience as an editorial magazine photographer, echoing the paths of photographers such as Juergen Teller or Wolfgang Tillmans, and shaking off the typological constraints of the “Dusseldorff School” inspired by Bernd and Hiller Becher. While his images begin with a thematic editorial assignment –whether from an editor or self created- the way he subsequently selects and juxtaposes them for publication or exhibition breaks away from typical patterns of association to afford viewers of his imagery the room to become aware of their own role in understanding experience. The highly suggestive, yet unresolved nature of such editing can call as much attention to the viewer’s imagination as it does the photographer’s intention.

JoAnn Verburg has successfully turned consideration toward the way stories are created from within the context of her own story. By making a rigorous series of intimately domestic photographs of her husband and home life that employ perspective and focus shifting capacities of the 8” X 10” view camera, elements within each image are revealed to have hitherto unsuspected symbolic potency. Particularly, she often includes printed reading matter –books, magazines and newspapers- within her photographs that indicate worlds outside the frame within the frame. Such twists, again, call awareness to the echoing activities of mind.

All of this suggests that it is possible and interesting to more intentionally and minutely describe description with photography. In writing about Lee Friedlander’s work, Peter Galassi discusses “the circular fecundity… in which the described and the description –the inexhaustible quiddity of the world and the ways photography can explore it- follow upon each other like the chicken and the egg.” Perhaps the depictive power of photography can be applied to disrupt simple narrative, without any compromise of fact as recorded by technology, and bring full attention to the “process that invents our analog world.”

The case can be made that too little attention is being paid to the act of inventing narrative. Current journalistic jargon features phrases like “connect the dots”, “cherry picked intelligence” and “the theory of climate change caused by humans.” The crude manipulation of opinion accomplished by the implied connections of a senator juxtaposed with a terrorist is typical of competing narrative invention. Only by objectively examining the generation of meaningful analogs can the lucidity of awareness distinguish intention.

Photography has always had a rather tense relationship to objective truth. This is now truer than ever. A Google search for Photoshop yields one hundred fifty five million hits while a search for Coca Cola results in about six million. The power and proliferation of image manipulation technology obliges photographers to rigorously establish and stick to the rules and ethics of their game. Photojournalists have been blackballed for getting caught altering their work. The only means an audience has to determine the veracity of an image is awareness of its intent. We accept heavily retouched renderings of celebrities and models, but not of starving children or violent demonstrations. Sometimes skepticism erupts in paranoia, as it has around the Zapruder film, the Apollo missions, 9/11 and in deconstructivist academies. The original Greek Skeptics stated, “Nothing is true, not even this.” Photography forces the question of intention.

What intent can be trusted? Any ambition to persuade tends to muddy the water fairly quickly. If muckraking activist photography were capable of saving the world -or dominating it- it would have done so a long time ago. Confronting this realization can be liberating. If what photographers do can’t directly save anything or anyone, the burden of responsibility is shifted. Once the smoke clears, photographers can get down to the simple, infinite task of description. This is the objective and the aspiration that can be believed. Emmet Gowin describes the task as “…looking for something that puts our unspeakable feelings into a discreet form, so that we ourselves can back off and study what we’ve done. And in a sense, recognize our own feelings as an object."

Robert Adams has stated, “You can't talk about life without talking about politics. You have to have both. If you're just a political person, you're going to burn out. If you, as an artist, are just focused inward, you're going to eventually be irrelevant.” This truth can be interpreted narrowly, to imply that one must illustrate political issues literally, or, more liberally, starting from the realization that whenever one talks about –describes- life, then ethical and political implications follow. Life and politics, like all things, are inextricably linked. One need not force one to address the other. In some ways, a literal depiction of political concerns conceals the connections that reinforce clear and enduring ethical practices. In any case, as George Orwell contended and non-existent weapons of mass destruction bear out, persuasive political statements are based more on style than substance.

Every snapshooter knows exactly how the objective mechanisms of photographic technology can undermine their aims. A picture of the beloved is diminished by the unnoticed styrofoam cup bearing a franchise logo that blew into the frame. Photographers are really just stubborn snapshooters. Great photographers are stubborn and lucid. They are relentless in pursuing their intent while open to the possibilities of the minute debris a camera will render. They know that, as much as luck is a matter of getting what they want, luck also means wanting what they get. At any point debris can become content. The mechanism shows the way. The mind consciously adopts the possibilities to its intention, while allowing intention to adapt, to broaden. Lee Friedlander has said, “It’s a generous medium, photography.”

In this sense photography is a theater of empathy. The extent of its optical precision in rendering visual information allows, more than in painting –or inkblots-, empathy between minds, but also for the whole world of experience. From the nucleus, to the newborn, to the nebula, we can see and we can think about what we see as a common, connected awareness.  Outside the constraints of narrow topic, literalist narrative, persuasive stance or stylish inflection, photographs are and must be fundamentally about discovering, defining and communicating experience as it occurs in shared consciousness.

-Philip Heying, 2008