Much of the time, photography is, as it appears, art. Other times, documentation. The lines often blur. But the medium has become accessible to almost to the point of producing banality; we are daily inundated with more images than we can process. And this hides the other things that photography does, the way it operates as a fully autonomous actor in a larger system, a cultural system, a human system.
Susan Sontag has a lot to say about photography and its relationship to the wider world. I’ve never realized it could be explained and understood so profoundly until I’d read her work. “The photographer’s intentions do not determine the meaning of the photograph, which will… [be] blown by the whims and loyalties of the diverse communities that have use for it,” she says. Wordless, images can be read by any sighted person, but it can also be labeled, relabeled, framed, reframed, spun any which way.
“Interpretation is the revenge of the intellectual upon art,” Sontag is often quoted. And that’s the way of things, isn’t it? The creator has evidently made many conscious decisionsâ€” the placement of subjects, composition, lighting, colouring. Things are included, excluded. But once sent out into the world, it can be repurposed. The image becomes a tool, something that can be misrepresented or misattributed.
We like to think that photographs are the closest to the truth you can getâ€” closer than writing or painting, for sure, because they are constructions, things that are shaped to recreate experiences, scenes. Even at their most realistic, they are things that have been filtered through the individual. Other modes of art evoke, photographs show. But even here lies a curious contradiction.
You have on one hand a gorgeously rendered photo of hikers trudging up a mountainside, shapes and forms well-composed, colors brilliant and light balanced. On the other you have the same hikers and the same mountains, blurry, too bright in one bit and too oddslot dark in another, obviously hastily snapped on a phone. Which one is more genuine? We’ve begun to immediately suspect an image that is too neat, somehow, must have been manipulated even though staging and setup might have been equally likely or unlikely in either scenario. Lo-fi has become the new thing.
And that too comes with another whole set of implications: now acquired skills are rendered obsolete, now the learning curve has been drastically reduced, now anyone can be a photographer. But that is an exploration for another day.