Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Cloven Image: Barthes, Bazin and Ellenbogen

Roland Barthes's Camera Lucida acts as a nearly talismanic force in recent writing on photography. No less influential in cultural studies of the 1980s, Barthes early work on the photographic image—work produced under the influence of major historical factors like the influence of structuralist linguistics, the force of abstraction in art, and the coming of American-style consumer culture to post-War Europe—has not stood up as well. That said, the writing of the early Barthes, like that of his contemporary AndrĂ© Bazin, betrays an interesting and enduring conception of the photographic image as importantly cloven, cleft in two.

This point becomes readily apparent in Barthes’s “The Rhetoric of the Image” (1964), an essay that heralds a by-now-totally-second-nature reading of visual strategies of mass-media advertizing images such as this one at left. There, Barthes shows us, text and "connotative" cultural values struggle to apprehend and give order to the fundamental, "denotative" order of photography, which amounts a primitive ostention of the real. “From an aesthetic point of view,” he writes, “the denoted image can appear as a kind of Edenic state of the image; cleared utopianically of its connotations, the image would become radically objective, or, in the last analysis, innocent.” (277)

This utopian possibility of image freed from cultural codes manifests uniquely in photography because of certain ontological considerations:

This utopian character of denotation is considerably reinforced by the paradox already mentioned, that the photograph (in its literal state), by virtue of its absolutely analogical nature, seems to constitute a message without a code. Here, however, structural analysis must differentiate, for of all the kinds of image only the photograph is able to transmit the (literal) information without forming it by means of discontinuous signs and rules of transformation. The photograph, message without a code, must thus be opposed to the drawing which, even when denoted, is a coded message. [...] [end 277] In the photograph—at least at the level of the literal message—the relationship of signifieds to signifiers is not one of ‘transformation’ but of ‘recording’, and the absence of a code clearly reinforces the myth of photographic ‘naturalness’: the scene is there, captured mechanically, not humanly (the mechanical is here a guarantee of objectivity). Man’s intervention in the photograph (framing, distance, lighting, focus, speed) all effectively belong to the plane of connotation; it is as though in the beginning (even if utopian) there were a brute photograph (frontal and clear) on which man would then lay out, with the aid of various techniques, the signs drawn from a cultural code. Only the opposition of the cultural code and the natural non-code can, it seems, account for the specific character of the photograph ... (277-8)

So, where painting, drawing or any other hand-made visualizing strategy can only ever move within always-already coded cultural planes, the “causal” role of the depicted target in photography means that it marks a confrontation between nature and culture, the pre-linguistic real and the orders of coded language. (278) As Bazin will do in even more high-flown ways, Barthes sees the photographic image as an epochal coupure—as necessarily and fundamentally other than those images made by hand. Photography finds “humanity encountering for the first time in its history messages without a code. Hence the photograph is not the last (improved) term of the great family of images; it corresponds to a decisive mutation of informational economies.” (279) And part of the point of this kind of semiotic analysis is to show how and why that otherness is being co-opted, subjected to the tedious banalities of commercial language to shift units in advertizing.

In his roughly contemporaneous “The Photographic Message” (1961) Barthes gives a concise mission statement for cultural interpretation of this kind: “The analysis of codes perhaps allows an easier and surer historical definition of a society than the analysis of its signifieds ... We can perhaps do better than to take stock directly of the ideological contents of our age; by trying to reconstitute in its specific structure the code of connotation of a mode of communication as important as the press photograph we may hope to find, in their very subtlety, the forms our society uses to ensure its peace of mind and to grasp thereby the magnitude, the detours, and the underlying function of that activity.” (210) So, rather than asking what a society believes, we ask instead how it implements or constructs those fantasies it wants to believe. That seems like an interesting and productive enough idea.
            But, in what follows, it is hard to know if Barthes is attempting to diagnose the ideological beliefs of post-War consumer society about photography or if he is “telling it like it is”? What he claims certainly stretches credibility: “What does the photograph transmit? By definition, the scene itself, the literal reality. From the object to its image there is of course a reduction—in proportion, perspective, color—but at no time is this reduction a transformation (in the mathematical sense of the term.” (196) The photograph is a “perfect analogon” from what it depicts, a message without a code. (196) Just as he frequently presents statements like these in incredibly cagey ways—undercutting them with subclauses like "so it seems" or "as it were", subtleties that Krauss usually effaces—so Barthes complicates this position somewhat. He separates the culturally-laded, connotative dimensions of photography (what will later be called the “studium” in Camera Lucida) from the denotative act (of the punctum). (197) Then, he likens the sight of photography to interpreting an ideographic language, “which mix analogical and specifying units, the difference being that the ideogram is experienced as a sign whereas the photographic ‘copy’ is taken as the pure and simple denotation of reality.” (207) Again, is he endorsing this view or is he just reporting? It's not entirely clear.

We might take Barthes’s formulation of “message without code” recited by Krauss as a useful shibboleth for parsing the pieces by Bazin and Ellenbogen. For, where Bazin wants to see photography as not only a message without a code but effectively a union of message and messenger, Ellenbogen casts photography as all code. Indeed, contrary to Barthes, Bazin is entirely committed; he begins “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” (1960) with a series of weird claims about how photography should be seen as an expression of an undergirding “mummy complex”—a drive to embalm, encase, or otherwise protect human life against the ravages of time. (5-6) If the arts from 1500 are marked by a new demand for “realism,” they are also ruptured by the invention of pictorial perspective—an “original sin” which puts into opposition the idealizing aesthetic demand for representation of spiritual ideas with the primordial, psychological demand for “the real.” (7) With the coming of photography and then film in the nineteenth century, this intolerable tension was relieved. Painting and sculpture could abandon representation entirely, while the photo-based media could satisfy this fundamental human need for “realism.” (7) For this reason, Bazin views photography as “clearly the most important event in the history of the plastic arts” (9) since it delivers something absolutely, qualitatively different from any other kind of visualization previously known: “Only a photographic lends can give us the kind of image of the object that is capable of satisfying the deep need man has to substitute for it something more than a mere approximation, a kind of decal or transfer [so, indexicality of the physically-proximate/causal variety is very much in play]. The photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it. No matter how fuzzy, distorted, or discolored, no matter how lacking in documentary value the image may be, it shares, by virtue of the very process of its becoming, the being of the model of which it is the reproduction: it is the model.” (8)

We get a very different story in “Camera and Mind” where Josh Ellenbogen examines Marey’s photographs of targets invisible to the human eye. Unlike the depictions of objects or people implicitly imagined in the photographic practices discussed by Barthes and Bazin, Marey’s events have a completely non-optical existence: 

“If we put the matter into Peircean terms, we can say the photographs are indexical relative to the events they picture, in that a causal link exists [end 92] between them and their referents, but that their status as icons has become problematic, at least as the idea of iconicity is typically understood relative to photography. That is, to the extent that by iconicity we mean a match with a sensory counterpart, such a match is not possible for photographs of the sort Marey made, as they have no counterpart that they can try to match.” (93) 

Indexes without iconicity, these images don’t represent the data that Marey wants to study; they are his data. Thus, contra Barthes: “Marey’s practice centers on interposing a code ... between the observer and the event he or she studies, creating a visual trace that makes the event register in a scientifically useful form. Minus this interposition, this willful presentation of events in a language of glowing lines and sinuous curves, Marey would have had nothing to examine.” (93) So, far from being a message without a code, Marey’s images can only be a message because they are encoded. While Ellenbogen goes on to make a convincing case for how Duhem’s conception of the idealization of objects into abstracted categories is necessary for scientific thinking can serve as a useful framework for understanding how and why Marey’s images were supposed to work, he makes some interesting comments on Duhem’s conception of translation. (101)

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