Wright (1992). Photography: Theories of Realism and Convention. (Anthropology and Photography, 1860-1920)

Wright, T. (1992). Photography: Theories of Realism and Convention. In E. Edwards (Ed.), Anthropology and Photography, 1860-1920 (pp. 18–31). London: Royal Anthropological Institute.
“… the _language_ of the image is regarded as conventional, highly constructed, its understanding determined by Western culture.” (p 18)
“More recently Segall, Campbell & Herskovits (1966:33) have taken the other course, in which there is nothing at all realistic about the photographic image: ‘one can regard the photograph as we use it as an arbitrary linguistic convention not shared by all peoples’.” (p 18)
“But from the outset, few would deny that photographs usually do appear extremely realistic and we can put forward two quite convincing reasons why this should be. The first of these is _instrumentality_: the authenticity of the photograph is directly ‘transcribed’ from Nature. Secondly, the ‘instrument’ itself, the camera, is frequently called on to explain the mechanics of visual perception.” (p 18)
“Theories based on the eye-camera analogy regarded a type of photographic pictorial image as the simple unit of a retinal-based theory of visual perception. This equated the perception of the world with the perception of pictures.” (p 19)
[“… ‘transparency’ of the camera …”]
“While this theory had a major part in accounting for the _realism_ of the photograph, it was also thought to explain how photographs themselves were perceived.” (p 20)
“The perception of the world does not depend on a succession of retinal snapshots. All we need is the ability to gather optical information, and while this optical information in the light may have been structured by the environment it has certainly not been structured in the form of a ‘picture’. … Perception considered in terms of its active, exploratory nature is seen as a process that occurs over time.” (p 21-22)
“So instead of dealing with the flat pictorial arrays of traditional visual perception, it now means that most important in determining our perception of the environment is our ability to detect changes in time and space. … the latent photographic image is imprinted in a state of permanent non-change.” (p 22)
“The Gestalt psychologists in the 1920s had first attempted to explain perception as holistic: other than as a mosaic of independent sensations.” (p 23)
“‘The medium, substances, surfaces, objects, places, and other animals have affordances for a given animal. They offer benefit or injury, life or death. This is why they need to be perceived. (Gibson 1979:143)” (p 23)
“The criticisms of the eye-camera analogy, the status of illusions in psychological experiments, the consideration of the organism in its environment, and criticisms of the argument from illusion all point to a new theory of perception. In this ecological approach to perception the emphasis moves to investigating the kinds of information available to the moving, actively engaged perceiver: perception not based on a fixed punctuate image.” (p 24)
[Photographs …]
“Closely akin to language, as arbitrary systems of representation, they only appear realistic because we have learned to see them as such. Thus pictorial realism is relative to the historical perspective and society in which the images serve (Plate 15): ‘a picture, to represent an object, must be a symbol for it, stand for it, refer to it … almost anything can stand for anything else … [it] depends not upon imitation or illusion or information, but inculcation. (Goodman 1968:5, 38)'” (p 24) [brackets in original]
“This means that photography offers the viewer a range of interpretive possibilities different from chirographic representations.” (p 24-25)
“… Goodman’s theory … suggests there is no intrinsic relation between a picture and its referent …” (p 25)
“And Herskovits has been thought to demonstrate the arbitrary nature of the photograph conclusively: ‘The anthropologist Melville Herskovits shows a Bush woman a snap-shot of her son. She is unable to recognise the image until the details of the photograph are pointed out. … The Bush woman _learns to read_ after learning first that a _reading_ is the appropriate outcome of contemplating a piece of glossy paper. Photographic _literacy_ is learned. (Sekula 1982:85)'” (p 25)
“… few even consider whether the pictorial traditions of the subject’s culture might act so as to counter any ‘natural’ realism of the photograph.” (p 25)
“However, to return to cross-cultural studies, the researchers frequently interpret puzzlement as perceptual inability. … turning the plate ‘this way and that’ could help to solve the puzzle of how the image may have come into being, how an illusion had been achieved.” (p 25-26)
“The are, for example, strong similarities between the sensation-based theory of perception and Goodman’s symbolic-based theory of representation.” (p 26)
“… cultural factors have determined the significance of the environmental information that is ‘extracted’ for pictorial purposes.” (p 28)
“The dual awareness of realism, yet at the same time non-realism, creates a tension that is central to photographic representation.” (p 28)
“For Western culture in general, theories of visual perception have guided our assumptions of how we might understand the world, but they have also had a strong influence on how it should be represented and consequently have predicted how we should view those representations.” (p 31)

Selected References

  • Barthes, R. (1981). Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. (R. Howard, Trans.). Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  • Gibson, J. J. (1979). The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston: Hoghton-Mifflin.
  • Goodman, N. (1968). Languages of Art. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company.
  • Segall, M. H., Campbell, D. T., & Herskovits, M. J. (1966). The influence of culture on visual perception. New York: Bobbs-Merrill.
  • Sekula, A. (1982). On the invention of photographic meaning. In V. Burgin (ed.) Thinking Photography (84-109). London: Macmillan.
  • Sontag, S. (1973). On Photography. New York: RosettaBooks.
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