Against Photography -- Kicking the Imaging Narcotic
Issue #43, April 1999
Photography in our time is a dangerous drug in which we all indulge. Some are pushers, like online designers and publishers who keep channels of supply functioning. Yet every one of us is an avid consumer of photography's means of representing the world and relations within it, a user.
Like any drug, photography can be beneficial. It can be used recreationally, even wantonly on rare occasions. It can heal social rifts and affirm identity in its commemorative purposes. Yet in an advertising-driven global crackhouse of seductive glossy magazines and 500 channel television, the majority of us suffer unconsciously from a photographic taxyphylaxis, an ever-increasing tolerance to its totalizing representation, its siege of vision. In this essay I'll argue for a favorite arena of imagery from whence a resistance can be developed, the hand-drawn.
I'm not really against photography across the board. Our apartment is full of my wife's exquisitely composed work, though most often hand-painted or collaged or manipulated in the darkroom. We enjoy a fat Taschen book Twentieth Century Photography that features masterful images in every genre. I have photos on my own Web pages, usually transformed and screened at maximum contrast (from a setting called "Line Art" on my old scanner) and sometimes hand-colored, which affirms their artificiality. But I question knee-jerk assumptions of the primacy of photography as the first choice, or the most politically progressive way, of depicting the world. I especially don't like to see unexamined assumptions from the Spectacle (the French Situationists' elegant term for the staged agendas of corporations and the State) carry over into the arena of cyberspace.
Photography is the ultimate modernist medium, as it is an industrial organization of optics and mechanics and chemistry. Yet the prevailing assumption about photography's place in the hierarchy of image-making, that its public invariably cries out for greater bandwidth and resolution on the World Wide Web, is dubious. Photography fuels the market for newer, faster computers, more speed and memory and storage capacity to process it. The creator of a hand-held information appliance employing old Mac or 8086 chips would immediately be dispatched by hit-men from Redmond and Cupertino. This drive for animation, audio and video upon the contemplative screen is mainly driven by marketing people who want to make the Web more like television, whereas I want to make it more like the library (albeit full of good comic books). Video demands passivity, and from cyberspace I'd prefer the ability to copy a massive video file quickly and send as an attachment than to watch real-time video online. Higher resolution for the Web's essentially textual information often becomes like foil lettering on the covers of books, a mere marketing device not intrinsic to the design or content.
Photography is the consummate capitalist media, as the image that comes to us is most often the shadow of the marketable, made-up face of the corporate world. The Spectacle drums in the message that photography is the best way to represent the world because it's the best way to represent products. John Berger's Ways of Seeing discusses the way the press sometimes cruelly juxtaposes real social horror and syrupy advertisements. Photography's ubiquity is suspect. The totality of corporate control has rendered so much of the cultural landscape poisonous in the way it cloaks relentless enticements for globally exploitative consumption, that we have to constantly watch where our eyes step.
Mainstream vs. the Outdated, Pinko, Low-Rez and Bookish
Early photographers claimed to finally be able to replicate nature, but instead photography almost always serves primarily to affirm mainstream culture. High-resolution visual information is not always the most accurate and complete, and our corporate masters want us to see photographs of their products and personages (who are essentially little more than product-pushers) as unquestionably natural phenomena. As irony is a favorite voice of marketing in the 1990s, advertisements often feature a photoshoot-within-the-photoshoot, affirming that these are indeed products worth photographing, hence, buying.
Whereas newspapers and magazines largely relied on line drawings a hundred years ago, and photos usually appeared combined with drawings eighty years ago, today photos are often their own visual shorthand. Products exist to support this, clip photo collections like Clement Mok's PhotoDiscs or Microsoft's Corbis collections. Mok's sense of visual design often surrounds an image with white space as if it were an object worthy of deep contemplation, or to aid meditation. This is also the style of the educational D-K Books, from the British publisher Dorling-Kinnearsley, supposedly less distracting in their didactic purposes for children.
Photography enters the stream of images more subtly than a drawing, which is often a curious oddity. Photography too often looks like conformity, and I want to discern more of the person behind the marks on the walls of the global village.
Though to advocate it sounds like labor economism for traditional artists, I seek a cyberworld where each image is evocatively hand-crafted.
Is cyberspace's hunger for photos over drawings similar to other historical instances in which the control over the working conditions was taken from skilled labor? I don't see extremely simple pictures amongst text as a dumbing down, I just don't like dumb pictures. Is there truly a socialist photography? I'm skeptical, for most leftist sociopolitical photography is content to only record existing abuses, not visionary complexities or the details of present contradictions as a synthetic image might. Realism is a matter of content, not form, since accurate representions of aspects of life of the working class seem as rare today as they were in the days of royalty and court painters. Diana Willis in Picturing Us: African American Identity in Photographs and bell hooks in Art On My Mind have both pointed out the importance of family and historical photographs in the lives of African-Americans, who cherish personal visual documents that counter their misrepresentation in racist mass media. Various community cultural centers organize photo workshops, but perhaps photography is most closely linked to communities when it is critically reassembled, as in the collages of Romare Bearden. Diego Rivera based parts of his murals directly upon photographs, and also borrowed images from movies. The goal of this art may be a democracy of all images. But like the whites of South Africa, the tribe of imagery so long in the driver's seat has to renounce hegemony and move aside a while for this to be accomplished.
Socialist tendencies were led by — and manifested in — the hand-drawn works of Victorian era art jocks William Morris and Walter Crane. Does this make drawing an anachronism in the world of photography? I worry when I hear that word, often applied, to hand-crafted imaging, for it's usually used against any forces, people or aspects of culture that impede the stampede of the so-called free market economy, sneered in the same voice that deems poor people as impediments to progress. By this definition the hand that draws is doing what the camera could do, thus hand-crafted depictions are consciously and stubbornly anachronistic, archaic, immodern. Is a pre-modern act the most effective resistance strategy for a Postmodern era?
My thoughts on photography are also informed by two theorists, two rappin' MCs, McLuhan and McCloud. In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan wrote of cool and hot media, cool being those which require much participation on the part of the user to complete. They are non-immersive and are received with a certain detachment. The consummate cool media remains print, the form of the illustrated book that appeared within the first generation after Gutenberg's invention of moveable type and has persisted. While the richly-illuminated medieval Books of Hours are delightful to peruse, crowded as the meandering Renaissance Cabinet of Curiosities, I appreciate Web pages with the simplicity and coherence of books published around 1550, since most of the information I look for on the web is text.
A book essential to understanding the juxtaposition of imagery and text is Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. McCloud asserts that many comic characters are simply drawn because most viewers can best identify with the narrative's lowest resolution characters, and identify less with more specific, highly rendered protagonists. That may, on some level, color my own attraction to drawings over photographs: like icons on a computer screen, they give me space to enter and pass. Low resolution graphics grease the skids for transmission of high-bandwidth content.
Public and Personal Histories
Some cultures believe that photographs steal the soul. Maybe deep down I'm a little frightened by the power of photographic images, preferring to consume my visuals if not "Lite," then at least most methodically under my control. I can handle a world of lower-resolution but often higher-content, found so often in the medium of drawing, while the world of photos makes me wary that I might be unknowingly infected with a sales message. Photography works like pornography (as Gustave-Adolphe Bougereau, whom I discuss below, knew), seeking representation in an accumulation of lubricious clues, where all that is gleaming is designed to distract and arouse. This may be analagous to the dangerous attraction to the public of celebrities, who exist only to be photographed. In Princess Diana's case the paparazzi necessary to the creation of her celebrity were alleged to have stampeded their golden goose and consort into panicked self-destruction.
Photography today has much in common with painting of three hundred and fifty years ago, as its mode of representation is visibly descended from the seventeenth century genre of Dutch still-life paintings of the luxury goods carried in that nation's merchant ships. Photographs were used as reference during the creation of paintings by Manet and Degas, in departure from the tradition of bravura portraits that were more about representing role than likeness. It was in supposedly being freed from the responsibility of representational veracity that painting gained the freedom to explore arbitrary flatness in the picture plane, or Cubism.
When he left Germany in the 1930s Stefan Lorant brought the glossy photo magazine style of the Berlin Illustrate Zeitung that he had edited to Henry Luce's new LIFE magazine. New photos taken with precise 35mm and 4" x 5" Speed Graphic cameras were then appearing interspersed with full-page advertisements. A generation later LOOK magazine was slightly to the left of LIFE, until it was run out of business in the 1970s with libel suits filed by San Francisco mayor Joe Alioto. Both magazines were in my house growing up as a literate kid, as well as picture books like the LIFE Science Library series, plenty of other magazines, daily papers, and glossy pix adorning junk mail.
Around 1970 Photorealist painters like the northern Californians Robert Bechtle and Richard McLean doubly re-mediated life in laborious painted recreations of deadpan photographs upon large canvases. But perhaps they pursued the worst of both worlds, the visual limitations of photography and the grueling effort of painting. Intentionally or not, the Photorealist painting participates in what Baudrillard calls the second stage of the simulacrum, where the basic reality the simulacrum (a simulation of the real) purports to represent is masked and perverted rather than simply reflected.
Heck, I was fascinated by the Photorealist painters as a teenager. Art about trucks! T- Birds! Diners! Gleaming chrome! In college I made one Art History professor apoplectic when I offhandedly defended Bougereau, a turn-of-the-century photo-reliant bourgeois realist who painted satyrs teased by quantities of roseate nude women, "The Kind Men Like". Though no more nor less comfy and removed from political struggle than the bourgeois art-world stars of today, to my professor Bougereau was representative of the kind of late-nineteenth century decadence that necessitated the intellectual purity of a Cezanne to sweep it all away. When I came to California, graduate study with Bechtle and McLean soon made me realize my artistic interest was in representing subject matter that I knew from photography — marches, strikes, Central American revolutionaries — and not stylistically duplicating it. I sought in my work adventurous subject matter, not laborious formal verisimilitude, and to me photography's flatness only suggested further cubist deformations to exaggerate and explore.
Photography constantly impacts my career, for I know that most decisions about my artwork are made by people holding 2" x 2" 35 millimeter slides up to the light, squinting to see them. Often artists will be required to provide slides even when small works could easily be transported to the site. Walter Benjamin had it wrong when he wrote in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" that reproduction removed and distorted an aura of uniqueness of an artwork. Today a hand artwork has no aura, authenticity, nor legitimacy to its existence, until it's been photographed.
Photography is quite happy to be sucked into the computer, to be digitized. It was most resonant and attractive to me when it was input and manipulated in the early cyberpunk style, scanner-dithered 72 dot-per-inch black and white Macintosh computer visuals. This salt-and-pepper look transfixed me long after southern California designers like April Greiman and Michael Gosney had graduated to color video input, "Blendo" layered video matting and rich saturated colors. In the course of a decade, Bay Area illustrator Lance Jackson successfully went from traditional art media to monochromatic drawing with the Macintosh mouse, to colorful compositions in PhotoShop of imagery captured with his 8mm video camcorder. In the mid-1990s even computer graphics' High Cyberpunk practitioner, Mondo 2000 Art Director Bart Nagel, vowed to stop appropriating photographic imagery. Though almost every print or onscreen photograph somehow requires for maximum clarity its Contrast and Color curves manually adjusted in this valuable software package, I constantly rail to my Design classes against "PhotoShop Abuse" (shallow obviousness in its use of the program's manipulative filters, anyway) and waved malefic examples in the over-designed Axcess and eccentric Ray Gun magazines. Photography also fed the production of a zillion CD-ROMs 1991-96, most of them shovelware, with little purpose onscreen. Some of the most successful, like the games Myst and Doom, used no photography at all; lucrative Disney CD-ROMs have used drawing and laborious 3D animation.
Sharpen Your Own
It's not like you can count on unimpeachable veracity from a photograph. Joseph Stalin knew that, and Soviet photos altered to hide the disappearing functionaries of Stalin's era are collected in David King's book The Commisar Vanishes. In the United States, Franklin Roosevelt had a "gentleman's agreement" with the press to keep his polio disability out of their pictures; if it wasn't photographed then it wasn't true. Hence I only trust visible subjectivity, not corporate media's supposedly objective mask. The drawn image is like an advertiser-supported weekly newspaper whose subjectivity is immediately evident-perhaps still manipulative, but with the machinery at least visible. As Dick Gregory once said of the Bible, at least it says on the cover that's only King James' Version of the story. Drawings (even corporate illustration, whose limiting husk can fall away with prodding) are easier to deconstruct. Style, era, influences, context and ideology are more readily ascertained from looking at a drawing than from confronting the opacity of the photograph. The drawing reveals subjectivity by affirming its producer's individuality, which has been sealed in attention to its subject matter. A person with a camera often quickly faces his or her subject and is gone. The sketcher must remain for a longer and more contemplative act of engagement; attentive lovemaking instead of a quick fuck.
Hand drawing, in contrast to photography, is an analytical process, like undogmatic Marxism. It's materialist, for drawings immediately appear to be only artistic representations, as opposed to the illusionism of photography which, if for only a moment, superficially appear to be "real". While the camera usually replicates objects or people within space, drawing can reassemble that physical space...and the class and power relations within it. Within the process of making a drawing there's a sense of growing control, that of a human being understanding one more small part of the world. The act of drawing is empowering.
The populist argument in favor of photography that distinguishes snapshot amateurs from fine artists is spurious, for the traditional technology of drawing is less expensive than consumer camera and film. It is only the cultural expectations of drawing that deems image-making by hand as slightly aristocratic, or limited to children or the petit-bourgeois housewife of local art associations and afternoon community college classes. This prejudice against drawing is sustained by the fact that its practice demands blocks of undistracted time, a commodity the Spectacle tries to keep more rare than cocaine or caviar. I should remind photographic populists that physical drawing can be scanned (or photographed and printed first), manipulated onscreen, and exhibited to the multitudes of cyberspace as easily as can a photograph. And on the computer, digital drawings can take considerably less bytes of memory for storage than digital photography.
I want to see more people taking up the pencil with pride, with all the assertiveness kids do in grade school. Like a 1990s update of those hokey, goateed, 1960s TV Art instructors, "I See America Drawing"...in cyberspace. Not in a cyberspace that swallows and suppresses independent visual voices (or in which those voices suppress themselves), for the marketplace does that in turning us into consumers. Instead let us craft a democracy of voices, an ever-individuating processing of the imagery of contemporary life. Picasso said "Art is a lie that helps us to see the truth;" perhaps photography is the lie dressed in truth's borrowed business suit — one that's way too big for it. Representational art can be leaden, butt-ugly and misshapen, but in such cases it usually retains the integrity of bearing the marks of an artist's hand. The worst drawing is usually more interesting to me than the best photograph, for within it there's no mistaking in it a person's struggles and triumphs in claiming the right to represent.
Perhaps to some degree we all justify our likes and activities as politically excellent. While I want to see everyone drawing, I then think that Photography should retire into a specialty Art Department discipline like Ceramics, and decline as an industry. Painting should assume its place as a little sister to architecture, including the architecture of cyberspace, so perhaps photography does have a place there as well. In my photoskepticism there are no hard and fast rules about photographic use or misuse, for the world of images is as complicated as politics itself. I may inadvertently be setting up my own caste system of imagery, with the refined cartoon-like icon atop original drawing lording over borrowed drawings, both kinds of drawings lording over photography. My imagery pyramid inverts the hegemonic one.
A publication to which I contribute has illustrated articles with photographs cited only as "borrowed from the Web". Flaming on, I argue that this was egregiously lazy, unsporting, and ask how the editors would like it if big chunks of their text were recontextualized on other people's pages with the anonymous "from the Web" citation. Then I paused to recall how often I've thought nothing of grabbing and recycling appropriated commercial line art, which forced me to confront my own prejudices and attitudes toward imaging. The line art that intrigues me includes friendly, dated, advertising clip art, especially that drawn in the 1940s through 1960s (while 1970s efforts drawn to look hip are especially absurd). It's snappy imagery from the young bachelor Herb Caen era, when men wore hats; feel-good art to be endlessly recycled. I plunder to this day a matchbook company catalog I found at my high school paper's printers, full of commercial line art. My appreciation of it was influenced by artist The Mad Peck's appropriation of similar 1940s line art in his odd comics that occasionally appeared in Creem magazine.
Allowing a range of freedoms to drawn images, I come down viscerally against a casually obtained photograph, investing it with impact that I decry, while indulging in my own occasional borrowing of drawings. Photography has been the favored police surveillance and recording medium since the nineteenth century, and was used extensively in the identification and execution of members of the Paris Commune of 1871. Police turn to sketches of suspects as a last resort, though computer software now allows them to assemble faces from a library of photographed facial parts. Perhaps I act unconsciously as if, because cops love photographs, the cops always know where all photographs are.
So how can I continue to appropriate the occasional little drawing, and draw as well? Because deep down I feel someday all art will be created and consumed in varying degrees of a collective process, created and owned by all. And maybe it's a sign of respect and faith to act as if you believe that what's cool already belongs (with meticulous credit given to the artist or origin where possible) to everybody.
As so much in the world is provisional — employment, political power, possessions — to be for a moment the author of images in line or word atop our signature is about all that we have and know to be truly ours. When the world abounds in skillful drawings may it be because all people are contemplative, educated, assertive and free to create them. This will be the nature of imagery in a clear-thinking, blinders-off, undrugged world.
Thanks to Megan Shaw and Brock Craft for editorial suggestions.
Mike Mosher has taught digital imaging skills in universities and colleges since 1991, but has drawn since age 3.