The Target

Roger Fenton, “The Target” 1860.

The Target

This photograph has never loosened its grip on my mind. The story behind it is relatively simple, and yet its implications have always given me a sort of courage.

It is a photograph of the Queen’s target at the Wimbledon shooting competition in June 1860. An elaborate apparatus was set up to fire a rifle at this target, completely mechanically. A close inspection will reveal a bullet hole near its center. The mechanical marksman was very accurate. But this photograph records not the apparatus or the story—only the evidence of the aftermath. In this, it breaks all the rules.

It could be that the twentieth century interpretation of the photograph gives it a weight far beyond its real significance. At any salon, or in any art class, presented by a modern amateur, the complaints would be legion: “too geometric” “too symetrical” etc. After all, it does violate all standard rules of composition. The eye is drawn directly to its center; the real subject (the hole) is lost through scant contrast. The detail surrounding the event is extraneous and merely textural. However, its insistent flouting of the rules makes it a modern masterpiece. Critics celebrate its audacity, when in its own time it probably primarily existed as a document of evidence, a record of a mechanical achievement, for it has become a thing in itself— an arti[fact]

Fenton’s photograph flies in the face of the rules of photography expressed by Julian Dimock:

The photograph taken with your camera may please (1) by representing Nature, (2) as a design or arrangement of line and mass without regard to its subject, or (3) by telling a story. But to be a picture, it must to some extent fulfil [sic] all these requirements. It must at once be natural, decorative, and convey a sentiment.

Fenton’s photograph does none of these things. The arrangement of line and mass emphasizes that this is indeed a target. It tells no story. It represents a completely contrived, deceitful scene. It conveys no sentiment, except perhaps a sort of coldness through its profound abstraction. Over a century later, it has taken on an air of “decorativeness” in the winds of changing taste and yet I doubt anyone would have hung it in the parlor in 1860.

Thoughts attached to this photograph have almost no connection to the “thing in itself” which the optical artifact conveys. They have no real connection to Fenton’s aesthetic conveyed through complex and challenging compositions in the rest of his oeuvre. Thoughts attached to this photograph are as abstract as the photograph itself.

The photograph is interpreted through the constantly changing encyclopedia of cultural expectations. We live in an age of abstraction; this photograph reminds me just how arbitrary those abstractions are. But there is always an impulse to integrate these expectations into coherent motives. We “compose” our meanings as if they were literal, when in fact they almost never are.

Composition is defined as the “practice of so combining the different parts of a work of art as to produce a harmonious whole.” The elements must fit together, they must be in harmony and balance one another. The beggar must not be in fashionable garments, nor the society girl in rustic clothes. The ladder must lean against something, and the toppling building be propped up with a heavy piece of timber. Unconsciously, the eye demands the supporting beams under the building. Without it, the mind is not at rest, for the fear of falling is present. This illustration must not be taken literally, but serves to convey the idea.

Dimock, and almost every viewer that I know of, feels compelled to “compose” their own sense of intent which must reside in a photograph. We want it to be consistent. Is this photograph a document, or a self-conscious attempt at “art” in an age before the “rules” were etched in stone? There is no way, really, to know what Fenton’s “idea” was. So we feel the need to make up our own.

Ultimately, there is not much evidence. Each person must dare to compose meanings to find the courage to go on.