Problematic Predication

Problematic Predication

*Disclaimer: more theoretical wank I’m thinking about.

The most well traveled path of pragmatic inquiry into the use of photographs is the attempt to elucidate (or repudiate) the photograph’s evidentiary function. At the core of this function is the ability of photographs to record a phenomenological reality— a reality either “given” by an optical event or “created” through the conscious motives of a camera operator. To either make or select a photograph implies a motive force; its quality of evidence is suspect by the very presence of this motive. A photograph can be used to assert a proposition.

The basic components of a proposition are a subject and a predicate. At the most fundamental level, making a photograph of something asserts that something is. At this level of a proposition, the arrangement of things selected and presented by the photograph posits a subject with a minimal predicate: it declares its subject to be. The attachment of this weak verb causes the evidentiary ambiguity.

At the level of a straight recording of a scene, to photograph something equivocally states that it was (it might have changed or dissapeared after the photographer left). At the creative level, a photograph presents an object which the photographer has brought into being—it is. In both of these cases the “truth” of a photograph’s nature as evidence is contained in its own existence. The real ambiguity concerning this truth claim is caused by the transitive power of the verb to be. The aesthetically motivated photographer selects a subject, framing and composing it to present an implied predicate: this something is beautiful. A historical or documentary photographer presents another sort of predicate: this something is significant. In the existential sense of the verb to be, the photograph as evidence cannot be assaulted (it obviously was, or was imagined). However, interpreting a photograph in the light of an implied predicate it can be judged as true or false as a proposition. A photograph may be credible or incredible.

The distinction can also be explored another way. A photograph either is something or has something. Given the malleability of the medium, the credibility of the first claim of evidence is suspect—there is little criteria to discern if the something presented is real or imagined. The effectiveness of the first “proof” of the validity the photograph as evidence is only to prove that a photograph is a thing. A photograph’s two dimensional nature and ties to optical reality make it clear that it is not the thing it represents, but a stand-in— a sign for some other thing. Dislocated from its ostensible subject, its evidence is weak. The second form of the photograph’s implicit verb sets up new possibilities for examining the validity of evidentiary claims. If a photograph (as a subject) has something, then it can be evaluated for the credibility of its predicate.

The predicate of a photograph that is assumed to be in the subject position can take one of two forms: implicit or explicit. An implicit predicate can only be determined historically or culturally and is dependent on the circumstances surrounding the production of the photograph. An explicit predicate, in the form of a paratext for the image, is easier to examine. However, the conditions for credibility of either should be essentially the same.

Assuming that a photograph presents a proposition with or without an adjoining caption is an unusual step. But I’m thinking that this is a path I want to explore for a while.

3 thoughts on “Problematic Predication”

  1. Jeff, I sure hope you continue this theoretical wanking, because I’m finding it to be riveting. I just wished I wasn’t so tired tonight, so I could write a comment that adds more to the discussion then, ‘Good stuff’. Tomorrow.

  2. Tired frustration

    I just wish I wasn’t so tired tonight because I’m inspired by what others have contributed recently. For instance, Lynette finished her 26 Things Project, progress thereof giving me a great deal of enjoyment (look for the chameleon cat). qB also partic…

  3. Thanks for this, Jeff. About a month ago, armed with enough ignorance of photography to make me extremely dangerous, I tried interpreting a couple of posed photographs. I was taken aback by what I saw in them but, on reflection, not at all surprised. I did not ask the photographer what she had in mind when composing the pieces and I’m pleased I did not do so. Her comments might well have changed the meaning her photographs held for me, thereby devaluing them. I’ve continued to mull over the location and validity of my ‘interaction’ with those two images. Through this entry, I’m a step closer to realising just how difficult any attempt to pin down their powerful but elusive qualities would be. For now, they definitely had something. Tomorrow, maybe not.

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