I keep thinking about something that Chris Sullivan wrote: “I know the only way ‘anything’ can be photographed is with Language.”
Language models are tremendously unpopular among critics of visual images. Part of it is the privilege afforded the “mute” image, which is seen as a sort of talisman that a conjurer can manipulate to coax a voice of a culture or significance long past. In this view, images do not speak but are rather ventriloquized in a delusional way (as the voice of their long dead creator—either the machine operator or “nature’s pencil”). The critic casts asides these illusions and in a booming narrator’s voice bellows out what the image really says. Though contemporary critics try to deny language has a part in the construction of images, they can only speak of these “things” with language.
An image isn’t a “thing” without language. At that moment it is severed from its connection with the world; it becomes language in a nascent state. But it is not a romantic language filled with an intrinsic map of the “world” or culture— it is a clue, a detection. I’ve been thinking a lot about the three currents in photography as an “invention” identified by Patrick Maynard—photography was designed to detect, to depict, and to be reproducible. The emphasis, post Benjamin, has been on reproduction. Criticism also tends to focus on the function of depiction by conflating it with representation. Photography’s function as a detector is largely ignored.
Chris wrote about Winogrand, whose most famous quote is “I photograph to see what things look like when photographed.” Those thousands of rolls of film were like miles of scribbles from a seismometer. Who knows what “data” Winogrand was looking for in them, or if he was able to detect the phenomena he was looking for. Destroying their latency as traces was a bold move; trying to read their language is even more risky.
I keep thinking of images in terms of analogous loan words which get shaped to match the tongue of the interpreter. They become depictions, if successful. Otherwise, they are just guttural grunts of a savage that puzzle us.