Tracing the Excess of Citations

A cowboy sits down to a game of cards with W.C. Fields and says, “Is this a game of chance?” W.C. Fields responds, “No Sir, not the way I play it.”
From the film “My Little Chicadee”

I stumbled into adolescence having been bitten by the mysteries of photography and I learned its practical possibilities. I was able to put parts of my world onto paper with my own hands, not as an idea or a metaphor, but in a sense to save something. The camera was a kind of net and what it caught had something to do with what was true, or truth in an excess of fact.

Opening epigram and first paragraph of the essay “An Excess of Fact” by Lee Friedlander, published in The Desert Seen p. 103-106 (1996)

I finally found it. It’s not a magazine piece, nor an interview, nor an catalog essay. The core of the image making rationale found here directly conflicts with the idea that Lee Friedlander is a photographer “with an urban sensibility” (Helen Liggett’s claim in the paper that she delivered at C&W 2007). I disagreed with her assertion then, and now I have textual evidence to the contrary (later in the essay Friedlander discusses the development of his sense of “place.”). Reading Liggett’s book Urban Encounters, I found that I agreed with her position regarding the nature of urban space and photography much more than I thought at first. Liggett’ “radical urban aesthetic” is worth a lot more thought/discussion because it is rooted in all corners of this country, but that will have to wait for another day. The Friedlander phrase is something that I just can’t let go of yet.

Photography is not, in the hands of Friedlander, a game of simply arranging the excess of information present in the world. Nor is it a mode of communicating ideas or providing a surface that you can read metaphoric associations or possibilities from. It’s about saving something connected with truth. The problem of course, is that each image provides more truth than what we bargain for—hence, his oft-quoted quip from this essay: “It’s a generous medium, photography.”

No one I’ve read so far mentions the metaphor this observation is couched in—that the camera is a kind of net. Nets catch more than what you bargain for. I think in the decade or so since this essay was published, the generosity of the Internet provides its own sort of connection with the truth of human nature and is worth thinking about. It isn’t that it’s ruining culture (as Andrew Keen argues) but simply that it’s providing more of it, just as the camera provides more than the naked eye. What bothers me is that some interchange the terms Internet and culture as if they were synonyms, or even antonyms, when in reality they connected in a direct way, much like a camera and its subjects. A photograph isn’t “slice of reality” any more than the Internet is a “slice of culture.” Reality and photographs coexist; why is it so hard to believe that culture and the Internet will do the same? The Internet has something to do with culture, but it is neither the beginning nor the end of it.

1 thought on “Tracing the Excess of Citations”

  1. Another articulate piece. I’ve added you to my regular reading .
    Photography as “net” is a particularly good metaphor, because the role of the fisherman, nee photographer, is widely understood to be passive. This is a misunderstanding I believe. Eye, camera, action. Coordination requires years of preparation and study, and not just the mechanics of shutter speed and light exposure. Developing a sense of place is an aesthetic.
    Extending to the Internet (proper noun!), reading the tidal phases of popular culture through its aggregate expression – The Web and other on-line exchanges – can be a Rorschach portrait of the reader (fisherman, photographer) as well as the content (fish, subject). What preparation makes up the reader, the mechanics of browsing/searching/linking?

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