Storytelling (2)

In the nineteenth century, a number of technological innovations forever altered the way we conceive of stories and the way that we tell them. These innovations can be placed within the context of a much older story—the history of writing technologies—but doing that tends to occlude as much as it illuminates. To speak of the impact of visual innovation on print technology (perhaps becoming the central change of the eighteenth century) generally positions the role of alternative information sources as servants to alphabetic literacy. In reality, there were entirely unique modes of circulation and valuation for prints that operated independently of the venues for books. This observation seldom occurs in most scholarship outside of art history. Then, as now, there were literacies that were cultivated apart from the venues of verbal riposte.

Literacies beyond spoken and written language were fundamentally altered by the process of technological change. These literacies might better be considered independent rather dependent on the comfortable cohesion that the unquestioned centrality of language provides. But there’s the rub—language is the only communicative meaning that is extensible and generalizable in a way that can hope to capture the nuances of such changes in the form of critique. In fact, language is commonly believed to be commensurate with thought itself so much so that images and/or experiences can be dispensed with entirely. Witness this bit from a preface to a recent French art history text translated by Art History Newsletter:

The prohibitive cost of photographic reproduction rights isn’t the only reason for their absence … [We left them out also] to contest the proper role of description in art history and to subvert the relegation, by philosophers of art, of artworks to illustrations. The writing here seeks primarily to explore and map in detail, sometimes in the most minute detail, not so much images but rather the range of an artistic thought in practice (that of the painters we’re studying).

The writers are attempting to “map” thought, or more specifically “thought in practice” and feel as if language is the best tool for the job. I wish I read French, because I am really curious what they are “contesting” about the role of description—especially given the relatively commonplace belief that the photograph constitutes the ultimate in visual description. An easily argued superiority of language is its ability to convey stories in a way completely absent in unaccompanied visual media. If “thought in practice” is by nature narrative, then this exclusion of the visual is more easily rationalized. I find this difficult to accept. I’ve been thinking about it for months, after watching Bill Moyers’ interview with Garry Winogrand.

Winogrand’s “thought in practice” is centered on locating moments of visual novelty in the stream of events which surround us in the world. The driving force behind his voracious pursuit of the image was to find something in his photographs that was “interesting”—rather than “good.” It seems to me that twentieth century image criticism works much the same way—rather than evaluate the aesthetic success or failure of images (as might have been the commonplace practice in the early salon days of photography) we want evidence of interesting thoughts—either in the cultural circumstances captured in the image, the cultural circumstances implied by the image, or the consciousness that drove the creation of the images. It is thought, rather than the image, which begs for study.

I don’t think that Winogrand would agree; I suspect that he would claim that it is the physical presence of the information rather than people’s thoughts that is the real source of “interest.” Such investigations are inescapably physical and/or imagistic and not necessarily linguistic. They might not even be based in thought at all. Perhaps what we need is, as Sontag claimed, is not a hermeneutic but rather an erotics of art.

One of the strong claims made by Winogrand is that photographic images cannot tell stories—that by their very nature, they are non-narrative in the extreme. It is easy to conceive of the photograph as a bit of a “shock,” an irruption in the narrative flow of time that makes us lose our bearings. We are driven to construct stories largely because they are so conspicuously absent in photographic imagery. Narrowing this non-narrative element to mechanically produced still imagery—to photographs, rather than all visual media is crucial I think.

I believe that narrative tapestries, cave paintings, and historical paintings tell stories. Discounting for the moment the shadow technologies of silhouette (mechanized in the eighteenth century), it is only in from 1839 forward that we can truly say that a non-conventional media has framed the world without social agreement on meanings: a photograph is born from physicality; it is not “thought” transformed into being. In a 1982 interview, Winogrand went so far as to claim that the discourses surrounding the production of a photograph are ultimately a way of avoiding talking about photographs themselves. The material conditions that bring photographs into being were for him irrelevant. What was important was:

Not how I do anything. In the end, maybe the correct language would be how the fact of putting four edges around a collection of information or facts transforms it. A photograph is not what was photographed, it’s something else

The transformation of physical space inherent in a photograph is achieved without resort to conventions— it is non-conventional. In order to clarify what I mean by “non-conventional” it helps to resort to a schema established by John Willats in Art and Representation. Willats proposed that you could describe representative images (that is, images meant to represent things in the world) by identifying two primary systems: drawing systems and denotation systems. Drawing systems are geometrically based ways of projecting a three-dimensional view onto a two-dimensional surface. They are mathematical/optical in nature. Denotation systems, on the other hand, rely on what Willats identified as “picture primitives”— basic shapes or strategies used to symbolically represent objects or qualities. The symbolic nature of picture primitives exists in symbiosis with the projective systems to establish spatial relationships—but the two components are necessarily separate. Projective systems are rule derived while picture primitives are culturally derived and therefore fundamentally conventional.

It is certainly possible to read within photographs the presence of primitives—but they are not a necessary condition of the photographic. In fact, part of Winogrand’s modus operandi is to reject the culturally constituted criteria for what constitutes “good pictures,” preferring instead to explore the momentary relationships derived within its purely projective systems—“I photograph to see what things look like when photographed” as the famous quote goes. In short, he sought to explore the core visual components of non-conventional description rather than thought.

Thought is the inevitable result, however. And Winogrand’s thought lead him to perceive photographic information as incomplete. He reveled in its imperfection, complexity, and lack of resolution. Most stories get resolved—most great stories get resolved incompletely. Perhaps that’s one of the forces that compel us to construct narratives about photographs. Photographs are ultimately gnomic—presenting relationships that exist only within the domain of their bounded surface. Whatever story we construct must be found outside their domain—at least, this was perhaps the unavoidable conclusion within the constraints of the technology deployed by Winogrand.

What prompted me to go down this rabbit hole is questioning what impact digital technology would have on imaging practice in the future. I can think of major changes that are infrequently discussed, and those changes will inevitably affect the ability of photographs to tell stories. I must part with Winogrand’s thinking that the photograph should be considered as separate from the world that creates it; more and more ubiquitous technology ties image making practices to the to the social world.

The possibility of manipulation in digital photographs is probably the most overdiscussed topic around—yawn . The potential for manipulation has been a part of the photographs heritage since we moved past the daguerreotype, or perhaps even before—if you count manipulation of the scene in front of the camera (which we should!). Digital actually changes that situation very little.

The most thorough exploration of that lately has been Erol Morris’s series of pieces about the Roger Fenton photograph of the Crimean War. Interestingly enough, the answer to the question “manipulated or unmanipulated scene ?” was solved by using the logic implicit in a commonplace physical phenomena. Cannonballs don’t roll uphill. Attempts to reconstruct a narrative of the production of these photographs by the application of projected evidence (the angle of shadows, etc.) failed due to imperfections in the technology. But gravity never fails to give answers regarding the sequence of events involving moving objects. Physical evidence wins over psychological postulations. Ultimately, though, Morris’s question is not particularly interesting— why should it really matter what came first, unless you’re telling some kind of story?

Implicit in the new metadata available in digital images are some really startling things—the sort of controversy that Morris explores might never happen if the additional descriptions available in metadata are commonly used in future images. I say descriptions because the coordinates of GPS readings, or time-date stamping, lens focal length settings, etc. can hardly be considered as linguistic. They are symbolic, yes—perhaps one might even consider them as “picture primitives” that describe the boundaries of the system contained within the photographic data. Metadata is potentially a “frame” rather than simply “tags” which facilitate sorting. GPS data, for example, provides a sort of reference point to fix the location—providing an implicit preposition to sets of global coordinates. This is an ability that transcends the implicit verb “is” involved in every photographic image. Now, we might say that this photograph “is” relative to something else outside the frame. That’s huge.

But the real impact of metadata is probably found at its most basic level—the time/date stamp. With this information implicit or explicit in all future photographs, the narrative potential is forever changed. We will be able to tell what came first without resorting to the contortions that Morris must go to. That is perhaps the biggest revolution suggested by digital imaging practice, as far as I’m concerned—the piggybacking not only of linguistic data on an image, but of fundamental symbols of a physical cosmos which we must accept unimagined. A new paradigm in storytelling practice.

In the future, it is conceivable that every picture might tell a story without the invasion of socially contingent “picture primitives.” But this is not commensurate with meaning. A mechanical story can ultimately only be a chronicle rather than a narrative infused with human feelings—understanding is perhaps best derived from judicious attention to multiple vectors negotiating compromise between the world as it is, the world as we represent it, and the world that we negotiate by feel as much as reason.

Recently, I have been dipping into the literature labeled as material rhetoric and I find much to agree with. For example Lester Faigley’s 1999 essay Material Literacy and Visual Design directly addresses the way that alphabetic dominance has warped the ruler. Although he oversimplifies and misquotes several key pieces in visual theory, his general thrust is quite appropriate:

Even after a century and a half of saturation with mass-market image technologies, the heritage of alphabetic literacy from the Enlightenment still dominates within the academy and in literacy instruction in general. The totemization of alphabetic literacy and the denial of the materiality of literacy have had the attendant effect of treating images as trivial, transitory, and manipulative. Visual thinking remains excluded from the mainstream literacy curriculum in the schools, and it is taught only in specialized courses in college in disciplines such as architecture and art history.

Visual thinking is not simply excluded, its very possibility is denied by most linguistically savvy theorists. Images cannot carry propositional content. Because they are arbitrary representations, it seems inappropriate to label them as true or false. Without verbs outside of the past tense, or truth conditions, images simply are not (in the mind of most writing professionals at least) commensurate with thoughts. Reexamining the impact of material technologies on communicative behavior is a step in the right direction, I think. But it still does not and cannot think visually. It only describes (imperfectly at best) the mechanism of such thinking.

New modes of digital storytelling are emerging, but are they really new? That’s the big problem that I am grappling with. There is a lot more to sort through, but this has gone on far too long.