Moral self-education requires of us above all that we erase mistaken representations, reject seemingly obvious postulates, and refuse the familiar recognitions that have become trite through repetition, thanks to our habits of perception. In order to see things, we must first of all look at them as if they had no meaning, as if they were a riddle. (7)
Carlo Ginzburg, Wooden Eyes: Nine Reflections on Distance (1998, trans. 2001)
Photographic education has, for me, always been synonymous with learning to see, taking notice of those things that other people don’t notice. In short, it’s learning how to view the world as a riddle waiting to be studied and unraveled. Photography’s reward is the pleasure of saying: oh, I see now! I get it. Such revelations are of a quieter sort than solving a puzzle or riddle; and I don’t think that photography’s pleasure is equivocal with the assignation of “meaning” to the frame. Perhaps, the pleasure comes from the surrender of/ distance granted from/ fixed meaning. It is the acceptance of a “realm” of metaphoric/poetic thinking that delineates a range of possibilities that must begin apart from the commonplace, although it is always invoked at the risk of becoming the very thing it rejects: just another cliché, a canned mythic meaning with trite conclusions and predictable resolution.
Ginzburg’s choice of terms in picking “moral self-education” as the goal of learning to see is spot on here, I think. Doing the right thing is something that we have to reinvent every day; it is not something that can be performed by rote according to a mysterious code that once mastered becomes second nature. The essay quoted above is the first of his nine reflections: “Making it Strange: The Prehistory of a Literary Device.” At issue from the outset is the problem of novelty; Ginzburg takes two primary, subtly nuanced, examples as his touchstones. First there is the novelty of Tolstoy (connected with Stoic philosophy through Marcus Aurelius) that proposes “to see things ‘as they really are’ meant to free oneself from false ideas and images” and accept mortality. Ginzburg’s second touchstone takes a different route via Proust.
The realm of Tolstoy is dominated by a sort of platonic view of the world as filled with falsehood and deception where there is an unfamiliar and novel “truth” underneath that might be located by finding the “true causal principles” as antidote (18). Proust, on the other hand suggests that the freshness and novelty of things is polluted by “the intrusion of ideas” (18). To find what is novel, it is better to present things “in the order of perception” and still uncontaminated by causal explanations” (18-19). I cannot recall the source at the moment, but one photographer advised that it was best to approach the world “as a sensitized plate” collecting impressions. Taking this advice, it is best to accept surfaces as they are rather than trying to elicit an impression of “true essence” (the driving force behind modernist photography).
How might this be manifested? It seems to me that it is not novel in the Proustian sense to try to make a photograph of a iron pipe having the weight and strength of the original pipe (revealing an idealized concept of “iron” and its attributes) but it would be in its Stoic (via Tolstoy) sense. Or, alternatively, if it looked like ice cream, a totally unfamiliar presentation of a pipe, it would match up to the drive to defamiliarize present in the Stoics. What does it mean to be novel in the Proustian sense? Ginzburg quotes Proust:
Now Elstir’s quest to show things not has he knew they were, but in accordance to the optical illusions that determine how we first see them, had indeed led him to highlight certain of these laws of perspective, which were the more striking at the time because it was art that first revealed them. A river, because of a bend in its course, or a bay, because of the way the cliffs appeared to draw closer together, would seem to hollow out, in the midst of the plain or mountains, a lake completely closed off on all sides. (19)
Ginzburg connects this with ekphrasis, “elaborate attempts to produce verbal descriptions of nonexistent but plausible, pictures” (19). His definition of ekphrasis is the classical literary distortion of the rhetorical exercise (ekphrasis need not be fictional), but it suggests the “placing before the eyes” that is foundational to this rhetorical performance. Novelty, then, for Proust, is secured by viewpoint rather than essence.
The Proustian approach has more appeal to me (as an artist), but the close of Ginzburg’s essay claims that the historian should approach things from an opposite stance:
It seems to me that defamiliarization may be a useful antidote to the risk we all run of taking reality (ourselves included) for granted. The antipositivist implications of this remark are obvious. In stressing the cognitive effects of defamiliarization, however, I also want to take the firmest possible stand against those fashionable theories that blur the boundaries between fiction and history with the aim of making the two indistinguishable. Proust himself would have rejected this confusion. When he said that war might be narrated like a novel, he certainly had no intention of praising the historical novel; on the contrary, he wanted to suggest that historians, like novelists (or painters) come together in the pursuit of a cognitive goal. I agree entirely with this point of view. To characterize the historiographical project to which I see myself as contributing, I would use a phrase— slightly altered— that I have just quoted from Proust: “If we are to suppose that history is scientific, we would have to paint it as Elstir painted the sea in reverse. (22-23)
The stricture then, would not be “make it strange” but rather to make it familiar, which seems to coincide with the declared intent of much of the documentary photography of the 1930s. The irony of You Have Seen Their Faces with its exoticized southerners replete with goiters and Bibles is that it is nearly stoic in its emphasis on mortality and unfathomable strangeness. It is historicist only in the loosest possible senses. But in its earnestness, it contributed soundly to the standards of socially concerned documentary. The schism between documents and history, I think, can be productively traced here. The riddle, ultimately, is how to show the unfamiliar as familiar rather than the opposite.
Behind all this lies a core assumption: it is possible to make the familiar novel.