Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Photographic Essay (Mitchell)

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“The text of the photo-essay typically discloses a certain reserve or modesty in its claim to “speak for” or interpret the images; like the photograph, it admits its inability to appropriate everything that was there to be taken and tries to let the photographs speak for themselves or “look back” at the viewer”(516). In being told to take a position on this very controversial issue, I didn’t know whether I agreed, disagreed, or both with W.J.T Mitchell’s claim that photographs not accompanied by text speak louder than photographs with text accompaniment. Many photographs are accompanied by text or some type of explanation as to what the photograph is about or the story behind it (e.g. museums and art exhibitions), because of this Mitchell’s claim would often be looked at as wrong and would arouse many controversial and argumentative questions. When you take a closer look and give deeper thought to the claim you will notice that it is very true and I totally agree with Mitchell. I think Mitchell’s claim can be best understood from James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I agree with Mitchell in his views that photographs with no text allows for a deeper understanding of the photo, for you to link the text and image with your own understanding and that text limits the “reading” of the photograph.

An in-depth understanding of a photograph is the ability to look at what is there and to also look past what is there. What do you think the person in the photograph is going through? What does it represent? How can the photograph relate to you, your life and your experiences? I think that these are just a few questions that should be asked and answered when trying to “read” or gain an understanding of a photograph (your own understanding). Agee and Evans try to get this point across by not providing text with the images so your “reading” of the photograph will not be hindered by text that could and would influence your thought. As Mitchell states, “The photographs are completely separate, not only from Agee’s text, but from any of the most minimal textual features that conventionally accompany a photo-essay no captions, legends, dates, names, locations, or even numbers are provided to assist a “reading” of the photographs”(517). In not providing any of these things Evans and Agee make it hard to connect the photographs with the text “ it resists the straightforward collaboration of photo and text”(51). I think this resistance is needed and very essential when trying to fully “read” a photograph and understand it.

Personal associations are essential when trying to link photo and text. Because this collaboration is so difficult to achieve the only thing left to do is to try to link them by relating them to one’s self and life and also looking at the details of the photograph (e.g. facial expressions, clothing, etc.) and coming up with you own understanding or “reading” of them. As Mitchell states, “ The second is the intimate fellowship between the informal or personal essay, with its emphasis on a private “point of view”, memory, and autobiography, and photography’s mythic status as a kind of materialized memory trace imbedded in the context of personal associations and private “perspectives””(516). What Mitchell likes and what Agee and Evans focus is, is to try and achieve this “reading” without being invasive or intrusive. Many would probably argue that even in trying to let the pictures speak for themselves, the reader would become invasive and intrusive. Although this is true, Agee and Evans try to undercut surveillance by not providing text with the image, which would be totally invasive and intrusive for them to try and explain these people’s lives. Evans, Agee and Mitchell believe in no categorizing, pigeonholing, labeling, or judging. As Mitchell states, “what gives us the right to look upon her, as if we were God’s spies”(5). I think the resistance of Agee’s text and Evans images are meant to deliberately prevent easy collaboration, therefore the linking of image and text is extremely difficult but is not meant to be linked but to stand alone as separate “readings”.

What if we were looking at photos with text accompaniment? Would we then be able to fully “read” the photograph? No, the text would strongly influence our thought when trying to understand and relate to the photograph. Mitchell states that “ there is the root sense of the essay as a partial, incomplete “attempt”, an effort to get as much of the truth about something into its brief compass as the limits of space and writerly ingenuity will allow. Photographs, similarly, seem necessarily incomplete in their imposition of a frame that can never include everything that was there to be, as we say, “taken””(516). I really like that fact that in Agee and Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men they have the photographs in the front without context and when the reader or viewer finally does get to the words or text they are in “Book Two”, meaning the photos were “Book One” and they have already “read” them. I also like the fact that Agee and Evans allowed their photographic subjects to pose themselves. I think that photos with text accompaniment limits the “reading” of the photograph and also hinders the “reader’s” creativity and critical thinking process.

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In conclusion, “ The “taking” of human subjects by a photographer (or a writer) is a concrete social encounter, often between a damaged, victimized, and powerless individual and a relatively privileged observer, often acting as the “eye of power”, the agent of some social, political, or journalistic institution. The “use” of this person as instrumental subject matter in a code of photographic messages is exactly what links the political aim with the ethical, creating exchanges and resistances at the level of value that do not concern the photographer alone, but which reflect back on the writer’s (relatively invisible) relation to the subject as well and on the exchanges between writer and photographer”(515). There is a clear imbalance of power here and I agree with Mitchell because I believe that his theory or views on photographs and text tries to cut back on this imbalance of power.

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