…. in order to see a photograph well, it is best to look away or close your eyes
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida
I have created this blog, searchingtosee, as a space for me to think and write about photography and its role in the modern world. I will use it to share my ideas and pictures, and those of others which inspire me. My focus in particular is to think about the role of the photographic image in everyday life, and to search for a particular aesthetic which I will call phenomenological. Heidegger wrote about ‘being in the world’ as his epistemological concern in Being and Time; he wanted to explore the world in relation to our experience in it as human beings, to our interaction with the things around us. This contextualising of human experience seems to me to be a helpful way to approach photography since we can little understand much about the world we live in without first appreciating our context or ‘mode of givenness’ as Husserl describes it. The way I interpret this is as a kind of philosophy of relativity. All experience is experience to someone according to a particular manner of experiencing. To bring this back to photography (for those of you who are wondering where on earth I am going with this): just as our being (our mind, thought, actions) are deeply grounded in the world, our context of living, and therefore cannot be considered separately from this context (i.e. our history, emotions, experiences), so a photograph is not simply an image in isolation. As I hope the story of my dad in my previous page illustrated, a photograph is a complex relationship between subject, object, time, mood and understanding, which all constitutes and adds to its meaning and the way that we read photographic images. So, just as it is impossible to ‘bracket’ or suspend our natural attitude from its context and all the cultural and historical assumptions which affect and direct our everyday behaviour, so a photograph, a suspended ‘moment in time’ will shift and shape its meaning and its message to us as viewer, as audience, as interpreter, dependent on the context in which is it is given to us.
(NB – Here it would be possible to go into a very lengthy – and indeed interesting – debate on the photograph’s varying social ‘contexts’ as art object, historical document, family snapshot, scientific record etc. but I will, for the moment refrain from doing so… maybe I will save that for another day!)
This blog originally started life as a notebook of pictures entitled Sehnsucht. I intended the notebook to write about the pictures and thoughts which they induced, but I find that as I never have time to sit down and look at them, let alone write, the notebook has been largely left untouched. So I am re-creating my notebook in blog form in the hope that this medium will be more accessible to me and also to others who may want to interact, comment and offer any feedback on my ideas.
Sehnsucht is a German word which we would translate as ‘longing’. It is derived from the two verbs ‘sehen’ (to see) and ‘suchen’ (to look for, or search), hence ‘searching to see’ which I quite like as an idea – a project – because this is partly what we are doing as photographers and consumers of photography: searching for a particular type of aesthetic experience. The German word is also highly evocative of a particular type of desire and longing for the unattainable which was characteristic of the German Romantics: the blue flower. A leitmotif of Romantic literature, the blue flower symbolises this longing. Novalis in his novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen describes this elusive flower which Heinrich experiences in a dream.
For me the flower is a kind of starting point and an inspiration… Perhaps the photographer’s quest is something equally elusive. She is a hunter on a continual search for something (perfection, purity, beauty, truth?) so fleeting, trace-like, as if it was something she saw once only in a dream, that continually evades her, somehow, like a sunbeam of light dancing on a grey cobbled street and bringing it – just for an instant – alive in the most beautiful way imaginable. And then she is left wondering, wanting more.
Those moments when all the elements converge to provide the perfect shot are rare gifts to the photographer as Cartier Bresson knew when he coined the famous phrase – the mantra of all documentary photographers – ‘the decisive moment’ (he also said that your first 10,000 photographs are your worst – I would probably go with that – it takes a lot of bad shots to train a photographic eye). He likened the photographer to the hunter and was one of the first pioneers of elevating the vernacular to interesting photographic material (and eventually art).
It is true that photography has the power to search out and illuminate what is usually hidden, ignored or forgotten, literally to bring it to light:
like the light, that which is bright … that wherein something can become manifest, visible in itself
Heidegger, Being and Time
Mundane, everyday life has a unique aesthetic which radiates its own kind of charming beauty. Photography has made much in common with the phenomenological approach of going back to the ‘the thing itself’ (Husserl) but the partnership, I think, goes deeper than that. Both are on a quest of an intense kind of seeing experience, to rediscover wonder in the world and place themselves in it (be it with a camera or a philosophical presence). Phenomenology also has a lot to offer us in thinking about the photograph as an object itself, a harbinger of memory, death, and social meaning. (This is a subject which Roland Barthes discusses in eloquent detail in Camera Lucida).
So the relationship between photography and phenomenology is not just about the ‘thingness’ that they have in common, but it is a shared attitude to understanding the world in terms of experience, and more importantly in terms of our experience in it. This is what, arguably, all art tries to do, but with the medium of photography there is a unique relationship of inter-dependence; we always have to come back to the thing itself, because that is where it started, where it was conceived (this is what Barthes, in Camera Lucida described as ‘the referent’ – or the thing being photographed – which cannot be divorced from the photograph itself as object, so in effect the photograph becomes its referent, and is made invisible). It came from the world and our desire to see the world around us but not just to see it – to memorise it, to record it, to search it for a deeper, hidden meaning.
© Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2012