Sunday, January 31, 2010

rod slemmons excerpt--Between Language and Perception

Slemmons, Rod
Between Language and Perception
Walker Evans. Cine, serie La Hanana, 1933.
(…) Meaning goes into pictures and has to be got back out with close observation. It goes into words and must be released by reading. But it is actually more complicated than it seems on the surface. The game of placing words and images in the same perceptual space, either combined in the picture, or side-by-side, is not easy to play, as many have discovered. First, the artist has to keep track of four phenomena, not just the apparent two: 1. The words have accepted, coded meanings and contexts that affect what we see. The same image next to two texts is seen two different ways. 2. The words invoke mental images that might conflict with what we see. Language was invented to abbreviate and explicate the visual world-words enter our brains on the backs of images. 3. All photographs have meanings based on context which may alter our engagement with them. 4. Images invoke words in the mind of the viewer. Images enter the brain on the backs of words. The choreography of image/word/word/image is not easy to score. But the more difficult it is, the more possibilities for qualifying or clarifying the larger world that is their source. There is an added complication. When we read text we do it by ourselves. The words have to run through us individually in real time, with our own quirky speed and interpretation. The reading of an image, however, is a socially determined, a shared experience. Photographs exist in a continuum that we all share, and they are all judged in relation to a huge bank of photographic uses. Even though we like to think we are interpreting photographic images individually, the largest percentage of our response is collective. We always look at photographs shoulder to shoulder, whether we are alone or not.
Gilliam Wearing. Help, 1992-93
Individually, these mental operations can become transparent and disappear. If we must perform them together, however, an oscillation occurs between opacity and transparency and the viewer becomes self-conscious and analytical, and aware of misplaced trust in both words and images to tell the whole truth. Meaning becomes ambiguous and contingent on the viewer’s participatory energy, but the strength of metaphoric possibilities is expanded. To complicate things further, beginning in the early 1970s, American and French writers discussing photography as an art form began to explore the possibility of thinking of photography as a new kind of language structured very much like verbal language. In "Language Theory and Photographic Praxis" (Afterimage, Rochester, New York, Summer, 1977), Leroy Searle wove an elaborate theoretical system that influenced much of the subsequent examination of this issue. Allan Sekula, Peter Wollheim, Searle, Jean Baudrillard, and others subsequently thoroughly worked over the notion of photography as a language. The study of photographic imagery in terms of a language of signs was loosely gathered under the term semiotics. Canadian photographer Cheryl Sourkes has suggested that semiotics began as an analytic tool for establishing a real critique of photography as an art, and subsequently became the subject of a good deal of photographic art. (…)

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