Symbolic readings leave pictures in shadows

The Spoken Image
April 7, 2000

Much intellectual writing on photography is constructed around a false dichotomy. Those who use this ploy to produce artful books about photographic meaning set up an opposition between a class of subjects who believe that the photograph is a simple mirror of reality and, on the other hand, those who believe that the photograph is a work of imagination. Authors who use this technique invariably place themselves among the second class.

The fact that this simplistic opposition maps readily onto the realist-idealist dichotomy is not accidental, for it replays a philosophical controversy nearly as old as time that reappears in the form of debates about photographic meaning, and in particular the attempt to recast them in the context of semiotic and discursive theories.

Clive Scott's book employs the false-dichotomy approach to discuss the language surrounding various photographic "genres", including documentary, press, fashion, art, film, photo-roman and others. The term genre is key here, for it implies a concentration on style rather than on content (and suggests that documentary, for instance, is simply yet another genre and thus no different in principle from soap opera). This book is an example of the way in which literary studies has embraced the non-textual in recent years. Scott is a literature professor, and his interest in photography is akin to that of many of his colleagues in non-textual media such as film, television, music and painting. This is part of the postmodern emphasis on the relativism of cultural meaning, an intellectual tendency that erases crucial differences between forms of expression and interpretation and debases evidential meaning.

The important question for me is whether this literary approach to photography has any utility. Does it illuminate our understanding of, say, the fashion pictures typically found in Vogue magazine; or of John Berger and Jean Mohr's several collaborations; or of a Peter Greenaway film; or of a David Hockney "joiner" (photomontage)? (All of these are subjected to Scott's minute analysis.) Perhaps my own perspective - concerned, above all, with the social and historical dimensions of the medium - is too "realist", but I found little more than interpretation heaped upon interpretation in Scott's writing. It led me to wonder if photography itself is what interests Scott. What he writes about seems mostly concerned with the language games to which the medium may be subjected. At several points the text offers passages that are candidates for "pseuds' corner" and although this may be a consequence of the over-use of technical terms, it disrupts and obscures arguments that often head in interesting directions.

Much of the difficulty of this type of book derives from the relativistic nature of semiotic and discursive interpretation. When Scott offers analyses of photographs, for instance, readers may be tempted to respond "who says?" to his views.

In one case, my own research overlaps with an example he uses, that of Willy Ronis's "La Peniche aux Enfants" (1959). I cannot disagree with Scott's use of this picture to explain "indexical", "iconic" and "symbolic" relations of viewer to image - plausibly enough in the terms he has defined. But at the same time, it does not seem to add anything to what Ronis himself has written and said about the making of this particular photograph. Crucially, it omits any reference to the historical, social, cultural or biographical context of the image and its making.

Scott suggests that the application of interpretation through semiotics to the "reading" of the image offers us some important "knowledge" of the photograph, but I know no more about it from reading his text than I knew before. A simple description of the image's structure, combined with an historical understanding of the key themes of French humanist photography of this era, delivers so much more. It is contextual information that best informs, and that is precisely what seems to be lacking in this form of textual interpretation.

The Spoken Image displays its author's deep knowledge of a wide range of literature on meaning and photography, and the book is well produced and illustrated. This makes it all the more frustrating that so little of consequence emerges from so much effort.

Peter Hamilton is lecturer in sociology, Open University.

The Spoken Image: Photography and Language

Author - Clive Scott
ISBN - 1 86189 032 X
Publisher - Reaktion
Price - £16.95
Pages - 360

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