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The Photograph: A Strange Confined Space.

The Photograph: A Strange Confined Space. By MARY PRICE. Stanford U.P. 1994. pp. 204. 10.95 [pounds sterling].

PRICE EXAMINES both actual photographs and fictional photographic images in literary texts to develop two main theses. Her first argument is that a verbal description is necessary to complete the meaning of a photograph. This description--whether a caption, a title, or an analysis--will strongly affect a viewer's response to the visual image itself. Price's second contention is that the way in which a photograph is used determines its meaning. Based on visible evidence in the image, different viewers will develop varied interpretations depending on whether the photograph is regarded as a social document, a personal memento, or an aesthetic object. Price's book arrives at a time when photography's ability to provide reliable transcriptions of the seen world is under much scrutiny, largely because new developments in computer and digital technologies make photographic images easy to alter. The author acknowledges this current suspicion and then redirects its focus:
   Even now, when the critical tendency is to discount the trustworthiness of
   the photograph, there is an equal and opposite tendency to believe what is
   seen in it. The question is then removed one step to ask not whether what
   is to be seen can be trusted but first to name what is seen and then to
   interpret it.

Thus, while the book is about photography, it is really a homage to the powers of the word.

As Price herself demonstrates, neither of her two theses are new ideas. Her discussion of the surrealists provides one example of a group of artists acutely aware of the interplay between visual image and written text, while Duchamp's `readymades' play on the importance of use value: exhibited in a museum, a toilet bowl means something quite different than when sought out in a train station washroom. What is illuminating in this book is Price's talent for engaging with--and at points arguing persuasively against--the ideas of historically important figures in photographic practice and theory. Her prose creates a richly telescoping conversation, in which the study of one theorist or photographer becomes an envelope for tangential asides directed toward yet other figures such as August Sander, Edward Weston, Walker Evans, and Roland Barthes. Walter Benjamin provides a central voice because his thought process `makes everything written on photography after him seem to have been inspired by him'. At one point, for example, Price mentions Eugene Atget's images of empty Paris streets in conjunction with Benjamin's well-known comment that Atget photographed as if the sites were crime scenes. Studying the Atget images herself, Price finds that their visual evidence does not necessarily support Benjamin's description, yet his words are so powerful that she is swayed by them in spite of what she sees. Even when Benjamin's descriptions are `wrong', they provoke continual interest in photography.

Poets, novelists, and theorists who grant that words have great power over visual imagery will find this aspect of Price's text exhilarating. Yet perhaps this is preaching to the converted, and one should ask whether Price's examples will convince those of the other persuasion. Certainly there are readers who will argue that the visual alone is significant, that what is important in a photograph is revealed purely to the eye through the surface, by its tones, shapes, balances, and lines. They will argue that captioning is superfluous. Price challenges this belief throughout the book, most pointedly in a chapter called `Untitled', in which she demonstrates that the refusal to name a visual image beyond a generic label is in itself an acknowledgement of the power of words. Naming is important, not because it seeks to contradict or overpower the visual, although in some cases that happens, but because describing and naming `continue the process of seeing by interpretation'. Price takes as given that when we view something compelling we will want to interpret it, and that interpretation necessarily involves words.

The language of such interpretation may be metaphoric, and may in itself demand further unfolding. A significant portion of this book is devoted to tracing Benjamin's metaphor of the aura as it develops throughout his writings. This is no small task, given the way Benjamin adds to, stretches, doubles back on, and at times seems to contradict his own statements. Price acknowledges that one complication in understanding Benjamin is that while he writes about the aura surrounding sacred objects which have been invested with meaning such as religious icons or original art works, and then speculates that mechanical means of reproduction like the photograph disintegrate that aura, his own poetic language regarding photographs tends to `encourage further speculation about the imagined existence of an aura'. Price concludes that a `secular aura' replaces the `sacred aura', and that a written text is crucial to its creation. Those acquainted with Benjamin's writings--and this book assumes readers will have some familiarity--will appreciate the attentive wit with which Price follows the shifting planes of his thought.

Considering Benjamin's `A Short History of Photography', Price overlays her analysis of Benjamin with revised information about several of the photographers his work addresses. (Benjamin depended on an unreliable historical source, though as Price emphasizes, even when he is factually incorrect about the production of an image, his conceptualizations retain their vitality.) In her discussion of German photographer August Sander, Price gives some of the strongest evidence of her two theses. Before and after the First World War, Sander attempted to compile a sociological archive by photographing individuals of every class and occupation. Benjamin, writing in 1931, values Sander's portraits as a record of professions, a materialist document illustrating a cross-section of society, understood at a glance. Yet a full appreciation of Sander's photographs today depends on captions, because viewers without specific historical knowledge can no longer identify the visual clues of costume, hairstyle, or posture distinguishing the professions. In a deeply moving passage, Price reprints Sander's photograph of three young men on a road. In its conception and execution, the image is beautifully intriguing. When the viewer learns from the caption what the visual image itself cannot tell, that the men are `Young farmers on their way to a dance', that they are inhabitants of `Westerwald' in Germany, and that the year is `1914', the image assumes a historical poignancy it could not have had for Sander at the time of its making, and which differs from Benjamin's use as a social document.

Given the importance Price grants the caption, one of the photographer's most unfortunate fates is to lack a writer equal to her images. Price finds this the case with the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. Critic Mike Weaver has paired Cameron's work with passages from a religious text known to have influenced her, thus emphasizing how she made use of Christian themes. Price finds Weaver's captions overdetermined, arguing that the piously florid Victorian text, matched to the excesses of Cameron's photographs, highlights the merits of neither. Of course, one can defend Weaver's selection with Price's own thesis: if his goal was to make explicit the sway of popular religious iconography over a portion of Cameron's work, than these captions are historically useful. Indeed, Cameron's illustrative photographs, depicting popular themes like `The Whisper of The Muse' or scenes from the Arthurian legends, seem saccharine compared with her stunning portraits. Yet a `great descriptive writer' must take the less palatable images into account. While they lack the luminous intensity of Cameron's portraits, they are important, partly because they locate Cameron firmly in the taste of her times and partly because they emphasize, by contrast, how remarkable her best images really are. The portraits of Julia Duckworth, reproduced in the text, are haunting. Readers will likely find they cannot help demonstrating Price's thesis by regarding the entire text of To The Lighthouse as a `caption' for these photographs of the woman who would become, among other things, Virginia Woolf's mother.

In a wonderful turn, Price moves from examining metaphors for the photograph's transcription of the world to an exploration of how photography itself has been used as a metaphor in the writings of Proust, Barthes, Robert Musil, and Robert Lowell. Each writer uses his description of a photograph for different purposes, creating varied meanings in each text. Conceptually, this chapter is engaging, though occasionally Price's discursive prose, which serves well elsewhere, sinks heavily rather than building up in delicate layers. In her analysis of Proust's using a fictional photograph to reveal the character of Marcel's grandmother, for example, Price quotes a passage she has given just a few pages earlier. It is unlikely that the reader has forgotten the passage, and in context the repetition reads less like a stylistic touch than an accident of hasty editing. Nonetheless, these are minor distractions, redeemed by Price's conclusion that while the photograph depends on language to extend its meaning, this exchange is not one-sided. The photograph also loans itself, as a densely layered metaphor, to deepen the meaning of words.


University of Missouri
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Publication:The British Journal of Aesthetics
Date:Oct 1, 1998
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