“Altography” [My Winter 2013 Honors Final!]

Oddly, I had a hard time picking a picture… this is the book that formed the basis of my “critique” for each image.

And now, for something completely different… something more complex and cerebral. Not to scare anybody away in the first few lines, but this is about my final for Honors English this last Winter quarter at the University of Washington! Under the guidance of the excellently-engaging Professor Caroline Simpson, we devoted our weeks as a close-knit “cohort” to the study of texts, essays, and film that explored and questioned the relationship between photography and… something that, off the top of my head, I think is best described as social change.

Did the pictures taken to expose the plight of Dust Bowl-era migrant workers really help their subjects, or just make people who saw them feel more fortunate? How much of the Abu Ghraib scandal would’ve even occured if no-one had recorded it? These questions and more drove the bulk of our group discussions, and while I was admittedly lost most of the time, I gleaned enough knowledge to eventually produce and submit this “creative thesis” (an option that mercifully arose halfway through the quarter)… for an overall course grade of 3.8!

The basic focus: Do the events, objects, and/or people immortalized in famous photographs retain their singular significance when an alternate angle or time of photography is imposed on the “Subject”? Or if an element of distortion–deliberate or not–is revealed in the “original” image? The piece proper, “Altography,” is right below, but if you want to read the more involved, academic explanation I prefaced my initial submission with, scroll down just a little further; you don’t have to read it, but it does explain the historical/critical background and terms utilized!

Altography

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Can an altered perspective operate on the same Subject and still arrive at a new, profound conclusion? While this was once the question which underlined the project contained herein, it quickly became a dilemma hanging over its very formation when my goal reared up as both vague and self-limiting. A hope to better unite the scattered poems came in the form of Camera Lucida, and as my research evolved, I went from merely nodding at Barthes’ words above to deliberately challenging the limitations they declared. Barthes speaks at length on the tension between a great photograph’s studium (the obvious points of interest) and its punctum (an indefinable depth found in subtler aspects), but in turn laments the unary nature of news photographs, with “no duality, no indirection, no disturbance” (41). Applied to those journalistic snapshots which dominate the public perception of a complex Subject, this I could not deny—but could something akin to the punctum exist just “outside” the frame, understood in relation to another photograph?

It wasn’t until I encountered the “surprises” (to his Spectator; “performances” to the Photographer) characterizing photographic “shock” that I understood how to define that exterior quality. These five elements— the “rare,” the numen (rapidity immobilized), prowess, contortion, and the trouvaille (lucky find)—were not established as those of the punctum, but Barthes’ later revelation that “there exists another punctum… Time, the lacerating emphasis of the noeme (“that-has-been”), its pure representation” (96) reveals his knowledge of the possibility. The Subjects inhabiting these photographs are all unique, as are the ways in which they proffer “alternative” sides beyond different physical angles—a sub-punctum of sorts, in the seconds, meters, and manipulations separating different referents from the same Subject. There they wait, ready to expand an inherent disorientation into a space to break down and re-form assumptions surrounding Photography, particularly that of an allegedly “unary” nature. Does the frame end where the device itself captured it, or where the creator chose to crop it? Is something “added” to a photo if the contents are only switched around? Reflecting through images alone, when can an Event be said to have officially “happened”?

In attempting to answer these questions, it is my hope that the endeavor is not taken as a mere “shock to the system,” a childish surprise attack from around-the-corner. It is also my hope that the form serves the focus, for I employ melodic prose poetry with the intent to strike a balance between artistic, aesthetic introspection and academia, freeing the former from the (chrono)logical constraints of the latter while still invoking critical discourse. These poems are not puffed-up captions, but neither are the photographs which accompany them mere illustrations to an experimental essay. If ambiguity seems to pervade the pieces, it is only by the virtue of disassembling their focus: the Realm of the Photograph, where a single detail can tip the balance of visions or memory from godlike certainty or meaningless confusion. That textual quotations selected (rendered in italics) run by the same binary is no accident; for Spectator, Photographer, and Subject alike, Barthes is once again apt when he assess that a (famous) Photograph “completely de-realizes the human world of conflicts and desires, under cover of illustrating it” (118). But no matter the era, professional or amateur, black and white or color, we needn’t panic at that thought. Sometimes, if our sight is filled, we need only shift our heads.

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