Jacques Rancière

Notes on the photographic image

I joined the OCA photography reader group yesterday for a discussion about Rancière’s essay. Prior to the discussion I had read the essay and looked up various references that he made. I admit that I ended up confused and lacking in any real understanding of what point(s) he was making. Some of the confusion might have been because of the translation from the French, but much was probably because I simply don’t have the background knowledge.

Points thought about prior to discussion:

  • Need to read Benjamin – I think the point is that Benjamin felt that the mechanical nature of photography allowed for interpretation of signs and information by allowing people to see them as art via their senses. ?Sensible = uses of senses (vision, hearing etc) rather than ‘common-sense’
  • Invasion of large format images into galleries especially those of portraits of indifferent (?meaning not famous or rare) people are ‘mysterious’ – similar to much earlier portraiture eg Dijkstra’s teenager on the beach = Botticelli’s Venus, re-links an image as a representation and also art.
  • Barthes (need to read Camera Lucida) – studium (information) and punctum (affective/emotional) redefining as the transfer of one absolute (the photographed object) to a separate absolute (the viewer).
  • Lewis Hine’s photograph of disabled children – Barthes talks about the small details as being the punctum eg the bandaged finger – but he uses a coincidence of the French language to (same word for doll and bandage) to make the point, also Danton collar – a figure in French history. If you don’t speak French or know the history (as I do not) neither of these would have struck you. The words are only valid within a certain knowledge base. For me the punctum is the expression (or rather lack of expression) on the girl’s face. Was she forced to stand there? Did she even know what was happening? Why did Hind take this image? His images of working children show people who are clearly aware – and may even have been bribed?
  • The image of ‘the handcuffed man’ (Lewis Payne) – in itself tells you little, you need the backstory – then the questions start. Same about Avedon’s former slave. I think the point Rancière is making is that without information the photograph is meaningless. What the viewer takes depends on that (and where, how and when it is seen).
  • The photograph tells you nothing about the internal thoughts of the person who is being photographed.
  • Photography without people – shows absence? of what – containers filled with their own absence – I would have liked to be able to ask the photographers what they were thinking about – was it a metaphysical question or an aesthetic one? Rancière says both – the presence of the forms and the mystery of the merchandise.
  • Walker Evans farm kitchen – lots of possibilities discussed about why he took that particular image, and who was responsible for the art – the photographer or the farmer who built it (assuming that it wasn’t a ‘set-up’).
  • Taking about Flaubert and Madame Bovary – assumption of knowledge of this literature – probably more common in a French speaker – but – does make the point that photography is not alone, and that assumptions we make when interpreting images are impacted on by our other learning, reading, watching cinema etc, and also that the photographer’s mindset will have been similarly influenced – life is not a vacuum.
  • Fried – again I need to read further – talks about how the absorption of a person in what is happening separates them from the spectator (and the rest of the world)
  • ‘The photo does not say whether is is art or not … it tells us neither what the person who laid the planks and the cutlery in this manner had in mind nor what the photographer wanted to do’ (Rancière, 2009) and Kant’s idea that an aesthetic idea prompts much thought but no determinate thought …. can be adequate – quoted by Rancière – from Kant, Critique of Judgement, 1987.

Additional thoughts garnered from the discussion:

  • When Rancière talks about indifference he is meaning that the object you are photographing is indifferent and it is up to the viewer to give a meaning (which may be different the the one assigned by the photographer
  • Any photograph can have multiple meanings, art, documentary etc
  • When identifying something as documentary you need to define the ‘truth’ – long discussion about whether set-ups are valid, remembering documentary originally meant to tell a story about something
  • Photography is special (different) as you take an image of something that is non-art and make it into art – the indexicality of photography – there is always a thing/where/when – rather than in a painting when the painter starts from a blank.
  • In films the realism is critically dependent on the soundtrack
  • All the concepts around image/construction/validity depend on where the image is going to be used and who will see it

The group were very helpful about pointing me towards further information sources

I think I am going to be reading and taking notes for the next millennium!


‌Rancière, J. (2009).

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