The myth of objectivity

Exercise: Write a 250 word reflective summary of these two quotes by Andre Bazin and Alan Sekula. Compare their respective positions and record your own view on the issue of photographic objectivity.

“For the first time, between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only  the instrumentality of a non living agent. For the first time an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man…in spite of any  objections our critical spirit may offer, we are forced to accept as real the existence of the object reproduced, actually, re-presented…”   (Andre Bazin, ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’ in What is Cinema? 1945, p7)

“If we accept the fundamental premise that information is the outcome of a culturally determined relationship, then we can no longer ascribe an intrinsic or universal meaning  to the photographic image.”  Alan Sekula, ‘On the Invention of Photographic Meaning’, 1997, p.454.

I’ve read Bazin’s piece a couple of times and he seems to be asserting that because photography is a mechanical process, the result is objective. He does concede that the photographer plays his part in the selection of the object and the purpose for which the  object is photographed may “reflect something of his personality but his does not play the same role as is played by the painter.” A lot of his piece discusses how photography has freed painters from the drive towards realism.

I read Sekula’s piece three times. I understood it no more on the third reading than I did on the first but I’m going to take a stab at suggesting that what he means is photographic objectivity is elusive at best and absent when the photographer, publisher and viewer conspire to ascribe their own meaning to an image which suits their particular purpose, all or none of which coincide.

I don’t see photographic objectivity in these terms, although I can understand the importance of reading an image, in particular as a document where you may be wishing to  inform or persuade by the power of your images. I’m not sure exactly where Bazin was coming from. To describe an image as being formed “automatically, without the creative intervention of man” is not a view that I take. The apparatus, media and processing are all man made and like the brushes and canvas of the painter are merely tools that the artist has available as a means of expression. Neither do I accept that we are “forced to accept as real the object reproduced….. set before us”,  when what we see is a two dimensional representation of an interpretation of an instant in time.


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