The Role of Intent


General Photography

Yesterday, I found a quote over on Ed Winkleman’s blog and . Today, Ed has an update, pulling things apart a bit.

For the most part, I actually agree with what Ed writes today. The main reason for my post was entirely photography-specific. While I like looking at art, I don’t think I would want to make statements about intent art such as the one Ed’s previous post was about - simply because I’m not an expert (Ed’s new post as space for discussion, so I’m sure there’ll be a lot of comments about this topic - make sure to check it out if you’re interested in it).

But there was/is a very important core in the quote that I pulled out of context from Ed’s blog, and I want to iterate this a bit more, strictly in a photography context. There will have to be more written about intent and meaning at some stage…

Photography differs from other art forms in many ways - some inherently, some because of how practitioners and critics deal with it. In photography, discussions about photographic work are often shut down by people who say that the photographer’s intentions are what really matters, thus deflecting (or I should say: trying to deflect) criticism.

As far as I understand it, the basis for this kind of behaviour seems to be that photography is still seen as mostly documentary by many people (I clearly need to elaborate on this seemingly contradictory statement at some stage).

I’ve run into this kind of situation many times, when I criticized some photography and the response was then “Well, why didn’t you ask the photographer what s/he was after?” or “I can’t believe Colberg ignores what these photographs are really about.” To which I respond: No, that’s not how this works. The photographer’s intentions do not determine per se what the photographs are about.

To give an example I have mentioned here many times, when I criticized the overly cliched visual language used by some photojournalists (b/w, crooked compositions, grainy etc.) the core of my criticism is that the photographer’s intentions do not determine what the photographs will achieve, the reason (in this case) being that we are so familiar with that kind of imagery that, well, it simply doesn’t faze us any longer. Of course, it might still faze some people, but the majority of people is not as affected by it any longer as it was maybe fifty years ago.

We live in a culture that at this stage is more image-based than anything else, and most people, especially the younger generation, are experts in processing images. One of the most important processing mechanisms is to determine whether someone wants to sell us something (notice intent creeping in?) - after all, with consumerism run amok we are constantly bombarded with images that do just that. We don’t want to be sold stuff we don’t need (bad news for intent), and we also know that many images we see are not showing us anything that really exists. Advertizing does not show us products the way they really look like. Magazines use heavily Photoshopped imagery. Etc.

So a consequence of our intense visual culture is that most people are amazingly well trained in taking an image and peeling away any kind of intent. We don’t know per se what the intent could be (how could we? to paraphrase Wittgenstein how does intent come with an image?), and the assumption that an image comes with something we do not need is not such a bad assumption.

What this means is that not only do we not know the photographer’s intention (unless we read the press release in a gallery - and even then do we really know they’re telling us about the real intention? Or are they trying to sell photographs?), we also often assume there is a very specific intention behind a photograph (selling us something, and don’t take the “selling” literally, you can also sell ideas). So if we base discussions about photography on intentions, we can end up in real trouble.

And notice how politicians have been using these mechanisms for a while now! Just to give one example, any time we get to see images from some bombing in Israel or Palestine, the other side basically accuses the media of trying to manipulate the public. This reaction directly targets how we process images, how we approach seeing images - we are told directly “you are being manipulated by the images” (all the while telling us that is, of course, blatant manipulation, too!).

Of course, this discussion gets even more complicated once we introduce “photojournalism” or “documentary” versus “fine art”. I’m using quotes very generously to indicate that drawing up a distinction might just introduce even more trouble (“photojournalism” can be “fine art”, so if we show “photojournalism” in a gallery, does its meaning change?). That’s where context comes in.

That all said, Ed’s original post offered such a wonderful opportunity to take something out of a purely art-centered context and to see what it meant for photography. Photography, of course, has become an established part of art - the implications of that have important consequences for how we understand photography. If photography is an art form (and not, say, a technical craft to produce images) then this means that we need to treat it like an art form.

But it also means that we can use practices well-established in the art world to approach photography, and we might learn something very valuable. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we have to treat photography just like minimalist art - each art form clearly deserves to be treated according to its own characteristics. But we better stop thinking about photography as if it was a technical craft to produce images.