What is culture? (redux)

November 25, 2008

At the beginning of the semester, we in COM 300 crowdsourced a definition of “culture,” or operationalized for our discussions in class. We also tried defining “visual culture.” Here’s the blog entry on those discussions.

Now, at the end of the semester, after a great deal of discussion about the different rhetorics of various media, including advertising, photography, cinema, and television, I’d like us to give those two definitions or concepts another go, building on what we came up with back in August.

So, by Wednesday, Dec. 3, please comment to this post. Feel free to refer back to the previous post. Make note of any changes in your conceptions now as opposed to those back in August.

Photography is like . . .

November 7, 2008

To continue and extend our conversation (and to make sure I get to hear from everyone in COM 300), this blog entry asks you to finish the sentence in the headline, with elaboration and explanation. I’ll go first, to get us thinking and to model the kinds of thoughts and posts I’m looking for.

As I mentioned in class, to me photography is like poetry. I love poetry; I love playing with words, and poetry is wordplay if it is nothing else. When writing students expressed to the Walt Whitman that they wanted to become poets because they “have so much to say,” Whitman wasn’t interested. When writing students said they wanted to become poets because they “love playing with language, with words,” Whitman suddenly became interested in teaching them.

Similarly, photography is imageplay. Both poetry and photography “intensively see,” as Susan Sontag put it in her seminal work, On Photography. Much of poetry is concerned with the visual, getting us to “see” a flower, a tree, pain, loss, love, the wrinkles in a woman’s face, and to see these otherwise ordinary artifacts as we have never seen them before. To truly see. Seeing is believing? No, believing is seeing.

  • David’s photograph of a degraded, wrinkled, old pumpkin? A poem about aging and decomposition, and an eloquent poem at that.
  • A water buffalo with a degenerate eye (vision, seeing, window to the soul)? Ah, a poem about the suffering and hopelessness in Zimbabwe, perhaps?
  • A stuffed freezer with hyper-packaged, processed American foods a poem about the excesses of American culture, in contrast with need in most of the rest of the world?

Think about how photography turns living beings — like a water buffalo or a pumpkin — into a thing, a thing to look at. (Is the photo a record of that water buffalo or leaf, or a record of how the photographer saw that water buffalo or leaf?) And how photography turns things into living beings — again, David’s dying pumpkin-become-old woman, or the leaf with veins running through it. (Sontag talks about this photographic strategy on page 111, where she discusses photography’s ability to disclose “the thingness of human beings, the humanness of things.”)

Think of how many poems dignify the mundane — a flower, a tree, an acorn, a sunset, a pretty girl, a rainy day. By calling attention to it, and describing it in such detail, the poem dignifies that object and makes a virtue of it. The mundane becomes — if for only the contemplated moment — something beautiful. This is true also in photography.

Can you think a poem that is “ugly”? A bad poem, sure, just like bad photography, but a poem or photo of something universally ugly? Nope. Photography, like poetry, beautifies, dignifies, exalts, celebrates . . . even the ugly and the mundane.

The poem cannot explain that object, but it can acknowledge it. Photography does precisely the same thing. Chad’s photo of the WTC towers cannot explain the devastation of 9-1-1, but it can and does acknowledge it. Jennifer’s photo of the deck and dock behind her grandmother’s house cannot explain the meaning of that place, but it can acknowledge it (and all of its sun-splashed beauty). Again, as Sontag puts it, “photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire” (p. 4).

Ah, this is another possible answer: Photography is like beauty. Fleeting. Subjective. To quote Aquinas, beauty is “wholeness, harmony, radiance.” To quote James Joyce on Aquinas, “wholeness” is apprehending the object as separate from all else — as in apprehending a pair of shoes as separate from all else (editing, choosing, isolating). “Radiance” is the “whatness” of the object, the essence of that object that makes it distinctly what it is and nothing else — like the pumpkin-ness of the “ugly” pumpkins we viewed, or the “water buffalo-ness” of the water buffalo.

Oh, this is fun. And I could write like this all day long. But now it’s your turn. Photography is like . . . what?