The Magic of the Camera (?)
Photographers are translational agents utilizing a technology to decode and convey the external and internal worlds via the camera lens—regardless, if it’s intentional or not—while the camera itself is a tool imbued with the demonstrative ability to disseminate and capture the essence of the living moment and time’s unforgiving progression from the past into the future. Photography has a potency to present the viewer with an endless array of potentialities and possibilities, and, on some level, the photograph speaks to that primal overmind inhabiting every human psyche—we see ourselves or our conceivable selves in every picture. Perhaps, then, this is both the blessing and the curse of the photograph: our eyesight helplessly submits to its unavoidable voyeurism…we cannot evade its imagistic persuasion. Susan Sontag notes this apperceptive sorcery that a picture holds over the human conscious in her book On Photography and observes, “photographs express a feeling both sentimental and implicitly magical: they are attempts to contact or lay claim to another reality” (p.16).
Sontag’s remark reminds me of Erik Davis’ book TechGnosis where the author discusses the concepts of arresting and creative/generative magics, and argues that an image in our culture contains the potential for either. Arresting magic is described as “the imposition of binding symbolic restraints on the many by the few” (p.210), while creative/generative magic is “a critical rebellion of the grassroots imagination against the symbolic and social frameworks of concensus reality” (p.213). In the context of photography, photojournalism would be a perfect example of arresting magic since its “strongest example…is the mass media” (p.210), and, as Mary Warner Marien observes in her book Photography: A Cultural History, “as mass-market illustrated journals proliferated, the word ‘photojournalism’ entered common usage” (p.235).
With all of this in mind, a photographer such as Weegee and his flashbulb snapshots of crime scenes veer more towards the shock and awe of arresting magic and a photographer like Harry Callahan and his work are typical of creative/generative magic. Weegee’s tabloid aesthetic to capture “sensational images of crime and violent death” (Marien, p.344) fits effortlessly into what critical theorist Guy Debord refers to as the “society of spectacle,” which he quite vitriolically attacked for being the arresting magic of “technological and industrial domination of our psychic, aesthetic, and imaginal lives” (Davis, p.210). At the other end of the ‘magical’ spectrum, Harry Callahan’s photographs of city streetlife—though “tense and inhospitable” (Marien, p.342)—were filled with “lyrical flashes of beauty in tufts of grass [and] elegant lines drawn by utility wires” (Marien, p.342). Owing much to Robert Frank’s book The Americans, Callahan’s photographic vision falls succinctly in line with creative/generative magic, which exploits “the rich ambiguities of words, images, identities, commodities, and social practices in order to…rupture business as usual, and to stir up new ways of seeing and being” (p.213).
And speaking of photographer Robert Frank, his work would be considered, if you will, creative/generative magic in arresting magic’s clothes. Grainy, gritty, and blurred techniques aside, the subject matter that Frank chooses for his pictures embodies the same disturbing quality as Weegee’s photographs; however, his brand of shock and horror has an interesting twist. Whereas, photojournalism’s arresting-magical qualities are, as William Covino argues in his book Magic, Rhetoric, and Literacy, to charm “its readers…into a world where life is dangerous and exciting” (p.130), Robert Frank’s photos utilize the same diegetic and semiotic language of the photojournalistic picture, but expose the danger and excitement for what they really are: falsehoods.
As Covino observes, arresting magic lulls its audience into a false sense of security that “there really is no place like home” (p.130); Frank’s intentions would appear to be entirely antithetical to this. His photographs are often viewed “as a protest against numbing mass culture, materialism, and social conformity” (Marien, p.340): the very things that arresting magic is built upon. Frank’s use of the camera conveyed and displayed a populace of psychologically displaced, disconnected, and damaged people incapable of basic human interaction and seemingly unable to find their way back to the false security of home sweet home. Regardless, of Frank’s intention, the viewer cannot help but feel overpowered by a sense of alienation and awkwardness when viewing his photos...certainly not the shocking-yet-safe hypnosis of arresting magic. Most importantly, Robert Frank’s photographs serve as a looking-glass, cracked and splintered for the viewer to observe him/herself or aspects of him/herself in.
Arresting and creative/generative magics aside, there’s little denying that Callahan’s, Weegee’s, and Frank’s photographs are subject to the same quantified spatiotemporal laws that govern the whole of humanity and the universe we live in; indeed, their works serve as a testament to it. The difference lies in their intentions and, though their reasons for snapping pictures might differ greatly, each man was still capturing the life experience on some level. Keeping this in mind, Susan Sontag suggests that all pictures “are equalized by the camera…which levels the meaning of all events” (p.11). That’s not to say that a horrific murder scene is somehow equivalent to an abstract photograph of the female body; I doubt any sane person would argue that.
However, as Sontag further observes, both capture “a thin slice of space as well as time” (p.22)…and this there is no denying. Every photograph shares a common bond in their reflection of the scene, seen, and sometimes unseen. The picture’s viewer bears witness to the world within the image, passively and instantaneously taking possession of the photographer for that fixed, frozen moment in space and time; we see what they saw or wanted us to see. Before our very eyes, the image absconds its subject matter altogether and casts a documentative spell of spatiotemporal information: a portal into the past…a moment that can never be lived again in a world that might never have truly existed.
From the camera’s measured focus of hyperbolizing the disturbing and /or obscure to the seemingly instantaneous snapshots of the racing inhabitants in an urbanized blur, both are expressive estuaries of the life experience and testaments to time’s rule over every atom. Though their stylizations and photographic techniques vary and differ greatly, photographers’ reflective documentation of life, living, and being are inherently the same; regardless, the subject matter. The photograph serves as a documentative vessel of human experiences and provides civilization an imaginal outlet to disseminate the abstruse as well as the obvious. No magic or motive is necessary for this to occur…and this is the real magic of the photograph.
Covino, William A.. Magic, rhetoric, and literacy an eccentric history of the composing imagination. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994. Print.
Davis, Erik. TechGnosis: myth, magic + mysticism in the age of information. Updated ed. London: Serpent's Tail, 2004. Print.
Marien, Mary Warner. Photography: a cultural history. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006. Print.
Sontag, Susan. On photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977. Print.