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(In)Decisive Moments: Photographing the Commonplace

From the beginning, the photograph has been a kind of paradox, existing simultaneously as both document (decisive evidence) and artifice (subtle deception or trickery). By acknowledging this dual nature, many contemporary artists, including myself, find that the photograph remains not only a provocative medium, but also the strongest way in which to communicate their ideas.

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Historically, photography has been considered the medium of reality. In 1917, the artist and photographer Paul Strand noted, “Unlike the other arts, which are really anti-photographic, objectivity is of the very essence of photography. . .” (Mora 184). In effect, all photographs made during the 19th Century are now thought of as “documents” (Wells 75). Even today, there can be little doubt that one of the camera’s main functions is to record.

The late 19th century pictorialist approach to photography was an emphasis that encouraged the photographer to soften the photographic image, rendering it more “painterly.” However, as the camera’s inherent capacity for capturing realism (sharp focus, realistic representation, deep focus) began to interest artists, there was a turn away from making photographs that mimicked paintings. The resulting movement, “straight” photography, grew to become a major aspect of the mid-twentieth century’s modernist tradition. The philosophy of straight photography held the belief that the straight approach was the only way to make photographs and that such images could “reveal and celebrate reality” (Atkins 153).

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Although the photograph’s inherent capacity for representation (documentation) appears to be obvious, the philosophical basis requires some background. As the French theorist and semiotician Roland Barthes has written, a photograph presents something that has “posed in front of the tiny hole and remained there forever . . .” (78). The relative permanence of the image offers a visual record–”proof” that the particular person, place or thing captured on the film truly did exist during the brief moment that the camera’s shutter was open. For generations of photographers, this concept of capturing time for a “brief moment” of exposure has provided a bedrock philosophy, as well as the modus operandi.

In 1952, the documentary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson coined the phrase “the decisive moment”–a reference to the “one split second” when it is best to snap the camera’s shutter, capturing that perfect moment when all the elements in the image come together. Even in the 21st Century, “decisive moment” and “straight photography” remain key terms in the photographic vocabulary.

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In his essay Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Barthes narrates his attempts to recover memories through family photographs. Soon after the death of his mother, Barthes, like many of us who have dealt with such a loss, spent time looking through his old family photos and trying to find an image of his mother that might somehow “bring her back.” Through such personal exploration, Barthes discovers and describes the photograph’s embalming power–its unique ability to capture “what-has-been.” In this dimension, time seems to be frozen in the photograph. Yet the photo also reminds us that this “frozen” time no longer exists. He suggests that this duality between the past and the present exists within every photograph.

By its very nature then, photography records time, but to what extent can it truly preserve memory? Can the pictures in our pockets distort the memories in our heads? Towards the end of Barthes’ photographic quest in Camera Lucida, the author finally comes to terms with the dual nature of the photograph, including its proclivity for distortion.

The photograph then becomes a bizarre medium, a new form of hallucination: false on the level of perception, true on the level of time: a temporal hallucination, so to speak a modest, shared hallucination (on the one hand “it is not there,” and the other “but it has indeed been”): a mad image, chafed by reality (115).
Of course, there exist many overt ways to alter, to manipulate, or even to falsify photographs, from air brushing to digital imaging. But, we must also consider the many subtle ways that photographs are modified. Each time a photograph is created, a multitude of decisions will ultimately influence the resulting image. For instance, will the image be color or black and white? Horizontal or vertical? Close-up or far away? What subject matter will the photograph include? Exclude? People who pose for portraits and snapshots are instructed to “smile” or to “look this way.” Indeed these simple variables modify any image, but still more important are the decisions related to the photographer’s intentions. As art critic A. D. Coleman writes in his essay “The Image In Question,”

The work of every photographer describes a unique, personalized world, a version of the universe shaped by that photographer’s sensibility and intentions. In the imagery of those who choose to function directorially, this shaping is more aggressively done, thus more undeniable; the pretense that the photograph merely mirrors “the way things looked” gives way, as I’ve just suggested, to the forced realization that what the photograph encodes is a perspective, a viewpoint, an opinion–even, possibly a fiction (57-58).
The notion of photographic truth “began to fall apart as artists began to challenge the medium’s autonomy, using it as merely one creative tool among many” (Mora 184). For quite some time, well before the digital image, this long established relationship between the photograph and memory (proof) has been questioned.

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Like Barthes, I first became interested in commonplace memory while searching through my own family photographs, and I discovered a photo of myself as a small child, lying on my bed. I do not remember the occasion for the everyday snapshot because I was too young to remember it being taken. At first, there was nothing unusual in the image that I could clearly remember, but something about it continued to hold my attention. Gradually, I realized what was coming back to me: it was the chenille blanket on the bed. Somehow, I felt again those wavy lines of the bedspread’s soft tufted cotton. My visual contact with the photograph retrieved my comfortable–but forgotten–tactile memory from childhood. Finding the chenille photograph has prompted me to examine commonplace memories and how the textures and surfaces that cover our everyday environments affect us.

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Philosopher Gaston Bachelard believes that we “read” a space much like we read a text. In his book, The Poetics of Space (1958), Bachelard explores the psychology of “home.” He studies the ways in which we inhabit domestic spaces, including corners, drawers, chests, and wardrobes. Over forty years after the publication of Bachelard’s essay, we now spend, arguably, even less time at home and more time in institutional environments or “non-spaces” (offices, waiting rooms, schools, hospitals, airports). Of course, one such institutional environment is the school–a place where I have spent most of my life, first as a student, and now as a teacher. I have abiding interests in memory, the absent subject, surface detail, and the structures that surround us in our everyday lives. By photographing in these “non-places,” I examine the relationships that we have with the spaces we occupy and how our perceptions of the buildings we spend time in shape us.

Specifically, my work looks at the underlying meaning within institutional interiors (tiled walls, upholstered seating, carpeted floors, terrazzo-covered corridors). By selectively focusing on the everyday surfaces that cover these man-made environments or containers, this meaning seems to be amplified. On the surface, these empty containers may appear to be neutral. After a closer look, however, they become anything but neutral.

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Photographic memories can be both positive as well as negative, as can be seen in the institutional interiors that I photograph. These images evoke fond memories for some viewers; for others, the images are disturbing. Responses to these images will be as wide-ranging as memories themselves. Proust compares our memories to drugstores that contain a range of drugs with a range of possible effects; our memories are places where, he writes, “chance steers our hand sometimes to a soothing drug and sometimes to a dangerous poison.”

In an attempt to shift the viewers’ attention toward their own memories and away from the actual place photographed, I formally treat my subjects as landscapes or abstractions. This seemingly mundane imagery is something that might have previously been overlooked, but by making the familiar into something unfamiliar, I invite the viewer to see the subject in a new way. What seemed at first to be ordinary will slowly take on layers of meaning, developing a quality of ambiguity. I am seeking to go beyond the instant or decisive moment by focusing on moments in which nothing can really be said to have happened. I am seeking to capture the duration of the commonplace.

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Works Cited

Atkins, Robert. Art Speak. New York: Abbeville Press, 1990.

Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Trans. Maria Jolas. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill & Wang, 1982.

Coleman, A. D. Depth of Field: Essays on Photographs, Lens Culture and Mass Media. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998.

Mora, Gilles. Photo Speak. New York: Abbeville Press, 1990.

Proust, Marcel. Remembrance of Things Past. “The Captive.” Volume 10, chapter 3. Trans. by Ronald and Colette Cortie. New York: Random House, 1988.

Wells, Liz, ed. Photography: A Critical Introduction. Routledge: London, 2000.

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Artist: When Shauna Frischkorn isn’t on her hands and knees photographing the linoleum flooring at the local elementary school, she’s teaching photography at Millersville University of Pennsylvania in Millersville, PA.

Published inIssue 1.3Issues
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