Fotograf Magazine

Can photography capture our time in images?

Over thirty theoreticians, photographers and curators try to answer the above question in an eponymous publication (Bostrom J, Jager G. (eds). Kann Fotografie unsere Zeit in Bilder fassen? Eine zeitkritische Bilanz. Kerber Verlag, Bielefeld, 2004, 224 pages). All are participants in the Bielefeld symposia on photography and the media that will take place for the 27th time this year (the anthology came out to mark the 25th anniversary of this event). Most of the respondents immediately pointed out the complexity of the question posed, that can be read in a number of ways, and answered accordingly. What is our time? Who should judge the validity of its photographic portrait? Many contributions concur in naming as the most important criterion the perspective of the viewer. Among those is for instance Ralph Hinterkeuser who stresses that each person sees only what he or she knows – thus, looking at a photograph, knowledge lies in the viewer’s eye as they identify the portrayed details. This is emphasized also by Marlene Schnelle-Schneyder: our perception constructs the “image of the world” – we see what we want to see. According to Stefan Raum, only those images that evoke an emotional response in the viewer actually captured their time.

This is close to stating that in order to be understood, the image has to be accompanied by text. Such is the conclusion arrived at by Herbert W. Franke, who analyzes the notion of the viewer – whoever the viewer may be, even a future anthropoid, if his or her notions and ways of thinking correspond with ours, he or she will be able to understand the visual message. The historical context which renders our time understandable can be supplied by written text. Similarly, Hansjoachim Nierentz asserts, that without additional information, the viewer cannot gain insight into the epoch in which the image was created. Apparently, the matter is entirely different when it comes to the images of collective memory: photographs of the burning WTC towers are supposed to throw me back to 9/11, to relive the emotions stirred in me by the first news of the terrorist attack. But is that not one and the same thing? -that is, again I am able to understand only the photograph of people or event that I already know. Jerzy Olek, too, tends toward the view that without additional information we cannot understand the time when the image was created. Moreover, photography cannot capture the spirit of the time, merely its separate, individual aspects.

Some respondents cite examples to support their opinions. Thus Gerd Blum describes the photograph from the Vietnam War, depicting children running for cover (Huynh Cong „Nick” Ut: Vietnam Napalm, 8. 6. 1972]: the little girl in the middle is like an impersonation of all the suffering. Blum analyzes why the picture remains to this day one of the most notorious images of war: the girl in the middle crying with pain has her arms spread wide, and her body thus divides the image in halves both vertically and horizontally. It is above all due to this compositional perfection, and to iconographic associations (the Pieta) that it became the personification of the horror of war.

Most texts in the anthology do not arrive at an unambiguous answer – as if the way the question was posed pointed to the primary question: What is photography? We live among a proliferation of images, spilled at us daily from newspapers, television, advertisement. According to Rolf Sachsse, each image references itself rather than reality, affecting our lives, since we model our reality on images. Karl Muller is of a similar view: while formerly images were taken from life, today life takes the cue from images (popular culture, music videos, industrial design). Other texts (by Maria and Michael Otte, Claudia Fehrenkemper, MartinRoman Deppner) accentuate the qualities that distinguish photography from the human eye: photographs are able to mediate even what nobody has seen with their own eyes (microphotography, macrophotography). Others go even further, stressing the non-representative possibilities of photography: the creation of an autonomous image that represents neither object nor symbol and that is subjected to laws of its own (photograms, luminous structures). There are extreme views that do not comprehend photography as a medium but as an object (such as the endeavors of Ralph Filges, who perforates the surface of the photo-paper trying to exploit the forms hidden in photographic procedures). These contributions apparently tried to point out that photography is not about capturing its time.

The burning question today is the transition from analog photography to digital photography. Enno Kaufhold focuses on this issue in his contribution: he predicts the future based on his extensive knowledge of the 1920s – the products of silent cinema and small-format cameras, adopted to the accelerating tempo of modern life are almost entirely forgotten now, while photographs by August Sander or A. Renger­Patzch, who followed the slow, contemplative way of seeing, are ever more popular. The victorious market of electronic media cannot be stopped, but analog pictures will become treasured, lasting gems [among promising artists in this trend he cites also Jitka Hanzlova).

Perusing this book we find more questions than answers (a categorical “no” is given by Heinz Buddemeier and Jerzy Olek; a “yes” by Jorg Bostrom or Joachim Jansong). Questioning the initial question itself ultimately provides the reader with much food for thought. And that is one of the aims of the annual Bielefeld symposia.

Dagmar Mazancova