Fotograf Magazine

Photography – Direct Witness?!

Historian Filip Wittlich works in the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague. He is co-author of several monographs and studies Czech and Czechoslovak history of the past two centuries. In the book, Fotografie-přímý svědek?! (Photography-Direct Witness?!), he explores the medium of photography as a source. The sub-title, The Photographic Image and its Significance for Historical Discovery, underscores that he is interested in the effectiveness of learning from the past.

The starting point for this contribution to historiographic theory and methodology is an issue formulated first through art history and then also gradually through visual studies. Prior evolution is offered up representatively and clearly. The interdisciplinary critical interpretation emphasizes the changeable nature of images that take on different meanings in different contexts. It culminates in the monitoring of commentaries on an anonymous photograph, whose cropped version is printed on the book jacket. The broader reproduction, recalled inside Wittlich’s book, made up the frontispiece to the meaningfully cited novel by Karel Kraus, Die letzten Tage der Menschheit (1922), in English – The Last Days of Mankind (1933). The photo comes from one-time Tridentum, which is today Trento, and it portrays a moment from 12 July 1916. On that day Cesare Battisti was executed and the same photograph held opposite meanings for its Austrian and Italian circulators.

Wittlich’s exemplary analyses are centred on referents, locations, situations, configurations, datings and authorship. The publication repeatedly points out the main specificity of the ties between photographs and their topics: compared to traditional images, i.e. paintings, sketches or engravings, he finds more similarity between reality and the photographs. “With the exception of manipulative interventions the photograph is considered as a trace – as a sign of reality with a referential relationship between the real object and the resulting image.” Then its symbolic connection can be considered definitive: “Photography as such has a double nature,” explains Wittlich with the help of Charles S. Pierce’s semiotic terminology: “iconic-indexical, which corresponds to the doubly created bond between the referent and the symbol.” Thus the proposal for the typology of sorting the bonds of technical images distinguishes between four basic degrees of reliability. Negatives, positives and reproductions correspond with the latent, primary, secondary and tertiary relationship of the image captured in the master. Nonetheless, the work’s Introduction mentions that “digital photography is photography without pedigree; it is not distinguishable whether an image is an original or a copy; all interventions are not carried out on the image but rather directly in the image.”

Despite this, it seems that Wittlich responds to the question taken from the title of this review with his exclamation point, which is also part of the book’s title. There is no space between the functional and effect-based punctuation in the set type. Meanwhile it is indeed in this brief combination that the tension of the historian’s work resides. His résumé underscores that photographs in publications are placed on the level of direct impressions of reality. However, direct means non-facilitated; whereas, “non-facilitated photography” is an obvious contradiction.

If we look at the book jacket from this perspective, it shows that the reality to which the resulting image most vividly refers is a reaction to his own photographic work or the act of publicity itself. So in order to intervene in reality the active presence of a classic photographer sufficed. And not only in the given case. Immortalization remains an attraction due to which everyone and everything takes on a pose. And not necessarily ex post, but rather immediately in the depiction.

Josef Moucha