One thing has struck me. Every time I go shooting with a camera I have the feeling that I am executing phenomenology. Why is this? Are there any reasons why I should have such an idea?
I think there is, and I will make a note about it here.
Phenomenology teaches you to study the things themselves. The way you can experience them in the natural attitude doing day to day chores. Beyond that, phenomenology also tells you to wait a second, to freeze the situation, and to study it further. To bring out the heart of the matter.
Phenomenology has special words for these activities. They call it bracketing and phenomenological reduction. Bracketing is the freezing of a situation. Reduction is studying it in detail to bring out the general structures of phenomena. Phenomenology simply means to study, to talk about, or to argue for that which can be experienced. And how it is experienced. As man’s knowledge is confined to that which can be experienced, phenomenology is a basic discipline. A first science.
Doing phenomenology is very similar to what I do with my camera. Bringing my camera with an intention to take a picture, already frames the moment in terms of having that and that intention. When I press the release button, I actually freeze the moment that I intend, or don’t intend, to photograph.
Having done my homework I know what structures a phenomenological reduction brings with it. Every single picture I take is a window to all structures of all experiences. Every time I take a picture I am, in terms of phenomenology, half way there. I do not have to think about bracketing, or freezing, the natural attitude to understand it better. The camera does that for me.
That is what you see reflected in my photographs. That is the type of pictures that I enjoy taking. Take a look at the one above. Every phenomenological dimension you can ever think of, is in there. You only need to unfold them. Here are 425 more photographs you are welcome to look at.
That’s all, ladies and gentlemen. Think about it. Leica, or no Leica.
So high the sky.
The picture is shot with a Leica X1, Berlinische Galerie, Berlin, November 7, 2010.
From time to time I read in the little, brilliant book by photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Mind’s Eye.
There are many reasons for that. One of them is that it is the only book that holds all the major texts explaining what Cartier-Bresson understood by “decisive moments”. Most important in that respect are his introduction to “The Decisive Moment” from 1952, and his introduction to “Europeans” from 1998. The original French version of the latter being from 1955.
This time, however, I am doing a tandem read. Alongside Cartier-Bresson’s original texts I read the extensive introduction to the photographer and his work by Peter Galassi in his recent book “Henri Cartier-Bresson. The Modern Century”. It was published for the opening of the Cartier-Bresson exhibition at MoMA in New York earlier this year.
Peter Galassi is no doubt one of the people that knows the most about his former friend Henri Cartier-Bresson. His extensive knowledge of the works and thoughts of Cartier-Bresson shines through in the introduction and are, most certainly, a very enjoyable read.
Here are a couple of things from Galassi’s book that I have made notes of this far:
First note: Peter Galassi makes a distinction between Carties-Bresson’s pre-war and post-war photography. He sais:
“If many of Cartier-Bresson’s early photographs are collages ripped from the fabric of the street, the model of his postwar style is just the opposite: no matter how busy or calm the actual circumstance may have been, the image functions as a nicely proportioned stage on which a few figures have gathered to enact a tableau vivante. Like well-trained actors, they never turn their backs to the audience, and their faces and gestures are models of expressive clarity. The frame, like a proscenium, encloses the action and reveals it to the audience.” (41)
Second note: Peter Galassi operates with two different notions of “decisive moments”. He sais:
“In such a photograph, there are two quite distinct decisive moments, as Cartier-Bresson suggested in his famous formulation: “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.” (45)
The last sentences fall in a context where Galassi is discussing a famous photograph by Cartier-Bresson shot at Dessau concentration camp in Germany just after the liberation in 1945. A woman is about to slam her hand into the face of what might be a former German collaborator. The photograph is shot just in that “decisive moment” when events are to unfold. See the photograph.
Galassi then suggests that there are two decisive moments simultaneously at work here. The first being the decisive moment of the event. The event is in itself significant. It is decisive.
The event, however, is quite separate from being photographed or not. Meaning that the event would unfold even if there were no spectators to it. Much less a photographer present.
Let us just hold on to the distinction at present. One decisive moment, then, is the event itself, the other one is the photographer’s recording of it.
Let’s have a look at the photograph at the top of this post to discuss this a bit further.
What you see in the photograph above is a young couple “sitting” of a bench, embracing. In the background there is a jogger stretching out. All are in somewhat awkward bodily positions captured by the photographer “in a fraction of a second”.
Peter Galassi would probably have it this way: There are two decisive moments at work here. First (decisive moment 1) there is the decisive event that is a decisive moment in itself whether observed, photographer or not. Roughly speaking, this event is the three people present in the photograph in their different bodily positions.
Then (decisive moment 2) there is the decisive moment in the photograph, meaning that a photographer was present during the decisive event, and he managed to take the photograph from a reasonable vantage point – at the right time. Roughly speaking, this is a combination of camera settings, photographers spot when shooting, and his more specific vantage point (high, low, et cetera).
Getting complicated? Yes, I think it is.
I will leave this note here. I need to discuss the continuation of this post with myself for a time before I finish it. The reason is that I am not quite convinced that this distinction is one that you want to do have at all. However, I am not sure about how to handle the argument. So you need to be patient. From a phenomenological point of view, the distinction could be problematic, hmm …
Then again Peter Galassi might be perfectly right in his statements.
Anyway, both books are incredible reads. Galassi’s book contains the best introduction to the world of Henri Cartier-Bresson that I have ever laid hands on. The pictures, and prints, are absolutely beautiful.
A decisive event, that’s what it is :-).
Have a good day.
Here are the books mentioned in this post. The numbers in brackets are references to pages in Galassi’s book.
There are a couple of statements that are “a must” for everyone who deals with phenomenology and photography. The statements are made by Edmund Husserl, and found in the text for the winter semester lectures held in 1904-1905. He gave these lectures in Göttingen, Germany.
Speaking about perception, images, phantasy and memory he moves into the area of physical images. In chapter two of the lectures he speaks about physical images, and even about photographs.The situation is, as he says, “somewhat more complicated” (20)
“For example, there lies before us a photograph representing a child.” (20) Husserl continues by stating that we, in fact, deals with three object:
“We have three objects: 1) the physical image, the physical thing made from canvas, marble and so on; 2) the representing or depicting object; and 3) the represented or depicted object. For the latter we prefer to say simply “image subject“; for the first object we prefer “physical image”; for the second, “representing image” or “image object”. (21)
Husserl deals with photographs as a particular type of image (or picture). What he says about images includes reference to painting, drawing, sculpture “and so on”. In that context he occasionally speaks explicitly about photography, and film.
Husserl’s statements imply the following for the photograph above:
The physical image is the combination of pixels that I perceive at my computer screen at this very moment. Likewise, what you perceive on your screen. Husserl did not, for obvious reasons, speak about screen images in 1904-1905.
If I want to manipulate the pixels I can do that in different image editors, or I can simply turn off the screen and the image will be gone.
If I print the image on paper, I can tear it up, lay it on my desk, place it upside down, hang it on the wall, or whatever.
The physical image is quite indifferent as to what is depicted (image subject) or what is depicting (image object).
The image subject is a particular spot at the wall memorial at Bernauer Strasse in Berlin. Including the people and other physical objects, that were present.
The image object is what you would normally refer to as the picture or the photograph. It shows what it shows in the way it shows it. In this case the image object is a piece of a wall with some people in front of it. Different activities are observed. Is it a cropped picture where the composition plays an important part. It is a black and white picture. And so on …
Some would say that a picture, when the picture is a photograph, is merely a mechanical reproduction of what was in front of the lens when the release button was pressed. Certainly something was in front of the lens (and always is) when this photograph was taken, but a photograph is hardly a mere mechanical reproduction of an image subject.
Yes, it is a bit complicated. I am not sure if three objects will do it either. Since this is merely a note, however, I will leave it here.
Quotes are made from Edmund Husserl: Phantasy, Image, Consciousness, and Memory (1898-1925), translated by John B. Brough, Springer 2005. The numbers in brackets are reference to pages in the book. For full information on the book please see Library Thing.
I am starting a new series of posts. These posts will have the form of notes, much like the ones you have in your personal notebook made of paper. The difference is, of course, that these notes will be made public. Feel free to comment as they emerge. You can do that in whatever way you find suitable.
The notes will have the form of short, unpretentious, often fragmented pieces of information from areas within phenomenology that will be relevant for investigating photography as a phenomenological phenomenon. Many of the posts will be inspired by well known philosophers, and their well known phenomenological texts. Others may seek to pave a new way.
In the notes, I will also seek to bridge the gap between phenomenological description of photography, and the activity of taking pictures with a camera. I find that to be an interesting task since I have a liking to both practical phenomenology and practical photography. Yes, I do think that there is a special affinity between phenomenology, and certain types of photography. That issue has not been investigated yet. My hope is that I will be able to contribute to make that affinity more tangible.
Some of you may have noticed, that apart from running this blog, I also run two picture blogs. The largest one being Berlin Black And White, which I started in July 2010. At this moment it holds 270 photographs. The second picture blog is Photos Of The Danes, which is quite recent and does not hold that many images.
And there is barebones communication, which has a much wider scope. That blog was started in November 2007, and already took an explicit interest in phenomenology and photography at that time.
I have worked rather hastily in loading pictures to Berlin Black And White. The reason is, that I wanted to have a stock of pictures in place for the blog you are reading now: Phenomenology and Photography. I believe that many of the pictures loaded to that blog are shot in a phenomenological “frame of mind”. They honour certain unspoken demands that phenomenology could be said to pose on photography.
Mind you, I could be wrong in this assumption. Please, therefore, consider it a hypothesis to be investigated. Such an investigation will indeed be a main theme on this blog. The forthcoming notes will, hopefully, bring bits and pieces to such an investigation.
I cannot explicitly tell you why I find many of the shots in the Berlin photo blog particularly phenomenological, for the simple reason that I am not able to set words on it yet. It is more of a gut feeling based on certain phenomenological preliminaries. So, you have to bear with me for the time being. Just as I have to bear with me.
I am excited to see where the series of notes will take the investigation, as I hope some of you are too. Why don’t you start by looking at some of the photographs in Berlin Black And White. There is even a slideshow presenting some of them. See if you can spot the preliminaries :-).
This post have been tagged: note, notes, notebook. A new category has been set up, as well: notebook.