2008. október 23., csütörtök

The Fiction of the Holiday Photographer

Seeing as I mentioned it in my previous entry; here is my essay The Fiction of the Holiday Photographer

The Fiction of the Holiday Photographer.


In this essay will examine the holiday photographer in two sections. The first deals with the construction of images in terms of the photographer as an author creating a fiction. I will examine how this is shared and used as a tool to evoke, if not create nostalgia and memory. The second section assesses the value of the photographs we take on trips away; how the way we look at the world is affected in unfamiliar environments. I will question what we deem significant, what we feel is worthy of keeping in our memory through documenting it. Much of what I discuss may be applied to personal documentary photography in general (family photo albums etc), but I have chosen to focus on the holiday photographer as I am interested in how we are affected by unfamiliar environments.
In his essay The Tourist Gaze, John Urry notes that ‘There is no single tourist gaze,’ (1990: 1) indeed everybody looks at the world in different ways. I will be referring to my own recent three month trip to Budapest and the photographs my companions and I took there, this is to avoid generalisation and because I feel drawing on personal experience will help illustrate my arguments in a more articulate manner.

Authorship and Fiction

Barthes describes the photographer as an ‘operator’ (1980: 9) in a rather dismissive manner, but for this essay I shall give the photographer more artistic merit in referring to him as the author. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word author as ‘the writer of a book or article.’ (2001: 52) Both the author and photographer use signs to create a narrative, the holiday photographer is an author writing the story of his experiences. This narrative, despite being representational of real events, is one I shall refer to as fictitious because holiday photographs, as much as any other genre of photography, are constructed with an intended reading, or one personal to the author. As Barthes explains, ‘Pictures become a kind of writing as soon as they are meaningful: like writing, they call for a lexis.’ (1957: 110) Photographs are a text which demand to be read as much as books, each with their own mythology, each with their own narrative.
The narrator of a photographic image is not the photographer. Where the author of a story uses a narrator as a device to frame what we are told through inclusion and exclusion of details, we can equate this to the photographer’s composition of an image. The holiday photographer has a duty to ‘construct idealised images which beautify the object being photographed’ (Urry 1990: 139), he also has the task of ensuring nothing creeps into his narrative that might contrast or undermine this beauty. Drawing on a personal example: we arrived in Budapest during the tail end of a bitter winter and I took a photograph of a friend of mine standing on a frozen lake. The actuality of the situation was that the lake had dried up and my friend was stood on a large frozen puddle surrounded by dirt and rubbish. As such the holiday photographer is an author of fiction, framing what he wants an audience to see.

This brings me to the holiday self-portrait. It is a contradiction in as much as the subject has asked somebody to photograph him (it is unusual to see the holiday photographer with a tripod and shutter release button), with something he deems significant, yet it is a self-portrait as the subject (who is incidentally also the author) has arranged the composition. The person who releases the shutter is not the author; Barthes’ notion of the operator seems more appropriate in this context. The holiday self-portrait then, creates a kind of meta-photography in which the author of the piece is involved in it.

Although I have described these photos as fiction, we generally believe photographs to be ‘true’ as we would believe the definition of a word in the dictionary. Liz Wells proposes that photography’s ‘authority [is], founded in realism, [and] has come to be taken for granted in the interpretation of images made through the lens.’ (Wells, 1997) As such, photographs become the definition of a trip away and create proxy-memories for ourselves and others. For example, there is a photograph of me aged two outside a hospital on the day my sister was born, something I could not possibly remember, yet I feel as though I can remember it vividly. This is perhaps because I am familiar with the sensations of each paradigm that makes up the image: I know what grass feels like, I know what the drink in my hand tastes like, etc. Whereas there may be a dim memory in the back of my mind, it is illuminated by the photograph, constructing a proxy-memory.
Thus is the importance of the holiday photograph, it will outlast our genuine memories and build new, idealistic ones. This is the reason we construct our holiday photos to tell a fairy tale narrative of our trips to utopia. It will not do for the holiday photographer to be seen to be having a bad time. Digital photography has become an excellent tool for the holiday photographer, as he can see the image immediately and if it is not ideal take it again. This means any genuine emotion that may have been contained in the original image could have faded by the fourth or fifth take. To use an example which also draws on the meta-photographic self-portrait; I was in a park recently and a holiday photographer asked a friend to photograph her under a blossom tree. The author went to great lengths to gather up blossom petals and throw them in the air so she could be seen in a beautiful whirlwind of blossom on a sunny day. The photograph had to be re-taken at least three times by my count before the author was satisfied with the image. In between poses the author was frustrated that her perfect image was eluding her, but as she threw the handfuls of blossom she would beam.
I must note at this point that the sole motivation of the holiday photographer is not merely the construction of memories. Along with the actual experience of holidays comes an aspect of ownership. ‘To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge -- and, therefore, like power.’ (Sontag: 1977) We have a tendency to put almost as much value in the photographs we take on trips away as the actual experience itself because it is a way in which we can own the experience. ‘Not to ‘go away’ is like not possessing a car or a nice house’ (Urry 1990: 4); holiday photography provides us with proof of experiences, they are objects we accumulate to attain a certain social status. Holiday photographs can be displayed and shown off in much the same way we might brag about a new car.

Significance and Familiarity

The holiday photograph is an immensely personal artefact. Barthes talks of the arresting value of photographs as either studium or punctum (1980: 26). Studium is the combination of two or more opposing units, which Barthes feels can stir interest, invite a reading but only ever be assessed as good or bad. Barthes feels we cannot love an image without the element which he describes as punctum, the ‘accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)’. The holiday photograph is generally composed of two units, a person with something of beauty or interest. They are opposing units because the person is outside their usual environment; this is the level on which we can make a reading at the studium level. The punctum of the image however, is derived from the personal experiences and history of the reader. The combination of opposing units, the overall syntagm, has the potential to contain the spark which ignites nostalgia and memory. Generally with holiday photography this is something that only the author, or perhaps other people who may have been present at the creation of the image experience.
For example, during my trip a friend who came to visit took a photograph of me and two of my companions in a café looking quite worse for wear. I would go as far as to say this would not arrest any viewer on a studium level. There is no peculiarity in the image, no juxtaposition, even the composition is nothing worth mentioning. This photo is perhaps the epitome of the throw-away digital snap, a thoughtless push of a button. My experience however, causes the overall syntagm to have a punctum effect on me. This is because I know the entire history surrounding the photo; the night before, the feeling sitting in a café on a sweltering day, that I booked in for a tattoo moments after the photograph was taken. This careless act has the punctum effect, the accident that pricks me comes from my personal history and a random, brief moment in time holds in it a powerful resonance. Barthes’ notion of punctum is independent of the artistic value or intended reading of any given piece, it is solely based on the personal history of the reader.

Photographs are documents explaining who we have been and what we have done; they are part of the definition of our past. Wells describes ‘the time-specific characteristic of the photograph. It deals with what was, regardless of whether the terms or conditions continue to obtain.’ I would go further and say the purpose of the holiday photo, or indeed the family album is to document the fact these terms and conditions have not obtained. We would not photograph something mundane or a daily occurrence as this documents the fact we have not changed as people, that we have not progressed. We need these documents as assurance we are making the best of our lives, that we have changed.

Urry describes the experience of trips away as to ‘gaze upon or view a set of different scenes, of landscapes or townscapes which are out of the ordinary.’ (1990: 1) With the spreading of globalisation the make-up of cities is becoming more and more uniform. Plato puts forward the notion that every physical thing is a unique object in its own right, that the labels and stratas we apply to objects are only forms. This can be seen in cities; Budapest and London, for example, are both defined as cities, yet are completely different places. Plato describes the similarities in form as their ness. London and Budapest are individual places, but both retain the idea of cityness. When we visit a new place we seek to look beyond this idea of cityness and notice the acute differences in the make-up of cities. These are the things we feel the need to document, as such what we deem significant is determined by our level of familiarity.
On my trip to Budapest I was fascinated by the architecture. The buildings in the area I was staying in bore resemblance to Parisian architecture, but were cracked and peeling, there were bullet holes in the walls. When I arrived in Budapest I was looking at her with a romantic gaze brought on by my unfamiliarity and felt the need to photograph everything. I live in a built up area of England, in a terraced Victorian house, which may well be an interesting architectural artefact but I see it every day of my life. I am familiar with it and as such any charm or beauty that may fall on foreign gazes is lost on me. I stayed in Budapest for three months and as my stay lengthened the frequency and volume of photographs I took diminished. This is because what I deemed significant changed due to my familiarity.
There is a balance in the unfamiliar romantic gaze in which we can notice truly intriguing or beautiful scenes on one end of the scale, and on the other; we can over romanticise. Trips away are ‘one of the defining characteristics of ‘being modern,’’ (Urry, 1990: 3) it is the ultimate leisure activity. The holiday maker is determined to have a good time, to see something beautiful, this is what gives him an over romanticised view of his experiences. As I mentioned earlier, it is not the business of the holiday photographer (or perhaps the documentary photographer in general) to take photographs of things that will not change. Upon my arrival in Budapest I was affected by this over-romanticised gaze and took a photograph of myself cooking in the kitchen of the apartment I was in. The value of this photograph diminished every time I used the kitchen, to the degree that by the end of the trip the photograph held no value at all. Had I been on a shorter trip, perhaps when looking back on it Barthes’ punctum may have flown out of the photograph and tugged on my attention and memories with the nostalgia I had hoped when constructing the photograph.

In conclusion, it is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder but true beauty is more than that, it arrests all senses. During my stay in Budapest I walked home every night over a bridge that crosses the Danube. It looks over the blinking lights of the city, the dramatic and historic statues illuminated from underneath by floodlights, and the silhouette of the parliament building on a bruise-purple sky. In three months it never failed to overwhelm me but I could not bring myself to photograph the view. A photograph is purely representational; it cannot ever fully describe the true experience of scene. This is not to diminish the power of the photograph. Photography has the power to suddenly arrest us, to act as a mental trigger and remind us of who we have been and what we have done, whether images are idealised or not. The photograph of me in the café will prick the skin where my tattoo is every time I look at it, it has permanent resonance. The photograph of my friend standing on the frozen lake, or the tourist with the blossom may well be staged, but the truth and the constructed-truth are equally entertaining realities.

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