Photography Degree Zero Photography and Writing • Photography, literally translated, means “writing with light.” • The comparison between photography and writing can be quite productive. • Scientific use of photography might be termed “photography degree zero” Degree Zero • Roland Barthes calls writing that merely indicates— points at something to call attention to it— “Writing Degree Zero.” • In photography, just as in writing, this is a myth. • All photography operates within limits— it is never completely neutral. Finding the Limits • If photography never strictly reproduces what is placed in front of the camera, what are the limits it operates under? • Try to follow these passages from Barthes substituting “photographer” for writer. [Language] enfolds the whole of literary creation as much as the earth, the sky and the line where they meet outline a familiar habitat for mankind. It is not so much a stock of materials as a horizon, which implies both a boundary and a perspective; in short, it is the comforting area of an ordered space. Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero (9) The Language of photography is space, time, and light. The writer literally takes nothing from it; a language is for him rather a frontier, to overstep which alone might lead to the linguistically supernatural; it is a field of action, the definition of, and hope for, a possibility. Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero (9) The frontiers of photography are set by technologies. It is not the locus of a social commitment, but merely a reflexive response involving no choice, the undivided property of men, not of writers; it remains outside the ritual of Letters; it is a social object by definition, not by option. Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero (9) Photography is not the sole property of artists or journalists. You owe nothing to anyone or any tradition, but by choosing to photograph you have entered into a social activity. The choice of, and afterwards the responsibility for, a mode of writing point to the presence of Freedom, but this Freedom has not the same limits at different moments of History. It is not granted to the writer to choose his mode of writing from a kind of non- temporal store of literary forms. Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero (9) The modes of photography you inherit are set by the limits of what you have seen. The more photographs you look at, the broader your possibilities become. There is no “timeless” right or wrong way to do things. It is under the pressure of History and Tradition that the possible modes of writing for a given writer are established; there is a History of Writing. But this History is dual: at the very moment when general history proposes—or imposes—new problematics of the literary language, writing remains full of recollection of previous usage, for language is never innocent: words have a second-order memory which mysteriously persists in the midst of new meanings. Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero (10) Understanding where you’re coming from—what you’ve seen and what you like to see is a major part of finding out the path you will follow in trying to express yourself through photography. Movies and TV are like Visual Speech • Much like writing, knowing how to talk doesn’t mean you know how to write. • Moving images are different and evanescent. • While basic rules of composition and perspective apply to other forms of visual composition, still photography is unique. In speech, everything is held forth, meant for immediate consumption, and words, silences and their common mobility are launched towards a meaning superseded: it is a transfer leaving no trace and brooking no delay. Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero (11) Still photographs are always infused with varying levels of style. Style represents a vertical limit for photography which is separate from technique. Style, on the other hand, has only a vertical dimension, it plunges into the closed recollection of the person and achieves its opacity from a certain experience of matter; style is never anything but metaphor, that is, the equivalence of the author’s literary intention and carnal structure. Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero (10) Style, in other words, comes from you. It is the sum of your intentions and experiences. Unlike transparent speech that you see through to get a message, to have style is to make people stop at the opaque surface and see what you have done. Metaphor is Seeing as • Barthes claims that style can only be spoken of in terms of metaphor. • Metaphor is the conjunction of two incompatible terms, such as love is a rose. • To make a metaphor is to see one thing in terms of another. Metaphors can be appropriate or inappropriate • For example, roses may be pretty but they don’t live long. Is love like that? • Most metaphors for style connect it with external arrangement, but the way that Barthes has described it, it is something deep inside a writer. To speak of style is one way of speaking about the totality of a work of art. Like all discourse about totalities, talk of style must rely on metaphors. And metaphors mislead. ... Indeed, practically all metaphors for style amount to placing matter on the inside, style on the outside. It would be more to the point to reverse the metaphor. The matter, the subject, is on the outside; the style is on the inside. (17) Susan Sontag, “On Style” (1965) Find your own style • Pick a photographic project that both fits within your horizon of technical expertise and your personal experience, or style. • But don’t be afraid to stretch yourself. • Your technical horizon should broaden quickly, but style takes time. • Style is never fixed; it changes with every new experience and skill we learn. Changing your style • Pay more attention to still pictures. • A person doesn’t learn to write by eavesdropping on conversations, they learn mostly by reading other written works. • Most importantly, pay attention to your own pictures. Spend more time looking at them! Nonstop imagery (television, streaming video, movies) is our surround, but when it comes to remembering the photograph has a deeper bite. Memory freeze-frames; its basic unit is the single image. In an era of information overload, the photograph provides a quick way of apprehending something and a compact form of memorizing it. The photograph is a quotation, or a maxim or proverb. Each of us mentally stocks hundreds of photographs, subject to instant recall. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (22) what photographs do you remember? • If you don’t remember a photograph you’ve taken longer than a few days, you aren’t living up to your potential. • Not all photographs are memorable. • Think about the ones that you remember, and try to make more. • Try to separate the context from the image itself.
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