Another Way of Telling.

I have been reading Another way of telling (1982) by John Berger and Jean Mohr, which I found fascinating and very relevant to my line of research, particularly the essay Appearances.

Berger talks a lot about how a photograph functions, and notes that it is used as a tool for memory and yet it represents an isolated and disconnected view. He explains that a photograph can be very ambiguous because it is disconnected from its context, and it only becomes meaningful when the viewer lends it a past and future (Berger, 1982, p. 89).

Berger goes on to specifically compare photography and drawing to draw attention to the differences in the languages they use, he in fact claims that photography does not have a language (Berger, 1982, p. 95).  Drawing can be seen as a medium that translates, whereas Photography does not translate, rather it ‘quotes.’ Drawing is about physically interpreting what is seen, the artist can choose to spend more time on one part or another, or change them in some way, or to leave things out entirely; a photograph faithfully describes what the camera is pointed at (which is not to say that photography can’t be manipulated, but that is not part of the inherent ability of the camera).

When I first considered this, I was going to say that a drawn image is filtered through the artist (and therefore their level of skill) and as such interesting mistakes can be made that could be seen as part of the charm of drawing.  Unless you are very clever a drawing never looks exactly like the subject.  But then I realised that even photographers fall into this too, as Barthes notices in Camera Lucida when he is searching for a photo of his mother that looks like her in the just way he remembers.  Both art forms in the end are representations.

What I found most interesting about this passage was the idea of the different approach to time, because it is something I have been very much aware of and here I have found it so nicely articulated:

The difference between making and receiving also implies a very different relation to time. A drawing contains the time of its own making, and this means that it possesses its own time, independent of the living time of what it portrays.  The photograph, by contrast, receives almost instantaneously – usually today at a speed that cannot be perceived by the human eye. The only time contained in a photograph is the isolated instant of what it shows. Berger, 1982, p. 95

What then does it mean to be drawing from a photograph?  I think this is the heart of why I draw people I know, because when I look at a photograph to draw it I am also remembering the person or scene and I believe some of that translates into the drawing.  The experience of drawing, as pointed out by Berger in the quote above, is also an act of memory due to the time spent in the making.  That to me is part of my fascination of the relationship between photography and drawing, because they really sit on opposite ends of the scale where it comes to an understanding of time.  The act of drawing is an act of memory, whereas the photograph, as an object, is a representation of memory.

The application of the two mediums seems to be quite opposite, especially in the way each are approached.  Drawing represents spending a lot of time with the subject, going slowing and looking very carefully.  I think in the wrong hands photography can be seen as an instant and unconsidered thing (remember I am dealing with snap-shots not artistic photography), in the hands of a professional all those decisions about composition, focus, subject matter have to be made up front, whereas to draw is to have the luxury of time.  The drawing emerges so slowly that some of those decisions can be made even after it has begun to take shape. Moreover having a photograph to examine, with the advantage of its stillness, means that every detail can be scrutinised, and the things I enjoy the most about the photographs I use are the accidents… blurs, shadows that fall across faces, overexposure, or the way parts are accidently cut off; those very things that signal the photographic origin.

The other aspect of this essay that really interested me is the idea of ‘truth’ and how it can be told.  Drawing is already a deception; it takes the subject out of reality and represents it in a completely different language.  But photography has to deal with the awkward assumption of truth.  As Berger points out, a photograph can’t lie, but it also can’t tell the truth (1982, p. 97).  A photograph can only present a dissected moment of time.  I feel that by drawing attention to the photographic origins of my work, it confuses this idea of truth.  On the one hand, we want to believe a photograph; on the other hand we cannot believe a drawing.

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