A Centenary of Photograph #reading

Valéry’s initial point on the origins of photography resonated the most with me. Valéry begins by describing the world in which photography emerged, a world which he describes as a ‘cult of Letters’. I had never considered the purpose of photographs today must, at some point, been done by writing, or potentially diagrams, once the printing press was invented. Though this may seem obvious to some, to me at least, there is very little overlap between what an image and text can convey. The gaze of someone in an image, for example, is extremely hard to describe. Its interpretation will depend on the viewer and the context in which it is viewed. Words, on the other hand, have a tendency to remain quite literal (especially in English). Valéry ends this point by says that we should ‘put our tools to a use more befitting their true nature’. This illustrates the potential and limitations of any new technology, including photography. Ultimately, these potentials and limitations are defined by the society that adopts it, rather than the technology itself.

Valéry then begins describing the philosophical implications of photography. Honestly, he lost me at this point. Photography and the lens changed many of the ways in which humans viewed themselves and the world around them. However, I think that every new technology and discovery does this to some extent. What did fascinate me, however, were the words that have remained from a time when light was used to represent the divine, the truth, the un-describable. Words such as ‘clarity (claritas – clear), reflection (reflectere – bend back), speculation (specere – to look), lucidity (lucidus – light) and idea (idein– to see)’ . May be this type of obsession with light representing the divine, explains our quick acceptance of photography as a staple medium.

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