On the Purpose(s) of Imagemaking

These two readings—“The Ontology of the Photographic Image” and “Resolutions of the Third World Filmmakers Meeting”—present radically different ideas of what drives imagemakers.

The crux of the former is that photography, “by providing a defense against the passage of time…satisfied a basic psychological need in man.” It “completely satisf[ied] our appetite for illusion by a mechanical reproduction in the making of which man plays no part.” Furthermore, “the photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it.” While I agree with this view, focusing on it as the distinguishing characteristic of photography seems a bit outdated to me. In modern culture, we almost treat this preservational aspect of photography as an afterthought, focusing instead on its ready ‘shareability.’ The majority of images today are created not as ways to make a moment last forever for the sake of making it last forever, but either

  1. to communicate to others what that moment in time felt like for us or other relevant parties. (as is the goal of documentary photography), or
  2. a less charitable approach: to communicate a more premeditated message to the viewer, whether it’s “buy this product, it’s framed really nicely and we surrounded it with positive visual cues so you know it’s good for you,” or “hey look at me I’m totally the type of person that travels to these glitzy far-flung locations,” or something else of the kind. Alternately:
  3. to remind our future selves of something that happened, and what it felt like for us then. This differs from Bazin’s point in that it may be an extension of a): what’s important isn’t the fact that the photograph outlasts us, but the fact that it keeps us in touch with our own memories while we’re still alive.

Key here is that absolute longevity doesn’t matter; the longevity of a photograph is important mostly as a means of expanding its range of potential viewers. I don’t know the relative frequencies of these uses for certain, but I’d guess 2 > 1 > 3.

Meanwhile, “Resolutions of the Third World Filmmakers Meeting,” though at this point over 40 years old, presents a conception of the role of cinema that includes all the functions 1-3 I described above. It treats communication as the ultimate role of cinema, and specifically it highlights the role of cinema in propagating political and cultural discourse in the third world.

Which brings up a question for me: how broad of a cultural scope should imagemakers be aiming to engage with? As Peter pointed out in his post an hour ago, funding and distribution are nontrivial components of the communicative power an image wields. What’s the point of making strongly political images if they won’t realistically leave the boundaries of your social circle? Are photographs that are made exclusively for the consumption of a closed group of friends—that make sense in context of the group’s own established culture and norms, but are either opaque to or easily misinterpreted by outsiders—any less “artistically valid” than those that engage with culture or politics on the national scale?


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