Against Intention: The Photographic Error as Authority

“One should not assume that the “error” of the apparatus is simply a program waiting to occur”

 

Flusser, in his “Gesture of Photography” speaks about the “Artificial Forest” or the “Cultural Object-hood” of intentional production when evaluating a photograph. He surmises that the scene or subject in front of the camera and the resulting photograph are referenced through the symbols within and their relevancy to the culture in which it is produced.

Within the syntax of error in the photographic object, one can assume that the cultural evaluation of meaning within the “act” of photography and the resulting photograph may be re-evaluated within the context of failure by operator or Apparatus which exerts control over the value of the scene in front of his or her camera. One should not assume that the “error” of the apparatus is simply a program waiting to occur. Flusser outlines that the categories are the controlling mechanisms for which a photographer operates under the dictation of the apparatus. So, what happens when a camera cannot be set to the “mode” of error and the product itself is of a non-reproduceable experience unless dictated as such?

 

“Flusser outlines that the categories are the controlling mechanisms for which a photographer operates under the dictation of the apparatus. So, what happens when a camera cannot be set to the “mode” of error and the product itself is of a non-reproduceable experience unless dictated as such?”

 

 

And how do we assess what error is? Is it simply a subjective position from which one can examine the document/photograph from a hierarchical position of what we assume correct intent should be? Does it order a separate value system and if so, how does one assess what is a “great” error? This is a challenging position to be involved in. It suggests a law of opposites from the traditional spectrum of meaning and value led systems. Its new intent then is to acquiesce meaning and value from the traditional mode of criticism within photographic terms to that of error. For this effort, I would suggest that the material value of the error would be one in which I address the nominative intent of photographic distribution to be one that is challenged from the majority of images produced. These errors are a semi-definable category in so much as that they are not merely “bad” photographs associated with incorrect angles, bad composition, terrible lighting or any other methodology that would distance an image from being a “likeable” or good photograph.  The error then becomes further definable from that which it is not.

Theses images are images that seem to have been kept for the very purpose of an inability to disregard. This is very much a physical component that is also worth discussing. In the digital age of the photographic image, these images would simply be edited out. It is the same within the context of art pre-suppositions, unless intended, that in physical terms, these images would be printed at the local drugstore as surplus images at the end of the roll or images that the developing party could not edit out of the commercial package as they are an order by a customer. Therefore the images are found in retrospect to be of a surplus that cannot be edited within the first potential inquiry to do so. The analog nature of these images is one way in which they have passed through the filtering out of systematic challenges to make images or bodies of work “correct”. In the past, printing at the local drugstore or other another commercial venture would return a package of photographic material to the consumer, whose own intent was likely not art for arts sake, but rather a simple commercial need to have their images printed. Negatives would come cut alongside a packet of maybe 24 or 36, sometimes 25 0r 37 small photographs. They would be placed in albums or the package itself would find itself in some sort of box for later recollection. It is in these boxes that the mistakes are found, not the album.

 

 

“These errors are a semi-definable category in so much as that they are not merely “bad” photographs associated with incorrect angles, bad composition, terrible lighting or any other methodology that would distance an image from being “likeable” or good photograph.  The error then becomes further definable from that which it is not”

In my time collecting photographic images and making photographs myself, I have always been interested in the value of the mistake. The limit of control that the apparatus has is of interest to me. I started collecting small “failures” or totems of the apparatus’ mistake. The inevitable light leak, the focal distortion, and the misprint (though an agent of the printer and not the camera) hold a value to me in the sense that they are surrendipitous to the intention of the photographer. This holds especially true when we assess the possibilities that the operator had no intention of making the error/mistake and possibly looked at the resulting product as a disregard. These disregarded images or fragments sometimes even come with captions with quaint hand-written notes such as “the poor girl” to ascribe a particularly blurry picture or “too dark” to describe an images that was underexposed. These observations in family albums and on the backs of images note a whimsical dissatisfaction with one’s merit as an operator, but also perhaps a excuse to blame the agenda of the camera’s failed programming.

When I started to collect these images, it was hard to explain to people what I was actually interested in. Simply asking people, other collectors, dealers of photography, etc. is often a perplexing ordeal…”Do you have any bad photographs or mistakes”? What does a mistake mean to the audience addressed? Is it a picture with someone sneezing or blinking, their face pulled towards a contortion reminiscent of a caricature or cartoon of animated reprobate? Is it bad perspective or composition? And further, how do you evaluate the transaction of what you will pay as a collector for the “Right Wrong” photograph. Believe it or not, some mistakes are more valuable than other “correct” images. One cursory glance on the Internet auction pages shows that the mistake does indeed correlate to a higher value than suspected.

 

 

 

 

The examples I am showing now are what I would consider mistakes. As Flusser has outlined, his argument rests on the notion that within creating categories that the operator must function under, he or she must not use a camera that is fully automatic. This would ascribe the workload to that of the camera itself to create intent, even in the notion of “hunter” and “prey” as Flusser likes to pontificate on are still in the hands of the operator. So, what I mean by mistake here is that we could be considering mistakes of a semi-automatic kind. That is to say, these images with incorrect shutter speed or incorrect aperture to flash rationality may be the process of either a camera that has some automatic capabilities and an author who has fewer capabilities to set the controls correctly. Who is or what is to blame and does the index of “error” correlate a new category in the hands of the collector or is it a newly unknown of the camera programs and why do these images continue to exist if they are mistakes? That is different question of economy and emotional surplus directed at the unintentional byproduct of producing photographs on film.

So, in examining the rationality of images of error within the artificial forest, we have to alleviate ourselves as viewers from considering these as absolutes. We have to also question what “state of things” are in this forest if we are to glean cultural information from them as we cannot hold their meaning to be “real” under the influence of such error, nor can I even explain again, what kind of “great mistakes” I am looking for or why I am looking for them at all. The practice of collecting therefore also becomes a serendipitous experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“By their merit of wrongness, these images should be designated as un-saleable, inconvenient, or perhaps be determined towards the unnecessary at the very least”

Within my quest to understand Flusser and his systematic arrangement of how the apparatus and the operator function together, I find that in a small way, he has left his analysis rife to the merits of what “good” or “intentional” photography is, yet at the same time, I am positive that Flusser would find some small joy in these photographs as they exist in a space and time that are not quite real. They have somehow fled the artificial forest, though the traces of its foliage remain. We can ascribe some notion of the petroglyph, the truncated car, the flying rainbow-colored bicycle, but as the object-hood of the photograph is delineated with too many questions, it perhaps becomes closer to what, in a manner of collecting, becomes ritual to me, therefore potentially to what Flusser has dictated as magical and that is what I find myself attracted to. Aren’t images, in a great way meant to be transcendental of absolutes even though the negotiation of representation occurs? The mythos of an image, perhaps even the mystic nature of an image, an aura perhaps is something completely human and engrosses our system of beliefs within photographic aptitude to try and design that which can never be controlled in absolutes, nor can it be spoken about so easily. I do not hesitate at the mystic, though I prefer to hinder my preference to a repository of visual language over that of spirituality. These images carry an unquestionable weight of uncertainty to them through their status of  “error”, which is the intent of error, to produce an unquantifiable or rather disregarded potential. In image terms, it is wrong, yet it continues its existence, therefore mandating a presence and real not conveniently exposed in the trajectory of the technical image, nor the easily quanitifiable certitude of capital within representation of an image. By their merit of wrongness, these images should be designated as un-saleable, inconvenient, or perhaps be determined towards the unnecessary at the very least.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We shall also consider the image that has run hooved or furry pawed as far from the forest as it could. Flusser does not weigh in heavily on variables such as I have just mentioned. His outlook, lets not call it a fetish per say, seems to regard the intention of the operator at war with the controlling program of the camera…that inescapable set of boundaries that no operator will ever free themselves from no matter how wide the possibilities are, the apparatus controls…so…when does an apparatus end and the forest of mistakes begin?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Have I not just landed in a puddle of a perverse Rothko? Would Flusser argue that I have returned to the true forest with my existing attention towards the cultural symbol and product of art or would he perhaps read my illiteracy or my challenge towards fantasy as the potential towards magic? I myself am aware of the issues surrounding what abstraction in photography is and am reminded of what the Germans call “Konkrete Fotografie”. Yet, within this, there is not the intention to produce a concrete image. The form is as before, completely chance to the controlling mechanics of the camera. Where would Flusser portend that we catalogue the object-hood or representation of these photographs?

I would like to challenge myself and perhaps other collectors, or those interested that the camera/apparatus is not a system of absolutes and that the function of error transgresses that of Flusser’s feeling towards programming. Though I do not wish to address his exceptional writing on the matter as an error itself, I do wish to ask him these questions, as the images are of value to me in their simple and elegant format of error.

I wish to also include what I cannot be sure of myself…images from my collection that I cannot be positive are at the fault of the apparatus…

These are, if you will…supplementary images for enjoyment though in poor quality as intended by the collector and not the operator or the operator’s family thirty years from the birth or inception of negative to print. Within the forthcoming images, the mystical or unknown and perhaps pleasant accumulation of mistakes has created questions of authorship. In the hands of a collector or artist and offers even further challenges to the perceived limitations of what good or bad photography is…and what the value becomes when places in hands not of its origin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And what now? One of the questions that I am often asked as a collector of vernacular photography by non-collectors is whether or not I have a non-material, a non-physical collection of photographs. Years ago, this would have been as puzzling to me as me asking another dealer in photography for “good mistakes”. What the question probably hints at is not only the stewardship of collecting physical material, but also that of its own merit of fetishization…an abstracted ideology pushed to perverse limits when the object-hood of meaning bears no meaning or emotional pathos outside the pursuit of accumulation.

Upon pondering this question…I do indeed have a collection of non-physical images by way of screenshots. Though the de-materialization of photographic object-hood is rather intense and increasingly long-winded conversation, I do wonder what Flusser would think of in regards to a new methodology of apparatus by means of screenshots, Google earth, Google street, the omniscient eye as apparatus and what it means to be a operator hunting for his or her prey on the internet. It would seem the system of control is no longer a real time control and that the images via satellite and so forth operate under the weight of a simulacra of imagery already recorded and therefore the intent of pinching these images is like a sit-com re-run where the laugh track adjusts its pitch louder and louder and we realize that perhaps the real programming is not technical, nor human, but quantum. In any event, I would like you to see where error hides in a few screenshots…the screenshot is an interesting phenomenon…its like a e-snapshot really….only I can press the world on pause to take the “picture”…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Often with images like this. The way that the they feel “pulled”, “stretched”, or somehow arcane, I am reminded of Hito Steyerl speaking about film in her excellent essay “ In Defense of the Poor Image”…to which I will paraphrase.

“…the poor image is like a rag or a rip; an AVI or a JPEG, a lumpen proletariat in  the class society of appearances, ranked and valued according to its resolution…the poor image tends toward abstraction: it is a visual idea in its very becoming”

It somehow speaks volumes of exactitude of the inexact. It undermines the need for the probable and the absolute. Her argument is to re-examine not only how an image is understood, but what we understand about its disregard and dissolution. There are no rights, no wrongs, just further possibilities for collaboration with the ignored categories within the economy of images.

 

Brad Feuerhelm

Camera Traps Symposium, FOMU Photography Museum, Antwerp. May 17, 2016

 

 

(All rights reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm.)

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