Quick Rhetoric of Photographs

Quick Rhetoric of Photographs


Part 6 of The Genre of Silence, an essay.

So my father’s photographs were a work in the Genre of Silence. To get to his photos, we need to have a three-minute survey of how photographs speak.

The idea that photographs speak at all, that photographs are enough of an art that they might embody the conventions is the as a genre is well accepted now, but it is still pretty recently that any sort of decent criticism of photographs began. For a time, photographs were not really seen as “art” or even really a genre. They were a mechanical reproductions of nature. And there is much about the photograph that is artless. It is a machine eye that artlessly captures what is before it.

“A few days ago a foreign visitor entered my gallery and spent about fifteen minutes browsing. She kept coming back to one image and finally commented: ‘I love that image and if it was a painting I would buy it.’ I asked her quite politely why it would have to be a painting. She replied that it is ‘only a photograph’ and brush strokes would allow her to experience the emotion the artist experienced while creating it and photography is only pictures created on computers. I then explained the picture was originally created on film, with a lot of planning and working with a native Navajo guide to find the spot that I pre-visualized. She shook her head and said, ‘I’m sorry, it is only a photograph,'”

But we can mock this. Photographs can be art. But can any photograph be art? Like written texts, photographs come in genres. There are snapshots, black and white images, selfies, portraits, so called ‘fine art photographs,’ and pornography. If we can distinguish then between nonfiction as not being made up) and fiction (as being completely made up) then the photograph is a peculiar kind of genre, but a genre nonetheless. It is a genre that depends, even more than nonfiction, on there being a material and variable reality in front of the image.

It is those objects in space, at that time with that light; an instant that is mechanically sliced from the flow and rush of phenomena and flattened onto a plate.

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Written by mattbriggs

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