The Zambians (2): Events in Photography

Photo-mechanical reproduction

The arguments of whether a photograph is truthful, or whether it is art, really pale into insignificance when what really mattered for the development of photography was the capacity for mass reproduction; that is photographs being used in newspapers and magazines with the development of half-tone printing in 1880, which is part of the electro-chemical-mechanical means of printing photographs by printing press still used today. The unfortunate truth of demand for imagery in publications, however, is that few photographs are used and not necessarily fully consumed at that. Alternatively, photographers often print one to ten enlarged prints for sale, claiming to destroy the (digital) negative to increase the value of their photographs. This conflicts with the spirit of Walter Benjamin’s recognition of one of photography’s greatest assets in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

Documentary photography

The other great development was documentary photography, concurrent with the flourishing of magazines like Life and the Illustrated London News. Presently, documentary photography has a bad name, somehow extending from post-modernism and its multiple dualities. The apparent problem is that the images in documentary photography, and necessarily its denied sidekick, street photography, can be interpreted in any way by their viewers. But interpretation of all photographs is subject to the education, knowledge and experience of the reader, malevolent, post-modern or otherwise, and, in my judgement, there is more value in recording the present for posterity, call it social history, which often goes visually unrecorded in Africa, because otherwise it will be forgotten. There is another issue here, literature is country-specific by attitude and humour; I believe photography is as well.

Leaching cyanide from cassava in Luapula, ZambiaLeaching cyanide from cassava in Luapula.

Subject and interest

There was a man who decided that he would try to understand photographs. He was derided as an amateur by some professional photographers but he was the first person to define a photograph, and that was before some important findings about his mother, who he was looking after. Roland Barthes’ revelation was that an image has a subject, which he called studium. Everyone can look at a picture and say what the picture is about; this is the subject. But even if you are not an expert, there may be something about the image that particularly attracts your attention. This is the point of the photograph, the punctum, which is what attracts you more than just the subject. If you show the photograph to someone else, she may not see the same thing. On the other hand, if you are a roads engineer, for example, you will scan a picture of a road to ensure the road is being made properly. If it is, then, because you have seen many such photographs, you will likely dismiss it, because it has no value to you, and has no punctum, or no point. So it is clear that the value of a photograph is dependent on the education, experience and knowledge of the viewer or user.

Adoration and icons

Roland Barthes is famous because he desperately wanted a representative photograph of his late mother. Taking all the photographs of his mother that he had, he worked backwards from her old age to when she was a child. He was looking for something that captured the essence of his mother’s character in his mind’s eye. Of all the pictures, there was one, taken when she was a child in a conservatory, with her brother. For Barthes, this was the picture. This says some important things: first, the picture that captures essence is scarce and, second, its interpretation is only valid for a particular individual, and has little or no value to anyone else. In economic terms, he would be prepared to pay for that one picture, where nobody else would. This is his iconic photograph.

The generalised characteristics of icons are that: the image has the appearance of the person; it is an object of veneration; it has causal origins; and its authenticity is ‘reproducible’. This accurately captures Barthes’ relationship with this image; further, a large number of people have such photographs. The bit that Cynthia Freeland omitted in her Photographs and Icons, perhaps by definition, was just how scarce iconic images are, but we all know what they are and probably we also have a few.

42-second slideshow

Cover of the photobook The Zambians Banking ATMs Groundnut decorticating Accidents Samfya stopover FRA buying maize Game Management Area (GMA) Floods Fish harvest Kamalasha Firewood market River taxis Philosophy Drying rice Soaking cassava Peeling cassava Cassava marketing Slavery Mobility Night stop

Peter Langmead

Lusaka, June 2013

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