Introduction to postmodernism, the media and the ‘real’
The increasingly mediatised culture we live in today has lead us to be dominated by and dependent upon the production and consumption of images. Notions of objectivity and empiricism in the photographic have long since disappeared, but can we still locate our sense of ‘the real’ in images? This dissertation will use many theories and ideas that discuss the role of photography, postmodernism and ‘the real’ within today’s culture and media. It will start with a discussion of the reasoning for the initial shift back towards the real. This shift mainly stemmed from postmodernism and the media. Postmodernism dealt with the idea of never ending reference and the fear about post-modern culture was that this never ending reference meant that all grip on reality had disappeared. There was a wish to return to something more stable and basic: ‘the real’? Photographers started to try and return to the purely descriptive photography from the times before the mass referencing of postmodernism. Due to postmodernism, we are constantly searching for meaning and analysis in images. This constant analysis of images has exhausted our trust and interest in the photograph; there was a need to create images different from the ones we see every day in the media in order to re-find our trust in the image as truth and as art. Which will lead onto looking at how, due to advances in technology and developments in photography, the new fast changing everyday image led to our relationships and emotions becoming mediatised. We re-live events and experiences through images, which leads to a loss of the real. We remember the image rather than the event. The media have a huge influence on events, advertising even our emotions and relationships. I will look at how some photographers can play a part in the manipulation and influence from the media that seems so much to control us and shape our world. But some photographers began to step away from the media, and postmodernism, older, slower technologies began to re-emerge. The single image produced from these methods of working could bring back the processes of our memory that have been complicated due to the sheer amount of information we get from other technologies.
This leads onto the main question posed in this dissertation: can we ever (re)find the real? How much is this notion of the real influenced and shaped by the media influence in our world? Some would say that even photos that appear to be descriptive cannot escape being subjected to analysis and placed within a context of viewing. Maybe they can never be void of reference and construction? Maybe images can never provide the clear, stable version of reality that we want from them? Will we continue to be consumed by images, or is there a future beyond the cycle of referencing left by postmodernism? Can we ever (re)find authenticity, originality and a true form of photography that can direct us to the real? How has this affected our media? And how has it influenced the media to change and shape our world?
Chapter One – What caused people to lose a sense of the real?
Postmodernism emerged as an art form in the mid to late 1980’s and seemed to grow from and relate to the modernist movement. Postmodernism simply rejected the idea of ‘originality’; the ‘original’, new element within a photograph was replaced with the concept of reference and quotation. Finding something authentic and original as an idea was discarded. Essentially, postmodernism is the end of the new as something new within Postmodernism is looked upon as the byproduct of re-combining one or more different elements from within an already existing culture. An image has to refer to, use or quote another image or text, which will have referred to another image, which will have referred to a further different image and so on; a never-ending reference has begun and we begin to lose a sense of the real.
Postmodernist culture enjoyed this play with signs of never ending reference, where the more you played the less anyone seemed to know what reality it was touching
Some early Postmodernist photographers include Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Edward Weston and Cindy Sherman. Sherman’s untitled films stills refer to trashy Hollywood films.
These early works of hers were cleverly named ‘Untitled’ then ‘Film Still no…’ indicating that they can be given any meaning and could refer to an actual specific existing film. The viewer is given a reference which leads to yet another representation, not reality itself.
In short: ‘here is a picture from a film, but I am not going to tell you which one’, a message complicated by the fact that the photographs were not actual films stills.
The factor that was feared about postmodernism is that the never-ending reference meant that all grip on reality has disappeared and this lead to a wish to return to a simpler, more stable and basic way of working. We have lost a sense of what is ‘real’ within art and culture due to reality being discarded in favour of mass inter-textual referencing.
But the fear about post-modern culture was that there no longer an anchor to reality at all, that ‘reality’ had disappeared into an endless chain of other representations.
There began to be a wish to return to the values of the straight and pure photograph of modernism and everything that post modernism had rejected. A wish to return to something stable and basic, a wish to take a purely descriptive photograph. Some photographers managed to create purely descriptive work, an example of this could be Justin Partyka’s work ‘The East Anglians’.
This ongoing body of work about the rural and agricultural area of East Anglia is a purely descriptive study of the landscape and people, who live, work and own the land in it. But the title ‘The East Anglians’ could refer to Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’ a post World War II look beneath the surface of American life. Is anybody of work free from this postmodernist trap every photographer seems to fall into.
The rise in postmodernism lead to photography being used more as an art form, and began to become popular with both artists and the public. It was no longer a ‘low’ form of art and became widely accepted. Photography was used more by everyone and so began to develop further, leading to major advances in technology. With the invention of mobile phone cameras and the internet and email, it is easy to take a photograph and send it anywhere in the world in seconds. These new technologies mediatised our relationships and emotions.
Yet despite the idea that these mobile technologies bring us all closer to each other, we are caught up in a contradiction, since they increasingly mediatise our relationships to one another. To look at something it has to be kept at a distance.
With digital technology today, there is no longer a need to wait for photographs to be processed, no need to wait until the end of a holiday or event to see the photographs and an less limited amount of photographs can be taken on that one camera as opposed to the 24 or 36 with the most commonly used 35mm negative film. This means people are taking so many photographs of everything rather than considering what particularly they would like photographs of. An unlimited sense has been brought into photography. This has lead to a loss in the real, and a loss in the value of photography. Previously at an important event such as a holidays, birthdays or weddings, families would use probably just one camera and probably only one or 2 films per event, some families using just one film per year for every event, resulting in a few photographs being taken which would then be put in an album and often reviewed. Now with digital technologies, people tend to have many cameras per family and at every event, small or large, hundreds of photographs can get taken, the difference being these would then be put on a computer and most would never be looked at. This is where we have lost the value of photography, before digital it was precious, every photograph was considered, thought about and enjoyed afterwards. This has also lead to us remembering the photograph of the event rather than the actual event. If we spend all day photographing what is going on around us, we will remember just those photographs and not what was actually happening; we remember the image rather than the real. Perhaps to properly look at something you have to take a step back, away from our fast pace society.
The loss of the real in postmodernism and now in the digital era has left artist and photographs wishing to go back to simpler times. New art is often now made up of redundant processes which are older and slower which then sets this new art form apart from the images and photographs we see in everyday media culture. New technologies are being left in favour of older and slower ones which are apparently more real. More traditional and simple methods of photography seemed to be linked to the concept of the real, as they are different from the photographs we see every day on the news and in the media.
Hal Foster in his book The Return of the Real says he feels that we have not left postmodernism completely, it has become what is normal to us; we have a postmodernism realism. The consequence of this that we change the way we want reality to be constructed. Foster feels that simply postmodernism has become démodé.
Photography now draws on elements of film, advertisements, postcards etc. to create imagery that is inter-textual and referential to those other pictures, these new images create the realism of this visually mediated culture; post-modern realism is now the normal.
Along with the development of photography, video and film also began to expand and change. Photography was the only way of ‘stopping time’, a photograph was a moment captured in time on film forever. Now a freeze frame like that can come from any number of sources. Photographs began to be pulled from existing moving images – a video. This is achievable by anyone as DVD’s or VHS’s or even live television can be paused, creating a freeze frame – a moment, captured in time.
What was once the sole privilege and product of the photograph is now equally likely to be the result of a cinema or video ‘freeze-frame’
This has changed photography, as now instead of the image being of an actual event, they were now selected from the way the event had already been interpreted. Newspapers and news channels were no longer using photographers to capture the perfect picture; they were using video and selecting the image from the video. This is called second order realism. Selecting the ‘decisive moment’ is still dependant on a person knowing when to push a button, but is now selecting a still from an already decided and produced moving image. A photograph is supposed to be a moment locked in time but now it is more often than not pulled out of an image bank full of video freeze-frames. Film and video has stolen what makes photography special – the decisive moment. Therefore the specificity and ‘specialness’ of photography has to find itself in some other attribute of photography.
Chapter 2 – How does the media shape our world and the concept of real?
Mass media is a huge part of our lives today, and has to influence us in some way. Images have become our reality due to the media. A news story would not impact without an image, and as soon as an image is shown it is a reality and remembers as if the viewer was at the event themselves. Guy Debord in Comments on the Society of the Spectacle talks about how developments in photographs and mass media have contributed to what Debord describes as the society of the spectacle. In the spectacular world images and representations become our reality and everything exists as and for images. Real-life experiences become repressed and events take place in a mediated, pseudo-reality. Experience, events, and even our emotions, both on an individual and public scale are heavily mediated. Where images refer to one another endlessly the originality and authenticity of them are abolished. As a result of this, it is claimed we have lost any relation to the real.
The spectacle has now spread itself to the point where it now permeates all reality
(Debord 1988) (7)
Victor Burgin studied people who believed that media events were their own memories in Possessive, Pensive and Possessed. Sociologists at the University of Provence found that people can become confused and merge their own personal memories with memories from scenes of films or other media productions.
‘I saw at the cinema’ would simply become ‘I saw’.
This is called a screen memory, where you remember something from a film instead of from real life. It is in place of and conceals a similar suppressed memory.
In the past, big events did happen but people knew less about them as there was no type of media production to let them know. It rarely went beyond those involved. Now because of media we all know about every event, and add these events to our memories, even though we have not actually physically experienced them. We forget our real experiences and replace them with events from the media. For example, the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City will be remember by everyone worldwide, but only a small number of people actually experienced and saw the event, but everyone will remember the event and visualise it from the images they saw.
When thinking of these terrorist attacks many people will think of this and many other images which were taken at the event. These images will be in their memory as if they were in New York City on that day, meaning they remember events from a media production which has now become their own memory which relates back to Burgin’s study into screen memories.
Our reaction to big events such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks is to experience and re-live the event through the images which are presented to us. Thomas De Zengotita talks of how there is a bubble of mediated representation which he calls ‘the blob’. In the world of ‘the blob’, momentous catastrophes such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks are almost poignant enough to burst the bubble,
Something like that – will feel as if it might be sharp enough, as if it might pierce the membrane and slice the pulp.
(De Zengotita 2007)(9)
With the developments in digital photography and manipulation we can find that we re-live and experience events that did not even happen. We look at a manipulated image, take it to be the truth and believe what is in there. The media can now influence us to believe something that is not true. Once we have seen the images, manipulated or not it is not surprising that our reaction is to experience and re-live the event through those images, adding them to our bank of mediated events in our memory. In other words, it all becomes part of the spectacle.
In this dissertation I have looked into postmodernism within photography and how this has changed what is the ‘real’ and how the media influence the real and our emotions and shapes our world today. The rise in postmodernism meant a no-ending reference for every photograph, film etc. On photograph refers to another photograph which refers to a video, which in turn refers another photograph and so on. There was nothing new; post modernism was the end of the new. This results in a loss of the real, a loss of just purely descriptive photography. This loss of the real within photography is only enhanced by developments in photography making it accessible to everyone meaning the value of a photograph and photography is not as high. Which in turn is was not helped by the development in video and film, anyone being able to create a freeze-frame, a moment trapped in time by pausing their DVD, VHS or live TV player. Photography has lost what was special about it – the decisive moment. Therefore, older more traditional photographic methods have begun to be used again, in a search for the ‘real’ within photography. Furthermore, the media document every event and present their interpretation of this event to people in images. People experience and re-live that event through the images the media presented to us, and add those images into their own memories even though they did not actually experience the event themselves. This leads to losing what we know as reality. In my opinion, postmodernism and the no-ending reference meant that we are now always looking for analysis of a photograph and a reason and reference behind it. We cannot appreciate the beauty of a photograph if we are looking for something else within it, and that is where and why we end up losing a sense of the ‘real’. Developments in photography and film also have not helped with this, and a limit on the amount of photographs we take would mean the images can assist our memory not be our memory. This sense of the ‘real’ is not lost, but could be forgotten within photography, and taking a step back just to look at a photograph as a whole would bring back the ‘real’ into that photograph.
- Postmodernist culture enjoyed this play with signs of never ending reference, where the more you played the less anyone seemed to know what reality it was touching(Bate 2004)
- In short: ‘here is a picture from a film, but I am not going to tell you which one’, a message complicated by the fact that the photographs were not actual films stills.(Bate2004)
- But the fear about post-modern culture was that there no longer an anchor to reality at all, that ‘reality’ had disappeared into an endless chain of other representations.(Bate 2004)
- Yet despite the idea that these mobile technologies bring us all closer to each other, we are caught up in a contradiction, since they increasingly mediatise our relationships to one another. To look at something it has to be kept at a distance.(Bate 2004)
- Postmodernism has become démodé.(Foster 1996)
- What was once the sole privilege and product of the photograph is now equally likely to be the result of a cinema or video ‘freeze-frame’(Bate 2004)
- The spectacle has now spread itself to the point where it now permeates all reality(Debord 1988)
- ‘I saw at the cinema’ would simply become ‘I saw’.(Burgin 2006)
- Something like that – will feel as if it might be sharp enough, as if it might pierce the membrane and slice the pulp.(De Zengotita 2007)
- FOSTER H; The Return of The Real; The Avant-Garde at the End of The Century; 1996
- DEBORD G; Comments on the Society of the Spectacle; 1988
- DE ZENGOTITA T; Mediated: How The Media Shape Your World; 2007
- BATE D; After Thought, Source 40: 30-33; Belfast: Photo Works; 2004
- BATE D; After Thought II, Source 41: 34-39; Belfast: Photo Works; 2004
- BURGIN V; Possessive, Pensive and Possessed; The Cinematic, London, Whitechapel Ventures Ltd 2007