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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

San Toma, Venice, 2003

San Toma, Venice, 2003


I described in a previous post how I began to take photographs under self-imposed restrictions. By the time I got around to writing these rules down, I had moved away from static architectural subjects to mobile human ones, which might explain the first point on the manifesto below. (A certain pomposity is regrettable but perhaps unavoidable in exercises of this kind.)

1) At least one human being must be visible in every image, and this human presence must not be casual or accidental. Rather, it must be essential to the image’s meaning.

2) Shots must not be posed, which I take to mean that there can be no contact whatsoever between photographer and subject. Naturally this means excluding anyone known to the photographer, together with any reference to his or her personal history.

3) Taken together, the first two rules imply an insistence on spontaneity. It should not be possible to repeat an image in every detail. To put it another way, each image must have an unstable, unpredictable element at its core. There are to be no controlled shoots, and no conventional portraits. Each image must acknowledge the decisive role of chance.

4) No clearly recognisable landmarks or other unambiguous indicators of location.

5) All shots are to be taken using available light (i.e. without flash) and the camera must be hand-held. Nonetheless, it is obligatory to photograph at all times of the day and in all weather conditions.

There may seem to be an implicit claim to authenticity in this prohibition – that one has not ‘added’ anything to the scene, even light. But I make no such claim. What interests me are the limits of the camera's ability to function, which brings me to:

6) No gratuitous degradation of the image. It is inevitable that degradation will result from working in very poor light. However, the image must be as clear and coherent as circumstances permit.

7) No automatic functions on the camera: no auto-focus, no auto-exposure, no motor-winder or multiple shot capabilities, no zoom lenses. On the level of technique and form, every aspect of the image’s composition must be the result of a conscious choice on the part of the operator. Of course these choices are limited in scope and conventional in nature, but that makes them more and not less meaningful.

8) Images must not be created or manipulated by digital means, because each must have a physical and unique existence beyond the possibility of immediate preview and erasure.

9) No sentimentality, and preferably no emotional engagement at all. This is not a claim to objectivity.

10) No events and no journalism, which I take to mean that no photograph can depict demonstrations, festivals, concerts or any other public event, or show any kind of interaction between human subjects that is clearly or unambiguously structured by work or other kinds of organised activity (e.g. sport). To put it more generally, the meaning of the image must never derive from the intrinsic interest of the subject. Rather it must come from the act of photographing alone. Every photograph must be of ‘nothing’, of a moment that has no possible public meaning. Moreover, there must be no implied narrative.


If one reviews the main sequence in the light of this ten point programme, it might be observed that several images violate one or more of its prohibitions. For example, this photograph violates nos. 1 and 4, and possibly no. 9 too. (Every image fulfils nos. 5-8, but one would not necessarily know this from the images themselves.)

The purpose of this manifesto was not to exclude alternative possibilities – as the exceptions noted above prove retrospectively – but rather to avoid the question of ‘style’. This is an obsession among amateur photographers, for whom it is closely connected to the question of whether or not they are creating ‘art’. I place these two terms within scare quotes because I wished to exclude them from consideration as irrelevant. Or rather it was an interesting experiment to replace style (a single positive value: the inimitable signature of an individual talent) with a set of impersonal prohibitions (multiple negatives: a list of what is absent).

The question remains as to whether it is necessary to be aware of the existence of this manifesto to understand the images taken under its influence. I think not (the existence of this post notwithstanding). Once I had figured out what really mattered - that is, my subject matter - I no longer needed any of this superstructure. The meaning of the images in the final sequence depends on the logic of that sequence, which has nothing to do with any of the ten points listed above.

1 comment:

Izzhy said...

great pics... loved them