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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

You play the black and the red comes up

[The photographer Helen] Levitt says that she [gambles] for fun and out of respect for Luck, but play is more than diversion for her. Play is central to her notion of society; it is a proposition that animates life. Of itself, play has no moral consequences; it is disinterested. It is not serious, but its rewards are: In its temporary freedom a limited perfection can be achieved. …. For Levitt photography is a form of serious play.
Maria Morris Hambourg

You play, you win. You play, you lose. You play.
Jeanette Winterson, The Passion

Photography is a gambling game. It is the only art in which chance plays an essential role, which is why the Surrealists liked it. To decide whether a photograph is successful is therefore an attempt to define the difference between winning and losing, a difference that is arbitrary and absolute, like the decision to trip the shutter. Why should this difference matter? Every image makes a claim upon the viewer’s attention, but it’s up to the photographer to provide a stake to back that claim. The machine registers every scene with equal indifference, just as the roulette wheel doesn’t care where the ball lands.

The uncontrollable, or chance, element in photography consists partly in not being able to define what constitutes a winning move in advance of playing. Photography is distinctive among gambling games in this respect: that the photographer makes up the rules as he goes along, and sometimes in retrospect. Intention is more decisive in editing than it is at the moment of exposure.

Like photographers, historians must also create meaning from contingent facts, just as they are obliged to deal with the chance destruction or survival of documents. Carlo Ginzburg and Adriano Prospero have gone even further than this, arguing that chance is essential to the historian’s working methods, since it is precisely when we encounter the unexpected that our preconceptions and models are most effectively challenged, and by definition we only stumble upon the unexpected by chance. Photography, like historiography, should be a way of discovering new things about the world rather than simply confirming what we already know. We must permit reality (under which heading I include both the contents of historical documents and the subjects of photographs) to surprise us.

[I have written an article, entitled 'Let's Get Lost: On the Importance of Itineraries, Detours and Dead-Ends', which explores some of these themes in more detail.]

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