Camera Work

In the introduction to The Camerawork Essays (1997), an article from the magazine written by Susan Sontag (1974) is quoted:


A capitalist society requires a culture based on images, it needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anaesthetise the injuries of class, race and sex… The camera’s twin capacities, to subjectivise reality and objectify it, ideally serves these needs and strengthens them. Cameras define reality in two ways essential to the workings of an advanced industrial society; as a spectacle (for masses) and as an object of surveillance (for rulers). The production of images also furnishes a ruling ideology. Social change is replaced by a change in images. The freedom to consume a plurality of images and goods is equated with freedom itself.


After reading this quote, I began to try and use it as a lens through which to examine my own practice. In particular I wanted to ask the question: whether or not I consider my photographic practice to be defining reality as a spectacle or as a tool for surveillance? At present, my photographic practice is mainly collage. This is due to the fact I was becoming dissatisfied with the photographic results of a good (good in my head anyway) idea and months of planning. I was unable to communicate effectively with the results. I have however, carried on shooting images whenever I see fit to do so.  One of the main reasons of my dissatisfaction is the constant pressure for an image to look a particular way, or fit into an ideal photographic trend at that time; and being familiar with specialist publications and exhibitions, I began the inevitable comparisons to canonical photographers. Through collage, the photographs I use had already been taken and published (spectacle-for the masses) yet I am making choices to reshape their original use to convey them in a new way, in a new era. In so doing I recontextualise the image, giving it new meaning. Is this considered as surveillance of past era through the reexamination of existing culture, or still for the masses, in this case, the audience that will view my practice.? I am still inclined to go with the latter, as I am striving to produce new things for an audience, not with the intention to analyse their original context or purpose.


The freedom Sontag mentions in the quote is a capitalist freedom- a freedom to consume images and goods. I question whether this is a healthy freedom, or whether my idea of freedom fits into this particular ideology Sontag sets out? This article was written in 1974- a time where imagery was restricted to print and display. The freedom of consuming images takes a very different stance when thinking of it in the now, a time where the Internet produces hundreds of thousands of images every day. Has this freedom Sontag talked of become greed? Or is the meaning of the image completely lost through this mass consumption? It restricts me more artistically than providing a photographic freedom to share and connect. The sheer amount of photographs available in today’s society is almost unbearable to think about, with artists and photographers having to shout louder than ever before in order to get work noticed amongst the sea of amateurs and budding professionals. It has forced me to back out of the entire process. This pollution of imagery has been brought about for a number of reasons. Sharing images has never had so many platforms- most social media sites have the ability to upload photographs, as so specialist sites such as Flickr and Instagram. There is an abundance of image making technologies available, spreading far and wide, with a huge majority of people owning a smartphone containing a high resolution digital camera, giving them the capability to shoot and upload anywhere and at any time.  What effect does this have on the artist or photographer trying to penetrate such a crowded image bubble? It is a particular issue for me, as I feel particularly alienated by the whole thing. It has meant a clear rise in the popularity of the printed photo book, with artists and photographers rebelling against the pollution of images by organizing book launches with limited copies available to collectors and likeminded people. Photo ‘zines have also seen a rise in popularity, giving a cheaper and quicker alternative for artists to display their work in a more lasting and effective manner. The reasons for my backing out are simple- I need to separate my practice from the abundance of imagery that is available, in order to give it chance to communicate with an audience in the intended way. If my work is uploaded and left, I have no control over reproduction, quality or layout if the work was to be then used elsewhere. I am a huge believer in experiencing the now, rather than digitally recording for later. I interpret this as visiting a space with work on offer to view, to converse about, rather than to fall into a sea of flat imagery that will quickly be forgotten. Although this all sounds quite negative, overall I think it is a good thing for the artist. It makes me work harder to go around the norm of sharing online, and makes me think a lot more about how my work can be presented or published in an alternative way.


Shooting with analogue techniques, I am less than hasty to start plastering my photographs all over the Internet, due to the original intention of the technique used. I have purposely chosen to use a film based technology, so creating digital images from my work is nearly always a documentation tool rather than overall creation of the document itself. However, when creating collages, I still have the compulsion to share them instantly. I cannot work out why this is just yet either. It may be the fact that the majority of imagery shared on websites is generally not collage- therefore I do not face such a drowning effect as I do with my photographs. In John Berger’s (1978) Ways of Remembering examines the private and the public photograph. The private being a photograph that continues to hold its context in the same way it was taken, and the public photograph being one that is disassociated completely with the time in which it was captured.  Sharing my photographs freely changes their usage dramatically. I have no control over how people view them- making their context invalid at time of viewing. Swirling the Internet, images become hugely isolated from not only their original concept, but often the photographer who held that concept.


Evans (1997) goes on to talk about the cultural strain that photography quickly came to experience, for having access to making beautiful photographs of the everyday simply wasn’t enough. It quickly was becoming embedded within the everyday, and now it is difficult to comprehend a time when a person with a camera wasn’t the norm. The portrait became a way we established ourselves as people, and ‘posing’ to capture your best traits was completely routine. I likened this to the now, in the way of the ‘selfie’. A Facebook generation is growing up with a set of beliefs that encompass taking instant digital bizarre angled photographs of themselves to present their personalities on the Internet. It is a far call from the beautiful organised portraits that would be printed and hold pride of place in the home. Evans talks about the set of conditions that different categories of photographers impose on themselves, whether you class yourself as an amateur, a fine art photographer, or a photojournalist. These labels dictate the work the photographer produces, and somewhat restricts their artistic output. Here, I penciled in the margin- what label and what conditions do I live by as a photographer? I hoped I didn’t do these things, but I quickly realised I did and was guilty of stereotyping and judging other categories. Having had a ‘fine art photography’ education, I class myself to be included in this category. What conditions does this mean I live by though; surely a fine art photographer is unrestricted in their work? For me, it means I search for context within my photographs, construct them with thought and try and produce meaningful work in series. I take inspiration from existing artists and photographers and try and avoid editing my images to keep them as ‘honest’ as possible. By exploring this, I have rapidly realised how restrictive this is to my work and probably how it has come to a huge stand still, as I am living to unreasonable boundaries limiting my creative process, and therefore limiting me as photographer.


Berger, J. (1978). as cited in  Evans, J. (1997) The camerawork essays, context and meaning in photography. New York University Press: New York.

Evans, J. (1997) The camerawork essays, context and meaning in photography. New York University Press: New York.

Sontag, S. (1974) as cited in  Evans, J. (1997) The camerawork essays, context and meaning in photography. New York University Press: New York.


1 Comment

  1. My solution is to only ever take photos that I want to take, I don’t take them to please anyone else (I appreciate this is not a good financial model). I no longer go near Facebook – it is so full of drivel.
    Your move towards collage is an artistic step worth taking if you feel it will give you the medium to give the ‘message’ you want to portray. While we might argue about whether photography is Art, collage and the creation of images from separate photographs most certainly is.

    (I am very wary about what ‘names’ say about anything – I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest it can be twaddle, but I do wonder what world they live in sometimes.)

    (Also in the wider debate, I think we have to come to accept that there are now two distinct groups – those who take photographs and those who don’t … and within the group who do take photographs there is a sub group who believe they should work to rules and they judge work against those rules, yet they claim photography is Art – Art with rules? Surely not!

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