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Sunday, August 2, 2009

Assaying the Camera: An Editorial Interlude

The camera is unique in the history of human tool-making insofar as it is a tool made specifically and consciously for the purpose of bearing witness. Other tools have evolved into witness-bearing media, but the invention of no other tool is so completely consumed in the function of witnessing. Thus the peculiar, and peculiarly mistaken, authority of the camera: the camera never lies, an assertion we all know is false, but which, in the presence of the camera's production--the strong image--we promptly forget. Photographs are persuasive; they present what seems to be "the world as it is."

That the photograph is thoroughly malleable, subject to and inviting of manipulation, was understood right away by practitioners, who, in the beginning, had to alter reality to make it conform to the limitations of the medium and later learned to alter the medium first to make it conform to ideas of reality, and then to create new realities. The techniques of the darkroom and later of the computer turned the camera, and hence the photographer, from a passive to an active agent, an artist like other artists: except for the fact that the camera has never ceased to appear to limn "reality," so that the photographer must resort to relatively extreme measures to remind (if not actually convince) the viewer that the image is a representation not of "world," entirely, but of some ratio of mind.

All the arts bear this ratio, on a sliding scale from work to work and artist to artist; but no other technology of art projects so thorough a rhetoric of "Truth." Photography, then, is uniquely endowed, intrinsically and culturally, to give rise to previously unknown facets of conscience--both in terms of the things and events exterior to us, and of things and events interior. The x-ray machine and the CAT scan are elaborations of the original large-format camera, as is the electron microscope. And the "manipulated" image (and all products of the camera are manipulated to some degree) brings us that holiest of grails, an authoritative witnessing of the things and events of the imagination. All the arts do this, but the photograph is uniquely convincing, telling us that it "never lies," even while revealing to us just how precisely it does.


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