A Theoretical Approach to Experimental Photography

* Paper on “The Present and the Future of Art in Turkey” symposium held by Hacettepe University Faculty of Fine Arts between April 17-19, 1985 in Ankara. Faculty of Fine Arts Publications 1, Ankara 1985, pg. 373-380

I am very happy to be invited to represent the branch of photography in the symposium “The Present and Future of Art in Turkey” organized by your university. There are two important reasons why I am happy. First: This symposium means photography has become debatable as art among the ranks of other plastic arts with this symposium and the second is the evaluation of the different approaches in photography, the examination of the developments and thus the creation of the environment for discussion. It is also a fact that the current culture / arts environment in our country is not yet mature enough for this sort of debate. I wish the symposium reaches its goal.

Although the purpose of this paper is to include the theoretical principles of experimental photography with the thought of shedding light to tomorrow’s understanding of photography as of today, it is worthwhile to make a brief introduction to the field of practice and use within the broad scope of photography.


In the visual communication system, the areas of use of photography as a tool are classified according to their underlying functional characteristic:

  1. The function of imagining the objective reality,
  2. Its documentary function,
  3. Its scientific function,
  4. Its pedagogical function,
  5. Its artistic function.

Photography as the imaging of objective reality has been widely discussed and written about and of its functions this is what the sole focus has always been only.
This situation has often been attempted to be explained as;

  1. Determining the moment in the perception of amateur photography,
  2. Compliance with the nature of the object in the press,
  3. Documenting the findings arising from investigation in science.

Even today this explanation cannot be denied because of the stages that the photography has undergone in the development process. However, at the time when photography was being used in one way or another, this brand-new discovery was described as an extraordinary development; since the task of the camera for today, that is, the function of identifying the image, was carried out by painters and designers in those days. Today we have entered a process of strong development and change with the technology that has developed along with the industrial revolution and the mass communication tools it has created. Now is characterized by:

  1. Technological development,
  2. Extensive development of knowledge,
  3. Change of the social structure.

As this is the case, we have to seek for answers to the questions, what the tasks undertaken by photography in the new structural world that we now live in should be, and what the deficiency is and what the requests within this frame are.

The rational evaluation of events produces the result that the future generation will possess useful technological conditions within the functional and logical criteria, and that this cannot be denied by anybody.

Although in our artificial universe, the conditions of nature, our environment, the communication tools and many others have already moved away from their natural position, and our behaviors and thoughts in face of the events and our values have been replaced with technical objects; the fact that humans possess physiological and therefore intelligent ability to adapt to the radical changes that occur around them, will contribute to the creation of the natural environment necessary for them to use their consciousness in this environment positively. To put it more briefly: the human being is strong to the extent he is able to use the advantages such as adaptability and learning, forming his own physiological structure and enabling all kinds of opportunities for him.

The primary reality, on which change in the social structure rests, lies in the fact that the traditional way of thinking is replaced by new science. We cannot deny the fact that communication and information tools facilitate and speed up the prevalence of information and events. Moreover, we also perceive a large part of these visually. These are visual images carrying the codes of information.

It is clear that photography as a unique tool is in an undeniably close in relationship to every kind of change that I just emphasized while characterizing it. These changes can range from making the results of technological developments more positive by shaping our environment and adding to the social development. This relationship has been discussed extensively. For this reason, I will not go into the meaning and broad definition in its contemporary structure. Because the real issue is to provide a theoretical clarification to the pioneering form of thinking and method of information that has not been considered as important, denied, approached conservatively, in the development process of photography. I see the tool of photography as open to any kind of free thought and information, and defend this new understanding -new for us obviously-, with the concept of experimental photography.

Work carried out within this framework of understanding is certainly not new. Until now, however, this has been approached as photography tricks or outliers and unconscious studies have been carried out in this direction. It should particularly be emphasized that experimental researches in photography, carried out as entertainment to this day, gave way to methodical work and way of thinking at present. However, the efforts and activities shown in the direction of this understanding must have a conscious theoretical infrastructure, as for all other art branches.

What is experiment?

The natural sciences explain the concept of experiment as proving the truth of the findings that will emerge as a result of the research based on the objective by a predetermined method and as ensuring the development of the information within the scope of the research. As a method, the experiment is undoubtedly not a concept specific to natural sciences only; for example, its practicality in artistic events has been known all along. In the development process of the art of painting, the impressionists have reached different color factions created by light, using the information systematically. The examples that can be given following this are clearly observed in the cubist art movement.

A successful experimental work no doubt has conditions:

  1. Accumulation of knowledge should be provided in the context of the subject matter to be examined.
  2. Aim in the form of thesis, hypothesis or thought should be determined.
  3. A neutral attitude should be followed towards the common way of thinking and understanding until now.

The Position of Photography

When it comes to natural sciences, we see that the technology of photograph has found unlimited opportunities of use since its inception and that its present state of technology has developed accordingly. Recent examples include laser and holographic technique, audiovisual technique and finally the polaroid technique … and many more.

Now, the most delicate part of the matter lies here. The developments within the formation process of photography until now have only been attempted to be explained with technology, the experimental activities produced by the user were examined from the technical point of view rather than theoretical criticism aimed at the essence of photography. To give a clear example of how true this mistake is: The following quotations from the critique brought by the Yeni Fotoğraf magazine at the time to my exhibition “Truth and Fantasy” I held at the Mimar Sinan University Osman Hamdi Hall, on January 1980, confirm this argument.

“…The first appearance of the exhibition is impressive in terms of the variety of technique experiments, as well as the skillful use of each of these techniques. Prints of a quality that we are not used to see in local exhibitions and competitions very often, are predominate. From pure white to the darkest black, it is a pleasure to view all shades of the scale… The dominance of black in terms of space in the prints is striking instantly. For this much black space, there should be as much transparent space on the negative…”

“…In that case, the large and clean black areas are probably obtained by a special technique…”

“…Indeed, in many of these examples the contribution of the human hand was not less than the contribution of a painter making collage…”

The large part of the critical review proceeds in unison with this understanding. Without a doubt, this is not only the issue of my friend who wrote this review. Generally, it is an issue of culture, art and education. In this day and age, this triad has not reached a healthy setting. It looks like it will take many more years. While outside our country, there is already an answer to the question whether or not photography is art panels are still being arranged under the generalization of what photography is and what it is not? Of course, such discussions will contribute to the art of photography. My wish is to get rid of the vicious cycle brought on by the habitual way of thinking and understanding and to be open to alternatives to be introduced in this sense, to watch and criticize these in a neutral attitude.

In the midst of the past century, numerous examples including the infinity of the boundaries of photography as art -in the face of the claim of conformity to the nature of the object of its underlying past definition- were given to the new quests within the field of photography. -By the way- at this point, I will have to convey a few more lines of the criticism directed to my exhibition.

It was said that;

“…the attitude of the artist in this aspect is crystal clear. These are definitely not just simple photographs. Compositions made using photographic possibilities…”

The concept that needs to be emphasized here is just simple. Because this concept in our country represents an understanding that traditional photography defends and does not include any other form of thought. At this stage, let’s clarify the traditional understanding of photography of the just simple under the theoretical light of semiotics.

When a functional definition is made in addition to the definition resulting from the technical specifications of photography, a thesis emerges that a photographic image is a document above all, which in turn is of generic quality for the tool itself. However, when approaching the functional definition of photography, a generic definition ought to be avoided. Although photography is a word of generic feature because of its word meaning, there are different underlying views and forms of use. At the very least, the infinity behind the doors opening to an oneiric field should not be forgotten.

In its documentary function, photography shows us a moment, a place at that moment, a specific act at that place in that moment, designated by I, the external subject, within the central perspective and frame, e.g. time period. With the intervention of the external subject I, the objective reality of the action occurring at that moment and space has transformed into subjective reality. When we separate, and examine the pre-existent and later-produced reality from each other; we will see that each proceeds on its way separately. Every documented moment has a before and an after. Only the external subject of the photography can experience these two moments.

The external subject referred to here is the displaying the image that represents the moment is the display and side to which that moment is indirectly transmitted is the displayed. The display, that is to say the visual image that the displaying side thinks of transmitting to the displayed in this communication line, is the subjective interpretation of that moment, rather than being an objective image, due to the intervening concept of time / space, the mode of behavior and the worldview of the display. If a visual image is perceived as a visual message to inform us about something, it should not be forgotten that it is far from objectivity in spite of all its closeness to objective reality.

This deficiency in the approach of the visual image in the documentary function of photography to the objective reality may be remedied by entering into a limited dialogue with other plastic arts. Actually, this dialogue has existed since the beginning, but it is not desired in our country. This relationship will save the image selective perception of the traditional attitude, recurring for half a century, from the vicious circle, and enable the photography to gain new dimensions. As soon as the maturation of an attitude broadens the understanding it should also broaden the environment. For today, photography in its traditional and documentary function is not qualified to bear this responsibility alone. Therefore: New options should be sought, education should be given more weight to accordingly, hence the theoretical basis should be generalized and art and culture accumulation should be provided. Human beings ask questions; If we cannot do anything, we must ask the following three questions to ourselves in due course: what am I – where am I – where are they?

Experimental Photography

The use of photography aesthetic tools in the direction of experimental methods commenced with Man Ray and Moholy-Nagy around the years 1922. It even existed in the time of Henry Fox Talbot, who discovered the oldest known experimental method photogram, calotype and negative / positive method. It has been used since 1835, presumably. In 1925, Dadaist Man Ray passes the exposed photographic paper through the natural chemical bathing process and discovers solarization. This method has been used in various forms since that day.

The concept of experimental photography, which began in America in the early 19th century and became widespread in Central Europe and was described as a leading method of thinking and information that pushed the limits of photography with an understanding against traditional attitude, was used more or less in the past. Experimental photography can be mentioned in every field of profession where it finds use. This includes, for example, experimental portrait, commercial photography, and even amateur photography in some degree. However, it cannot be said that the concept of experiment is fully applied in these areas. The experimental photography I defend here is for the use of photography as art. In short, the aim is to reach the artistic message using all the aesthetic and technical possibilities of photography. This understanding is open to all artistic experiences as a method. I also ought to emphasize that the basic principle of experimental photography is the purpose and the creative idea determined as the thesis / hypothesis or thought. The realization of the creative idea in line with the aim depends on the fundamental information within the context of the subject to be studied. For this, the study requires a certain research and method in this process. Accordingly, the element of the experimental photography is four:

  1. Technical / Production
  2. Aesthetic / Essence and Form
  3. Semantics / Content
  4. Pragmatic / Information

The Future

Despite the fact that at present the debates as to, Should Photograph be Designed in Turkey? have shown derogatory features, it is a positive development. Up until yesterday, when nothing was being said on experimental photography in our country, today its presence began to be felt; and tomorrow it will be accepted. The rapid development in the communication system affects the cultural content of society. Man, has to adapt to this process.

I would like to conclude with a quote from Moholy – Nagy’s “The Future of the Understanding of Photography” writing, within the context of this discussion. Just like this:

“…photography as a design-oriented art is not a simple copy of the external universe…”

Now, I want to ask you in accordance with all that I have told you: Why is experimental photography being denied in Turkey?

 February 1985

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