* This interview was published in the Art Education Special Issue of AKADEMIST Magazine, August 2007, Issue 9, pg. 74 – 81.
As one of the last branches to be included in the arts, what kind of a place did photography take?
In historic periods when communities constantly renew themselves political personality, way of thinking, communication and art undergo changes similar to the development of the social structure. Every innovation in the social framework, especially in the field of technology, which shows endless development, affects the cultural context: When writing was first invented in 3500 B.C., when paper was invented in 100-200 A.D., when the printing press was invented in 1454, when the industrial revolution in the 18th century changed mankind’s way of life, when photography was invented in the early 19th century, when we entered the Optical Age, we always faced the same ideas, according to the definition of Karl Pawek: Is this the limit of what we can do? In the 19th century, the invention that most influenced the machine age and determined the development and detected the purposes of the visual communication tool is the invention of photography.
In the 19th century, as a brand-new tool of expression and as a matter of fact at first completely far from a major claim such as being art, the sole purpose of the earliest practitioners of photography was to present to the world as an image recording device, was the objective and accurate recording of the subjects they were working on, rather than art oriented expression. Photography, which already emerged as a ready-made image, could not profess to be art, as it did not have the sub-structure of form and meaning development that has been manipulated finely in the direction of social values throughout history, unlike other plastic arts. However, it is also a fact that within the art nouveau movements that emerged in the early 20th century, photography entered into an effort to create its own visual language on the one hand and on the other hand has formed a basis for the process leading to significant changes in the figurative language of painting and sculpture but mostly painting. Recent studies have revealed a largely hidden history of how photography in particular affects painters and how they benefit from photography. For example, Edgar Degas is included in a group of painters who look at photographical images as a means of depicting the flow of life. The Italian Futurists depicted movement in their work by transferred to canvas on the basis of visual expression of the photographic images of Jules-Etienne Marey. In the early twentieth century, Constantin Brancusi saw photography as an additional occupation to his sculpting and frequently used this technological apparatus.
Such an interaction between photography and more traditional tools of expression is often a hidden interaction. One of the few reasons was, modernism principles valuing the purity of traditional tools of expression greatly. Moreover, photography was deemed to be valueless as it was the product of a technological process.
“A technological apparatus can in no way produce an image that reflects the inner feelings; it only transfers what is concrete in the objective reality onto the film or plate.”
“Every work of art is a new expression; the photographer does not reveal anything new, what he does is to render the perceived reality visible.”
“The artist reinterprets the truth; whereas the photographer transfers what he sees.”
The obvious outcome of these thoughts belonging to the scientist of aesthetics Karl Pawek and that preserves its reality even today, is as follows: Photography can never be art! This is why today we still talk about artists and photographers, art and photography, art history and photography history.
If the problem for photography at the beginning of the twentieth century was whether or not the tool of expression is art, then the issue at the end of the century is whether or not it will be completely itself again.
What about its place in contemporary art?
As I mentioned before, every technological development creates a new model for art and the artist. In the mid-1960s, the snapshot aesthetics of amateur photography attracted the attention of conceptual photography. In this period, amateur shots became the most common area of photography, and photography suddenly became a rediscovered antique. At this point, it appears that photography has entered into a new relationship with snapshot aesthetics of the past and amateur photography; yet this time, it functions as an opposite to elimination of the previous transfer possibilities, and this approach benefits from the point zero of the amateur style, centering the photography on the conceptual art.
Every critical and theoretical issue related in one way or another to postmodern art recognized with conceptual art in mid 1960s, coming to the fore with artistic productions after the 1980s, can be placed somewhere in the photography. Artists who used photography as a tool in the post-1980s period, a time when the contemporary art milieu was being prepared in the name of photography, stood on rather different grounds than those photographers, who capture images from the perceived objective reality. This can be explained by the distinction brought by Victor Burgin, the difference between finding meaning and creating meaning, again in his own words, the difference between artists who use the opportunities of photographers and the artists who see photography as a tool and create work in this direction. The critical perception of photographic displays used by artists creating photography-based work is so dominant over contemporary art that photographic images are usually not seen as pure photography. In the practice of contemporary art, photography is now only a tool, just like the other art branches, the stylistic values and technical quality that are seen as being essential to modern photography have lost their importance. Photographic images are now created towards becoming a transparent tool that communicates critical and theoretical thoughts, instead of being created for winning admiration with their stylistic structures and aesthetic values.
“Photographs are taken with the brain, not the machine” says Ara Güler… What do you think?
Taking photographs is an automatically and habit forming activity. The camera -except for some exceptions- is an integral part of this action; without which it is impossible to carry out this action. It is that machine that asks his owner to continuously take photographs and create necessary and unnecessary photographic images; more precisely expects this from him. The dependence on the machine can reach such extreme levels that when the user is deprived of the camera, he feels that he sees but does not perceive. This situation is like a drug addiction. The photographers, who capture images from the perceived objective reality or who use the opportunities of photographers, cannot see, perceive the world he lives in, unless he looks through the viewfinder of the camera or narrows the vision that people have with the magical frame. While he needed to overcome the technological apparatus, he is swallowed by it; he becomes an extension of the shutter release of the machine.
This habit on the edge of madness, along with the approach of seeing photography as a machine gun, leads to continuous flow of unconscious photographic images. The emerging results show the abilities performed by the automatic functions of the machine, not their personal experience, knowledge and values. At this stage, there is not much to do for our brain, the center of the biological structure; as the work created is not new information, but only machine memories.
Taking photographs runs parallel with vision. We communicate with the outside world with processes of sight and perception. If our brain is incompetent in sight, in other words, is not functional, that is to say, if the person is blind, can the act of taking photographs be performed? The answer to this question will be given in the works of Evgen Bavcar, who was born in Slovenia in 1946, studied History at the University of Lujubljana and Philosophy at the Sorbonne, wherein the relationship between eyesight, blindness and invisible is discussed. Having lost both of his eyes before reaching the age of 12, Bavcar owned a camera for the first time after 4 years and used it to photograph his girlfriend he was in love with. In his memoirs, “the idea of ‘stealing’ something that is not mine and render it immortal on the film gave me a great pleasure. Then I realized that I can also ‘own’ something I have not seen.” Bavcar says he simply uses only his hands. In that case, the brain that triggers the sight and perception is not always everything.
How does the photographic eye develop?
“Seeing comes before words. The children look and recognize before they can speak.” From this definition of John Berger comprising a broad meaning, we understand that seeing and perception are among the tools and even are the essentials that open us to the outside world and help thoughts the most. Vision comes before perception: Regardless of the form, information reflected from the outside world gains meaningfulness only by being perceived upon first passing through the filter of vision. Perception is a spectrum of nominative pure data obtained with the help of stimuli. Not all information gained from stimuli is meaningful. The overall meaningful information that underwent the process of education and universalization also deepens the perspectives of vision and perception as it intensifies intuitions.
The visual action recorded, supported with the camera is not a simple activity. What you are looking at should not be confined to merely what you see; the manifestation of the mysterious thing that remains hidden behind it should also constantly occupy our minds. Thus, it is possible to infer that the photography does not consist of just a transfer, a recording of the visible reality. The eye does not only gain the ability to reach the mysterious source of reality as long as it is not contented with the general acceptable course of vision, but also has the chance to scrutinize this source. This is the point where photographic vision starts: This is the ability to discover the mystery and critical view in things that everyone sees, but disregards in the belief that they are too ordinary. This ability should consistently be fed with new shocks, so that the effect that it exceeds the boundaries of seeing as ordinary is created. Photographic vision is structured on three basic concepts in education: Knowledge, creativity and technology. Knowledge constitutes the product of observation on one hand, and conclusions drawn from daily life on the other hand. Creativity is the indicator of ability; transformation into a certain aesthetic fact by being manipulated yields creativity. Creativity is useless unless it is supported by knowledge. Technology should remain in the position of tool for the expression of knowledge-supported creativity.
What has changed with the transition to digital technology?
In the development process of photography, photographic image production and consumption show differences in coordination with technological developments. In the mid-1960s, medium-level tourists who showed off at the four corners of the world with Pentax and Nikon, cameras having advanced technology of the time, emphasize that amateurism is no longer a technical category. Those same tourists started to carry around video cameras in the early 1980s; this development has first pointed out that video, then digital imaging, will replace the photography altogether as a mass practice.
At the point reached today, photography is said to have died. In the present century, the thought that we witness the commencement of a new era, the post-photography era has started to gain wide currency. For the pre- and post-photography emphasized in his book titled “Into the Image: Culture and Politics in the Field of Vision”, Kevin Robins says:
“From such a perspective, old technologies (chemical and optical) have come to seem restrictive and impoverished, whilst the new electronic technologies promise to inaugurate an era of almost unbounded freedom and flexibility in the creation of images. There is the sense that photography was constrained by its inherent automatism and realism, that is to say, by its essentially passive nature; that the imagination of photographers was restricted because they could aspire to be no more than the mere recorders of reality. In the future, it is said, the enhanced ability to process and manipulate images will give the post-photographer greater ‘control’, while the capacity to generate (virtual) images through computers, and thereby to make images independent of referents in ‘the real world’, will offer greater ‘freedom’ to the post-photographic imagination.”
Photography is a technological path that is closely tied to its designated boundaries since its invention. Although the traditional retrospective structure of photography shows differentiation today, this difference should be perceived only as a problem of methodology. In the process of image production and consumption, human beings having to use image creation and photographic image processing programs provided by new technologies, and they will continue their creative personality just as the traditional structure assumed in the dark room also in the light chamber.
What kind of expectations do students in photography training have or what can they expect to gain from you?
About thirty years have passed since I was an educator. As someone who triggered the times after the 1980s when people who worked in photography split into camps, at a time when art and photography met but yet bitterly criticized each other, as someone who contributes and pushed for development and implementation of the period’s infrastructure I aimed to create a free environment, where everything that is forbidden in the name of photography, is done, and my students receive a self-aware, sensitive, tolerant and enthusiastic education, valuing modernity, innovation, individuality in the direction of their personal tendencies and production-oriented creative, structured on an academic solid foundation but not prescriptive, strict or conservative. We educators are in the position of a tool enabling the student to gain the ability to express the hidden powers such as creativity, invention and constructiveness. The greater the passion the students approach this tool, the more equipped the students will be with adequate art and professional information such as the ability to adapt to so many different conditions, to think on their own.
As an educator, there is something that is engraved a little more every day in my consciousness in the past years and has disturbed me: One of the nuisances that influence and direct especially the younger generations of our age; is the lack of passion and the over self-confidence of the human being due to the fact that technology has developed at a dizzying pace. The reason is that, the youth in our world drenched in visuality, feel lost. As I know this and observed it correctly, I am telling my students: I’m not a big pretender to teach you anything about photography; if I can tempt you a bit and encourage you, if I can incite you in photographic vision, it is more than enough to me.