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photography and belief

17 july 2021

David Levi Strauss' short book Photography and Belief starts with the topos of etymology. "Believing" is cognate, he says, with "loving," and involves a similar emotional investment. Strauss moves on to the topos of authority, assembling numerous quotations from the history of the philosophy of photography. Any argument he might have made connecting photography with belief remains an assertion, or not even that: merely a suggestion that we might start thinking more in that direction. But along the way, Strauss shows that other thinkers have long made connections between photographs and the need, or the will, to believe.

Strauss closes his brief volume with a commonplace book of quotes about photography and belief. "I wouldn't have seen it if I hadn't believed it," said Yogi Berra, or somebody anyway (72). (Errol Morris would turn that conundrum into a book, Believing is Seeing.) The give-and-take between believing and seeing has a long history and has been entwined with photography from the start. Trick photography is the twin of documentary photography; no sooner did people start taking pictures than they started manipulating the resulting images.

But photographs involve belief (and its counterpart, doubt) not just because they can be faked, but because even a "genuine" photograph bears an uncertain relation to reality. John Berger (32) argued that photographs come packaged with a built-in rhetoric: their rhetoric is that they are not rhetorical. Pictures don't lie; they show it like it is. But of course they never did that. Photographers pose an image to make an argument or confirm an idea. Or they capture a candid moment – in dozens of stills, from which they then select an image to tell the story they want told. And once the image starts circulating, it breaks free from its moorings in the original event and can be used in the service of many disparate narratives.

One might think that the ubiquity of video in the 2020s solves some of that problem, but it only makes it worse; video presents all the same problems of belief, and to a higher degree, while seeming, insidiously, all the more believable. "Not being able to believe your eyes," said Paul Virilio,

is no longer, in fact, a sign of amazement or surprise, but rather a mark of a "conscientious objection" that now objects to the hold of the objective image … Since the optical unwinding of the reel now no longer lets up, it is becoming hard, even impossible, to believe in the stability of the real. (77)
Real news has become fake and fake has become real, even when nothing is actively falsified.

Strauss starts with an excursus on the Shroud of Turin, often compared to photographs because of its odd negative-image quality. And sometimes, by offbeat but non-insane researchers, theorized to be an early photograph of sorts. Maybe even a self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci? If the Shroud is some sort of early photograph done in a now-forgotten process – for that matter, even if it isn't – it stands at the advent of an era where questions of photography and questions of belief continually intersect.

Strauss goes on to quote from a greatest-hits list of thinkers about photography and belief. Walter Benjamin, John Berger, Roland Barthes, Kaja Silverman are all adduced for their authoritative insights. Strauss spends the longest, though, on Vilém Flusser, a mid-20th-century intellectual whom I knew only a little about and from quite another direction (Flusser's fascination with asemic art). Flusser theorized that

the camera has a program (… a list of instructions telling the device what to do), and most humans taking photographs are simply functionaries in the service of this program. … This makes it possible for humans to be persuaded and controlled by images, and to "act in a ritual fashion in the service of a feedback mechanism." (46)
And he thought this in 1983, long before we had phone cameras in our pockets and social media to relay the results to one another via algorithm. I've long been of the opinion that baby-boomers, having grown up watching TV, have an intense predisposition to believe anything that appears on a screen. If a Polaroid was convincing, a nicely-framed Instagram image in the frame of an electronic device is ten times as convincing. And rather than being a medium for our expression, platforms like Instagram do seem, in Flusserian ways, to continually coax us to participate in sharing pictures and "stories" in pre-scripted formats, marketed cleverly to our micro-audiences and sprinkled with commercials, just like '60s TV.

Flusser would later become much more sanguine about the liberatory potential of photographic technologies. He died in 1991, never even getting to see the Internet, but his contradictory insights still pertain. People keep finding surprising ways to work with pictures, and Big Tech keeps co-opting them and churning them into digital circuses to seem to have little use except to sell us stuff and keep us from thinking. But the next surprise is just a swipe away …

Strauss, David Levi. Photography and Belief. New York: David Zwirner, 2020. [Ekphrasis]