The Sensation of Looking

Spending a few days exploring the 2014 Brighton Photo Biennial with friends, a recurring joke passed between us that went something like, “I saw plenty of things I liked during the Biennial, but none of them were photographs”.

The highlight of one particularly chilly October morning was Camper Obscura. As the name suggests, it is a touring camper van turned into a camera obscura. We found it down by Brighton Pier advertising itself on a sandwich board offering “free visual experiences”. Finding such a promise irresistible, I boarded the van with a friend.

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Sat opposite each other, we were given a large piece of cardboard which we held between us under something resembling a periscope. Sat in darkness with the camper’s curtains drawn and the door closed, we adjusted the position of our cardboard to bring the light streaming down from above into focus. A disorientating image appeared before us.

Continuously readjusting the cardboard as the periscope turned and our arms grew tired, our host explained the science behind what we saw before us — the physics of light and the way the camera obscura attempts to copy the biological function of the eye. These explanations only went so far, unable to fully account for the uncanny image we saw before us.

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Turning the periscope towards the sea, it seemed to lose its more familiar ebb. Mediated through a camper van and onto a piece of cardboard we struggled to keep level, waves looks like writhing maggots at a lower visual fidelity. To look at it for too long was migraine-inducing.

These and other experiences over the weekend seemed to summarise my frustrated relationship with photography. I rarely look at the medium in books or exhibitions and find myself feeling anything that comes close to my initial experiences of looking at the world around me.

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My sustained interest in photography despite this seems to be occasioned by a familiar feedback loop. As Hubert Damisch reminds us in his Five Notes for a Phenomenology of the Photographic Image, it was this sensation that first inspired the invention of the modern camera.

Each and every one of those innumerable inventors who made photography what it is today were not actually concerned with the creation of a new type of image or a novel mode of representation, they simply wished to fix the images which “spontaneously” formed on the ground of the camera obscura.

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The adventure of photography begins with our first attempts to retain that image he had long known how to make. The failure of photography begins when we realise that it is never quite the same. The practice of photography finds its feet in the affirmation of a representative impossibility.

Although the camera obscura is now inseparable from an established technological lineage, it is worth remembering that it existed with this purpose all of its own; a purpose that runs deeper than its now technological redundancy as a precursor to the modern camera.

This seems central for Damisch, for whom photography has been co-opted into filling a specific role and, importantly, one that is profoundly different from that of the camera obscura that came before it. He seems to lament the discussion on the sensation of looking that was inherent in the camera obscura that has since been lost to photographic theory’s obsession with the technical implications of the modern photographic process or the prevalence of “documentary photography”.

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The retention of the image, its development and multiplication form an ordered succession of steps which now compose the photographic act, always taken in its reductive whole. History has determined that this act would find its purpose in reproduction, much the way the purpose of film as spectacle was (perhaps inadvertently) established from the start.

With a focus on photography’s scientific and commercial potentials at first winning out over more explicitly artistic pursuits, is it any wonder that the desire to capture the sensation of the camera obscura has been forgotten as one of the medium’s defining characteristics?

Nicéphore Niépce is the only pioneer Damisch mentions by name in his Five Notes, no doubt because of the lasting power of his impressionistic window view (pictured below) which, whilst less “technically” accomplished than the efforts of his competitors, captures the sensation of looking through a camera obscura perfectly and with an almost painterly quality, resembling a black-and-white Monet or Cézanne.

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Instead, despite these beginnings, photography has been defined in opposition to and in competition with painting. Photography claims to have won the war of representation but it is painting alone that has benefited from this conflict, having been freed — according to Andre Bazin — “once and for all, from its obsession with realism and [allowing] it to recover its aesthetic autonomy.”

This aesthetic autonomy can be seen throughout modern art following the invention of the camera and it is with Paul Cézanne in particular, born a little over a decade after Niépce made this first photograph, that the discussion on the sensation of looking in the visual arts has continued.

Although similar in style to the Impressionists, it is the artistic process that differs most. Cézanne would work analytically, considering all angles and characteristics of his subject to produce a painting that bore all the sensations of his intense and often repeated looking — documents of his experiences of not just light and colour, but form and line and everything else as they appeared to him. As Gilles Deleuze wrote on Cézanne’s works, this sensation is only experienced in the viewer “by entering the painting, by reaching the unity of the sensing and the sensed.” The process of looking feeds back into the the expression of the sensation of looking. This now seems to be an obvious point to make about this period in art history but it is worth noting as a function that photography is capable of but has long since forgotten.

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