CAN APHOTOGRAPH NARRATE? Toput it simply, yes. A photograph can narrate. Before delving further in to thequestion though, we first have to understand what a narrative is, and how itdiffers from a story. Bydefinition, narrative is ‘a spoken or writtenaccount of connected events’ (Oxford Dictionary, 1993). Understanding that thisisn’t the exact same as a story will help further this answer.
Another way toremember that both stories, and narratives aren’t 100% the same thing, is tothink of a story as linear, whereas narrative, it is your choice of whichevents within the story to relate, and in what order you wish to relate them. ‘Narrative is the choice of which events to relateand in what order to relate them – so it is a representation or specificmanifestation of the story, rather than the story itself. The easy way toremember the difference between story and narrative is to reshuffle the orderof events. A new event order means you have a new narrative of the same story.'(Beemgee, 2014)As you can see inthe above reference, there is a noticeable difference between what a story is,and what a narrative is.
This should better aid in understanding why aphotograph, can narrate. Another source thatI was able to find that supports the idea of narrative through photography isthat of David Campbell. Campbell states that photography is merely the carrierof narrative, giving the viewer a chance to attach a narrative to a photographthrough their own personal experiences with the aid of visual elements withineach photograph that they see. ‘In tellingvisual stories about the world, photography is narrating the world. Of course,narrative is something that is far larger than photography. Socialcommunication is one of the defining characteristics of being human, andnarrative stories have long been a common and powerful mode for transmittinginformation.’ (Campbell, 2010) One aid in theargument, is that when a photograph is put in to circulation, there is a subconscioususe of semiotics attached to the image by the audience. Photographers know thatthis happens, and so they will more often than not hide, or subtly add signsand symbols throughout their photographs.
You will see this more in advertisingthan most other genres of the art, as they are trying to sell certain goods. FerdinandDe Saussure arguedthat ‘reality’ was merely a ‘concept’.'”In Saussure’s semiotics, a “table” is now only a”concept” referred to by language through a conventional signifier: t-a-b-l-e.
“(Bate,2016: 20)This can be translated in to visual representationwhen it comes down to certain aspects of photography. The general image, isseen the same by everyone. They know exactly what it is, or what it is meant tobe, however when they look deeper in to an image, their “reality” of the imageis different to that of someone else’s. A photograph trying to sell yousomething will be a photograph of just that product (either in use or on abackdrop) however, the colours, the editing style, the lighting, could have a differenteffect on one person than it does on another.
Purely because they place adifferent meaning on to the visual signs and symbols. Another convincing argument is one made by Mary WarnerMarien, and that is that, through literature, and other ways of storytelling,photographers have been able to create their own narrative structures foraudiences. “In overwrought language andoutlandish plots, popular fiction played on the visual veracity of photography,suggesting that the medium could reach beneath the surface to penetrate theminds of sitters” (Warner Marien, 2002: 75)WarnerMarien, has here suggested that the way we view images as an audience haschanged over time, and that once, we saw photographs as predominantly documents,there for us to see what was happening at a certain moment in time, and thatthere was no manipulation. However, with the use of ‘overwrought language andoutlandish plots’ photography, and photographers are now able to play aroundwith the details, with the introduction of technically advanced photomanipulation software, there is now more room to create a more intricate, and “false”narrative. Also as viewers of images, now have more freedom creatively when itcomes to viewing photographs, as they are now exposed to more outlandishstories and plots, so their minds are able to create a more interestingconnection to images. RolandBarthe’s book ‘Camera Lucida’ focuses on two main factors. Studium and Punctum.
Studium is the emotional attachment to photographs, Punctum is an object orimage that is striking to the viewer. For the sake of answering this essayquestion, I will mainly discuss the Studium as that is what shows thephotographer’s intention with the photograph. As the audience, we have to workin reverse to what the photographer was doing, as we have to look and study animage to come to the point where we figure out the photographer’s intention,this is when the narrative separates from the story because each individual whoviews the photograph will arrive at the intention differently, so the narrativewill be different, even though the final findings might be the same. ‘Barthes calls Studium ‘a kind of education(civility, politeness) that allows discovery of the operator’. Basicallystudium is the element that creates interest in a photographic image. It showsthe intention of the photographer but we experience this intention in reverseas spectators; the photographer thinks of the idea (or intention) then presentit photographically, the spectator then has to act in the opposite way, theysee the photograph then have to interpretate it to see the ideas and intentionsbehind it.
‘ (Powell, 2008)Culture has an important connotationwith studium, as it is the culture that you surround yourself with, which determineshow you read, and depict, figures, faces, and gestures. To quote Barthes ‘it isculturally that I participate in the figures, the faces, the gestures, thesettings, the actions,’ (barthes, 1980). Here Barthes is saying that peoplewill value different aspects of images due to the people and cultures you grewup around, and the type of culture you are a part of now, as different gesturessay, are values and interpreted differently from culture to culture, so thenarrative of images created by different cultures will vary drasticallybecause, people will hold different aspects of photographs to a higher or lowervalue than others.
Narrative was originally a conceptfounded within literature, but before we are able to discuss photographs asvisual narratives, we have to first look at the original visual representationsof narratives. Paintings. In their most basic form, paintings came to be in thetime of Neanderthals. From discoveries on the walls of caves, we were able todetermine the types of lives that the early ancestors of the human specieslived. We could see the types of animals they hunted, and how they hunted them,because they were able to paint their stories on to the walls of caves. Which whenwe (humans) found these paintings we were able to follow the narratives withinthe images.
A later example of narrative being found within paintings is J.M.WTurner’s painting titled ‘Fishermen at Sea’ (figure1).
The story is one thatcan easily be found, it is one of fishermen in a rough sea, struggling fortheir living. To find the narrative one would have to search the whole image,and look at what is happening, look at the location, and scenery, look at thesky and the birds. You would also have to take in to consideration (subconsciously)where you are from, because this image would have a different narrative tosomeone who comes from a fishing town, compared to someone who comes from amajor city. To conclude this essay, it is profuselyclear that a photograph can narrate. It became more obvious as the moreresearch was conducted, that the use of different lighting techniques, props,locations, models was the fundamental way in which narrative can be delivered.
Whenit comes to the progression of narrative in photography, you can clearly seethere is a drastic change compared to when it was first invented. Thenarratives in photography originally were of ‘what was’, compare that to themodern imagery, there could be, and are several different narratives withinsingle images. After researching, and putting time in to study criticaltheories, of Barthes, and Saussure the question ‘can a photograph narrate is?’is answered by a simple yes, they can.
They narrate through both thephotographers’ image making, but mainly through the audience’s perception ofthe photographs, based on their social and cultural influences, along withpersonal experiences. This simply put, means, the majority of narrations withina photograph are similar, but different due to the person viewing the image.