Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Idolatry or Vision?

Graven images. At times I think about this idea: is the act of creating photographs essentially an act of idolatry?

"You shall not make for yourself a [graven] image - any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth..." (Exodus 20:4)

Of course, I am somewhat purposely taking this, the 2nd Commandment in Judeo-Christian tradition, out of context, for the text goes on to refer to the act of idolatry as bowing down to worship (i.e. "serve") such a graven image. And most folks I know simply don't 'worship' photographs, at least not in the traditional sense of the word.

I think what interests me here is the place that imagery and image making has taken up in our culture. Stepping back for the moment from the detritus of popular culture, it would seem to present enormous shock to a visitor from the third millennium BC, such as Moses, who lived a rather simple Sephardic lifestyle by our standards, to step into a large chain bookstore and saunter by the periodicals, or to place a visit to the home of Joe Average American and witness the central role that the television ("home entertainment center" in contemporary parlance) plays within the life of most families.

Buddhists have their home shrines, paying homage to their ancestors; Hispanic Catholics have their ritablos, their home alters to the Saints and the Virgin. And yet the role that image reproduction machinery plays in the life of most people is essentially the same: an elevated place of central prominence, both positionally and chronologically.

Taking liberties with metaphors, we can therefore avow that the act of making entirely new images out of nothingness is essentially an act of divine creation. Or at least places the artist in the position of participating in such a divine act. Artists and photographers engaged in image making are therefore to be seen as members of a priestly order, endowed with that special privilege enabling them to enter within the 'Holy of Holies' and commune with the Eternal Muse.
Of course, this is all just speculative presumption, mere symbolic liberty taking.

In the book "Copies in Seconds, Chester Carlson and the Birth of the Xerox Machine", David Owen explores the history of technology from the perspective of 'copy-making'. This is close enough to image making to warrant our attention. Hand scribing was the method used for millennia to reproduce (make images of) other text, until the arrival of Guttenberg's invention of endlessly replicatable movable type printing, which stayed at the zenith of copy-making until lithography was accidentally discovered by another German, Alois Senefelder, a mere two decades before Niepce and Daguerre's near simultaneous invention of photographic image making. Whereas scribal copying and mechanical reproduction of text may be seen as intellectual idolatry (i.e. the copying of thoughts and ideas), the arrival of photography was so original as to be proclaimed 'the pencil of nature'. Here was an invention that could, finally, achieve the idolater's dream of making graven images of the very created world forbidden of by Mosaic Law.

David Owen goes on to describe culture itself as a form of copy making: the copying of social behaviors en masse, in an endlessly iterative fashion.

In actual practice, the roles played by imagery in modern culture vary widely from such a narrow definition implicit in the term 'idolatry'. Yet one can't help but notice imagery's prominence in the public arena, which here refers to not only physically public venues, but the virtually public as well. So common are visual imagery that it can be likened to a form of neo-hieroglyphic symbolic language. Pictures now seem to take the place of more descriptive, sophisticated textual usage models, seen in earlier cultures.

No more important of an example of this can be seen than that of the introduction of the 'Graphical User Interface', or GUI, upon the release of the first Apple Macintosh personal computer to the public. For the first time in post-Renaissance history graphic iconography seems to be replacing the more abstract algebraic terminology of symbolic logic. Counter-intuitively, this so-called 'advancement' in computing technology more closely resembles Egyptian hieroglyphics, or the medieval European religious icon, than it does the pre-GUI technology of the 1960s, for instance, that saw man step foot on the moon's surface. One clearly has to consciously wonder whether our culture is progressively evolving, or entering a new, high-tech Dark Ages, where the Serfs of this neo-feudalism will be forced to revert to simplistic word-pictures, rather than the sophistication of written language.

As a photographer, I do not question my participation in the contemporary phenomenon that is image making on a colossal scale. This is because my personal vision, and working methods, are geared towards the creation of image as hand-crafted relic, rather than mass-marketed visual symbology. My works are physically relevant objects, crafted in small batches by hand; images in silver salts deposited onto clay-coated papers, more the result of alchemy than mass media. Yes, I appropriate the technology of contemporary technical manufacturing - coating silver gelatin emulsions is a sophisticated science - but this appropriation serves to reinforce the role of the hand crafted over the mass produced.

My dialog with the materials at hand is an exploration of how the miracle of light interacts with the raw stuff of this physical world. It is a spiritual quest, inasmuch as my interest seems to lie in exploring the boundary between the ephemeral and the physical, the transcendent and the mundane. Forcing the exquisitely complex phenomenon that is light itself to be constrained to the sieve that is the pinhole aperture reveals just as much about the nature of light as the subject under examination. My quest is interested in the moments between moments, which seem possible of capture only through the instrumentality of the camera obscura, whereby one can glimpse the shedding of that mortal coil.

There is a verse from a classic song of the psychedelic rock era that reminds me of the miracle that is artistic vision, helping one to parse the distinctions between the mere idolatrous and the truly visionary:

"...when I was a child
I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye
I turned to look but it was gone
I cannot put my finger on it now
The child is grown
The dream is gone
And I have become
Comfortably numb."

(-David Gilmour & Roger Waters)


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