Indexical Context

This paper is about the indexicality of photography considered as a mythological metanarrative. Rosalind Krauss’ thought provoking essay, Notes on the Index, Part 1 (994), will serve as the critical point of departure. An intertextual reading of this essay reveals that Krauss believes photographic meaning is iconical and indexical but not symbolical. She further provides the specific example of the Rayograph, a type of cameraless image, as “that subspecies of photo which forces the issue of photography’s existence as an index” (997). Such asserted archetypes arise from an assumption about the photographic process as a kind of mechanical object transference. “The photograph is thus a type of icon, or visual likeness [italics mine], which bears an indexical relationship to its object” (Krauss 997). Krauss identifies the correspondence between the “physical transposition of an object from the continuum of reality into the fixed condition of the art-image” (998) as the source of meaning. Given the notion of “transcendent reading” (928) which Derrida elucidates, how might we recognize “that myth cannot possibly be an object” (Barthes 693), when “everything can be a myth provided it is conveyed by a discourse” (Barthes 693)? Within the discourse, photographs can fluidly morph into symbolic carriers of cultural narrative information, “whenever one text is doubled by another” (Owens 1026). Doubling here refers to interpreting one artwork through another. Do all photographs establish an indexical relationship to their referent? I will argue that the photographic process is not exclusively iconic/indexical, and frequently operates symbolically. “A picture is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture” (Levine 1039).

The following key word definitions establish a commonality to ground my argument. A physical relationship is the basis upon which a direct meaning is defined. Reality is a direct experience of the external, experienced as a participant and not simply as an observer. Indexical refers to signs that have a direct relationship to their meanings, rather than a symbolic arbitrary relationship. A process trace is a residual physical manifestation left by a prescribed procedure. Photography is a process of registering and manipulating radiation wavelength and intensity differentiation to render tonal variations. Meaning is what the artist expresses, communicates, or conveys in their photographic message to a receiver, and the receiver’s contextual interpretation. Invented by Man Ray in 1922, the Rayograph is both a product and process of placing objects on photosensitive surfaces to make a photograph. My argument contesting the exclusive indexicality of photography will investigate meaning derived from both a semiotic and photographic perspective. Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida will support semiotic evidence, followed by Walter Benjamin, Craig Owens, and Sherrie Levine supporting photographic evidence.

To establish the premises under consideration, let us examine Rosalind Krauss, a contemporary art historian specifically attempting to expand on an analysis of modernism by endorsing postmodernism. She stipulates that postmodernist art production is distinguished by a preoccupation with indexical signs, signs that have a direct relationship to their subject/object meaning. This kind of meaning is in opposition to meaning being arbitrarily established between a sign and its referent, as symbolically happens in verbal language. “As distinct from symbols, indexes establish their meaning along the axis of a physical relationship to their referents” (Krauss 996). She goes on to identify physical process traces as indexical. “They are the marks or traces of a particular cause, and that cause is the thing to which they refer, the object they signify” (Krauss 996). Several examples cited include footprints, medical symptoms, and cast shadows. Cast shadows are particularly important, as she claims that by fixing cast shadows onto a surface, such shadows become indexical traces of the objects casting those shadows. Paintings can also be indexical, as she refers to Duchamp's 1918 work Tu M' (you/me) as “a panorama of the index” (996), partly because of the depiction of readymade cast shadows (Fig.1).

Now Krauss makes a categorical leap that all photographs are indexical. This is induced from the concept that “Every photograph is the result of a physical imprint transferred by light reflections onto a sensitive surface” (Krauss 997). The photographic process is analogous to recording cast shadows. Thus, photographic meaning is based on a visual likeness that must relate as an index to its object. The photograph has a direct physical connection to a physical reality. Finally, Krauss identifies the Rayograph as an image subspecies that exemplifies the unconditional indexical presence of photography.

“Pointing to the pervasiveness of the photograph as a means of representation” (998), Krauss’ indexical relationship claim seems to emanate from a long held position that photography, by virtue of its technical process, is a direct recording of reality: unmanipulated, unaltered, undoctored, and unmodified. This is a theory about photography that has reached mythic status in cultural history. Nevertheless, all art forms deviate significantly from external reality, and subject matter does not equate to meaning. Every photographic image, even if made in an attempt to depict reality, is an interpretation, a distortion. Identifying two-dimensional tonal abstractions as real, representative, or imitative to an actual physical object or event, is a culturally learned aptitude.

Krauss’s argument generates a number of critical problems. What constitutes a physical relationship? Are process traces indexical? Do shadows always resemble the casting object? To what extent are signs indexical? Are all photographs indexical? Does any image accurately reflect the reality it implies? Are Rayographs indexical? What follows is an attempt to answer these questions and thereby to complicate Krauss’ initial thesis.

First, we need to consider physical reality. Immanuel Kant was an eminent eighteenth century philosopher whose thoughts on reality and aesthetics remain highly influential. Kant insists that we recognize the distinction between appearances and reality. He stipulated that objective reality is knowable only as it conforms to the essential structure of the knowing mind. Reality arises out of perception in the human consciousness. Only objects of experience may be known, whereas things lying beyond experience are unknowable. Much of reality is beyond human experience, but aesthesis has the potential to transcend the sensible. “The universal communicability of a pleasure involves in its very concept that the pleasure is not one of enjoyment arising out of mere sensation, but must be one of reflection. Hence aesthetic art, as art which is beautiful, is one having for its standard the reflective judgment and not bodily sensation” (Kant 135).

The recognition that humans are unable to distinguish between physical reality and appearances is an important distinction in understanding the meaning of art. More to the point, knowledge of appearances really does not constitute objective knowledge of the physical world. Thus, appearances are inadequate in establishing a physical relationship between two separate entities. This begs the question of what constitutes a physical relationship. The close relationship between two objects based on appearances is evaluated on similarity and visual likeness. Any attempt to prove existence of an external “world” needs human's perceptions and senses. However, we do not see objects. Rather we see radiant energy as it interacts with an object. Thus, any object in the physical world can appear in an infinite variety of manifestations, depending on the characteristics of the light source under which it is observed.

The world is a construction, both in a photograph and in the human consciousness. Any flat artwork, like a photograph, is a two dimensional interpretation of a three dimensional reality. This fact limits the degree of flat-art appearance accuracy possible in rendering a three dimensional physical object. The physical world of objects is in constant motion and undergoing dynamic change. This physical reality cannot be physically depicted in a still image accurately. An illustrative example attempting to breech time limitations are the photographic images of Eadweard Muybridge, representing objects in motion at discreet time intervals. Presented as a series of captures in a single image, this was an effort to transcend normal indexical physical appearances, to represent objective reality in a conceptual time continuum (Fig.2).

Yet a precise photographic time rendition remains elusive. Attempting a redefinition of time according to experience, Henri Bergson's concept of duration transcends discrete interval measure, as “we pluck out of duration those moments that interest us...” (143). Bergson postulates that a linear temporal succession (past /present/future) is a mental illusion. He confronts the dialectic through duration where time is a simultaneous, continuous multiplicity, with no juxtaposition of events. Duration informs the entirety of existence.

Are process traces indexical? Perhaps they are, but such recognition is very dependent on prior knowledge provided by the viewer. To the uninitiated, an image depicting a process trace would be unintelligible relative to the process that generated the trace (Fig.3).

From reality to fiction, cause and effect links are associated with the principle of contiguity, in that they follow one another closely in time. This rule posits that classical conditioning is effective only when the conditioned stimulus and unconditioned stimulus are contiguous. From this viewpoint, indexicality based on physical relationships becomes a case of classical conditioning.

Do shadows always resemble the casting object? Cast shadows are stipulated as indexical because of their physical resemblance and reference to the casting object. The shape and character of such a shadow, however, is dependent on the surface conditions and light source variables of its manifestation. I would argue that often the cast shadow is contextually distorted so completely that it decouples from the casting object, denying indexicality and embracing intangible ambiguity (Fig.4). Our working definition of an indexical sign specifies that the signifier will elicit thoughts of the signified because the two frequently are physically connected in actuality.

Cause-and-effect links are sometimes identified as examples of indexical signs: an object blocking light is contiguous with the light causing a cast shadow. Therefore, the signifier shadow appearance points to a signified object. However, if the observer is unable to make this physical link, does indexicality still apply?

Considering meaning derived from signs, I will reference Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. Semiotics is a general philosophical theory of signs dealing with their function, sometimes used as an analytical methodology to assign meaning to artworks. In semiotics, a sign is anything that can be interpreted as having a meaning other than itself, and is thus capable of communication. This transfer of information defines the sign as being a relation between elements. The main elements of this system are a combination of the signifier (form of the sign), the signified (object or event represented), and their combined association comprising the sign meaning. Of course, the meaning of the sign is subjectively variable as understood by a specific interpreter. The type of relation that holds the signifier/signified relation together can further categorize signs. Icons are signs that signify through appearance similarity between signifier and signified object. Indices are signs that signify by means of a direct relation of contiguity or causality between signifier and signified object. Finally, symbols are those signs that signify through arbitrary social convention, like linguistic lexicology (meaning of words).

Roland Barthes wrote Mythologies in the 1950’s. This seminal work on signs established that meaning encoded into images is ambiguous and ideological. The most important aspect of Barthes critique is the need to recognize an inherent uncertainty that arises when a second order hierarchical structure emerges from a first order set of assumptions. This indistinctness, functioning on meaning transformed back into a form, is hidden from most receivers. Problematically operative under this structure, an interpretation becomes accepted as truth. Barthes broadly defines language as “any significant unit or synthesis, whether verbal or visual” (694). Thus, the photograph is included under the language rubric. As Barthes clarifies, “… any material can arbitrarily be endowed with meaning” (694).

Barthes goes on to give a concrete photographic example of how a first order structure establishes meaning, leading to second order mythology. As an observable material object, a magazine cover photograph elicits the concept of a young black soldier saluting (697) (Fig.5). The combination of these two entities, a photograph and a thought, creates a separate associative meaning, that ‘France is great.’ Extrapolating to the second order myth function, ‘France is great’ is converted into a new object that elicits a new concept, that there is ‘no racial discrimination.’ The combination of these two entities, a form and thought, creates a separate associative meaning, that ‘colonialism is desirable.’ The problem is that this new meaning is based on an erroneous assumption of implied certainty derived in the first order structure. ‘France is great’ is now established as a fixed truth object.

Here Barthes has unequivocally established that the object of its message does not define sign meaning, and thus signs are not based on physical indexicality. Layers of hidden ambiguity are embedded in our conventions of viewing. Once again, we are made well aware of the distinctions between the subject of art and the meaning of art. Seeing this way is culturally determined.

If images are laden with “social usage, which is added to pure matter” (Barthes 694), then are there “different relationships as to that which, from the signifier, is presented as the irreducible stratum of the signified” (Derrida 946)? Jacques Derrida wrote Of Grammatology in 1967, promoting deconstructive criticism that denies the possibility of essential or intrinsic meaning. It is historically impossible to separate, through interpretation or commentary, the signified from the signifier. In art, that which is represented matters, but the represented never achieves an unmediated presence. “The effects of aesthetic signs are only determined within a cultural system” (Derrida 946). Directly addressing locus of meaning residing in the indexicality of signs, the subjectivity of the system is articulated. Meaning resides not in the artwork or its referent, but rather in the receiver’s context. Derrida quotes Rousseau, “One must speak to him in a language he understands, if he is to be moved by what he is told” (946).

Exploring meaning resident in the photographic idiom, Walter Benjamin, Craig Owens, and Sherrie Levine provide distinctions. Since photography's inception, its cultural mythology has been rooted in a belief about truth. Specifically that by virtue of its mechanical process, photography is closer to depicting something real than other artistic mediums. Thus considering viewing conventions in relation to other types of images, photography provides a realistic reproduction of existence positioned in front of the camera lens, endowing it with unquestioned veracity. Experiencing a photograph gives the spurious mythological impression of dealing with a duplication of reality. On closer analysis, the prerogative of a skilled artist allows for the manipulation of inherent photographic limitations to create unlimited image variations derived from physical reality. Therefore, the photograph cannot be regarded as an objective and hence realistic reproduction of existence, but simply as a profound complex of diverse observations and viewpoints on reality. In reductive terms, photography interprets energy interacting with matter dynamically in time.

Arguably, Walter Benjamin is one of the most original Marxist thinkers of the twentieth century, investigating aesthetics relative to technical innovation. Photography is an example of a technological art form. However, in the service of “New Objectivity” (496), it only supplies the production apparatus without changing it. The photographed subject (tenement, river dam, factory, or rubbish-heap), are all transformed into statements of beauty. A contemporary example of beautifying large-scale environmental degradation is the industrial landscape work of Canadian photographic artist Edward Burtynsky (Fig.6). Beauty and ethical goodness may diverge.

Benjamin proclaimed that the artist must surrender his autonomy and labor in the service of advancing the proletariat. In supporting liberation of the means of production, the artwork should maintain high technical quality. Technical artistic innovation has potential to improve the production apparatus, extricating power from the ruling class. “What we must demand from the photographer is the ability to put such a caption beneath his picture as will rescue it from the ravages of modishness and confer upon it a revolutionary use value” (Benjamin 497).

Photographic meaning, regardless of subject, thus often transmutes into a political instrument. The broad area of documentary photography can transparently fall into this category. Although ostensibly the photographer attempts to produce truthful, objective, and candid images of a particular subject, ideologies regularly manifest. An excellent example is the work of Walker Evans, for whom the subject photographed offered as much social commentary as documentary evidence (Fig.7). This political meaning is fabricated by artistic decisions made in manipulating the medium. Although culturally we might not trust words because they are words, we are inclined to trust pictures because they are pictures. Nevertheless, images are not a representation of reality; they are selective manipulations, shaped by value judgments and intentions. In this way, images formulate rather than reflect the reality they imply. Benjamin stipulates that we require of the artistic producer, “the demand to think, to reflect upon his position in the production process” (498).

Many manipulations are endemic to the photographic process; each has a profound effect on how the image will appear. Consumers of photography are generally unaware of these process modifications. Which photographic iteration is real? The perspective created by the choice of camera optic will have a dramatic effect on how the image appears, changing the angle of view and spatial relationships. Photography forces us to see the world artificially with regard to focus compared to physical reality directly sensed. Aperture selection along with focal length determines depth of field. Shutter speed controls motion, slicing up time differentially. Choice of exposure timing, the moment captured within the space-time continuum, radically changes image appearance. The position of the camera relative to the subject is critical, along with cropping decisions, to any subsequent meaning assessment. The photographer exercises considerable editorial discretion though the use of photography's basic tools to control a multiplicity of potential image meaning. Seeing this way needs to be learned. Catalog images are perhaps the closest to indexical photographs, at least in terms of intention. Yet even these images are laden with cultural meaning well beyond mere object resemblance (Fig.8). Considered from a photographic process standpoint, producing catalog images is demanding and requires specialized lighting and studio configurations. The highly stylized raw image captures are heavily retouched during post-process in an attempt to more accurately reveal an idealized product appearance. Even with all this targeted effort, the resulting images do not clearly indicate the reality of the physical object. Basing purchase decisions exclusively on catalog images has disappointed many consumers.

If the camera has no greater insight into the reality of a subject than other media, are all photographs indexical? If they are, this objectification of the photograph is based on the desire to reproduce reality: the intention to communicate a resemblance of a physical object. Nevertheless, as explained, objects can appear in an infinite number of permutations. In addition, photographs do not always appear as the subject photographed conventionally is envisioned by memory. Even when objects are ostensibly recognized in a photograph, that recognition does not establish definitive meaning.

As “the concept of technique represents the dialectical starting-point from which the sterile dichotomy of form and content can be surmounted” (Benjamin 495), then metaphor has potential to add “another meaning to the image” (Ownes 1027). Craig Owens was a postmodern art critic active in the 1980’s, exploring the allegorical aspects of contemporary art. Allegory has long been critically maligned as a viable art form. Yet it functions in contemporary aesthetic manifestations, occurring “in the gap between a present and a past which, without allegorical reinterpretation, might have remained foreclosed” (Owens 1026). Allegory adds extensive meaning to images, and photography is full of allegorical potential. This implies that meaning generates when one artwork is interpreted within the context of another artwork.

A primary capability of allegory is to rescue from historical oblivion that which threatens to disappear, and provide a reinterpretation of the past. Photography attempts to fix a transitory subject into a stable image. In this vein, the meaning of photography is an attempt to preserve history, to interrogate time. We are culturally conditioned to accept the photograph as a close approximation of reality. In this way, photographs seem to become more valuable with the passage of time, as a glimpse of a physical reality that no longer exists.

Owens claims that “allegorical imagery is appropriated imagery; the allegorist does not invent images but confiscates them” (1026). Evident in the work of Sherrie Levine, the notion of ‘confiscation’ supporting image ‘appropriation’ is a postmodern artistic paradigm. Levine is a postmodern artist famous for promoting photographic appropriation as legitimate art. Levine’s creative process is to exactly copy certain famous historical photographs, and present them as her own contemporary statement by virtue of meaning reinterpretation (Fig.9).

Levine proposes that human culture has advanced to a stage where the artistic act cannot be based on originality. Within those that consume artwork resides an “immense encyclopedia” (1039), informing the spectators interpretation. Meaning in the photographic image does not spawn from its origin, but in its cultural destination.

The artistic meaning of photographic images is malleable, and in a constant state of flux. Such meaning can be changed, at will, based upon contextualization. As all individuals differ in terms of experience and knowledge, so do their perceptions of reality. From this viewpoint, reality is a specific construction developed by the individual out of various components. If photographs are indexical, the meaning of the index is unstable. Krauss refers to instability in the condition of some specific arbitrary symbols that can shift meaning based on context. One example cited is personal pronouns, in that “the referents of those words keep changing places across the space of our conversation” (Krauss 995). Yet “their meaning depends on the existential presence of a given speaker” (Krauss 995) thereby establishing indexicality. So in effect, she is saying both photographs and symbols can be indexical, but photographs cannot be symbolic. “Whatever else its power, the photograph could be called sub- or presymbolic, ceding the language of art back to the imposition of things” (Krauss 997).

This separation of photography both “from true icons” (Krauss (997) and “symbolic intervention” (Krauss (997) is allegedly manifest in the work of Man Ray. Man Ray was an early twentieth century American modernist artist best known for his avant-garde photography. Man Ray invented camera-less Rayographs by placing small physical objects directly on photosensitized paper and exposing the configuration to actinic radiation. Suspended in the chasm between abstraction and representation, the Rayographs offered an original modality of seeing. Let us consider Krauss’s claim that Rayographs are indexical. This can be analyzed by considering the artist’s intention and by observing the photographic prints in question.

Man Ray sometimes made objects solely to photograph them. After the making of the photographic image, the eccentric fabricated object was discarded. Thus, the photograph became autonomous, not an index to anything recognizable as a physical object. In this respect, he was an early conceptual photographer, for whom the subject was an idea from which a complex ambiguous meaning derived. It is in this spirit that the Rayographs function.

The Rayograph prints are inherently abstract in their severe and unexpected effects of negative imaging (Fig.10). In many instances, the prints are so abstract that no reference can be established regarding the object used. In some specific iterations, Man Ray moved the objects during exposure, rendering indexical references unattainable. In the case of identifiable objects, unusual juxtapositions within a single image seem more important than indexicality. In some Rayographs, the object arrangements are obviously anthropomorphic in an attempt to illustrate a human face. Clearly, Rayographs are not an effective example supporting the claim that all photographs are indexical.

This paper focused on the indexicality of photography. It does not address in-depth the distinctions between all three kinds of signs: icons, indexes, and symbols. Another significant limitation is a regrettable lack of information about photographic theory in the Art in Theory anthology. Also not investigated is the claim that postmodernist art production is distinguished by a preoccupation with indexical signs, another doubtful claim made by Krauss. The concept of the meaning of meaning is ignored but germane, as an indexical relationship is bound with meaning locus. Western philosophical emphasis on the metaphysics of presence, privileging immediate access to meaning, is also left unexplored.

If a physical object is redefined as a concept, then a counter claim could be made that all artwork is indexical. That is, any art manifestation always points to conceptual meaning outside itself. As ideas must originate from the mind, and the mind is physical matter positioned in the cranium, art pointing to ideas must reference a physical object: the brain. It is, however, unlikely that most humans would define ideas as physical objects. Another possible counter argument stipulates that everything visually perceived must be indexical in the sense that human vision is a direct physical connection to radiant energy. Of course, such totality renders indexicality ineffective as a meaningful distinction.

To summarize the arguments postulated in this essay, Rosalind Krauss claims that all photographic meaning is indexical. Kant insists that we recognize that appearances are inadequate in establishing a physical relationship between two separate entities. An image depicting a process trace would be difficult to understand without prior knowledge of the process generating the trace. A contextually distorted cast shadow decouples from the casting object, denying indexicality and embracing intangible ambiguity. Barthes has unequivocally established that the object of its message does not define sign meaning, and thus signs are not based on physical indexicality. Layers of hidden ambiguity are embedded in our conventions of viewing. Derrida, by directly addressing locus of meaning residing in the indexicality of signs, articulates the subjectivity of the system. Meaning resides not in the artwork or its referent, but rather in the receiver’s context. Benjamin tells us that photographic meaning, regardless of subject, often transmutes into a political instrument, fabricated by artistic decisions made in manipulating the medium. For Owens, photographic meaning resides in an attempt to preserve history, to contest time. Levine interrogates the artistic meaning of photographic images as malleable and in a constant state of flux. Such meaning can be changed, at will, based upon recontextualization. Rayographs are autonomous images, not necessarily an index to anything recognizable as a physical object.

In this discourse, I have argued that the photographic process is not exclusively indexical, and frequently operates symbolically. Like many abstract symbols, the word “index” has numerous constructed meanings stretched across a range of humanly defined disciplines. In the arts, the role of the index is to categorize work based on referencing. An artwork is judged indexical to the degree that by virtue of its appearance it physically points to some other object for its meaning. The evidence presented in this paper intertextually supports the position that indexicality is not the primary modality defining all apparent photographic meaning.

From its invention, the presumed authenticity of photography has coexisted with the manipulation parameters of its process, affecting results. The physical reality potentially communicated in an image depends more upon the intentions, the perceptions, and the capabilities of the artist and the interpretive viewer, rather than in the object or subject photographed.

Works Cited

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