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Fall 2008


Photographic Knowing
Photographic Knowing
Engaging Perspectives through Photography

by Tracy Xavia Karner

P
hotography, from its beginning, has created new ways of seeing our world. Moreover, photographic images allow us all to have a shared visual experience. Previously I have written about photography as the first technologically mediated vision which removes "seeing" from both the physical location of the act (what is in front of the lens) and the initial actor (photographer). The resulting image can then be shared with multiple viewers who were not present, but who can now "see" a landscape they have never visited, people they have never met, and cultures beyond their imagination. Of course, prior to the advent of photographic ways of seeing, the telescope extended our ability to see beyond the physical capacity of our eyes into the cosmos, yet to have this new vision the viewer still had to be present, looking through the telescope as it pointed to the stars.

Today we take all of this for granted. We expect to see photographs of stars billions of years old and light years away. MRIs provide views into the recesses of our physical beings and fMRIs allow us to see how our brains function. And while microscopic images provide insight into the infinitesimal aspects of existence, television brings the world to our living rooms and the internet brings it to our fingertips. Technologically mediated viewing  - seeing through photographic images - has become the primary way in which we now know our world. Roland Barthes said that "the image...always has the last word." I argue that the image has become the word in contemporary life, and that the photograph is the lingua franca of our global society.

Acknowledging the increasing role of visuality in contemporary society necessitates a more informed understanding and awareness of images and their production. Photography  - not just as reportage or social documentary, but as a means to contemplate how we know our world - can foster insight and pose new questions about our intellectual premises and the visual nature of our world. This is precisely the thinking behind the development of the Visual Studies program at the University of Houston, in which scholars across the curriculum have come together, contributing their disciplinary knowledge to explore the totality of our contemporary visual experience. Previously, visual studies has only been loosely understood as an academic discipline, and has most commonly been located only within the humanities, practiced by art historians and cultural studies scholars. Though promising in its beginning, such a narrow focus is now inadequate to address the intricacy and ubiquity of our current state of visuality, My colleagues at the University of Houston have championed a broader, more comprehensive Visual Studies program. Its unique approach is based on the premise that visual information overlaps all academic disciplines and thus an interdisciplinary scope is essential for understanding the rich and complicated visual experience of contemporary life - all perspectives are needed to fully comprehend how our visual world is created, understood, morphed, and consumed.

The challenge in building a truly interdisciplinary program is to identify a way in which people from various academic disciplines, each with its own specialized language and research paradigms, can come together. Our program begins with the still image - the photograph in all its complex glory - as a focus for interdisciplinary discussion. In this essay, I will discuss the works of three photographers - John Chervinsky, Jean Miele, and Scott Griesbach - who have created outstanding examples of the kind of interdisciplinary work that fosters insight and poses new questions, both visually and intellectually.

In his series
An Experiment in Perspective, John Chervinsky offers open symbolic propositions, inviting us to contemplate our ability to see and know our world. Working in black and white, Chervinsky arranges scientific "props" (tuning forks, magnets, pendulums) against a background of perpendicular blackboards interlaced with chalk marks and symbols. The resulting images evoke "scientific" demonstrations and imaginary physics experiments. In "Gravity of Mars," he plays artfully with illusions of perspective, asking the viewer to ponder the relationship between objects and the individual's place in the universe. In All Watched Over, Chervinsky reflects on chaos and creationism by creating two reflective orbs placed on a chessboard, referencing our solar system and - guided or at play? Are we all watched over or living amidst chaos?

In The Vintage Series: Scientific Inquiries, Jean Miele approaches the ambiguities and mysteries of existence. Through photo collage, Miele combines ancient texts and early scientific instruments with images of sea and sky to create poetic visual summaries about time, harmony, and knowledge. Miele uses these directional tools - maps, compasses, sextants - in ways meant to soothe modern anxiety about the unknown, creating images of "perfection" - perfect places, perfect moments, perfect knowledge. Calm, peaceful, and monochromatic, his work provides a sense of acceptance and continuity through links to the certainty of an imagined past. In Miele's work, the viewer becomes aware of how the comfort of certainty can be created with hazy barely-there whispers hinting at unknowns. Broader awareness of ambiguities and uncertainties remain just out of grasp in images that become visual maps of exploration and metaphors for existentialism.

Encouraging what he calls critical rebellion, Scott Griesbach reconceptualizes historical events by manipulating appropriated images in Portraits of Social Practice. Taking as his subjects the moments of possibility - when discoveries occur and paradigms shift - we see Marcel Duchamp in a hardware store purchasing a urinal, Jackson Pollock riding the winning "dark horse of abstraction" amidst artists of earlier "new" forms of painting, while Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud contemplate alienation and industrialization in a field full of cars and airplanes. Drawing from an awareness of history, philosophy, and the arts, Griesbach is reflexively aware of the how powerfully images communicate. Using technology to overtly play with image construction, his photographic collages re-create imagined moments while at the same time raising substantive questions about notions of progress and knowledge acquisition. Griesbach teases and taunts his viewers, challenging us to visually examine what we think we know and how that knowledge has come to us.

Standing between and among various interdisciplinary approaches to visual knowledge creation, contestation, mediation and advancement, such provocative artists invite viewers into reflexive contemplation about our contemporary image-saturated awareness of the world. In the hands of a renaissance style intellectuals like Chervinsky, Miele, and Griesbach, photographs are indeed the global language for engaging and challenging our perspectives, encouraging reflexive contemplation, and furthering our collective and individual insights.

Endnote: More about these photographers can be found at www.chervinsky.org, www.jeanmiele.com, and www.scottgriesbach.com. Information about Visual Studies at University of Houston is available at www.visualstudies.uh.edu.
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