Narrative, photography and the monstrous

by bjmuirhead

What I want to talk about in this post is what we are actually looking at when we look at a photograph, and how we understand it. In order to do this I am using a piece of work which I disagree with in many important respects: William Brown’s paper The Pre-Narrative Monstrosity of Images: how images demand narrative.

A photograph shows us something, because it is a photograph of something; i.e., there is what is called an indexical relationship between the photographic image and what was `in front of’ the camera. This relationship is one where we can say that

the light and shadow that are impressed on to a strip of celluloid [or a digital sensor] are indices or traces of real objects and people that were before the camera at the time of the images making. (p 45)

It is this relationship which leads to talk of the transparency of the photographic image, to the idea that what we are seeing is exactly what was there at the time and that it is understood easily, simply because we see a record of it. Despite all the philosophic work that has been done  in aesthetics about this issue by many philosophers (e.g., Roger Scruton, Joanthan Friday, Scott Walden, and more), this is a fairly simplistic view: it was there, it was photographed, and now I see it.

     Photography has been linked to knowledge in this way since it began, as has cinema. In early cinema, however, it was common for there to be narrators who would tell the audience  what was being shown in the movie. The notion seems to have been that images are inherently ambiguous, and so the narrator functioned, firstly, to help the audience comprehend exactly what they were seeing and, secondly, to fix the meaning of the images for the audience. Narrative disappeared as

cinema developed the syntax of continuity editing, which itself allowed audiences, through further habituation, to understand or follow the meaning of the images without the help of a literal narrator. (Brown, p 50)

Brown discusses much which is specifically relevant to cinema and its history before distinguishing between images which show and images which narrate. Narrative images, he says, are relatively easy to follow, but images which merely show are more difficult because there is no necessarily implied meaning.  Concerning this Brown (p 50) says:

French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy has argued that all images are monstrous: that is, all images are incomprehensible to spectators, in that they lie outside of meaning. Images are monstrous because upon initial viewing they do not make sense […] comprehension takes place after the conjunction of images and viewer, even if only microseconds after.

According to Brown (p 53) ‘showing’ (monstration) inheres in all images, and narrative (meaning) emerges later:

Images alone do not necessarily make sense, but when combined with other images or when considered over time, images begin to  have narrative qualities.

His argument here is that we derive , in part, our sense of existence via the linear perception of time, with the result that  ‘narrative necessarily follows perception.’ (p 53)

     For anyone who has read my earlier posts, it should be clear that Brown’s hard won conclusion is an obvious ‘truth’ in at least the sense that all explicit thought is narrative. It is our description (narration) of our tacit knowledge. Perhaps more importantly, however, is that there are at least two types of narration: there is narration as I have just used the term, meaning meaning the creation of explicit knowledge and thought, and there is narration in the sense of telling a story, which we can see simplistically as a matter of this is what happened, and then…

     In many ways this distinction is a bit of a nonsense, in that we also can understand, e.g., scientific theories as being a matter of this is what happened, and then that… and so we can say p is q under these circumstances. When the theories developed are believed to be wrong, is when they are thought to tell the wrong story, that the evidence in fact shows that another story (theory) is the better.

     In any event, it also is clear that narrative occurs on a tacit level also, prior to its being made explicit in some way. Just as clearly, this can be/is some type of visual thought. (See Rudolf Arnheim, who held the belief that vision possesses all of the major characteristics of explicit thought, and that vision—the process of seeing—should therefore be understood as thought. R.L. Gregory, of course, also is interesting in this respect.)

In any event, what irritates me about Brown’s paper, and what continues to prevent me bothering to look at writers like Nancy, is the mystification of a self-evident truth or two:

  1. Every image is unknown. This is obvious, and does not require the poetic descriptor monstrous.

  2. Telling a story, narration of one form or another, is and always will be the manner in which we understand the world, and the images we find in it.

Perhaps these are not as self-evident as I think they are; none the less it is much more accurate and less misleading to state the obvious truth that any and all images are unknown until we look at and recognise them, whether that recognition takes place in a microsecond or an hour.

     It also may be the case that I am being no more than peevish in an irritating old man fashion, and if that’s all it is, I’m quite happy with this also. None the less, onward—

Ambiguity and narrative

It’s well known that three witnesses to an event are likely to provide different answers to the question What happened? This also is the case to questions about what a photograph (image) shows and means. Ambiguity in photography does not need to be questioned, it merely needs to be accepted as being the way it actually is. Look, e.g., at this photograph of the New York model Kara Neko.


This image is ambiguous in so many ways. A small thin girl, apparently breastless in a huge bath tub—this is the beginning of a story which has little or nothing to do with the indexicality of the photograph. Clearly the model was there in a tub of water, and clearly a photograph was taken, but we know nothing else. We don’t know if it’s a self-portrait taken with tripod and timer, if it was taken by one person or if there was a support team present. Nor do we know her age or anything else about her.

What we do know, if we visit her web page, is the she clearly is a professional, or at least very experienced model with breasts, attitude and photographs for sale. But if we don’t know any of this, and even if we do, the ‘meaning’ of the photograph is ambiguous and open to any story we wish to create.

Needless to say, I chose this particular photograph as an example because of its obvious ambiguity bodily and facially; what are we to make of her expression, after all? Is it fear? Surprise? Is she just about to tell her lover to piss off with that camera? There are many possible interpretations of her facial expression, and it all depends on what we bring to the viewing of the image rather than what we take from our viewing. In this respect, a part of the creation of narratives out of photographs like this is that they often are based on a quick look rather than a long gaze. When we look thoughtfully at the photo, it becomes obvious that the woman in the tub is older, i.e., that she is not a child. (Any initial assumption to the contrary is based on the presumption that adult women all have —largish—breasts that we can see at all times, and takes no account of those women who are flat chested even after pregnancy and childbirth.)

Another reason for choosing this photograph as an example is its potential for monstration beyond our immediate perception. Before we see it, this photograph is unknown (monstrous) in the ordinary, banal sense. When we look at it, it continues to be unknown (monstrous) in the sense that we don’t immediately know what is being shown. We need to create a story (narrative/description) that explains the photograph to us in a manner which we find acceptable individually. For some it may be moral outrage because they assume the model is a child, or because they believe that all photographs of naked women are oppressive and exploitative; for others it may be sexual (it may be an image which matches a sexual fantasy of theirs, or which matches actual sexual behaviour, be it lying in the bath tub or standing next to it); for others it may be that they look long and hard and enjoy the shapes and lines and tones of the image; for others…

Whichever is the case, it is clear that each viewer will bring their own understanding of the world, their own fears and anxieties, to the photograph and, in the process, will give their own ‘meaning’ to it.

The point about this is that ambiguity is inevitable. Artists are, or should be, renowned for their use of this ambiguity, for the manner in which the ambiguity of the photograph is manipulated.

Ambiguity in a photograph isn’t a problem, especially in art, unless we impose a truth value on it. But, of course, this is what we so often do; we say It looks like this and we believe this, so it must be this. The truth value that is imposed, viz., that it is in fact what we tell ourselves it is, in many if not all cases is external to the image itself.

The point is that humans like certainty, but a photograph is inherently uncertain (ambiguous), and in order to give ourselves certainty we tell ourselves a story which we know is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but a fiction we use to give us the illusion of the truth, the whole truth…

It is this lack of certainty alone which may justify the use of the term ‘monstrous’ in terms of images, and this lack of certainty is something we never can be rid of, except, perhaps, by long contemplation of the image without the intrusion of too much prejudice and thought.

I want to finish this post by showing (sic) one of my favourite ambiguous photographs by Bill Henson.

     What do you make of this photograph? Be careful now, your thoughts will betray you to yourself. Fortunately, only you will know.

Untitled 2011-2012

Bill Henson, Untitled #4, 2010/2011

What do I think? Perhaps I’ll tell you another time, if I can find words for the knowledge within.