Capturing time: reproduciblity, the real, and photography

Capturing time: reproduciblity, the real, and photography

Vittoria Somaschini


Sally Mann, Family Pictures, #3


As we have worked through various themes throughout the course of the semester that encompassed varying art movements such as pop art and postmodernism, concepts of appropriation, remix culture, and globalization, one of the topics that I have been most drawn to is photography, and questions of its ability to capture and reproduce moments in time and history. Photography literally means to draw with light from the Greek, photo meaning light and graph, meaning to draw. The photograph initially developed on monochrome plates using a variety of noxious chemicals to produce the image and as it has moved forward with technological, it went from black and white to color, and now to the wild world of digital image production.

Around 1800, the first attempts of photography are recorded as Thomas Wedgewood discovers the camera obscura, however, it is not until 1827 that the first recorded photograph comes into existence by French inventor, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. The inception of the photograph began as a method to capture moments of culture importance in a person’s life, such as birth, marriage, and death. Much in the way traditional painted portrait sought to capture similar moments, the photograph was able to do so in a fair quicker and easier way. It’s popularity rose in the mid-1800’s and its uses moved from strictly capturing families but also as a mode to capture history. Technological advances brought he advent of digital photography in 1969 at AT&T Bell Labs, however, it was not until 1975 that Kodak develops it’s Bayer filter. We see kodak as the front runner of photography, as they release campaigns to encourage users to produce “Kodak moments”. In 1992, the first digital photo, by Tim Berners-Lee was published to the internet, and since there has been a clear movement to archive photographs and make them all digital, both out of preservation, and out of the goal of sharing.  Moving forward into the age of the digital, the photograph has made leaps and bounds as companies such as Sony in the 1980’s released the first handheld personal camera, as that the act of photographing the world was no longer a form of art but rather part of the mundane. Today, they are ever more present as most handheld devices – outside of the actual digital camera – such as a mobile phone or even the iPod come equipped with cameras. .

I would like to continue exploring photography and examine photographs and their relation to reality, time, and reproducibility in the digital era. If we look at a photographer such as Hiroshi Sugimoto, what do his photographs tell us about the ability of the very medium to capture a moment of time? Do high levels of aperture equate a photo that captures reality or is it a question of traditional versus non-digital photography as we see with Sally Mann? Does living in the digital age redefine what it means to produce and  reproduce an image? Can a digital image be reproduced as it’s ‘original’ version is merely a copy?  Do the codes of the image move forward or have cyclical nature looking backwards in history to reproduce a forgotten moment?

To work through some of these questions, I will be using the work of theorists such as Jean Baudrillard, Umberto Eco, Andre Bazin, Henri Cartier-Bresson. Some of the photographers that I will be examining include Sally Mann, Robert Mapplethorpe, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Jimmy Nelson, and Judith Joy Ross. These photographers have been selected because of their focus on portraits as their subject matters. Each of these photographers examines different modes of meaning that is coded within their images, however, if placed together the photographs are still a collection of portraits that capture the venerability of the human subject mediated by the lens.

Theorists, Photographers, and their work

In Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Statement on Photography, he offers a thought that, “the camera is a sketch book, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity, the master of the instant which – in visual terms – questions and decided simultaneously”(Cartier-Brennson, 1). If we accept this is as the true manifestation of the camera, perhaps then, this is why we as viewers its believe that even staged photos are in fact spontaneous moments that the photographer has captured and that they  encompass a larger reality.  A juxtaposition exists when we examine traditional photographic methods and digital photography the product of both changes the moment in history as one that captures a singular moment to one that captures hundreds of frames. Capturing frame upon frame offers the photographer and the audience what could be considered raw moments of spontaneity, as multiple frames give the photographer the freedom to play with the very form of capturing an image, whereas traditional photographic methods must be staged to some degree, as there is only one frame in which the photograph can be captured. The digital medium gives a photographer the infinite ability to capture moments in time and history, whereas traditional mediums of photography are limited to number of frames and thus give the photographer a finite ability to capture the same moments in time and history.

Sally Mann, and Judith Joy Ross work with non-digital modes of photography or as some would consider them “traditional” modes of capturing images. Mann works with plates, and Ross works with silver prints and an 8×10 -view camera. Their work captures different sorts of codes, embedded in their subject matter, which in both the case of Mann and Ross, it is the act of capturing portraits.  The wet plates and the use of an 8×10 camera equate a new mode of understanding the codes within these photographs. Some of Mann’s photography projects read as antique, while others still have a sense of capturing real moments in a specific historical moment, such as those of her children at the lake house. The photographs of both Mann and Ross capture the venerability of portrait work and a nostalgia of a historical moment that can no longer exist as time as moved forward. Those of Ross similarly capture what read as raw moments of human vulnerability. These images are staged moments, as Mann and Ross  are attempting to capture a moment in a specific history, but rather becomes the driving factor of their work as it commands what reality they are able to capture and produce.



Judith Joy Ross

Simulacra, likeness or similarity, is fundamental as we examine photography, as the photograph is capturing the likeness of reality. In Baudrillard’s work, Simulacra and Simulation, he examines the way through which simulacra effects representations of reality. He states, “therefore, pretending, or dissimulating, leaves the principle of reality intact: the difference is always clear, it is simply masked, whereas simulation threatens the difference between the “true” and the “false,” the “real” and the ‘imaginary’” (Baudrillard, 4). A component of simulacra and its direct application in photography is the coding through which we are socialized to understand that the photograph is not merely a likeness of reality, but a manifestation of the real through a particular medium. Portraiture and images such as Sugimoto’s capture the simulacra of reality, and yet convey a particular moment of reality in time and history.

Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photography has varying motifs that deal with questions of introspection such as capturing the horizon, or taxonomic scenes at the American Natural History Museum in New York City. However, some of his most captivating images are part of a photo series through which he examines time. Sugimoto captures time by taking a photo of a film, a series of captured moving images, by setting a high aperture through the entire duration. I chose to include this set of work, as I find that it represents a portrait of modern America as the Mecca of Hollywood culture. Aperture is a technique throughout which the lens is opened  or closed to adjust the amount of light that enters the camera, which affects the depth of field of an image as well. A crucial part of understanding Sugimoto’s photographs of the cinema is the fact that he does not give the audience the name of the feature film that he has captured, but rather simply the location and year in which it captured, so as to say that the subject is irrelevant, and that the image instead reflects the movement of time.


Robert Mapplethorpe, much like Sugimoto, composes introspective photographs that capture time and history. His images depict moments within life, often with shock value, as the premise behind his work is to question time. His series of photos that capture naked human bodies display the symmetry within nature and much like those of flowers they capture specific moments of physical perfection. His photographs serve as proof of the fleeting nature of humanity, the enduring nature of culture, and display much like the work of Mann, and Ross, the vulnerability of the human condition.



Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait 1988

Similarly to Mann and Ross, the subject of Mapplethorpe’s work is portraiture. He worked with celebrities as a method of capturing the cultural and historical moment of the seventies and eighties. One of his most recognized images is a self portrait, that Mapplethorpe captured at the end of his life, as he was staring death in the face. In spite of the fact that the reader through codes, and the photographer through acknowledging that this photo is in fact staged, it is able to capture an instance of raw reality. The contrast of a living person and the silver skull topping Mapplethorpe’s cane, is vivid, as Mapplethorpe actually resembles the skull because of how gaunt and sickly he appears. The image becomes a striking moment of mortality, capturing how fleeting life can be.

Mapplethorpe’s self portrait much like the photographs of Mann and Nelson address questions of the codes of reality. Do the codes of the image move forward or have cyclical nature looking backwards in history to reproduce a forgotten moment? Do we see this with portraits such as the work of Sally Mann, the Family of Mann or photo projects such as Jim Nelson’s Before They Pass? Do these codes carry through because we are enculturated into them to understand them as moment of reality rather than posed moments? To answer these  questions of the ways in which we understand images through socialization and  the process of enculturation, we must first examine the semiotics and the cultural encyclopedia that code photographs as well as other forms of art. Borrowing from semiotics, we can turn to the work of Umberto Eco, the prominent Italian linguist, as he states,

When a text is produced not for a single addressee but for a community of readers – the author knows that he or she will be interpreted not according to his or her intentions but according to a complex strategy of interactions which also involve the readers, along with their competence in language as a social treasury…. I mean by social treasury not only a given language as a set of grammatical rules, but also the whole encyclopedia that the performances of that language have implemented, namely the cultural conventions that that language has produced and the very history of the previous interpretations of many texts, comprehending the text that the reader is in the course of reading. (Eco, 67-68).

Examining a photo project, such as Jimmy Nelsons’ work in Before They Pass, uses this understanding of the cultural encyclopedia to code the images that he produces as they have specific meaning within the cultural encyclopedia both for the author and the reader. His work exposes the reader to a set of documentary like photographs of indigenous tribe members across the globe. Nelson chose to place his subjects in poses that mimic past anthropological photos taken of tribes during the turn of the century, as the use of photography in anthropology became a vastly important part of ethnographic research around 1860. By placing his subjects in these poses, there is a nod to the past, while looking forward. It has a jarring affect because the viewer is able to make reference to images that they have been previously exposed to, as there are semiotic signs coded in these images.


Jim Nelson, Vantu #8

In Nelson’s image of a group of Vantu men, appear to be walking in traditional garb either to or from a hunt. The photograph captures cultural tradition within the Vantu tribe, but it is also able to carry forward the traditions that still exist outside of these remote tribes, such as gendered roles and the meanings of masculinity. Furthermore, these images tap into a deeper cultural encyclopedia and knowledge of a moment in prehistoric time in which all of humanity lived as hunter-gathers.  Although the reader can confirm that image appears posed  – as much of Nelson’s work though documentary in nature, is but a staged recreation of traditions for the sake of documentation – the image is loaded with codes of the real.


The photograph in the post-digital world continues to serve the same function as it was originally intended for, as it captures the simulacra of reality to preserve moments in time and history, whether these moments are introspective in the case of Mapplethorpe and Sugimoto, or simply a mode to capture humanity in the case of Ross and Mann. As the digital continues to become more and more expansive as the main mode of capturing images, it will redefine the reality of the image in its literal production and what it reproduces.


Baudrillard, Jean.Simulacra and Simulations“. Simulacra and Simulation, 1981; English trans., 1988.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Photography: A Middle-Brow Art.

Cartier-Bresson,Henri. “Statement on Photography“.1933.

Eco, “The Theory of Signs and the Role of the Reader.”

Editors of Phaidon Press, The Photography Book, Mini Edition. Phaidon Press, 2000.

Irvine, Pop and Appropriation Art and the Encyclopedia

Krauss,Rosalind. “A Note on Photography and the Simulacral,” October 31 (1984),

Mann, Sally. 2010.

Mapplethorpe, Robert. 

MoMA. “Judith Joy Ross. Untitled, from Eurana Park, Weatherly, Pennsylvania (1982).” Web. 14 Dec. 2013.

Nelson, Jim. Before they pass away.

Wikipedia. “History of Photography.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia 11 Dec. 2013. Web.

Wikipedia. “Photography.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia 5 Dec. 2013. Web.