And furthermore ...

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Tuesday, 23 February 2010


Turkish snapshots from the 1920s to the 1960s

“The true content of a photograph is invisible.”
John Berger

“Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Lewis Carroll, Alice Through the Looking Glass

“It is an old maxim of mine that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet

Sherlock Holmes could be a pompous ass when he wanted to be. Once the impossible is eliminated, what remains is an infinite series of possibilities, any one of which could be the truth. And the truth isn’t the point. It’s enough to know that something might exist for it to be a reality. Watson may have been impressed by his friend’s colossal mind but any student of Poincaré and late 19th century mathematics would have demolished the ‘perfect reasoning and observing machine’s’ arguments in short time.

There are three participants in the taking of a photograph and they don’t have an agreeable relationship. What the photographer observes, the camera records and the viewer sees are never the same. A man poses for the snapper. The instrument records everything permitted within its frame. The viewer gets the man sure enough, but he has a tree growing out of his head. 

Logic is less concerned with what exists than it is with making the invisible apparent (the original use incidentally of photography). Holmes’ rationale says a tree can’t grow out of a person’s head. A mathematician may agree that it shouldn’t, but if we allow it to a realm of possibilities comes into existence. Assume the irrational, suddenly light can travel at different speeds and we have the special theory of relativity. 

Usually, when we look at a photograph our impulse is to see it through Holmes’ eyes, to reach a logical conclusion based on a combination of knowledge and evidence. The Holmes in our brain tells us there must be a rational explanation. The Poincaré in us however rejects mundane thinking and requires alternative possibilities. Once we do, we are free to imagine any number of situations that led up to the moment the photo was taken. The ones that don’t satisfy us aren’t necessarily the least likely.

Holmes liked enigmas so long as he could explain them but enigmas should resist explanation. They exist so we can think of other possibilities. He made no pronouncements on photography, nor claimed to have published a small monograph on the subject, but the suspicion is he would have regarded a photograph with skepticism if not deep mistrust. On this point he would have agreed with a student of pure mathematics. Photographs may be evidence of an event but despite appearances they are proof of nothing. That is why photographs are neither art, nor science, logic or rational philosophy but they can be all of them.


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