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The Journal of Aesthetic Education 37.2 (2003) 114-121
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TRANSFORMING IMAGES: HOW PHOTOGRAPHY COMPLICATES THE PICTURE, by Barbara E. Savedoff. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2000, 233 pp., $35.00 hardcover.
The very title of Barbara Savedoff's book invites us on a journey into photography's multiple roles. Photographic images transform their subjects at the same time that they themselves are the results of transformations. They also complicate comfortable distinctions between fact and fiction because the world from which they come is complicated.
This book appears at a time full of fear (felt by some) and excitement (felt by others) sparked by digital image-making, in which the culture of photography is undergoing transformations of its own. It is a passionate time, with some unwilling to throw the still photograph into the "defunct" pile, while others are all too ready to do so. The limits and possibilities of the still photograph need to be redefined if it is going to have any meaning to anyone anymore.
Through the din of voices, through the heated discussions, Savedoff's voice rings clear. Her meditations on the nature of still photography and its relation to the pictorial forms that preceded it (painting, drawing, printmaking) and proceed from it (film, digital photography) are written in a style that seeks to include, not exclude the reader. Art is complicated enough. Writing about art need not complicate it further.
Savedoff focuses her inquiry on the way photographs transform works of art and other representations. From the insight that this specificity allows, she attempts to build a more general account of photographic transformation. First, she examines the fascination in Western painting — a fascination that has been influenced by legends and literature — with the idea that representations are alive or can come to life. She begins with paintings that actually illustrate such legends. Then she goes on to paintings where the distinction between the "real" and the "represented" is ambiguous. One such type she calls "gestural ambiguity," found frequently in Northern Renaissance and late Italian Renaissance paintings, "where figures that are given the placement and coloring of stone statues are at the same timegiven the expressive aspect or functions of living beings. Artworks are depicted as though they were alive" (p. 14). Another type, "perceptual ambiguity," is found in Postimpressionist paintings, when artworks and "real" things are painted in the same manner (p. 24). The latter type of ambiguity is created when paintings or sculptures within a painting are depicted in a styleand scale similar to their surroundings, blurring the distinction between what is "real" and what is "represented" in the painting.
Savedoff uses some excellent examples in analyzing these ambiguities. And just when the reader begins [End Page 114] to question whether, if there are different ways of achieving ambiguity in paintings of artworks, there must also be different purposes for each, Savedoff addresses precisely this. "In paintings from the Renaissance to Impressionism," she writes, "ambiguity is used to further an ideal of illusionism in art: the artwork is shown as capable of life or at least of being confused with real things" (p. 30). Although this kind of ambiguity may animate representations within the painting, it does so without casting doubt on the status of the "real" things depicted. In contrast, ambiguity used in Postimpressionist paintings were done so for quite a different effect: "to undermine any tendency of the painting toward illusionism and to undercut the status of the 'real' things depicted" (p. 30).
Although she critiques the nature and purpose of ambiguity in paintings thoroughly, when Savedoff addresses ambiguity in photography her conclusions are not as well defended. In photography, she writes, "perceptual ambiguity"— that is, the blurring of the distinctions between people and representations — can result from the nature of the medium itself: "the stillness, the flatness, and, in black and white photographs, the limitation of monochrome values" (p. 43). A deliberate choice of angle, framing, and lighting by the photographer can alsoreduce the differences. "Gestural ambiguity" in photography, she continues, can be created when the photographer juxtaposes...