In the context of beginning the process of writing a book based on my practice-led research for PhD, I have been reflecting on how my philosophical turn away from phenomenology at the end of my MA and towards Graham Harman’s Object-Oriented Ontology (2018) has influenced or changed my practice.
In broad philosophical terms, the shift I made was very significant. Rather than dwell in the world of visual presence, sensory perception, and experience, which is one most photographers would relate to, I took the bold step to focus on the ephemeral reality of Being and whether it was possible, through photographic praxis to glimpse that reality behind the veil of presence. I speak of this change as being one where I moved from Subject-Oriented to Object-Oriented Photography, a shift inspired by Harman’s ontology and my practice-led research.
This was a seismic shift in how I considered and viewed the world, the intention of my photographic work, and the way I viewed the camera as an instrument uniquely placed to achieve my aims and objectives. Introducing ontology into my research meant that I took a step back from epistemology to the reality on which everything else is based and included consideration of the metaphysical implications of my photographic praxis in the ongoing recursive nature of my research. Furthermore, my commitment to the flat ontology of Harman led me to a significant change in my worldview – a world of objects where all deserve equal attention (described by Levi Bryant (2011) as “the democracy of objects”) whether they are human or non-human, large or small, real, or imaginary. A world while sounding somewhat fanciful, it was a world where I potentially felt more comfortable in the company of trees, reeds, and mountains.
It was a world where all objects could be divided into the sensory and real, and through which essence or allure might become accessible. I described this shift in my thinking as taking a leap in the dark. Harman’s Fourfold Model provided me with a visual and theoretical depiction of the world that I inhabit (the sensory), alongside the world I was seeking to reveal (the real). Harman’s reference to “essence” and the “more than” of an object confirmed to me that my aim was not without hope and might be achieved with my trusty camera that could reduce space and freeze time – something as humans, we are unable to do. Although, Harman was at pains to warn of the challenges of my quest:
“Reality is the rock against which our various ships always founder, and as such it must be acknowledged and revered, however elusive it may be.” (Harman 2018 p6).
Ultimately, Harman’s Fourfold Model led me to the understanding, through my practice, of the route to allure through the Sensory Object and via the Real Qualities of the Real Object.
More specifically, Harman’s emphasis on metaphor (in turn derived from Ortega) as a means of approaching essence has widened my understanding of how it can be used as a tool to allude to something that is not directly accessible. In literature and art, metaphor is a way of pointing or signifying a Real Quality, and in photography, it does this, I suggest, in the following ways: metaphor draws you into the Real Object, it alludes to qualities beyond the literal and reveals a paradox in Being both true and false at the same time. Metaphor might take the form of a comparison between two objects or ideas or something more significant as Harman explains below:
“. . . metaphor satisfies us precisely because in it we find a coincidence between two things that is more profound and decisive than any mere resemblance.” (Harman, 2018 p73).
Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida (1980) spoke of several functions of the photograph including to represent and surprise and also “to cause to signify” (1980 p28). Metaphor is a significant driver in my photography represented through the Onion Diagram signifier Analogous Awareness. It has featured significantly in my choice of subjects, such as the reeds and the lone silver birch tree where I allude to the fragility and resilience of an island, and the power of nature in a hostile climate.
The influence of Harman in the development of my practice is more tenuous. But I believe that some of the drivers that existed previously have been elevated and others have been derived by changes in my practice consequent upon the search for allure in my images. While wildlife photography might be considered to be very different from the search for a glimpse of Being in the landscape, on reflection, it may be more similar than I first thought. While wildlife may seem opportunistic, in some cases it is achieved after a long time in the field watching and waiting. In the landscape of Skye, similarly, I spend deep time, observing, learning, attending, and drifting into a state of awareness waiting for that glimpse to emerge. The search for allure has slowed me down, and my photographic practice too, such that I can drift into a state of non-conscious awareness that I call dwelling or Zonal Flow, where my camera’s operation is intuitive rather than conscious or intentional. I would characterise this change from attention to awareness.
The change in focus from the sensory to the real, influenced by Harman, has also influenced the widening and deepening of the dimensions of my practice. Hitherto, I had considered my practice to include only the photographic act of pressing the shutter (the photographic moment), rather than those that are detailed in the visual heuristic below:
All of these dimensions, along with the signifiers of the Onion Diagram, contribute directly to achieving allure in my images.
And finally, I believe that Harman’s blend of Speculative Realism set me on a path that ultimately led me to question his articulation of Being. While he and Heidegger portrayed Being as something residing within an individual object, my practice has revealed an interiority and reality that is deeply entangled. There is a shared aspect to Being that applies to all objects. They are not only physically entangled but ontologically connected too – they have a shared reality. Returning to the lone silver birch tree where I first experienced Being aware of the Being of another, my practice has led me to relationships of one-to-many and many-to-many – many-to-many being ontological entanglement. Furthermore, while Harman speaks of how objects “touch without touching”, which he refers to as “vicarious causation”, a phenomenon residing in the sensory world, I speak of entanglement, which belongs in the realms of the “real” and the ontological, rather than the sensory.
Barthes, R. (1980). Camera Lucida – Reflections on Photography. London, Vintage.
Bryant, L. R. R. (2011). The Democracy of Objects. London, Open Humanities Press.
Harman, G. (2018). Object-Oriented Ontology – A New Theory of Everything. Milton Keynes, Pelican Books.