What I mean is the following: the technology photographs appear full of—in effect charged with—the evidence of human intentions. That is, we do not doubt for a moment that every wire, every length of tubing, every switch, diode, transistor, condenser, resistor, amplifier, oscillator, and voltage regulator…every electronic device and accessory however small and inconspicuous, was positioned where it is shown to be by a human agent or a team of human agents so as to bring about a nested series of specific outcomes. At the same time, equally crucial to my account, no matter how hard or closely or committedly one looks one is absolutely unable to grasp either the larger, overarching purpose of the tokamak itself…or for that matter the lesser, partial purposes of the individual devices and their connections.
But there are many ways to be an intentionalist. Time is always limited, of course, but each of the various historical predecessors I sketched a moment ago offers distinct nuances, and mentioning them reminds us of the sheer variety of positions—about what’s possible, about where the challenges lie, about where the accent should go—that have been available to thinkers trying to understand intentions in a material world.
Meaning in art (what you have actually done and said) slips away from the artist’s ranges of control within the environment, for example, of the unprecedented circulation of commodities. But instead of allowing meaning and intention to be coopted, predictably and inevitably, the artists Michaels admires evacuate the work of emotional, affective, or personal forms of address preemptively, as though anti-pathos and anti-sentiment were a shield or defense.
We should be struck by the similarity between Davidson’s position and the Tractarian one that Anscombe rejects. Both positions depict the core of agency (either “willing” or “primitive action”) as on one side of a divide and the world (the results, the wider descriptions) as on the other, with the connection between these things depicted as something further that a human agent must presume but is powerless to effect. And this is exactly the opposite of Anscombe’s own view.
How to represent—or, better, to create—“sensation” in a painting? The challenge was to introduce the experience of external and internal simultaneously. Further complication: the demand would have to be met without losing the active presence of the living artist, that is, without reducing the process to a mechanism. A problem for photography: even when it exhibited blur, it suffered the slur of appearing mechanistic. A satisfying image of nature would need to incorporate, on the one hand, nature’s essential animation, and, on the other hand, the animation associated with the living, sensing being of the artist—the artist as both sensing nature and recording this sensation.
In spite of the historical and ethical difficulties these photographs pose, I would argue that the hesitations are worth overcoming, as the images have a great deal to teach us about the power immanent in the very act of posing for a picture, even when the imagined audience remains unseen. Through the photographs made at the Holloway Sanatorium, a modicum of agency may have been granted to those who were generally presumed to be without it. And thus, even if only for the span of time it took to stage and take the photograph, a highly vulnerable person could resist being reduced to the category of specimen, and could become, instead, a subject.
The Anscombian response to this worry is that it’s a mistake to break the act down into component parts, a mistake to think of the intention as something that’s outside of the physical act, either as its cause or as a mental state existing either prior to or alongside it. That’s why she says your hug isn’t given its meaning by the words “you silly little twit” “occur[ring]” to you while you embrace your old acquaintance, they have to be “seriously meant.” And you could mean the hug to be ironic even if you were thinking only affectionate thoughts at the time you administered it, or thinking nothing at all. The correct answer to the question, “why did you hug him?” would still be, to show my contempt.
Combine a deflationary theory of photographic agency with a richly intentionalist approach to understanding what photographers mean by making photographs. We are now equipped to make sense of Winogrand’s practice of discovery. The photographer takes a picture of a beggar on the street, not intending that the scene look precisely so. Its looking precisely so is his discovery—it goes to his credit, not the camera’s. At the same time, by making the photograph, he means to tell us something about the beggar and how we should see him. Maybe he also means to tell us something about being a photographer, who means by making, even as what he makes is not just what he means.
This is to say that the strictly documentary character of Adams’s work, which by and large claimed viewers’ attention at the time of New Topographics, has somewhat receded in importance. And it is also to suggest that the theoretical issue of the non-representational nature of the photograph as well as of the problematic status of the photographer’s intentions owing to the photograph’s indexicality…turns out to be not quite relevant to the present case. Or rather, more precisely, it is as if the “weak intentionality” of the photograph…turns out to throw into relief the extraordinary strength and efficacy of Adams’s esthetic perfectionism…with respect to the appearance of the final print, the esthetic artifact as such.
Indeed, over the course of the nineteenth-century, two temporalities became increasingly recognizable in modernizing societies. The “lived time” of premodern and natural cycles oriented to the sun, the tides, the moon became the “measured time” of the clock and the workday, of shipping times and railroads connecting major cities. Although the conventional view would have it that speed and instantaneousness decisively came to dominate with the advent of the railroad and the telegraph, a deeper analysis indicates that only a small percentage in the nineteenth century felt the rigors of measured time decisively undoing an older, natural time.