Noun, Verb, Subject, Object: A Grammar of Representation – or Photographic Fiction and Painted Truth
A maxim of popular culture and discourse is that photography represents an objective viewpoint of a particular snapshot in time. This understanding is reinforced by the notion that “photoshopped” images are “fake”, thus rendering the unedited photograph, in booleanic fashion, as “true”. This perception is intensified when considering historical photographs, particularly those documenting the Holocaust. The binarity of black and white, both chromatically and conceptually, presents an apparent affirmation of truth and objectivity. Not only the larger public, but even experienced historians often fall prey to this false dichotomy. Photography is an objective art, but in a different sense.
A photograph is objective in a grammatical sense – the result of a grammatical construct consisting of a subject (the photographer), a verb (the action of photographing) and an object (that being photographed). These parts can further be modified by other grammatical components – adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, etc. – each of which influence the final outcome. Discerning this process is fundamental to understanding historical photography in general and Holocaust photography in particular – because photography is, by virtue of prevalence, by far the most common form of visual testimony to the Holocaust. Such prevalence, however, does not necessarily comport to honesty or accuracy. This is largely because the structure of Holocaust photography is dominated by the fact that the grammatical subjects (the photographers) are almost always the perpetrators, who choose the adverbs that circumscribe their actions and the adjectives that paint their objects. Opposing or contradictory viewpoints are almost not found in the visual history of the Holocaust, except in one medium – the graphic arts – which was available, in very limited form, to the Jewish objects/victims of the Holocaust.
This highly visual presentation examines the difference in grammatical structure between perpetrator photographs and victim artworks, and their corresponding representation of the reality of the Holocaust.