Visual Irony

Irony is easily my favorite literary mode. In my mind, it adds a wonderful uncertainty to a text when one cannot quite fix the intention or position of what is being said into a stable form. But how does irony work in photography?

To come nearer to an answer to this question, we need to figure out what irony is in general. I do by no means pretend to be able to give an extensive account of the phenomenon, but some basic considerations would be in place.

First of all, irony is connected with contradiction or opposition. When I am meeting my friend on a rainy day, I can say: “Nice weather!”, and he will know me to not mean it. In fact, I am saying precisely the opposite of what I mean, or, perhaps slightly more technically framed, I express meaning by contradicting my original intention. I do, paradoxically, (truly) say by ‘un-saying’ what I am (actually) saying. In everyday situations, the intention behind my irony is usually available to the observer or listener without putting too much strain on his/hers deductive or interpretative capacities, though the relative hermeneutical complexity of a sentence like “Nice weather!” as opposed to “Bad weather!” in a situation where it is raining does lead to an increased risk of being misunderstood.

Of course, this risk is greatly increased as the ironic structures becomes more complex. In a novel, for instance, the whole plot or character development can be part of an ironic structure where these single elements signify and create meaning by contradicting an intention, which the reader needs to figure out during the process of reading. Moreover, perhaps there is not just one such intention, but a plethora of voices or positions, which the author intends to give resonance through the ironic structure. In such cases, the question of the intention of the author or the meaning of the text (pick one or both, according to your liking) becomes highly complex and difficult to answer unequivocally. Perhaps, in some cases, the intention or meaning cannot be found to amount to anything more than the process of un-saying itself.

When it comes to photography, I am sure that this general structure of irony can be applied or visualized in a number of ways. One obvious type of visual irony is the mere documentation or depiction of an ironic relation, as for instance a photograph of a car parked immediately in front of a ‘No Parking’ sign. While such photographs are good at catching the attention of the viewer due to their ‘fun’ and often spirited nature, I personally find that they quickly exhaust my interest as an observer because their meaning is so easily discernible.

Lately, I have been playing with what I consider another modality of visual irony, the intentional framing of other ‘visible’ photographs or images within the photograph itself:

Untitled #6

In what sense is this photograph ironic? Well, for one thing it rests upon the depicted contradiction or opposition between the availability of the imaginary subject (the photograph of a woman) and the unavailability of the real subject (the face of the man). Moreover, the gaze of the woman (or the gaze of the photograph) fixates the man (who does not gaze, at least not visibly) and thus turns him into an object, questioning his status as the actual subject of the photograph. This relation mirrors or reflects (again these visual metaphors, which are by no means innocent) the ‘gaze’ of the camera, which records what is put before it. The true subject of the photograph thus becomes the act of photographing in itself, an activity whose humanistic, mimetic, and naturalistic aspirations are rendered questionable by the resulting image. The photograph, through its structure of depiction, insists on the importance of what is depicted, but what we ‘see’ in the photograph is nothing but the act of depiction itself, doubled, reflected, and distorted. The photograph at once states the importance and the unimportance of itself.

Here is another example, which contains an additional layer of complexity:

Jens Joel for Mayor

At first glance, the photograph merely depicts an irony unfolded before our eyes, the poster recommending Jens Joel as a candidate for the national elections. The poster has been altered and somewhat defamed by an unknown joker, who is absent from the photograph. We see only his trace, which is available to all observers. But to truly understand the irony of the poster, the observer must possess information or knowledge, which is not obviously derivable from the photograph: One must know that the poster is an advertisement connected with the national parliamentary elections, but that the candidate had previously been involved with city politics (thus the irony of the “for mayor”); and one must know of the Danish comedian Martin Brygmann (the name written on top of the name of Jens Joel) and recognize the uncanny visual resemblance between the picture of Jens Joel and Brygmann (and thus the likeness between the politician and the comedian). Without this prior knowledge, the depicted irony of the poster would be invisible.

And yet there is another irony in the photograph, which is not restricted to the altered poster but concerns the relation between the poster and the man next to it and turned away from it. Here, we are invited to consider the status of a culture fully infused with and resigned to visual or imaginary representation. Posters line the street, and man has literally plugged his ears and restricted his epistemic relation with the world to the ocular. He is turned away from the photograph on the poster, but still mimics the forced smile depicted there, almost habitually, unconsciously. Man has become the representation of the image, and not the other way around. Ironically, a culture so vehemently dedicated to the visual, no longer sees the irony in the picture, does not notice the poster, which it blindly mimics, the poster ironically defamed and altered, no longer representing truly, itself an irony, completely unreliable. And even more ironically: We need a photograph to show us the unreliability of the photographs on which we daily depend.

The real irony governing the contemporary reproduction of the visual is that the photograph has become photography’s worst enemy. In a world where pictures are everywhere, where billboards line the streets and decorate the windows, where billions of images are uploaded and shared through social networks each day, where social and private space (both virtual and physical) is saturated with pictures, how can photography stand out and show us something of importance? How can photography challenge the hegemony of the picture and reveal the human, a structure of forces not reducible to the imaginary? How can the photograph be re-infused with humanism, however limited or restricted this humanism would appear? These questions, I think, will form the central challenge of present and future photographers.

Ironically, there appears to be an easy solution to the struggle between photography and the photograph. Faced with the proliferate and mindless spreading of images, the blindness imposed by a visual culture, and the dehumanization effected by the reversal in the structures of representation (where I represent my picture, and not the other way around), the truly wise and ‘humane’ thing to do would be to put away the camera and stop producing pictures. But, while capable of everything within the frames of his activity, that is the one thing the photographer cannot do.


(These are only a few cursory examples and considerations regarding the employment of irony in photography. I you, dear reader, know of other examples, photographs or thoughts concerning this subject, please throw us some links in the comments. Cheers.) 

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