Part 1 – What Has Photography Done?

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In order to grasp what photography can do as an art today, I want to start with looking back, asking ourselves the question: what has photography done so far? What relevant lessons can we learn from photography’s past? Before which carts has photography been put – so to say – ever since it was invented? What intentions has it served, both within the art world and outside of it, in its relation to society? Reflecting on photography’s historical trajectory as an artistic medium is helpful when one wishes to imagine what photography’s future roles can be.

In my previous writings on the medium, I have proposed to distinguish between two models or two main trajectories that photography has followed in order to develop itself as an art. These two models are still operative today, and in each of them photography appears to serve quite diverging aims and interests.

The first model is the one within which photography has been able to develop itself into what Jean-François Chevrier has defined as ‘the exemplary form of autonomous pictorial art’ or the tableau. Jeff Wall, with his body of work a prominent actor within this model, has famously described this employment of photography in terms of a renewal of the ‘great Western Picture.’ The germs for this very evolution were present within the medium’s potentialities almost from the very start. Early on already, some sharp minds anticipated it indeed, among whom the eccentric yet highly visionary painter Antoine Wiertz. In the June 1855 issue of the Brussels-based journal Le National, he wrote: ‘Before one century there will be no more masons in painting: there will only be architects, that is painters in the largest possible sense of the word.’

We now know that much, though not all, of this predilection has proven true. Several painters, most prominently Gerhard Richter, have continued to successfully reinvent painting’s long-standing, handcrafted tradition. Yet, if we are to follow Michael Fried, it is photography that nowadays matters most as a, newly established painterly art. The formal conventions of this hybrid, composite ‘auratic art’ – in the Benjaminian sense of the term – are for example large-scale formats, technologically sophisticated color prints and limited editions (often only one). When Thomas Struth photographs important history paintings in his series of Museum Photographs (1989-1992), he overtly points at these works’ discursive link to the history of monumental painting.

But, as Julian Stallabrass has argued, what does this ‘museum photography’ achieve beyond the genesis of ‘museum prose,’ which – in his opinion – serves to ‘assure the status of its object of study for the museum and the canon’? The deliberate rarity of these object creates ‘an extraordinary environmental profligacy,’ as shipping costs are so high and the frequency of their travels all too intense in a globalized world that nevertheless desires to see the real thing itself. The world view contained in these images is dubious: they appear to somehow absorb the information about the reality they reveal into a synthetic visual totality with an all too often freestanding narrative dimension.

Finally, it is crucial to dwell upon the aberrant market prize for these works. Recently, a Gursky picture was sold for $4,3m. Andrea Fraser’s recent analysis of this phenomenon is clear: such works serve to create further wealth for the 1% richest patrons in the world. This model, which I have called the absorptive one, makes photography subservient to stylistic prescriptions, and appears to be posing acute threats for a truly democratic and environment-friendly image culture. Stronger, as Stallabrass writes, art here becomes a vehicle to keep democratic freedom itself at bay.

The second model overtly addresses this very threat. Sharply aware of photography’s chameleonic character, it nevertheless aspires to hold on to what it sees as photography’s greatest tool: its ability to offer subtle critical comments on the social and economic reality in which we live and thus actively take part in transformative social processes. This model, which I have called the intervening one, relies strongly on the engaged legacy of the documentary tradition in photography – while learning from its failures and, at the same time, keeping the best of it.

Allan Sekula is, together with Martha Rosler and several other contemporary artists working with photography (I will discuss some of them later on in this blog), one of this model’s epigones. In Sekula’s opinion, the photo is a material, tangible form of communication between the image and the reality it visually displays. The photo digs its critical potential out of this privileged relationship to reality. It really has to say something about it because it arises out of it. Photography in this model testifies to an attitude, a way of approaching reality, to a method: the artwork is not only the result of a committed process of investigation but also an actual, personally experienced record of it. The photographic image is an analytic, critical inscription of a reality it aspires to fathom.

In his statement for the 7th Berlin Bienniale, which he curates, Artur Źmijewski makes a strong case for an art that ‘makes its mark on reality, and opens a space where politics can be performed.’ This political change, he says, cannot be done by art alone. Art is but one of the many forces at play that work towards change, but a crucial one. Photography, given its peculiar Janus-like character, strikingly reveals the two diverging paths towards which visual art is currently developing.

Therefore, the careful examination of photographs is crucial today. And so is the discourse on photography, including our discussions, on this blog. I hope we can make them move beyond the safe distance of ‘museum prose’ while at the same time holding on to the museum as a space that is a privileged and facilitating ally. To Fraser, the – at least partly – publicly funded European museums are key actors in bringing about what she defines as ‘a new art field.’ I invite you to talk about these issues via this blog, in an environment-friendly, democratic (all comments are welcome!) and low-cost way.

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15 Comments

  1. Posted 1. June 2012 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this post, I completely agree with you in your analysis of the ‘absorptive’ mode of production, and believe that not only does it uphold certain problematics of the auratic art object and sectors of the inflated art market but, furthermore, restricts photography as an art medium itself, by bypassing the question of what the photograph actually is/does in favour of a retelling of Western pictorial tradition. Although Fried has argued that this kind of photographic art makes the pictorial surface more opaque and reveals the nature of the photographic image, I would have to argue the opposite, and suggests that it actually sidesteps the very question of how the photographic image functions both as a pictorial referent and a physical object in itself. The tableau is certainly not democratic! As for the function of the museum, we can see it here in London with institutes such as Tate Modern attempting to engage in a question of the photographic image, for instance with its recent display New Documentary Forms, however I feel that even then it was a little conservative and for the most part consisted of medium to large scale, autonomous framed photographs. I would like to see a heightened engagement with how the medium exists as an object, or as a physical thing that exists in space, as a way of analysing the nature of mediation that occurs in the reading of the photographic image.

  2. Jan-Erik Lundström
    Posted 2. June 2012 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    Never, it seems, has the market been so powerful in deciding the fate of works of art. The latest auction of classical masterpieces is immediate big global news, not the least the semi-perverse bid for “the highest price ever paid for a work of art” and lately auction-houses, in an equally semi-scandalous case, in Sweden, even entered the curatorial field, sponsoring exhibitions of artists, the works of which they are about to auction. Likewise the Basel Art Fair competes with Documenta in media attention, claiming its position as gatekeeper in the field. In this let’s say nervous climate, photography’s commercial position no longer seems solid, secured. Yes, there may be a recent Gursky-sale at seven-digit prices but overall photography has ceased its climb, as a medium, if we read current art market statistics, in terms of its market position. Its slow rise as a challenge to the classical media of painting and sculpture has been halted.

    Now, should this, even if correct, be of concern? Should we not simply claim that the artist works independently from market trends producing works of art she/he wants to communicate to the world, claiming positions and themes autonomously from the commerce and speculation in monetary value of art objects? For sure. Yet, attention to these issues is required at least for the kind of everyday pragmatic map we might then gain, not the least because we know that market phenomena will affect or influence the production of new work by artists. Or, simply, because these factors are helpful when navigating, even, in the world of meaning, of content, of expression, as it occurs in the present.

    Yet, given this obscene – and I mean this completely literally – power or influence of the market, one has to seek for the alternatives. Are there paths, practices that may avoid market paradigms?

    Thus, when looking at the diversity of practices within contemporary photography I am inclined to believe that photographic practices in and of themselves have resolved, or rather dissolved the dilemma of the opposition between an absorptive and interventionary mode, between straight and staged photography. It seems to me that photographers work along a fluid spectrum of options, possibilities, including the ways in which they make use of post-production capacities or, indeed, choreograph their work for the page or for the screen or for the exhibition.

    And I would think, as well, the critical potential, in terms of photographic practices is not restrained to aesthetic choices, but something which follows other parameters, such as, simply, the photographer’s ability to focus, articulate, reason, investigate a theme, topic, using all sorts of – or just any particular – modes of operation, interventionary and absorptive, staged and straight, conceptual and documentary, monolithic and polyvocal, you name it…

  3. David Campany
    Posted 3. June 2012 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Hilde,

    A couple of thoughts:

    If any image that invokes the photographic invokes the real, we can be sure that it will, sooner or later, end up being a document, no matter what its maker’s ambitions to the condition of the pictorial or tableau form. We can see this clearly enough from the historical fate of works made in earlier moments in photographic history (for example, Alfred Stieglitz’s ‘The Steerage’ could not, will not, ever be contained by the tableau-formalism that it has been held to embody, not least by its critics: it’s a complex historical document that requires a complex response). I’d argue that this somewhat scrambles the distinction you are making.

    Secondly would you like to tell us what the maximum weight and dimensions of a piece of photographic art should be? Perhaps we could try to have this enshrined in law. And would these be the same for works made in other media? I’m being flippant but this is the end logic implied by that particular line of your/Stallabrass’s critique.

    For a show I co-curated in Paris a couple of years ago (Anonymes at Le Bal), we had some of Walker Evans’ neglected image/text magazine works in the same room as Jeff Wall’s ‘Men Waiting’ (among other works). The Evans pieces were bought on eBay for about $200 dollars in total, and I took them to Paris from London the Eurostar. The vitrine in which they were exhibited cost Le Bal more. The Wall came from a collection in Mexico. We were hoping for an engagement that did not foreclose at dismissing the Wall for being ‘big and heavy’ and appreciating the Evans for being ‘small and light’. Should it have foreclosed there?

    David Campany

  4. Jörg Scheller
    Posted 3. June 2012 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

    It is interesting that Hilde has mentioned the 7th Berlin Biennial in connection with the Janus-like character of photography. What Artur Źmijewski has actually proposed, is to use art as a tool again; a tool built for direct impact on life―the good old avant-garde mantra. However, if art becomes a tool, no matter how ethically urgent and politically salient it may be, it looses its Janus-like qualities―it is assimilated by those conditions which it intends to dissect.

    In its beginnings, photography was not regarded as art per se and thus on the safe side, so to speak, although it was constantly compared to painting (the classical paragone game). “The pencil of nature” (Talbot) served as a tool to capture and to preserve moments in life, whereas the classical modes of art production such as painting or sculpture were considered as creative techniques to (re-)interpret life (S. Kracauer). To some extent, these estimations are still notorious today.

    So here we go with two clichéd types of (art-)tools. The first one is active and intervening, leaving a mark on reality. However, it is always in danger of being absorbed by that reality which it seeks to modify. That’s the dilemma of the heroic avant-garde. The second one is passive and absorbtive, merely receiving the mark of reality in an affirmative manner (in a technological, but also, with regard to the power structures Hilde has mentioned, in a political and economic sense). Thus it is always in danger of becoming tautological and redundant. That’s the modernist understanding of allegedly lame bourgeois art, or the common notion of the indifference of technology.

    If photography in fact is to be characterized by its Janus-like qualities, however, it can neither be considered as intervening OR absorbtive. As Jan-Erik has pointed out, the good thing about photography is that it has, as a genuine go-between, precisely “dissolved the dilemma of the opposition between an absorptive and interventionary mode”. The quality of being “absorbtive” and/or “intervening” can not be explained in terms of aesthetics, style, formats, media, or motives only, but rather in terms of specific modes of “handling” photography. Photography offers plenty of options and contexts, sometimes more than one can handle.

    In this regard, the current notion of photography shares a similar fate as the notion of the archive: “The archive is no longer just the monolithic entity, which theorists like Jacques Derrida or Allan Sekula have described: a sort of paper fortress guarded by the combined forces of nation and capital. Within the contradictory dynamics of globalization and post-communism/-colonialism, archives fragment and multiply, they become porous and leak” (Hito Steyerl). Notwithstanding the newer “painterly” photography and its dominance on the art market, the field of photography remains inextricably ambivalent und positively unclear. Moreover, Gursky’s or Struth’s affirmative apotheoses should not be linked in a static way to the (style of the) images they produce, but to the mythological practices which evolve around those images―practices that are never prestabilized and never tied to their objects in a “natural way” (comparable with the relation between photography and “reality”). Aura―including the aura of price―is not bound to this or that object or this or that style but to this or that mythology.

    (with Sofia Bempeza & Rubén Fructuoso)

  5. Ronn Aldaman
    Posted 15. June 2012 at 6:31 am | Permalink

    I see some slick writing here in the comments and am nor willing nor able to match that. I take photographs but am lacking in writing skills. I may be lacking in photographic skills too, but that is another matter.

    What I see is the world is very superficial and becoming more so. Every photography, amateur or professional to some extent reflects his or her interpretation of the world and if not the world, of how he or she perceives that world and/or what is important in the world and worthy of or in need of being shown.

    If the world can be changed for the better through photography is moot. I do try in my own photography to show the state of things within the limits of a framework allowed me due to various circumstances. If anything changes I believe it is a reinforcement of certain people’s points of view about the world, rather than actually influencing anyone to change their POV.

    From what I have seen in my own life and in contact with many photographers is the superficiality of art in general as a means by which to attain wealth and acceptance is reflected in the sort of people it attracts, albeit still less goal-oriented than some other art forms, if “art” is a word we can apply to photography in general. Many have become technicians and make a good living at destroying the potential artistic content of photography.

    The way any art has become a commodity for the wealthy is truly obscene. It in itself IMO reflects the obscene world we live in. And yet it may be an unavoidable aspect of using photograph (when intended to do so) as a means by which to influence people in order to bring about needed change.

  6. Hilde Van Gelder
    Posted 18. June 2012 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    At the Paris Triennale, currently on view in the Palais de Tokyo, the visitor comes across an interesting constellation of works that incites reflection on how photographs operate in contemporary art and society. On the ground floor, towards the back of the vast exhibition hall, one encounters an installation by Ariella Azoulay, surrounded by large-format pictures from Thomas Struth’s Paradise series. It provides a fine instance to consider how photographs “exist as objects, and to analyze the nature of mediation that occurs in the reading of the photographic image,” to take on Jian Wei Lim’s request. The “ambivalence” of Struth’s photographs, as Jörg, Sofia and Rubén claim, is intriguing. They represent the wild forests that persevere in various parts of the earth. They appear to somehow preventively mourn, in a monumental format, a purity that might about to be lost: both questions about aura and myth go hand in hand with a sense of critical urgency. Though the absorptive and intervening modes thus both take part in the message that these images convey, I do not believe that the dilemma between them is resolved – but I would look forward to hear Jan-Erik’s opinion on that!
    Over the years, I have found these models to furnish a relevant framework for thinking about photography’s communicative mechanisms. They have served as useful tools, to the point of becoming – admittedly – didactic instruments largely bound to fail when handled too rigidly. When I visualize them in my mind, both the absorptive and intervening mode are the extremes of one and the same spectrum of operative possibilities for photography. Put on a horizontal scale, they are on the far left (intervening) and far right (absorptive), leaving many intermediary or more mixed possibilities in between them. Considering photography in this way, very few images are situated in these extreme outskirts: most of them are somewhere in the in-between zone. Concretely, Struth’s Paradise pictures are definitely on the right side of the bar, but not far out: in the absorptive mode, they contain a minor intervening potential. In response to David, I would reply that it is not their size or scale that becomes the decisive factor here. Several intervening photographs are very large in size. One straightforward example is Allan Sekula’s photograph, Alle Menschen Werden Schwestern [All People Will Be Sisters], which was printed on a large, thick canvas cloth and hung outside in front of the train station in Kassel at documenta XII in 2007. Conversely, absorptive pictures may be very small. It is rather the wider context of their presentation to the public and the critical discourse created around photographs that matters most, when it comes down to deciding what they can bring about concretely.
    In order to grasp what photographic images really want to achieve, we have to find workable ways to differentiate between them. Ariella Azoulay’s Unshowable Photographs/Different Ways Not To Say Deportation, installed at the Triennale, makes that painfully clear. Paradoxically, it does so by not displaying any photographic image at all. In fact, this was forbidden her as a researcher by the institution – the archive of the International Committee of the Red Cross – that owns the photographs she wanted to exhibit. This brings us to the topic of my second post: archival institutions now have the power to silence the critical voice that is contained in many photographs. In response, Azoulay decided to make drawings of the images that she was not allowed to show. She presents them together with self-written texts on reading tables, in the form of collages. These “hidden” photographs are immediate testimonies to a history that is silenced by mechanisms of power. Azoulay’s intervention has indeed made the ICRC archive “porous and leak.”

  7. David Campany
    Posted 21. June 2012 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

    I’m more inclined to think that if the terms ‘absorptive’ and ‘intervening’ are useful at all, they should refer to responses and not to types of art, or forms of art. It’s the only way to avoid falling into the formalism that has, unfortunately, recolonised the discussion of art’s politics, particularly in relation to the photographic image.

  8. Posted 22. June 2012 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    Ahah, what have critics done?
    Please, please, don’t forget the essence of art, of photography, or whatever you may call it, it is simple, it is obvious. You don’t need to suffer so much with your brains…

    • Hilde Van Gelder
      Posted 22. June 2012 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

      Hi Antoine, brain self-torturers as we are, it is a great challenge that you are sending our way: thinking about the essence of photography… That’s quite a controversial thing to do nowadays! But let’s try and push the ‘suffering’ even a bit further. Photography’s so-called indexical nature has been downplayed to extremes, and yet I’d like to throw it in again at this point – also in response to David’s last comment.
      In homage to your important work on Walker Evans, David, let’s bring to mind James Agee’s famous lines on Evans’s photographs of sharecroppers: “who are you who will [...] study these photographs, and through what cause, by what chance, and for what purpose, and by what right do you qualify to, and what will you do about it.”
      In the intervening model, photographers are very often keen to emphasize the analog character of their images (i.e. the avoidance of digital techniques at all stages of the production process) and their concomitant indexical relation to reality. Here, the photograph’s formal appearance is in the first place determined by reality as it was encountered at the moment of taking the picture. Form is among the decisive factors that determine the image’s content and, subsequently (when taking into account further contextual aspects), our response to the photographic image (i.e. how we will act upon them). In that sense, I’d really like to hear more, David, about the kind of formalism that you are hinting at and how you feel it has affected the debate in an unfortunate way?

      • David Campany
        Posted 25. June 2012 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

        Hi Hilde

        The formalism. Well I was just rereading your piece on Friedl’s ‘Theory of Justice’. At no point are any of the photographs described or shown, and the necessity to do so doesn’t even seem arise (what happened to the interventionist insistence on the indexical there?). The installation shots do no ‘Justice’ to this ‘Theory’. Instead an account of the work’s ‘strategy’ is expected to carry the argument. As you put it “he avoids the risk that photographic materials become subservient to hegemonic forces of power in society” i.e. its ‘useless’, ,an-archic, and can’t be instrumentalized or monetized, I assume but I may be wrong. It’s an entirely formal argument. What ARE those images? What relations or non-relations are posed? Or doesn’t it matter? Could they simply be bits of paper with ‘photograph’ written on them? The same theoretical formalism can make a knee-jerk rejection of ‘a tableau’, regardless of its subject or qualities. What’s a reader supposed to make of an any account of photography that doesn’t address photographs?

        • Hilde Van Gelder
          Posted 26. June 2012 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

          Dear David,
          Forgive me the long reply. I had saved my comments on the images included in ‘Theory of Justice’ for the next posting, but here they are already (I’ll talk about other photographs in Post 4, which I believe make a similar claim as the one expressed in Friedl’s work).
          A small minority of the photographs included in ‘Theory of Justice’ overtly show victims of war or crimes. For sure, they respond to the following call for civil spectatorship, expressed by Ariella Azoulay in ‘The Civil Contract of Photography’: “When and where the subject of the photograph is a person who has suffered some form of injury, a viewing of the photograph that reconstructs the photographic situation and allows a reading of the injury inflicted on others becomes a civic skill, not an exercise in aesthetic appreciation.” Specifically, Azoulay has in mind images that unmistakably testify to the suffering of the subjects depicted and the injustice that has been done to them, images that allow a clear reading of the harm inflicted.
          In ‘Precarious Life’ (2004), Judith Butler makes a strong claim for the “face” — in the sense of the “Other” given to it by Emmanuel Levinas — as the locus of a moral demand, one that we might not have asked for but neither are we free to refuse. Butler uses the example of the “children burning and dying from napalm” that were revealed to an outraged public in the context of the Vietnam War. These photographs, she argues, disrupted the then reigning “visual field and the entire sense of public identity that was built upon that field.” She continues by saying that these images were so shocking and grievous because they “showed a reality that disrupted the hegemonic field of representation itself.” Here, of course, we could deviate once again to ‘Episode III’, but that would lead us too far at this point.
          Butler understands these images of victims as urgent calls from the precarious Other, our fellow human “before death”, asking us “not to let him die alone, as if to do so were to become an accomplice in his death.” As I said, some photographs included in ‘Theory of Justice’ obviously operate this way. Yet, several other photographs included in ‘Theory of Justice’ do not overtly show direct harm done. Many of them do address protest against uneven distribution of wealth and opportunities. But others are simply evincing instants of happiness: they depict smiling mothers with their children, or cheerful young people. I want to argue that they as well call for our ethical responsibility, for that civil alliance among human beings that Azoulay is urging to. These photographs speak to us from their radical muteness, in a radically neutral way. As I wrote in a previous reply in the line of comments on Post 2, their silence is productive for we can identify with the people in the picture. This identification prevents both disregard and victimization of the people depicted. Such images allow less distancing between ‘them’ and ‘us’ because, in their apparent happiness, they resemble us — the comfortable spectator of art — much more than when we would have seen them as a victim of war, crime or oppression. About the Vietnam photographs, Butler writes that “despite their graphic effectivity,” these photographs of victims pointed “somewhere else, beyond themselves, to a life and to a precariousness that they could not show.” My argument, which I will expand in the next posting, is that this is potentially even more the case when looking at the images of apparently happy people – even if this appears to be a paradox at first sight. This radical neutrality may, arguably, urge us even stronger to reinvent human solidarity. For it is in the singularity of these smiling faces that we encounter human existence as we would like to see it lived in real life. They were once part of this world, some are now dead, and they might have lived their lives with the aspiration and hope for a better, more peaceful future. This puts a tremendous call for inclusive humanism and egalitarianism on us.
          Peter Friedl has confirmed that the title ‘Theory of Justice’ refers to the writings of the American philosopher John Rawls (1921–2002), whose ‘A Theory of Justice’ (1971) postulates the possibility of a well-ordered society that is based on an overarching consensus among its members. However, “in the neo-liberal present,” Friedl says in interview to Gean Moreno, the global drama of expulsion and exclusion makes it quite evident that justice and distribution theories are out of touch with reality. Conflict takes the place of consensus.” Friedl’s skepticism towards Rawls’s theory does not mean that the reference to it has to be taken completely ironically. With the images that he carefully selects for ‘Theory of Justice’, he sincerely calls out for a renewed social contract, for a fair theory of justice that is workable for all living beings in today’s globalized society. His artistic method is as strong as it is convincing: instead of departing from the assumption that every theory draws a picture of the world, he investigates what then exactly “happens if the pictures themselves want to become theory,” as he puts it. It is in this way I believe that ‘Theory of Justice’ make a case for the world that it depicts.

      • Jan-Erik Lundström
        Posted 26. June 2012 at 1:24 am | Permalink

        Following up on various threads in the comments above: The absorptive and intervening modes are, as Hilde proposes, analytic/descriptic tools. And as I suggested, they are possibly productively employed when seen as a belonging to a broad spectrum of operative modalities. Nonetheless, whatever we make of them as such, the real test to their usefulness is how they are able to illuminate, clarify, articulate, sharpen our thinking about photographs. And, as also claimed, as a binary coupled set of concepts (a very common trope in much of historical thinking on photography) they are developed from – or relate to – earlier pairs such as “straight” and “staged”, or what A D Coleman once termed the directorial mode. Crucial in our employment of these terms – as David Campany also suggest – is, then, exactitude regarding their subjects; i.e. what is it that they are concepts of. And here I find us drifting a bit; between three different checkpoints or nodes in the photographic process – descriptions of photographs, concepts that attend to the process of becoming, to the modus operandi (articulate/conscious or not) of the photographer, or to viewer’s responses, to the reading of photographs. Here it is necessary to ascertain how and where these terms may be precisely grounded, for example, do they untangle the photographer’s work, the photograph, the viewer…

        Moreover, such thinking of photography has a history and has had a discursive impact, in a variety of ways, and thus has to be acknowledged. But from a kind of meta-position I would suggest, as ideologies (or as mythologies as Jörg/Sofia/Rúben terms it), whether we think they are relevant or not.

        Yet, it might still be argued that it is productive to view concepts – such as “absorptive” and “intervening” – as opposite ends of a spectrum of photographic practices, I remain here sceptical, but in yet another, slightly different way, in the sense that I regard photographs as always already framed, as always already a representation, an intervention, and, moreover; our access to the real is only through representations, interventions. Photographs are interventions – lame or powerful – into the world. And this is not a philosophical detail, but a basic fact of how we, as humans, through for example photographs, exist in the world. A position, by the way, I would be ready to identify as realist.

        Rephrasing myself yet again, I am equally sceptical to the ideologies of the silent photograph (a fallacy equally at play in, for example, such a recent intervention as James Elkins’ What Photography Is, in his slightly bizarre hunt for photographs that make him scream). Thomas Struth might be a good counter-example. His absorptive interventions, always theatrical and always with such fine-tuned attention to visual reality, are eloquently discursive in all their piety.

        • Hilde Van Gelder
          Posted 26. June 2012 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

          Dear Jan-Erik,
          In my understanding, these terms are operative on the level of the photographs themselves. To throw in another dichotomy: I have argued in the past – in a book from 2007 edited by Jim Elkins! – that absorptive pictures privilege the photograph’s iconic potential, whereas the intervening image emphasizes indexicality. Again, this is not a matter of black-and-white, but of many gray, intermediary zones. I argue there as well that my use of the term absorptive picture, which dates back to 2001, is negatively inspired by lack of a better term; and that I was aware of the fact that Michael Fried was, around that time (2007), starting to use absorption – which has been central to his phenomenological theory of perceiving art works for decades- to the perception of photographic images. In a later text, of 2009, I have argued that absorptive perception as Michael Fried understands it, is possible for both intervening and absorptive photographs. Instead, what matters on the level of perception, I believe, is the claim photographs put on our actions, human behavior in the world. The photographer is a key agent in making the operative potential of the image – intervening or absorptive – come about.

        • Hilde Van Gelder
          Posted 27. June 2012 at 11:13 am | Permalink

          Dear Jan-Erik,
          In addition to my previous reply, I’d like to indicate that I am of course aware that Michael Fried bases his perceptual theory on his conception of the ‘absorptive image’. Whether the image succeeds in being absorptive or not, in Fried’s view, depends on how it deals with the subject matter depicted in it. When I initially used the concept of absorption in my writings in relation to the photograph, it was in the first place in order to grasp how painting as a discipline today has ‘absorbed’ photography as its new medium, as a tool for making ‘tableaus’ or ‘Pictures’.

  9. David Campany
    Posted 26. June 2012 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen any “images that unmistakably testify to the suffering of the subjects depicted and the injustice that has been done to them, images that allow a clear reading of the harm inflicted.” Whatever ethical demands they may make, in their radical muteness photographs tend to show what they do not and cannot explain. As CS Peirce was at pains to point out when he formulated the concept, indexes don’t explain and can’t effect clear readings. You can photograph a woman sneezing but it will never tell you how she caught a cold. That’s why photojournalism evolved, in its worst and best incarnations, as an image-text practice. So it’s a bit of a contrivance to disaggregate journalistic photographs from the written journalism and then talk of their mute and radical demands. Sure, we’ve had a few decades of museums doing this for either naive or well-intentioned reasons (everything from ‘a good photo needs no caption’ to ‘the presentation aims to suggest a non-conformist, anti-archival counter-reading’), but why jettison the language that was always such a constitutive element?

    If I give a talk to my students I could flash up on the screen an image of suffering and claim that it “unmistakably testifies to the suffering of the subjects depicted and the injustice that has been done to them, an image that allows a clear reading of the harm inflicted.” Cue ‘rabbit in the headlights’ stares of intellectual-political-emotional paralysis. And then I could tell them that Ariella is telling them that the image is making an ethical demand upon them. I feel this is a kind of guilty tyranny and a misunderstanding. Alternatively I could do my homework – as Ariella has done in her recent book on those Isreali archive pictures – and discover under what circumstances – individual and institutional – the image was made, who commissioned it, what text appeared with it in what journals/books/magazines, who exhibited it and with what captions, who archived it and with what notes, who wrote what about it, who testified to the validity of its content and so forth. In the process we might learn something about the workings of photographic culture, about the possibly very complex ‘biography’ of the image, and about the depicted subjects/circumstance and our relation to them. A situation produces a photograph and a photograph produces a situation. That situation is invariably scripto-visual, unless we contrive it not to be.

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