4. Photography and Authorship

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My previous post touched on the complications that arise from photography’s dependence on a negative-positive system of reproduction, a system that divides the photograph from itself but also divides the act of photographing into a number of separate elements, each of them able to be undertaken by different workers. The authorship of individual photographs is therefore often a collective enterprise stretched over a considerable time period, even though this fact tends to be repressed in our historical accounts of photography. Those histories instead privilege individuals and the logic of individualism and this allows them to avoid having to address the complexity of authorship in all its various manifestations.

Photography’s authorship has always been a matter of controversy, given that a selling point of the new medium was that it apparently dispensed altogether with the need for an artist’s intervening hand. Photographs were made by the things they depicted, not by the photographer who operated the camera. As Talbot put it in January 1839, when describing a photograph he had taken of his own house, it was the first building “that was ever yet known to have drawn its own picture.” When he gathered some of these “curious self-representations” together to be published in The Pencil of Nature, he included in that volume a photograph titled The West Façade of Westminster Abbey. A richly-toned salt print from a calotype negative, it was published in April 1846 as one of three photographs to be issued with the sixth and final part of The Pencil of Nature. Although Talbot wrote a text to accompany this photograph, nowhere does he mention that the negative from which this print was made had been taken two years before, and not by him but by his former valet Nicolaas Henneman. The print itself was made at Henneman’s Reading Establishment, which means that as many as nine people might have worked on some aspect of it. Perhaps, then, it is industrial capitalism, with its alienated workers, systems of mass production and calibrated divisions of labour, that is this photograph’s true subject?

In this same spirit, Talbot took it as a given that The Pencil of Nature was a book of his photographs, even when it wasn’t. In the modern economy of the 1840s, names had become trademarks. Accordingly, it was common for commercial studios, like those established in London by Richard Beard or Antoine Claudet, to claim a single authorship for all the studio’s photographs—even though it is likely that Beard never took any photographs during his entire career and that Claudet, who was frequently away in Paris, had many of his taken by anonymous subsidiary operators. In these cases, the economics of photography displaced the photographer from his or her own subjectivity, disseminating in its place a name that, in the process of being made over as a ‘corporate’ identity, has been emptied of its substance, its authenticity.

This kind of situation creates all sorts of problems for historians. The effort to decide who did what, to find the truth of the image by deciding to which individual it properly belongs, is, after all, a standard art historical desire. Attributions to particular individuals make interpretation easier (meaning and biography are so quickly collapsed into each other) but also enhance a picture’s value in the market place (a Talbot being worth more than a Henneman). In a history of photography driven by such connoisseurship, propriety and property have all too often found themselves in this kind of forced marriage.

Nevertheless, the history of photography is full of examples that trouble precisely this desire for a fixed attribution. For example, the collective signature attached to the work of early operators such as Hill and Adamson or Southworth and Hawes speaks to the combined talents of chemists and painters, personifying the photographic image’s own apparent confusion of art and science. But these pairings also again complicate our traditional understanding of authorship, with its assumptions about individual creativity and personal inspiration. Who, in these sorts of partnerships, did what? Who took responsibility for what aspects of the photographic event (and of what does this event actually consist)?

There is obviously nothing new about teams making photographs, even if the Bechers (a married couple) and Mike and Doug Starn (twin brothers) have managed to add a familial and even genetic twist to the genre. Faced with multiple authorships of this kind, we are confronted once more with difficult questions: when (at what point in the process of production and reproduction) is a photograph made? Where is the boundary between the creative moment we acknowledge as involving ‘authorship’ and mere labour? In other words, point of origin, and the value we continue to grant it, remains the key issue raised by all such cases. This is no doubt why the ‘illegal’ collaborations staged by Sherrie Levine, in which she copied or simply reframed reproductions of the work of earlier photographers, struck such a chord in the 1980s, when themes of originality were much discussed; Levine seemed to be literally presenting her own creative work as nothing but a “tissue of quotations,” in Barthes’ famously prescriptive words. More recently we have had a similar merger of past and present with Andreas Müller-Pohle’s Digital Scores, a printed web of electronic code generated by Nicéphore Niépce’s supposed first photograph (the beginnings of photography are here made to collaborate with a computer to signal the medium’s ends).

Andreas Müller-Pohle, Digital Scores III (after Nicéphore Niépce), 1995

Andreas Müller-Pohle, Digital Scores III (after Nicéphore Niépce), 1995

These various examples of mixed authorship foreground the economy of exchange which makes any collaboration possible (an economy deliberately obscured by some of these pairs of operatives, who pretend to act as one). Any exchange, even when it is voluntary, involves a differential of power, an unavoidable negotiation of difference. And this is what continues to make collaborative or collective image making a provocative activity; not because it subverts the market place (which long ago found a way to sell the work of the Bechers) but because it necessarily asks us to engage the politics of exchange– because it presents photography itself as the embodiment of this politics.

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7 Comments

  1. Charlotte Cotton
    Posted 9. October 2012 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

    Dear Geoffrey,

    Your post yesterday is so layered and interesting to me that I think I am going to make two response posts this week. My first (today) centres upon the thoughts that you have prompted in me about the ways in which ideas take form and the collaborations that are often at play. The second post (and I suspect I am leaving the harder work for me until later in the week!) is the implications of addressing the history of photography, even that almost sacrosanct core history of the conception (as you have so convincingly framed it) of the medium in terms of authorship and the economics of that authorial license.

    I read your most recent post just before I headed out to dinner and it flavoured the conversation that I ended up having with four exceptional and very creative people. One is an artist (not using photography) who has just co-curated her first exhibition of work by ten contemporary artists. Another is the founder and creative director of a non-profit space that provides a store-front space and an intellectual climate where hundreds of artists, performers, poets and thinkers have experimented with new ideas and projects. Another guest last night is a musician who struck out independently of the recorded music industry dinosaurs at exactly the right time and now has complete and fruitful control over every facet of her creative life. The final guest is a creative director who has trail-blazed through the new communication channels of social media for clients in music, fashion and technology. You would never have heard their name but you may well have interacted with their concepts and their truly unique style. I suppose I should also caricature myself as well – as the curator who has only just started to think of myself as having a ‘practice’, prompted by stepping away for a while from having a clear institutionally-aligned curatorial identity.

    Each of us around the dinner table had different positions about where our authorship resides and the best climates in which we generate ideas and forms. The musician, unsurprisingly, has intense solitary period when they are composing and in the studio counterpointed by being on tour and literally without a moment alone and having to deal with being constantly on show. In a significantly less stark way, as a writer and also a regular public speaker, I understand how both the ‘black magic’ of solitary thought and the necessity to have an audience and a reaction to test out an idea are wedded. The creative director has to generate a host of ideas all the time, and deal with the risk of putting an idea out there to see if it will fly. An idea in their context is simply a starting point, a prompt rather than a declaration of authorship. The founder of the store-front non-profit is a really unusual person who trained as an artist in the traditional sense but their practice has been for the past ten years about creating an environment in which ideas can be tested out, fail quite regularly, in order to generate a dynamic of independent creativity. That’s a really sophisticated place for an artistic ego to reside and flourish. The artist who has just curated their first exhibition talked about how hard but rewarding it had been to take a different authorial position, outside of their regular studio-based practice. It had allowed them to see their own authored practice from a different vantage point, it had strengthened them. I was unusually quiet last night, in no small part due to the fact that I am returning to London today to start work on a cluster of projects that really interest me. I am consciously taking roles within working groups where I am not the figurehead or ‘leader’. I want to learn new things, I want to experiment, and I don’t think that can be done always from the position of sole or lead author. Of course my ego is having real tantrums at my willful abandonment of the Oedipal story of creativity, but it’s worth that battle. We have undoubtedly, in my resolute mind, entered a period of culture where we can explicitly talk about and enjoy the possibilities of creativity as a shared experience and concern.

    I would like to think that the early innovators and entrepreneurs in photography’s history had some sense and appreciation of the creative critical mass of which they were part. I don’t mean to over-romanticise the exploitation of others’ labours (and I will consider this in more detail in my next post) but at a moment such as now or the mid. 19th century when the rules of the creative game were yet to be established (and there was a genuine advantage to a diversity of mindsets being focused upon an emerging creative enterprise) the loss of strict solo authorship at all times seems like a price worth paying.

    • Geoff Batchen
      Posted 12. October 2012 at 2:24 am | Permalink

      The interesting thing about curating is that so much of it remains invisible. Despite the name-recognition status of some star curators, it is still rare to see a curator’s name on the wall as part of an exhibition. And even rarer to see curating acknowledged as a creative practice by those who review such exhibitions. Like the photograph, the act of curating is often seen as simply transparent to the works on the wall. Prodded by unions, films now come with an exhaustive list of credits that acknowledge that the work of the Director is enabled by a vast team of subsidiary workers. Perhaps it is time for exhibitions to be similarly credited.

  2. Posted 10. October 2012 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    “There is no limit to what can be accomplished, if it doesn’t matter who gets the credit.” So said Ralph Waldo Emerson (although it shouldn’t really matter who said it!)

    As a discourse Art (capital A) like literature (capital L) has never transcended the author, or what Michel Foucault called the regulating ‘author function’. Collaborations and pseudonyms do not trouble this order so long as they still function a ‘names’ . By contrast the more demotic, unregulated worlds of ‘imagery’ and ‘writing’ seem to operate best as anonymous fields.

  3. Charlotte Cotton
    Posted 13. October 2012 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    Dear Geoffrey, I really liked your turn of phrase about the bad marriage between ‘propriety and property’ in the way in which the culturally-legitimizing story of photography has been so strongly aligned to the development of a connoisseurs’ market for photographic prints.

    What I love about photography (and also, to respond to your response post, curating) is the pluralistic spread of what we might include in its subject definition. Even if we find a space of precision and clarity, it is somehow always still in relation to the vast ambiguities of its overall terrain. While I understand why Talbot remains an endlessly fascinating point of projection for the evolving story of photography within art history, the inverted snob in me can’t quite sanction the idea of his authorship, funded by independent wealth, as the preeminent model for photographic authorship. I read with sheer glee in your post that his ex-valet was an executor of this culture-changing, radical new visual form. It’s the same prejudice that means that I have a totally under-researched fondness for those showmen of early photography – for Daguerre and Nadar, for example – who were, literally selling this culture-changing, radical new visual form and its applications.

    The coupling of ‘propriety and property’ was the dominant chemistry that created the validation of photography within the collections of cultural institutions and the art history departments of some universities over the past forty years. Ironically perhaps, I think that this is precisely why we might have problems with an ongoing history of photography in relation to the living, breathing and evolving visual forms that we might consider ‘radical’ or ‘new’ in the 21st century. And in part that is the problem of privileging solo authorship, of separating a mere handful of named practitioners from the gloriously broad church of photography.

    • Geoff Batchen
      Posted 17. October 2012 at 1:41 am | Permalink

      Dear Charlotte,

      I’m hoping the inverted snob in you will therefore be happy to read my next book, which is a detailed account of the first two commercial photography studios to open in London, established in 1841 by Richard Beard and Antoine Claudet respectively. Among other things, the book traces what happens to photography when it is subsumed to the logic of consumer capitalism. However I’m less confident than you are that the proliferations of digital media will escape those logics any more effectively than analogue photographs have done. Cultural institutions like museums have proved themselves to be remarkably resilient, turning even the most obdurate conceptual art projects into artefacts capable of being valued, exhibited and sold. It remains to be seen what they can do with ones and zeros.

  4. Jörg Scheller
    Posted 14. October 2012 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    The “house that draws its own picture” (Talbot) carries along magical and religious overtones. Pictures as self-representations, or, more precisely, as purely indexical representations, as “traces” without human contact and therefore without stylistic interventions by an author, are well-known in Christian mythology – the vernicle, the image of Edessa or “Mandylion”, the Shroud of Turin, in short, the entire genre of “Acheiropoieta”. Bazin and Barthes referred to these phenomena, when they related photography to the theological tradition and magical rituals, thus conceptualizing it through the circumstances of its formation rather than the photographic image as such. I find these observations pretty much convincing, since they allow us to reconcile technological change with metaphysical persistence, epistemological shifts with the persistent history of ideas, notions, and beliefs. Martin Heidegger and Gianni Vattimo seem to be proved correct – the nature of technology is not technological at all; on the contrary, it can be considered as the genuine fulfillment of metaphysics. And again, with regard to “the effort to decide who did what, to find the truth of the image by deciding to which individual it properly belongs,“ there are also many analogies between the history of photography and traditional art history. Way before the emergence of industrialization and capitalism as the dominating economic system, the paintings of Renaissance or Baroque masters such as Raffael or Rubens were produced by means of division of labor. When we see a Madonna allegedly done by „Raffael“, we actually see a painting done by a team of – mostly unknown – co–workers. Hence the problems and challenges of „multiple authorships“ so typical of photography were anticipated and pre-formulated by elder practices and conventions in the visual arts economy. I like to view specific historic issues in a transhistoric context – not with the intention to level out differences and claim that there is nothing new under the sun, but, Aby Warburg in the back of my mind, with the ambition to determine internal specifics with the help of what philosophical terminology calls “external comparisons”.

    • Geoff Batchen
      Posted 17. October 2012 at 1:46 am | Permalink

      Jörge, we are agreed that any history of photography must recognise its debts to a longer and broader history of visual artefects. As you suggest, paintings have always been produced by collective hands. But my lament is not about artists, but about historians. It is historians who consistently suppress this collective labour and the complexities that follow in its wake. Art history has its own reasons to maintain such a supression. But this is why I argue that the history of photography must free itself from such prejudices and invent a discourse as complex and supple as the phenomenon we are discussing.

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