VI. Photography, She Said, Makes Me Nervous

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Michael Wesely, Jochen Holy (12.06 - 12.11 Uhr, 6.3.2013) © Michael Wesely

Michael Wesely, Jochen Holy (12.06 – 12.11 Uhr, 6.3.2013) © Michael Wesely

Decades ago, when I wanted to be a painter and also needed a job, I thought it might be good to get some hands-on art world experience.  I went to a number of galleries to inquire if there might be any positions and—in the era before MFA, museum studies, and arts administration programs made that crazily competitive—was hired by Harold Jones, the founding director of LIGHT Gallery, which had recently opened on Madison Avenue.  Harold, who had spotted me looking at shows there previously, took a chance, hired me, and in ways I still marvel at, changed the course of my life.

Among the handful of photo galleries in New York in the 1970s, LIGHT was one of the important ones.   Jones—a photographer himself, and a former curator at George Eastman House—opened LIGHT with the idealistic and respectful goal of representing photographers as artists, an unusual position to take at the time (Robert Mapplethorpe’s invitation to the LIGHT Gallery opening, 1973).   Other galleries in the city, like the Witkin Gallery, mounted solid exhibitions of 19th and 20th century photography and had wooden bins in which matted prints could be flipped through like record albums.  Harold had something more ambitious in mind.

Because of that, the gallery’s roster included classic image-makers of the time (such as Harry Callahan, Frederick Sommer, Aaron Siskind, and Andre Kertesz) and some of the provocateurs of the moment (including Robert Heinecken, Duane Michals, Mark Cohen, and Garry Winogrand).  While the list of artists reflected, to a large extent, the straight, white and male photography world of its time, LIGHT also promoted the work of young and unknown artists.  In the two and a half years I worked there–and before I went on to organize very different kinds of photographic exhibitions and projects for Castelli Graphics–we mounted the first gallery exhibitions of work by Stephen Shore, Jan Groover, and Robert Mapplethorpe, to name a few.

I knew little about photography when I started at LIGHT, and the learning curve was steep, quick, and a pleasure.  The photography world was small at that time, so everyone interested in the medium stopped by, which meant you’d never know which legendary image-maker might walk through the elevator door, but they all did.  Gallery openings were crowded and lively, like the night Winogrand pummeled and had to be pulled off of someone who had said something that pissed him off enough to disrupt the festivities of his own opening.

If lots of people showed up to see the photographs on exhibition, few came to buy them.  The real photo boom, not the hype about it, was still years off in the future.  That meant that there was plenty of time to handle, study, and fall in love with photographs, all of which I did.  When people expressed interest in photographs, it was our job to engage them in conversation about the vision of those who conceived of and so meticulously made them.  It was also our challenge to get them to consider buying one, something that often proved to be easier said than done.  To this day, I have a vivid memory of showing photographs to a potential client I’d hoped might share my enthusiasm for them.  But as I talked excitedly about the nuances of the pictures in front of us, it became clear that the woman next to me wasn’t enjoying them as enthusiastically as I did and hoped she might.

Obviously engaged, but clearly at a loss for words, she finally spoke.  “Photography,” she said, “makes me nervous.”  I was startled.  But by then I’d worked at LIGHT long enough to know that while she was curious enough to walk through the door, and we would do our best to promote and sell photographs in a world already full of them, she did not feel comfortable in her looking.  She might have sensed she lacked the specialized knowledge, language, or simply the confidence to articulate what or how she saw.   Many people did.  Many still do.

Back then, the notion of “art photography” confused many people, destabilized their everyday relationship to pictures, and made them distrust and then second guess their own perceptions of them.  And that, you can argue, may be both a good and bad thing.  If the process of looking at photographs closely and more critically scares some people away, it makes others raise questions and look at photographs more appreciatively and carefully.

What fascinates me today, forty years later, is how photography is making people nervous once again.  Periodically, I still replay that woman’s comment in my head, and in the intervening years—as the medium, visual culture, and my thinking about both have evolved—it’s occurred to me that there were probably a list of things that made her uncomfortable that day.  One I might not have grasped then, but certainly see now, is how the indexicality of photographs—the quality and quantity of information that cameras are engineered to record and self-conscious picture-makers delight in cramming into a frame—can become overwhelming.

Andreas Gursky, 99 Cent Store Chromogenic color print. 6' 9 1/2" x 11' (207 x 337 cm) Lent by the artist, courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, and Monika Sprüth Galerie, Cologne © 2001 Andreas Gursky

Andreas Gursky, 99 Cent Store
Chromogenic color print. 6′ 9 1/2″ x 11′ (207 x 337 cm)
Lent by the artist, courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York,
and Monika Sprüth Galerie, Cologne
© 2001 Andreas Gursky

Given how quickly and effortlessly we extract meaning from images, photographs confront us with far more data than we intend, need or are able to take in.  When I was working on Photography Changes Everything, neurobiologist Jeremy Wolfe told me about Aude Oliva, a colleague and Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher whose work explores how much data we actually require to extract from an image to grasp what Oliva and her fellow researchers call the gist of the scene.

Uta Barth, Field #14, 1996Color chromogenic print RISD Museum: Gift of the Buddy Taub Foundation, Jill and Dennis Roach

Uta Barth, Field #14, 1996
Chromogenic color print
Gift of the Buddy Taub Foundation, Jill and Dennis Roach to the RISD Museum

It is less than you think and the process happens faster than you can imagine.  Within 1/20th of a second, we perceive enough data from the shapes, contrast, and contextual information we glean from images, even low resolution ones, to recognize their basic content.  That fact raises interesting questions not only about how long, but about how closely we will want to look at any of the photographs we encounter and what happens once we do.  What Oliva’s research and the low-res images we now take with our smart and cell phone cameras suggest is that, in most instances, what we require from photographs is only that they be good enough to do their job well enough.  And that is something that, as I’ve traveled around talking at museums and universities in the past year, represents the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what’s making people nervous about photography now.

There were, looking back, plenty of other things making people nervous about photography in the 1970s and well into the 1980s.  There was widespread and stuffy resistance to color photography, incredulity directed at conceptual artists making photographs without showing sufficient deference to the craft of the medium, and outright hostility in the art photography world to artists who were unapologetically appropriating images.  Around the same time, as picture magazines were closing and video spread, the market for traditional photojournalism and the values it stood for were also being called into question.  All in all, it was a rocky, but  exciting time for photography.

We are going through something similar now.  Once again, we can’t avoid questioning what photographic images are and may become.  But what seems radically different to me, this time around, is that the issues surrounding imaging in everyday life seem more pressing, consequential, and nervous-making than much of what comes out of the art and photography worlds.  The privacy concerns, legal challenges, and international controversies that swirled around the production of Google Street View images in the past few years, for example, were far more riveting than the work based on those images that was made by at least four artists I can quickly call to mind.

What interests me more, these days, is work that deals with our image anxieties less decorously and more directly.  Harun Farocki’s 2003 video, Eye/Machine III  examining the politics of robotic and surveillance imagery, and featured in an exhibition of his and Trevor Paglen’s work that I saw at the Center for Art, Design &Visual Culture at the University of Maryland last week, is one. Thomas Hirschhorn’s hard-to-watch and harder-to-forget piece, Touching Reality (2012), a five-minute-long video that scrolls through upsetting images of brutal harm and lethal injury that the media self-censors and keeps from us, is another.

My point is that if photography is once again making a lot of people nervous, it should.  Photography, as always, is used in positive ways and to extraordinary ends.  But, we have reached a moment in imaging history when we communicate through and rely upon photography more, even as we trust photography and ourselves less.  We have good reason to be concerned with the ways images are made and worked over, used by and against us, and take on a life of their own.  And so, photography makes me nervous, too, but the fact that it does is the reason I’ve never been less than fascinated by it.

Some recent articles about photographic things to be nervous about:

- New face-reading software that tracks subtle muscular changes that flash across our faces and signal emotions like happiness, sadness and disgust

- The effects of digital vigilantism

- The panopticon we live in

- Seeing the poor as “things” in photographs

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2 Comments

  1. Posted 6. December 2013 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    Dear Marvin,
    thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and some of your own background concerning photography.

    The video that you pointed out of Thomas Hirschhorn underlined your words in a very comprehensive and intense way for me.

    Touching Reality… it is interesting that now, just a few months after I showed my exhibition “REALITIES” in Linz, I find more and more articles about that subject…
    Thank you for expanding my horizon about it through sharing your view.

    Greetings from Salzburg, Claudia

  2. Peter Burleigh
    Posted 7. December 2013 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    My first response is to agree with you Marvin, and yet also to strongly disagree! Isn’t one of the histories of photography a trajectory of sceptical pessimism and worry about the ontological status, social function and identity invention of photography?

    In review: In the 1850s Baudelaire swung between celebration of the first virtual medium that could capture “modernity” and outright lambasting of a technique that could only fail to capture the eternal. Baudelaire’s rebuke was later championed by Walter Benjamin, in his renowned lament for the loss of aura, while more recently Jonathan Crary’s critique of photography as a conservative medium triangulates this well-worn polemic. My position, as I have written here several times, counters the idea of photography as a technology that restores an already given pictorial framing of the world central to realist visuality. Rather in its very essence, the photogenic ruptures, disrupts, dislocates. It is these latter functions that so unnerve the contemplator of the photograph. Mixing up time & space, object & subject positions through one intensive plane—the photograph—existentially unnerves us.

    Yet I think the unease you refer to Marvin is of a different nature—a fear of the indexical being turned against us: there is a that has been which photography records. And it is when the that has been that only we in our private worlds should be privy to turns into widely disseminated visual space, visual currency that we feel unnerved. The voyeuristic eye of the photographer (or surrogate if the human agent is removed in remote image watching) is well rehearsed in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, for example. As David Campany has pointed out, what exactly is L. B. Jefferies doing just watching, when he could be photographing—proving beyond doubt that Thorwald did away with his wife—with indexical, iconic, analogic evidence! In this sense, it is the mechanics of the photographic gaze which penetrates into our lives, our identities, and casts us as subjects that may be called into place by its inquisitive, disciplining surveillance.

    However, the fear in photography, its exposure of self and the horrors of the world— “Hirschhorn’s hard-to-watch and harder-to-forget piece, Touching Reality (2012),” for example—is way more specific than a dread that currently spreads through and across the circulation of data per se. The dread I’m thinking about it isn’t the kind of indexing or cataloguing which reaches into us through the intensity of image, rather it is something that spreads in a more diluted form outwards and around. So where the photogenic might generate fear, horror or abjection intensively, data surveillance is an unspecifiable, extensive, indistinct yet very real and in this sense more pervasive data-dread.

    What we have to watch out for is not the surface scratching of our image soul, but something oddly related: the data that circulates around us in a web of connections which go further than ourselves, through and through all the social partners we have and beyond them in a rhizomatic shroud. Surely it is this net—the subject of a wider more encompassing surveillance as has been exposed in the NSA scandal—that we both indulge in yet have to be fearful of. With data which links, jumps, nets individuals there is no indexical trace that footprints. This anonymity, flexibility, rapidity is the source of a dread which is far deeper than the fear of the familiar camera. Yet that gaze the one of just watching, collecting, recording in non-iconic form is the one which our culture has conveniently but incorrectly associated with photography—making things visible. When in fact the ‘surveilling’ gaze is a hidden mesh of data processing and cross-matching algorithms.

    Photography makes visible what we might fear, while an acutely dangerous and non-visible undercurrent of surveillance of the worlds we locate oursleves accelerates with impunity— knowing of this invisibility spawns dread.

    http://davidcampany.com/re-viewing-rear-window/

    http://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2013/nov/26/nsa-gchq-surveillance-made-simple-video-animation

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