1. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose?

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Happy new year everyone on “still searching”.

This is my first real attempt at writing a blog, and I want to thank the Fotomuseum Winterthur for inviting me. I have to beg readers to bear with me while I adjust my academic style to something more conversational, hoping indeed to continue the lively conversation on “Still Searching”. I say continue, because even though I mostly want to concentrate on history — how do we, how should we, write histories of photography today, in 2014? — I would like to interact with previous bloggers here, especially Marvin Heiferman’s very suggestive comments and questions in the previous series.

One big question is about the continuing sense that we are witnessing an “explosion” of images, linked with the digital revolution. Marvin commented on this in his post on “The River”.  This is obvious, and yet it is something troubling, historically, because we have a very large record of previous expressions of the same sense — descriptions and interrogations about “a flood of pictures”, since at least the 1850s. The American historian Daniel Boorstin once constructed a whole argument about American culture and its evolution on this sense of the invasive presence of “the image” and what he called “the graphic revolution” (The Image, A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, 1962). Today the art historian Michael Leja is at work on the implications of the “flood of pictures” on pictorial and cultural change in the 19th century. Are these visual rivers, floods and explosions (metaphors that in themselves are of course telling) always the same? And therefore a kind of “business as usual” of the modern age, so that we might as well not try to historicize them? Or, on the contrary should we historicize them and if so, how? How, for instance, do we measure floods and explosions of pictures? And would a quantitative measure — if it could be done, and today we actually have some pretty reliable markers, better than before — be enough to build a plausible narrative upon? Or, would it help to be able to map channels of visual circulation, as a Google-derived program called sightsmap, thanks to Jean Kempf for alerting me to this) now enables one to “see” geographical concentrations of pictures made with the panoramio application at popular sightseeing spots?

Similar questions of repetition and difference in the history of images come to my mind when I read this and other blogs discussing the digital age, its novelties and discontinuities from previous ages.

Digital photography itself is getting old. 2015 will mark the 30th anniversary of a somewhat famous issue of the Whole Earth Review announcing — celebrating?— “the end of photography as evidence of anything,” with a lead article on digital retouching by the West Coast guru Kevin Kelly. And this is a good example of what I am talking about—of the historical question of “new” and “same.” (The phrase I used for the title of this post, “Plus ça change et plus c’est la même chose,” by the way, is French, but I had never heard it until I went to the US.)

Is the “sceptical gaze”, as I would like to call it, a new or a recurring trend in the history of photography and visual culture? These days expressions of scepticism in front of news photographs are routinely agitated in the American press, and tend to revolve around the possibilities and ethical limits of digital manipulation (for one example, think about the scandal at the Los Angeles Times in 2003).

But the current sceptical “explosion” addresses historical photographs as well as news pictures, as spectacularly illustrated by Errol Morris in his New York Times blogs (lately on “November 22, 1963”) and his book Believing is Seeing.

Is the rise or recurrence of the sceptical gaze primarily a function of the digital age? Or do the digital controversies simply reveal, or highlight, something inherent in photography, namely that all photographs are manipulated, or constructed, or “legendary,” as Martha Sandweiss brilliantly suggested in Print the Legend? Could it be that the sceptical gaze is really an intellectual or critical trend more than a “simple” reflection of evolving  photographic technologies or their supposedly stable relationship to reality? Could one relate this trend, for instance, to another trend that is similarly new and old—what A.D. Coleman famously called “the directorial mode” in 1975, and which continues to trigger debate today?

Then there are the more recent debates about connected images, and more broadly the channels of circulation and sharing that perhaps no longer serve merely to transport images but instead make them the topics or instruments of new modes of conversation and social networking. For instance, the recent debate on selfies, and how they relate or not to self-portraits, and whether or not they constitute, as primarily connected images, a new form or a new object. Marvin, again, leads the way in his post “Here’s Looking at Me”. André Gunthert has also addressed the selfie recently in a very stimulating way. In both cases we witness and share the bloggers’ need to relate the new to the old, and the problems involved in doing that.

Being a 19th century specialist, I will be not be discussing the contemporary per se. What I am interested in as a historian is how these novelties, and discussions about them, both incorporate established conceptions about the history of photographs and images and reverberate back on these established conceptions. For instance, is the selfie as conversational image entirely new, compared, say, to amateur Kodak-type family snapshots and privately printed postcards of the 1900s? Or am I wrong to raise this question? Is this an anachronistic projection of the present into the past?

I incline to think, at the outset, that photography’s history is new and young enough, in certain ways, that it would be imprudent to reject such possible interactions of 2014 with 1914, especially considering the weight, until now, of a history of photography that has been predominantly art historical rather than social, and has not yet delved enough into social practices. (Here again, I could not agree more with Marvin.) So, what I would like to do in the following weeks is, always using of course the vantage point of the present, share some interrogations about how to frame, understand, write histories of photography and images today. Of course I will be writing from the particular angles of my own current research on images and history, raising questions about portraiture and its minor place in existing histories, the notion of photographs as historical documents, or the related notions of “circulation” and “connection”. But I will welcome other questions, keeping in mind the “larger picture” and the fact that as we slowly approach the bicentennial of the invention of photography (when and how will it be celebrated, who knows?), it may be a good time to start rethinking our global narratives.

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  1. Jean Kempf
    Posted 14. January 2014 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

    Thank you François for this stimulating overture raising one of the most central question of historical method, ie differences and similarities between the present of the historian and her subject’s period (“the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there” EP Hartley wrote and Faulkner had one his characters say that the past is never dead, it’s not even past). I think E.D. Coleman himself said that he was full of hope for the history of photography now that photo was dead. Of course we could list a whole series of quotes, neatly contradicting one another in a nice two-column table, just a like a balance sheet, and yet it would not add up.
    The bottom line is we should be extremely wary of instant analysis. Many intellectuals and critics made this mistake with 9/11, with the financial crisis and other “waves” of events (I say “wave” to refer to Braudel’s famous 3-tier model of history). The selfie (“word of the year 2013” it seems) is one example of the risk historians take in dealing with what I hesitate to call the “immediate present” because it is always mediated — we simply don’t have the means of deconstructing its mediation ; we can merely classify its uses (taxonomy) and rely on psychological hypotheses. But its “social meaning” (which to me is the real aim of the historian whose work is to chart the changes in meaning) remains elusive. Even attempts by the historians of memory to theorize this issue failed to convince me of the possibility for historians to deal with the present. (But this is another story, or is it?)
    For the moment I can only applaud the work that historians such as Leja or Brunet are doing on “previous revolutions”. As historians, we’ve all been confronted with similar discoveries. The latest as far as my own work is concerned, is with Syria. As I interviewed war photographers I kept hearing that Syria was the most lethal conflict for journalists ever. They were telling me there is no front line and anything goes, so you are never protected by your fixer or even by your status as journalist. In short Syria is quite a novel situation. But i happens that when you do even minimal research on the African and Asian (sub)conflicts of the 60s and 70s, you find exactly the same statements. Plus ça change…
    On the other hand, to conclude that Syria is the same conflict as Biafra, the Sudan or the “ Hostel War” of South Africa, would be nonsensical.
    What we need is a history of how the mechanical (photographic) image was received (a history of reception) and to be able to make it as complex as documents allow (who calls the shots? who dissents? etc.). In that respect I’d say that new technologies (Digital Humanities) most certainly can help. The digitization of (and the open access to) vast corpora of written material about photographic images since the early days will make most certainly bring new configurations to light, and so will the renewed ability to do large statistical searches on image data such as the sightsmap mentionned by Brunet or other geographical info systems such as http://www.gapminder.org/ or http://chartsbin.com/ or http://www.reddit.com/r/Maps (often used with a militant/radical aim in mind) as well as a wealth of software to crunch numbers (http://www.qgis.org/en/site). This must be encouraged if we want to be able to produce some serious statements on what is happening around us (and probably not left only to private developers such as Google and affiliates (see http://www.robots.ox.ac.uk/~vgg/data).
    An incidental aspect to Brunet title-question (“Plus ça change”) is also well illustrated by the recent (very stimulating) exhibition at the Met Faking It : Manipulated Photography before Photoshop which truly historicized (for us) what viewers (and makers) have seen in photographs over the years. And — surprise, surprise — they didn’t see the same thing as we do (re-read Miles Orvell’s seminal book on this aspect The Real Thing).
    The “new” flow of images and the digital “revolution” may actually be less significant because of the sheer mass/quantity of images in circulation (undoubtedly numbers and cost matter as we saw with each dissemination “revolution”) than for something much more ingrained in our post-Enlightenement consciousness which is authorship and the way it is both dying and is reinvented in the internet age (and here I don’t mean the death of the author in the sense that Barthes meant it in the 60s). This to me is the true question for historians of photography, as photography has (always?) had a complex relationship with the concept of author, which is also one of the reasons why it did create such a debate when it came into being (see how I try to avoid the word “invented”!!!).

    • Posted 23. January 2014 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

      Thanks a lot to Françoise for this wonderful post but also Jean for this really interesting insight on that digital revolution idea around photography. I also stumbled upon those geographic ressources online such as sightmap and I think it is quite interesting. Even if there is no way we could get any real information about what is photography for random people around the world.

  2. Nils Plath
    Posted 16. January 2014 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    To start off with some truisms: Not just since yesterday often discussed in much controversial manner, the rejection of the idea of a representational quality of the photographic image allows for numerous possibilities. It gives way to ways to reconsider modes and means of representation by difference for instance when it frees the photographic images from the task of being taken as mere illustrations to affirm or falsify claims about reality. It enables us to reassess what it means to see in pictures media in which time is inscribed. In fact it is actually like this: photographic images (both analog or digital, in different ways) can be first of all understood as media in which time is processed. And as forms that confront the viewers image by image with their very own perceptions of time. As storages for time, they can trigger a revolution in awareness in the very moment of perception.
    At this point, first of all a small insertion to provide thanks for the first two inspiring posts from you both, François and Jean! Continuities and continuation are the unifying theme here – if I understand it correctly –, as therefore the very reflection of interruptions and presenting the presence. For me, too, the required switch to a form of responding writing is an unfamiliar exercise. And, I am also glad to be asked to come up with some connections between my own practice of ‘reading’ images and what photo-historical viewpoints convey to me about the presence of the images discovered by them, and the worlds represented for which they stand.
    Let me admit: As soon as you have both started to write and I have read your entries, I felt confronted with a feeling that leaves me a bit uneasy right from the beginning. The feeling that you have already outpaced me long and for good. In fact, my first comments here come a bit late. In this very case, they appear to be marked by the ramifications of a time change due to traveling, one most likely familiar to all of us known as jet lag. But there is also an ever-present as well as commonplace feeling of late-coming that I have to accredit to a professional deformation as a reader when coming face to face with those who display and share pictures, and demonstrate persuasively with words how I shall have to view those exemplary images taken from the historical stock brought before my eyes, attached with names and discourses. Pictures are always fast, accelerate the interpretations. Isn’t this so? Perturbation being the result, and a sense that words are always to arrive with a certain delay. What do these feelings tell me about the relationship between image and text, I wonder? It is said that texts shall serve as evidence of duration and sometimes even timelessness (their various interpretations attesting to a linear course of time), yet you have to make sense of them again and again, re-read them endlessly. Whereas images in their volatility disappear quickly, calling in every instant attention to the moment. Those might be the claims, yet in reality it is a different story. Texts are hardly ever been read repeatedly, images however seem to reappear again and again. Texts can be forgotten entirely, but there is always a rest that remains of the image when gone. Untimely disjunctions, that is what our interpretations truly narrate and what ekphrasis attests to when making the images from the past present via words. What remains? What is left? The pictures made and manufactured by the media in their volatile nature contain these very questions, and disseminate them – being the iconic characters they are that allow us to remove and reposition them from their places of origin arbitrarily or motivated to various locations, from context to context without apparent difficulty, appropriate them without much further ado. To take them out of other ages and eras, and even computations of time to insert them into the presence of our today without great difficulty. Or so is the illusion that we like to continue to hold on to. All challenges by the new photographic formats aside.
    François’ first entry already contains an overwhelming variety of challenging topics. Just looking at such terms as testimony and evidence, the problematics of framing, and of revision. And there is a central question on which I would like to learn much more from those who deal as historians with old and current pictures: What does “to historicize” mean (to you), given the “visual rivers, floods and explosions” of photographic images that you (François) mention? How do you (re-)act as a historian in view of the presence and absence of so many images like never before? How to appraise or evaluate them, and also one’s own self-understanding as historian, in today’s continuing times of the simultaneity of the nonsimultaneous: in the age of Snapchat and – at the same time – the age in which chosen photographs are meant to maintain their aura and importance as a time-enduring works on the museum walls? How do multiple images determine the form as it were what might be called the ‘selfie’ of the historian? Doesn’t the conversion of the utility value of the self-portrait in these photographic times also has its lasting effects on the calling and the self-image of the historian as the one in charge of the order of images in the long term? Such a necessary self-reflection, I find expressed in questions with which you, François, are considering a recent debate: “For instance, is the selfie as conversational image entirely new, compared, say, to amateur Kodak-type family snapshots and privately printed postcards of the 1900s ? Or am I wrong to raise this question? Is this an anachronistic projection of the present into the past?” One might respond to this with another question: Aren’t all projections anachronistic, as a given? And isn’t this anachronism – to follow up with one more – the number one striking quality possessed precisely by photographs, their very unique characteristic?
    In our continuing reality of the mass media (Niklas Luhmann) – in which as one can read (http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/01/what-happens-when-the-president-sits-down-next-to-you-at-a-cafe/283074/–) that the President of the United States already knows what I only recently learned from my teenage son: that Facebook is obsolete already – we have to constantly remind us anew to come to terms with the (not so news-worthy) fact that the given current status of today’s social media will tomorrow already (re-)present the past. Which means we are more than called upon to shift our attention from making sense of the pictures themselves, as given objects with historic equivalents, to analyzing the modalities of exhibiting, distributing, and conveying any respective forms of still so called photographic images (When will the generic term “photo” be replaced by something more current?). And as well to critically self-assessing one’s own viewpoints determined in view of them. This would ask in my view for extending François’s questions directed towards the individual images and their destination to a reformatted institutional and technological critique, for which a single image might serve here and elsewhere as a starting point. Today, as the promises of Kodak moments have been replaced by other image-making procedures and forms of use of instant images, when the ‘flood of images’ makes time consuming archiving strategies necessary, and the making disappear of images sometimes proves to be a greater problem than producing them in the first place, our self-understanding about the images creates an unprecedented challenge. What seems more and more apparent is that there is no ‘us’ in view of the photographic images any more. In my opinion, it becomes increasingly difficult to speak of “our” images in the first place, and to assume any shared or mutal understanding of what they might or have to ‘mean’. Therefore, I want to add, arises all the more the necessity as well as at the same time an impossibility to ponder together what it then means to say that “we are witnessing to an ‘explosion’ of images, linked with the digital revolution”. And correspondingly, I’d like to place the “we” found in this assertation by François and throughout his initial statement in quotation marks which shall remind “us” of what we have to ask ourselves with in the face of the images: What do these questions of a probing gaze tell “us” about “our” own perception of time over and over again? How do the images, and their representational interpretations, serve as means to project this “we, us, our?” And how do we determine “our times” as “our” times by way of interpreting images?
    The delay with which I myself enter this correspondence, will hopefully be kindly excused. One should not be surprised given the retroactive approach my words as a reader are marked by (a reader who wants to grant the images and the words their time). A little jet lag in the bones, I just returned from a city in which the futures began to circulate as an idea (ca. 1848), from the city which at a time turned to past was regarded as a model for the hyper-modernity, and still until today emits an often-cited image of the rule of capital with all its representational imagery (emblematicly brought to figure, and turned into a highly traded commodity item, by Andreas Gursky’s “Chicago Board of Trade”, 1997, see: http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/photographs/andreas-gursky-chicago-board-of-trade-5313637-details.aspx). Chicago. From here, I took home a single souvenir (What a splendid word, this borrowed term with all its suggestive meanings in French!). A memory of a single picture. Viewed and taken with me from an on-going exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, one with various photographic works depicting its cityscape, entitled CITY SELF (http://www.mcachicago.org/exhibitions/now/2013/318). A small exhibition of photographic portraits of the historic site which at one time represented the future like no other city, while Paris played the role of the capital of the 19th Century (in Walter Benjamin’s view) – and later continued to serve as a model or Vorbild to other cities such as Berlin as the most modern metropolis of the 1920s, when Moscow embodied the promise turned terror of an utopia or dystopia. On view in the exhibition that contrasted insider and outsider views in the artists’ visions of the Windy City, I found Kenneth Josephson’s “Chicago, 1972.” Placed to almost be overlooked between works that claimed a far more glamorous dominance in the space and could be described as typical cocky representations of a low tourist gaze (to say it with words of Thom Andersen who in in his masterful film essay “Los Angeles Plays Itself” documents and comments on certain cinematic mis-representations of his hometown, and used this very term to show his disapproval of ways of appropriation his beloved Los Angeles by outsiders – http://filmkritik.antville.org/stories/1071484/), this small scale work on paper resists in my view any domineering representational claims. As a singular, very private work in a series it will continue to serve as a reference point in the debates to come. A find. Assembled and made up from other photographic images, this paper work is a true selfie to my taste. An image of a site. A portrait. (Do portraits have to depict a so called person? I do not think so.) This small collage in b/w and color stands in lieu of so many words on the questionable representational truth of photographic images. To me, it conveys a lot of insights regarding the fluidity of images, to be continued to discussed in the digital era. Isn’t every photograph a sending? A memory work once viewed? For the moment, I like to look at “Chicago, 1972” as a postcard self-addressed to me, affirming what was the sole message one of On Kawara’s inimitable series: “I got up.” (http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/2001.228a-pp) Well, here I am.

  3. François Brunet
    Posted 17. January 2014 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

    Well thank you Jean and Nils for opening up more fields when I thought I was already opening too many… and Nils, if you feel outpaced by my comments, after reading yours I feel left in the dust… or lifted to new, uncharted spheres! So I will just respond briefly here to some of your comments.

    @Jean Kempf. Yes, we should be wary of instant analysis—at least as the historians we claim and try to be. Of course, anyone is free to say and write whatever they want to. And the fact is that instant analysis is all around us (and has been, it seems, forever, concerning photography). What interests me then is the ways the instant analyses that we are constantly encountering (see another piece on the subject in LeMonde.fr of today, Jan. 17: “Selfies: le tout à l’égo” by Amaury da Cunha) not only make historical statements but refer to a supposedly well-established history of photography (or, in this case, of the photographic self-portrait, of narcissism in popular culture, or of sociability networks). And my claim is that, because photography is still relatively new and because also it does, to a certain extent, exist as a cultural field (not so much as this or that kind of picture but rather as a realm of culture, say in the industrial West), it is perhaps not absurd to think about how new or seemingly new trends may affect our understanding of somewhat older trends. Connections have been suggested, I think, between privately circulating soldiers’ images of torture or desecration of their enemies and lynching postcards of the early 20th century; I am tempted to say such a connection may be relevant as indicative of a longer trend in the history of images, yet at the same time I cannot deny the novelty of Facebook and Instagram. Jean, I am also making a note of your points about mapping out “revolutions” and their textual traces and about the great issue of authorship. I would like to come back to those.

    @ Nils Plath. Your post raises in turn a mountain of important questions, which seem to me to revolve, first, around the issues of time, presence and absence in images. I like, and I think I agree with “Pictures are always fast, accelerate the interpretations” and perturb “our” or “my” sense of things, meaning, etc. Though I often see students just as confused and silent in front of photographs as of texts. I just want to respond here, and this concerns other points in your post (“how do you historicize?”), that I have always been wary, and am perhaps more so now than ever, of locating anything that could be called “historical meaning” in photographs, I mean in the images “themselves”, if you will allow me this approximation. This is probably due to the fact that I am not trained as an art historian but as a linguist and a historian. You will notice that the topics I discussed in my post are really cultural practices, rather than images; so, in very short words, I don’t historicize images, or I find that exceedingly difficult and usually try to avoid it; I try to historicize social / cultural practices that involve images. As for the “selfie” of the historian, I am a little bit lost and perhaps prefer to think some more about it. Finally: I love postcards and postcard artwork, particularly “Chicago 1972”, but somehow I don’t find that it is addressed to me….

  4. François Brunet
    Posted 17. January 2014 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    @ Nils. PS. I forgot the most important: who is “we”? “What seems more and more apparent is that there is no ‘us’ in view of the photographic images any more.” And this question: “how do we determine “our times” as “our” times by way of interpreting images?” I tend to agree, inasmuch as I do see a remarkable fragmentation of gazes and comments in the classroom, in front of images. But I wonder whether this has anything specific to do with photographs. And on the other hand, I insist that what I don’t usually do and don’t propose to do here is interpret images. But where I join you is in the sense of determining “our times” as “our” times by way of interpreting images: this reminds me strongly of Mitchell’s “pictorial turn” argument, which is another approach to the narrative of the flood. I am interested in pursuing this as well.

  5. Nils Plath
    Posted 20. January 2014 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    As in my case, delay indicates often a precipitous acceleration of what is said or sent as afterhoughts. In this way, my words addressed to you were then probably more general manifestations than profound expressions of rethinking your statements, François. That’s probably why they must have sounded as if I wanted to imply that your were putting the case in favor of the primacy of the singular visual (and its interpretations). My commentary should please not be taken as polemical. Here and now, instead of lengthy answers: nothing but a quick addition. For the time being , I on my end would like to stick with the topic of time. ‘But I wonder whether this has anything specific to do with photographs,’ you stated and directed your doubts towards my assertion that the attention given to the reception of images in the our present day and age is proof for time being a precious and scarce commodity. I think yes and no. Photos in view, digital ones as well as those from the era of daguerreotypes, one could certainly argue that it is especially them that allow to observe in many respects how time has become a pressing issue of and for our perceptions (and actions). The very existence of photographs has accelerated ‘our’ perception (since the mid 19th century) and thus the world(s) we live in. And yet indeed, it is not the existence of photos as such and alone (which are not least also competing with the moving images in so many different places nowadays) that make ‘us’ (I will drop the quotation marks around this personal pronoun from now on) feel pressed for time. In fact, ‘our’ relationship to work and leisure (time), and social changes at large, could be retold once anew in view of how photographic images were and are being produced, used, circulated, viewed, et all., I’d say.

    A photographer friend of mine who is dedicated to the creation of beautiful still life photographs encapsulating the time of objects (or rather: taking “things” out of a world in which they pass as mere temporal durables; see: http://www.m-bochum.de/artist_image_en.php?SID=iVyzWG0qCT8q&aid=180&aname=ClausGoedicke) told me after reading the first lines of our conversation: “That really is not something to fill three or four minutes of empty time with. But isn’t that what blogs are meant to be for in the first place, or so I thought?” For a moment, his comment left my uncertain if I should maybe take it as a compliment. Most likely, of course, he wanted to politely express his view that all words here were to much for him (and too many). To him of all people, he who runs a highly concentrated studio practice of creating one of a kind photographic works allowing a good while to go into each of the perfected images. And therefore, there is for him not enough time–no “empty” or “free” time–to dedicate to the reading of words on images. Taken as a general view, I think that sends a clear message. The medium dictates the expectations. Photos make this even more obvious. Especially where quarreling with words (and there is no there there where they do not do so). For more than a lifetime we all have lived with what apparently sounds like a century old proverb: “One look is worth a thousand words.” Taken as a token of proof in so many arguments, or as a statement to be contested in almost as many, it was actually coined as an advertising slogan. What is often cited or referred to as an ineluctable pronouncement in fact first appeared on December 8, 1921 in Printers’ Ink, a professional journal for the ad industry (see: http://www2.cs.uregina.ca/~hepting/research/web/words/history.html, and an account in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/1996/04/07/magazine/on-language-worth-a-thousand-words.html). In a way, the photo pictorial history of the 20th-century can be viewed as one progressing attempt to perpetually reaffirming this claim, even against all of the many suspicions expressed towards the credibility of photographic representations. There is more hidden behind the seemingly simplicity of the statement than meets the eye, with the photo historian sensing in it the devaluation of the (singular) photographic image and the literary scholar understanding it as the devaluation of his (beloved) words .
    And as a question to Jean: If we all agree that an instant analysis by all means appears impossible, what does it mean to assume a temporal distancing in the gaze of the (historical) observer from events that we find re-presented in the images? Of events that only in repetitions are being (retro-actively) produced as events in the first place–be it in retellings or pictorial reproductions? And, in addition: What might be said about the reasons for it becoming a general habit to speak of a “revolution” in view of the (evolutionary) changes that photographic images have gone through over the course of time? What can it tell us that we address their change in nature and usage (just like technological change and scientific innovations in general) with a term that (since the 17th-century) stands for the abrupt change in a social order, disruptive force in an instant, and the stating of a radical new beginning? What does the use of the term “revolution” in fact tell us about our use of the photographic image made possible by technological progress? What does is say about our understanding of the “new” (and, maybe, the important role of the “news” that’s fit to image), and the future?

    • Jean Kempf
      Posted 24. January 2014 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

      @Nils : I find your comment truly thought provoking and I have a hard time answering it cogently (or rather non speculatively, as I still clung to empiricism).
      1) I don’t think “we all agree that an instant analysis by all means appears impossible” as it is exactly what commentators, journalists, art critics, pundits, philosophers and bloggers do all the time. So a little reminder is always in order
      2) more importantly, your challenging our use of “revolution”. The term is one of the those brainchilds of the Enlightenment, apperaing (in its political sense) in the troubled XVIth c. and gaining great currency during the XVIIIth c. to become a standard phrase since the XIXth c. So the reason why we use it seems to be very much connected with the idea of “progress” (aka “the new”), a welcome one for some, a feared/loathed one for others. It’s the idea that things will never be the same anymore. The trouble is that with the (apparent) speeding up of events, revolutions happen all the time (so much so that the term came to lose so much currency that journalists dubbed the political upheavals in Arabic countries “spring”). And if we use it all the time, it is, I believe — speculatively this time –, because we are so afraid of missing the latest revolution / fighting the last war (which is of course the best way of doing both). Yet history is not made by those who plan but those who try, and this is why you cannot write it immediately. So we are just contemporary of ourselves, combining the old and the new, rediscovering older forms, adapting to new environments, and in general “. . . we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

      • Nils Plath
        Posted 29. January 2014 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

        As a reply to the closing sentence from 1925, quoted by you above, with a ‘ninth thesis’ from 1940 that I read as a constant reminder to myself (when looking a photographic images) that history is never made, but rewritten: „A Klee drawing named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.“

  6. Nils Plath
    Posted 20. January 2014 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

    Currently I’m interested mostly in such photographic images that confront me with unsettling, stimulating temporal disjunctions. With a particular asynchrony in which the constructed nature of a single image, or a series of images, and the image worlds from which it originates are both mirrored and distorted. Exactly this I find on view in a number of current images by John Sparagana (see: http://www.corbettvsdempsey.com/2013/11/06/john-sparagana/ ). The images he recently presented under the title “Crowds & Powder” are said to display a “subtle struggle with the dialectical role of images in mediating history”, as Benjamin Paul writes in his catalog essay on these works from 2013, and seem to fit as illustrations in our ongoing debate (see for instance: http://johnsparagana.com/2007-08/view/71). They manifest the interweaving of re-presentations and time. And appear as multiples: as inkjet pictures that are made from once printed newspaper photographs now being used as templates for collages, everyday objects recounting time turned into artifacts documenting the materiality of the medium narrating events in ink on paper. At the same time, they confront us as their viewers with our blind spots. Blind spots that happen to occur in the moment whenever we detach photos of their medium and remove them from contexts to see them as nothing but signifiers of a visible world in which we seemingly locate ourselves. In an all amazing manner, Sparagana’s photographic images show a transformation rarely experienced when viewed in person, depending on how one distances oneself in the exhibition space before them. At one moment they appear as enlargements viewed with a magnifying glass and blown out of proportion, then again as a striking visual images almost occupying the three dimensional room. When look at however in print on catalog pages or on the screen, this impressive effect does not set. (Which is why the links above are actually misleading: and yet serve as sign posts to spot the images somewhere in reality!) Thus, John Sparagana’s works convey many adverse viewing options one has to come to terms with in an instant to determine oneself in relation to the images viewed. That does take time, be it only as much as it takes to make one step. The vista points they create by activating the viewers–and thereby sizing the space–are mutually exclusive, and yet we understand them as they also present at the same time. What they convey is a sense of disruptive time in view of what is visible and what is not, and this testifies to an essential non-simultaneity in the viewer him- or herself.

    • Jean Kempf
      Posted 24. January 2014 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

      @Nils : the good thing is we are obviously interested in verydifferent types of images! I find Sparagana’s images extremely challenging as a visual experience, but I fail to see their (specifically) photographic nature. In other words — and despite their phenomenological interest — they are not photographs per se. And I still/yet/however believe there is something in the photo/nic/graphic process. In a way it reminds me of experiments of transforming the signal recording a digital image into sound/light show/mash ups or other manipulation (and imagination of visual artists today is limitless)

      • Nils Plath
        Posted 29. January 2014 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

        Yes, I agree about differences, and I am glad to admit it, and yet I think the striking difference might be not in the choice of objects of interests but in how we apply criteria to gain perspective. Even more interesting! I would certainly have difficulties to master the task of defining what you called ‘photographs per se’, or the „(specifically) photographic nature“ of particular images. And yet, I am all in where you mention the “photo/nic/graphic process” as what intrigues you (most?) – with its transformational character at work. Processing images, and how its transformation from context to context becomes an always anew challenge for one’s understanding and preconceived notions of the representational claims transported by and projected unto pictures (over the course of time), is of main interest for me, too.

  7. Posted 21. January 2014 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    @ François. You wrote:
    “I forgot the most important: who is “we”? What seems more and more apparent is that there is no ‘us’ in view of the photographic images any more.”
    I agree: In the endless stream of pictures we cannot see a collective ‘we’ indeed, but many isolated selves. Nevertheless it is possible to identify thought collectives, Denkkollektive (Ludwig Fleck), analysing the outburst of visual production and responding to it politically. Let us look back to the 1920’s when Walter Benjamin reflected the reproduction of images as a momentum of capitalist development – the consciousness industry. This was a very clever intellectual intervention to come to grips with the signs of the times (Zeitgeist) and was the beginning of alternative modes of media production – up to the present time.
    How can “think collectives” respond to the current explosion of images? One option is critical debate, and another option is artists or groups of artists challenging the hegemonist ways of image production by creating imaginative works of art – as artists always have been doing.
    So there is no reason to feel hopeless in the face of the image explosion. Just think and do something! -:)

    • François Brunet
      Posted 21. January 2014 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

      @ NIGG. Couldn’t agree more about “think collectives”. But the sentence you quote as mine is actually my quoting Nils Plath…. more soon.

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