Will give a lecture on her recent work: In The Wake
Monday 3rd April, 2017. Radcliff Institute, Harvard.
Register now and see you there!
The relationship between photography and death has been discussed throughout the history of the medium, most notably in Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes. This connection may seem fundamental and intrinsic, due to the seemingly unbreakable link between photography and reality. A photograph always “present” something, bearing witness to a moment. However, as Roland Barthes proposes, inevitably, this “present” moment already belongs to the past, “That-Has-Been”. So in this presence, there is an implied “absence”. “That-Has-Been”, but not anymore. A photograph is a trace, it confirms both presence and absence of the subject. The absence which is the fundamental result of the passage of Time. Through this absence, photography is related to death, since death is the ultimate and the last one. Photography is both our tool to protect ourselves from death by recording our lives and at the same time, it reminds us the inescapability.
Christian Metz, on his famous article “Photography and Fetish”, explains this connection by the concept of fetish. The fetish, too, means both loss (symbolic castration) and protection against loss. Photography is not just a way to recall memory, to survive it from fading. It is not against death, but works in a same principle. it captures a moment, stills it, shoots it, kills it. It kills a moment in order to save it from its death. It affirms death.
Photography has a third character in common with death: the snapshot, like death, is an instantaneous abduction of the object out of the world into another world, into another kind of time
When taking a photographs, in a moment that we decide to press the shutter, we mourn for the moment we are about to shoot, we looks at it for the last time. instead of experiencing that moment we decide to take a step back and place the camera between the world and ourselves. By distancing ourselves, we already killed that moment, what is recorded is only a shadow of it.
However, what will happen when we don’t take photographs in order to save them, to look at them later. What will happen when we share it instantly and never take a look at it again. When it never became a fetish “object” since it remains virtual forever. In this case, we may wonder if photography is liberated from death.
LARRY CLARK – TULSA SERIES
This week’s readings circled around the idea of enshrining a symbolic moment – the thin line between an event and the quotidian – be it via an image or in our memory , that cannot be recreated nor reproduced. A moment, between seduction and death, between birth and conception, that I relate to the almost magical instant of capturing an image that becomes timeless and iconographic. Does it become more real or truthful if represented by a photograph?
The Russian film Man with a Movie Camera (1929) directed by Dziga Vertov and edited by his wife Elizaveta Svilova is a celebration of movie making during the early days of cinema. This silent film is as much a documentary as an experimentation of techniques and styles. The tone established at the beginning generates great momentum and places the viewer right at the center of the process of the movie making experience. Not only is the camera and the photographer present within the frame in the movie, but we come in and out of the actual scenes/fiction to break down the editing process. To me, it feels like an allegory of labor and its interdependence with the machine working in unison towards progress. There is less concern with the magic of suspense of disbelief or storyline (where none seems to be present) and more emphasis on the process itself. The film acts as a catalog of possibilites, inventions and innovations in both still and moving images. I enjoyed experiencing a day in small time Russia seen though personal and impersonal experiences as an informative exercise. I recognize many of the techniques explored by photographers of the avant garde including birds eye, vertical framing, double exposure and many more.
I find it intriguing that Moholy-Nagy, in “From Pigment to Light” associates inability to use a camera with being illiterate. True, the phrasing of his sentence—“the illiterate of the future will be ignorant of the use of camera and pen alike”—is ambiguous enough that I can’t quite tell if he’s focusing on “technical inability to generate content in the medium” as the defining feature of illiteracy, or “inability to interpret messages in the medium,” or both. But it’s still an interesting thought experiment to draw a distinction between the two, and imagine what the various permutations of competencies in either would imply. Are the two skills synonymous? I image they’d be at least complimentary, but then I can absolutely imagine a case in which someone is great at recognizing the significance of photographs but terrible at creating new ones (and vice versa).
I’m curious how Alfred Kemeny’s pure exaltation of the political value of photomontage, and his simultaneous de-emphasis of any other value the medium might have (“it is becoming more and more obvious that the cognitive value of photomontage is inseparable from its role in the class struggle”) interfaces with the fact that there are artists—and viewers—who don’t see ‘politics’ as the defining characteristic of their interaction with photomontage, or artistic media in general. Yes, certainly it’s impossible to generate art outside the political context. But, this is an artifact of the fact that we live in politics. Politics are relations between people, at increasing levels of generality and group-size, and artists happen to be people.
But clearly Stieglitz’s view of art as “an outward manifestation of inner growth” shifts the emphasis away from the loaded word ‘politics’ and onto the subject of the richness of experience of the individual. My view is that focusing exclusively on ‘politics’ and its associated buzzwords leads to a kind of flattening of humanity. Though, the buzzwords are certainly helpful for enabling thought at higher levels of abstraction! But at the end of the day…there can be no politics without individuals. “There is no art, only artists.”
(Aside: I’m incredibly averse to commenting on systems that I don’t fully understand, and I think that’s why the individual-scale approach to art resonates more with me. I don’t feel like I’ve understood the base case, 1-person-to-small-group scenario enough to try to move on to aggregates of people [though certainly some amount of large-scale understanding is valuable to contextualize and inform whatever I’m still learning on the small scale].)
In Hollywood movies, Islamic terrorists often replace the Soviet espionage agents of the Cold War era as cinematic villains. In this fearful post 9/11 political environment, however, neither Hollywood filmmakers nor American policymakers have paid much attention to the conditions that foster terrorism.
The George W. Bush Administration’s answer to the rhetorical question “why do they hate us” was simply that terrorists were envious of American freedom and prosperity. – Terrorism on Screen: Lessons from The Battle of Algiers, Ron Briley, October 2010
This can obviously be seen as an attempt to continue neo-colonial operations and vilify local resistance. Interestingly, many intriguing questions about the legacy of Western colonialism in the Middle East are engaged in The Battle of Algiers.
In this cinematic examination of the Algerian struggle for independence from French colonialism during the late 1950s and early 1960s, Pontecorvo exposes the ambiguous legacy of imperialism in Western efforts to combat indigenous resistance and terrorism. The film depicts the indigenous Algerians with significant depth and agency, revealing their motivations in ousting the French. The Italian filmmaker also suggests that French counterinsurgency tactics such as torture may have won the Battle of Algiers but eventually led to the failure of the French to maintain their colony in Algeria. There is a constant deconstruction of the colonial apparatus, and subversion of the orientalist image of the Algerians as uncivilised people in need of European leadership.
Pontecorvo exposes the stereotypes used to shape and dis-empower people of the ‘East’, with a scene revolving around the bombing of several public places by Algerian women. The French regard the Algerian women with fear and believe they lack agency, though when the women are disguised as French they are promptly sexualised. The same scene deals with the constructed notion of ‘a threat’ by the colonial apparatus, where the degree of threat is determined by the degree of resemblance to cultural caricatures. This of course proves to be fatal to the French.
Lastly Pontecorvo does not justify violence. We see the camera capture intimately the last moments of many of the victims on both sides. It also often beautifully captures the hesitation of many committing violence, depicting ultimately the extent to which a population needs to be pushed to descend to violence.
Images have the power to reveal ignored realities or consequences of actions, such as the ‘Napalm Girl’ which revealed the effects of chemical warfare. It ultimately turned the tide of public opinion against the American war in Vietnam. This image revealed the kind of details that are an integral part of what war is about, but often whitewashed and camouflaged by patriotic imagery glorifying war instead. “Raising the Flag on Mount Suribachi” is clearly the later. The image shifts the conversation about the tragedy of the WW2 and its consequences that we still experience today, to one of glorification and American victory. The first image of soldiers, straining to plant an American flag, depict a uniformly clothed anonymous group of men. The photo, whose composition perfectly represents physical labour has been re-appropriated through jingoistic usage in the media to dominate the public perception of WW2 ever since. I would argue that it continues to be one of the iconic pictorial depictions of the ideology of American exceptionalism. I see the reenactment of this image at Ground Zero as again, triumph against external destructive forces. There is nothing wrong with the spirit of hope embodied in these images as such, but reproduction of an image in a context creates meaning and association. This meaning can used to manufacture memories of events. Similarly the “George Eastman Membership House Brochure” through its seemingly innocuous depiction of a child as an education trope, reinforces the society’s assumptions about a model citizen being male and white. One must not forget the context this image inhabited, when black war veterans returned to their home country where they could not vote, and black identity itself was considered a deviation from the norm.
Lentil Soup rightly places the lens at the centre of the image centric culture of today. Growing up in an age where the scale of inquire has been shaped by the microscope and the telescope, it is difficult to conceive of a perception devoid of scientific knowledge. The ability to create an image which exists but is imperceptible, and further use that vision to further our knowledge of the universe starts with Galileo and the lens. The lens plays only the role of facilitator, the use of the device depends entirely on the zeitgeist. It is possible to further expand the former statement. The usage of a photograph in the 1900s was very different from the possible usages of an image now. Besides the availability of a lens for production, in today’s world there are software which anticipate the image, and online platforms to politicise the image. We have arrived at a point in which we understand the world through these shared images, and relying less on actual experience. This endows the image with immense power. These platforms also negate the idea of an image as a neutral truthful object.
“This was startling because the Western world is, arguably, the be most visually sophisticated culture in recorded history.”
My criticism of this essay though is embodied in the quote above, where Coleman falls back on orientalist stereotypes, clubbing the West as a monolithic culture of immense visual sophistication. He seems to consider the lens as a device native to the ‘West’ but planted forcibly in the ‘East’ contradicting the accepted history of the lens which traces back to the Egyptians and Mesopotamians, further reformed by the medieval Islamic world. It is quite evident from the above example that even the origin of a supposedly neutral device can be distorted by socio-cultural biases. Can the lens and the image allow us to confront and preempt our biases? The body cams on police have succeeded in doing so, thereby taking contemplation on the image and film to a more sophisticated level. Currently interfacing with the image allows us to confront and modify reality.
My initial response to essential articles on photography (such as Benjamin, Santag, Barthes, etc) that had been written almost half a century ago is to re-evaluate them based on the current condition of photography (I prefer not to use the ambiguous term of contemporary). Not to simply reject them, but to point out the differences and to understand the underlying meanings of taking/making a photograph today. From this perspective, I would like to discuss two ideas in the Bazin’s texts supposed as ontological traits of photography and to suggest that the medium is now somehow liberated form these two presumedly innate qualities of it.
from the moments of its advent till now, the consequences of photography’s invention on painting had been exhausted by artists, critics and philosophers. Photography liberated the painting from the act of objective representing, allow it to take a look back into itself, to devote itself to its “modernist” essence. As Jan Francois Lyotard put it into words : “[to] present the unpresentable”. However, the objectiveness of photography, its’ spiritual bond with the Reality, the myth of capturing and saving a moment from the flow of time, from its death, is no more important. Not that it was true and now it has been falsified. The relationship between Reality and photography bear interest no more.
the crisis in this relation can be seen from each side. At one hand, postmodernist thinkers alerted that the Reality is not existing anymore. Photography and other lens-based media, image in general, swallowed it. Images no more refer a world out there, but to their own hyperreality. References without referents: Simulacra. On the other hand, the digital revolution fundamentally changes the ways photographs are produced, distributed and consumed. The photograph is no more consist of continuous grains of silver but discrete arrays of pixels which can be manipulated in an indefinite ways much easier than its analogue predecessor. The goal is no more to reach a representation exactly as the real one. Also, the product is no more an object belongs the same reality anymore. It is even possible to ask if a digital file is an object anymore?
The Photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it.
From this standpoint, it is possible to argue that photography is now freed from the task of representation, in a same vain that painting liberated more than a century ago. The new tendency toward abstraction in nowadays photography can be explained by this approach. Also it can be said that the photographic paper, the sensitive material that had to bear the weight of reality is also liberated from it. When the images lives in the digital world, the artist can explore the possibilites of a light sensitive material without worrying about reality. There is no wonder that the recent trend of abstraction is tied to the idea of exploration of the photographic material.
Still, we should not carelessly cry out the end of photography. In the last two decades of digital technology we have been observing the mutable nature of photography. Photography can still be a representation of one of the many realities. (Though there is many realities, there is no alternative facts). However, This representation is no more valid than a painting, or a video game. The documentary aspect of photography and its’ objectiveness can no more supersede the “conditions of the time and space that govern it”.
-P.S : The second part will be on the relationship between photography and death.