5. A Subject for, a History about, Photography
Veröffentlicht: 17.10.2012
in der Serie Photography and Dissemination
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My previous posts have explored the various ramifications of photography’s reproducibility, pursuing the way this attribute disseminates the photograph, securing, dispersing and dissipating its identity in about equal measure. I have suggested that this pursuit considerably complicates the traditional representation of photography’s history, undermining any narrative based on single artists or single prints or indeed on chronology or purity of medium—undermining, in other words, much of the traditional infrastructure of published histories of photography.I began my contributions with a brief commentary on the famous essay by Walter Benjamin about the social and political effects of reproduction, an essay that I suggested had not generated the kind of sustained investigation of photography’s reproducibility that one might have expected. There is a particularly challenging passage in that essay deserving of such an investigation: “Just as the entire mode of existence of human collectives changes over long historical periods, so too does their mode of perception. The way in which human perception is organized—the medium in which it occurs—is conditioned not only by nature but by history.” Benjamin has his own thoughts on this issue (he speaks of a perception “whose ‘sense for all that is same in the world’ has so increased that, by means of reproduction, it extracts sameness even from what is unique”) but I wonder if we could finish my contributions, written roughly two hundred years after the medium’s conception, by reflecting on photography’s accumulative effects on “human perception,” even on human subjectivity in general?

As we have seen, reproduction has exponentially increased the audience for certain photographs, thus securing photography’s presence in the culture. But the price for this has been a disconnection of the photographic image from photography itself, blurring any firm distinction of form and substance, and introducing the post-medium condition that digital technologies have since only exacerbated and prolonged.In other words, once it was harnessed to the engine of reproducibility, photography could not help but be haunted by its own ghosts. Much the same could be said about those subjected to it. A photographic portrait, for example, affirms one’s place in time and space but also functions to divide the sitter from him or her self, creating an experience of temporal and spatial dislocation that is distinctively photographic and peculiarly modern. Such a portrait is an image seemingly produced by the very bodies that are represented, as if those bodies have left a part of themselves, as a visual trace, on a two-dimensional surface. Not necessarily a truthful rendition of appearance or personality, a photographic portrait is nevertheless an indisputable certification of each photographed subject’s presence in some past moment. The photograph both confirms the reality of a sitter’s existence and remembers it, potentially surviving as a fragile talisman of that existence even after its subject has passed on. But that very same photograph, by placing its referent indisputably in the past, is itself a kind of mini-death sentence, a prediction of the subject’s ultimate demise at some future time. That’s because photographs certify times past but also time’s inevitable passing--and with it, our own. Each portrait therefore embodies a paradoxical message, speaking simultaneously of life and death even while suspending the subject somewhere in between.

Unknown (USA), Seated woman with shadow of photographer, 1940s (written on verso: “This was taken out front. boo the shadow”)

To look at such a photograph of oneself is to become the subject and object of one’s own gaze. It’s an uncanny encounter, being confronted with your own virtual other. You are looking at a thing that happens to be a trace of yourself. You have been turned into that thing by a picture-making machine, and in image form you can now be bought and sold, exchanged or distributed, just like any other manufactured thing. Among all its other consequences, photography commodifies one’s relationship to one’s self, instituting a mode of representation that simultaneously reassures and alienates, secures and divides, all who are subjected to it. In short, the experience of being photographed embodies the processes and effects of capitalism in their entirety.

Once again we are confronted with the unruly, fractured nature of this thing we too simply call photography. But also of what is at stake in its study—subjectivity itself. My posts to Still Searching have suggested that a tracing of photography’s dissemination, as evidenced in particular photographic instances of repetition and difference, reveals the medium always to be fraught with its own divided and multiplied identities. One can find evidence of the effects of this division and multiplication wherever we look, from photography’s beginnings to the present, in high art as well as vernacular practices, in the West and elsewhere around the planet, in the photograph and in our experience of it. Certainly an investigation of photography’s reproducibility has allowed, even forced, me to address issues and practices insufficiently dealt with by existing scholarship. I have proposed here that a pursuit of this one theme might therefore offer up a productive way of writing a new kind of history for photography.

Abandoning the linear narrative structure and hierarchical values of most existing histories of photography, this new version would seek to engage the medium’s entire history at once and as part of the same story. Chronology must be discarded as an organizing principle in favor of clusters of specific “practices” of photographic reproduction drawn from throughout the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Art can of course be included (as it has been in my posts) but ordinary and vernacular practices will necessarily dominate any history that attempts to tell us something useful about photography as a total phenomenon. On this basis, our histories of photography can at last abandon the effort to be comprehensive (an impossible and perhaps even dangerous ambition anyway) and instead aim to be at least representative.

What I’ve tried to persuade you is that, if we are to finally to have a history that seeks to tell us something useful about photography, that tells us what photography does and how and why it does it, a traditional narrative centered on origins, great individual achievements, and purity of medium will simply no longer be adequate. We need to set about inventing a mode of photographic history that matches the complexity of actual photographs. In short, we need to come up with an entirely new kind of history for photography.

Thank you for reading.

6 Kommentar(e)
Charlotte Cotton
Abgesendet am 21.10.2012 um 20:57

Dear Geoffrey,

It has been a pleasure and, as always, a generous education to have been reading your ideas over the past weeks. I’m going to take a lot away from the experience of following you on such a confident journey into the next paradigm for thinking about photography. You have mapped out the case for the work to be done that will better delineate the wonderful sprawl of the medium’s meaning – both as beautifully rich and specific histories but also as a brilliantly mercurial medium that is in relation to broad clusters of human endeavor and perception.

Kelley Wilder
Abgesendet am 23.10.2012 um 12:12

Dear Geoffrey,

I couldn't agree more! Your call to look for 'practices', or as Elkins has sometimes called it, 'families of practice', has already begun and is likely to continue. Jettisoning the values of the singular, the authored and the valuable will broaden our understanding not only of newly discovered areas of photographic practice, but of those areas that have already been researched.

The one thing that I would like to add is that we will have to begin to look to areas of study that have dealt with the notions of practices, like philosophy of science perhaps, or science and technology studies or anthropology or social geography, to develop good rigorous methods for dealing with the material that such a broad outlook will inevitably contain. Proposing these changes means proposing a sea change in the way we teach photographic history, the kinds of texts we read, and the archival sources we use for research.

Thank you for the thought provoking writing you have provided us these last weeks.

David Campany
Abgesendet am 23.10.2012 um 23:59

Thanks Geoffrey. To “seek to engage the medium’s entire history at once” while “abandoning the effort to be comprehensive” will be quite a challenge. Lead on.

Geoff Batchen
Abgesendet am 25.10.2012 um 01:36

Thank you all for all the encouragement. On David's "challenge": I would argue (I have argued, in Photography Degree Zero), that Barthes's Camera Lucida already offers a model of such a history, a history that, in a relatively few pages, tells us more about photography as a social and personal experience than Frizot's entire 776 page New History of Photography. The real challenge is to build on Barthes's provocation and accept it as an historical, rather than just a theoretical, model.

Remy Amezcua
Abgesendet am 25.10.2012 um 18:14

Thank you Geoffrey,
It’s with great pleasure that I have been reading your essays on a weekly basis.
On the one hand your ideas make me think of Moholy Nagy and his insight on illiteracy and the camera. He seams to have predicted in 1936 the advent of digital photography and it’s exponential use.
Your take on History as being representative will aid the notion that Photography could become a language with its multi layered ways of understanding it. Photography, like language, has many different points of entry and can be understood in multiple ways.
Your essay’s conclusion makes me think that a new take on the history of the medium could start with a consideration of A. D. Coleman’s essay “Lentil Soup” and the importance he gives to the lens. Their seams to be an obvious connection between the lens and the industrial revolution, the connection being our obsession with the camera’s apparent accuracy in regards to the reproduction of reality and the mass production aspect of the industrial revolution.
The fact is that the medium can “recreate” transient moments ad infinitum, moments that are ironically “dead upon arrival” (and are often posthumously understood by the way of remembrance).
As you say, the reproducibility aspect is at the core of the medium and an effort to understand it is necessary. Maybe we are ready to see the world of the image through the lens of John Berger and his “Ways of Seeing”. Value and importance are tied at the hip, maybe to the medium’s detriment. Perhaps one could argue that the digital age and the incremental rise of vernacular photography might give it a much needed and welcomed spin by adding “vernacular memory” to the mix.

Geoff Batchen
Abgesendet am 31.10.2012 um 02:13

Thanks for your kind words Remy. Yes, Moholy-Nagy was quite prescient, including a photograph transmitted by electric telegraph--in effect, a digital image--in his 1925 book Painting Photography Film. A history of the lens is obviously important to our understanding of photography, but I would be a little nervous about any account that assumes a technical determinism, including those accounts that see digital photography as an entirely new practice, just because it represents the advent of new kinds of cameras. Similarly, I am a big fan of Ways of Seeing (the provocation is already there in its title), and would hope that there are many ways of seeing the history of photography yet to be presented.

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