4. Sharing Seeing
Veröffentlicht: 02.07.2013
in der Serie Photographic Relationality
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“I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor.”

I am citing Roland Barthes, from the opening of his book on photography, Camera Lucida. I want my post this week—a shorter post than usual, a set of questions or ponderings more than an essay—to act as a kind of postscript to last week’s entry.

I intimated there that photography invokes a rethinking of vision, of the look and of the gaze. Surely this is well-trodden territory. But is it exhausted? Does it need to be re-opened? Last week, my subject was the irreconcilability at the heart of photographic seeing, the non-coincidence of the gaze in photography as one of its most essential features. But there is of course another set of relations attached to the photographic gaze that needs further reflection. I am thinking now not of non-coincidence, but of doubling; I am thinking of what I want to call the recursive structure of photographic sight that non-coincidence spawns.

This is what Barthes names at the opening of his book. I am looking, the critic marvels, at eyes that saw... a ruler, a figure of history, the Emperor, providing a new and wondrous attachment to the past. Rather than this understanding of Barthes’ wonder, however, I want to shift our attention to the recursiveness of the situation, to its unstated or unrepresented conditions.

“I am looking at eyes that looked...”

Barthes’ passage directs our attention to the eyes within the picture, to the gaze of the photographic subject. But nothing disallows us from dissociating this structure from that which a photograph gives to be seen. In other words, I am interested and wondering about not just the gazes and the eyes and the looks that we might see in a given photograph. I am wondering instead about the looks and the gazes that structure the photograph’s form. I am wondering instead about why we haven’t spoken much in photography history and photography theory about the fact that every photograph involves, at the least, and as its structure, two gazes, two looks. We look at the photograph, and in doing so look through someone else’s eyes, or (even if we are the photographer) at the very least through the camera’s eye. In other words, in Barthes’ photograph, we look at the scene produced by eyes that looked at the eyes that looked at the Emperor.

Is this not a momentous development in the history of vision? The arrival of photographic reproducibility means, among other things, this: that the act of seeing can now itself be reproduced. And in its reproduction, experienced again. Why has this not been the focus of our attention? Reproducibility is not just about the objects within the photograph, not just about the photograph as object, not just about the scene of representation. Photographic reproducibility extends and doubles the irreducible singularity of the gaze, of looking, of the act of seeing and perception that the photograph concretizes. (Yes, of course I’m talking about lens-based practices here; but can even this be made more elastic?)

Does this idea about reproducibility mean that seeing—precisely in its non-coincidence—can be shared? That this primordial act of individuation and subjectivization, the act of looking that has for so long been taken to found the sovereignty of the subject, suddenly—with photography—becomes multiple, unmoored from a singular set of eyes, set loose upon the world to repeat, and to be repeated again? As opposed to doubling, or technical reproducibility, the photograph as recursive structure makes emphatic that every photograph is the product of multiple gazes—that each photograph instantiates a structure of “seeing again,” of seeing redoubled.

Momentous? Or utterly cliché? I am, and expect my reader might be, torn. The program of “sharing seeing” might be an apt description for the most trite and tired models of documentary photography the history of the medium has ever known. I surely do not want to be heard as arguing for a return to such “humanist” models of documentary.

In her book World Spectators, Kaja Silverman begins with a chapter entitled “Seeing for the Sake of Seeing.” Here, she undoes many entrenched understandings of vision and visuality, employing a psychoanalytic model to arrive at the inherently “recursive” nature of sight itself. For the theorist, each act of vision is a form of “seeing again.” This is so for Silverman’s model of vision internalizes the Freudian notion of desire, the finding of an object as the re-finding of a lost object, thus: “Every act of visual affirmation,” Silverman writes, “...occurs not only via the incarnation of a formless and unspecifiable nonobject of desire, but also via the visual reincarnation of previous incarnations.” And this: “The world spectator is consequently not just someone to whom the past returns, but someone who holds himself open to the new form it will take—who anticipates and affirms the transformative manifestation of what was in what is.”

For such a model of vision, photography indeed represents a momentous event in the history of human culture. Perhaps it would not be an exaggeration to position the invention of photography as the necessary achievement of this more complex understanding of human vision—its potentially inherent recursive structure, its need to open itself to the structure of “seeing again.” (And here we could cue the thinking of a figure like Jacques Derrida, undoing the “presence” so often attributed to perception and to the visual in our culture; “seeing again,” recursivity, and photography-as-the-doubled-gaze undoes such ideas from the start.) The light writing of the photograph is the prosthesis not of super vision, machine vision, a technological sight—it is the crutch of our less heroic need to see again what has been seen before, to share in this deeper sense the scene of the visual.

I want to know more about this structure—the recursive structure of the photograph. I want to understand how we might radicalize the idea of “sharing seeing.” It would surely not be to aggrandize the photographer, to proclaim an aesthetic of sharing “individual visions”—the aristocracy of the photographic auteur that art photography long proclaimed.

What instead would it be? What could it look like? My concern throughout the past weeks has been with viewers more than authors, with experiences created by photography rather than the object or the medium in itself.

Since I ended last week with the work of Sharon Lockhart, very briefly, I thought I might take up her work again—if only once more too briefly.  Lockhart has been lumped by certain critics in the camp of the “constructed” photograph, the staged and appropriated image, the postmodern legacy that emphasizes the twisted irreality of the photograph as signifier. For a long time, her engagements with images modeled on cinema, photographic scenes borrowed from filmic images (and it must be said, vice versa), would seem to confirm Lockhart as working in the lineage of an artist like Cindy Sherman. But her most interesting projects evince other qualities. Primary among these is the hybrid place her works occupy precisely between reality and fiction, between documentary images and cinematic ones, between observation and construction, and this often in hermetic or almost invisible ways.

For example, many of Lockhart’s Untitled photographs, cinematic tableaus, seem based on image models—from the history of art or mass culture—but these models have remained uncertain. It now seems clear that many of these “constructed” images are the re-working by the artist—recursively, we might say—of snapshots, documentary images, of her own past, her family albums, photographed again. Calling each of the original images an Untitled Study (re-photographed snapshot), Lockhart has been engaged in a long process of analysis of her own photo-biography, a process of re-photographing her own intimate collection of photographs. Nominating these re-photographed snapshots as “studies,” the artist then submits the image to a further repetition—engaging actors, and sets, and lighting, to replicate various elements of her re-photographed scenes.

Here are some links, some examples, of Lockhart’s Untitled Study series. They are only now being shown for the first time in exhibition (previously they were sometimes reproduced, mysteriously, and fitfully, in catalogs), in the show in Poland to which I provided links in my last post’s comments section.

Sharon Lockhart, Untitled Study (re-photographed snapshot #4), 1998:


Sharon Lockhart, Untitled Study (re-photographed snapshot #7), 1998:


Some earlier examples:




And here is a still from Lockhart’s film Pine Flat, 2005—a film that approaches the stillness of photography, and whose “documentary” scenes representing children performing simple actions in nature approximate in various ways these earlier photographic scenes, these personal snapshots—these self-images. I will let the reader draw their own connections between this still and the images that preceded.


Enacted here as both image and process, Lockhart’s projects develop a modality of what I would want to call the photograph’s recursiveness, the project of “sharing seeing.” Rather than a simple—or perhaps better—a “simplified” structure of seeing again what was seen before, rather than viewers simply consuming the products of the photographer as author, seeing what the artist sees, “sharing seeing” emerges when the recursive structure of seeing employs the photograph to reach beyond the self, beyond the subject. Modeling what she sees on what she has seen before, creating images that settle between self-portraits and ethnographic documents, allowing memory images to be instantiated in new forms and events out in the world at large, Lockhart’s practice uses this recursiveness to unsettle our categories and expectations—including producer and viewer, photographer and audience—for photographic objects today.

11 Kommentar(e)
Amir Zaki
Abgesendet am 02.07.2013 um 17:51

Hi George. I enjoyed this reading. I'd like to address this part, which seems at the core of what you are talking about:

"The arrival of photographic reproducibility means, among other things, this: that the act of seeing can now itself be reproduced. And in its reproduction, experienced again."

My experience as someone who has made a fair amount of photographs and watches the development of students' practices of making photographs, is that the most interesting images are precisely those that do not end up reproducing sight. It seems to me that one of the strengths of photography is that odd (and at times ineffable) disharmony between what is experienced/seen and what is represented as a flat piece of paper on the wall. How to finesse and cultivate the transformation that happens from experiencing an event in real time to a two-dimensional dead object is what has always held my interest as an artist using the medium. The experience of looking at a great photograph is a new experience of seeing, quite unlike the experience of seeing a scene to be photographed. It involves scrutinizing (scanning) both the organization of form on a surface as well as interpreting the references that are transformed and represented. This is probably why I am more often than not less interested in portraits, because they often (certainly not always) seem to reduce the potentially active experience of looking at a photograph (all of it) to looking at a specific subject (like looking into someone's eyes). For me, this attempt at mimesis always falls short. This also explains why most photographs of awesome and beautiful places in the world like tourist destinations are totally dissatisfying. When I give students an assignment to photograph a location, they tend to want to go to an 'interesting place'. This is usually a mistake. Interesting places don't normally translate to interesting photographs. Real time looking and experience is unique and incredible. Photography can also be unique and incredible, but for me that is when it transforms the world in a strange and nuanced way, reorganizing it to create an experience of viewing that is simply related to, but not a reproduction of what took place in front of the lens. Once of the things about Camera Lucida that always got under my skin a little is that Barthes' examples are almost entirely portraits, yet he speaks so universally about photography. His emphasis on the particularities of a portrait seem to pretend that what he is experiencing by looking at a photograph are like what the photographer saw. I'll stop here for now. Maybe some examples of portraits that I like will be enlightening. Maybe not...



anything from this body of work:

megan driscoll
Abgesendet am 02.07.2013 um 18:51

Thank you, George.

Reading this entry, then returning to "Blind Spot" to re-read them both together, the word that comes to mind is "humility." To consider photographs of the blind as engaging in an ethical highlighting and, potentially, shifting of the power dynamics of the gaze, and then immediately to consider Lockhart's recursive images and the "sharing seeing" that structures them: this seems humbling, to both photographer and viewer (and, perhaps, the unseen and unstable eye that hovers around the double look that separates us). And it seems to ask both to engage in a kind of humility of vision, one that is open to a changed relationality in which we must simultaneously consider seeing, being seen, seeing again, and, finally, sharing the operation of sight. As you've described it, this becomes a process that opens us up to the world's desire to be seen without offering us mastery in the act of seeing it.


linda cummings
Abgesendet am 05.07.2013 um 19:46


So glad I stumbled onto your thoughts…which are very engaging and help articulate an experience I too, as photographer and teacher, seek to appreciate more fully - that is the intimacy of seeing - and how to more consciously share in that process with others. Questioning how a new picture of what is possible emerges (in the mind, in the camera, in the world) is central to my photographic practice.

Your observations prioritize the act, and the relational experience of the photographic process over the technological, or machine vision. What I find so helpful is your recognition of the power of viewers in the process of the making of the image, and their “the less heroic need to see again what has been seen before”. Your writing positions the technological achievement of photography within the larger frame of human need, as a bi-directional operation and relational dynamic, which then opens the potential for movement, re-arrangement and change. Within this relational dynamic, it seems to me, a “third view” emerges that enlarges the scope of what is possible to experience, to see and to imagine...

...be that what Amir describes as transformational, “an experience of viewing that is simply related to, but not a reproduction of what took place in front of the lens…”, or Megan’s image of a kind of “humility of vision….a process that opens us up to the world’s desire to be seen without offering us master in the act of seeing it.”

George Baker
Abgesendet am 08.07.2013 um 00:46

My apologies for my silence--since this post I have been traveling and writing for another project. I want to thank all three of you for your posts and observations. Amir, if you are still out there listening, I wonder if I could ask you why the Imogen Cunningham image of Cary Grant was your first example for the set of thoughts you shared? Of a good photograph not reproducing "seeing."

In many ways, of course, I agree with you. And your feelings seem not only (to my mind) to meet up with our recent concerns with the object status of the photograph, with the medium, with a broadly "materialist" practice of photography--as such practices have drastically differentiated themselves from the "representationalist" fallacies potentially at play here, in my post (I'm thinking of what Walead Beshty has called the idea of the photograph as "picture"). But your feelings above also seem to descend from the central core of modernist beliefs about the great potentials of photography as a practice. It was, for example, in the Soviet debates on photography in the late 1920s that we see stated with the most extreme precision the manner in which photographic vision is to be understood as discontinuous with human perception; and this is its great promise. The New Vision in photography stems from such beliefs.

But I am writing against them here.

I think the best I can do to "respond" or add to your comments at the moment is to build upon Megan's and Linda Cumming's statements above. It seems that there is a way perhaps to discuss the feeling you have before a good photograph, of how it doesn't reproduce the act of seeing, as an important lesson for how we conceive (or now re-conceive) "seeing." This is where I would embrace Megan's term "humility"--the notion that seeing is masterful and self-aware is not the concept of it that I'm working with here. Maybe that is obvious, I don't know. And maybe it doesn't exactly speak to your criticisms or observations. But there might be something in the experience that you name that is--precisely--what I think photography can teach us about "seeing."

But regardless, ultimately, of whether we experience congruence ("sharing seeing" as a phrase leans this way, I admit) or incongruity, dissonance, the non-coincidence I prioritized last week--we are dealing with a multiplication of acts of seeing, even in your description of the disconnect between taking the image, seeing the photograph, or looking at the world not in a photographic form. The redoubling of seeing, the multiplying of gazes, the structure involved here: however we ultimately decide to approach its ability to be described, this is what I am interested in exploring further.

Amir Zaki
Abgesendet am 09.07.2013 um 16:05

Hi George. It's a good question why I chose the Cunningham image of Cary Grant. For one thing, it came to mind first. Some images form a kind of deep groove and are not shaken easily. I show that photograph to students when I teach beginning photography and talk about portraiture. Needless to say, I've seen it many many times (never in person, which ought to be noted). One thing about the image is that I remember it differently than it looks. Every time I see it, it surprises me. I remember qualities about the simple but beautiful light. I remember something about his sweater (fuzzy?) and something about the background (stone, brick, wood?). I remember something about the open space in the image. I am probably in the minority here, but I am completely uninterested in the fact that the image is of someone famous, a celebrity, Cary Grant. In some ways, I think I like this image so much because it doesn't need Cary Grant and what he symbolizes to be a good photograph. I am interested in the way the artist organizes the initial experience and atmosphere into an image that transcends what it was like to 'be there'.

In terms of the similarity of my views and those of modernists and the New Vision, there is a sense in which I would completely agree. However, I think that my relationship to digital technology complicates and undermines that read to some degree. I normally align myself with specific ideas, and not movements. But, this is another subject.

Thanks for getting me to talk about that Cunningham photograph. That was fun.

Joanna Fiduccia
Abgesendet am 09.07.2013 um 02:48

Dear George,

At the risk of abasing this conversation, ‘shared seeing’ seems to have become some of the most common seeing we do. Sights shared, I mean, on social media, where such sharing is often a matter of broadcasting impromptu photographs of our experience—‘sharing,’ that is, ‘(what I’m) seeing.’ I don’t want to make too much of the similarity between social media sharing and ‘sharing seeing,’ however, since their differences might be far more instructive. To be Benjaminian about it, it is as though the model of vision you describe—a truth about the recursive, refracted structure of seeing—has ‘flashed up in a moment of danger’ brought on by Tumblrs and Instagrams. This latter sharing, facilitated by the apparent apotheosis of the camera’s democratization, seems to invert your ‘shared seeing.’ Generally speaking, it is a non- or an-ethical action, for one, that rather than recognize the limits to the gaze, seems to extend it indefinitely. And to take up Megan’s term, it’s hardly humble. It is also—and I think this might be one of the reasons it makes some of us queasy—a manner of capitalizing, or even monetizing, our subject-as-consumerhood, shoring up a hollow subjectivity. This makes the photograph’s challenge to the sovereign subject, as you describe it, seem precious and emancipatory today, revealing itself just in time or perhaps a little too late.


George Baker
Abgesendet am 09.07.2013 um 21:45


This is very brilliant. Clearly your set of thoughts need to be expanded. Also clearly, the art world's development of an obsession with the "relational" needs to be understood--eventually hopefully it will be understood--in its coincidence with the rise of the social network, the capitalization and colonization of a form or forms of everyday life as the Situationists used to put it, with the withering of a former kind of social relation as its precondition.

The question is whether this is all it can be, the art world's interest in the relational. Surely, without being explicit about it, my project of sketching out trajectories for thinking a "relational field" for photography is in dialog with the experiences and the idea of network and communication you detail above. The "terrible connectedness" as Paul Chan has long put it.

Another question: Is the Benjaminian option the only one? It is always too late, and I sometimes celebrate it for that, but the flowering of the obsolescent, the photograph's current bloom if not its explosion - can we narrate this differently? For example, your description above made me chuckle (kindly, sweetly, I hope) when you described the Benjaminian "moment of danger" "brought on by Tumblrs and Instagrams." The idea that Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram could be part of a moment of danger - we know increasingly how real this is visavis surveillance and capital both, but it still manages to bring a laugh to me, the very idea of it, the ludicrousness of it. Can we exacerbate the danger? Can we move through this kind of network, this kind of relation, this kind of "sharing" to another dynamic? It's Brecht versus Benjamin, again, and again, you see. You will already know.

I'll keep thinking on this.

Andrea Gyorody
Abgesendet am 09.07.2013 um 23:39

Dear George,

I, too, must admit that when I read this post, my mind immediately went to the proliferation of shared sights through social media. I found myself a bit depressed that the contemporary ubiquity of images has not fulfilled any utopian promise of true shared experience or points of view or generosity toward one another. And so I wondered, then, what criteria or conditions determine whether "shared seeing" (in the way that you intend the term) is even possible? It is a beautiful idea, but one that requires a precarious constellation of factors to come together in the instant of encounter. The photograph itself is just one element among many in that encounter; the viewer and her condition of viewing the photograph may be even more important, and more unreliable, determinants of whether "shared seeing" can occur. I'm not sure that we can point to particular examples of photographs, absent of a specific viewing public and a form of appearance (whether in exhibition, print, etc.), and say that they make shared seeing possible. It seems as though instances of shared seeing might be like Barthes' punctum, as I've always understood it--perhaps it exists somewhere in the photographs themselves, but it exists just as equally in the individual viewer for whom that photograph somehow enables or facilitates the realization of shared sight. But perhaps what you're saying is that some photographs, more than others, point to the possibility of that experience? I suppose as much as I'm compelled by the idea of shared seeing, I'm also attached to the notion that sight/vision is highly individual and personal (while also culturally conditioned, which adds another possible dimension of incongruence or distance between photograph and viewer), and I'm not sure how to reconcile these competing ideas in any satisfying way.

Grüße aus Köln,

George Baker
Abgesendet am 10.07.2013 um 09:59

Hello Andrea! I'm so glad to hear from you here. While it is morning for you in Cologne, it is close to 1 am here for me in Los Angeles. It may not be possible for me to respond deeply until I think on this further.

I did give one "criterion" for shared seeing at the end of my post, with the example of how I understand Sharon Lockhart's photographs and films. (To be clear, this is my reading of them, not necessarily the reading of others, or the artist, etc.)

But I do want to underline one thing again: Part of the provocation of my post, I think, was its claim that ALL photographs are structured by more than one gaze, that all photographs potentially reproduce seeing, and thus that all photographs should be described in some more complex and recursive manner. Whether we are satisfied by the nature of this "sharing," whether it accomplishes a dynamic we recognize as "sharing," whether we acknowledge it or repress it in our dealings with photographic images: I simply want to underline that it is possible (and perhaps necessary) to see photography in this way, to describe the photograph in this way. When this description becomes possible, then more thinking is required. I'm not sure - it is not in me, at least - to think about criteria as the next necessary step.

I think the ubiquity of the structure is what is interesting. And almost always repressed. And now, as your and Joanna's posts have turned to social networks, in its repression opened up to capitalization, to colonization, in a kind of inverted form.

So rephrasing your welcome doubt a little bit (or a lot): "I’m not sure that we can point to particular examples of photographs, absent of a specific viewing public and a form of appearance (whether in exhibition, print, etc.), and say that they make shared seeing possible." I would say, instead, that all photographs--ok, maybe "abstract" or materialist photography, camera-less photography, are the great exceptions, as usual--all photographs make shared seeing possible. It is in the structure of photography to do so. Making this experience possible does not mean that it will be affirmed, internalized, transformed - the process of "reproduction" involved here, reproducing seeing, would be involved in such dynamics. Reproducing seeing does not equal technological reproduction.

"But perhaps what you’re saying is that some photographs, more than others, point to the possibility of that experience?"

I do think so. And it was another (intended) provocation of my post to locate this dynamic in a body of work some contemptuously (still!) denigrate as "constructed photography," the staged and "fictional" image-tableau. These critical terms are in quotes because they are to be rejected, and are no longer very helpful.

On your last points: I also am attached to what you are attached to, that "sight/vision is highly individual and personal." Photography may be a problem for our attachments, however. It should be so, I think, though we spend much energy making sure this is not the case. Photography, as I wanted to imagine it here, presents the possibility of a sight and a vision, a seeing, that is neither individual nor personal in the sense of belonging to a singular subject or self. This is almost impossible to realize or describe, but that is the difficulty of this set of relational dynamics. I don't think the road blocks you throw up at the end of your comments above are avoidable. They need to be confronted. But they won't be reconciled. And I think that is OK.

Christine Robinson
Abgesendet am 15.07.2013 um 07:08

Dear George,

Your post made me think of Sharon Lockhart’s Auditions series (1994)—five photographs based on a scene from François Truffaut’s film, L’Argent de poche (Small Change, 1976).


In each photograph, different pairs of children re-enact a first kiss between two actors in the film—and in doing so, blur reality and fiction. I think this series offers another example of the “recursiveness” you are exploring here—particularly in the translation from film to photography, and then from the duplication from one pair of children to another. With each couple, we “see again” the original scene through their own unique experience. The photographs also offer an opportunity of extended looking for the viewer, which opposes the temporality of the original filmic moment.

In your response to Andrea’s comments, you explain that “ALL photographs are structured by more than one gaze,” and yet I find myself trying to think of particular photographs that exhibit this kind of “shared seeing.” Perhaps the distinction that is helpful for me is to understand that we can approach all photographs in this way, and in addition, some artists, like Lockhart, are visually and conceptually exploring this recursive notion of “shared seeing.”


George Baker
Abgesendet am 16.07.2013 um 20:33

Thanks Christine.

I love the Audition series, and they are important in my personal trajectory as a critic of art--I still remember seeing them in one of Lockhart's first gallery shows in New York. These encounters sometimes ripen for years - and such has been my experience of this body of work, my thoughts on it.

A few years ago, presenting my ideas for a reading of Lockhart's photography to a small seminar in Europe, the cinema historian Tom Gunning pointed out to me that it was crucial and interesting that Lockhart named her series the "Auditions," and that this potentially "auditory" term was in every way different than what could otherwise seem one of the art historical precedents for the photographs, Andy Warhol's "Screen Tests." The "practice" and "testing" scenario of the "audition" gave way in this reaction and reading to the "listening" and "following" of the auditory, its encompassing and immersive qualities. I pondered Gunning's comments as I always do with his thoughts and responses, for a long time. In fact, in my work on Lockhart now, the issue of sound and the auditory, the idea of resonance and echo, has become deeply important. It is something that on its own can be traced through the work. (Think of the metronome ticking in Lockhart's most recent project Noa Eshkol.)

I bring this up, for your comment underlines something I have been struggling with - how to transform and alter the description of a project like Lockhart's, away from the older critical term "appropriation." An echo, or an "attunement" - to use another term I have applied to Lockhart's recursive images - is different than the process of replication that we normally take appropriation to involve. My current ideas on the relational are informed, deeply, by the transformation of ideas of appropriation at stake in Lockhart's generation of artists and photographers.

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