Tags, history of photography
5. The Spectre of the Digital

I finished my last post thinking about shifting notions of ‘importance’ and ‘relevance’. This has, in part, been driven by digital technologies and the financial, socio-political and ethical pressures on institutions to give access to their collections, and in ways that connect to contemporary users. Likewise the massive and ever-increasing swirl of images in circulation is, of course, digitally-based, raising very real questions about the very nature of ‘photography’. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 20.10.2016
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4. Exhibiting the New Historiographies

Which history of photography is told in museums? We are familiar with the usual parade of nineteenth-century photography such as Linnaeus Tripe, Roger Fenton and Julia Margaret Cameron, and then that of the great masters of the modernist canon who repeatedly adorn our gallery walls in some shape or other. These of course have their interest and their merits and such exhibitions have done much to raise the public sense that ‘photography is important.’ But what of the social history of photography, the photography that worked within people’s lives – those millions of humble and unremarkable photographs which mattered to people and which constitute the majority of photographs? mehr

Veröffentlicht: 13.10.2016
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3. More on Categories

This week I want to pick up on the question of categories which has resonated through my last two posts on institutions, hierarchies and non-collections. The extent to which the categories of disciplinary landscapes and languages shape research was brought home to me forcibly when last year I contributed to an ‘at the print’ class for art history students. We were in Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, a major and politically savvy anthropology collection. We pulled from the collection Julia Margaret Cameron’s famous portrait of Charles Darwin. Despite having ‘done’ a Cameron class some weeks before, the students seemed unable to recognise it in any way. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 03.10.2016
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5. Beyond Paul Strand: What Can Radical Photography Be?

I started this blog by posing some questions about the arbitrariness of dividing Paul Strand’s career into a late period of political subject matter and activism and an early period that seemed devoted primarily to formal concerns. Certainly, this is something of a straw man, because most of us would agree that the visual arts are inherently about shaping matter, with all its inherent recalcitrance, into form, regardless of the desired or received “meaning” of that shaped form. The other problem is, of course, what we intend by the terms, “political subjects” or “political art.” The gathering together of any people into a governing unit begins to constitute the body politic, so that virtually all social life in some sense can be read as “political.” However, historically we distinguish “political art”—art that is intentionally made to express a political party line or promote a particular government or policy position—from art that can be read as confirming a location within conflicting ideologies (which may cut across formal party platforms or regimes).  This latter sense of art as functioning politically and representing certain values that can be decoded has driven much of the social history of art in the past fifty years and is what I was striving to uncover in Strand’s enigmatic urban views. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 10.03.2015
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4. Rear Windows: Strand’s Backyards

In 1916, the same year that Paul Strand made his remarkable studies of lower-class types caught unawares by a disguised camera lens, he moved away from New York’s crowded streets to capture backyards visible from a bird’s-eye perspective.

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Veröffentlicht: 26.02.2015
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2. Reading Strand’s New York Photographs: City Hall Park

In my last post, I suggested that we should rethink how we might read “politics” into the works of Paul Strand.  I put “politics” advisedly into quotes, because few photographs can translate specific political tenets or party lines into form. Apart from a unique photograph called “Skeleton and Swastika, Connecticut” contrived in 1938-39, Strand was no John Heartfield and never directly attacked scowling financiers or aggrandized noble workers in the fields in his still photographs. He remained above all an artist with a distinct social point of view, who recognized that the power to shift the public’s attention by forcing it to visually engage with the overlooked was his greatest gift. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 08.02.2015
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15.01.–28.02.2014
3. Meet Billy the Kid (On Portraiture, Two)

In my previous post I raised the question, “why is it that commercial portraiture, which in the 19th century and into the 20th made up an overwhelming majority of all photographs taken, has received comparatively so little attention in the more established histories of photography?” Maybe the “What if God Was One of Us” video, with its weirdly mixed “message,” does not go far enough to answer this question, except to suggest, subliminally or subconsciously, that commercial portraiture is a game of masks, or fools, and an outdated one at that, perhaps even only appealing today to ethnic minorities and punk heads.

One simple answer is that in most portraits encountered in old albums or today in picture-sharing facilities, there is generally nothing to like or to learn—except perhaps numbers, formats, archival procedures—unless the viewer is related to the subject and in a position to reconstruct stories involving the image. Portraits are usually private. Their merits—the knowledge and care that pertain to them, the aspirations of the sitters through their representations—are private, and often ephemeral; memories attached to them fade fast. In portraits, then, there is nothing to learn or to like, unless some significant context or discourse can be recovered or imagined about them. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 04.02.2014
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1. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose?

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. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 14.01.2014
13 Kommentare
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01.11.–15.12.2013
1. A Moving Target

Using Still Searching as a shared space, what I hope to do over the next six weeks is both to stimulate a dialog and extend a project I’ve been working on lately, which involves taking a broad look at photography as the medium itself is in the midst of transformation. To that end, watch for links I’ll post periodically to online news reports and timely stories about provocative images, events, and issues in visual culture. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 01.11.2013
3 Kommentare
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01.06.–15.07.2013
5. Image Couple

Of all the arcana produced by our collective obsession with Roland Barthes’ theory of photography in the book Camera Lucida, by the endless exegesis and investigation this text on photography seems to inspire, I find the following the most impressive. Buried in a footnote two-thirds of the way to the end of Eduardo Cadava and Paola Cortés-Rocca’s essay “Notes on Love and Photography,” a text first published in October magazine a few years ago, we read: mehr

Veröffentlicht: 16.07.2013
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3. Blind Spot

Not too long ago, I was combing through an antique store in a California town populated today mostly by the remnants of the counter-culture. There was a large selection of used books. To my surprise, I came across a copy of a monograph I had long wanted for my library, Mary Ann Caw’s volume on the photographer Dora Maar. Hippie villages, even post-hippie villages, always have the best bookstores. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 20.06.2013
13 Kommentare
2. The Philosophers

And I ask: How did the beauty of that hair,
those eyes, beguile our forebears?
How did that mouth kiss, to which desire
curls up senseless as smoke without fire?

Thus Walter Benjamin breaks into poetry, citing the writing of Stefan George, in the 1931 essay “Little History of Photography”—this essay so strangely titled, sharing its self-stated size and density and intensity, we might say, with the object of its analysis, with photography itself—its images formerly miniaturized and condensed. What is a “Little History,” I’ve always wondered? The best I have come up with is that Benjamin’s is a text that wants to correspond with its object, an essay that wants to be like photography itself. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 11.06.2013
12 Kommentare
1. The Relational Field of Photography

At the end of last summer, during one of my trips from Los Angeles to New York, I was lucky enough to be able to visit the artist Zoe Leonard’s first exhibition at the gallery Murray Guy.

I knew what to expect. Leonard is one of the key figures in my forthcoming book on what I’ve been calling photography’s contemporary “lateness” or, perhaps more provocatively, its “afterlife”—a recalcitrant use of the medium that alters its fate today through a paradoxical reconnection to photography’s earlier histories, its specific and unrealized potentials. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 31.05.2013
14 Kommentare
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5. Popular, not Populist

My apologies for the extended silence. I have been putting the finishing touches to a book about the relation between popular culture, art and photography, which will also be the subject of this blog entry.

It seems generally accepted now that photography became a modern medium of art in the 1920s. This was when it gave up its resistance to the widespread industrial basis of photography (Pictorialism is thought to have typified that resistance) and came into a close or parallel relation to the medium’s various social functions. Photography triumphed artistically by remaking, diverting, re-presenting or otherwise contemplating its ‘applied’ forms such as the document, the film still, the advertisement, the commercial portrait and the archival image. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 27.05.2013
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3. Backwards and Forwards

For many years I have been looking through the back issues of the 20th century’s illustrated press. Magazines, journals, newspapers. It is really impossible to write or teach the history of photography without doing this. The Sunday Times Magazine from March 24, 1968 carries, among other things, Don McCullin’s celebrated black and white images of soldiers in Vietnam - one throwing a grenade, another lying dead with his possessions spilling out.

Don McCullin, 'This is how it is', Sunday Times Magazine, March 28, 1968

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Veröffentlicht: 02.05.2013
6 Kommentare
1. Photography and Photographs

My first post will be quite long but I will make up for it with shorter subsequent posts. I’m hoping they will add up to an essay on a single theme: the relation between photography in general and photographs in particular, although this may change in response to comments and contributions as we go.

I begin with some thoughts about how Still Searching has developed since it launched last year, and what this might say about the 'Online Discourse on Photography’, as it is subtitled. Back in January 2012 I was invited to be a co-blogger for the first two contributors, Bernd Stiegler and Aveek Sen. Since then I have watched with interest. The discussions have ranged far and wide but I note a polarization between thinking about ‘photography’, which most contributors seem to feel is too complex and contradictory to be a unified field (without quite giving up on the term all together) and considerations of ‘photographs’ (this or that image or specific project). mehr

Veröffentlicht: 14.04.2013
16 Kommentare
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2. A Look Back (Part I)

If one wants to gauge how the relation of still and moving images is shifting, it is useful to look back at the relation of film and photography in the analogue age.  Both media relied on the same optical apparatuses and photochemical processes – they produced images by exposing a photosensitive surface to light refracted by a lens. The images they produced were essentially indexical, and yet this indexicality has played a very different role in the reflection of the two media. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 28.01.2013
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01.11.–15.12.2012
5. Experiment

Experiments have traditionally been set in opposition to observation, although more recent scholarship has begun to seriously question that neat categorization. If photographic observations, the subject of the last blog, are messy, then experiments seem to be even more so. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 10.12.2012
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3. Photographic Practice and Photography

Since we are following a trajectory in this blog of asking what it might be like to explore photographic history from a look at particular photographic practices, I want to address one of the comments in the last blog here in a whole new thread. In the last blog, Ulla Fischer-Westhauser rightly brought up Marietta Blau and nuclear emulsions. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 22.11.2012
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1. Image and Practice

On 24 February 1839, Jean Baptiste Biot suggested in a letter to William Henry Fox Talbot that the fixation of exact photographic tonality, the fine shades, (and depending on how you read it, even the fixation of images themselves), was largely a matter for art. Physics, he continued, was more concerned with the use of the instrument – in this case, photogenic drawing paper. Scientists’ comments about photography, like this one from Biot, illuminate historiographical roads not taken, holding out the possibility of adding new strands to the history of photography. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 31.10.2012
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15.09.–31.10.2012
5. A Subject for, a History about, Photography

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. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 17.10.2012
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4. Photography and Authorship

My previous post touched on the complications that arise from photography’s dependence on a negative-positive system of reproduction, a system that divides the photograph from itself but also divides the act of photographing into a number of separate elements, each of them able to be undertaken by different workers. The authorship of individual photographs is therefore often a collective enterprise stretched over a considerable time period, even though this fact tends to be repressed in our historical accounts of photography. Those histories instead privilege individuals and the logic of individualism and this allows them to avoid having to address the complexity of authorship in all its various manifestations. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 07.10.2012
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3. Still Searching: “the dark, repressed side”

My previous post briefly mentioned the negative as one crucial component of the identity of many photographs. It is, nevertheless, an aspect of that identity often ignored by histories of photography, where negatives are rarely reproduced or discussed at any length. Negatives, it seems, are truly the repressed, dark side of photography’s history. True, there is a conference (could it be the first?) on the negative being planned for Munich in February. But my interest is not in reviving the study of the negative as an object unto itself (although photographers in the nineteenth century did often exhibit their negatives, to display their technical prowess) but in pursuing the consequences of the reproductive economy that photographic negatives represent. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 01.10.2012
22 Kommentare
2. "Form is henceforth divorced from matter."

My first post considered photography in the context of its dissemination within consumer capitalism, a context that, I suggested, secured the medium’s presence within modern culture even while dissipating its identity, thereby making possible the very thing it also makes impossible. This contradictory character, in Benjamin’s view a key aspect of the political economy of capitalism and therefore of photography too, is embodied in every aspect of the photographic experience. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 23.09.2012
6 Kommentare
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01.06.–14.07.2012
2. An Anti-Archival Impulse

In this post, I want to continue the reflection on how photography can today serve as a contributing motor for social change by turning our attention to the photographic archive. I would like to focus on a concrete example, the long-term project Theory of Justice initiated by the artist Peter Friedl in 1992. This work is composed from the artist’s vast collection of newspaper and magazine clippings. A specific selection of black-and-white photographs was published as an artist’s book in 2006. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 11.06.2012
4 Kommentare
1. What Has Photography Done?

In order to grasp what photography can do as an art today, I want to start with looking back, asking ourselves the question: what has photography done so far? What relevant lessons can we learn from photography’s past? Before which carts has photography been put – so to say – ever since it was invented? What intentions has it served, both within the art world and outside of it, in its relation to society? Reflecting on photography’s historical trajectory as an artistic medium is helpful when one wishes to imagine what photography’s future roles can be. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 31.05.2012
15 Kommentare
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15.01.–29.02.2012
5. Form

Form might seem to be the absolute worst candidate as a means of reflecting on and mapping out photographic realism. But isn’t this simply a reflexive response based on an interpretive tradition that associates form with simulation and the formless snapshot with the captured moment as evidence? On the one side is an entire tradition extending from the difficulty in controlling the overwhelming richness of details in the early phase of the medium, to snapshots, press photography and social documentary. On the other is the opposite, an approach working with controlled, well-composed images (such as those of Rejlander or Peach Robinson), the golden mean, or painterly parameters. One the one side is the unpredictability of the moment, which for this very reason is perceived as being “realistic”. On the other is the imperative to control form, which is therefore viewed as “art” and not as “nature” or “reality.” mehr

Veröffentlicht: 13.02.2012
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2. Reflection

A second approach for considering photographic realism is to define photography as a “reflective medium.” In a theoretical context, this term (“Reflexionsmedium”) featured prominently in Walter Benjamin’s dissertation Der Begriff der Kunstkritik in der deutschen Romantik (The Concept of Art Criticism in German Romanticism). Benjamin writes, “Reflection constitutes the absolute and constitutes it as a medium” (“Die Reflexion konstituiert das Absolute und sie konstituiert es als ein Medium”). [Walter Benjamin, Der Begriff der Kunstkritik in der deutschen Romantik, ed. Uwe Steiner, p. 39.] He continues: as the absolute, reflection is a “metaphysical credo” (“metaphysisches Credo”) that claims to be the “interpretation of all things real” (“Deutung alles Wirklichen“)[p. 67]. What for Benjamin is the absolute, is, in my opinion, replaced by the concept of the real or realism in photography. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 22.01.2012
9 Kommentare
1. Imperfection

In looking at both contemporary exhibitions as well as photographs as they are used in everyday aesthetic applications, one notices that imperfection plays a key role. Far removed from the ideals of the Group f/64, New Objectivity, or even the Bechers and their school, to name a few positions, photographs that consciously employ technical errors have become common sense in photography. There are photographers who use deficient cameras; Lomography aficionados sell their photographs along with this type of camera in stores in major cities; snapshots are in demand, and blurriness is the aesthetic rule. Imperfection is the new ideal of contemporary photography, even if celebrated, staged, and represented in a kind of perfection. My thesis is that imperfection serves as the contemporary modus of the real in photography. mehr

Veröffentlicht: 11.01.2012
58 Kommentare