5. Photography and Humanity
Published: 09.07.2012
in the series What Can Photography Do?
Previous Next

In the catalogue essay to the 1981 exhibition he curated at MoMA under the title Before Photography, Peter Galassi traces photography’s origins in relation to the history of Western painting. Much more than being the offspring from a fruitful juncture of scientific, cultural, and economic determinations, Galassi argues, photography is the final, perfected result of centuries-long pictorial efforts to depict the world. The photograph, he writes, possesses an inherently modern “pictorial syntax of immediate, synoptic perceptions and discontinuous, unexpected forms.” It is common knowledge that the design of the early nineteenth-century camera obscura was influenced by the requirements of art as they developed throughout the modern Western tradition, at least since the Renaissance discovery of the single-point perspective.

Photography’s capability for “pictorial syntax” has further been defined in terms of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment,” a term he coined in his eponymous book from 1952. John Szarkowski has famously claimed, in his 1966 book The Photographer’s Eye, that Cartier-Bresson’s phrasing has often been misunderstood. The depicted climax of the decisive moment is not a dramatic but a visual one, and the photographic image does not tell a story but is a picture, Szarkowski argues. In his own writing, Cartier-Bresson appears to confirm such understanding: “inside movement there is one moment at which the elements in motion are held in balance. Photography must seize upon this moment and hold immobile the equilibrium of it.” The decisive moment represents harmony, however brief. As Liz Wells writes in Photography. A Critical Introduction (1996), it is “a formal flash of time when all the right elements were in place before the scene fell back into its quotidian disorder.” The photographer’s eye was able to capture the scene as if in an instant of genius. The picture aspires to make us believe that the “decisive moment” came about spontaneously, even if we know it may often have not been the case. Many pictures in the absorptive model today seek to confront us with a visual climax about which we feel incited to believe the same: that they came about spontaneously (in one push of the button) even if we positively know (often from the artist himself) that this is not entirely so and that, for example, digital software helped here and there.

The photographs of Aïm Deüelle Lüski, which I consider to be part of the intervening model, radically go against this very logic of picture-making. The artist constructs his own, analog cameras, which he rather calls “instruments.” Each of them is built with a particular intention to photograph a specific occasion in mind. The cameras take on a wide variety of shapes, and the peepholes through which they capture reality operate independently from the photographer’s eye. The resulting images are multilayered indexical, physical traces of the reality that they depict. For more information on Lüski’s methods, see: http://rhizomes.net/issue23/lebovic/index.html and the very rich writing on his work by Ariella Azoulay.

Lüski’s photographs operate as critical tools against the reigning scopic regime of photo-aesthetic conventions, Azoulay states in The Civil Contract of Photography. Their aesthetic is analytical instead of synthesizing. They make a radically neutral registration of everyday reality as it presents itself to the camera. The act of the photographer consists only in placing the camera in a certain spatio-temporal environment – nothing more, nothing less. The image is not necessarily taken from a frontal perspective.

Lüski’s photographs put reigning hegemonic discourse, both within the art world and in political reality, in perspective. He does not work with a commercial gallery. As he writes in a correspondence that we exchanged, “I can say that my work has always been on the verge of art, being more like a scientific way of working, thinking about photography and photographic issues from a scientific-philosophical point of view, without any relation to the market whatsoever. My work is more invention than creation, and it is developing according to its own rules, according to its own logic, to the problems optics and experiences are posing to me, according to philosophical dilemmas and paradoxes. That is why I am not part of hegemonic photography – which is not only a problem of the relations to the market – my work is basically against the hegemonic vision that photography has been creating over the 200 last years, influencing the way we think we see/know the outside, seeing reality following the Renaissance (Albertian) vision.” He adds that it is his intention “to deconstruct the hegemonic relations between photography and the decisive moment: my project is against the domination of the one frequency, the one moment, of capturing the relations between the absolute present and the image we are creating – against Barthes for example, from one side, and the whole modernist structure of photographic apparatus, which developed into the cinema-camera apparatus, video-television way of producing images, and now, [against] the computers and phones cameras which are all based on the same one and only model of viewing, of perceiving reality.”

Lüski’s philosophy of photography is based on a radical holding on to the medium in terms of its ontological status as an indexical image. From their physical ties to reality as it presents itself to the camera’s multiple “eyes” (and not to the photographer’s “cyclopean” eye when he looks into the lens), Lüski’s images convey a strong desire to speak about the situations that they bear the marks of. In this way, photography aims to cut its ties with a humanism that considers man’s position as the central one in the world (thus installing hierarchies, even among humans). In Lüski’s approach, the photographer’s eye is no longer relevant, and loses control over the image. Instead, the many, simultaneous perspectives that his cameras take are radically egalitarian. Yet, even in their divergence from the traditional photograph, these images beyond any doubt can be identified as photographs. They thus obtain a certain metaphorical potential for humanity: they are part of a truncus communis of photography, but at the same time they radically open up photography’s horizon and perspectives. In the case of human beings, this translates as a shared humanity that needs to acknowledge its many multiplicities without losing sight of their equally belonging together.

(Please note: the first four minutes of the clip are highly relevant, the other four less so).

10 comment(s)
Jan-Erik Lundström
Posted 09.07.2012 at 22:08

Lüski's photographs are part of a small group of artists, photographers, inventors, which challenge the dominant scopic regime of photography since its invention and the dominant modes of visual representation in Western history, most explicitly the more or less perverse dominance of central perspective. A number of artists could join the discussion: Richard Whitlock's amazing work on a Byzantine flat perspective photographic method, Liisa Lounila's multiple pinhole cameras, the Belgian artist digged-down self-made cameras recording annual solar cycles, or Michael Wesely's multi-year exposures narrating, for example, the post-Cold War transformation of central Berlin. And many others.

What is going on here is a revision of the dominant scopic regimes, a remapping of existing representational systems and an opening-up of expanded models of viewing, imaging, picturing, representing and understanding/knowing the human world.

As such it might be closer to the "political" rather than to "politics". Which is a note to bring into our discussion. For these works thus ask us to challenge, or to find the nodes and modalities which reconstitute subject matter, which open up paths between alternative representational models/a revisionary photographic apparatus and the actual leverage through engaging in particular subject matter/social and political here-and-now/the present as we live it.

David Campany
Posted 11.07.2012 at 10:15

Hi Hilde,

Do you know Julius von Bismarck and his Image Fulgurator? Definitely 'intervening':


Not as politically astute as some would prefer perhaps, but he's an interesting example of the counter-hegemonic camera manufacturer / activist.

Instead of film he loads his SLR camera with a pre-made image or symbol. A flash gun at the back then projects this image, focused by the lens, out onto surfaces in the world. When those around him take photos, their flash triggers his flash by remote to project his image and it appears in their images. A politician appears to be sporting the logo of their covert sponsor... and so forth.

Of course the non-standard technology here is not in itself 'political', in the same way that the notion of 'scopic regime' invoked in this thread is not in itself political. Blaming the rectangular image with its single point perspective for being the root of all (pictorial)evil, regardless of subject matter, is hasty. Subject matter matters, and it is not all neutralized by dominant technological forms.

More to the point, if there is a dominant scopic regime today it's probably along way from all that, and best embodied by the thoroughly un-perspectival, anti-pictorial frameless technologies of Google Earth, Street View and the panoramic. And as recent projects have shown - from Victor Burgin to Doug Rickard - these too can be redeployed in counter-hegemonic ways. A technology is its use.

Hilde Van Gelder
Posted 11.07.2012 at 19:32

Dear Jan-Erik and David,

Thanks for bringing in all these great examples!
I agree that 'the political', particularly in the sense that Chantal Mouffe has given to the concept, is very useful for art theory. This could have been material for a next post. I can recommend reading: http://www.rektoverso.be/artikel/art-critical-art
David, it is true that a generalized, overall blaming of the rectangular image would be hasty. This was not the intention of my post, and I hope that my wider writing on contemporary photography - such as on the work of Allan Sekula - offers ample proof of the contrary. I do believe, however, that the dominant scopic regime in photography as visual art today is what I have defined as the absorptive model or what Julian Stallabrass calls the 'museum photograph' (and its ties to the art market). Lüski definitely reacts to that. He speaks (in email exchange that we had) of "a new kind of 'soft-Porno-Art', where artists are producing works that are extremely seductive, and the market is ready to consume with the free money that was earned easily".

David Campany
Posted 12.07.2012 at 12:14

Everything can be commodified, even the work of Allan Sekula. And actually the market rather likes to chase things that don't immediately flatter it. That's one of the lessons learned by the avant-gardes of the last century. But that's not the point. As Victor Burgin put it recently: "The distinction is not between work that can be commodified and work that cannot, it is between work conceived from the outset as commodity and work where the conception is indifferent to commodity status." But strictly speaking the only thing that 'ties' a work to the art market is a will or necessity to sell, and the desire to buy.

While there may be one in culture generally, as I remarked earlier, I don't see any 'dominant scopic regime' in 'art today', unless by that you mean the very very high end of the art market for photography, which I grant you is dominated by pretty big rectangles of varying merit. Even at that high end I think very few were 'conceived as commodities', unless one presumes that being big and rectangular is a de facto a capitulation to the market (Stallabrass goes a bit hazy on that point, although he's far from the only one). But that high end of the market and 'art today' are not the same thing, unless you take a very bleak view...

Hilde Van Gelder
Posted 13.07.2012 at 12:04

Hi David,

Yes, certainly, the artist's intention is of overriding importance and I fully agree with you on what Victor says. Adding to that, it seems interesting to bring in the discussion what he stated in an exchange that he and I had (and that you and I have talked about in the past): "In a university art department, I would prefer as my colleague the artist who makes watercolours of sunsets but stands up to the administration, to the colleague who makes radical political noises in the gallery but colludes in imposing educationally disastrous government policies on the department." (see: http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2010-07-30-burgin-en.html)
Victor Burgin concludes our exchange by making the following statement with regard to neo-liberal market mechanisms: "The art world congratulates itself on the fact that art today has a larger audience than at any time in its history – but this is simply an epiphenomenon of the increasing mediatization of art. As the saying goes, 'we get the art we deserve,' and it is increasingly apparent that we will get the universities we deserve too. The meanings and aims of both art and academic research are being harmonized with those of ordinary 'non-élitist' everyday common sense. I met a routine manifestation of this the other day when I went into my local organic food store to buy sweet potatoes. I had bought some there the previous week, and they had been labelled with Spain as their country of origin. I picked up a couple of them and took them to the counter, but I noticed that the label was gone. I asked the woman behind the counter if these sweet potatoes were also from Spain. 'They're from Israel,' she said. 'Then I don't want them,' I replied. 'Oh,' she said, 'the farmers are not the government. They just want to make money, like the rest of us.' She said this in a tone and with an expression that made it clear she believed she had made an argument to which there was no possible reply – and in fact it left me speechless. She spoke exactly as she might have if she had said: 'They just want peace, liberty and happiness, like the rest of us.' How could I argue? To 'make money' is our fundamental desire and inalienable right, it guarantees our common humanity, it's what joins each atomic individual to 'the rest of us' – what hope is there for either art or the university if this mind-set prevails?"
Everything can be commodified (including Victor's work) - granted. Aïm Lüski, for sure, actively resists working with a gallery, however difficult it is. In the exchange we had (and from which I quoted in Post 5), he writes about this the following: "When one does not have a Gallery, most of the international curators don’t come to see your works; and this becomes very crucial now, because everything is dominated by that system. I am exhibiting only in non-profit places, in internet sites and I am not taking any part in these new clear-and-open-system relations between the museums, exhibitions and the big galleries, big collections. My relations are mostly with intellectuals like Ariella Azoulay, who can think about my work in relation to her philosophical-critical theory. She is someone who has been working parallel to me for many long years, creating a mutual relationship: my work enriched her theory, helped her to develop her ideas, and her criticism and writing give me a kind of 'space of understanding,' as Heidegger would have said, a discourse where my work can find its natural place."
We may have to conclude that the problem is not the market in itself, but the market gone extreme, out of balance - "the very very high end of the market," as you write. Size and scale are major, contributing factors to this mechanism; I continue to agree with Julian Stallabrass on this. In his recent exhibition at the Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels (2011), Jeff Wall decorated a room - quite at the beginning of the show - with Minimalist and Post-Minimalist works of art, which he combined with his very large-size key work The Storyteller (1986). In the catalogue (The Crooked Path ), Wall explains to Hans De Wolf that he "was never interested in making 'big photo's' as such." What is important to him, is the scale of the photograph-as-picture, in a similar way as scale is operative in the works of Carl Andre: it's about "the direct presentation of an object in the actual space of the viewer." It is beyond doubt that Wall's large-size photographs in lightboxes are amazing formal and technological achievements, which have forever revolutionized both the history and theory of the medium. But size and scale contain a danger, one that Robert Morris pointed out in 1981 (in an essay entitled 'American Quartet') with regard to Richard Serra's works around that time. “As the dialectical edge of Minimalism grew dull,” Morris writes, “as it had to in time, and as the radicality of its imagery, contexts, or processes became routine, its options dwindled to a formula: use more space. Size or weight or more phenomenal-immaterial sensation were concomitantly escalated to sustain the grandeur of transcendent, looming presence. Consequently, […] Serra adds tonnage in attempts to pump up a slumping icon." Even if this does not come out as completely fair, Morris's tirade provides food for thought. To conclude: I agree with you that the size-and-scale argument often overshadows the real debate. What matters more, and most, I would say, is the 'world view' that the photographic image (in combination with the visual and textual context created around it) contains and communicates to its spectators - to use an old-fashioned and much-reviled concept from iconological theory. At the bottom, it's the content of the image, the perspective and viewpoint on humanity that the artist offers us, that is the decisive factor.

David Campany
Posted 13.07.2012 at 18:36

Agreed (apart from unnecesary use of the term 'decorated' , and Robert Morris's argument which I've always found a bit daft - it takes us right back to the censorious limiting of size, as if that would improve matters somehow, or remove the 'danger' as you put it).

Out of interest, how does Mr. Lüski pay the bills? In the field of photography, as Walker Evans once remarked, one is either independently financially secure - his example was the rich Alfred Stieglitz, who he detested; one is paid TO TAKE photographs (so-called 'applied photography', but it might these days also include the public/private grant networks); one is paid FOR photographs (selling them as an artist or licensing the rights to them); or one earns an income to subsidize the photography as a hobbyist, university teacher, plumber, miner, bank clerk, hotel porter, call-center telephonist, stripper, chef, bus driver, whatever it may be i.e. carving out a 'free space' for one's work . One may have incredibly nourishing relations "with intellectuals like Ariella Azoulay, who can think about one's work in relation to her philosophical-critical theory" - such things are invaluable to us all - but how is bread put on the table? I'm not talking about principled refusals to genuflect to the commercial gallery /state museum quasi-cartel, just the basic matter of subsistence. Sorry to be so grubbily materialist. It comes from having to respond to the kind of important questions my photography students ask me every day about the relationship between 'counter-hegemonic practices in art' and keeping one's head above water. Interestingly some take up the scenario that Victor invoked to you, preferring "the artist who makes watercolours of sunsets but stands up to the administration, to the colleague who makes radical political noises in the gallery but colludes in imposing educationally disastrous government policies on the department.” That is to say, in daily life they find they're more politically effective elsewhere. I can't wholly agree with them, but it's hard to disagree either. The higher end of the art market is not what presses most upon my students as they struggle to find their way, although of course that market is a symptom of the cultural-economic predicament they face.

Hilde Van Gelder
Posted 13.07.2012 at 19:49

No, David, like you, I'm against 'censorious limiting of size', as you say. Think of Allan Sekula's 'Shipwreck and Workers. Version 3 for Kassel' (2007), installed in the Wilhelmshöhe Park at documenta 12. That was a huge installation (and that's an understatement) - it remains one of my favorite works of art ever.
How does Lüski make ends meet? I is difficult, he says: "I have to teach for 24 hours a week at 4 different universities and colleges, in order to survive".

Joerg Scheller
Posted 26.07.2012 at 12:25

I would like to endorse David's comments, particularly his observation that he doesn't "see any ‘dominant scopic regime’ in ‘art today’, unless by that you mean the very very high end of the art market for photography, which I grant you is dominated by pretty big rectangles of varying merit". Of course there will always be some current dominant style, some dominant scale, some dominant habitus, as long as there is no hereditary, homogenizing, patronizing force which evens out the competition for influence, validity, worth, respect, one of the main characteristics of pluralistic democracy – however, precisely the – alleged or actual – existence of a mainstream culture has been the driving force of subcultures ever since. I would even go so far as to say that if there wasn't a dominant regime, there would be parties who would invent it, simply to sustain the process of "creative destruction" (Schumpeter). Ethic is the twin of critique (from Greek "krinein", "to differentiate") and critique is only possible against the background of differences, of asymmetrical power relations and competing world views. Aristotle's ethic emerged from his criticism of Plato, Hegel's ethic from the criticism of Kant, etc. Today, the regimes change along with the regimes of fashion, no longer tied to a specific set of aesthetic rules as it was the case for instance in the heyday of the Salon de Paris, and critique can easily be absorbed by commodity culture as Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello have convincingly argued in their book "The New Spirit of Capitalism"(1999, English translation 2005). Therefore I would like to reinforce, once again, my previous claim that it is impossible to challenge the market through new modes of image aesthetics or new artistic habitus, but only through conceiving new market policies, that is new systemic surroundings, a new "mare nostrum" – ideally the role of the market – all of which has nothing to do with art as such.

Emil Fedida
Posted 18.09.2012 at 14:39

Dear Geoffrey

I'm having good time.
Every genius has his own way; they are different from each other because they are the idea, not working with ideas! They are the same because we remember them by there unique works. Man is deferent in nature as nature is. What push a man to do what he does? He does because he has something to show by life experience and masters his inner vision that man can not explain, as light is which can’t be touched. We talk about cameras, photos, is fine, because we can hold them. My daughter takes photos better than me. How needs photography? For what? Everybody takes photos. Photography loss meaning when is too much of it, include outstanding photos, because it is only an object when objects to day has a meaningless effect one life. Modern boredom is a new phenomenon which needs photos to escape reality. Which reality? Depend on mans life mind stimuli, because capitalism push to world to look the same everywhere, and then photography has no meaning to stimulate our desires, we live in an illusionists space, find the real one? Modern space is staged by man, and the camera is restaged again and again, take away the fake space and create your own which is the truth one. History is false because it belong to a lost space and only the one that sees that the past he has it, no need to think about it, forget the past, live now which everything is, don’t look back, the more you look back the less you will be free, you better read about the false history, because man do everything to survive include manipulating mans mind. Can photography correct society? Yes it can do it for a time been, but mistakes repeat them self under fear. I have respect for many great photographers, talk to them, they will say the same, be your self, find how are you, and what you have at heart.

Emil Fedida

Posted 19.09.2012 at 09:44

dear emil
the post you replied to is hilde van gelder's not geoffrey batchen's. just to avoid confusions!

Cancel reply