2. From One Photo to Another
Published: 22.04.2013
in the series The Relation between Photography in General and Photographs in Particular
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We rarely make or see photographs singularly. They come in sets, suites, series, sequences, pairings, iterations, photo-essays, albums, typologies, archives and so on. Daily experience involves moving between one image and another. Editing, the selection and arrangement of images, provides perhaps the most vital bridge between photographs in the particular and photography in general, although more so for image-makers and publishers than for critics and theorists, it seems. I’m struck by how few writings there have been about the complexities of photo editing as it takes shape in mainstream media or in more resistant practices. Aside from occasional essays on the arrangement of a few famous photographic books (Walker Evans’ American Photographs of 1938 and Robert Frank’s The Americans of 1958/9 are the obvious ones) writers have had surprisingly little to say on the matter.

There’s a whole history of editing yet to be addressed, particularly as it becomes so central to photographic culture with the growth of the illustrated press in the 1920s and 30s. Suddenly there was a whole array of professional image handlers: the magazine picture editors and art directors, the new art historians taking advantage of photographic reproductions (e.g. Aby Warburg and Franz Roh), as well as the managers of the fast growing picture libraries, archives and news agencies.

That said, there have been some notable contributions lately. Jorge Ribalta’s work on what he has called the universal archive expressed by the choreography of huge numbers of images in exhibitions such as Pressa (1928) and Film und Photo (1929), Victor Burgin’s The Remembered Film (2004), Blake Stimson’s The Pivot of The World: Photography and its Nation (2006) and Hito Steyerl’s very recent collection The Wretched of the Screen (2013) come to mind. Nevertheless, even the belated recognition that the photographic page – magazines, journals, books and now screens – have been photography’s primary vehicle does not seem to have prompted much of a reflection on just what is at stake in our movement from one photographic image to the next and the next, at least not without resorting to the generalized criticisms of quantity, overload and spectacle.

When Blake Stimson writes that “The photographic essay was born of the promise of another kind of truth from that given by the individual photograph or image on its own, a truth available only in the interstices between pictures, in the movement from one picture to the next”, he points to perhaps the most vital key to our experience of photographs in particular and photography in general. If he then struggles to conceptualize exactly what is going on between one image and the next, it’s only partly because there’s almost no critical tradition to draw upon. The dearth of writings on photo editing is a symptom of how difficult it is to articulate. But I would maintain that it’s essential to try. Without it we’re left with photographs as dissolute fragments and photography as a totalized mass, precisely what any and every photo-sequence attempts to overcome.

Last year I responded to one of Bernd Stiegler’s suggestive posts on the subject of ‘Order’ with an edited sequence of quotations about photo editing: http://blog.fotomuseum.ch/2012/01/3-order/#respond. It was a kind of meta-commentary on the problem. I had been keeping a file of these remarks as I came across them while putting together a book about the long-standing dialogues between the moving and the still image (Photography and Cinema, 2008). Although it was to be a ‘history and theory’ book, I had wanted images to do a lot of the work on the page. So before I began writing I spent several months selecting and sequencing the 127 illustrations my publisher allowed me. Film stills, posters, constructed tableau photographs, sequences, spreads from various books and magazines, and so forth.  The idea was to see if I could apply the qualities of photo-sequencing I was describing to the form of the book itself. Such experiments with editing have been my main challenge and source of pleasure in all the books I’ve published. I do the same with essays for journals and magazines, working out the images first (this blog is an exception, an attempt to bend the stick the other way). It’s partly a fear of the blank page but largely it comes from being an image-maker, writer and occasional curator. Editing is the shared term we use to describe the fashioning and arrangement of words and pictures.

Interestingly, while Photography and Cinema was well received only one reviewer picked up on this, wondering, correctly, if the picture editing had preceded the writing and if it was arranged to express and nuance the book’s central points. I’ve kind of got used to nobody really noticing, and presume that most picture editing has its ineffable effects upon experience anyway, be it in books and magazines or our own ad hoc shifts from one image to another as we move through a city or around the internet. Maybe we only notice when it’s done badly or it somehow jars. And perhaps it is this difficulty with paying attention to editing that is the reason for the lack of critical reflection. But what is photography without editing? As Walker Evans put it:

The essence is done very quickly with a flash of the mind, and with a machine. I think too that photography is editing, editing after the taking. After knowing what to take you have to do the editing.

6 comment(s)
megan driscoll
Posted 24.04.2013 at 03:15

Dear David,

Thank you for another interesting post!

The first question that comes to mind is regarding your use of the term "editing." It seems that it might be useful to consider the difference between editing a single photograph (darkroom procedures, print manipulation, etc. - a fundamentally material/formal concern from the point of view of the writer) and editing a collection of photographs together (perhaps a more curatorial procedure, the way you've described it?), or at least to be specific about the terms.

I also wonder about photographers who have taken on the question of series, sets, and seriality--themselves terms that carry differences in meaning--as a condition of practice. I'm thinking here particularly of August Sanders, the Bechers, and many of their Düsseldorf students, who often use a relentless kind of repetition to, amongst other things, point to seriality as a fundamental photographic quality (bridging, as you point out, between photographs and photography). And yet, I'm not certain that such work always attempts to overcome the photograph's appearance as a "dissolute fragment." Just as sameness has the tendency to make the slightest difference impossible to ignore, so too can even the most technically exacting, carefully organized series (like the Bechers' architecture books, both photographed and arranged with seriality in mind) draw attention to the fact that they are, necessarily, composed of fragments.

Perhaps this has something to do with the difficulty in writing about this interstitial space that Stimson attempts to describe? While film can successfully elide the still image through rapid movement, the photographic page--in books, magazines, etc.--will always insist on a certain amount of fragmentation even within serialization.


David Campany
Posted 24.04.2013 at 10:01

Hi Megan,

Yes, editing within the image and the editing 'together' of images are very different things, although it gets interesting when the two begin to influence and impact upon each other. (For example, does that standardized form of a Becher photograph 'imply' the typological or serial?)

I agree, the photo-sequence never quite achieves the smoothness of narrative film editing. When photography tries this you suddenly see how clunky it is, and how the gaps and jumps really are as significant as the images. It's curious how in the 1920s movie editing was theorized and debated intensively by the avant gardes, while photo editing went largely undiscussed (although clearly the practice was evolving at extraordinary speed and in many directions).

We can see the orchestration of groups of images as a form of montage. Conventionally, montage is understood as an opposition to the straight photograph. Bertholt Brecht’s famously political call from the 1920s for a practice of image construction is often cited as a resistance to photographic fact: “A photograph of the Krupp works or the AEG tells us nothing about these institutions. Actual reality has slipped into the functional. The reification of human relations – the factory, say – means that they are no longer explicit. So something must in fact be built up, something artificial, something posed.” This is usually seen as an explicit argument for anti-realist staging or the use of text to refunction the image. But in their numbers and sequences images can be made to modify and modulate each other in a critical and reflexive manner to meet Brecht’s demand for the “built-up”. Accumulation, repetition, the series and the sequence are certainly less assertive than overt juxtaposition or artifice. Nevertheless there is an important element of montage here. In fact, it is a consequence of any image collection. The difference is that with the archival set, such as Sander’s book 'Antlitz der Zeit' (The 'Face of Our Time', 1929) or the associative/elliptical sequence of straight images (such as Evans’ 'American Photographs' 1938) the photos appear as single shots and as elements of a larger whole. Two readings of the same image are montaged.

I agree too that the term 'editing' covers so many ways of putting images together (I used the term in an overall sense only to make the overall point that comparatively little attention is paid to any of them). Moreover there are histories and counter-histories of editing. Walker Evans, for example, was clearly motivated to edit in dialectical and demanding ways in response to the increasingly standardized 'photo-essay' being honed in magazines such as LIFE, which he saw as a sentimental pacifying of the audience. William Klein saw his extraordinary city books of hyper-journalism made in the 1950s and 1960s as nails in the coffin of reportage, but they actually reinvented it on a different basis.

And practices continue to develop. There are rhythms and dialectics of editing in contemporary photography that we really haven't seen before, and for good reason. They are attempts to find forms that express, or comment upon or critique those aspects of contemporary life we haven't experienced before.

Photography has thrown up all manner of exemplary single images, but it's notable how few photographers set out to make entirely singular pictures. Grouping is the norm. The 'body of work'. I guess Jeff Wall remains a notable exception, a sort of text case set apart. Even Gursky seems to fold the question of editing and repetition into the form of his superficially singular pictures.


Robert Barriault
Posted 25.04.2013 at 15:02

Since I work both as an artist (self directed) and as a commercial art director (directed by others) two points come to mind. The first is that the notion of series appears constantly (negatively?) as an art construct to identify the work as art as opposed to a photo essay of the journalistic kind say. This series impetus appears almost as an art instinct evolved from viewing work such as the Bechers or perhaps Ed Rusha's 26 gasoline stations. It has now become a predictable gesture. The second point is that photography distinguishes itself from other forms in its very nature as graphic material, that is to say that it exists in a printed form, and still fights for authenticity as art when printed and framed as art. Photography still aspires for its own validity in some ways, and often resorts to a kind of mannerism. Large prints blown up to ridiculous proportions and framed like billboards. "Art aspires to the condition of advertising?". With regard to issues of editing then, photography is just raw footage that depends on a post production organization or construct as even Walker Evans explained. The single image becomes like a single word isolated from a larger text. Or is it that we refuse to accept the idea that a single image can speak a thousand words as the proverb says?

Christine Robinson
Posted 08.05.2013 at 04:07

Thank you, David. I am very interested in your thoughts on the role of cinema in discussions of photographic editing and sequencing. Your mention of montage in your response to Megan reminds me of Germaine Krull’s book, Métal, published in Paris in 1928. The sixty-four photographs of industrial fragments were assembled together without titles or any information to identify the structures or their locations. Each photograph crops the architecture from different vantage points and perspectives, some static and others made through multiple exposures. In her publication on Krull, Kim Sichel aptly describes the sequencing of the images—as well as some of the individual multiple exposures—as an exemplification of montage theory in their positionings of conflict and difference. It is fascinating to me that photographic discourse so often incorporates cinematic language—potentially blurring the distinctions between the two mediums. What do you make of this? Is the tendency, as you mentioned, towards more photographic groupings rather than singular images a result of photography’s close connection with film?

David Campany
Posted 17.05.2013 at 01:57

Hi Christine

Yes, it seems pretty clear that, particularly in the 1920s and early 30s many experiments with photo sequencing were responding to cinema, but not all by any means. What's interesting about Métal, the book by Germaine Krull that you mention, is that the pages were numbered but unbound, loose in a folder. They could be ordered any way you wanted. I think Krull is actually one of the true keys to photography in the modern era. She was so adept and so willing to experiment, particularly with sequencing in her many publications. She even tried to make a fictional photo story using no text at all. An amazing attempt to rely solely upon the narrative/associative capacity within and between images. It was never published but a maquette was made (you can see some of its pages in my book 'Photography and Cinema').


Christy Lange
Posted 23.05.2013 at 16:53

Hi David,

What’s interesting to me about the discussion of editing photographs is that the act of editing is also a metaphor for the act of framing – that is, the fundamental way a photographer produces a picture by deciding what to include in and exclude from our view. In the same way, with the artist or photographer’s editorial process, we only see what he or she chooses to include in the sequence or series. We’re never privy to what gets eliminated, and that is as provocative and productive as what we get to look at.

Artists like Victor Burgin have very deliberate and precise editorial selection process, but at present there is also another trend toward a more intuitive, poetic editorial procedure. I’m thinking in particular of Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin’s Holy Bible, for which they have culled images from the Archive of Modern Conflict and selected one image to place on each page of the King James Bible. Unlike their War Primer II, the selection process for this seems even more organic – sometimes confounding – reminiscent of Mike Mandel & Larry Sultan’s 1977 series Evidence. In Broomberg & Chanarin’s bible we see images of soldiers but also magicians; sometimes the link to the text on the page is illustrative, sometimes it just raises more questions.

I’m also interested in Megan’s observation about the idea of editing not just within a series or sequence, but within and over an artist’s entire oeuvre. Many photographers or artists working today have such an elaborate studio or production process (artists like Demand, Gursky and Wall come to mind) that editing for them also means deciding which five or six works to produce in a year. Seeing a retrospective of work by someone like Wall reveals that his overall editing process – the images he has chosen to produce – is as controlled and strategically engineered as any of his single works.

- christy

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