4. Optics and Desire
Published: 17.05.2013
in the series The Relation between Photography in General and Photographs in Particular
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In 1996 I was living in Brixton, south London, during a very hot summer. On July 12 Nelson Mandela came to visit and the crowds turned out to greet him in the thousands. I had been active in the anti-apartheid movement and gathered with some friends opposite the main sports hall where Mandela was due to arrive and address some local dignitaries. As Mandela and his entourage approached the steps of the hall the crowd was ecstatic. I had never seen such emotion and tears of joy.  Mandela stood before us. He waved, smiled and then disappeared with the throng around him into the hall. We had waited hours to see him, and in a very real sense many people there had waited decades to see him.  So actually setting eyes on the man was intense, to say the least.

The next morning over breakfast my friends and I bought all the daily newspapers to read the coverage. My girlfriend at the time suddenly asked: “Did any of you see Prince Charles yesterday?!” None of us had. She held up one of the newspapers carrying a large photo of the scene on the steps. Yes, there was Prince Charles, the sheepishly grinning dauphin, just behind and to the right of Nelson Mandela. Why had we not seen him? A friend suggested it was because none of us wanted to see him and somehow we had all erased him from our experience and memories. Symbolically, British monarchy and Mandela were contradictions that just didn’t add up for us and would have ruined the day. So, we had taken from the event what we had really wanted to take from it. I don’t have that newspaper but you can see a very similar image here: http://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/news-photo/prince-charles-and-nelson-mandela-in-brixton-news-photo/52098946

Clearly we don’t see or look the way cameras do. What we see is informed by experience, desire, ideology and expectation. Moreover what we see is governed by processes that are substantially unconscious. In fact my girlfriend suggested that our total blanking of Prince Charles was one of the few occasions on which we could be genuinely proud of our unconscious! The photo of course, could not blank Prince Charles but I’ve no doubt that, similarly, some people looking at it in the newspaper would have not noticed his presence if they had not wanted to.

That’s an extreme example of ‘motivated’ seeing but to a greater or lesser extent we are all doing this all the time. We can’t avoid doing it. If photographs offer more than we want from them, and they offer it in ways that strike us as mechanical and less prone to subjectivity than we are, then the whole dynamic of looking at photographs becomes somewhat fraught. Speedy consumption is a way of avoiding the anxious stand-off between how we look at the world and how the camera looks at the world.

Currently Jacques Rancière is read widely by the critically engaged parts of the photography and art worlds. His writings have proved to be highly stimulating, provocative, even ‘useful’ for their consideration of the relation of aesthetics to politics and agency. Most of the time Rancière remains quite unspecific, leaving us readers to move as we see fit from his general argument or point to a particular example that may come to mind. When Rancière does talk about particular images I often wonder if he’s really looking at the same things I am looking at, or in the same way. In a now notorious instance to be found in his recent book The Emancipated Spectator, Rancière discusses one of Martha Rosler’s Vietnam-era photomontages from her series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Back Home (1967-72). You can see a reproduction of it here: http://www.moma.org/collection/browse_results.php?criteria=O%3AAD%3AE%3A6832&page_number=1&template_id=1&sort_order=1

Rancière notes that “in the middle of a clear and spacious apartment, a Vietnamese man holding a dead child in his arms. The dead child was the intolerable reality concealed by comfortable American existence…”

Well, I see a woman carrying a living child, and Rosler was making the montages from reportage and advertising images found in the same magazines. Recently an artist friend of mine saw Rancière give a talk on a video by Woody Vasulka. One of the clips in Vasulka’s montage was of an Atom-bomb explosion. Cacti and Joshua trees were prominently silhouetted in the foreground but Rancière kept referring to the "image of Hiroshima".

I certainly don’t want to single out Rancière as a unique offender and obviously his contributions far outweigh his slips. But our photographic discourse is full of such slips, and I’ve no doubt made many myself. Nevertheless we ought to face the awkward question of whether the contributions and the slips are related, even inseparable at a deeper level not just of competence in writing, but looking and thinking about a medium so vast in its generality, so open in its optics, and yet so specific in its details. When you ‘look for’ something in photography, the more determined you are to see it, the greater your chance of seeing it. Even if it’s not there. And if you don't want to see something, you often won't. Then there’s the lazy or hasty reading. Since most of the photographic images we see around us expect to be consumed rapidly we are often tempted to look and draw conclusions at speed. Slow looking becomes an anxious or perverse demand.  I have always been struck by this passage from Victor Burgin’s 1980 essay ‘Photography, Phantasy, Function’:

To look at a photograph beyond a certain period of time is to become frustrated: the image which on first looking gave pleasure by degrees becomes a veil behind which we now desire to see. To remain too long with a single photograph is to lose the imaginary command of the look, to relinquish it to that absent other to whom it belongs by right: the camera. The image now no longer receives our look, reassuring us of our founding centrality, it rather, as it were, avoids our gaze.  In photography one image does not succeed another in the manner of cinema. As alienation intrudes into our captation by the still image, we can only regain the imaginary, and reinvest our looking with authority, by averting our gaze, redirecting it to another image elsewhere. It is therefore not an arbitrary fact that photographs are deployed so that, almost invariably, another photograph is always already in position to receive the displaced look.

The psychoanalytic terms (the gaze, the imaginary, captation) were relatively new to the discussion of looking at photographs but Burgin describes the familiar experience of a visual culture dominated by the photographic image as distractive spectacle. Photographs are exhausted and discarded well before we have the chance to come into a reflective relationship with them. That is the condition and purpose of the vast majority of photographs presented to us: their meanings are meant to be obvious and formulaic and if there is sustained interest in any particular one it is unpredictable.

But is this distractive gaze simply a matter of cultural habit? That for generations the ubiquitous visual culture to which photography gave rise has been a continuous stream of largely dispensable images? Do we not look at photographs for very long because we do not expect to, because we are not encouraged to? Did the popular press, advertising, cinema, television, the internet or even art’s compulsively serial use of photographs negate the long look? Or were deficiencies there from the start, built into the photograph’s very structure? Is it the coldness of its optics, perhaps? Does its surface fail to hold the gaze? Do its perceived limitations of time and place frustrate extended reflection? For Burgin at least, the position was clear enough: there is something about photographic images that precludes the long look, “therefore” (his word) they are deployed in number and the look is displaced.

There will always be a mismatch between the unconscious and the industrial mechanism of camera vision.

6 comment(s)
Christy Lange
Posted 26.05.2013 at 16:15

Hi David,

In the spirit of misreading and misinterpretation, let me mis-quote Jeff Wall, who said, according to a friend of mine who may or may not have heard him correctly, something like "there are no details in a photograph." It may also have been "a photograph has no detail." Either way, it's an interesting idea to chew on: the thought that everything on the surface of a photograph is rendered equally visible to our eyes; even if the depth of field, focus, or contrast may obscure things from view, what appears in front of us is no more or less detailed for one viewer as for another.

It's also interesting to think about how many artists using photography are playing with the possibilities of misreading photographs, and the idea that misreadings, or a lack of context, can also be productive. These photographers leave things purposely inscrutable - a reaction, perhaps, to photographers exactly such as Wall himself.

To my shame, I'm not up on my Ranciere, so I can't speak specifically to his misreadings, but I can say that your criticism is another argument for why Roland Barthes' legacy has been so enduring: there is always something to be said for the viewer who looks closely, reads, looks again, feels, looks again, describes, and so on.

But we also maybe shouldn't forget that drawings and paintings are surfaces, too? They, too, can reveal no more to our eyes than what's rendered there. But that's also why in reading any art work, it's not always so much what's in the frame - what we stare so hard to discern - that's important to our reading of it, but rather what is missing, or absent from its surface.

David Campany
Posted 27.05.2013 at 14:31

Thanks Christy.

I remember my first reaction to seeing Jeff Wall's light boxes was that the illumination has the capacity to energize every bit of the image surface equally, just as the lens takes in everything without discrimination. But the effect was not to absorb me but repel. Repulsion, or at least agitation, of the spectator was certainly a part of his early strategy but it came to be too prepossessing for his later work. It's nice to see he makes opaque prints now. Much easier to look at.

I think you're right about Barthes. In principle. 'Camera Lucida' is peppered with the strangest of mis-readings of basic details of the photos he so diligently reproduces. Even as he reflects so acutely on the conditions of his own looking, his unconscious seems to get the better of him. A lesson for us all.


Joanna Fiduccia
Posted 30.05.2013 at 08:40

Hi David and Christy,

I had the same thought about Barthes’s own misreading—in particular, the one Margaret Olin identifies in her essay “Touching Photographs,” which she pointedly calls a misidentification. (The essay is collected in Photography Degree Zero: Reflections on Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, edited by Geoffrey Batchen.) Olin points out that the punctum Barthes isolates in a family portrait by James Van Der Zee’s, a slender golden chain worn by one of the women, isn’t even in Van Der Zee’s photograph; rather, the golden chain belongs to the author’s aunt, displaced onto the Van Der Zee portrait after the photograph had “worked within” Barthes. Olin’s point is that the power of the photograph does not lie in its indexicality—the piercing “that-has-been” of the photograph’s subject—but elsewhere, in our misidentifications of (and with) the photograph. The act that traces the telling detail back to the originary moment of photographic capture is like the one that traces the person back to her childhood, seeking to find in both some kind of essence, some kind of identification, when all the while the real communion is taking place between the photograph and its beholder.

All this isn’t to say we shouldn’t keep trying to look closely, to feel, and to look again, but that those inbuilt deficiencies in our looking are part of what constitutes the photograph’s power. At the very least, they might be testaments to it.

David Campany
Posted 30.05.2013 at 11:13

Hi Joanna and Christy,

A friend suggested to me recently that since the
photo belongs by right to the camera, it is actually only a misreading or partial reading that can give us the fantasy of possession, and render the photograph mnemonically significant for us. I think that's a brilliant insight. Olin doesn't quite go that far but I'm inclined to. It accepts the strange and alien quality of photography is in a profound way ungraspable and thus bound to be tamed by our subjective and often unconscious motivations. Again we get a sense of the gap between 'photography' in general and 'photographs' in particular with which I began my first blog.


Christine Robinson
Posted 31.05.2013 at 07:32

Dear David,

Like Christy and Joanna, your interesting post also made me think of Barthes, as well as the collection Joanna mentioned. In his essay in Photography Degree Zero, Burgin connects the notion of the photograph’s “essence” in Camera Lucida with Barthes’s work on phenomenology. Critical to Barthes’s phenomenological discourse, according to Burgin, is the notion of “intention”—viewing a photograph actively with intention, rather than passively “perceiving.” Burgin states, “The mind is not simply a screen upon which the world projects its appearances… the mind, in a sense, is also a projector, projecting a world of things onto those appearances.”

As you mentioned, the mind, or unconscious, lends itself to readings and mis-readings. However, I wonder if this is not a weakness of the photograph, but instead an example of its power. The shortcomings of the photograph that you propose in your final questions have given me much to think about. The fleeting glance at a photograph or the individual interpretation of what is there or not there leads me to consider different artists using photography in ways that engage with these ideas. For example, what of artists such as Thomas Demand and Andreas Gursky who use artifice to direct the viewing of their photographs’ content? I am also tempted to return to your earlier discussion of seriality here, or artists who use the photographic archive, such as Zoe Leonard, to sustain the looking at single photographs by looking at them as parts of a whole.


David Campany
Posted 31.05.2013 at 16:38

Thanks Christine,

It's interesting that art likes to know where the intention is and gets rather disturbed when it can't discern it clearly. Hence the love of clearly signposted staging as opposed to the ambivalence it still has about 'on the fly' street photography, for example. Paul Graham, in his essay 'The Unreasonable Apple' hits the nail on the head, I think:

"The broader art world has no problems with the work of Jeff Wall, or Cindy Sherman or Thomas Demand partly because the creative process in the work is clear and plain to see, and it can be easily articulated what the artist did: Thomas Demand constructs his elaborate sculptural creations over many weeks before photographing them; Cindy Sherman develops, acts and performs in her self-portraits. In each case the handiwork of the artist is readily apparent: something was synthesized, staged, constructed or performed. The dealer can explain this to the client, the curator to the public, the art writer to their readers, etc. The problem is that whilst you can discuss what Jeff Wall did in an elaborately staged street tableaux, how do you explain what Garry Winogrand did on a real New York street when he ‘just’ took the picture? Or for that matter what Stephen Shore created with his deadpan image of a crossroads in El Paso? Anyone with an ounce of sensitivity knows they did something there, and something utterly remarkable at that, but... what? How do we articulate this uniquely photographic creative act, and express what it amounts to in terms such that the art world, highly attuned to synthetic creation -the making of something by the artist- can appreciate serious photography that engages with the world as it is?"

You can read Paul's essay here:


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