The Uncanny Image: Problems in Photography Theory.
There are several perennial theoretical issues in photography that are worth being clear on as they impinge on a range of related problems and discussions. Namely: Susan Sonntag on ‘style’; the index/icon relationship; Walter Benjamin on ‘aura’; Christian Metz on ‘fetishism’; Roland Barthes on ‘denotation’/’connotation’; and issues centering on the areas of temporality, presence/absence and iteration. If my interest mainly focuses upon the wake of the black and white photograph, this is because the history of photography has, historically speaking, been, until fairly recently, almost entirely dominated by black and white photographic images; the quantitative Kodak revolution did not change this; but the qualitative inclusion of colour as an art collectable aspect of the gallery system in the 1970’s did. Conversely the quantitative tidal wave of the mobile phone revolution has now over-taken the digital (camera) revolution which preceded it and the results for photography, which can now be participated in by almost literally anybody and everybody (and produces incalculable quantities of documentary evidence, almost entirely in colour) are hard to calculate or predict, but fascinating to speculate on…
In matters of photography Susan Sontag is always a good place to start. Sontag has famously said (a propos of the debate on the distinctions between photography and painting) that there is no ‘style’ possible in photography due to the dominance of the ‘index’, the (causal) ‘indexical’ relationship between the image content and the referent - a relatively direct relationship when defined against painting, etc., with the complete mediation of the brain and hand in image creation (that is, the chain of causality runs through the eye and the memory before being recreated by the hand, whereas in photography, at least before the developing or editing process this same chain of causality chooses the piece of reality which will then be recorded by the more direct chain of causality running from the object to the chemical or digital registration of light - so, photography is not so much ‘hand-made’, as ‘hand-pointed’). The relative ‘directness’ of photography, so the argument goes, effectively rules out any nuances that might and up to a personal and recognizable ‘style’. But what happens if we compare different photographers and the way they photograph the same topic (for example, ‘exotic’ minorities or landscapes, or architecture…)? We may take as an example the work of the Chinese photographer Gao Bo, who in his early career focused upon images of the Tibetan people, and compare his images with the many others by those who have pursued this, somewhat fashionable, not to say ‘exotic’ (or better exoticized) topic. Looking at his images, we can see that his renditions maintain not only a high level of artistic value but also preserve the integrity of those photographed; the effects produced by different photographers when concerned with the ‘same object’ are quite different. So it is not so much a question of no mediation (a passage through the human nervous system and conscious cognitive processing), as of a different degree and quality of mediation. In this case ‘the ghost in the machine’ oversees the choice of the cutting up of reality, the framing, and settings… and then, post image capture, there is the development or editing (PS). So in many ways a photograph is more like a ‘found object’ used in a variety of ways: more strictly, what we get is, light reflected from object in a causal (‘indexical’) relationship which, interestingly, does not include the matter of the object itself; its external light absorbing/reflecting qualities are ‘all’ that we get. This is the ‘found object’ on which various procedures are then executed. There is also much scope for mediation with the manner of light capture and manner of recording; as well as, of course, with manipulation, including manipulation to the point of abstraction or loss of recognition (leaving a low degree of initial recording, inscription or ‘indexicality’ in the presented image).
Therefore the more mediated, staged, digitally constructed or managed or re-constructed the photograph, the less indexical – as, proportionally, less of the index remains. In which case what we have is much more like an icon, in the sense of being more like a work of fiction in prose… including much of (many samples of) reality, as in ’Realism’ or realistic writing; as in fiction… but not real in the sense of having a referent – if effect, borrowing much from many referents in the construction of a new ‘reality’ (in logic perhaps paralleling the paradoxical issue of ‘the present king of France’; read as fiction, creative writing, we have no problem: read as if reporting the real, clearly in contradiction). So with the photograph, the more altered, the more reconstructed according to models in the memory, the more distant from an actual reality– until the recorded element recedes into a kind of borrowed basic material (‘found object’). In fiction as in painting, all the material is dealt with from memory (or from sketches, which will have passed through the mind before the hand ‘reproduces’ them). It is the degree of ‘interference’ which indicated the degree or balance between icon and index in the recorded image. The degrees of interpenetration of copy and reflection, the blending of illusionism and mirror.
The photographic inscription is a photographic event. Once taken, lost in time (the past). Gone. Immediately become a lost referent, a lost object, a lost presence (surviving as a kind of semi-presence… precisely as in our human ‘picturing’, the remembering or imagining of the past or future). The (chemical, digital) trace remaining joins our bio-chemical neural system and its construction of a ‘now’ in which we find ourselves, in which we perpetually live, a kind of, ‘eternal present’; a now moment, the present, where not only the present is so presented, but also memories of the past and imagined glimpses of the future, as required. In this way the moment of photographic image inscription joins our present moment, but, as with memory, is immediately past, but stored, frozen, in parallel with the content of human memory – but producible, examinable. So also showing a kind of ‘secondariness’, a ghostly clinging, in its very constitution which indicates its status as ‘already past’. Something past, whose present status, if we go beyond its use as a recording, as a document, is that of an art work (we find a ‘special’ meaning for it which allows it to live in the present - and perhaps into the future…). A sampling of reality whose framing, form and meaning allow it to live beyond its inception and accrue the significances we normally accord to ritual (units of space and time, segregated, ‘repeated’, intensifying meaning into sacrality and other forms of value). The secret of art; foregrounded in photography; exemplified in black and white photography…
The ontology of the ‘documentary’ photographic image lies in its being perceived as putative index, its highest possible degree of indexicality provides its definition, indicates its genre; but even as it ages and is viewed, re-viewed, reclassified as a ‘classic’ image, as, in the course of time, it becomes an art photograph, it becomes less indexical and more iconic, judged less as a record (to be measured against a real past and other such records) and more as an image in itself (measured against other classic photographs and even other art images). Indeed as an art work or art image it is viewed according to its form and not its origin - even its form and not its content - and this form is a product of the frame… (and the frame, the manner of cutting out of a piece of reality, is the product of individual human choice…). The trace of the artist. His or her ‘style’.
Comment. From the two above questions we find: A question of degrees of indexicality (and iconicity) and technique/making. As in painting, where at first it would appear that the artist’s mediation of object and image, or ideal ‘summary’ of a collection of objects, comes first, and not second, as in image capture, where the mediation occurs in the developing or editing process – although the later always already includes the originary mediation which constitutes the choice of the material, its tearing out from its original context – with all the obvious implications for a transformation of meaning. So it may, at first, appear that it is rather a question of the order of the relation of mediation and image production: rather than simply degrees of directness and mediation (or the amount of ‘art’, or artist, in the art work…). Alternatively we may simply say that the memory of the object is an index, pointing back to the object, whilst the image produced points, also as an index, to that memory… So (traditional) photography’s difference to (traditional) painting is one of an indexicality once removed, rather than twice removed. A ‘one step index’ rather than a ‘two step index. It is also worth noting that in effect the slightest interference in the image turns the index into an icon; in the sense that it becomes a copy of something in the imagination or memory…
Similarly with the relationship of the object to its reception (by the perceiving subject): with structural and formal approaches focusing upon degrees of indexicality and icon/copy/mimesis (the rules of description are ‘in’ the object - here an image); whilst the object’s (image’s) reception by the perceiving subject is seen as a part of his or her history as represented in their memory, from the recognition of the object to its classification and aesthetic evaluation (the rules of description are in the subject). In the case of the reader, it is his or her experience, or phenomenology, which plays a key role in the realization or construction or consumption of the art work (right down to the very interesting issue of actual individual appropriations and their moment in space and time – a process which must (begin and) end with the perceiving subject in the eternal present… the much elided ‘I’ or ‘you’ in the ‘now’ of actually lived experience). We might also wish to suggest that each objective description becomes finally subjective when seen as part of a point of view (a spatially and temporally ‘grounded’ choice of concepts and object details as significant that will vary according to analysis and regardless of object identity)… with this conceptualization of points of view, in turn encompassing points of view, as spiraling to infinity with repetition (as in logic we may repeat, ‘upwards’, to infinity the expansion of the all-enframing meta-set, or image of the whole together with its perceiver… together with its perceiver…). So in photography, the photograph as point of view, as from a particular ‘point of view’ (including ideological) not least as ‘pointing to get the view’, the literal physical direction of the recording apparatus and its settings (never mind its editing…) all relies upon human agency – our subjective choice. Index/icon (cause-effect and copy/mimesis); these are always a mix (reflecting the tension of subject and object, predisposition and input). The mirror then may hold as a good metaphor for the photograph and its relation to reality (as mirror image and photograph share the direct reflection of light from an object) but with only the photograph as capable of fixing the image; a chemical to digital mirror with the ability to freeze the image. However in the photograph there are no mirror effect reversals (of left/right relations, as photographs exchange left for right and up for down, with only the latter being re-reversed, as in our own corporal processing of the light from the image (with ‘pastness’ another parallel to our cognitive processing, or construction of the ‘present’)). Unless actual mirrors are used in the course of the photographic process - in which case things begin to become interesting…
See, for example, the image from Hilde Van Gelder and Helen Westgeest, Photography Theory: A Historical Perspective (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), Figure 5.2, Jeff Wall, Picture for Women, 1979 (p. 196) where the role of a mirror in the making of the image is shown in the mirror reversal showing the male character as wearing his watch on his left hand, watches are normally worn on the right, some or all of the image is a reflection (the suggestion is that the woman in the foreground may not be a reflection whilst the male behind her seems to be, so ‘presencing’ herself, and ‘de-presencing’ the male photographer, however if she was not herself a reflection, then the refection of her back would also be included in the ‘background’). However, the photographer may just be left-handed… and the other assumption is that the camera in the picture is the one recording the picture.
‘Aura’. A vexed concept; (in general after, and because of, the influence of Walter Benjamin).
The concept on an aura (only one per artwork, as it were) nowise resembles the reception, or histories of reception of a given art work which are plural, contingent and downright unpredictable – as one would expect from real viewers in the real world. So we would rather expect a sequence of auras (reception aesthetics, bestowal of the positive, sense of specialness), different (for different generations, or over age, ‘with history’… whence the ‘classic’ sense or ‘aura’ of once-documentary black and white photographs). Otherwise we risk becoming lost in the rhetoric of the fall as a previous (somehow homogeneous) aesthetic or ‘aura’ (basically first reception) is lost to future generations…! Whereas if fact the opposite is what happens (again as expected): with tie old photographs, most especially black and white photographs gain in ‘aura’ (most famously as when a documentary image becomes a ‘classic’ or art image). Simply put, ‘aura’ itself is best read as a special feeling or meaning (as in sacralised or uncanny or perhaps semi-present, as in the case of black and white images and ‘pastness’) so applied to some images: or as applied to all images, where it just means reception as such, a given or general reception or response - or even more simply, the effect of a given image (changeable according to time and context and person). The idea of the reproducibility and loss of aura as part of modern relations of the reproduction of signs and symbols is, if ‘aura’ is read positively, clearly part of an anti-reproduction, anti-technology, romantic ideology or, equally polemically, if ‘aura’ is read negatively, as a destruction championed by a pro-reproductive technology, modernist ideology (people often try to have it both ways, Benjamin himself certainly appears to if we look at his transition from ‘A Short History of Photography’ to ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’). And is it really a case of: No aura with reproduction. Witness Warhol’s reproductions and their auras! Worth a million! Again, over time, all gains some manner of ‘aura’, again, as in the sense of black and white photography, where a sense of historical depth and ‘specialness’ accrues. This sense was once called ‘uniqueness’ and I would hazard that they still feel this way for most interested onlookers. However the term is hardly apposite as these images are normally subject to infinite reproduction; yet the reproducibility of these images does not seem to have harmed their ‘auras’ – if anything, rather the opposite.
So Walter Benjamin’s use of the concept of ‘aura’ in the early black and white portrait photograph is what undoes his general use of the concept. Like Adorno’s favourites in object and aesthetic response (as well as political reading) such concepts are products of their time as are the critical approaches that underlie them or are built upon them (whence the sense of melancholia or the Fall which dominates their aesthetics and that of their followers). This particular concept of ‘aura’ also carries with it a sense of ‘authenticity’; so precisely of a sacralising fetish effect as ‘single’, unique, special. Basically this is a market-led approach to value based upon scarcity or monopoly. In reality the ‘fetish’ effect is the effect of repetition – not scarcity (compare with incidence of those 19th century portrait photographs discussed by Benjamin with the genuine uniqueness that is the result of art of painterly portraiture). An effect of photographic reproduction (still in its early stages) and the special quality of black and white photography in evoking the past, as ‘semi-present’ with respect to its object or content, an effect of its means of expression. Today we would call this the ‘classic effect’ (the proof lies in the ability of yesterday’s documentary image to become todays classic). Neither the state of the technology or the means of expression has (or had) anything to do with scarcity: rather, there can be no aura, no semi-sacred, no fetish, no past or melancholy effect without repetition… And such intensities of space and time with repetition are, of course, aspects of everyday rituality; we recognize that a particular configuration can evoke ritual feelings; the re-creating of a special space and time in ritual or in the ritual object which gives it a sense of being sacred, or a ‘fetish’, always refers back to previous events and experiences (unless we choose to judge sacral value as an effect of exchange value, an effect of price…).
Comment. Repetition does not deny the ritual effect (which is how I read the ‘auratic’ halo), on the contrary, it is its very possibility and foundation; the process on which the image value (its function), its identity exchange (which includes ‘price’), is built… A novum may appear to be priceless, beyond repetition (the ultimate in monopoly price); but in reality it must survive (that is, not be limited to one instance in space and time, as in the case of actual events) so that many can view it, and its… reproduction… as an image… over and over again… As indicted above I regard this as an effect of the means of expression, in this case the aesthetics of the black and white photograph.
So… to proceed to the so-called ‘fetish’ nature of the photograph (after the influential article by Christian Metz), especially the black and white photograph, we may effectively read this label as a kind of name-calling; another unfortunate casting of the negative, or negative comparison, a denial or denigration of the human capacity to invent or produce a variety of senses of value, of values, of intensities of specialness, of the sacred… The art element in art denied… (the higher the degree of affect or intensity of the photograph, or art work, the higher the degree of ‘fetishism’… otherwise put, the better the image looks, or feels, the worse it really is… a parody of Adorno’s aesthetics). By the same means the sacrality to be found in the objects of everyday life are also given a put down, in the form of the label, ‘commodity fetishism’… well we do not want to ‘put them down’…! What we see in this manner of ‘understanding’ is the ‘imperial’ or colonial moment in its crusading rationalist aspect (in reality anti-every religion but its own) that yet survives in philosophy and theory… and that paradoxically even survives in certain kinds of ‘left thought’ as reactive, reactionary formation; in fact a continuation of the system it would replace or critique. We should note that the epoch of Romanticism was the imperialist, colonialist epoch (for the West, the others had their turn earlier, with classical empires and feudalism… and have indulged in ‘active forgetting’ ever since…). The present reliance on Nature in theory is but another Neo-Romanticism; a ‘reactive’ ideology regardless of whether it bases itself upon concepts positing some manner of human nature as essence or upon numbers supporting a genetic essence implied by formalized, ‘universal’ data – in both cases the results are not subject to empirical verification. Interestingly the same romantic ideology which damns ‘commodity fetishism’ because containing traces of some archaic superstition (read, the sacred or bestowal of special value) also worships the very tribal societies which originated this same ‘fetishism’ as the model for all future utopias… Romantic, colonial fantasies on both counts.
The fetish was read as a part of ‘primitive’ peoples’ culture, usually of a darker skin colour than those who would cast this term. We may reverse the nineteenth century colonialist negative appropriation of this term to help us understand modern uses of the gift relation, and its links to the sacred, as well as how we might use our gift of bestowing the positive, of value, of ‘sacrality’ better to help our modern social predicaments (the environment, human rights etc…). And of course we already have a long history of the use of sacred objects from a variety of colonized cultures in art works of resistance to colonization or domination (by elites foreign or native, or in terms of the defense or expansion of a variety of human rights).
Roland Barthes. Denotation and connotation in the image. In structuralist linguistic, or semiotic jargon, as in Barthes’ early writings, this relation is conceptualized as that between immediate elements of the image recognizable by ‘all’ : and those higher or more complex meanings placed in the image by composition or editing and often requiring codes, keys, or a specialist education, to be recognized. In Barthes’ later work, as in most of us writing now, the pragmatic moment in linguistics, communication theory and philosophy of language, with its emphasis on the end game in the process of message reception has replaced the original meaning of the author or sender of the message or what was in the mind of the painter or photographer (‘the death of the author’). This twentieth century revolution of interpretation democratically and scientifically takes the real reading of all those viewing an image as ‘true’, as the ‘actually-existing’ readings or complexes of feeling and opinion to be taken into account. So an updated version offers the denoting of the image as signifier, sign, or the relation of ‘first meaning’, the ‘basic image’ in relation to its connoting, its ‘second meaning’ (this ‘second’ is often referred to as metaphor). If denotation is the first image-signifier we see, always already in the frame, a chosen or framed ‘bit’ of the real (but still as ‘sign’, here as an index/icon complex, of this reality, so not that reality itself, but representing or reflecting it) then denotation, the second image-signifier in the chain of meaning (whatever ‘comes to mind’, produced by anybody in the act of perusal), is the second meaning, or symbol (that the image is ‘supposed’ to mean, its ‘real meaning’); all the possible second meanings that may accrue to the initial image or sign, first meaning or signifier (again, in reality these may be difficult to differentiate, as in the very different emotional responses to the same painting that may constitute the first impression of an image, here the useful distinction is between the first impression and the considered response the latter allowing more play for acquired cultural codes, or ‘cultural capital’ to come into play). So all in all a matter of cultural codes, which may change with time; as also a matter of degrees of presence or absence of (the perception of an) ‘aura’ (or, more simply, the type of presence and its affect) which will change with the viewer and his or her particular cultural history. A matter of probability and pragmatism when it comes to interpretation. Again like reading a realist novel, where, on the face of it (denotation), we have the illusion of the innocence of the index (we are not reading a report of ‘objective description’ of a real situation but literature); which is then followed by the ‘reading in;’ of symbolism or second meanings, the connotations of the innocent or ‘accidental’ details of the reality we have been presented with (again like the reading in of form and meaning into a documentary photograph). The ‘reality effect’ is precisely defined to be ‘as if’ unmediated… yet in literature reality is an effect; a literary icon or illusion if you like, with no iconic relation. Yet what if we are dealing with a description of a real place or event in a report (or ‘borrowed for literary purposes as in the description of Egdon Heath in Hardy’s novel, The Return of the Native). There is no iconic relation in the sense of the imprint of the image, yet we are clearly dealing with a memory imprint, which is then ‘translated’ into written signs, language. Whether this language is used for reportage or fiction is another question. This relation of icon ad index is similar to that of painting and photography where one process is mediated by chemistry and the other by memory imprints… so another kind of chemistry… In fact the limitations of the index/icon, distinction is here evident: all the process are mediated in some way; sometimes the mediation is ‘longer’ (going through the memory , produced as language, then turned again into an image in other’s minds) used for documentary purposes (history) or literature, or in painting and the plastic arts in general, where realism is in question, then memory again mediated the ‘original(s)’ and the final art work, with photography this process involves no memory in the recording process, but the takers past mediates his or her choice of matter and frame. Photography (perhaps best in its direct chemical form, avoiding the step of being translated and stored and retranslated digitally) is closest to our sense of personal experience (except this experience no wise resembles black and white or even colour photography… the context of the visual experience and other sensory data are all missing… film, with 3D and other means, strives after this authenticity of experience - but the result is only spectacle, not reality). Full presence seems to be only true of vision (or the other senses) where, in reality, full presence, ‘unmediated’, light is reproduced as an image in our brains… so just like a digital recording…! The point is that, in a strong sense, we still see what we want to see… our received side, our past, ‘us’ intervenes to choose what we ‘see’, notice, etc). So even our experience is not unmediated, pure, full presence, but subject to the mediation of the nervous system with its translations and sortings, and ellipsis etc. So our ‘reading’ of anything is never innocent, we add ‘ourselves, our past, (our ‘programming’) to read our experience, never mind the reading of the image as symbol… to read into the image our past … So we may ‘double’ our self as artist/creator, first our past inclines us to choose what we see (over and above what we choose to frame) and then we interpret this ‘self-constituted’ image as a set of symbols, or connotations…which we then read off as… a meaning… the image’s meaning…
Temporality. In the world of the image ‘all’ is always already in the past. Everything is in the past: from the purview of the image and its relation to its origin – assuming this is as simple, as the taking of the photograph; but post-capture manipulation of any kind immediately ‘clouds’ the issue... All is, after all, viewed from the present (from the point of view of the… viewer, in their own here and now, the ‘eternal present’). On this level all is easy. However, we will persist in making distinctions between relatively recent, immediate images (‘the present’ as the ‘present time’, as opposed to the present as experiential moment, our ‘now’ moment) of the kind we normally call documentary type (even insisting on grainy, black and white, or blurry colour as a sign of live, topical ‘authentic’ newsworthiness whether in scene or portrait, landscape or people event), and older ‘classic’ images, generally in black and white (or in faded, bi-chromatic or mono-tinted prints) so far, which seem to collect the sense of the past (older, formally attractive documentary images become classic over time: Magnum). Some of these images of ‘past times’ have become positively melancholic… focusing their meaning element on their sense of being the last remnant of a lost past. Older portraits collect this sense – not least 19th century images with their unmistakable aura of age, of a gift from the past. Other images even connote sublimity, a sense of sacrality (certain landscapes: mountains, Ansell Adams) as being or pointing outside of time… (as in the history of religious art and the painting of the Romantic sublime landscape). And then we have dream-like images, the unmistakable genre of surrealism, neither in nor out of time, but mixed: uncanny - nightmarish. Which covers our human experience of temporality with one exception: the future… Clearly un-photographable… un-denotable… but connotable? As with the human imagination, so we have the genres of fantasy, subjunctive, interrogative and contingent/conditional projections into the future, with its accompanying moods of anxiety and criticism… Photographable?
Images of, photographs of, the ‘future’ are rare… indeed impossible, which is why we avoid them, even appearing to be under a taboo, so rare are they compared to other temporal modes and their photographic equivalents (classic/past, documentary/present, surreal/mixed, sacred/outside, all of which to some degree involve pastness, or recording)… It is as if photography can only be about the past, its ‘indexicality’ or ‘effect’ due to the past’s, now distant, ‘cause’…. (so like the trope of ‘metalepsis’, present effect attributed to distant cause, as in the case of the illusionism of an altered photograph?). Yet some photographers do try for the future as an extension of our own ‘future’ sense, our window on the world that is yet to be (in contrast that which has passed). An extension of our imagination and its oracular tendency. One such example is Constant Nieuwenhuys, ‘New Babylon’ (1974), (in Photography Theory (2011) p. 145). The images are part of an installation which includes a model of something ‘planned’ or better envisaged for the future (we are present in front of the model, and images of part of the model) implied as ‘to be’ in the future (unbuilt)… a prediction… The images are of this model and it is as if we are looking at pictures of the future, pictures of models of the future… so in ‘oracular’ mood, or mode… Interestingly, even the thought of their futuricity, de-presences the installation, model and image alike… they become not records (of the past) but fictions, works of the imagination, as befits speculation (quite literally, in this case) on the future: as with other oracular images, it is as if a question is being posed; image in interrogative mood, as is so often the case in future connoting art; asking what might be, and (more strongly, in the subjunctive) what should be… One more example of the survival of the rhetorical use of past, present and future in the image.
Time as temporality is present in the very nature of the photograph, as present image of past event (in the most simple of instances). As it is in all the representative arts (product of the difference between thing and its representation). Temporality is also present in black and white photography as a special case; the very lack of presence of the ‘realism’ of a world in colour, already foregrounds the absence of the origin; connoting pastness. But yet also leaving space for cultural habit (historical survival from early technology) as in the case of documentary photography as more ‘present’, as showing the recent past or newsworthy ‘serious’ aspects of present times. As noted above, we may define the genres of black and white photography especially, due to its initial affinity with a certain lack of presence, as related to basic forms of human temporality: Classic/past; Documentary/present; Sacred or sublime/’outside of time’ or rhetoric of eternity; Surreal/mixed, neither ‘out’ nor ‘in’; and Oracular/future (See my A Theory of Black and White Photography: Black and White Photography in China, (China Nationality Art Photography Publishing House, 2015), for a full exposition of the issues involved in using temporality as a method of classification and its application to Chinese photographic art history in particular). Genres ‘natural’ or ‘ontologically embedded’ in black and white photography (colour photography partakes of the same contradictions, mutatis mutandis, as the rest of the representational arts) - other key photographic genre classifications, the Portrait or Landscape, as inheritances from traditional art (painting) history.
Then we have the reading of time into space, of history, narrative, process, or eternity, into two dimensional realist illusionism, into the meaning of art, the image, photography; a matter of temporal rhetoric, or rhetoric based upon the reading in of temporality, due to the survival or trace of these uses in art history, including recent art history. This form of interpretation or ‘reading’ involves finding oneself as in the present in the past of the picture (marrying our present with the present of the picture) and then finding past and future in the image (as we would in our minds, opening ‘windows’ in our present onto the ‘semi-presences’ of memory or projection) according to a set of established codes or cues (for the art historical importance of these, see my article, ‘When Space is Time: The Rhetoric of Eternity: Hierarchy & Narrative in Late-medieval and Renaissance Art’, in Gerhard Jaritz & Gerson Moreno-Riano (eds.), Time and Eternity: The Medieval Discourse, selected papers from the International Medieval Congress, Leeds 2000 (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2003) pp. 403-426: and the book length study of this topic, A Rhetoric of Time in the Arts: Entropy, Eternity & Utopia in Visual Culture (Lambert Academic Press, 2011). Many of these historically important tropes have survived into modern art alongside the suggestion of narrative and representation of power and hierarchy, in the left-rightness of the image, especially in the diagonals and in clockwise, ‘object right’ affinities in the image. The article ‘Power, Narrative, Image: Left/right in Photography’, also in this collection, offers an analysis of the Museum Ludwig collection of (largely) black and white photographs (amongst others), which discusses the persistence of these effects in modern, twentieth century, largely post-war, photography.
In effect, from what originally may have been a historical or news document, or documentary act, recording an event, we move towards a treatment of the resulting image as a work of art, or better a rhetorical construction whose meaning prepositions may be unpacked and explained… (as a work, once designated as an art work, becomes interpreted as a work of rhetoric, that is read for is details and symbolism). The photograph also is a work made up of rhetorical gestures, encodings - even if unconscious (or, in terms of reception, the product of human visual culture and creativity in interpretation; art history and looking, seeing, the gaze, the received elements of the visual field, understood as culturally formed, as always there in some form or another). History/ies of looking come into play: our art history/ies become the key inter-text/s, or archive/memory that we bring to both the making and reading of an image… The weight of the past as the opportunity to read in meaning in the present; such as the reading-in of the past and future, or reading narrative into a single image, and of finding the ‘outside of time’ in a sub-lunary image, the rhetoric of eternity (the sublime, the ‘outside’, the sacred, the ‘universal symbol’ in all its guises, etc) … So much for the old.
Of the new influences on the making and meanings options available to the image, it is important to mention the 20th genre of the Surreal as opening the doors of representation to previously only imaginable, or verbally describable, visions and landscapes (prefigured, to be sure, in painting). The Surreal, or Surrealism, the Uncanny, even the Fantastic and Absurd are new, particular, to the 20th century; arriving with the genres of science fiction and science fantasy to follow, continue the path forged by the Romantic imagination, by fantasy, popular superstition, Romance (including a lineage dating back to medieval romance) and the Gothic (leading to the representation of the nightmare, the realm of horror). And indebted to one of the oldest (together with the complaint) of literary models modes, the dream narrative… based upon one of our other modalities of time experience, the dream, neither present nor absent… but both, confusingly combined. So, in turn, reinventing the dream narrative or vision for our time, as utopian or dystopian vision, as imagining our, humanity’s future as over-shadowed by our fears of what our technology is leading us into, and of the results of our (economic) impact on the global environment, including the changes due to global warming. In this way Surrealism also edges into the future as an oracle whose manifest is a nightmare.
Most recently the representation and rhetorical appropriation of time and temporality in the arts have been influenced by the technological phenomenon of the new communication revolution and the cultural phenomena of the twin plateaus of Conceptualism and Post-modernism. Conceptualism is now mainly found in photography: Post–conceptualism is the present, day global, norm in the other arts (usually a fusion of all the previous art trends and mediums into some manner of installation). Originally the term, ‘Conceptualism’, was used for art which performatively interrogated the relations of image and concept. More recently it is used of any work which injects concern of an intellectual or political character. Post-modernism most usually refers to art which employs ironizing, double-voiced-ness, genre and culture mixing, fragmentation of point of view and identity politics as the new norm in cultural production, in art, leading to a ‘end of art history’ effect… when its effects are thought-provoking as opposed to based upon shock and surprise it may be said to carry conceptual effect. Art, usually incorporating photography in its documentary aspect, with anthropological ambitions, is the best example of conceptual force in Post-conceptual art).
So what’s new to our 21st century photography? As the paragraph above suggests, the two main features are the use and repercussions of new technology and the expression of intellectual and political concerns through conceptual calculation. Factors largely inherited from the late 20th century, perhaps as a result of ‘stabilising’ into another ‘long Baroque’ - the effect of arriving at the Postmodern plateau which has defined the current aesthetic epoch for some decades now… art as variation and remixes of previous art trends. Interestingly, it could be argued that the actual Baroque, as product of the Counter Reformation, was all about conceptual meaning; religious meaning whose understandings permeated all images, and came before representation, iconicity or symbolism. Or rather dominated all symbolism; a joining of idea and image actually found in all religious art. Modern conceptual art, with the term, ‘conceptual’ used loosely, so perhaps we should say ‘postmodern conceptual art’, which now dominates much art photography, is (again, as with so much Post-modernism) a return to the patterns of history we experienced in thought and culture, art and so the image, before ‘modernism’ attempted a novum and a forgetting – a coup with a tabula rasa as its means. New technology means more fiddling with the image, tampering with the image, playing with (or appropriating, denying, criticising) past traditions, received ways of seeing, making, and interpreting. But all this is but an extension of the means of expression, which enables the further interpretation of the content of the expression (the meaning of the means of the expression in tandem with the form and content of the expression, as its meaning). And this, as noted, includes the rhetoric of time, the rhetoric of eternity. Plus ca change!
What does change, under the impact of the new technology, the latest stage in the unending, or ‘permanent’, communications revolution, is the democratising (some have said ‘privatisation’) of the means of communication, storage and reproduction of the visual image and sonic image. The impacts of this are felt, so far, mainly in reception and consumption (the pragmatic end of the communication or semiotic scale), so will be dealt with in the companion piece, ‘The Uses of Photography’.
Presence /absence. All photography (all art, all representation) plays with the opposition, or better ‘mutually-conditioning dyad’ or ‘co-implicated binary or contradictory’, the difference between: presence /absence. At root, all art is a present absence (when regarded in relation to its referent) as an illusion/ as an icon (or, as in the case of the photograph, as an index; the cause or object is equally absent). All art is made, finds its conditions of existence and meaning (and paradoxes of meaning) by means of this condition. Including non-representational art? Decorative Art may be read as playing with a present form to an absent content. So in effect offering eternal forms, as formalized patterns are evacuated of concrete content and come to suggest their possible referents. It is as if they are de-specified, de-historicised, and so ‘eternalised’. Which is one means by which Abstract Art can be found signifying the Sublime - or one if its avatars… the outside, the Other, the heavens, God/gods, the universal, and the universe as the absent but imaginable ‘all’ or ‘final’ meta-set (sic)). Which returns us neatly back to rhetoric of eternity again; present as ‘Eternity’ due to the universalization of the ‘Eternal Present’ (our situatedness in time, in the ‘now’ moment, the temporality we ourselves produce and live in) and its (imaginary) projection ‘outside’, ‘beyond’… as an eternally absent present, ‘eternity’, which we believe is prior… (the ‘non-place’ of universals, axioms, the a priori and other extra-temporal entities, locations and foundations).
The thing about black and white photography is that it, as a genre, foregrounds this basic feature, this basis of symbolisation, of representation… this play of absence and presence; of a presence which is at the same time absent. This ever-present reminder of absence (reality is ‘in colour’) is then recycled in various ways to create a variety of meanings (or ‘meaning genres’, as discussed above). But to speak of absence is to refer to the object, so to speak: how we read this phenomena (the image before us) is in the subject (again, so to speak), is part of our received culture and what we do with it at the moment of reflection, of understanding… (as well as creatively as innovation, experimentation, commercial exploitation). For it, the semi-present image, is before us in the two main senses of the world ‘before’: as from the past (absent); and as in front of us (now present); so permitting the two senses to come into confusion and conflict. An image from the past in our (eternal) present. Again this renders the black and white image exceptionally sensitive to expressing the several modes of our (human) temporality.
The indexicality of the reading too (and all we have is readings, situated interpretations) always passes by the way of reception (no matter how the work is mediated, light /chemicals, memory, adjustment of form, etc.). Finally it is we who see… and this ‘we’ is always (already) situated in time and space, that is in history and culture… including a history and a culture (another way of saying that all interpretation is based upon memory). So even a putative high degree of indexicality is no escape from the final look of the reader… (pragmatically, in terms of language or sign, linguistics of semiotics, meaning is made, or given, by the reader, listener, or receiver of the signal, according to context, and regardless of what it is supposed to be according to others… including even the sender…). Presence to be present must be present to somebody (and the same is true for the sense of absence, usually definable as a denial of expectation or deictic of ‘pastness’, ‘gone’, ‘lost’ etc…) and -it should not be necessary to say this- that this ‘somebody’ is always human… (well, thus far…) and so possessing their own history, as well as their own particular, situated desire of the image - but that is another story… another way of seeing (see ‘The Uses of Photography’).
If much has been said on the presence/absence of the referent or object as such (the absence of which already permits much) then a more present form of absence/presence may be found in the means of expression - in what we actually can see, in the details, in the lines, diagonals, in the centre-margin relation, in formalism and in recognition (of form, its illusion/iconicity, of that which it is -or may be, or may have been- an index… of the original thing or moment having passed, as no longer available for empirical verification). Innovations are here represented by the way the hierarchical centre/margin relation is subverted in street photography and conceptual art photography alike, as new forms or de-centering are used… Again in the realm of the means of expression (or the signifier), innovations, the denial or reversing of tradition and traditional methods of received ‘manners’ of image rendering; as in de-centering, in degrees of focus/clarity/blur, in the contrast of black and white to colour and its intensity, along with the latter’s potential for signifying significant form…as well as, more confusingly, the degrees of presence, or semi-presence, found in co-presence, in superimposition - as in the apparitional citation effect of things that appear ‘out of place’ etc.
Which leads us neatly to collage; the making present of the never-present (as in fiction) by mixing, cut and paste, layering elements to suggest, to resemble, what is actual (or we think resembles what was actual). Here photography most obviously joins the art of ‘found objects’ in installation and ‘music concrete’ in music composition, as well as in the suggestions or referential illusionism of sculpture and painting (and as in fiction, illusion created by an accumulation of details to create a never-existing ‘whole’). ‘Photography’ here is more illusion than index - more construction than reflection. So returning the burden of skilled labour to the image-making, rather than the attending and pointing of a machine. The making of an ‘art work’. The work of ‘artists’ rather than ‘photographers’?
Instance and Iteration. Another way of thinking about the presence /absence issue is that of repetition and iteration: their proximity and distance (icon and trace; reproduction and re-creation; their process, or order, as implying meaning or value – priority as value…). So repetition/iteration may first be opposed to the ‘instance’, or novum, as in something striking, as if seen for the first time (‘never seen that before’); showing no memory, no trace, or showing something forgotten… Like a prosopopoeia (trope of the absent, the dead, the lost) which has forgotten itself, forgotten its origins. Yet this is situation of experiencing a novum is never literally true for anything we see/experience; as we recognise only through similitude… by making the same (comparing) by making a metaphor - even if we are ‘wrong’ or our ‘creativity’ masks rather than reveals the object (see my ‘Gaze of the Tourist/The Object of Travel’).
Another more negative implication of the aspect of representation as copy (including those of indexical origin), lies in repetition as secondary, read, morally, as a kind of fall or degeneration. This hierarchical and value implying (and denying) point of view colours relations such as repetition read as similarity or metaphor. We may look no further than the ‘father’ of modern western philosophy, Plato and his modern ‘son’, Levinas, for the ideology, whereby the copy, and even the being of the image as such (relative to the word) is found to be secondary, or ‘lesser’; copies are morally inferior…). Of course in reality the process of ‘copying’, that is remembering, the chain of memory, never ends, and if it ‘ends’ individually (with our earliest, forgotten, impressions) than we have the memory of our culture, our history… This ineluctable act of interpretation (for we are talking about the act of positing of an ‘origin’ and a copy’ from out of a sequence) actually reminds and affords us of ‘reality’ (the evidence from which we reconstruct it); ‘reality’ as an (infinite) sequence of connections based upon similarity and their consequent appropriation as the making and classifying of those connections. Again, in terms of interpretation, in terms of a ‘paper chase’, or chain of evidence, it is the reconstructed ‘origin’ that is secondary, not the ‘copy’.
Another reading of the origin/copy relation has been the role of the copy as parody or creative response (as in artistic inspiration or tradition) including homage or criticism of the original or what it is taken, read, as representing (sometimes referred to as ‘repetition backwards’ or ‘forwards’… of being ‘stuck’ with the meanings of the original or of moving on…). In the realm of the photograph, Cindy Sherman’s, (black and white) sequence, entitled, ‘Untitled Film Stills’ (which they are not, but which they suggest), is the, now, classic, example.
Conversely, reiteration and repetition, as occurring more than once (or as posited as occurring more than once), holds out the possibility of recognition (‘once’ is forgotten, is ‘never happened’, unless memorialized by some form of repetition, memorial, or after event, as in the remembering of the dead, whose lives were a unique, so also a ‘once only’ event…). It is as if, only if, regularized, or once regularized, can we know things, even reproduce, renew them; this process leads to the understanding of repetition as underlying ritual, of suggesting ritual (and of ritual as made from repetition). Of repetition as the stabilizer of self and identity; as well as of the identity, classification or recognition of others (or even of ‘nothing’). For, a little paradoxically, there is no identity without repetition. And in the events of a special repetition, most obviously in a special or cyclic ritual, we have the means of identity maintaining, forming, asserting, as well as renewing, as a function of ritual force… (As found in the everyday ritual element in photographs that mark rites of passage (sic) and celebrations, as well as the holiday snaps and their ritual perusal and display).
Degree Zero: the mark, trace or index. If the index is the definitional degree zero of the photographic image, then this, lost, origin of the photograph is found to haunt all aspects of the image read as metaphor (as similar, as a copy), as an icon of indexical origin. A photograph is also a recording of something... a recording of light. Whence again the ghostly element, the uncanny in photography, especially in black and white photography, which, again, foregrounds the presence /absence issue… here in the contrast of light and its absence in the black white (and grey) texture not equally present in colour prints. This other kind of presence /absence configured as black and white changes the images mood completely (try switching values in Photoshop); it is a means of registration ‘equalizing much’. A means which transforms all… We may note, as against the backdrop of the final victory of colour brought about by the digital image not of the camera but of the mobile phone, the effect of the films of Bela Tarr and the suggestion of a transfigured reality through the use of the black and white format; existential, absurd, surreal, tragic, pathetic, dystopian (see The Turin Horse). Yet also… ‘utopian’, in the sense that the only hope of redemption, is (only possible in) a black and white genre… whence its association with melancholia and/as (a modality of) the past. The hope (like the beauty) lies only in the signifier, in the means of expression in its semi-presence (and perhaps in the form of expression, the formal arrangement of the image). And so at odds with the content of expression… the condition of those we watch, their lives, their histories, their fates… (whence the existential irony). The ‘repetition’ of an absent (but still indexically referring) image; an image foregrounding absence as redemptive force (just as the absent memory or memorial, the semi-present, semi-absent image of the past (the present image of the absent past) attempts to redeem the sufferings and loss of the past, or of those of the present, become past, and so passed, redeemed). For we are in the realm of art as ritual, through its repetition, its viewing, its realization(s), as the transfiguration of a kind of absence (a semi-presence) found only in art (but echoing our also ‘semi-present’ temporal modes, the past and the future). Or, if not only in art, then most evident in art, because present in embryo in the separation of event and iteration, present in its framing and repetition, present in its echo of our ‘frames’ of past and future, so present as what might have been, or might be… as the possibility of transfigurations actualized… or unactualised… unactualisable.
Colour photography does not haunt us, its paradoxes are hidden (or reduced to a question of gloss or matt or degrees of saturation); whereas in black and white photography, the veil is lifted, the contradictions of its being are exposed.
Precisely like the ideal - we always already know it is not real…
Copyright Peter Nesteruk, 2015