Fotograf Magazine

Dialectics of a Montage-Maker

MIT Press Reyers and Image Centre in Toronto published the English translation of The Eye of History: When Images Take Positions by philosopher Georges Didi-Huberman, published in the French original in 2009. 

The central theme of the book is Bertolt Brecht’s work: his work journals (Arbeitsjournal) from World War II and his War Primer composed during the war, but first published in 1955. In both of them, Brecht worked with photographs reproduced in the contemporary press that he gathered during his exile and that showed the scope of the war as a historical event. Brecht combined the reproductions with his journals or poetry comments, creating the so-called photo-epigrams. 

In his analysis of the two works, Didi-Huberman builds on his two long-term interests. Above all, he is interested in images of the Holocaust and World War II or, more generally, the image of history and its memory. He points out to this line in the introduction, referring to his study dealing with four photographs taken at Auschwitz.1 Secondly, the author focuses on the importance of the actual reading of images. In the reviewed book, Didi-Huberman closely examines not only what is happening in the photographs, but also the relationships between the images and their association with the texts – either the original journalistic descriptions or Brecht’s epigrams.

Didi-Huberman comments on the “poetic documentary” of the war through key terms such as exile, dialectics, montage, politics, history and pedagogy to highlight more and more layers of Brecht’s work. The starting point is exile – a position that enabled Brecht and other writers or artists in general to see reality both from a distance and as interested observers. Emphasizing exile, Didi-Huberman describes this basic element of Brecht’s work as a constant movement between two opposite poles – in their confrontation, creation is born. The theme of exile introduces us to Brecht’s methodology which worked with distance in the so-called alienating effect; this method presented reality (in this case, the war) not through engagement and empathy, but a formed gap activating a critical view through emotions and shock.

Didi-Huberman finds the dialectics crucial. In Brecht’s work, the means of dialectics is a montage – a tool for rethinking, regrouping and re-composing the fragments used to create a realistic message (in the case of the War Primer, a report on the war) and its criticism. Thus, we can see how war photography in the contemporary press was confronted with the poetic commentary of Brecht’s epigrams that did not describe the photographs, but revealed more layers of meaning contained in them, showing the hidden truth of history – all this with reference to the primer in the title of the book and with an emphasis on pedagogy, not only in relation to history, but also to the actual reading of images. Didi-Huberman sees montage and Brecht’s poetry as means of activation, education, and above all politics, which Brecht so vehemently brought to the arts. As Didi-Huberman wrote, “Montage is to form of what politics is to act”. In distance from the elements, the door to history and knowledge is open. In his book, Didi-Huberman notes that this specific distance space, consisting primarily of the montage, is a moment when a position is taken up – by the images to each other and to the text, and by the author himself to the presented meanings. This position is dealt with in contrast with siding (in terms of adherence to a dogmatic position) and described as a kind of inclusive method with the potential to form new political imagination in the movement between the montage elements. But as Didi-Huberman reveals, Brecht’s position was dialectical as well: for example, we can see his lifelong battle with siding in his affinity to and criticism of Stalinist communism. 

Although the book does not try to go beyond historical analysis, I think the translation is relevant for the current debate and critical work with images and their reading that can be significantly informed by Brecht’s work.

 

Didi-Huberman, Georges. The Eye of History: When Images Take Positions. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2018. ISBN 9780262037877.

 

1  DIDI-HUBERMAN, Georges. Images In Spite of All: Four Photographs from Auschwitz. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. ISBN 9780226148175.

 

Jan Kolský

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