Fotograf Magazine

karel císař: what is photography?

What is photography? This question can be answered very simply, as if it almost answered itself, or on the contrary only with difficulty, if we choose to take it as a challenge for serious thought. In the first case, all we need to know is how to use things – at a level so basic that we do not even have to think: photography is a means of making pictures. In the latter case, we dive into a chaos of theories, meta-theories, premises, conclusions, concepts… a chaos so complex and impervious to any ultimate conclusion that it almost seems that we can only repeat St. Augustine’s statement regarding time. ”I know it when no one is asking me [about time], but if I am to explain it, I do not know.“

The answer, as is often the case, lies somewhere between these two extremes. The practice of photography, its production and functioning, together with the concepts that both constitute and interpret this practice, form the area where we can look for answers for the above posed basic question. At the same time it will transpire that the question of the title is in fact not basic at all. Perhaps it is even confusing in its tendency; if we followed it consistently, it would most probably lead to a sort of formalist view, toward a searching for an ”essence“ or an ”objective meaning“ of photography. It could happen that the search for the ”substance“ of photography would obfuscate more ”essential“ questions. How does photography work? How do we define it? How can we speak about it? And so on, a line of questions which open the possibility of distinguishing between the photographic image and the medium of photography, questions which indicate that it is not only about making and looking at photographs, but also about their functioning at practical and symbolical levels.

Perhaps we should rephrase the (seemingly primary) question of the title, and instead of asking, ”What is photography“, ask ”Is photography art?“ This would be more in keeping with the selected contribution, but would capture only one facet of the anthology. As a whole, it deals more with the meaning, interpretation and functioning of photography as one of the most important forms of visual media. Emphasis on the level of interpretation makes it possible to reflect the fact that photography is subject to constant metamorphoses – that it is itself constantly transformed (by discourse as well as practice) and that it constantly transforms everything that it touches.

There are two basic themes in the anthology: the exploration of the nature of photography (both as an image and as a medium), and the relationship of photography to the visual arts. This concentration on two basic themes allows it to bridge a diversity of styles, scope and methodological approaches, as well as the idioms of the individual authors. The reader can thus respond individually to each contribution and at the same time contemplate more general questions of interpretation.

Karel Císař, in the capacity of editor, has selected texts from Walter Benjamin, André Bazin, Siegfried Kracuaer, Hubert Damisch, Roland Barthes, John Berger, Allan Sekula, Victor Burgin, Wolfgang Kemp, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Rosalind Krauss, Benjamin Buchloch, Craig Owens, Thierry de Duve, Douglas Crimp and Geoffrey Batchen. Most of the texts have been translated into Czech either for the first time, or anew. The anthology features both the notorious and the less well known. Various theoretical approaches are presented here, articulated by both theoreticians and critics and also theorizing artists.

The anthology comprises two parts. The first features texts of a more methodological character, the second texts by art and photography theoreticians. The first part opens with Walter Benjamin’s ”Short History of Photography.“ It is to some degree a paradigmatic text, since by his emphasis on the nature of photography as a medium Benjamin articulated with great penetration a discourse that remains influential to this day. At the same time, he points out the ways in which photography has changed our understanding and perception of works of art. This theme appears also in André Bazin’s ”Ontology of the Photographic Image“, based in the ontology of the model drawing its aesthetic power from the discovery of the real. As the photographic image became identified with its model, at the same time it turned the painting into an object. The relationship of art (painting) and photography from the perspective of purity of medium is explored in Siegfried Kracauer’s ”Photography“. This essay on the specific nature of a medium which provokes certain types of communication, while preventing others is ultimately an inquiry into what type of creativity can be invested in the medium of photography. A regard for this specific type of creativity then enables us to expand the notion of art itself – or to use it differently, not as a value judgement, but taxonomically. In ”Five Notes for a Phenomenology of the Photographic Image“ Hubert Damisch points out the difficulties in applying the phenomenological experience to an object of culture, to an essence established historically. The situation of photography is defined by a certain presumption of ”reality“, which is nonetheless false. Photography is in fact the source of a two-fold deception: both ontological and historical – as it reanimates the conventional ”objective“ idea of the construction of space and of objectivity itself. If photography addresses its own deceptive nature, it then opens in the direction of art. Roland Barthes also deals with the certain deceptiveness of photography, but in a rather different sense. Alongside Walter Benjamin, Barthes is the most frequently quoted author in this volume. For he brings to photography another impulse – a way of thinking about the semiotic structure of the image. His assertion that a photographic image is a message without a code is a very strong paradigmatic claim. In the essay ”The Rhetorical Image“ he moreover opens up a new field – that of the advertisement and its potential for manipulation. A thinker of similar critical bent is John Berger. Apart from speculation about whether photography can be considered art (his answer is negative – photography is not a possession, and therefore not a work of art, either) Berger’s essay also deals with the role of photography in ideological struggle. Both Barthes’ and Berger’s highlighting of the ideological functioning of images lead us further into an area already beyond the implicit theme of the anthology (the relation of photography and art), that is, into the realm of visual culture (for more on this see: John Berger, Ways of Seeing. New York and London, Penguin 1972). A semiotic approach also informs Allan Sekula’s ”On the Invention of Photographic Meaning“, in which he speaks of ”photographic discourse“. Photography is a tendential utterance – it functions in conjunction with a hidden implicit text (the situation of the discourse). His emphasis on photographic ”literacy” as indispensable for ”reading“ photography is a polemic with Roland Barthes’ concept. At the same time, by his comparison of Alfred Stieglitz and Lewis Hine, Sekula makes a contribution to another recurring theme of the anthology – the relation of ”high“ art and photography. In Victor Burgin, semiotic impulses fuse with post-structuralism. In ”Looking at Photographs“ he focuses on the everyday influence of photography – it sells, it informs, it records, it gives pleasure. It alludes to Allan Sekula and his interpretation of photography as a text written in terms of a ”photographic discourse“. Burgin however underlines, that we do not stand outside of this discourse, but are part of it. Photography thus is not a ”pure form”, or a ”window on the world“, but a ”workplace“ – a structured and structuring space, inside of which the reader applies the codes they are familiar with (and the codes apply to them in turn), in order to find meaning. The theory of photography, according to Burgin, should explore the origins of this ideological subject.

This survey of texts comprising the first section of the anthology (and composed of quotes) points to their interconnectedness in developing methodological premises. A similar principle, naturally taking into account historical context, is also employed in the second section, which focuses more on the concrete treatment of the relationship of art and photography. With the logic of thematic continuity, treatment of the photography of the 19th century is then followed in turn by essays on the Soviet avant-garde, Surrealism, Conceptual work and post-modern photography.

Wolfgang Kemp in ”Images of Decay: Photography and the Tradition of the Picturesque“ points out the fact, that photography develops certain specific pictorial themes, continuing the tradition of the picturesque. Abigail Solomon-Godeau also returns to the early history of photography in her text ”A Photographer in Jerusalem, 1855: Auguste Salzmann and His Times“. This is more than a reflection on one 19th century photographer, but rather a problem of articulating the premises of the history of photography as an art. Solomon-Godeau deals with the problem of making photography an artistic endeavor retrospectively. Photography is not connected only to artistic discourse, but also with other discourses, such as those of science or power. To regard photographers solely in the context of art is a distortion of their work, and at the same time a destruction of the history of photography. The same effort to not include the early history of photography into the history of art is found in Rosalind Krauss’ ”Discursive spaces of photography“. According to Krauss, historians of photography are trying to assimilate the medium to the logic of the ”history of Modernism“. This art-historical construct subordinates the photographer and photography to established notions of artist and art. The concept of a creative individual requires other categories as well: authorship, the creative career, the oeuvre, etc. Referring to Foucault’s ”The Archeology of Knowledge“ Krauss emphasizes rather the discursive practices which determine the practice of photographing. A framework for understanding photography is ultimately provided by an archive rather than a museum. The theme of technological and industrial impulses that place new tasks before art, and then strip the works of art of their singularity appears in Benjamin Buchloch’s ”From Facture to Photography“. Buchloch develops on the Russian avant-garde, with its emphasis on ”productivism“. The combination of typography, advertising and propaganda which takes place here implies also the question of a transformation of perception, which ultimately concerns also the medium of painting – from contemplation, it then proceeds to an amplification of procedural features. On the level of the sign, representation focuses on indices, i.e., on signs based in causal relation to each other. Photography was always understood as an index, thus significantly influencing the understanding of painting. Thus Jackson Pollock can be seen through the prism of photography. Rosalind Krauss, too, tries to see and to interpret traditional art from the perspective of photography, in ”The Photographic Conditions of Surrealism“. She looks for the inherent features of Surrealism through the semiotic aspects of photography. The Surrealists, who added to the reality of concrete facts the vision of reality as representation, expanded reality by doing so. This duplication can be semiotic in the sense of language, but also visually (photographically) semiotic – re-duplicated, photography appears as a trace. Duplication and reproduction, explicitly referencing Rosalind Krauss, is the theme also of Craig Owens’ ”Photography en abyme“, inspired by the photographs of Brassai, which often feature the motif of a mirror. In this mirroring opens an endless play with substitutions and repetition, which can also serve as a metaphor for text and sign. This documents the idea that the qualities of a photographic image are derived from the traits of the medium as such. This relationship to reality, translated to paper during exposure, may define the technical method of producing a photograph, but it omits the ability of photography to generate and structure meanings independent of the object portrayed. Photography as the production of meaning is from the point of view of semiotics an icon, which serves in indexical relation to its referent. This quality of an index referring to reality, or to its presence, is one of the endlessly repeated defining characteristics of photography. It can, however, also be employed in the interpretation of art. This approach is applied in Rosalind Krauss’ ”Notes on the Index: Seventies Art in America.“ It is not so much about abstract painting, which we can regard as a trace, but from this perspective we may also interpret for instance Duchamp and his ready-mades – not as icons or symbols, but as indices. In their referential character, they essentially function as photographs do. Duchamp in fact creates impromptu snaps – the reading found in Thierry de Duve’s essay on the paradox of photography. This text references not only Krauss, but also Damisch, Sekula, Barthes and Deleuze. The combination of phenomenology (ways of comprehending photography) and semiotics, with references to psychoanalysis and Deleuze (photographs as machines of desire), extending the reading of the pose and the impromptu snap as two concepts of photography. The status of photography with regard to its functioning in society is explored in Allan Sekula’s ”Reading an Archive“. Here he underlines those aspects of photography belonging to cultural history, rather than to photography as art. The archive in this sense is understood as an institution of authority and at the same time as a ”bank“ of images and meanings subject to the logic of exchange. Institutional support of photography interpreted as art contributes to the ”redemption“ of technology, since it assumes that subjectivity and technology are compatible. Photography thus supports the illusion of humanized technology, the friendly machine. In ”Photography as Postmodern Activity“ Douglas Crimp returns to Benjamin’s notion of the aura. The loss of aura caused by technical reproducibility leads to the crisis of the institution of the museum, which is based on the collecting of ”auratic“ objects. Museums respond to this crisis with an attempt to render photography an art and thus furnish it with an aura again. This effort to institutionally turn photographs into works of art is essentially a Modernist one. The distinction between the post-modernist use of photography and art photography is expounded on by Abigail Solomon-Godeau in ”Photography After Art Photography“. From the point of view of postmodernism, photography is fascinating, as it is possible to articulate in the sphere of photography almost all critical and theoretical questions that postmodern art addresses. These include questions of authorship, subjectivity, singularity, issues of the simulacra, stereotype, social and sexual identity, serial repetition, appropriation, intertextuality, simulation, pastiche, subversion, rejection of the illusory autonomy of the work of art, etc. If we draw conclusions from this postmodern approach, however, the very nature of reproduction and representation as constituent aspects of photography are thrown into doubt. Simulation becomes the new paradigm of an image, and thus also of photography. In ”Ectoplasm“, Geoffrey Batchen can thus develop a reflection on the death of photography. Photography in this world of simulacra must face a technological and epistemological crisis.

I have undertaken such an extensive survey of themes and approaches in order to indicate the methodological as well as thematic continuity of the anthology. (One of the sources of this continuity is also the context of the magazine October, which is devoted to criticism and theory of contemporary art, and where some of the writers in the anthology have been published.) This multi-layered continuity is, I believe, the most valuable aspect of the anthology, which makes up for any narrowness in the rendition of the theme. Any reference to analytical tradition is absent here – in this sense I would refer to Roger Scruton’s ”Photography and Representation“, available in Czech in the anthology Estetické porozumění (Aesthetic Understanding, Barrister & Principal, Prague 2005). Similarly, expanding reflection towards the realm of visual culture might enable the understanding of the practice of photography. Naturally, following this theme with the same consistency and entirety of scope, with regard to diverse methods and approaches, would render the anthology disproportionately extensive, as well as diluting its focus.

A possible solution, which would give another level of meaning to an anthology conceived as academically as the present one would be an inclusion of references to further relevant literature. Many readers would perhaps also appreciate a brief vocabulary of terms, which would help overcome a degree of inhibition in facing texts of such a high level of scholarship. These details discounted, I recommend this anthology without reservation.

kamil nábělek