It seems, to me, completely appropriate—or oddly rash—for us to enter into correspondence under the heading suggested by Foto Colectania: ‘Reading images’. Appropriate, in the sense that both of us dedicate a great deal of our time to writing, meaning that the reading/writing duality forms part of the basis of our intellectual and ideological output. However, it is also rash, precisely because it is within this gap between reading and writing that many antagonisms (that are not actually so) either slip or plunge—depending upon one’s standpoint: for example, the contrast between author and reader, or between image and discourse.
“in this Benjaminian era par excellence, […] we have borne witness to the appearance of such a rash of authorised readers, set against a mass of illiterate viewers”
There are two questions that, to me, seem crucial when it comes to reading images. One is who is doing the reading, the other is what to say. With regard to the former, I think that Pierre Bourdieu’s old argument, that ‘historicising our relationship with reading is way of freeing ourselves from what history may impose upon us as an unconscious supposition’, still holds true. Or, put another way, universalising individual forms of reading—and any reader, any image and any text are set in a particular historical time—entails a sort of interpretative limbo that is the prelude to a matter I would like to tackle below, one associated with the authority of reading. This is why I have the impression (and you’ll forgive me the obvious joke) that, today, the field of reading images has become imprisoned in a ‘long structuralist summer’: in other words, that there is a contemporary positioning, in my view one that is somewhat messianic and slightly sentimental or petit-bourgeois (forgive me, again, for using such a nowadays passé expression), which consists in standing in front of images in order to extract from them some hypothetical ineffable and concealed message, some arcane secret that can only be perceived by those of a particularly refined sensibility, using a jargon that can equally only be understood by ‘insiders’. Yet it never ceases to amaze me that, in this Benjaminian era par excellence, in which the reproducibility of images is not just a way of producing and distributing them, but their very condition of use, we have borne witness to the appearance of such a rash of authorised readers, set against a mass of illiterate viewers, a select chosen few (rather like in The Matrix) standing before and above the multitudinous rank and file of the image.
I believe it was this to which Georges Didi-Huberman referred—far more poetically, obviously—when he said that the Auschwitz negatives are, in fact, ‘images despite everything’. In other words, if we remove our reading of the conditions under which they were taken, what remains left behind is an amalgam of generic or ahistorical figures, mouldable from any moral standpoint and thus capable of being manipulated in support of one political view or its antithesis.
This is why I feel that it is absolutely necessary we free ourselves, once and for all, from the commonplace according to which we are experiencing a totalitarian inflation of images. Even if we accept that this is actually the case, that we have high-performance technological prostheses allowing us, extremely easily and cheaply, to compulsively produce and distribute images, it is no less true that, as a result of this new fear of images, due to this visual hypochondria, old elitisms, optical guidance systems and images with a noble lineage compared with others of humble origin are beginning to worm their way into our collective consciousness.
“we have more than enough reverends of the image, that I am exasperated by the sheer number of parapsychologists bent on cheerfully decoding what is not seen but should be seen and said about an image”
Hence the earlier mention of faded structuralism, since, as Bourdieu suggested in a conversation with Roger Chartier, which I have attached and which is well worth reading, from the structural dust regarding the definitive and foundational reading of the image rose this reactionary sludge with regard to the values of visuality. And, in much the same way (and once again begging your pardon for my vehemence) I would like to make it clear that we have more than enough reverends of the image, that I am exasperated by the sheer number of parapsychologists bent on cheerfully decoding what is not seen but should be seen and said about an image, that when we read images we are by no means entering into a previously-sterilised hermeneutic operating theatre of perfect interpretation or into a confessionary where we shall find redemption for our sins of interpretation. Quite the opposite, in fact: those very social, cultural, political and historical conditions under which we have been moulded as readers are those that read the images with us, and perhaps the only way of freeing ourselves from these influences is to be aware of them, to critically consider what their imperatives are, to put them into proportion and question them, and not fall into the trap of that most vacuous of mysticisms, becoming so very pleased with ourselves and our ability to grasp that which others—the Lumpenproletariat of the image—are unable to perceive and which lies beyond the reach of their witless faculties.
This being said (and after taking a deep breath), let me assure you that I have not forgotten the second issue I mentioned to you, on what to say, which is—in my view—a considerably thornier one.
We are talking of reading images, which leads use to two fields particularly tangled with the aforementioned thorns: that of interpreting and that of understanding. I would like to distance myself at this point from certain recent approaches to visual reading, which either hold that there is a certain balance to be maintained between what is comprehensible and what is incomprehensible about an image, or advocate that everything about an image is discursive, everything is sayable. Let me explain this another way, using specific cases.
If we analyse the argument between Susan Sontag and Sebastião Salgado regarding the legitimacy of photographs in terms of being honest or dishonest about the pain that they portray, we see that this is a specifically moral issue, a controversy that revisits, under different scenarios, Catholicism’s doing good and evil, the figures of the educational demiurge and the shepherd of souls. Naturally, I have much more sympathy for Sontag but, at the same time, I believe they are both putative children of interpretative redemption, of that metaphor of the author as an authority employing a steam hammer to ram home a truth that is worth holding onto, considering and imitating.
At the opposite extreme, that of a kind of postmodern decategorisation, there is a celebration of the fact that we finally find ourselves at the ‘great shindig of categories’, that utopia where all arguments are one and vice versa, without this meaning that any of us need to make a commitment or feel singled out.
From this perspective, the fabled ‘post-truth’, rather than striking me as a correction of the hegemonic Truth with a capital ‘T’, appears to be just the opposite: that is, a subdivision of what is truthful for all tastes. Here, I can’t help but adapt Marx when he spoke of capital ‘as its own enemy’ as, in a way, post-truth appears to me to be a likeable and easily digestible synecdoche of that other Truth, which is always found to be pressing down from above.
Given all the above, I suggest—and I don’t know what you think about this, Mercedes—that, in the argument about what ethics we should employ with regard to the production and interpretation of images, but also in light of the ecumenism according to which, basically, anything can be said about them (and this discursive pervasiveness could be a new condition for the contemporary image), I feel that new ways of reading images could be taking shape, ones that do not entail apologetic intellectualism or argumentative furore, that do not involve the myth of deciphering or that other hogwash encouraging us to question all judgements.
“What should an author, an image, seek—brilliance or accuracy?”
Mediation, one of today’s great socio-aesthetic keywords, and its second cousin, empowerment, are placing us in a mechanism that, when transposed to the world of images, places them within some very out-of-touch frameworks, transforming them into places where we ‘measure’ our critical vocabulary, where we show off or acquire the ‘power’ of being listened to.
I’m drawing near to my conclusion, but, before I get there, I would like to remind you of a book that I read some years ago: one that, as clichéd as it may sound, drastically changed my view of what it means to read. It is a book not about images, but about literature: nonetheless, I believe that all the arguments it makes can be of use to us, at least as we begin to consolidate our opinions. I’m referring to La cena de los notables (2008) by Constantino Bértolo, someone who I resort to, from a distance, when I have ‘problems of understanding’, in other words, the kind of figure that used to be called a mentor. Well, within the book, Bértolo offers an example, in reference to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, to illustrate something that I, personally, find most interesting about reading images. What should an author, an image, seek—brilliance or accuracy? In light of all the unknowns arising in all photography, should the photographer and the interpreter, the author and the hermeneut, choose to be dazzling, or to be intelligent?
There is a ‘pact of responsibilities’, to once again borrow a term from Constantino Bértolo, between image, author and reader. A concord that, far from soothing, activates all the tools lying scattered there on the table: language as a collective heritage, the political and historical conditions of reading, the documentary statute managed at that time, etc. This is what I understand by ‘reading images’: assessing, measuring, sounding out, propagating or dissenting from all the above circumstances. This is why, instead of a certain narcissism that may seem wedded to reading, I feel that reading fosters a general opening outwards, an encounter not with what the images are, but with what they represent and document. So, reading images would mean, as La cena de los notables puts it, ‘learning to understand the keys to these depictions of the “other”’.
Let me conclude, my friend, with a kind of pompous conviction that I hope does not sound too bad to you. I believe that images do not teach you to read reality, but the other way around: that it is reality that teaches you to read images, without losing or suspending your judgement, to use that old Kantian trope. Or, put more simply, to read images is, I believe, to fight against everything that, instead of providing a complex reading, aims to mislead. I hope that we may be able to establish, in our forthcoming letters, why, where and how we went astray.
 Georges Didi-Huberman: Imágenes pese a todo. Memoria visual del holocausto, ed. Paidós, Barcelona 2004
Your letter has, more than anything, really whetted my appetite for writing about photography, and so I think it has more than achieved its goal of encouraging us to achieve our own: to raise questions and provide pointers on how and from what standpoint we should read images today.
However, allow me, if you will, as a lover of the written word (sounds much better than “bookworm”, doesn’t it?), to go a step further and already broach the subject of writing about images in these opening lines. Not so much writing that deals with the art or technique of photography, but rather that which reacts subjectively to a photographic image, to the expressions of those portrayed and their surrounding environment, that which also reflects upon the passage of time between the taking of the photograph and the writing of the text in question.
I think you’ll agree with me that all ostensibly ‘realist’ photography can provide the perfect catalyst for embarking upon any form of writing, fictional or otherwise. So much so that even Barthes got carried away in Camera Lucida, writing about the photographs that affected him, particularly one of his mother as a young girl at the end of the 19th century.
I’d go further, in fact: a written reaction to a photograph—which is simply its reading put into printed form—often provides an excellent excuse for some confessional writing. Let me give you an example of this, one that was a true source of inspiration to me back in the day: L’usage de la photo by Annie Ernaux and Marc Marie, a dialogue between texts and photographs covering the most intimate nooks and crannies of their private lives. In my opinion, the type of writing about photographs to which I am referring would lead us to conceive of a kind of hybrid figure hovering somewhere between the medieval lector and auctor mentioned by Bourdieu and Chartier in that fascinating dialogue on reading you introduced me to in your first letter.
“photography and writing are linked by the current accessibility of their tools, how quick and simple it is to jot down a line or two in a notebook or take a snap with your phone”
Turning to other matters, I wonder if you, too, have sometimes thought about how strong the links are between photography and writing, in terms of their practices. In this regard, the two disciplines have much more in common than photography might have with other visual arts, such as painting. I believe this is due to the clear documentary aspect of the two subjects we’re examining, to their patent vocation for recording their times for posterity, and the ease with which they can approach the ‘poetics of the self’, as we saw above. I also feel that photography and writing are linked by the current accessibility of their tools, how quick and simple it is to jot down a line or two in a notebook or take a snap with your phone.
“Just like the Drink me on the bottle in Alice in Wonderland, photos feature an explicit Read me and, if I may be so bold, a Write about me, too”
In the same vein, I feel an affinity with Geoff Dyer when, in his introduction to John Berger’s collection of essays entitled Understanding a photograph, he writes: ‘I became interested in photography not by taking or looking at photographs but by reading about them’. So, it seems clear that the most basic way of reading an image would be to describe it in words. At the very least, it could serve as a preliminary analysis, as the taking up of a position with regard to it. This amounts to ekphrasis, which in this particular case I would regard not only as the interpretation of an image using the written word but also as a rhetorical mechanism of writing itself. For me, at least, what is interesting is the kind of writing on art and photography that does not attempt to ‘domesticate’ the image it deals with, but one that constitutes, in itself, a literary work of merit.
Just like the Drink me on the bottle in Alice in Wonderland, photos feature an explicit Read me and, if I may be so bold, a Write about me, too. In my experience, images appear to be begging for words, from a title to a caption, not to mention a paraphrasing. This means I can’t agree with Barthes when he claims that ‘the photographic image is full, crammed: no room, nothing can be added to it’.
To illustrate this, let me refer to something very ‘here and now’ and, in fact, to do with you: your Instagram series on leading women of the last two centuries. It’s a great initiative raising the profile of women in the arts and cultures, but every time I have one of ‘your’ images before me, I can’t help looking down in search of a caption telling me something more about it. I’m simply incapable of staying with the photo, as if the words were there to solve a riddle, to establish a kind of taxonomy.
Let’s see if we can agree on one point: I’m particularly interested in the ‘difficulties’ (to give them a name) in reading photographs that make no attempt at Pictoralism, but instead experiment with the language of photography. I like the hesitation that occurs when you first encounter them. I read a funny anecdote on this in the book Why it does not have to be in focus: modern photography explained, by Jackie Higgins. She says that, in this introductory manual to contemporary photography, she wishes to consider ‘a whole litany of what might be called “photographic errors”’ to provide support for her arguments on the artistic merits of photographs that do not follow the accepted truths on ‘proper’ composition, lighting and focus, images to which one cannot, at first glance, apply that ‘average affect’ or studium mentioned by Barthes in Camera Lucida. By way of example, Higgins cites the intentionally overexposed landscapes of photographer Paul Graham, noting how a number of readers returned his book to the publishers convinced that there had been a printing problem (so you can see how the readers of images exercise their consumer rights, for consumers we are, first and foremost). This anecdote brings to mind a phrase by Constantino Bértolo, included in La cena de los notables, the essay you mention in your letter, uttered just after speaking about Flaubert as a writer who chooses to dazzle: ‘But are there readers for novels which are not novelesque?’.
Turning to the ‘viewing illiteracy’ to which you refer, promoted by an elite self-appointed as being the only ones capable of analysing images, I’d like to mention a personal anecdote to you: in 2002, I went to the Nan Goldin retrospective at Madrid’s Velázquez Palace, entitled El patio del Diablo (The Devil’s Playground). At the time, I had all the qualifications for forming part of that army of illiterate viewers. I thought I was, and wanted to be, interested in the visual arts, but I lacked the visual baggage and, most particularly, the imprint that life leaves on people. After looking at some 350 photos, ranging from the Boston Years series from the beginning of the Seventies to her works from the beginning of the 21st century, I made the following comment to my companion: ‘So, all those people appearing in these photos… don’t any of them have a job?’ You see, I was outraged at the ‘chaotic life’ of the characters depicted in Goldin’s photos. In telling you this (not without a little shame on my part), I’m trying to give you an insight into my sorry, naïve reading of those images, which, some sixteen years later, still remain stuck in my head.
When I recently came back to them, better equipped both experience-wise and culturally, I couldn’t help resorting once again to reading interviews with Goldin. In other words, I couldn’t do without words to find a way to approach her photographs. If the ‘reverends of the image’ found out about this, would they vent their spleen at me? I try not to be too hard on my viewpoint of that time, as I think that I had a latent desire to seek out the socioeconomic roots of art, even if I expressed myself in such a pedestrian fashion.
“Given all of this, the search for some kind of support for reading images seems almost unavoidable”
It is also often the case, when reading an image, that one compares it to another: Berger himself does so when he analyses a photo of Che Guevara’s corpse in one of his essays. He immediately brings us, by association, to Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp. Berger does not stick to the photo of Che only, despite the fact that, as Barthes would put it, ‘nothing can be added’ to the photographic image. Given all of this, the search for some kind of support for reading images seems almost unavoidable. Perhaps we should not worry too much about accepting the fact, as it helps, en passant, to resist the Structuralist temptation to remain focused solely on the text—or in this case the photograph—and regard it as the sole point of reference.
However, as I wouldn’t want this correspondence between us to become a series of instructions on the ‘right’ way to read images, for the time being I’ll restrict myself to mentioning some trends I’ve noted. For example, I don’t know whether you’ll agree with me on this, but I feel that, currently, one of the most fashionable ways of reading images in the West stems from the identitary turn taken in and by the United States, leading to the controversial decisions to remove works from exhibition in museums on the grounds they are unsuitable for the modern public.
“I do wonder whether pigeonholing images into class or identitary categories is or is not a productive reading strategy”
In any case, I do find the position of the Manchester Art Gallery in removing John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs interesting. The reason given by the Gallery is its wish ‘to prompt conversations about how we display and interpret artworks in Manchester’s public collection’.
I’d like to think that these conversations wouldn’t turn into a slanging match, and I do wonder whether pigeonholing images into class or identitary categories is or is not a productive reading strategy (one that, by the way, I myself employed on an impromptu basis in 2002 when reacting to the works of Nan Goldin!).
In this regard, I agree with British photographer and curator Gerry Badger when he says ‘we think of photographs as fact, but they can also be fiction, metaphor, or poetry’. Looking at them like this paves the way for readings and writings that can break new ground.
So, tell me, what are your thoughts on the matter?
I will try to answer some of the questions you have raised, particularly with regard to the concept of ekphrasis that you have so appropriately brought up. But, before doing so, in light of your reference to the ‘poetics of the self’, I would like to share an anecdote with you that we might well return to over the course of our future epistolary intercourse.
Many years ago, when I was studying for my doctorate, one of my professors was José Milicua, one of the great specialists on Caravaggio and Ribera, disciple of none other than Roberto Longhi and member of the editorial board of legendary journal Paragone.
In addition to being an erudite man sorely lacking patience with the talentless, Milicua boasted the greatest visual wisdom I have ever known, something that allowed him to see and discover extraordinary things in places where other eyes were barely capable of glimpsing even a small, dismal opportunity to reassert themselves. Well, some of Milicua’s favourite exercises were his so-called ‘automaton descriptions’, which consisted in reading canvases by Velázquez, Georges de La Tour or El Greco without any room for subjective opinion.
Unluckily enough for me, I was one of the most frequent subjects of this experiment, whose goal was threefold: to show that we were incapable of seeing, to confirm that we had nothing to say and, lastly, as the moral, either to inoculate ourselves with the virus of accurate reading and viewing, or to force us to abandon our studies and seek out a professional future in the licensed victualing trade, something that this Professor—with a capital ‘P’—would often urge me to do.
I’m telling you this because I believe (no matter how corny it may sound) that writing about images involves two different apotheoses. An apotheosis of the observer, who, unsatisfied with just viewing, feels driven to qualify, broaden, question and even relive by other means that which the image has meant to him. And an apotheosis of the reader, who, as you rightly note with regard to Dyer, commits his hermeneutic abilities from the standpoint of that other device we call writing.
Note how, in both cases, writing about images is designed to remedy—or arises from—a deficit, something unresolved by either observation or legibility. And it’s here where I’ll be tackling another of those thorny issues. I’m in full agreement with you when you say that you are not interested in writing that domesticates an image, to which I would add that, by writing about images, we are putting on the discursive table something that (for me) lies at the heart of reading and understanding them: how to keep an equal distance between the unfathomable and what has been deciphered, what we see and what is looking back at us, to once again make use of one of Didi-Huberman’s ideas.
It’s true that images seem to be calling for words, as remaining silent before them make them worthless, bringing them to a place where they become both invisible and irrelevant at the same time. But I also believe that words sometimes smother an image and that, on the other hand, there are times when images can turn against certain kind of deciphering, and against some ways of narrating them.
This tension between image and word, between idolatry and exegesis, has marked the historical development of visual culture in the West. Remember, for example, the debates on the undepictable nature of God, the controversies on whether photographs of Nazi concentration camps should be disseminated, or the disputes about the ‘photogenic’ portrayal of squalor, not to mention contemporary puritanical viewpoints on depictions of the human body and sexuality.
“how can we read an image without overwhelming it, leaving enough room that, henceforth, new wisdoms yet to be uttered can thrive?”
Nevertheless, bidding adieu to the preceding Manichaeist mumblings, I think we need address a conundrum of epic proportions with regard to the reading of images and their transformation into discourse: how can we read an image without overwhelming it, leaving enough room that, henceforth, new wisdoms yet to be uttered can thrive? How can we recount images in a way that is in balance with the conditions under which they were created as documents, yet without renouncing that expressive or literary power which spurred us to dedicate some words to them?
Let me at this point return to the notion of ekphrasis, which, according to Umberto Eco, is ‘the description of a work of visual art by means of a written text’. I agree with you in regarding it as a rhetorical mechanism of writing itself and not so much as a translation of images into words. However, it so happens that, in this apparent description, many narrative resources and countless positionings are activated, moments of suspense and relaxation created, details amplified and hierarchies overthrown.
Whilst I was writing Rostros—in which I kind of wander aimlessly amongst the faces depicted, displayed, considered and destroyed in art, cine, literature, etc.—I entertained a moment of doubt on realising that I spent entire pages describing an image, that all those narrative exercises would be simplified by simply reproducing the works being discussed, and that readers would become bored at all these words spent on absent images and, even, that, more than a writer, I was becoming one of those dreadful audio guides that provide certain museums with a kind of spoken muzak. Luckily enough, I immediately recalled the irate, condescending countenance of Professor Milicua, his lessons in linguistic precision and his joy at visual literatosis, to lift and mangle an expression from Onetti.
It may be that the ‘automaton descriptions’ were a corporate exercise, a way of patting oneself on the back about the virtues of the historian’s viewpoint. However, they have (for me, at least) been of use in a way that would surely appal Milicua: to whit, the conviction that, on reading an image ‘aloud’ (which is one way of describing writing about images), one articulates what one is seeing at that particular moment, albeit influenced by what writing and reading remove from view, what they call on one not to see.
Ekprhasis may be one of the most inviting ways we have of venturing into the reading of images. At the very least, it is a way that allows us to stray, in both senses of the word: to both wander aimlessly through meanings and to make mistakes in interpretation. This was what I was referring to when I said that there was something imprecise in the image and in writing that is always lingering there, and which must in some way be held on to when we read images.
On the subject of this latter matter, I would like to salvage one of Freud’s concepts, one that I find especially interesting when approaching images in order to write about them. I’m referring here to what the psychoanalyst dubbed ‘the refuse of observation’, in reference to that series of apparently less important or secondary elements from which we can denormativize our interpretations and access less obvious wisdoms. It should be said that Freud created this paradigm of analysis whilst observing Michelangelo’s Moses: in other words, whilst reading that famous statue. Because, the fact is, in the fight against the professionalisation of the viewpoint, against the totalitarianism of the interpreter who squeezes the image dry, perhaps all we can do is read that which lacks any ecumenical significance, the refuse rather than the grand gesture, the excrescence rather than the visual fuss. Carlo Ginzburg wrote a memorable article, ‘Morelli, Freud and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and Scientific Method’, which speaks of the ‘evidential paradigm’ as an epistemological model for seeing on the basis of features of paintings, clues and symptoms, successively, for each of these two authors and the character from the works of author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
In your letter, you spoke of the identitary turn in terms of the currently fashionable way of reading images, something with which I am in complete agreement. This is why I feel there is a compelling need—to prevent visual readings from being simplified or naturalised—to salvage the subaltern details of an image, those features that are disregarded or that pass unnoticed. And I’m not saying this out of any desire to appear original, but rather because, in freeing ourselves from the temptation of issuing definitive and defining readings, what really spurs us on about images is their microscopic content, that which is to be found in the margins.
“reading an image means collecting remains and minutiae, resignifying refuse, conferring upon it the status of a core element of discourse”
From my perspective, reading an image means collecting remains and minutiae, resignifying refuse, conferring upon it the status of a core element of discourse. Because, if the fate of images appears to be being imprisoned between silence and wordiness, between indifference and panegyric, it may be all of these residual elements that prevent an image from closing in on itself, into a preconfigured identity, leading to images being and not being at the same time, enabling them to continue to be read over and over again.
I wouldn’t want to conclude without referring to John Berger’s comparative approach, which you yourself mentioned in the letter you sent. Berger has, I believe, a clear ability to find unexpected links between images, to map out a kind of vast neuronal cartography that cuts the ground from under the maximalisms of the specialist and sectoral readings. There is, in Berger’s writings on images, an attempt to identify what is poetic or tragic in them, to link them with other poetics and other tragedies, building out of all of this a fable that threads them all together and that embraces us.
Like most people from generations past and those yet to come, I have read Berger passionately and imitated him on numerous occasions. Nevertheless, I do wonder what remains of this writing when we extract it from the closed circuit of mutual references, because, on reading it when one has reached un certain âge—one that is less credulous and that lacks the same degree of veneration of certain secular saints, less fascinated with the existence of a universal sensibility spanning ages and works—one does not feel the same emotional impact nor the same intellectual empathy, but rather that these texts are marvellously written, that they sound like perfectly executed (and ever-so-slightly predictable) symphonies. Berger’s institutionalisation of comparisons appears to me, today, to be too tightly spun. His reading of an integrated history of images, all interconnected as if in an astronomer’s star chart, seems to be to be disproportionate, leaving nowhere left for dissent.
And you know what Marguerite Duras meant when she wrote that every book needs, in order to be one, at least one incomprehensible page, one page written for the author him/herself. I feel that this idea could also be applicable to the field of the readers of images, to become something like the following: every reading needs, in order to be one, at least one suspicion that there’s something unreadable, a conundrum put off by the reader whilst they are reading, when they were not looking.
My very best regards,
 Georges Didi-Huberman: What We See Looks Back at Us, Les Editions de Minuit, Paris 1997
 Valentín Roma: Rostros, ed. Periférica, Cáceres 2011
 Carlo Ginzburg and Anna Davin: ‘Morelli, Freud and Sherlock Homes: Clues and Scientific Method’, in History Workshop No. 9 (Spring, 1980), pp. 5-36
Let me start this letter by referring to your memories of the exercises you were set by José Milicua at university. The fact is that I would give anything to have been one of his students. He would have provided the perfect antidote to the temptation to feel morally acceptable that affects us when we are confronted with a documentary photograph regarded as ‘difficult’ or ‘controversial’. From what you say, Milicua tested you with canvases by famous painters, but, in my opinion, the exercise would have been even more fruitful had he asked you to give your ‘automaton descriptions’ of winners of the World Press Photo of the Year, even though painting is obviously capable of providing realistic depictions of savagery too.
You say that ekphrasis is one of the most inviting ways of venturing into the reading of images, and I would like to applaud you, in particular, for your choice of the verb ‘to venture’, referring as it does to a prudent yet risky attempt to achieve something, which is, I believe, just the way that writing attempts to interpret a work of visual art. Even more desperate are the attempts to convey the olfactory, tactile and other sensory reactions evoked by images. Think of those brightly colourful photos of open-air food markets, with their stalls groaning with fruits and spices, perhaps under a sweltering heat. How can we convey such sensory aspects in writing? To anyone interested in digging deeper into the matter, I would recommend an excellent essay by Pablo Maurette: The Forgotten Sense, which focuses on touch. In it, Maurette distances himself from the vision-centric standpoint—the norm in the West—and proposes a haptic focus. This concept of ‘the haptic’ is something he takes from art historian Aloïs Riegl, who introduced it in the 19th century, which represents a turning point in the way we tackle many disciplines of the humanities: the haptic is a way of ‘seeing’, of approaching the history of art and literature, by invoking the sense of touch through ‘the visual’ and using it as an analytical tool.
Continuing with the subject of ekphrasis, I’d like to mention to you something that has always seemed to me as paradoxical as it is awkward in my daily work: the fact that literature is the only artistic process that uses the same elements with which it works—words—to carry out its own hermeneutics. It would be more than a little odd for a choreographer to comment on his or her work by means of another choreography, or to come across a review of a photography retrospective composed not of words but of other images as a critical response to the exhibition in question. Words, however, seem to reproduce like spores and are, what’s more, well aware that they stand at the top of the discursive pyramid.
For all these reasons, I find what happened to you when you were writing Rostros completely understandable, although it is of some comfort to me that you resisted the temptation to replace your essays (which, quite by chance, I am reading right now) with photographs. In other words, I’m glad that you didn’t put into practice that hoary old saying to the effect that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’, as describing things in words is, above all, an excellent form of analysis.
I should also admit to you that I have also often wanted to add images to my writings. By this, I don’t mean the temptation to replace what’s written by the photo describing it, but rather the need to include both options. Luckily enough, my publishers dissuaded me, except for one occasion: in the novel El genuino sabor (The Genuine Taste), I described the Lewis chessmen, kept in the British Museum, and I attached an image of them. I’m fascinated by the Queen from this 12th-century set, a piece carved from ivory whose dejected pose is almost comical, and whose extravagantly popping eyes add to the humorous effect. I described it without renouncing the photograph, perhaps because I had little confidence in my own description. As you can see, something like this is also occurring throughout this correspondence with you, but the fact is, just as we are in agreement on the fact that images call for words, we are also in some way expected to illustrate our words with images, making the latter some kind of footnotes to our scribblings.
The concept of the ‘refuse of observation’, as coined by Freud and mentioned by you, immediately evoked in me the things I learned in my childhood over the course of my many long hours of looking at the cartoons by comic artist Ibáñez, the much beloved father of Mort & Phil. More than reading them, per se, what I did was carry out detailed observation of those images. In many of them, in addition to the main action, the corners and other unlikely parts of the frame were home to snails wearing glasses, mice smoking and even an aubergine hanging from a tree. They weren’t important but focusing on such details trained me so that, years later, I could make the most of works such as Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. Morelli, Freud and Conan Doyle would be proud of me, wouldn’t they?
“the real underlying question here is, what do I mean by ‘better’?”
Now, with regard to the comparative method so often employed by Berger, it is true that emulating him when reading photographs would lead us to juggle with a series of references that would speak (well, badly or indifferently) of our cultural baggage. However, this is sometimes inevitable, as it is in my case with Richard Learoyd’s photo Breeze Blocks with Hare (2007). As soon as I laid eyes on this hare lying on the blocks, my mind became a whirlwind of free association, leading me to other hares in the history of art: Dürer’s, yes, but mostly that of Joseph Beuys in his performance How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, much like how any can of soup leads me, by metonymy, to Andy Warhol. I wonder whether I would read Learoyd’s photograph ‘better’ if I wasn’t familiar with Dürer or Beuys, although the real underlying question here is, what do I mean by ‘better’?
May I be so bold as to mention an idea that could be of use to us as we continue to converse about efficient—or at least possible—ways of reading images? Allow me, if you will, to return to the ‘poetics of the self’: when I was a child, to vanquish my fear during the climaxes of horror films, my mother suggested a technique that led me directly to the time when the scenes were shot. She would always stress that, behind that scene in which I only saw a woman with a bloodied face and a ghoulishly white nightgown, there was an entire crew of people with cameras, clapperboards and lights working together to scare me. There was even a catering service with a huge flask of coffee for the cast. It worked: just thinking about that, the ‘magic of cinema’ disappeared in an instant, but at the same time, the invitation to consider the shoot and its artificial, staged nature soothed me.
So, without wishing to deviate towards the subject matter of our predecessors in this exchange of letters, I do believe that the time at which an image is produced is something to be borne in mind when reading it, that it is the core theme of our correspondence. Given this, I believe that the thoughts and work of Thomas Ruff, in his jpegs series of photos, are germane here. In them, Ruff contributes a new layer: by means of technical procedures, he shows us the seams, reveals how the image was brought into being. He believes that his photos allow us to see ‘the image of the image’, thereby reminding us that every photograph contains the trace of an intermediary.
To conclude, I’ll make mention of a book by Pierre Bayard, Professor of French Literature at the University of Paris and psychoanalyst. I’m referring to How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, which, despite its self-helpesque title, is actually an insightful and audacious essay. In an interview with El País to mark the publishing of the Spanish version of his book, Bayard made the following statement, which I found enlightening:
There cannot be just two ways of reading a book: reading it or not reading it. There is a huge intervening space. Even those books you leaf through or leave half-read can change your life. Few believers have read the Bible from cover to cover and look how much influence it has had.
Bayard describes a series of variants of ‘not reading’, a scale of possible greys that commonly arise in our relations with books, as we do not always read them thoroughly, taking notes and underlining things. This leads him to refer to that mental collective library shared by many of us readers, as every text boasts its own genealogy.
As crazy as it may seem, I would like us to ask ourselves whether an image allows for a ‘half’ reading and whether it permits degrees in its interaction therewith. Maybe this leads to the issue of photographers’ styles: I don’t know if I’ve seen every one of Mapplethorpe’s black and white photo portrayals of bodies or of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s silos and barns, but, when before them, I know they’re theirs. Like American judge Potter Stewart said of pornography: ‘I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it’. In these specific examples, maybe even Barthes himself would find it impossible to speak of the ‘death of the photographer’.
So much to say, so much to discuss… I’ll leave it there and look forward to your next letter.
 In El País, 5 October 2008: https://elpais.com/diario/2008/10/05/eps/1223188009_850215.html
Please allow me to get straight down to business, without further ado, on the basis of two questions appearing in your latest letter, when you asked yourself what it meant to read an image better and whether it was possible to half read images. I suppose it goes without saying that we are talking about issues which have nothing to do with interpretative quality or quantity, or at least that’s going to be the basis of my reply to you.
Look at Ribera’s canvas of Apollo and Marsyas, in which the satyr is flayed by the light of an invisible moon, in a Goyaesque spot in which his cries of pain are only audible to the three devilish characters who cover their ears, also unable to bear the sound of the skin being parted from the flesh. And consider Apollo’s face, the laurel wreath declaring him the victor of any contest, his elegant toga caressed by the wind, as if he were a Roman prelate or a merciless cardinal. Apollo, god of sudden death and of beauty, father of harmony, the first coloniser, a musical deity and yet, here, the only deaf figure! Here, Ribera depicts him as being so absorbed in his vengeance that, on looking upon Marsyas’ contorted face, the tiniest of phlegmatic smiles steals across his lips.
And, immediately thereafter, I would ask you to take a good look at the photo taken by some police photographer of Pasolini’s corpse at the scene of his murder, a truly unbearable image, as the filmmaker’s body, that body with its excesses of pleasure and dissidence, had already become an object of scorn and overexposure, much to the amusement of the policeman who, like some kind of uniformed Apollo, sees in it nothing more than a jumbled spectacle of blood and sex.
Lastly, examine the photo by Helen Levitt, with the four children reproducing something that’s also found on the political arena, the same cruelties of cowards and bullies, the same dread and the same equidistance, another kid who, instead of flaying a martyr’s skin or lifting the sheet covering the body of the deceased, raises the dress of his playmate, staring at her knickers like someone pulling up the corner of a rug, who can say whether out of curiosity or because he has seen the adults around him doing the same.
Albeit in very different ways, each of these three images seems to show how ‘indecent’ the act of seeing is, the degree of violence it entails. Also, I would say that, when we read an image, we take on board a series of risks, some harmless, and others less so. For example, we accept that there is something in the images that needs to be ‘put into words’, that there is a reader or a listener—ourselves, maybe—torn between different ‘concerns’: that of rediscovering the image, that of looking carefully, that of bringing a discourse to it that expands upon or details it and, lastly, that of sharing our worries and our findings with other readers and listeners.
“The problem arises when images abandon their edifying nature or when discourses become trapped in their own tics and morphologies”
What I’ve just said above is an x-ray of the impulse to read images, and also a summary of the points I’ve been making in previous letters. However, in turn, to round everything off, and after seeing those three ‘tragic’ snaps, it remains a declaration of good exegetic reasons. The problem arises when images abandon their edifying nature or when discourses become trapped in their own tics and morphologies. So, the issue is: what level of impertinence are images able to hold on to in their contact with writing, what degree of frontality is retained by words when measured against an image.
To answer your two questions, I would argue that the time for visual reading is always improvable and always tangential, always subject to change and, for that very reason, is deployed in an interpretative limbo, in a kind of felicitous hermeneutic quicksand.
I cannot imagine any torture worse than holding the key to interpretation, be this of images or of any other matter worthy of theoretical speculation. In this regard, I believe there is no greater loneliness than being—to paraphrase Jaime Gil de Biedma—a ruined noble amongst the ruins of my diagnoses.
If there is anything moving in the reading of images, it is saying your piece and then getting off your soapbox to seek out new words that clarify or eschew the reasons that led us to say something.
“There is a dimension—free yet serious, profligate yet obsessed with details—that seems (to me) to be the main appeal in reading images.”
So, that commitment to what is insignificant, which I mentioned to you with regard to Freud, is, in my opinion, a rejection of the unequivocal, but also a means of hacking the codes of productive interpretation on the basis of certain seeds of unproductivity.
You talk of half reading images, and it may be that this is not a possible hypothesis, but rather the actual(?) state of any discourse on images: entering into it in medias res, i.e. when they are already present and communicating, uttering circumstantial words about them, narratives that are also a moment and a kind of own, specific state of narrating.
What interests me about the image is its ‘trigger’ function, in other words, its ability to free us from certain bonds and to refresh our received wisdoms. And that’s the very reason why the potential readings that most impress me are those that allow us to contemplate the discourse as it flows, the theories as they unfold, at times quickly and in detail, at times clumsily and tentatively.
I understand that there are a number of dangers in this understanding of visual reading, some of which we have noted in earlier letters: for example, the danger of being ‘dishonest’ about the historical conditions under which we were shaped as readers, or the threat of smothering images with words. Nevertheless, the bypasses that occur when the eye that is looking is also the eye that speaks continue to seem insurmountable to me. They are, to put it one way, instants in which the wall of knowledge that constitutes us comes crashing down. A friend recently told me that Derrida spent many hours writing a kind of endless foreword, to demolish all preliminary obstacles. He told me that this writing wasn’t, strictly, an exercise of self-deconstruction, but rather a form of derangement, a spell.
I’d like to think that reading images also means prolonging a kind of bewitchment, and that’s why I’d like to share with you some of the cases that particularly enchanted me. The first would be the one where we see the thieves who stole Munch’s The Scream. The frame’s composition is impeccable, as if taken not by a security camera but by a passer-by, who, torn between recovering the painting and becoming a hero or photographing the moment and putting it on Instagram, chose to record the scene rather than opting for a feat of bravery.
Another exceptional image is this photo by the great Pete Souza, showing Barak Obama running with his dog, who has been released from the slavery of his leash, towards none other than Abraham Lincoln. Note the incredible detail of how the President’s feet aren’t touching the ground, like an angel moving in defiance of the laws of gravity.
Or this one, by Eugène Atget, my favourite photographer, someone who created art without even realising it, with the lightness and honesty of those freed from any constraints of skill or recognition. It’s as if we can hear the street musicians, as if we were that girl whose smile can’t distinguish between the applause at the Comédie-Française or the silence of a Paris slum.
And, lastly, an amazing image, perhaps the most unexpected version of Narcissus gazing at himself in a mirror. Right at this football-crazed moment, let us contemplate Maradona’s glorious left leg, tattooed with the face of Fidel Castro, who, wrapped within the starched olive shroud of his military uniform, admires himself with an unbelieving gaze.
This might well be my own personal Olympus of visual paradoxes, a melting pot of photography, combining embarrassment, erudition and the underground, as someone whom we both admire might argue.
But, whilst I am writing this, a stone’s throw from Foto Colectania, overlooking the little square in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter where I live and on the very street photographed by Andrea Robbins and Max Becher, two artists fascinated by the fakes of historiography, I listen to a group of tourists argue about the meaning of images. One of them extols the virtues of typical local scenes as being the register best suited to holiday albums, to which his companion replies that it is in architecture that the most enduring urban memories are stored, whilst another notes that, these days, photos of food and pets are all the rage. Meanwhile, their kids take advantage of the adults’ tête-à-tête to borrow the camera and are taking portraits of each other posing on the top of some rubbish bags: the tallest found a Joker’s mask and is posing in front of the lens with his index fingers by his forehead, like a demon, whilst the smaller one coolly informs him that this camera brand isn’t scared of the devil, as their parents bought it from Santa Claus.
My very best regards,
Your last letter provides empirical proof of the intrinsic power of images to elicit multi-sensorial emotions. I can almost hear the wailing of the three characters in the background of Ribera’s canvas, whilst Apollo flays Marsyas. As you rightly note, there’s a kind of ‘indecency’ in the act of seeing, of spying through the keyhole to see what’s happening on the other side, a thought that immediately takes me to the Aventine Hill in Rome. There, on the Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta, the Order of Malta has its Italian embassy. Inside it is the church of Santa María de Aventino, the only architectural work by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, one of the greatest creators of images (quantity- and quality-wise) of both the city of Rome and those dark metaphorical prisons that proved such an influence on the Surrealists, his Carceri d’invenzione.
However, let’s return to the entrance to the embassy compound: in the middle of the door there is a small hole (il buco della serratura) strategically placed to tempt us to peep through it. It’s much like the two holes found in the rough wooden door of Duchamp’s installation Étant donnés, which promises a forbidden world to anyone daring enough to bring their eyes (which are also, in a way, two holes) close enough to them. But, when you squint through this Roman buco, what you actually see is the dome of Saint Peter’s perfectly framed between cypresses. Beholding it like this, almost clandestinely, libidinizes it and makes it something bordering on indecency.
“We’re aware of the almost auratic value acquired by photography exhibited in museums and galleries, meaning they’re viewed with almost ceremonial veneration”
This is connected with an issue I find important: the place or format in which we carry out the reading of any image, a point that we could add to the two weighty considerations you listed in your first letter—to whit, who reads the image and what to say about it. The context in which we read a photograph—be this in a museum room, on a phone app or on a billboard on the street—shapes our attitude towards it. We’re aware of the almost auratic value acquired by photography exhibited in museums and galleries, meaning they’re viewed with almost ceremonial veneration. Here again, I’d refer to Duchamp and his ironic statement on the exhibiting of his works: Exposer ressemble trop à épouser, in other words, that exhibiting comes dangerously close to marrying the viewers. Something very similar happens with photographs printed in artistic publications, whose pages give off that whiff of ink which, in and of itself, boosts the status of these images and the reverence with which we observe them.
“There’s a reason why no one stops to contemplate a writer or photographer working: our creative processes are not visually appealing, unlike those of painters or cartoonists”
On another note, there’s an aspect to looking that I’d like to mention, even though I’ll not be able to benefit from your perspicacious comments on it: could it be that, for you, as for me, it comes as a relief that the process of taking a photo no is of little or no interest to the non-professional observer? When, in post-war Sarajevo, I saw a photographer about to take a portrait of a broken man in a city neighbourhood, I found it more than a little troubling, and that’s why (amongst other reasons) I’m interested in the close relationship between photography and writing, as neither of them is a ‘performance’ worthy of viewing whilst being ‘performed’. There’s a reason why no one stops to contemplate a writer or photographer working: our creative processes are not visually appealing, unlike those of painters or sketchers. I’ll admit that one exception to this may be the childlike emotions of those of us who had an old Polaroid camera knocking about the house, when we saw an image emerging from that white square, that suddenly violet-hued miracle that usually, when scrutinised, caused in us a secret disappointment, one that we would never dare even to hint at. Because the quality of miracles should never be called into question.
Of the images subjugating you and thus shared in your letter, my favourite is almost certainly that of the theft of Munch’s painting. For decades now, video surveillance cameras, which have been turning the entire planet into a kind of panopticon, have been giving rise to a new form of narrating and hence of looking at images. One artistic example of this is Michael Klier’s 1983 film Der Riese (The Giant), a montage that stiches together snippets of recordings from security cameras.
Not to mention how the culture of the paparazzi and of ‘hacked photos’ causes us, as viewers, to look with greater indecency, as the person pressing the shutter button has few scruples and doesn’t bother to ask permission to take the photos and we, as viewers, don’t seem to need leave to contemplate such images, which give rise in us that blend of pleasure and power caused by viewing forbidden fruit. As psychoanalysts have so often stated, the act of looking is directly associated with that of desiring. Two exhibitions that I’m sorry to have missed reflected this fascination: the first, on video surveillance and voyeurism, was held throughout 2010 at the Tate Modern. The other, more recent (2014), focused on the paparazzi’s photographic aesthetics, and could be seen at the Centre Pompidou-Metz.
“The fact is that that pleasure of looking at something which is supposed to form part of people’s private lives, added to the mark left by the passage of time on these photos, puts us in a strange position of superiority”
All these remarks—both those of your letter and those I’ve jotted down above—make me think of those comments in school textbooks urging us to consider the author’s intent. In the field of images, such a search is pointless when dealing with found photos, those amateur snaps we chance upon in flea markets and which are reappropriated by so many artists. When we see them, we imagine that whoever pressed the shutter was some kind of lay genius, if they appear to be of some quality, or perhaps someone who, as in Tomás de Iriarte’s ditty of the donkey and the flute, achieved the composition ‘accidentally’. The fact is that that pleasure of looking at something which is supposed to form part of people’s private lives, added to the mark left by the passage of time on these photos, puts us in a strange position of superiority.
Look at that guy bouncing into the pool of what appears to be some kind of cheesy holiday apartment complex. Look how the fronds of a palm tree seem to stick out of the top of his head. When we read it, we try to guess at the personal mythology of the subject, probably in the middle of his holidays, as such snapshots are often taken in a family and recreational setting, with the intention of recording happy times, or perhaps inspiring them with the portrait itself. The wish to record life and preserve memories takes us back the time of the invention of photography, as these were part of the main reasoning behind it.
This kind of found image, especially those in colour, make me think of the prized kitsch aesthetics of the living rooms of my great aunt: valuable because of their straightforward honesty, as the ideals of refinement and good taste had not been imposed there, unlike today’s tongue-in-cheek ironic hipster equivalents. The naiveté of these flea market photos makes us smile, but are we laughing with the subjects or at them? The change of preposition changes everything, but also, in the latter case, adds a certain dose of cruelty.
In bidding farewell, let me offer you some images that hold me in thrall, as you did in you last letter. I’ll restrict myself to some of my favourite abstract photographs: Paco Gómez’s wall, which I saw at his recent Foto Colectania exhibition, and three more recent walls, by Venezuelan photographer Lisbeth Salas. In Gómez’s wall, our eye seeks to decipher something, anything (the eye is always on the lookout to read something, and is tireless), but, as it finds neither legible characters nor graphics, in the end, it gives up.
The three images by Salas form part of her Re_Surgimiento series, a quest for the pictorial in cities’ walls. In them, I (at least) am strongly tempted to find landscapes by Turner or by Anselm Kiefer or even a carcinoma under an electron microscope. These abstract photos challenge me. I hear them whispering to me: ‘stop reading, stop looking for shapes, ignore Gestalt theory, forget the Rorschach test’. In them, figurative handles are lost: as with the music of Schoenberg or Alban Berg, there are no tonal bannisters to grasp onto to help us listen. Cartier-Bresson once said in an interview that ‘to look well, you have to learn to be deaf and dumb’. I’m sorry, but I beg to differ: some images are close relations of music, and listening to them is also part and parcel of the experience of reading them.
All the best,
 Henri Cartier-Bresson: Ver es un todo. Entrevistas y conversaciones. 1951-1998. Gustavo Gili, 2018
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