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
The subject we’ll explore in the coming months is ‘Reading Images’. I hope we can do this in a number of ways. To get us started I’d like to set out some of the different thoughts our theme suggests to me. While there are philosophical, intellectual and aesthetic aspects to ‘reading images’, there’s also a political dimension, for the obvious reason that society seems to have become less vigilant in its approach to images, less able to think critically about them, less able to resist them perhaps, less able to think differently about what it might want from images, less able to ‘read’ them. I’ll simply list a number of points and we can explore any of these directions.
“It’s important that we have critical and evolving languages for talking about images and the affects they have upon us”
The term ‘reading’ immediately invokes language. We hear this word often in relation to images and I’m always in two minds about it. On the one hand, images don’t communicate quite like language, and so they can’t be read like language either. Photographs might be able to show or suggest, but they can’t explain, or reason, or argue. They are more like poetry than prose. As I often say, images do not carry meaning the way a truck carries coal. On the other hand, it’s important that we have critical and evolving languages for talking about images and the affects they have upon us. Without this, we are, in some ways at their mercy.
The term ‘reading’ suggests something scholarly, careful, even critical. ‘Reading’ consciously, instead of ‘consuming’ unconsciously, perhaps. In this sense ‘reading images’ suggests not our first, immediate, gut response, but a second, slower, more reflective response. A reading of our reading, so to speak.
I teach photography, and I know in the past that you have taught too. Trying to help young students to move from simply liking or disliking images towards a more reflective attitude that might empower them to make sense of the visual culture around them has never been easy. In western countries at least there was a move, a couple of generations ago to try to bring a critical study of images into the school curriculum, under the name ‘visual literacy’ (and there’s language again). Images have enormous effects on us, so knowing something about how they work was thought to be essential for all children. The project of visual literacy was inevitably political in key ways, since a large part of the motivation was to encourage children to grasp just how images can manipulate, particularly images to do with advertizing, consumerism, fashion, political propaganda, gender stereotypes and so forth. But of course as corporate power began to dominate western societies, teaching visual literacy was regarded as ‘left wing’ agitation, and the project was undermined severely, to the extent that it is hardly taught in schools at all today. But now we might be at some kind of crisis point where young people are left with very few critical tools with which to make their way through the visual culture in which they find themselves.
What aspects of images, specifically photographic images can be ‘read’, and what aspects cannot? I recall how the French cultural critic Roland Barthes confronted this in a number of his writings (in his book Camera Lucida, famously, but also in his essay ‘The Third Meaning’). For Barthes, that which is describable in images represents the common experience, the shared aspect of response, the presumed collective meaning, the obvious. The images that are easily digestible are the ones that are easily describable, easily put into words. That is to say, the closer an image comes to being, or being received as a cliché, the closer it comes to language.
“Is it the image itself that is to be read, or is it the image in relation to its text and context that is to be read?”
Sometimes when you and I discuss images that strike us as clichés, we try to describe them in as few words as possible. The more clichéd the image, the fewer words are needed. However, against this idea of the obvious and shared reading, or within it, Barthes also noted that there were aspects of response that resisted language, resisted ‘reading’. Aspects that could not be reduced to received wisdom or ideology. Those aspects might have something to do with what is visual and non-verbal, with what is personal and not collective, or with what is in the end essentially enigmatic about all images. Images might be given to us in programmed ways, following established rhetorical conventions, and we might be encouraged to receive them in those programmed ways, but if we remove the programme (be this their context, their moment in history, their fixed place in relation to other images and words) they revert to what Maurice Blanchot called their essential ambiguity. This too presents us with a challenge in relation to the ‘reading of images’. Is it the image itself that is to be read, or is it the image in relation to its text and context that is to be read? Both, I think.
Word and image are never truly separate entities. Communication is largely a matter of what the writer and artist Victor Burgin in his essay ‘Seeing Sense’ called the ‘scripto-visual’. By this he meant much more than the fact that images tend to be accompanied by words of one kind or another. For example, reading or hearing the word ‘sunset’ immediately prompts within us mental images of sunsets. I type ‘sunset’ and upon your reading the word some kind of visual impression will inevitably form in your mind. Likewise if you see a sunset, and recognize it as being a sunset, then on some level the word ‘sunset’ will be on your mind. As Sigmund Freud and others noticed, the mind makes no fixed distinctions between words and images; it is only out there in the world that they appear to be separate. The implications of this are profound, especially in relation to the point I made earlier about the way ‘obvious’ readings of images equate to language more readily than those moments when we confront the ambiguous or enigmatic.
There is ‘reading images’, as distinct from ‘reading an image’. ‘Reading images’ might suggest that images themselves, if arranged strategically, might be able to encourage close reading. A couple of things make me think of this idea. One is Walker Evans’ American Photographs (1938), a book which, perhaps more than any of the European avant-garde experiments in sequencing really pushed hardest at the idea of dialectical, reflexive possibility. It is a complex associative arrangement exploring the deep connection between imagery and identity in modern America. Our response is modified and complicated by each successive image. Here are some quick shots I took of the opening sequence from the book:
Opening image sequence from Walker Evans’ book, American Photographs, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1938
Evans seemed to want us to look and think and make connections, to engage in a reading of these photographs from one to the next, and by extension make a reading of America.
The second example is your own series of constructed tableaux, Landscape Sublime. Each work in the series is made from a set of images gathered online using specific keywords (again there’s the connection between image and language). Black and white Mountains. Rainbows. Forests in Mist. Cascades. Volcanoes. Crashing Waves. The accumulation of these formulaic, describable images opens up a reflective space, a critical distance for the viewer. The ‘sublime’ – an experience or awe, or fear or wonder presumed to be beyond language – is not present in the images, but in your suggestion of the countless millions of similar images that are out there. The sublime totality of familiar representations.
“Finding ways to make images ‘speak’ in relation to each other is more important than ever”
This idea of bringing images together to open up a ‘critical reading’ really emerged in the 1920s and 30s, in opposition the manipulations of the growing mass media (magazines, newspapers, cinema). But perhaps today, when the links between images are broken by the internet and remade not by individual intelligence or creativity but by algorithms, finding ways to make images ‘speak’ in relation to each other is more important than ever.
Well, this is a little pool of thoughts that we might return to in the coming weeks.
Thank you for the generous start. I am looking forward to expanding on all these ideas in the upcoming weeks. I will accept your offer to dive in and consider where the emphases fall for me.
“Perhaps because this flood of images appears to be ever encroaching into our lives and psyches we develop shutdown mechanisms to avoid burnout”
I wonder if the choice of the word itself, ‘reading’, pre-selects the types of images that could be deserving of such investigation. As you contrast the terms ‘consuming’ with ‘reading’ I think of the hordes of images that pass us by at such a rapid pace daily that we barely pay any attention to them. Perhaps because this flood of images appears to be ever encroaching into our lives and psyches we develop shutdown mechanisms to avoid burnout. And as we develop those mechanisms the images respond by becoming even more enticing, sensational and pervasive. We know that images can instill desire for a wide variety of concepts or tangible things; they can produce consumption in the world.
For that reason alone, we must actively seek to develop a language suitable for discussing images that operate in society differently than the written or spoken word. Not only that, I believe such language must be designed to be accessible for an audience of viewers who may not be versed in the disciplines that are traditionally associated with the analysis of images; disciplines which use specialized terminology, such as art history, anthropology, semiotics, iconology, and philosophy. The illusory democracy of images calls for a true democracy of language that can decipher them while allowing some space for their inherent ambiguity. Do you think this a viable proposition?
“The invention of photography contributed to the sense of threat to the traditional modes of knowledge and the tools for its analysis have not quite caught up”
This feeling of being submerged into the world of images could be a symptom of what W.J.T. Mitchell calls a “pictorial turn”, which is a regularly occurring phenomenon that happens whenever a new imaging technology or tools for surveillance or entertainment is mobilized and popularized. He makes a distinction between the pictorial turn as a “matter of mass perception, collective anxiety about images and visual media” and a “turn to images and visual culture within the realm of intellectual disciplines”. The invention of photography contributed to the sense of threat to the traditional modes of knowledge and the tools for its analysis have not quite caught up.
Perhaps you’re right that there can be no universal way of reading images. In ‘The Politics of Aesthetics’ Jacques Rancière proposes three main “regimes” of art identification, or methods in which a specific era conceptualizes the nature and purpose of artistic representation. The first is the “ethical regime” in which images are subject to questioning mainly according to their moral and political impact on society. The second, “poetic” or “representative” regime stems primarily from the study of literature and reflects the idea that the world prioritizes the verbal articulation of meaning in all the art forms. Similar to what you said about images being closer to poetry than prose, Rancière distinguishes between the two forms and proposes that the well-known quote from Horace, “reading a poem is like watching a painting” could also be reversed to mean, “a picture is like a poem”.
“language as a form of social convention can never fully encapsulate these meanings”
Based on that principle all images and artworks in general regardless of their medium are means of storytelling; and the same story can be interpreted using a variety of different media. However, in the third and arguably main, “aesthetic regime”, Rancière suggests that things or images in the widest sense of the word contain meanings that extend beyond the capacity of socially constructed interpretations; therefore language as a form of social convention can never fully encapsulate these meanings. This is close to Barthes’ idea that you noted.
The perception of ambiguity in images has something to do with language, even literary language, falling short of wholly capturing the meaning of images, or of ‘reading’ them. Nevertheless, language cannot be entirely removed from the process of image interpretation either. There is this commonplace idea that photographic seeing can somehow be separate from the rest of our brain activity that occurs while observing something, even though for most of our waking hours our brain is preoccupied with responding to visual stimuli. It can’t. In “The Spoken Image: Photography and Language” Clive Scott names language as one of the three interrupters of seeing: in order to return to the ‘…freshness of vision associated with the pre-conceptual, pre-interpretative, then language must be forcibly stripped away’.
There is a great quantity of advice written on how to approach image making without any preconceived (or ‘pre-articulated’) notions, particularly when it comes to the photographic flâneur, or the ‘spontaneous’ street photographer, yet some of the best image makers went as far as making lists of what exactly they wanted and did not want in their images.
Walker Evans, whom you mention in regard to experiments in image sequencing as a means to push the work far beyond singular meaning, was also a brilliant list-maker. While my favorite of his is the famous 1937 list called “Contempt for,’ which includes: “men who try to fascinate women with their minds, gourmets, liberals, cultivated women, writers, successful artists who use the left to buttress their standing,” in his short story “Brooms” Evans features a list that is quite telling of his capacity for intense observation of the everyday: “Imperative Needs: suspenders, drawers, collar pin, bath slippers, Crime and Punishment, rubber cement.” His lists serve as succinct collections of thoughts and the photographs translate and expand those thoughts into visual form. Certain subjects find their way into Evans’ images over and over again: picture-based outdoor advertising and signs, vernacular architecture, domestic interiors and burgeoning American automobile culture.
Likewise, in the work of Eugène Atget and August Sander, repetition of particular subjects emphasizes the cumulative documentation of the contemporary condition within the photographers’ urban or social context. Skipping past a significant number of artistic influences loosely following this tradition I will respond to your point about my Landscape Sublime work, which is based on the very act of collecting. To further tie the connection, the collected images in my tableaux only surfaced because of the keywords attached to those images online. In this case language didn’t just pervade the describable and familiar source images: language was literally inscribed into their digital metadata.
I am interested in what you say about words as ‘search terms’ for images. This is something with which almost everyone is now familiar. For much of the history of the medium, photographs were classified, filed and retrieved via words, and to a great extent they still are. Not just search terms, but image archiving, image metadata, online image hash tags, geo tags, keywords, captions and so on are all means by which the photographic order is constructed and accessed through language. And yet images, particularly photographic images, clearly exceed language, for reasons we’ve touched upon already. The processes by which words function as gateways to pictures are always strange and uneasy compromises.
In relation to this, a handful of artistic and slightly anarchic image projects come to mind. In the late 1930s the pioneering magazine editor Stefan Lorant set up a publication in the UK titled Lilliput, which soon became well-known for its image juxtapositions – comic, satirical, surreal or just surprising pairings of images that were never intended to be placed together. Lorant would make these pairings by going through the images that were accumulating in the filing cabinets magazine’s offices. He wrote:
Lying on the floor trying to find likenesses from the hundreds of photos spread out in front of me…whenever I see an interesting photo of a personality, an animal, or whatever it may be, I put it in a box. Once a month when the printer is becoming urgent about material for the next issue I go into seclusion. I shut myself in a room and go over the pictures in the box. The pictures I like best I throw on the floor, then I go through the other boxes. I have got four of them. One is full of personalities, another of animals. The third is filled with women and children, and the fourth with landscapes and funny photographs. One by one I go through them – if I find a photo that would match one of the pictures on the floor, I put the pair aside […] I think there is always somewhere a photo which fits…believe me, the whole business is much easier than one thinks. …One only needs an eye to see the possibilities in a photograph, and one must have a good optical memory.
“Images are remembered for all kinds of irrational and unconscious reasons”
Lorant’s process is revealing. He has a kind of a system, based on language and classification, but he also talks of simply ‘liking’ images and of the need for what he rather enigmatically calls a ‘good optical memory’. I’m not sure what this is exactly, but we know that very often images are not remembered on the basis qualities that can be attributed to language or function. Images are remembered for all kinds of irrational and unconscious reasons, or reasons more to do with form or pattern than theme or ‘content’. Lorant’s balance of system/intuition, and linguistic/non-linguistic processes brings us quite close, I suspect, to the ways we all respond to images, partly bound by language and convention but also much more wildly and unpredictably.
Secondly, I think of John Baldessari, the Californian artist who moved from painting into the rigours of conceptual art, and then into a realm in which he has explored the ambiguity of even the most seemingly banal and familiar photographic images. Baldessari has been particularly attracted to film stills, those 10×8 inch glossy prints once produced in great number to publicize the latest movies. Most were destroyed once their initial use had expired but some made their way to the open market where they could be picked up for just a few cents. Baldessari acquired thousands, and has re-used them in different ways in his montages and collages. Back in 1985 he wrote a revealing little text about how he organizes his collection:
Below are the current categories in my file of movie stills, which form a large part of the raw material from which I draw to do my work. I hope the categories (which are continually shifting according to my needs and interests) will provide some clues as to what animates the work I do. A Attack, animal, animal/man, above, automobiles (left), automobiles (right) B Birds, building, below, barrier, blood, bar (man in), books, blind, brew, betray, bookending, bound, bury, banal bridge, boat, bird, balance, bathroom C Cage, camouflage, chaos/order, city, cooking, chairs, curves, cheering, celebrity, consumerism, curiosity, crucifixion, crowds, climbing, colour, civic [and so on, through to Z]. A bargain must always be struck between what is available in movie stills and the concerns I have at the moment – I don’t order the stills, I must choose from the menu. Also, one will read from this a rather hopeless desire to make words and image interchangeable – yet it is that futility that engrosses me. Lastly, I think one will notice the words falling into their own categories, two being those of formal concern and content.[i]
“Popular culture prefers to tame that wildness with explanatory words, but it’s never entirely successful.”
You can find remarkably similar schemes and statements by many collectors of photographs, be they artists, curators, or plain amateurs. Many professional editors and archivists also speak of what they do in this way. Unstable and provisional categories; the peculiar disconnect between word and image; the unruly marriage of form and content; the Sisyphean drive to accumulate; the precarious balance of logic and caprice, order and chaos, knowledge and ignorance, enchantment and boredom. Baldessari points with great clarity to the madness and method to be found at the heart of every image collection.
More to the point, so many of the great theorists of photography have noted the same tensions are at work within every photograph. Walter Benjamin wrote of the ‘spark of contingency’ that may enliven even the most ordinary photo, and completely overturn our ‘reading’ of it. Popular culture prefers to tame that wildness with explanatory words, but it’s never entirely successful.
Baldessari’s archive works for him, and if we appreciate what he does with it, then it works for us too. We might be tempted to take Baldessari’s idiosyncratic approach as a sort of comic inversion of the sober and good order of ‘proper’ archives maintained by the language of upstanding institutions (the police, the medical profession, our museums, art history and so on). However, the aspiration to logic and neutrality is never entirely plausible, because where there are mages there is always kind of madness, and wherever there is an archive structured by language there is potential anarchy.
In the last decade or so we have seen the mainstream online image world extend from language-based systems to the use of algorithms based on form, pattern and colour. For example, it was back in 2007 that Microsoft announced Photosynth, a piece of software that could combine tens of thousands of photographs found online to produce three-dimensional virtual models of real places and buildings. The more images available to the software, the better the result. Of course, not every surface of the world has been documented with equal intensity. The most photographed belong to the best-known historic buildings (the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, the Taj Mahal, Big Ben). These all have surfaces that are intricate and distinctive enough to be unique, and they are present enough in online images to be rendered as virtual 3D collages by Photosynth and its derivatives. Such software skips language all together.
The artist Joan Fontcuberta’s ‘Googlegrams’ use photo-mosaic software to gather and assemble thousands of images into grids that from a distance resemble single photographs. Here’s his ‘Googlegram: Niépce’, from 2005. Interestingly, Fontcuberta did use keywords, in this case ‘photo’ and ‘foto’, to instruct the software to compose a version of the oldest surviving photographic image made with a camera.
“… we still live in a culture in which images and words are almost invariable combined to secure an ‘easy reading’.”
I’ll finish here with a public poster produced by Victor Burgin back in 1976. It is an example of text being used to complicate the reading of an image, and vice-versa. Graphically, it looks as if it is going to be simple enough: a question is posed, a sort of answer is given, and a photograph appears at first glance to be a straightforward illustration. However, the question is ‘What Does Possession Mean to You?’, the follow up is ‘7% of our population own 84% of our wealth’, and the image is a studio advertising photograph of a young, white, stereotypically attractive couple embracing. How are we to ‘read’ this? There is no simple answer. Burgin scrambles the signals and in the confusion we are left with the messy overlaps of money, power, class, patriarchy, sexuality, gender, desire, whiteness, and consumerism. In his book Between, published ten years later, Burgin reproduces a transcript of a radio show in which the poster was discussed at the time. A man looking at the poster says, “Well, it’s not really passion is it?” The host of the show replies: “Passion? It doesn’t say passion: it says Possession.” The man looks again. “Oh yes, I misread it.” It’s a fascinating revelation. The man was led by the image to expect to see the word “passion” and so that’s what he unconsciously reads. The image is the first thing he sees and this leads to his misreading of the text. Burgin’s poster is decades old but it still has the power to confound us, because we still live in a culture in which images and words are almost invariable combined to secure an ‘easy reading’.
[i] John Baldessari, ‘My File of Movie Stills’, Carnegie International Exhibition (catalogue), Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, 1985, pp. 91-93.
Many thanks for all those thoughts and ideas. I think what you say about the experience of taking, storing, accessing and reading photographs being an inevitable combination of method and madness, language and non-language, is fascinating, and true. It raises all kinds of questions, not least about that strange term you mentioned in your first blog, ‘visual language’. We often hear this term used to describe aspects of photography, particularly its different rhetorical strategies, styles, and modes of sequencing.
But as we’ve seen, ‘visual language’ is something of an oxymoron. Photographs cannot do what language does. Although there are parallels and overlaps between the two, in the end photographs cannot replace language, and I wonder whether it is even like a language in its own right. Photographs are not capable of reasoning, for example, even when they are arranged carefully in a given sequence. To that list of great artistic experiments that you described, I would add a couple by the artist Hans-Peter Feldmann. The first is his publication in the year 2000 of an issue of the Austrian current affairs magazine Profil. All Feldman did was remove the text to leave the images floating in their original places on the empty pages. It was such a bold and simple gesture, made all the more profound because that issue of Profil happened to carry a story on the rise of the far-right political candidate Jörg Haider. The cover image was of Haider signing a pact that would allow him to enter Austria’s federal government. Haider had been waging war with the media over coverage of his campaign. The image was left to resonate for Austrians on the black cover of the magazine.
But for decades much of Feldman’s work has been an exploration of what images do and do not communicate. In 1974 he was interviewed by the American art magazine Avalanche. To every question Feldman responded not with words, but with a well-chosen and very playful image. Avalanche never published it, but it appeared in a later book of Feldman’s work. Then in 2009 he did it again, this time for a book-length interview with the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist.
“But could a ‘conversation’ take place purely in the form of images?”
Of course, the questions are posed to Feldman in the form of words. Thus, the concrete enquiries contrast each time with the semantic fluidity of the pictures. The good sense of the interviewer meets the anarchic sense of the artist. But what if the questions also took the form of images? Can a photograph be a question in this sense? Probably not. But could a ‘conversation’ take place purely in the form of images? Why not? This is probably a good time to introduce into our discussion Dialogue, the Instagram project that you and I have been pursuing over the last the last year or so. I am not sure now exactly what our aim was, but there was certainly a testing of an idea that images could respond to each other, if not as a conversation then at least as some kind of exchange. We have had no rules. We post alternately, and let the Dialogue go wherever it goes. So far there are around 3300 images.
It is interesting to note that in the last year or so there have been several explorations of this kind of visual exchange. Recently the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York presented Talking Pictures: Camera Phone Conversations Between Artists, featuring partnerships from Manjari Sharma and Irina Rozovsky to William Wegman and Tony Oursler, and many others. Not all the exchanges resulted in still photographs, and not all of them wordless, but several were.
Then there is the web-based project A New Nothing, which invites pairs of photographers to respond to each other’s images with images. So far more than a hundred pairs have been involved.
It is tempting to think that these kinds of exchange are specific either to the mobile phone or to online platforms. Not only do they make such exchanges simpler than ever, they might well be responses to the fact that far from making us feel connected, most of the time our new communications technologies prove to be deeply alienating, cutting us off from each other. Instagram is only social in the very loosest sense, so with our Dialogue project there was an attempt to replace the practice of simply putting images ‘out there’ in the vague hope of reaching an audience, with the idea of making images with someone very particular in mind.
This kind of thinking is not specific to new technologies, although it might be specific to photography. In 1863 the American essayist Oliver Wendell Holmes published ‘Doings of the Sunbeam’ (The Atlantic Monthly, vol. XII, No. 69, July 1863) in which he speculated about the possibility of complete strangers coming to know each other simply by exchanging photographs:
A photographic intimacy between two persons who never saw each other’s faces is a new form of friendship. The artist sends his own presentment […] surrounded by the domestic accidents which so add to the individuality of the student or the artist. You see him at his desk or table, the objects lying about; you divine his tastes, apart from that which he has in common with yourself.
Clearly Holmes would not be surprised by the role of images in today’s social media. It is startling that he was thinking this way back in 1863. For most of that essay Holmes was concerned with describing the growing number of commercial Daguerreotype photographic studios that were springing up across America. It is only in the last page or so that he begins to imagine this future of image exchange. But his idea was clearly motivated by the fact that the Daguerreotype technique had travelled from Europe, its images were small and most often personal, and could be exchanged easily.
David, you live in London; I live in Miami. This exchange for Foto Colectania is taking place across continents in the form of words, while our Instagram Dialogue happens in the form of images. But can either really be located? Not in any meaningful geographic sense. And this brings me to another interesting parallel of words and images. The French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure wrote of the difference between langue and parole. Langue is the shared storehouse of all language that precedes us and belongs to no-one, and nowhere. Parole is this or that particular act of speech made by an individual drawing upon that store house. We use language in ways that are shared but hopefully also specific to us as individuals.
In the 1970s and 80s, with the application of linguistics and semiotics to the analysis of images, it became clear that photography has its own version of this relation between langue and parole. There is what’s possible with the medium, and there is what this or that individual might do with it. But somewhere in the middle, in both language and image making, there is convention: the expression of over familiar ideas and attitudes that individuals may think are their own but are merely the empty mimicry of pre-existing forms. In other words, clichés. I have noticed, although we have never actually discussed it, that what has happened in our Dialogue is an exploration of many of the clichés of Instagram. We happily twist and rework image types that circulate but belong to nobody, like a conversation made up of preformed, pre-expressed sentences. Not always, but we do it a lot. It might be conscious; it might be unconscious. Maybe we are bumping up against the idea of whether, and in what form, originality is important. That’s a question we need to ask as much about the images we make as the language we use.
Thanks again for your thoughts. Yes, I think you are probably right about the nature of our Instagram project, although one of the advantages of a wordless, image-based dialogue is that it is very open to intuition, for its makers as much as its viewers. Placing one image next to another, or responding to one image with another, can only ever be a matter of suggestion, with thoughts overlapping and perhaps half-formed. A very loose kind of ‘reading’ where there can be no wrongs or rights. As we discussed earlier, an image sequence is closer to poetry than prose, but as you say, image making may become trapped easily by convention and cliché. The poetic can become prosaic quite quickly. The image reduced to language. I think that any serious image-maker has to be aware of this, and any serious audience, too. It is what the composer John Cage called “response-ability”: a call for an active, engaged respondent, not a passive consumer.
Oliver Wendell Holmes’s insight is remarkable. His ability to foresee just how deeply embedded in society photographic images were to become, tells us not just that Holmes was a perceptive and prescient thinker, but that something profound about the fate of photography was discernable very early on, maybe even from the start. We could go back farther than Holmes, to William Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature, published between 1844 and 1846. Using twenty-four of his images, each with an accompanying text, Talbot set out what photography might be and might become, and it is remarkable how clear sighted he was. Documentary, art, legal evidence, scientific applications, topography, history, tourism, advertising, archiving. I don’t think there is much in the visual culture of 2018 that would really surprise him. More to the point, as well as demonstrating the possibilities of forms of communication based on image-text relations, Talbot also seemed to understand that each and every application of photography would need to be underpinned by the discourses and protocols (the regulating languages) of institutions – the legal profession, journalism, scientific research, artistic judgement and so forth. That is to say, with The Pencil of Nature Talbot both argued for, and clearly demonstrated, a deep interdependence of photographic images and words.
To be contemporary for a moment, I notice there is much discussion at present about ‘machine seeing’ and the function of images that that are not intended for human eyes in the first instance. Think of recognition software, for example. Here, the optically captured image (in the broadest sense) is interpreted by a computer programme in such a way that something within its content is identified and classified – a face for example, or a car number plate. The image may never require being ‘seen’ at all, and may never become an image in the sense we have come to understand the term. Does that mean it is not read, or is beyond language? I don’t think so. We have delegated such acts of seeing and reading to machines, made them more efficient, and less accountable, even. I am not really one for making predictions, but I suspect these kinds of technology will turn out to be very short-lived, a bridge between an older moment of visibility and more integrated systems of automation and surveillance that don’t require any optical impression at all, and don’t leave space for the ambiguity of reading. Maybe this bridge is our present moment, one in which we can feel the transition between the optical and the post-optical, although this post-optical moment was also predicted by Talbot, through his interests in computer calculation, and in light waves that are beyond human perception.
Machines and computer programmes are largely insensitive to nuance and ambiguity. If, as I have suggested, the essential condition of the photograph is its ambiguity, its lack of clarity as to how it can be read, then it may be that only humans are in the best place to understand them. Ambiguity of meaning is a result of conflicting motivations, conflicting desires, and conflicting intentions. To be human is to hold contradictory ideas at once.
“Is it possible to describe a photograph without interpreting it?”
Take at look at this photograph by Ruth Orkin. No doubt a computer programme would be able to identify faces in such an image, and even identify the street setting, but the possible meanings of the image are another matter entirely.
Is it possible to describe a photograph without interpreting it? Can a viewer ever be as dispassionate as the cold lens of the camera? And how far can a photographer’s intentions determine public responses? This was one of nine photos by Orkin that appeared in the September 1952 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine, in a feature titled When You Travel Alone.
“Solo voyaging need hold no terrors for the feminine tourist”, opens the text. “It’s fun, it’s easy, and it’s the best way in the world to meet new people – men, for instance. Having no-one but yourself to depend on and being away from friends who expect you always to be yourself, you are likely to develop a brand-new self-reliance and charm. Besides, two girls or a group travelling together look like a closed corporation, and are less likely to be invited to join other people’s fun.”
Orkin, aged 29, was not entirely alone and neither was the woman in the picture, a 23 year-old American calling herself Jinx Allen. Orkin was on her way back from an assignment in Israel; Allen was on a six-month tour of Europe. The two met in Florence, at the American Express Office where ex-patriots collected their mail. They discussed life away from home, and the next morning headed out for a photographic collaboration. The shoot was free-spirited and fun, Allen comically asking for directions, looking confused with foreign currency and gazing at statuary. Orkin made two attempts at the photograph we see here, asking Allen to repeat her walk, and suggesting the man on the motorcycle not to look at the camera. A minute later Allen hopped on his passenger seat for another picture.
“Meaning is made not by the photographer but by the viewer”
The issue of Cosmopolitan came and went but this image has lasted. By accident or design its form is more classical, and its drama more theatrical than Orkin’s other shots from that day. There are compositions like this in Renaissance paintings.
While the two women insisted always that there was no ‘message’ here, nothing about harassment or patriarchy, or feminism, or the ‘male gaze’, the mood suggested may not feel as light as the duo intended. Allen clutches her shawl to her chest, knuckles a little white. The bag and sketchbook are held close to her body. In that unpredictable fraction of a second her eyelids drop, her mouth hangs open, and the angle of her head might suggest apprehension. The stride is forthright but her body seems to withdraw, as if moving through the scene unwillingly, men’s gazes hitting the side of her face.
We often think of images having ‘messages’ or ‘agendas’, but a photographer’s intentions can never determine meanings. Meaning is made not by the photographer but by the viewer. The photographer may ‘write’ the image but it is the viewer who must ‘read’ it. A great deal can happen between the writing and the reading of an image.
I am so glad you bring up John Cage’s thoughts on “response ability” in relation to images. I would like to look at this idea of an active respondent from the perspective of compositional aspects of a photograph, as I believe these formal elements play a critical role in how the image is eventually perceived. In that fascinating essay titled Silence from which you cited the term, Cage goes on to dissect the structure of a musical composition and draws upon some examples from nature when referring to viewers’ individual responses to phenomena, whether in visual or audio form: “Does not a mountain unintentionally evoke in us a sense of wonder? (…) What is more angry than the flash of lightning and the sound of thunder?” However, each person’s emotions in response to those experiences are quite subjective, so when expressed in an art form the sounds (as in Cage’s case) or visual elements (as in ours) must be allowed a degree of liberation from any pre-conceived theories about their meaning. I think this relates to how earlier you distinguished between the poetic and the prosaic in an image.
“In photography, unlike painting, framing and composition tend to be perceived to occur somewhat mechanically”
While learning to critically analyze photography, students in the arts are advised to examine both the subject matter and the composition of a given image, with all the visual components. In photography, unlike painting, framing and composition tend to be perceived to occur somewhat mechanically. For a viewer, the subject of a photograph often overshadows the original intent, the context in which it was made, or any formal achievement. With painting the question of the author’s environment at the time of making is rarely the question that comes to mind, as we typically imagine paintings being made in the an artist’s studio unless it is en plein air. However in figurative photography, with a few exceptions, the author was right there where the event occurred; a fact which perhaps leads to a more inquisitive look at the story behind an image, as is the case with Ruth Orkin’s photograph, which you used as an example.
If we attempt to describe this photograph in objective terms we could say that we see a woman briskly walking down a city street where a number of men are standing and sitting in leisurely poses. She looks straight ahead while the men’s faces are pointed in her direction. Humans are naturally wired to pay the closest attention to faces. Whenever an image contains a face the focus inevitably shifts towards the nuances in its expression. In Orkin’s photograph, I think the woman’s face appears composed and unfazed by the men staring at her. When provided, a caption or title affects the further interpretation. “American Girl in Italy” outlines that this is a tourist, from a perhaps relatively more emancipated America of 1952. Could it be that her American-ness is contributing to the attention she is getting on the street? Are the men just babbling in encouragement of her pioneering act? Is it her fashionable dress? This is the point in the process of reading an image when objective description starts morphing into a subjective interpretation. Personal history comes into play.
As a woman who has walked down city streets wearing a dress many times in my life, I have experienced being the subject of unwanted attention and more often than not the vocal expressions of such attention do not constitute a pleasant feeling. So unfortunately such gender-specific personal history takes quite a bit of fun out of this possibly harmless image from the 50s. While Orkin’s photograph was eventually published in Cosmopolitan to promote the benefits of women’s solo traveling with the aims of finding male companions; to me it would be more ethically satisfying to see it paired with this work by Barbara Kruger:
“Sometimes finding out the story behind the making of an image can change its context and affect the reading of the work significantly”
While Kruger’s image contains a somewhat confrontational statement, the directness of her words does not take away from the enigma of the artwork. The classical statue, which represents a human face, appears quite androgynous. There is an illusion of it being almost alive; it looks like a portrait under a harsh light. When you shift your focus from right to left you realize this is indeed an object. Whose gaze is Kruger talking about in the text?
Sometimes finding out the story behind the making of an image can change its context and affect the reading of the work significantly. One haunting example is this portrait of the minister of Nazi propaganda Joseph Goebbels, from 1933. It was made by Alfred Eisenstaedt and later published in Life magazine. While Goebbels was smiling openly in the minutes preceding this unsettling look, Eisenstadt recounted that the moment pictured in the photograph was the moment Goebbels found out that the photographer was Jewish. Such background information imbues the image with an additional layer of meaning, which possibly would not have surfaced otherwise. But of course it could be that, having taken this photo, Eisenstadt simply decided, retroactively, to give it this narrative. It may not have been ‘actually’ true even though the ‘symbolic’ truth may be greater.
Certainly the meaning of a photograph is comprised of more than the sum of its parts and so much depends on who is looking. David, I recall you telling me a story about the American artist Stephen Shore who is known for his distanced observational style and rigorous attention to the compositional structure of his images. On one occasion he was showing his book Uncommon Places and the person viewing the book, who was a mechanic, asked about the large number of MGB cars in Shore’s photographs. He wondered if there were a lot of them in America at the time, or whether Stephen specifically sought them out. Shore loved the question and said that no “photo person” would ask this.
To such a viewer the artistic merit, which is generally determined by the conventions of the art world of the time, is secondary in the reading of the image. What drew this person’s attention was something directly related to his personal interests. The reading of the image in this case is again dictated by the personal history of the viewer. But a mechanic’s reading of an image is as important as anyone else’s.
“without the baggage of intention and authorship, the reading of a photograph can be wide open”
The informational and documentary content of photographs is something that “photo people” can easily forget in the rush to consider artistic intention, form, innovation and so forth. For all the medium’s artistic aspiration, it can never truly leave behind its status as a document. Very often if photographs survive, and have an afterlife, they survive on the basis of their documentary content (and making sense of that content has its own challenges and ambiguities, of course). This is a humbling fact, because it can have little to do with intention and even less to do with authorship. And without the baggage of intention and authorship, the reading of a photograph can be wide open.
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