“Photographers take snapshots to allay their own fears about forgetting and being forgotten. It’s the act that matters, not the photograph”
Your latest letter, at once eloquent and provocative, gives me a much better understanding of, among other things, the motivations behind your own work as an artist. Our discussion could perhaps be reduced to a single question: does size matter? Or, to put it another way, does the overwhelming quantity of photographs being produced today mediate the quality of our relationship to the photograph in general? I tried to persuade you that any individual observer sees only a small fraction of the available photographic universe and that each individual’s reaction to those photographs is much as it has always been. To use your own analogy, the rules may have changed (from Newtonian physics to quantum theory) but any apples that fall on our heads continue to hurt or not hurt according to the height of the fall and the hardness of our heads, regardless of those rules or our understanding of them. You stress the effect of visual saturation and the insensibility and even blindness it generates, but then quote the words of Jean Baudrillard to support your case; words spoken during a lecture presented in 1987, before the advent of the internet or digital cameras or social media.1 Baudrillard, it seems, identifies these effects with postmodernity (or even with the media explosion of the 1960s, when he first started writing about the culture of simulacra) rather than with a “post-photographic era.” Similarly, the scholars who worried about the desensitization that might result from exposure to an excess of atrocity pictures (Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag and John Berger) were writing in the 1960s and ‘70s, in the age of illustrated magazines and television.2
So I suggest we need to be cautious as we explore the issue of ‘massification.’ But let me be clear: I wouldn’t want to pretend that nothing has changed in recent years. That would be as unwise as saying that everything has changed. What we are debating is the nature of those changes and the best way to respond to them. We have reached, you say, a darkness in which nothing can be discerned any more, a darkness already declared in the late 1920s by the Surrealists but now fully descended upon us as a consequence of the “culture of excess” you describe. The excessive amount of photographs in the world is joined by their devaluation: people don’t value what they don’t have to pay for, or what they can produce in seemingly infinite numbers. You cite the phenomenon of Snapchat (where photographs have replaced language) and offer an anecdote that compares the emotional investment of one woman in her few precious snapshots with the apparent indifference of a man who never returned for his memory stick and its two thousand digital baby pictures. Of course, this man may well have already loaded these pictures onto his desktop and therefore didn’t need his stick back. In any case, I own an album from the 1930s (which was featured in my 2004 exhibition catalogue Forget Me Not) in which each page is obsessively covered from edge to edge with baby pictures: on its cover, the photographer had pasted an advertisement declaring that “the historic value of things fixed in the form of a picture is beyond price.”3 I suspect your man with the memory stick felt similarly. Why else would he have taken thousands of such pictures in the first place?
“The death of photography has been declared so many times that I regard such declarations as signs of life, as an inevitable marker of the rise of yet another photographic phoenix from the ashes of its predecessor”
So where is the crisis here? For you, this crisis might be summed up thus: “the photographic act itself often prevails over the content of the photograph…many photos are now being taken, not to last but to interact and connect…having fulfilled its function, the image disappears.” For a professional photographer, who makes images for a living and as a necessity, this is a crisis indeed. As a historian of photography, however, I can’t help but be more dispassionate about it. The death of photography has been declared so many times that I regard such declarations as signs of life, as an inevitable marker of the rise of yet another photographic phoenix from the ashes of its predecessor. Indeed, your remarks made me recall an essay I wrote for another of my exhibition catalogues, this time for Suspending Time in 2010. I refer to a statistic claiming that Americans alone take about 550 snapshots per second, “a statistic that, however it has been concocted, suggests that the taking of such photographs might best be regarded as a neurosis rather than a pleasure.” I go on to suggest that this neurosis could be taken “as a declaration of faith in the midst of an increasingly secular world.” “Photographers,” I argue, “take snapshots to allay their own fears about forgetting and being forgotten. It’s the act that matters, not the photograph. This is why this act is endlessly repeated, even when we never intend to print the results.”4 Photography, it seems, continues to have meaning (and a profound meaning at that) even in the absence of photographs.
“Many artists, it seems, want to present us with photographs that are not just of something: they are something”
However, the fact is that we have never had more photographs than now. Not only is social media inundated with a surfeit of bad ones, but our museums, galleries and auction houses have never before presented us with so many good ones, have never, in fact, valued photographs more highly. This may well be a necessary corollary to the neoliberal economy in which we find ourselves; the rich get ever richer and the poor are left behind to fend for themselves. You propose that artists should respond to this excessive embrace by the art world (another example of photo-saturation) with a course of ‘degrowth’ and point us to Serge Latouche’s eight actions (revalue, reconceptualise, restructure, redistribute, relocate, reduce, reuse and recycle), even while adding another: resistance. I’ve already indicated my strong support for all nine of these actions and have written approvingly about the work of a number of artists who have sought to enact them, yours included.
But, as a historian, I also note another response witnessed in the work of many contemporary artists working with photography, a response we might call retromodernism. As you have yourself, in your letter to me, a lot of artists are looking back to the utopian experiments of the mid-century avant-garde, to a period before the somewhat mournful, cynical and theory-laden moment we call postmodernism, and are seeking to re-explore and reinvigorate (two more ‘Rs’ for you) the critical capacities of modernism itself. This is a tendency that has been widely recognised, with exhibitions devoted to it, or to some aspect of it, having already taken place at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the V&A in London, the Pompidou Center in Paris, the International Center of Photography in New York, and the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth, New Zealand—in this last case, one of my own exhibitions, Emanations: The Art of the Cameraless Photograph.5 Making photographs without a camera, and thus returning to a mode of working associated with Man Ray and Moholy-Nagy in particular (the patron saints for many contemporary photo-artists), is one aspect of this response. But more generally, one might identify it with work that is self-conscious about the materiality of both the photograph and the act of producing it. These are photographs one is asked to look at, rather than through. Many artists, it seems, want to present us with photographs that are not just of something: they are something.
Whether consciously or not, photographers have often felt the need to take their medium back to first principles as a way of setting recent history aside and starting again. I might go even further and say that they have periodically sought to put the meaning of photography into crisis precisely in order to signal and respond to a greater crisis that is always already happening around them. In the case of the artists I am thinking about, the image has been erased from the photographic experience precisely so that the photograph can be brought back into our consciousness.
Australian artist Justine Varga, for example, creates photographic works from an intimate and often prolonged exchange between a large-format strip of film and the world that comes to be inscribed on it. Desklamp, produced during 2011-12, involved the year-long exposure of a colour negative placed on top of the artist’s desk. Common sense and the laws of physics would suggest that this piece of film would be completely fogged by this extended duration. It should, in other words, be the embodiment of that complete darkness you have already described as a metaphor of our moment. But something strange has happened to Varga’s film, as though it reached its representational limits, died, and then passed to the other side of those limits and came back to life, registering its hundreds of exposures to light and dark, and to whatever else may have touched it over this year, as luscious swathes of colour and accumulated incidental marks. As an act of photography, it promises the possibility, not of death, but of resurrection.
All this is made visible when the film is developed and printed from and enlarged. Immersing us in its chromatic atmosphere, the final work dispassionately documents the artist’s presence in a particular place while also offering a sublime manifestation of her physical interaction with the activity of photographing. Varga’s work has an autobiographical cast, but some of these ‘retromodern’ photographs ground their material form in a specific set of historical circumstances. It is this grounding that should displace the word ‘abstraction’ from our vocabulary and send us back to the dictionary for a better term. In my first exchange with you, I mentioned the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, with its devastating consequences, including nuclear contamination. Seeking to make visible this otherwise invisible threat to his country’s inhabitants, the Japanese artist Shimpei Takeda collected contaminated soil samples from twelve locations throughout Japan, each of them of historical and symbolic significance (“with a strong memory of life and death,” as the artist put it), and then placed the samples on sheets of photo-sensitive film, leaving them like that for a month.6 About half the resulting images remained almost black, but some were soon speckled with a blizzard of radioactive emissions, abstractions that nevertheless indelibly recorded the fragile state of the Japanese ecology. Here we see an automatic recording of a radiation that threatens the ecology and well being of a specific place at a specific time. This specificity matters, to the form and meaning of the work, and perhaps also to our own survival as a species.
Although resembling abstract paintings, photographs of this kind enjoy, even exploit, photography’s indexical grounding in a world of chemical and physical reactions to physical phenomena. They all are documents of their own coming into being, rather than just of a world outside the photograph. Despite appearances, they are, in other words, as realist as photographs can get. Exercising long durations rather than instantaneous exposures, these artists return photography to a handmade craft and away from an automatic subservience to global capitalism and its vast economies of mass production and exploitation. In short, this kind of work puts “photography” into inverted commas and, by exacerbating it into visibility, asks us to ponder what something’s photographicness might mean and why it might matter. Having abandoned the perspectival focus provided by both the camera and a centralised referent, such photographs also actively decenter the observer. They force us to cast our eyes back and forth over their opaque surfaces because these offer no singular resting point, and thus no visual confirmation of a stable position in space and time. They insist on their identity as photographs but keep us, and the world we inhabit, in flux and on the move.
You’ll note, too, how a picture of this kind collapses any distinction between figure and ground (as well as between up and down), and how its edge is allowed to become an arbitrary cut within a field of potentially infinite elements, rather than a rational frame surrounding a discrete object. These are pictures, in short, that decisively break with all received conventions for camera-derived picture making, and thus with the camera’s comforting humanism too. In front of such photographs, we are freed from the passifying grip of this humanism and forced to seek another kind of viewing position, even another kind of subjectivity; indeed, another kind of position in the world at large.
I am suggesting, therefore, that there are varieties of resistance to the current situation, and even that ‘degrowth’ and ‘retromodernism’ are two sides of the same coin. Both seek to provide a counter to the photo-saturated environment of the present, to slow down our perception of that environment, and to encourage a more thoughtful consideration of its consequences. Both, too, complicate the usual investments we have in photographic authorship. I’ll look forward to your next correspondence and what I suspect will be an interesting commentary on the distortions of authorship currently being engineered by the art market and its museum acolytes.
Next “Correspondence” by Joan Fontcuberta will be published on December 9th.
- Your quotation was taken from Jean Baudrillard, ‘Simulation and Transaesthetics: Towards the Vanishing Point of Art,’ the script of a lecture Baudrillard gave at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1987.
- See Roland Barthes, ‘Photos-Chocs,’ in Mythologies (Paris: Édition du Seuil, 1957), 119–121. An English translation (originally published in Creative Camera in the United Kingdom in July 1969) can be found reproduced as ‘The Scandal of Horror Photography,’ in David Brittain, ed., Creative Camera: Thirty Years of Writing (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), 32–34. The essay is translated as ‘Shock-Photos’ in Roland Barthes, The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1979), 71–73. See also Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux , 1977), but incorporating earlier essays, and John Berger, ‘Photographs of Agony’ (1972), About Looking (New York, Vintage, 1980), 41-44.
- See Geoffrey Batchen, Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance (Princeton Architectural Press and Van Gogh Museum, 2004), 53-55.
- Geoffrey Batchen, Suspending Time: Life, Photography, Death (Shizuoko: Izu Photo Museum, 2010), 122-123, 126.
- These exhibitions include Martin Barnes, Shadow Catchers: Camera-less Photography (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2010); Carol Squiers, What is a Photograph? (New York: Prestel/International Center of Photography, 2014); Virginia Heckert, Light, Paper, Process: Reinventing Photography (Los Angeles: Getty Museum, 2015); Clément Chéroux and Karolina Ziebinska-Lewandowska, Qu’est-ce que la photographie? (Paris: Centre Pompidou, 2015); Geoffrey Batchen, Emanations: The Art of the Cameraless Photograph (New Plymouth, NZ: Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, 2016). Justine Varga’s Desklamp (2011-12) was featured in this last exhibition, but also in New Matter: Recent Forms of Photography, curated by Isobel Parker Philip for the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney in late 2016.
- Shimpei Takeda, 2013, as quoted in Claude Baillargeon, Shadows of the Invisible (Rochester, Mich: Oakland University Art Gallery, 2014), n.p.