Category Archives: Photography

Camera Lucida — Barthes on Photography I

I absolutely loved Barthes’ Camera Lucida, it was an unexpected feeling and rather fierce. Perhaps because it challenged me to love photography again after Susan Sontag had picked apart everything that was wrong, everything that has troubled me so much with certain exhibitions I have seen. There is more to photography than appropriation and vain strivings to control time and space — an opening she leaves I know, but doesn’t explore. My partner said off-hand, ‘oh, that’s the book about death and photography’, which surprised me greatly, but then going back over it I realised just how much he does talk about death. Still, it seemed very much an affirmation of life to me. Barthes begins:

My interest in Photography took a more cultural turn. I decided I liked Photography in opposition to the Cinema, from which I nonetheless failed to separate it. This question grew insistent. I was overcome by an “ontological” desire: I wanted to learn at all costs what Photography was “in itself,” by what essential feature it was to be distinguished from the community of images. … I wasn’t sure that Photography existed, that it had a “genius” of its own. (3)

I love puzzling between a photograph as an object but also a point in time, a subject.

The first thing I found was this. What the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially. In the Photograph, the event is never transcended for the sake of something else: the Photograph always leads the corpus I need back to the body I see; it is the absolute Particular, the sovereign Contingency, matte and somehow stupid, the This (this photograph, and not Photography), in short, what Lacan calls the Tuché, the Occasion, the Encounter, the Real, in its indefatigable expression. (4)

I don’t really have much idea exactly what all of this means, but I like to think about it and it inspires multiple different thoughts.

Photography is unclassifiable because there is no reason to mark this or that of its occurrences; it aspires, perhaps, to become as crude, as certain, as noble as a sign, which would afford it access to the dignity of a language; but for there to be a sign there must be a mark; deprived of a principle of marking, photographs are signs which don’t take, which turn, as milk does. Whatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see. (6)

It gets easier after this, and I like how Barthes attempts to walk this line between the expressive and the critical, attempts to keep things open and meanings ambiguous, drawing on all kinds of things (and none) to try and understand what photographs do to us, mean to us.

the uneasiness of being a subject torn between two languages, one expressive, the other critical; and at the heart of this critical language, between several discourses, those of sociology, of semiology, and of psychoanalysis—but that, by ultimate dissatisfaction with all of them, I was bearing witness to the only sure thing that was in me (however naive it might be): a desperate resistance to any reductive system. (8)

He breaks down the photograph into three:

What does my body know of Photography? I observed that a photograph can be the object of three practices (or of three emotions, or of three intentions): to do, to undergo, to look. The Operator is the Photographer. The Spectator is ourselves, all of us who glance through collections of photographs—in magazines and newspapers, in books, albums, archives . . . And the person or thing photographed is the target, the referent, a kind of little simulacrum, any eidolon emitted by the object which I should like to call the spectrum of the Photograph, because this word retains, through its root, a relation to “spectacle” and adds to it that rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead. (9)

Death, it is about death, I didn’t even really catch this last powerful sentence when I first read it — ‘that rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead.’ There is an offhand remark a few pages on, the use of the word ‘mortiferous’:

(apology of this mortiferous power: certain Communards paid with their lives for their willingness or even their eagerness to pose on the barricades: defeated, they were recognized by Thiers’s police and shot, almost every one) (11)

But what is it about certain photographs that leaves a mark on us? Where does a photograph’s power lie? Because some of them have an immense power, it fascinates me, and it is a fascinating journey to follow along with someone so very different from myself as they try and understand just how this might work.

I decided then to take as a guide for my new analysis the attraction I felt for certain photographs. For of this attraction, at least, I was certain. (18)

A refreshing approach. A liberating one. My own idiom.

The principle of adventure allows me to make Photography exist. Conversely, without adventure, no photograph. (19)

I like this sentence, because I like adventure. This is part of my mode of being an Operator — which Barthes confesses he is not. It puzzles me that someone who simply looks at photographs should find it an adventure, but I like it. He continues:

In this glum desert, suddenly a specific photograph reaches me; it animates me, and I animate it. So that is how I must name the attraction which makes it exist: an animation. The photograph itself is in no way animated (I do not believe in “lifelike” photographs), but it animates me: this is what creates every adventure. (20)

It turns out everything I am liking best in theory at the moment returns to phenomenology. I have more reading to do. Heidegger is still a Nazi, there’s been a lot about them in the news recently because of the horror at Charlottesville. I know my facebook feed is privileged, in that all my friends feel as I do that it is just fine to punch a Nazi when you see one, but I am really appreciating how it has suddenly become a national debate.

 

This means I am down with a vague, casual, even cynical phenomenology, though perhaps in a slightly different sense.

In this investigation of Photography, I borrowed something from phenomenology’s project and something from its language. But it was a vague, casual, even cynical phenomenology, so readily did it agree to distort or to evade its principles according to the whim of my analysis. First of all, I did not escape, or try to escape, from a paradox: on the one hand the desire to give a name to Photography’s essence and then to sketch an eidetic science of the Photograph; and on the other the intractable feeling that Photography is essentially (a contradiction in terms) only contingency, singularity, risk… (20)

I love this sentence.

As Spectator I was interested in Photography only for “sentimental” reasons; I wanted to explore it not as a question (a theme) but as a wound; I see, I feel, hence I notice, I observe, and I think. (21)

I love too this distinction between things that interest us, and things that knock us over.

What I feel about these photographs derives from an average affect, almost from a certain training . I did not know a French word which might account for this kind of human interest, but I believe this word exists in Latin: it is studium, which doesn’t mean, at least not immediately, “study,” but application to a thing, taste for someone, a kind of general, enthusiastic commitment, of course, but without special acuity. It is by studium that I am interested in so many photographs,| whether I receive them as political testimony or enjoy them as good historical scenes…

“The second element will break (or punctuate) the studium. This ti me it is not I who seek it out (as I invest the field of the studium with my sovereign consciousness), it is this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me. A Latin word exists to designate this wound, this prick…This second element which will disturb the studium I shall therefore call punctum; for punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole — and also a cast of the dice. A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me). (27)

There’s a hell of a lot of erotic language going on in that sentence. Seems to me that sometimes that is what is going on when a photograph really ‘pierces’ us, but not always. There is so much more to the world, no? Unless you’re a male psychoanalyst. It’s what I appreciated most about Elizabeth Grosz’s article on the gaze, and Barthes acknowledges this perhaps with the words bruise, poignant. Even more with this:

the editors of Life rejected Kertesz’s photographs when he arrived in the United States in 1937 because, they said, his images “spoke too much”; they made us reflect, suggested a meaning — a different meaning from the literal one. Ultimately, Photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks. (38)

This resonated with me so much as well, opens up a whole new way of thinking about home and landscape:

An old house, a shadowy porch, tiles, a crumbling Arab decoration, a man sitting against the wall, a deserted street, a Mediterranean tree (Charles Clifford’s “Alhambra”): this old photograph (1854) touches me: it is quite simply there that I should like to live. This desire affects me at a depth and according to roots which I do not know: warmth of the climate? Mediterranean myth? Apollinism? Defection? Withdrawal? Anonymity? Nobility? Whatever the case (with regard to myself, my motives, my fantasy), I want to live there, en finesse — and the tourist photograph never satisfies that esprit de finesse. For me, photographs of landscape (urban or country) must be habitable, not visitable. (38)

Charles Clifford: The Alhambra, Granada, 1854-1856

A sense of all the things we cannot know…

What I can name cannot really prick me. The incapacity to name is a good symptom of disturbance. … The effect is certain but unlocatable, it does not find its sign, its name; it is sharp and yet lands in a vague zone of myself; it is acute yet muffled, it cries out in silence. Odd contradiction: a floating flash. (53)

I love that sentence, and this, and what it means for photography as a way of communication in how it opens up the space between operator and spectator across space and time:

Last thing about the punctum: whether or not it is triggered, it is an addition: it is what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there.

This is one of the things that differentiates the photograph from cinema and its parade of photographs — one stops you in your tracks, one moves you along:

I am constrained to a continuous voracity; a host of other qualities, but not pensiveness; whence the interest, for me, of the photogram. (55)

What they inspire within is very different, it has made me think of the moment that will forever be the same, even as live itself continued before and after as if this photograph had never been taken. But it was.

Next, Barthes writes about his mother (in a way that immediately made me call mine…)

[Barthes, Roland ([1980] 2000) Camera Lucida. London: Vintage Books.]

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Impossible Presence: On Art and Photography

It’s so interesting to read a book that is for the most part so far outside my area of expertise — Impossible Presence is a collection of essays and art criticism that overlaps

The intro is from editor Terry Smith, full of questions I have never before asked myself….

why is it that the visual image continues — according to an inscrutable but seemingly invisible geometry — to become more and more powerful, proliferative and pervasive at every level of public and private life, promising more and more openness…while at the same time its power to communicate concentrated meaning seems to decline…?

What has been the fate of the image in modernity, modern art, popular visual cultures, in postmodern art and in postmodernity? Has the procession of the simulacrum reached the point of purity, of unconditionality? Or has the real returned to those intersections where abject aficionados of post-humanism that what we must, again, call presence remains powerfully present in the art of this time, just in its persistence despite its putative impossibility? It does so, I would argue… (1)

I like pondering such questions so far outside my normal range of questions that I am not entirely sure what all of them are questioning.

Literally returning to more solid ground, there is a wonderful quote from Salman Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, on the First Photograph.

No hint here that this is the first quiet note of … an unstoppable torrent of pictures … haunting and unforgettable, hideous and beautiful, pornographic and revelatory, pictures that will create the very idea of the Modern, that will overpower language itself, and cover and distort and define the earth, like water, like gossip, like democracy.

And who knew Heidegger had characterized modernity as the ‘age of the world picture’? Probably lots of people, I know. But not me. My inability to avoid Heidegger in all of his phenomenologyist splendour continues.

I like this idea of ‘presence’ — being new to all this it fascinates me to find this long history of its discussion. Smith writes:

I wish to interpret ‘presence’ here in a way different from its previous lives in art-critical and art-historical discourse, where it stood, in the 1960s, for the implacable physicality of materials, and in the 1970s, when it signaled an ethics of social commitment. (7)

I’m such a 70s girl. Smith links

‘presence’ to ‘impossibility,’ not in a spirit of defeat but of possibility. Presence despite apparent impossibility, tangibility against the prosthetics of cyberbeing, or, as Heidegger would put it, authentic Being against the grain of seeing/knowing — the eye — of an age which can only see itself for its own loss of being. (8)

I don’t know, I find the first two much more intriguing. He continues.

Presence, for the kind of modernism I value, is a quality of insistence. It insists differently at different times.

It insists against empty space, white noise, dematerialisation, infinite replay.

Interesting.

Marshall Berman is in here! ‘Too Much is Not Enough: Metamorphoses of Times Square.’ Lovely. He writes, having discovered this through his criticisms of the criticisms of others around New York’s Times Square:

I’m a partisan of happiness. I believe more joy will give people more power to change the world for the better. My vision of the good life includes both bright lights and critical thought; it demands a critical thought that knows how to love the bright lights. (41)

Yes.

He describes how the authors and poets of the city know and celebrate its contradictions, the way it drains and yields energy. Non-fictional authors? Only a few — he names Georg Simmel, Lewis Mumford, Paul and Percival Goodman, Jane Jacobs. The Goodmans? Never heard of them, that is always exciting. Berman then goes on to describe Times Square through the imagery of the whore of Babylon from Revelations, and as he always does, inspires in me a tremendous desire to read another classic text — The Persian Letters by Montesquieu. Balzac said this book taught him everything about urban life. My god. I have not read it.

For Berman, it creates a vocabulary for understanding the city, explores the value of the urban to

nourish personal authenticity, mutual opennesss, intercourse and communication between people. Out in the street people can feel free, can imagine new ways to live, can experience the joy of mutual recognition. (50)

He moves to Engels writing about how people move quickly and stay to their right in Manchester, shows wonderful saucy old postcards. As a side note he describes a process where immigration has transformed the face of the US just enough to make people a little more comfortable in city centres like Time Square, to make it marketable to try and reclaim them. The irony.

This is my territory. A brief stop and on to the rest of the book — all new. I loved Tom Gunning’s piece on early photography and the role of amateurs in ‘New Thresholds of Vision: Instantaneous Photography and the Early Cinema of Lumiere’. This must be one of the best things I’ve seen, embodying the mystery within the everyday, the mischievous natures captured in these photographs from the early days of film as it was transitioning into new processes that did not require long exposures:

 

 

 

There was Jacques-Henri Lartigue, whose photographs

display the era’s fascination with freezing a moment and capturing motion in full flight, as well as a youthful mischief and delight in the often ungainly bodily postures the instantaneous camera could discover, bodies filled with mobile vitality and a sense of fun. Indeed, the image of the small boy armed with a camera capturing moments of indiscretion became a staple of the comic narrative revolving around the “bad boys” in this period… using it to unmask the order of the adult world. (92)

There was a new knowledge that Zola was a photography enthusiast. Ah Zola. I will look that up.

An essay on Benjamin — I always prefer Benjamin to essays about him or using him, but I loved this photograph from Atget.

 

 

 

Two essays on Warhol in here — I have come to appreciate him more. I liked Baudrillard, liked this:

Warhol was the first to introduce into modern fetishism — transaesthetic fetishism — the fetishism of an image without qualities, of a presence without desire. (184)

I liked Silverman’s essay on Warhol, and it taught me the word ‘chiasmatic’. Relating to the intersection of the optic nerve fibres at the bottom of the brain.

Elizabeth Grosz wrote a fucking splendid essay on nakedness and orchids and desire and all sorts called ‘naked’. She describes the difference between facing nakedness in person and in ‘art’.

One is, in Levinasaian terms, called, called upon by the open giving up of a certain vulnerability that the other offers to us as naked. It is this that we are protected against in observing the work of art. We are not called to protect, or to bare ourselves to, this other that we observe. Our observation is given free range. We are liberated from the impulse towards reciprocity. (218)

What I really loved though, was her skilled debunking of definitions of the gaze, its suppressed anger and intelligence of the kind I most admire have given me a bit of an author crush.

We don’t just have two modes of looking, on that illuminates the soul (art) and one that is salacious and perverse (pornography)

How fucking limiting that would be.

What is needed instead is a typology of looking, a mode of thinking of spectatorship that does not rely on the vast apparatus of projection, identification, fetishism and unconscious processes that psychoanalysis has offered to film theory and that theorists of the visual arts have borrowed as their primary model of spectatorship. Voyeurism is not the only modality of looking: seeing has many particular forms, well beyond the purview of the gaze, which is, in psychoanalytic terms, necessarily aligned with sadism, the desire for mastery and the masculine privileging of the phallus. (218-19)

I imagine her punching Zizek in the stomach, mostly because he makes me angrier than most people drawing on psychoanalytic theory (admittedly, a field I have so far mostly stayed away from apart from Fromm, who is the antithesis to this). But she doesn’t need to punch anyone physically, that sentence does it all.

I would suggest that seeing needs to be retrieved by feminists, and that vision needs to be freed from the constrictions imposed on it by the apparatus of the gaze. (219)

I would like to be part of that, I hope she does so, this is so useful for thinking about art and photography, particularly in activism and studying the ‘urban’. I am about to read much more of what she has written. There is more in the volume, the other to stand out was on aboriginal art — a really fascinating interdisciplinary change of pace which is perhaps what I most like about this book. But of course, I know I am blinkered by the things I am working on now, this will richly repay a visit.

Smith, Terry (ed) Impossible Presence: surface and Screen in the Photogenic Era. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Shirley Baker: a splendour of community amidst the slum clearances

I loved the Shirley Baker exhibition, found it moving and inspiring both. ‘Women and Children; and Loitering Men’ at the Manchester Art Gallery. Her photographs are vibrant, beautifully composed, full of life, provocative–everything photographs should be–and at the same time her subject is the one closest to my heart: everyday life and working-class community.

From the Manchester Art Gallery Website:

Pioneering British photographer Shirley Baker (1932-2014) is thought to be the only woman practicing street photography in Britain during the post-war era. Baker’s humanist documentary work received little attention throughout her sixty-five years career. This exhibition includes previously unseen colour photographs by Baker alongside black and white images and ephemera such as magazine spreads, contact sheets and various sketches. It specifically focuses on her depictions of the urban clearance programmes of inner city Manchester and Salford. This intense period of study, spanning from 1961 – 1981, documents what Baker saw as the needless destruction of working class communities.

This is an exhibition put together by Anna Douglas, first shown in London (of course, already I am feeling this North-South injustice)

For an amateur photographer and an urbanist and with a lifetime devoted to building power and community, these photographs sing. They document this structural period of demolition, the hope of better lives and council housing, the children my god the children everywhere and you love every one of them. Mothers everywhere too (and all my fears of being like that, like them, that joy vanished from them though I know often it is still there and it is my own fear speaking still, it seems visible only in the children and some of the old men).

The old men, the unemployed, the laundry, the cats and the dogs, the hope and despair, beauty and laughter and oppression and a hard working life all painted in black and white and glorious colour.

Maybe I loved most sharing this space with others, it felt like these rooms were filled with unusual suspects for a gallery, and a couple of older men were reminiscing behind me for a while about these days I was staring at captured with such compassion and immediacy it was altogether beautiful.

Some pictures from the website dedicated to her. There was another picture with a cat that was my favourite. I cannot find it. The unexpected heartbreak of denial in an internet age. Reminds me of my own poverty-stricken youth. Nothing like this though.    The kids above — I imagine this was a day that all of them have remembered all their lives. The kids below — those faces too old and wary. I knew so many kids like that, love this country because seems like they are rare now. Nothing sad about this kid though.  There is so little about Shirley Baker and I want to know all of it, devour all of her photographs. The book cost £30 — impossible at the end of the month. The other books from the handful of times her work has been shown all over £100. Luckily there is a website dedicated to her, it states:

Shirley Baker (1932 – 2014) was one of Britain’s most compelling yet underexposed social documentary photographers. Her street photography of the working-class inner-city areas, taken from 1960 until 1981, would come to define her humanist vision.

“It has always astonished me how quickly things can disappear without a trace.”

Hampered by union restrictions on female press photographers, she abandoned plans to work for the Manchester Guardian…. it is her empathetic but unsentimental photographs of inner-city working-class communities in Salford and Manchester as they experienced years of ‘slum’ clearance that has come to define her distinct vision.

“My sympathies lay with the people who were forced to exist miserably, often for months on end, sometimes years, whilst demolition went on all around them.” (Shirley Baker, on the slum clearances of inner Manchester and Salford)

Portrait of the photographer Shirley Baker (1932-2014), kneeling down to take a picture with her Rolleiflex camera. circa 1980s

Look at these incredible visions of the city and the life that filled it and spilled over it as the face of it was being transformed.

They are incredible, I wanted to see all of them. I wanted to know more of how she thought about them. I loved too, the exhibition’s integration of oral histories from people in these neighbourhoods, though I kind of hate the technology so I didn’t listen to all of them.

I will be patient, I suppose, and wait for more.

In looking for some of my favourite photographs I found this one online, an older Shirley Baker in front of this building I love and have long wondered about as I walk past it all the time on my way home, now a Chinese Restaurant on Plymouth Grove. It’s somehow so warming to think of her here, in my own place.

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