Last week, the Clark Center hosted a one-day symposium at the Arts Club of Chicago that aimed to “reflect on the models we currently have for discussing photographs as art.” Organized by Matt Witkovksy, the curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, “Photography as Model?” drew its inspiration from art critic Yves-Alain Bois’s 1990 book Painting as Model and asked six speakers—mostly art historians—to think about how the frameworks we use to examine photographs might shape the ways that scholars approach modern and contemporary art in general.
In this sense, the aims of the symposium were ambitious. To convincingly argue that photography studies might provide a model for art history as a discipline, or that individual photographs might model new approaches for seeing, is no small task. Especially when, as Victor Burgin has so aptly put it, “photography theory has no methodology peculiarly its own.” It often feels like photography theory has been cobbled together from several disciplines outside of art history, including cultural studies, film studies, feminist and queer studies, semiotics, and post-colonial studies. This flexibility is one of the things I’ve always liked about photography studies, but it can also make the discipline feel a bit nebulous: a feeling that’s compounded by the difficulties in even defining what a photograph is, especially with the advent of digital technologies (see David Campbell’s excellent post on just this problem over at his blog).
But I think these can be productive problems to have, and the papers that resulted from Witkovsky’s prompt to think about the productive disunity that characterizes photography as a field of inquiry bore out some of this potential. In his opening remarks, for instance, Witkovsky offered detailed readings of two very different kinds of photographs. The first was a spare, conceptual series of photographs of “‘hyper-banal’ subjects” by American artist Lewis Baltz; the second a group of four nearly-anonymous photographs taken clandestinely by members of the Sonderkommando unit at Auschwitz during the Holocaust. While the first is the product of an individual artist’s time-consuming process and is meant to be exhibited in a fine art context, the second is a group-authored image taken under life-threatening circumstances that was never guaranteed an audience of viewers (indeed, Claude Lanzmann has argued these photographs should not be shown). By offering these two examples, Witkovksy hoped to ask whether we could create a field of photography studies where these two kinds of images could be adequately accounted for within one broad and general history, a comparison he described as a “travesty” under the current theoretical models used in art history which would insist on separating these two series of photographs based on the identity of their producers and audiences.
To launch our new blog, Sharon Sliwinski (University of Western Ontario and member of the project steering committee) writes about the conceptual framework which informs the network’s thinking about the question of photography.
1. The photographic situation is a conceptual framework that defines photography as much more than a technology for producing pictures. As Ariella Azoulay has made forcefully evident, photography should rather be understood as an event that mediates relationships between people. Its ontology is, therefore, political.
2. The photographic situation is playing an increasingly significant role in mediating relationships between people. As Walter Benjamin proposed, photography is just one of the technologies of mechanical reproduction that revolutionized the masses’ modes of perception. The advent of digital photography marks another, exponential increase in the ways in which people interact with the photographic situation. Its political significance, in other words, has expanded over time.
3. The photographic situation can be imagined as comprising at least three spheres, but it cannot be reduced to the sum of its parts: a) the photographer (the professional photographer, the state official, the layperson, the citizen journalist, the human rights worker, etc.); b) the spectator (the consumer, the citizen, the “world spectator” (Arendt), etc.); c) the “photographed subject” which can refer to any number of things: i) photographs themselves (whether documentary, art, science, advertising, vernacular images, etc.) as well as their various avenues of circulation and use. Photographs can be circulated and recirculated, but they can also be destroyed, withheld, and so on; ii) the referent – that piece of external reality (object or event) that the photograph presumes to re-present; iii) those events that “photography” sets in motion which do not necessarily result in a photograph (images that were not taken, for instance, or even simply descriptions of photographs, which in themselves can carry force).
4. There is much more to the photographic situation than can be seen in any given image.
5. The event of photography can produce a strongly affective situation. The emotions, feelings, and affects that are produced in the photographic situation should themselves be considered events. But the emotional situation is unpredictable, incalculable, and can reverse into its opposite (i.e. lynching photographs circulated both as tools of terrorism and as emblems of resistance to this form of political violence).
6. The various participants in the photographic situation usually do not have an equal role. However, no one individual or institution can clearly claim control or mastery of the photographic situation. In part, this is because photography, as Walter Benjamin noted, is marked by the presence of das Es, the unconscious, or simply “It.” Benjamin’s description of the “optical unconscious” suggests on one hand that the potential for photographic vision has not been exhausted (Blossfeldt’s enlargements, medical imaging, surveillance, etc.), but more radically that this force will belie any effort to master the event of photography: “It” shows.
7. The photographic situation is based on the circulation of images and pictures. These images and pictures can be translated into speech acts but images and words carry different modes and powers of signification. It is an act of translation to bring images to speech.