PHO703 Week 4: Post-photography

‘Post-photography’ is a huge and difficult topic that I am not sure I understand at all. My impression is that the baseline is Vilém Flusser’s definition of the photograph:

‘It is an image created and distributed automatically by programmed apparatuses in the course of a game necessarily based on chance, an image of a magic state of thinking whose symbols inform its receivers how to act in an improbable fashion’ (Flusser 2000: 76).

The photographic apparatus is therefore a dumb box that can only produce what it is programmed to produce. However, it is very easy for us then to mistake the output of the box as ‘real’ vision in some way, as if the box showed what we actually see. Soon, this can take on a much wider and unconscious cultural dimension as we automatically assume  – on a society-wide scale – that what the box shows is both how we see and what was there (an indexical relationship). Perhaps this is behind the expression ‘It looks just like a photograph’. We have learned how to read the codes, so to speak, and no longer even realize that what we are reading is a code and not reality itself. Much of Cindy Sherman’s work depends on this almost automatic misunderstanding, for example.

As Flusser and many others have pointed out, however, this is a trap. We have confined ourselves to a machine-made universe. Human vision is a much more complex affair (see Elkins 1997) and in any case we do not really see – we experience. Vision is just one part of the entire gestalt by which we experience the world. This involves all our senses and our mind. Furthermore, the traditional photograph is a fantasy to begin with. It is a two-dimensional object that depends on human imagination to create the missing third dimension and the gestalt of actually being there.

These problems innate to photography have long been known and are neatly summed up by Hans Belting: ‘Every technique looks old when its motives look old. Photography no longer shows us what the world is like, but what the world was like at a time when people still believed that they could possess it in the photograph’ (Belting 2014: 146).

The  core question has always remained the same, however: how to escape the trap of believing that what the apparatus reveals is real or true (indexical). In Flusser’s words: ‘Freedom is the strategy of making chance and necessity subordinate to human intention. Freedom is playing against the camera’ (Flusser 2000: 80).

Most of the artists I have looked at so far have taken three broad approaches to springing the trap. The first is to remove the photograph’s traditional (and indexical) relationship with place. This can be seen in the practice of Dafna Talmor who photographs real places but then slices up and recombines her negatives to created entirely new and imaginary places or ‘Constructed Landscapes’ (Talmor 2020).

The second approach is to remove the photograph’s relationship with time. This would seem to be a rejection of the ‘decisive moment’ doctrine, by which the image is fixed for all time at a single moment. But this imprisoning slice of time can be evaded if we are encouraged to apprehend the image presented to us right now, not as we imagine it might have been when it was made perhaps decades ago (or even hundreds of years ago in the case of a painting). Jorma Puranen and Brendan Fowler have both made use of this approach, combining images made at different times, among the many artists discussed by Robert Shore (Shore 2014). Every time we see an image in the present moment we are seeing a new image.

Robert Frank was well aware of the trap of time – that if his early work was fixed forever then his growth as an artist was stymied. He spent much of his career evading it. Thus some of his later work is about our meeting an image originally made long ago as, now, an object-image that has become part of something else (see Frank’s ‘Mabou’ of 1977). The process is well described by Hans Belting (Belting 2014: 164-8). Another approach to time is evident in the practice of Jeff Wall. Because they are entirely fictional, his tableaux allow him to combine the past, present and future of an event in a single image – as in his ‘Eviction Struggle’ of 1988.

The third approach is to encourage us to look at rather than through the image, so that texture and physicality are as much as part of the image as what it purports to show. The sheer physicality of the image interrupts our fantasies of what it might reveal and returns us to the fact of what it is. This might take the form of combining photographic images with sculptures or paintings, or simply of taking an image or parts of it and presenting it as something else according to the codes of another medium. This is largely the approach of Hockney in his playful (and wonderful) collages, or of some of Gerhard Richter’s work, or of several of the artists discussed by Robert Shore (Shore 2014) and Geoffrey Batchen (Batchen 2001).

In practice, artists often use all these methods (and no doubt many others) in combination. They reflect the now very porous boundaries between photography and other art forms as well as a general retreat from what Batchen calls the photograph’s ‘truth effect’ (Batchen 2001: 109). The point is, all are interventions to avoid Flusser’s trap: the machine-made universe.

Post-photography offers myriad exciting possibilities – we have not even got to digital manipulation yet. However, I have no real idea how these possibilities may affect my practice. I only know that they will. Normally, I need to allow an idea time and space to form and reform in my unconscious, until I feel that I really understand something. What I have to feel is that trying something different will result in a new and more expressive image, rather than an inferior one. Simply chopping up old images is not a positive – put like that. It is defacement for no obvious gain. What I need to do is allow these ideas to work on me for long enough for the positive to emerge. I am sure it will.

References

BATCHEN, Geoffrey. 2001. Each Wild Idea : Writing, Photography, History. Cambridge, M.A.: MIT Press, 108-127

BELTING, Hans and Thomas DUNLAP. 2014. An Anthropology of Images : Picture, Medium, Body. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

ELKINS, James. 1997. The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing. San Diego: Harcourt Brace.

FLUSSER, Vilém. 2000. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. London: Reaktion, 76–82.

SHORE, Robert. 2014. ‘Post-photography: the Artist with a Camera’. In Robert SHORE (ed.). Post-Photography: The Artist with a Camera. London: Laurence King, 176–223.

TALMOR, Dafna. 2020. ‘Home’. Dafna Talmor [online]. Available at: http://www.dafnatalmor.co.uk/ [accessed 29 Jun 2020].