Monday, July 20, 2015

on and on...
If visual art were taken to be like other arts, and stripped of the association with philosophy and finery, the age of mechanical reproduction would have begun with Gutenberg. The sense that a photograph can be said to act as an index, in Peirce’s terminology, now a ubiquitous reference, is the end of photography as art. It’s the definition of photography as illustration, the model of Gerome and Winterhalter and Madison Ave.
Using the terms of Charles Sanders Peirce's semiotics, though the photograph appears to be an icon (through resemblance) and though it is to some extent a symbol (principally through the use of the camera as a codifying device), its proper sign type, which it shares with no other visual representation (except the cast and, of course, cinema), is the index, i.e. a sign causally related to its object.
The viewer is said not to be looking at the photograph, but at the thing depicted. To repeat what I wrote above: a Holbein portrait is first a painting, second a Holbein, third a portrait, and fourth a portrait of. According to the art theorist Thierry de Duve writing in the journal, October, in 1978, -theorists being neither historians nor critics but both and more - photography has succeed where all others failed in reversing that order. And what’s left?
How does one relate to a space of such precision? One thing is certain: it doesn't give way to a reading procedure. For an image to be read requires that language be applied to the image. And this in turn demands that the perceived space be receptive to an unfolding into some sort of narrative. Now, a point is not subject to any description, nor is it able to generate a narration. Language fails to operate in front of the pin-pointed space of the photograph, and the onlooker is left momentarily aphasic. Speech in turn, is reduced to the sharpness of a hiccup. It is left unmoored, or better, suspended between two moorings that are equally refused. Either it grasps at the imaginary by connecting to the referential series, in order to develop the formerly into a plausible chronology, only to realize that this attempt will never leave the realm of fiction. Or it grasps at the symbolic by connecting to the superficial series, in order to construct upon the here a plausible scenography; and in this case also the attempt is structurally doomed. Such a shock, such a breakdown in the symbolic function, such a failure of any secondary process -as Freud puts it- bears a name. It is trauma.
de Duve ends on a high note of grand intellectualism and cheap melodrama.
Hegel's prophecy that art was about to come to an end was published in 1839, the very same year in which Talbot and Daguerre independently made public the invention of photography. It might be more than mere coincidence.
His piece is a discussion of long and short exposures, time and snapshot, which he treats as distinct up to a point. If he were more of a historian and less of a philosopher he’d have noted that the advances that made the snapshot possible did the same for cinema and collage, both of which returned language to photography even accepting the limits of photography itself as he describes them. Long exposures have a compressed but visceral sense of narrative, and that narrative quality returns expanded exponentially in film. Photography though ubiquitous even after acceptance as an art was still kept apart, as a smaller form; collage was accepted as immediately as any of its competitors, while film emerged as the most important visual art of the century. Finally although it’s easy to blame the market for novelty for photography’s place now in contemporary art it makes more sense to argue that photography would never be fully integrated into the model of art comparable to painting until it was seen as independent from its role as index. It’s a sign of just have much we’ve changed, and how much we haven’t that the contemporary exemplars of the honesty of Manet’s Olympia are Cindy Sherman’s portraits of herself.

Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida, includes a photograph from 1865, of one of John Wilkes Booth’s collaborators before his execution. Barthes’ caption reads, "He is dead and he is going to die ..." That is the base ground on which any photographer has to build if they want to make anything that will be remembered as anything other than one anonymous image among others. Barthes certainly would never wish that anonymity on his own writing. A couple of years ago as I was walking out of the annual show put on by the Association of International Photo Art Dealers, AIPAD, in NY, a well dressed couple were hurrying in, the man obviously on the prowl. As they walked by me the man turned to the woman, “Remember, it’s it not the image… It’s the material!” No serious connoisseur of photography, rich or poor, critic or collector, has ever been interested in photographs as index as opposed to art: the relation of formal construct to the world. Photographs on paper are physical things; until recently the prints were made by hand and eye, and nothing like the images in a book or on a screen. Film and video are immaterial, intangible, but made of thousands of images in series. Different forms have different capacities, strengths and weaknesses. Philosophers like to claim now to find exceptions, to discover or invent. Mechanically produced images and words are now the rule. Before saying they do new things you should be able to show they don’t do old things in new ways.

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