Illuminations

This review essay on new photography books appeared recently in frieze.

What mode or degree of attention does photography demand, or deserve, today? It sometimes seems  the photograph as such is no longer really with us: suborned to contemporary art practices for which mediumistic integrity is beside the point, dispersed in myriad online quotidia that flummox efforts at a cult-studs overview, the medium meanwhile a decade and more past its heyday as gallery-bound pretender to painting’s spectacle and presence. And yet criticism carries on much as if photography were still parsable in terms of the old problems. Traditional photographic publishing does its sedulous, Aperture-approved thing; academic treatments abound of this or that (dread word ahead) ‘issue’ as pertains to photographic history; and a certain three-decades-old ‘theoretical’ text (no prizes) simply will not go away. Surveying recent photographic publications is an oddly familiar exercise – mostly one just longs for evidence of real looking.

Consider some points on the continuum sketched above. Justin Carville’s Photography and Ireland (Reaktion, 2011) is the latest in its publisher’s admirable series on photography’s traffic with broad-brush topics – death, literature, archaeology, flight, cinema – and exhibits all the merits and failings of such a thematic exercise. Carville is a dutiful guide to the vexed cultural landscape of Irish photography. The country’s proximity to artistic and imperial capitals meant there was little time lag in terms of early adoption: there were wealthy amateurs and numerous commercial operations at work by the middle of the nineteenth century. Ireland was in no sense photographically backward but it was – and here is Carville’s whole thesis – subject to an aesthetic primitivism that later photographers, whether of realist or postmodern bent, have worked hard to undo. So far, perhaps, so predictably post-colonial; but there’s a scholarly job to be done here and Carville has tackled it well.

What grates about Photography and Ireland, and renders it symptomatic, is the paucity of analysis or even straightforward description of the many fascinating images therein. Most photographs are accused (how else to describe such a crabbed critical modus?) of invoking the usual genera – poverty, politics, gender, urbanization, modernity – in such a way that the image itself may as well not be there. Faced with instances of the Victorian picturesque, such as Lady Hawarden’s treescapes, Carville opines that they seem to have been ‘deliberately’ composed to avoid picturing the Famine. Among jejune overstatements of this sort, he rarely pauses to consider an image for more than a sentence or two before adjudging its status as ideological prop or provocation. That’s not to say he’s on the wrong track with, say, the occlusion of politics by the picturesque, or the extent to which photographers such as Trish Morrissey or Hanna Starkey ‘explore issues of gender, memory and social space’. Rather, he scorns pictorial evidence for the complexity of relations between art and politics, telling us early on that aesthetics will play no part in his history.

It’s not just possible to get away with such tactics in a para-academic text; it pretty much defines the genre. But what is the alternative now to the swift dissolving of any given image into its cultural ground? One answer might be found in a book like Tod Papageorge’s Core Curriculum (Aperture, 2011): a collection of the veteran photographer’s occasional writings on his own and others’ work. Papageorge’s photographs – the book reproduces several, from the 1960s to the present day – are wide-angle adjuncts to the work of his associates Lee Friedlander and Gary Winogrand. His Central Park series of the 1970s discovers curious scenes and gestures at the centre of expansive compositions: a man stooping awkwardly to comb his son’s hair, another stretched on the grass and peering at an optician’s chart. As a critic and teacher – much of Core Curriculum originated as lectures at Yale – Papageorge can sound of his era, hymning Atget, Brassaï or Cartier-Bresson, baulking at contemporary photography’s privileging of concept above a phenomenal world at the artist’s vigilant beck. But there are less responsible essays here too, odd rhetorical swerves by which Papageorge captures the core of his own practice: an effort to achieve in the image what he’d hoped, as a young man, to crystallise in the poetic syllable.

Core Curriculum is an example of ‘photography from the photographer’s point of view’: one of the tropes that so bored Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida (1980). Thirty years later, Barthes’s essay has itself attained the force of doxa: the photograph’s mournful, deathly aspect is a given of much contemporary theory and practice. Which convention leaves out a deal of what’s valuable in that book; I’d love to read a scholar who was willing to shunt the dead mother aside and think hard about Barthes’s verbs: all that ‘pricking’ and ‘lacerating’. But it is nonetheless bracing to learn that James Elkins’s What Photography Is (Routledge, 2011) was written in exasperated homage to Barthes’s book, Elkins determined to dispel the mildly haunted sentiment that surrounds Camera Lucida. Barthes notoriously misreads key details in the photographs he loves: a ‘gold chain’ is in fact a string of pearls, the ‘cell’ wall behind the condemned Lewis Payne is obviously the riveted hull of a ship. But Elkins’s charge against Barthes is more fundamental: that he looks past the photograph and scants its status as unmeaning surface. Elkins, by contrast, wants to look so hard at surfaces and details that the personal and cultural (also aesthetic) baggage falls away and we’re left with something intractable and strange: photography’s capacity for attention to the lumpish muteness of appearances.

It’s initially a compelling turn in the face of Barthes’s essentially dramatic or narrative approach to photographs, and involves Elkins in a series of bravura reflections on some intriguing images – a selenite window in Mexico, a patch of black ice, Harold Edgerton’s hideously globular atomic explosions – and scarcely definable details: a tiny rock in a Timothy O’Sullivan landscape, some unexplained indentations in the corner of a Kertész. Such things tell us more, Elkins claims, about the nature of photography than any number of maunderings about memory and loss. Well, maybe. There’s a curiously gee-whizz tone to his reading of Camera Lucida: as if he’s the first to notice that Barthes’s limitations. (Isn’t that the point? He’s not so much limited as truly crippled. Elkins’s insistence that melancholy is not a good model for criticism seems arbitrary and obtuse.) And there’s a lot of vaguely scientistic disdain for the history of art photography, the subtext of which seems to be, again, that Elkins is the first to aver that photography makes us look at things we would not dream of looking at. Both tendencies are dispiriting in a book that promises, and in places delivers, a way of seeing to rival culturalist or art-historical attitudes to photography.

But the proper counter to Elkins’s flip dismissals of contemporary work, his awkward effort to ape Barthes’s boredom with photographic doxa, would be to turn to something like Rinko Kawauchi’s Illuminance (Aperture, 2011) with its spider patterns of fractured glass, roadkill bloodstains, unnameable clusters of light, the red-green iridescence on a pigeon’s neck. Kawauchi’s book is the season’s loveliest example of sustained looking at just the sort of resistant particulars that Elkins admires, and which have been there all along.

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