BY Brian Dillon in Profiles | 01 NOV 11
Featured in
Issue 143

Books

From the failures of Roland Barthes to the joys of sustained looking, four new publications on photography

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BY Brian Dillon in Profiles | 01 NOV 11

Tod Papageorge, Man and Eye Chart, Central Park, New York, 1989, from Core Curriculum, 2011. Courtesy Aperture Foundation, New York © Tod Papageorge

What kind of attention does photo-graphy demand, or deserve, today? It sometimes seems that the photograph, as such, is no longer really with us: suborned to contemporary art practices for which medium-specific integrity is beside the point, dispersed in myriad online quotidia that flummox efforts at a cultural-studies overview. The medium, meanwhile, is 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 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 its early adoption of the medium: there were wealthy amateurs and numerous commercial operations at work by the middle of the 19th 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 – so post-colonial; but there’s a scholarly job to be done here and Carville has tackled it well.

Victor Sloan, Vietnamese Boat People, Moyrafferty Community Centre, Craigavon IV, 1984, from Justin Carville, Photography and Ireland, 2011. Courtesy © the artist

However, 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 Clementina Hawarden’s treescapes, Carville opines that they seem to have been ‘deliberately’ composed to avoid picturing the Great Famine, then raging. Among jejune overstatements of this sort, Carville 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 Hannah 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.

In a quasi-academic text, it’s not just easy to get away with such tactics; a certain blindness to images themselves pretty much defines the genre. But what is the alternative to the swift dissolving of any given image into its cultural ground? One answer might be found in Tod Papageorge’s Core Curriculum (Aperture, 2011): a collection of the veteran US 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 friends Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand. Papageorge’s ‘Central Park’ series of the 1970s and ’80s discovers curious scenes and gestures at the centre of compositions: a man stooping awkwardly to comb his son’s hair, another stretched out on the grass and peering at an optician’s chart. As a critic and teacher – much of Core Curriculum originated as lectures at Yale University – Papageorge is of his era, hymning Eugène Atget, Brassaï or Henri Cartier-Bresson, and 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 with ambitions to be a poet, to crystallize in the poetic syllable.

Rinko Kawauchi, Untitled, from the series 'Illuminance', from Illuminance, 2011. Courtesy Aperture Foundation, New York © the artist

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’ essay has itself attained the force of doxa: the photograph’s mournful, deathly aspect is a given of much contemporary theory and practice. I’d love to read a scholar who was willing to shunt the dead mother aside and think hard about Barthes’ verbs: all that ‘pricking’ and ‘lacerating’. It is thus bracing to learn that James Elkins’s What Photography Is (Routledge, 2011) was written in exasperated homage to Barthes’ book; Elkins is 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 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, cultural and 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’ 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 an image by André Kertész. Such things tell us more, Elkins claims, about the nature of photography than any number of maunderings about memory and loss. Well, maybe; but there’s a curiously gee-whiz tone to his reading of Camera Lucida, as if he’s the first to notice Barthes’ 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 scientific 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 usually dream of looking at. Both tendencies are dispiriting in a book that promises, and in places delivers, a way of seeing to rival art-historical attitudes to the medium.

But the proper counter to Elkins’s flip dismissals of contemporary photo-graphy and his awkward effort to ape Barthes’s boredom with photographic doxa, is to turn to Japanese photo-grapher Rinko Kawauchi’s Illuminance (Aperture, 2011) with its images of spider patterns of fractured glass, roadkill bloodstains, unnameable clusters of light and 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.

Brian Dillon is professor of creative writing at Queen Mary University of London, UK. Suppose a Sentence (Fitzcarraldo Editions/New York Review Books) will be published in September 2020. He lives in London.

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