Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 26, 2010
J. J. Long, Andrea Noble, and Edward Welch, eds. Photography: Theoretical Snapshots New York: Routledge, 2009. 192 pp.; 8 b/w ills. Paper $37.95 (9780415477079)
Robin Kelsey and Blake Stimson, eds. The Meaning of Photography Williamstown, MA: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 2008. 208 pp.; 75 b/w ills. Paper $24.95 (9780300121506)

Despite its relative youth as a field of academic inquiry, the study of photography has reached a point where it has a discernable history. In 2005, two major conferences sought explicitly to wrestle with, outline, account for, and depart from the past twenty-five to thirty years of scholarly writing on photography, which was itself predated by several decades of influential studies of photographic objects within the context of the art museum. The books under consideration here are the edited proceedings of these 2005 conferences; both suggest that, as many scholars have argued about photographs themselves, the field of photography studies is now haunted by ghosts from its newly etched past.

The history that haunts Photography: Theoretical Snapshots is primarily European. J. J. Long, Andrea Noble, and Edward Welch, all members of the Durham Centre for Advanced Photographic Studies, edited the volume. The book derives from a conference they organized to consider how the field has changed since the intervention nearly twenty-five years earlier of British artist and writer Victor Burgin’s edited volume, Thinking Photography (London: Macmillan Press, 1982). In their introduction, Long and Welsh astutely explore Burgin’s intellectual underpinnings and his contributions to shaping writing on photography, but they argue that Thinking Photography’s utopian vision for a unitary photographic theory ultimately renders the book anachronistic. While one might object to this reading of Burgin, the use of him as a straw man in this context is rhetorically helpful for the short history of photographic studies that the editors provide. For instance, Burgin’s alignment with Marxist cultural materialism stands in for a wider array of politicized criticism in the 1970s and 1980s. The authors argue that over the past twenty-five years this Marxist critique of modernism, epitomized by Burgin, has given way to a critique shaped by Roland Barthes. These are presented in Photography: Theoretical Snapshots as “two competing paradigms—one which locates thinking about photography in the present and the political, and another which locates that thinking more in the realm of the memorial, the past and the personal.” The authors conclude that “it is arguably the latter which has set the critical agenda most successfully and which has gained the most critical currency” (15); it is this latter paradigm that the book sets out to explore.

Photography: Theoretical Snapshots rewards the reader with a careful, reasoned, broad-based survey of thinking about photographs. In part, this success stems from the ability and willingness of the editors, none of whom teaches in an art-history department, to showcase the rich inter- and multi-disciplinarity of approaches to photography. The introduction sets up and discusses possible links between the essays, but they are not divided into sections or grouped under headings. Unlike other recent attempts to construct productive dialogues about the medium, such as the often fractious Photography Theory edited by James Elkins (New York: Routledge, 2006), these essays speak to each other in engaging and subtle ways.

Art historian-turned-anthropologist Elizabeth Edwards unpacks the privileged relationship between vision and modernity and contributes a meditation on the usually overlooked material and corporeal experience of photographs. Geoffrey Batchen asserts the fundamental importance of the carte de visite, arguing that its formulaic representation of bourgeois subjects and the collaborative authorship of photographer and sitter are crucial to understanding “the collective imagination under capitalism” (94). Louis Kaplan probes the complex ways in which photography can underscore “what lies between us (what shares and divides us)” (143); following his influential line of inquiry on the relationships between photography and community, Kaplan uses Jean-Luc Nancy’s theories to read Spencer Tunick’s massive, naked public photography projects. Examining the use of snapshots to visualize the “disappeared” of Argentina’s military dictatorship, Noble also considers the use of photography to constitute community. She probes the interconnected affective and political roles these images play in their immediate social contexts and in the global discussion of human rights violations.

In her contribution, Noble develops a theme that carries through several of the other essays—that is, the complex movement of photographs and photography across understood lines of public and private. In a compelling essay on Barthes’s racial blindness in Camera Lucida (trans. Richard Howard, New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), for instance, Shawn Michelle Smith is interested in the personal, intimate uses of photography, an approach she links to the legacy of feminism. Similarly, Catherine Zuromskis, one of the invigorating new voices in the book, takes up the power of the personal photograph in her careful consideration of the affective and discursive impact of snapshots ranging from the Abu Ghraib pictures to her own family images. Together these authors remind readers that the circulation and display of photographs are means by which the personal can become political.

Like any anthology, there are places to quibble and query in Theoretical Snapshots. Could there not have been room in the introduction to discuss some of the influential American scholarship on photography from the 1980s? Why is there no essay by Burgin when he contributed to the conference? But overall, this loosely organized scrapbook of writings constitutes an impressive achievement. Unbound to a tight narrative, the lucid essays provide just what the original conference intended: a fine starting place for rethinking photography and its rich trajectories across traditional academic disciplines.

The Meaning of Photography is the result of a symposium at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. Like the Durham conference and resulting book, this project is haunted by earlier academic approaches to photography. In this case, the ghost lingering in the background is what Robin Kelsey and Blake Stimson describe as the “October moment,” the collection of primarily New York-based scholars who founded and have regularly published in the journal. Just as Long and Welsh set Burgin’s politicized approach to thinking about photography up against MoMA’s modernist approach, Kelsey and Stimson situate those who subscribe to MoMA’s understanding of photographic history as the target of the October group and its “most compact legacy”—the 1989 anthology, The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), which features important essays by Rosalind Krauss, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Douglas Crimp, Martha Rosler, Allan Sekula, Benjamin Buchloh, and others. Kelsey and Stimson proceed from the not unreasonable assessment that the critical ideas of the 1980s have run their course and that a new critical turn is ready to emerge or be summoned forth. In this sense, their rationale for the project does not differ drastically from that of Theoretical Snapshots, although Kelsey and Stimson have a darker diagnosis of the current health of photographic studies and a more limited view of the productive new lines of inquiry within the field.

Instead of reviewing and building on the rich current scholarship on photography, Kelsey and Stimson propose to build a “new” meta-narrative about the “definitive meaning” of photography, a bold move signaled by their ambitious title. Time has apparently come to dispense with the “contest of meaning.” We must be cautious, however, about efforts to determine “the meaning” of any technology or artistic medium, given that they can always be deployed in myriad ways. In part, this particular move toward unabashed meta-narrative seems motivated by a desire to protect photography as a discrete field of study, akin in spirit to Douglas Nickel’s 2001 state of the field essay for the Art Bulletin in which he proposed to restrict the history and theory of photography to the study of self-consciously aesthetic objects (Douglas Nickel, “History of Photography: The State of Research,” The Art Bulletin 83, no. 3 [September 2001]: 548—558). Similarly, art photographs dominate the introduction and the individual essays in The Meaning of Photography, but there is also attention paid to scientific photography. This merging of genres fits the editors’ discrete narrative of photography which is founded primarily in a re-embrace of a particular historical understanding of modernism, or what the editors call “the reciprocal becoming of the human subject and social object,” and the central place of photography within this process (xiv). The result is a lively story of the medium, its philosophical motivations, and its technical functions, with a focus on the “indexical promise of the photograph” (xiv). This is an approach to photography that served Kelsey well in his own focused and meticulously researched history of Western survey photographs (Robin Kelsey, Archive Style: Photographs and Illustrations for U.S. Surveys, 1850–1890, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007 [click here for review]), but feels stretched and troubled as a model for the meaning of photography. When framed as a meta-narrative, the account offered by Kelsey and Stimson requires some serious omissions and evasions. In turn, these gaps ultimately undermine the strength of the introductory argument and the impact of the anthology as a whole.

Unlike the careful assessment of Burgin’s agenda and scholarly contributions in Theoretical Snapshots, which convincingly set the stage for new directions, The Meaning of Photography only gestures at the concerns and myriad contributions of the strong and often divergent group of scholars in the October group (even their names are relegated to the endnotes). No mention is made, foremost, of groundbreaking questions these scholars have raised about the relationship of photographic representation to fractured social identities; nor is mention made of their resulting challenge to modernism as a unitary movement. Without providing a thorough grounding in this critical scholarship of the 1970s and 1980s, Kelsey and Stimson turn to bemoan the state of more recent scholarship as focused on the “assimilation, elaboration, and entrenchment” of this earlier critical work (vii).

The editors state that they want to start a new conversation about photography, but they generally avoid the “new” conversations that are already well underway. As the editors of Theoretical Snapshots neatly outline, the field of photographic studies has burgeoned in recent decades both within and well beyond the discipline of art history. The critical-theoretical and methodological approaches of Marxist and feminist scholars associated with the circles of Burgin and October may still provide important starting points for contemporary scholars, but those groundbreaking theoretical questions and methodologies have been brought to bear on incredibly diverse fields and objects of study—from family snapshots, ethnographic travel photographs, and lynching photographs, to the social practices of looking. The work of prominent scholars like Marianne Hirsch (English), Elizabeth Edwards (Anthropology), Shawn Michelle Smith (American Studies), Peggy Phelan (Drama and English), Diana Taylor (Performance Studies), and many others who receive no mention in The Meaning of Photography moves far beyond “assimilation, elaboration, and entrenchment” of past critical thinking. The very title of the book again becomes part of the problem here. How can the meaning of photography fail to account for vast bodies of important scholarly work?

Demonstrating the danger of the collection’s refusal of interdisciplinary approaches to photographic history, one might cite Jose Luis Falconi’s essay on the meaning and status of photography in post-dictatorship Latin America. He argues that the medium has slowly “lost its luster and traction in the region” (135) in terms of its discursive ability to function indexically as evidence in the way that photos functioned for justice in the Nuremberg trials. Faclconi reads photographic (dis)function through the post-indexical art of the photo-conceptualists Oscar Muñoz and Alfredo Jaar. He writes as if scholars have not addressed the relationship of photography to the recent traumatic political past of the region, and his endnotes feature only writing on the artists and primary source material about government matters. In fact, his argument about the futility of photography in post-dictatorship Latin America, and Argentina in particular, directly contradicts widely recognized arguments made by Taylor on the key role of photographs in what she calls “trauma-driven performance protest” (Diana Taylor, “‘You Are Here’: H.I.J.O.S. and the DNA of Performance,” The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).

If the lack of attention to or awareness of important recent work on photography outside the confines of art history was the only major omission in this text, it would suffice to point it out as a scholarly problem and move along. However, this omission and erasure demands to be set alongside others. In a field where women have been among the most prominent and active scholars, it is hard not to be shocked by the extent to which the introduction and, to a certain extent, the book as a whole effaces women and feminism from photographic history and theory. Only two of the fifteen essays are authored by women, while women are relatively rare as subjects of study (a few photographers are mentioned) or cited scholars throughout the book. That this widespread erasure receives not a hint of acknowledgment or apology makes it all the more important for readers to examine carefully.

The problems caused by these omissions are evident in Stimson’s essay on Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank. Stimson proposes to reconsider Cartier-Bresson’s notion of the decisive moment in which a photograph is taken as a process of abstraction—“that is, the removal of understanding outward from any particular experience to a general, all-purpose explanation or figure or type—that can, paradoxically, serve as a locus of affective or embodied engagement” (105). But this notion of embodiment remains so generalized that one is left wondering what kind of meaningful argument can be made about embodiment without an examination of the cultural formation of those bodies as gendered, sexed, and racialized? Stimson discusses the reception of the resulting photographs in terms of a generalized “we”: “Frank’s figure of alienation serves to throw us onward to the next photograph . . . until, in theory, we have taken them all on as our baggage, as our damaged life” (115). Is it not likely that African Americans viewers might have a different relationship to Frank’s photographs of segregation? Given that the universalized viewer is a widely discredited fantasy, its resurrection demands a clearer rationale.

Returning to Stimson’s thesis that the cool process of objective assessment is always already an affective, embodied experience, one might note that while it is interesting it has antecedents in other scholarship. Phelan and Amelia Jones have extensively studied performances, in and behind the camera; Jill Bennett has written frequently cited texts on affect and the visual; and Anne Higonnet and Carol Mavor have examined the emotional dimensions of photographs. Yet no reference is made to any of this scholarship. In fact, Rosler is the only woman whose scholarly contribution is cited in this essay, and she, perhaps not coincidentally, the only scholar rebuked in the text. Rosler is quoted as suggesting that, “Frank marked a shift from an outward looking, reportorial, partisan, and collective [enterprise] to a symbolically expressive, oppositional and solitary one” (112). Ironically, this is essentially the argument Stimson is making about Frank, but, after using the ideas of Jeff Wall to reword Rosler’s point, Stimson concludes that: “Rosler overemphasizes this shift from outward to inward” (112). If Stimson’s point was to provide some sort of criticism of feminist methodologies with respect to photography and of Rosler in particular, that would demand a more explicit argument. Instead, Stimson borrows the language of feminist analysis without explicitly situating and differentiating his use of the terminology, and then drains it of its political meanings.

Curiously, Akram Zaatari’s photographic project, one of four interspersed between the essays, renders visible what is absent in the anthology as a whole vis-à-vis the theoretical models it provides. Zaatari’s studio images from Lebanon provide a vivid reminder of why gender is frequently a necessary point of discussion when the topic is the medium of photography or individual photographs. The personas, poses, and props that his subjects chose are often remarkable because of their gendered associations. There is a dashing young man with a jaunty scarf who completes his Western ensemble with a toy pistol and (oddly) a large cut-out of the Kodak girl under his arm. There are same-sex friends kissing and an effeminate young man Zaatari says he used to pose like he would a woman. Rather than extending the themes of the essays, Zaatari’s images highlight what the essays elide and obscure.

Despite its shortcomings, there are thoughtful essays in the book that are worth seeking out. Mary Ann Doane’s essay (previously published in a special 2007 issue of the journal differences) confronts the issue of medium specificity directly through a historical and theoretical discussion of indexicality in both film (her primary field of research) and photography. The fresh and lucid dialogue she creates between the two media and the respective relationships to spectators provides yet more proof of the scholarly value of thinking about photography in a wider field. Kelsey’s essay sheds new light on William Henry Fox Talbot’s writing and practice, which leads to a reasoned and original consideration of the importance of chance to early photography. Spanish artist and curator Jorge Ribalta contributes one of the shorter, state-of-the-medium essays and interrogates claims about the presumed death of photography around the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, asking “who benefits from photography’s death?” In a few short pages, he convincingly maps out the theoretical landscape that makes the death claim possible and provides focused consideration of artists like Jo Spence, whose work might help to answer the question of who benefits from it.

Both Photography: Theoretical Snapshots and The Meaning of Photography aspire to outline a critical turn in the field of photography studies, presumably as a means of providing a focused conversation about and preparation for vibrant future work. Doing so will involve embracing a range of questions and objects and engaging with a vibrant circle of scholars beyond art history whose work encompasses all that is meant by “photography.”

Sarah Parsons
Associate Professor, Department of Visual Arts, York University, Toronto