Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 25, 2011
Susie Linfield The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. 344 pp.; 20 b/w ills. Cloth $30.00 (9780226482507)

“This is a book of criticism, not theory,” Susie Linfield announces on page xiv. I agree: The Cruel Radiance is not a theoretical book nor is it intended for people working with theories of photography. The targeted audience seems rather to be students of photojournalism concerned with questions about the ethics of looking at war and violence. Professor at the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University, Linfield wrote her book, in large part, against the work of Susan Sontag, her “postmodern and poststructuralist heirs,” and their “sour, arrogant disdain for the traditions, the practice, and the ideals of documentary photography” (xv). Allan Sekula, Douglas Crimp, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, John Tagg, Martha Rosler, and Victor Burgin are all condemned as “children of Sontag, Berger and Barthes” (7; the metaphor of generations is powerful throughout the text). Linfield makes them into a rather homogenous group that accuses photography of voyeurism, pornography, and an inability to effect change. Reading their work, she claims, “often feels like trudging through mud” (11).

How to appreciate this book, when one has learned photography through the writings of these scholars? How to engage with it against one’s educational background as an art historian or visual theorist? After reading the first chapter of The Cruel Radiance, I wondered whether Sontag has become for writers like Linfield what Freud has been for feminist theory: a mother figure to be killed/abjected/annihilated. There are books that diverge from Sontag’s methods of “regarding the pain of others,” seamlessly incorporating autobiographical, political, and theoretical perspectives: Ariella Azoulay’s The Civil Contract of Photography (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), which reads images as a pivotal factor in the production of contemporary notions of identity, citizenship, and sovereignty, is a great example (click here for review). Linfield’s book, on the other hand, makes little attempt to reconcile photojournalist practices with existing scholarship.

The Cruel Radiance does, however, attempt to work through the problem. What captivated me in this volume is a recurrent line of questioning in many writings on documentary photography: how can we make meaning of images of cruelty, located somehow between enchantment, disenchantment, and everydayness? How, even if theory has arguably failed us, can we form a critical community of spectators—a community sharing feelings, ideals, and actions—when confronted with the visualization of cruelty?

Although Linfield sets herself in opposition to Sontag, she opens with a story similar to Sontag’s account of how profoundly she was shaped at the age of twelve by a chance encounter with photographs from Nazi camps, found in a bookstore. Linfield, as a young girl, was transfixed by a book documenting the Nazi destruction of the Polish Jews, discovered in her father’s library. The image of a child stumbling upon buried atrocities of the past is captivating. Yet this perspective prevails throughout The Cruel Radiance, disregarding the fact that such images—digitally copied ad infinitum, spanning geographical distances and cultural divides—have become widely available. Today, children see photographs of violence in the open rather than on hidden library shelves; they click through them on internet, catch flashes of them on TV, glimpse at them on the streets as a part of humanitarian aid campaigns (to mention one, the 2006 Amnesty International campaign It is not happening here but it is happening now contains photographic tropes very similar to those in Linfield’s book). Yet, Linfield’s relationship with presented images is consistently one-on-one, forming a sentimental story of intense personal attachment: they sadden her, make her smile, irritate or frighten her. To me, this is not far from Roland Barthes’s love for a photograph depicting his mother as a child, invoking the complexities of death and our desire to deny it.

The book is divided into three sections: “Polemics,” “Places,” and “People.” These correspond to Why, Where, and Who—three of the five fundamental “W” questions in journalism. The first part follows the history of photography criticism and announces the “new” kind of criticism that “rejects the opposition of thought and emotion” (xvi) in order to remain invested in the fate of the people captured in images of cruelty. Linfield ultimately reinstates that binary, however, by positioning herself as an advocate of “feelings” against the dominant leftist, postmodern theorists. There has been a lot of recent work on affect and emotion in art, photography, and cinema criticism (see Jill Bennett, Emphatic Vision: Affect, Trauma, and Contemporary Art, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005) that challenges the mind/heart dichotomy and could have strengthened her argument. Also, not every emotion generated while facing violence and trauma merits recognition; some may go astray. Linfield’s later brief analysis of Hanna Arendt’s work on pity in relation to photographic practice is interesting, but I miss more up-to-date debates on how empathy and compassion might be set firmly within paternal and colonial tools of distancing onlookers from the oppressed (see Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002). Finally, Linfield, convinced that we have lost the capacity to respond to images of violence and to connect to others through them, seems to ignore recent work on NGOs imagery. While calling for a move from emotion-oriented universalism toward reflexive particularism (see Lilie Chouliaraki, Post-humanitarianism: Humanitarian Communication Beyond a Politics of Pity, in International Journal of Cultural Studies 13, no. 2 (2010): 107–26), this work affirms photography’s powers to affect audiences today.

Part 2, “Places,” explores four historical moments/geopolitical conflicts captured by several sets of photographs, including images of the Holocaust, China’s Cultural Revolution, the conflict in Sierra Leone and the wars in the Middle East, as well as Abu Ghraib. The chapters retain the character of essays; Linfield refines her own texts on photography and politics that have appeared over the past several years in various journals. This section is reflexive, ethical, sharp, and informed. The analysis of images, their circulation and the context they are placed in is well timed, coherent, and at times deeply moving, as in the case of the little girl in Sierra Leone. The important issue in this section is the complex ethics of looking at the images made by perpetrators of violence themselves. Another issue signaled here, relevant to all visual scholars, is how images of atrocity mirror the absence of things they try to render imaginable: human rights, moral norms, and ethics. When we look at images of atrocity, it is crucial to realize that each picture is always the product of a dialogue with the un-picturable, loss, and disavowal. To look at them is, in fact, to be affected by the absence and loss in which we are ourselves undone, by “the cruel radiance of what is” (the title of the book refers to James Agee and Walker Evans’s book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941)), or maybe rather “what is not.”

Disconnected from the two earlier parts, the final section, titled “People,” focuses on three photojournalists: Robert Capa, James Nachtwey, and Gilles Peress. Linfield introduces all three men as if they were prophets: Capa is “the Optimist,” Nachtwey “The Catastrophist,” Peress “The Skeptic” (175, 205, 233). She then sketches brief but captivating portraits of each as, respectively, heroic precursor/misunderstood genius/enigmatic loner of photojournalism. Linfield does not explain her reasons for choosing these photographers (nor does she explain her choice of intriguing images), oddly reinforcing the patriarchal reproduction of talent, genius, and bravery by calling Nachtwey and Peress Capa’s sons. While she mentions that all three of them have been (for varied periods) members of the Magnum Agency, there is no discussion of the consequences of that fact, or on Magnum’s style of photography in general. Surprisingly enough, there is also practically no mention (only in a footnote) of recently found footage questioning Capa’s staging of the Spanish War pictures.

It is this section that draws attention to the erasure of women in the book as a whole. In a field where women have been prominent and active scholars, it is hard not to be taken aback by the extent to which The Cruel Radiance effaces them from photographic history and practice. There are few female scholars credited with author’s recognition in the book, and no discussion of work by female photographers. There are other aspects of the book that remain problematic as far as gender is concerned: Linfield accuses leftwing female intellectuals of fearing sentimentality, for example; she herself compares non-Western women in pictures to “angels of victory” or “refugee Madonnas” (122). Those sacral metaphors certainly evoke emotions, yet it would be advisable to look critically at why such sublimation takes place (see Luc Boltanski, Distant Suffering: Politics, Morality and the Media, trans. Graham D. Burchell, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999) and also how it erases systems of power involved, enabling the elision of questions of political economy and multicultural affiliations.

Can theory, practice, and criticism be reconciled within photography studies? Linfield does not seem to believe so. The lapses and tensions in the book reveal the lapses and tensions in photography studies as a whole, the dynamic but complex dialogue between the makers, the spectators, and the writers. For all its faults, The Cruel Radiance reveals an important fact: photography criticism and theory have moved in different directions, even though the boundaries between them are fluid and tentative. While she does not reach across that breach, Linfield makes us realize how big it is.

Marta Zarzycka
Assistant Professor, Department of Gender Studies, Utrecht University