Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 12, 2012
Jae Emerling Photography: History and Theory New York: Routledge, 2012. 288 pp.; 40 b/w ills. Paper $45.95 (9780415778558)
Kathrin Yacavone Benjamin, Barthes and the Singularity of Photography London: Continuum, 2012. 272 pp.; 17 b/w ills. Cloth $110.00 (9781441118080)

It is not farfetched to assume that theoretical reflections on photography will pay close attention to historical perspectives and that histories of photography will take into account theoretical issues. However, Jae Emerling has discovered that hardly any publications on photography have interwoven history and theory in a sustained fashion. Emerling’s Photography: History and Theory demonstrates how insightful this integrated approach can be. This same quality also characterizes Kathrin Yacavone’s Benjamin, Barthes and the Singularity of Photography, also released in 2012. Almost every volume dealing with photography theory discusses the views of both Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes—often combined with theories by other writers (as in the case of Emerling)—but none of them approaches these two icons of photography theory from a comparative in-depth approach, offering fresh perspectives on their writings. Yacavone motivates her decision to focus on these two theorists by highlighting their shared emphasis on the viewer’s perceptual, imaginative, and affective activity (5). Together these new studies by Emerling and Yacavone make us wonder why we had to wait so long for scholars to bring together photography’s theory and history of photography and the work of Benjamin and Barthes, respectively.

Both books are devoted to views on photography as a medium and start by emphasizing the complexities involved in addressing photography as such. In this respect their approach fits in well with current debates about the photographic medium and its so-called specificity. Benjamin had already contemplated the medium’s complexity, ambiguity, and multivalence in the 1930s. Emerling underscores the medium’s complexity by starting his volume with a case study in which he presents two photographs of chess players as an apt metaphor for the challenges posed by the discourse on photography. One of the photographs, dated 1844, depicts William Henry Fox Talbot, the inventor of the calotype, and Nicolaas Henneman, a prominent daguerreotype portraitist. This photograph aptly symbolizes a major dilemma concerning photography’s beginnings: did it start with the invention of the French daguerreotype or the English calotype? The other photograph, dated 1934, shows Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht, two key figures in the history of modern thought. The juxtaposition of these two portraits nicely captures the notion that theoretical debates and historical debates on the practice of photography need to complement each other.

The two photographs of chess players elegantly launch Emerling’s theoretical reflections, even if in the remainder of his book the use of portraits is rare. Conversely, the study by Yacavone presents portrait photographs only. This difference hardly seems a coincidence. Benjamin and Barthes both explored the meaning of photography almost exclusively on the basis of portrait photographs. Yacavone concludes that their special concern for this genre of photography hooks up with the natural and emotional expressivity of the human face and body, which inevitably transcends any created, artistic expression. This would also explain why portraiture is traditionally considered to be the least aesthetic or formalized genre of photography (219). This conclusion in part clarifies the virtual absence of portraits in Emerling’s argument. In the introduction to his volume, he accounts for his focus on art photography by suggesting that this genre has played a crucial role in the critical postmodern position, and that it has refocused attention on the discourse itself: “Hence what I have written here is an art history text” (7).

The difference between Yacavone’s narrow focus on the views on photography of two prominent writers and Emerling’s broad scope on various aspects of photography throughout its history is also reflected in the structure of their books. The latter’s Photography: History and Theory consists of five chapters, each of which addresses another aspect of histories-theories of photography: “the thing itself,” which concerns the image-referent relationship; “frame” as a material and metaphorical concept; “documentary, or instants of truth,” which discusses truthfulness; “the archive as producer,” which deals with the topical debate on its status; and “time-images.” Three of these themes are related to the five criteria of photography listed by John Szarkowski in the Museum of Modern Art’s famous 1966 catalogue, The Photographer’s Eye (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1966): the thing itself, the detail, the frame, time, and vantage point. That Emerling chose to concentrate on documentary and archive, rather than detail and vantage point, underlines his broader scope. In this respect, he claims that when considering the history of photography one must be cognizant of the fact that one is addressing complex theoretical questions about representation: signs and objects, narratives and events, life and politics. Therefore, “to confront the history one has to face the double-bind of aesthetics and ethics,” he argues, defining “aesthetics” as a multiplicity of strategies, affects, and “images of thought” (1, 7).

Emerling’s chapters are each followed by a gloss on a key text, which serves as a stepping stone to the next chapter. Two of these glosses deal with canonical texts: Benjamin’s “Little History of Photography” (in Selected Writings, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996–2003 (1931)) and Vilém Flusser’s Towards a Philosophy of Photography (London: Reaktion, 2000 (1983)). Two other glosses focus on Barthes and Susan Sontag, but Emerling did not select their most frequently quoted publications for a close reading. Rather than Barthes’s Camera Lucida (London: Vintage, 2000 (1980)), a gloss on his earlier essay “The Rhetoric of the Image” (in Image-Music-Text, New York: Hill and Wang, 1977 (1964)) follows chapter 2 about frames. Instead of using Sontag’s On Photography (New York: Picador, 1977), Emerling opted to reflect on her Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), following chapter 3 on documentary. His selection of glosses, including the one on Michel Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972 (1969)) following the chapter on the archive, underscores the volume’s double focus on aesthetics and ethics.

Whereas the structure of Emerling’s argument varies on Szarkowski’s five key characteristics of photography, the organization of Yacavone’s investigations seems based on the composition of Barthes’s Camera Lucida, which is in fact an oft-discussed aspect of this work. After seeking to define the essence of photography in the first part of his study, in the second part Barthes shifts to a subjective, almost emotional reflection on the “Winter Garden” photograph of his mother as a child. Yacavone also divided her book in two, with parts on “The Birth of the Viewer” (about Benjamin) and on “Photography and Subjectivity” (about Barthes). The second chapter of both parts deals with a late nineteenth-century childhood portrait in a winter garden setting. Intriguingly, Yacavone points to a photo portrait of the Jewish, German-speaking writer Franz Kafka at age five or six in a winter garden setting, which played a major role in Benjamin’s fascination for photography, as most notably reflected in his Berlin Childhood Around 1900 (in Selected Writings, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996–2003 (1932)) (70).

Yacavone claims that both Benjamin’s and Barthes’s accounts of photography are rooted in highly poignant experiences of particular photographs such as the winter garden portraits, which she calls the routes of exchange among the autobiographical, existential, and cultural-historical strands of their observations (219). She discusses Benjamin’s influences on Barthes, but also tries to throw new light on Benjamin’s writings by approaching them from Barthes’s perspectives. The attention drawn to the Kafka photo is one example of this. However, Yacavone does not only relate Benjamin’s and Barthes’s views directly to each other. As she explains, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, first published between 1913 and 1927, appears to have been a pivotal inter-textual source for both writers (7). Benjamin adopted Proustian conceptions of memory and applied them to both the photographic medium and portrait photographs, to negotiate his coexisting negative and positive assessments of photography’s impact on memory (96). With regard to Barthes, Yacavone observes a close affinity between his “punctum” and Proust’s involuntary memory, while calling his fascination with the “Winter Garden” photograph a Proustian search for the lost mother (124, 163). The reflections on the significance of Proust for Benjamin and Barthes are added as a third chapter to both parts of the book.

Although the use of Benjamin and Barthes as key words in the title of Yacavone’s book summarizes its content quite well, the second part of the title is quite confusing at first sight. Readers may interpret “singularity of photography” as referring to the “specificity” of photography, which immediately calls forth associations with a search for its ontology. In the course of the book, however, it becomes more and more clear that “singularity” is meant to refer here to a highly particular, even rare, experience of photographs. In Benjamin and Barthes, Yacavone argues, there is a perpetual dialectic between the childhood portrait embraced by each of these theorists and all other photographs, mirroring the tension between the unique and the personal versus the general and the theoretical; this is where “the singularity of photography” comes to the fore. Singularity, therefore, requires a relationship among the photograph, its referent or sitter, and the beholder of the image (8). According to Yacavone, for every viewer there is potentially one special portrait photograph of a loved one capable of initiating a redemptive process, which is the experiential singularity of that particular photograph (214). Singularity, in this definition, seems to be a very narrow focus for dealing with photography, but Yacavone convincingly links various developments in the lives and oeuvres of both writers to this concept, while also comparing it to Benjamin’s concept of “aura” and Barthes’s “punctum.”

The historical developments in Yacavone’s argument mainly concern the shift in Benjamin’s interest from metaphysical concerns and participation in avant-garde movements in the 1920s, to Marxist and sociological issues in the 1930s, and Barthes’s changes of approach from Marxist-ideological critique, linguistics, and semiotic preoccupations in the 1950s and 1960s, to poststructuralist thought and psychoanalytic vocabulary in the 1970s (134). She concludes that Benjamin’s and Barthes’s transformations developed in a reverse way—from the more personal and local to the more collective and general, and vice versa—which she relates, among other things, to the political situation of the 1930s.

Emerling is interested in reverse tendencies in history as well. For example, he finishes his book with a reproduction of Daguerre’s earliest recording and the statement: “The last image: Daguerre’s View of the Boulevard du Temple (c. 1838)” (190). Moreover, photographs are not discussed and reproduced in chronological order. When he turns to the work of August Sander, he even claims: “Oddly enough it is only now, after these contemporary works, that we can turn our attention to August Sander” (144). Only eleven of the forty images in the book date from after the mid-twentieth century, but the discussion focuses on theories from a more recent date, such as those of Jacques Derrida and Allan Sekula. Emerling justifies his preference for the use of “complementary confrontations” with reference to Geoffrey Batchen’s Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997) (5). Emerling aims to demonstrate the merits of Batchen’s approach, which interrogates the opposition between essentialist/formalist and anti-essentialist/postmodern theories of photography.

Emerling’s preference for juxtaposing oppositional views is also reflected in his choice of epigraphs. The first chapter begins with Edward Weston’s claim that, “to see the Thing Itself is essential” (emphasis in original), which is juxtaposed with Derrida’s statement that, “contrary to what our desire cannot fail to be tempted into believing, the thing itself always escapes” (17). For a book that relates theory to history it is a pity that Emerling has not dated the quotation. The notes only refer to volumes or translated editions, resulting in the year 1981 (Vicki Goldberg, ed., Photography in Print, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1981) for Weston’s remark, eight years later than 1973 (Speech and Phenomena, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973) for Derrida’s claim. The addition of the years 1943 and 1967 would immediately have explained that the first view spoke to the era of modernism, while the latter marked the transition period toward postmodernism. The same goes for the oppositional quotations at the beginning of chapter 5, where Walker Evans’s 1931 pertinent view on time is confronted with Peter Wollen’s more relativizing view from 1985 (165).

In the light of my comparison of the two studies under review, how does Emerling’s discussion of Benjamin’s and Barthes’s views on photography relate to Yacavone’s in-depth study of both writers? In his gloss on “Little History of Photography,” Emerling first discusses the reception of Benjamin’s oeuvre in the late 1970s and 1980s, while also referring to intriguing statements made by Benjamin, including the notion that photography does not need to justify itself as art because its very invention fundamentally redefined art (44). Yacavone starts out with a contextualization of Benjamin’s texts. Subsequently, both authors elaborate on Benjamin’s fascination for the portrait of a Scottish fishwife by David Octavius Hill in the “Little History” essay. They even select the same quote to illustrate the photograph’s powerful psychological effect on Benjamin. Additionally, both authors discuss Benjamin’s concept of “aura” on the basis of a portrait photograph by Karl Dauthendey (called a self-portrait with his second wife by Yacavone and a portrait of his father and stepmother by Emerling; Benjamin supposedly confused the woman with the photographer’s first wife, who committed suicide). This “Little History” essay was, as Yacavone reveals, unquestionably known to Barthes (19). Consequently, she elaborates upon the influence of this essay on Barthes’s work, particularly his Camera Lucida. Emerling, by contrast, considers Barthes’s essay “The Rhetoric of the Image,” which presents the photograph as a “message without a code” and provides an analysis of advertising imagery.

As to the role of analog photography in the two studies under review, it is evident that both authors have realized that one cannot publish a book on photography in 2012 without reflecting on the current debate about whether digital images can still be called “photographs” or should be considered part of a new medium. Emerling and Yacavone clearly side with those who feel it was rather premature to herald the dominance of the digital and the death of photography, as some scholars did in the 1990s. While Emerling submits that the new digital culture has barely marked the end of photographic discourse (6), Yacavone argues that the earlier views of Barthes and Benjamin are still relevant today and may provide important guidance for reflections on digital photography (220).

The recent proliferation of readers with key texts on photography testifies to the vibrancy of photography as a cultural discourse. At the same time, many of these readers overlap and cannot be easily read in their entirety due to their fragmented character. The same goes for the many edited volumes on photography with contributions from various authors. Some of these volumes reveal that it can be a challenge for editors to weld together the cacophony of voices and perspectives. It is to be welcomed, therefore, that we are now witnessing the publication of more single-voiced books, especially if they succeed in adding new perspectives and insights on photography, as both Photography: History and Theory and Benjamin, Barthes and the Singularity of Photography convincingly do.

Helen Westgeest
Assistant Professor, Department of Art History and Media Studies, Leiden University

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