Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 28, 2013
James Elkins What Photography Is New York: Routledge, 2011. 226 pp.; Many b/w ills. Paper $34.95 (9780415995696)

In What Photography Is, James Elkins sets out to write a kind of counter-narrative to Roland Barthes’s highly influential Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (trans. Richard Howard, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981), in which Barthes sought to discover the essential nature of photography. Elkins is inspired by Barthes’s slim volume first published in English in 1981, admiring and echoing its non-academic style, yet is irritated by it as well. The emotional core of Camera Lucida is Barthes’s search for, and ultimately discovery of, the “essence” of his recently deceased mother in a photograph he finds of her as a little girl in a winter garden. But for Elkins, “Barthes’s book is too full of light to capture what photography does,” and it “hides photography’s non-humanist, emotionless side” (xi). Indeed, Elkins has clearly had enough of Camera Lucida (describing it at one point as “pliant and unhealthy, like an overwatered plant in a conservatory” (5)), and enough of its influential sway over academic writing within the history of photography. As particularly relevant examples of the academic perspective, Elkins refers often to both his own edited volume, Photography Theory (New York: Routledge, 2007) and to the collection of essays on Camera Lucida anthologized by Geoffrey Batchen in Photography Degree Zero (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), for which Elkins’s contribution was a precursor to the ideas he elaborates in What Photography Is. Photography is not about memory and the poignancy of loss, as Elkins characterizes Barthes’s position, but instead it “fills our eyes with all the dead and deadening stuff of the world”; it “insistently gives us the pain and the boredom of seeing, and the visual desperation that can follow” (xii). Elkins, it becomes clear, has also had enough of academic writing and even of photographs themselves. All of the ways in which Elkins is worn out or just simply bored turn out to be not so simple, but it is fair to say that What Photography Is emerges through a profound dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Elkins structures What Photography Is as Barthes does Camera Lucida, following that book’s unconventional organization of short, numbered sections; lack of footnotes and bibliography; and captioning of illustrated photographs with italicized quotations from his own text (Elkins points out the pretentiousness of this last strategy in Camera Lucida). This organizational homage to Camera Lucida begins to move Elkins away from conventionally “good” academic writing, though it is not until section 10 (which marks the beginning of chapter 2) that Elkins actually departs from what is more or less a traditional, if disguised, academic introduction and review of literature on Camera Lucida.

It is then that What Photography Is comes alive, infused with unconventional yet insightful observations both about particular photographs and photography in general. Elkins is drawn to photographs in which he can recognize his own process of sight and, crucially, to photographs that insist “how hard it is to see the world” (76). Elkins presents the reader with a “trinity of failed photographic windows” (34) to illustrate his interest in photographs that, somewhat perversely, remind the viewer of what is not or cannot be seen. Elkins wants to push his readers away from describing photographs in terms of what they know and understand, and in terms of their selves and bodies. Thus, the allure for him of microscopic studies of amoebas and dust, on one end of the spectrum, and atomic bomb explosions parsed, photographically, into millionths of a second, on the other. Both are far beyond the scope of human sight and perception and both indicate the limits of our vision and the obstacles to a coherent understanding of the world and its (photographic) representation. Seeing is hard, and Elkins is interested in photographs that facilitate this recognition rather than undermine it.

He notes that most photographs we pay attention to are either of or about people and that we generally use them to remember, to be awed, and to serve as evidence. Elkins thus asks, “When photography is released from its obligation to forever show us ourselves, then what is it? When photography is no longer our engine of memory, our portal to the sublime, our record-keeper of choice?” (116) As a way of getting some distance from the kind of photograph most people come into contact with routinely, and thus consider, by default, foundational to the “essential” nature of the medium, Elkins advances the concept of “depopulated” photographs: these not only lack human subjects but also do not basically refer to people through their absence. He begins to explain this concept with an analysis of a series of re-photographic projects that provides a thrilling descent into his recognition of “the endless irrelevant details of the world that photography impertinently and obstinately keeps giving me” (72). Photographs of people, photographs that provoke memories, and photographs that serve as records are distractions from what Elkins characterizes as “the usual state of photography” and “the population of photography,” neither of which are the photographs that we pay attention to but rather the endless masses of “those many photographs that don’t particularly work, that fail to sting our inner thoughts, that don’t help us preserve our treasured memories, don’t offer any useful information, and aren’t especially edifying, noteworthy, curious, disturbing, cute, awe-inspiring, kitschy, skillful, delightful, or entertaining” (94). These are the photographs we do not print and do not analyze and do not frame to hang in our homes or museums; they do not make the front pages of newspapers or history books; they are all of the photographs that you cannot remember noticing.

The strangest aspect of What Photography Is—and Elkins makes explicit that he intends his book to be “even stranger” than Barthes’s (14)—is its interruption of the numerically sequenced short sections by an out-of-order and incomplete abecedary (“W is for Water Bear,” “T is for Tear of a Swan,” “M is for Mastigamoeba,” “G is for Gromiidae,” etc.) in which Elkins devotes himself to an analysis of microscopic organisms that he seems to have observed through his own amateur photomicrography. He does, ultimately, have a photographic point, connecting the “conceptual inaccessibility” of these strange little amoeba creatures that defy our sense of the limits between visibility and invisibility as well as our sense of the distinction between a body and what surrounds it. For Elkins, this is not only good fodder for his belief that photography itself has no particular preference for people and their portraits (though we might prefer looking at photographs of loved ones to photographs of amoebas) but also for his nearly metaphysical fascination with the notion that, in a photograph, a subject is inextricably “caught” in its surround; it is this “surround,” or everything that the camera cannot help but record, that, as a matter of literal measurement, comprises the vast majority of photographic imagery.

Early on, Elkins observes that, “everyone wants something from Camera Lucida” (10), and he wants something from it, too: for that text to be simpler than it is; for it to be possible to encapsulate Barthes’s approach as too sentimental, too affected, too nostalgic without overlooking all the ways in which Barthes also grapples with the banality, the boredom, the vast meaninglessness of the photographic image. Elkins and Barthes frequently cover similar territory, and often in greater alignment than Elkins generally wants to allow. Elkins’s reading of Barthes is—perhaps deliberately—narrow. He overlooks Barthes’s own recognition of the utter banality and flatness of most photographs, his recognition that photographs insistently record far more than anyone wants or needs them to, his acceptance that photographs overwrite memory, his implicit admission that most photographs do not offer anything like a recording of truth or essence, and his criticism that art tames and domesticates the most interesting aspects of the photographic medium. Nevertheless, Elkins’s arguments are well worth making, even if they do not need to be “against” Barthes’s; they are, as the final line of the book admits, “what I think photography also is” (220; emphasis added).

It should be noted that Elkins has a real talent (and joy) for writing insightfully about the technology of photography, as well as the ins and outs of various kinds of equipment and machinery upon which an experience of the photographic is deeply dependent. He rightly identifies and critiques a reluctance among many prominent photo historians and critics, particularly those who are theoretically inclined, to delve too deeply (or at all) into the significance of the mechanical stuff of photography—the gear, the equipment, the optics—that have changed radically over time and particularly in the digital age. This does not seem to be one of Elkins’s central points, but it does suggest possibilities for the significance of his book overall as emotion and technology perhaps inevitably collide in Elkins’s analysis. He tries to confine direct acknowledgement of his own experience and emotion to just a few paragraphs in an effort to avoid the overt affect, sentimentality, and nostalgia that he objects to in Camera Lucida. But already by the fifth page of What Photography Is, this reader found herself wondering in the marginalia if Elkins’s mother had also died, and that such an experience might be informing his deep dissatisfaction with Barthes’s conclusions. Indeed, readers learn midway through What Photography Is that both of Elkins’s parents died while he was working on the book. As Elkins recounts his own months-long process of sorting through his family photographs after his father’s death, it is clear that his encounter with photography at this moment was deeply different from a reader’s image of Barthes rifling through a stack of old family photographs, searching for the “truth” of his mother. Whereas Barthes was looking through prints, actual objects, Elkins immersed himself in the highly mediated, digitally enabled, and very technical process of scanning, removing dust, color balancing, adjusting, and creating layers in Photoshop for each of his family pictures. That work, Elkins observes, was not one of seeing or of memory. Rather, he trained his eye “to scan for technical issues rather than emotional ones, [he] produced a massive archive of images that had somehow been systematically and carefully seen, and therefore did not need to be seen again” (113).

Near the end of What Photography Is, Elkins observes: “If mourning underlies my own attraction to such inhuman things as dust and amoebas, it must be a very different sort of mourning” (214). Indeed, Elkins’s experience of photography in a time of mourning is profoundly different from Barthes’s. We see that technology diverts attention in some fundamental way and that the sense of connection Barthes ultimately found is perhaps now, in a digitized experience of loss, unretrievable.

Kate Palmer Albers
Associate Professor of Art History, Whittier College, Los Angeles