Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 9, 2013
Margaret Olin Touching Photographs Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. 288 pp.; 37 color ills.; 84 b/w ills. Paper $35.00 (9780226626468)

In her provocative new book, Touching Photographs, Margaret Olin presents an innovative approach to visual and photographic studies. Her essays form interrelated and often fascinatingly oblique case studies pertaining to the use of photography and its metaphorical affect as tactility and touch. Olin offers deep embraces of photographic discourse in James Agee and Walker Evans’s New Deal-era text and photographic essay, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida; James VanDerZee’s Harlem photographs produced during the 1920s and 1930s; photographic references in the writings of Hugo von Hofmannsthal and W. G. Sebald; “empowerment” projects such as Zana Briski’s “Kids with Cameras,” Wendy Ewald’s “Secret Games—Collaborative Works with Children,” the Chiapas Photography Project, and Susan Meiselas’s website project akaKURDISTAN; impromptu photographic installations in response to 9/11; and photographs Olin refers to as “bad pictures,” including images of Holocaust victims and inmates in the Abu Ghraib prison. The rhythm of her wide-ranging discussions suggests the desire for human connection in the face of the everyday and catastrophic events that she investigates. Touching Photographs incorporates astute visual analyses with acknowledgement of crucial postmodern critiques of photographic looking, but is more concerned with communal engagements with photographs, as opposed to denial of their ability to represent or act as witnesses.

Olin “basks” in her choice of photographic images (19). She uses this verb coyly, as I interpret her strategy, to allow for a sense of visual pleasure experienced in looking at photographs. “To bask” is to allow oneself the expansive feeling of warmth from the sun. Olin introduces this sensuous and cerebral metaphor to embrace the images she puts into her photographic repertoire. It is through this desire for connection that I interpret Olin’s metaphor of touch as the liaison between photographer/photograph and events/communities. Photographs perform even beyond their crucial functions to document and remember; in her readings, the images become catalysts for human encounter. Olin confronts the underlying issues facing photographers working through personal desire, social concerns, and institutional demands as their strategies bear on the reproduction of and interrelationships among individuals and communities.

Olin’s crucial concern is with the complex ways in which photographs circulate within communities and among disparate and surprising contexts. She affords them an almost living shamanistic existence, interested in “how they act rather than represent” (17). Given this context, I am surprised that she does not call on earlier work by other cultural theorists who have done extensive research in this area, including Marita Sturken’s important study, Tangled Memories (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), which widened cultural understandings of photographs as taking on new cultural and psychic meanings through unexpected human encounters across cultures and functions.

One of the articulations that Olin suggests to ground her metaphor of “touching photographs” is in the commonplace term to “stay in touch.” This sense of the tactile is itself a metaphor of distance that already assumes inevitable longing. In my reading, tactility in this sense is the paradox of the photographic image, the illusion of touch, the promise of a tenuous connection. Olin’s “touching” is a philosophical traversing beyond the surface of the photograph, a deep inquiry of images to produce the possibility of productive and intersubjective knowledge. The metaphor of touch might thus be further deepened with the acknowledgement of a feminist notion of touch and embrace that is at once a metaphor of the body and a sensual and corporal caress. Such a sense of embrace would move toward an even more interconnected and embodied sense of passionate community.

Within Olin’s methodology of calling on the viewer/reader to approach the photograph’s metaphorical ability to reach us tactilely, her writing abounds with poetic and productive analyses. Olin is a senior research scholar in the Divinity School at Yale University, with joint appointments in the Departments of Art and Religious Studies and in the Program in Judaic Studies. Her deep background in the areas of ethics, aesthetics, and religion grounds her arguments about photographs’ ability “to bond” human activity and “to connect” it with political efficacy in the deep etymological sense of religion, relier.

In each of her case studies Olin compellingly stages her thinking about photographs as formations of and conduits for passion, connection/disconnection, and social agency. Particularly provocative, however, are the chapters on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and VanDerZee’s photographs. That the chapter on the former comes first allows Olin to examine the tensions in this book concerning the relationships Agee and Evans created with the families they studied and contrast them with the conflicting social constructions of VanDerZee’s supposedly fluid sense of connection with his photographic subjects.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is a fascinating experiment that confronts different approaches within the documentary mode and between writing and photographic text. Evans’s documentary photographs were already a highly aestheticized if not distanced take on New Deal concepts of representation played out through his picturing of three families; Agee’s text, produced as a result of a much longer visitation with the sharecropper Gudger family, expressed the pathos of his self-effacement in his desperate desire to engage with this suffering family. This multifaceted and hybrid text went beyond the boundaries of subject and object relations within a documentary photographic and textual staging of despair and in the context of the visual politics of the New Deal. No doubt Let Us Now Praise Famous Men has caught Olin’s careful attention and sense of possibilities in her calling forth of modernist attempts to “touch.” She conducts a fine-tuned visual and theoretical analysis of this text in its various forms of publication, in terms of its complicated readings over time, and as a modernist text “that wished to reconcile itself with social engagement” (49). Olin argues that its full power to enact itself as an effective social text was stymied by a modernist aesthetics whose imbalanced vision focused on art over social change.

This introductory chapter on Agee and Evans thus opens up the possibilities of documentary vision and human interaction to new forms of photographic and social intersubjectivity, ultimately to suggest innovative modes of ground-level community interactions with purposeful results for those in need of political and emotional support. Interestingly, in her last chapter Olin confronts her discomfort with what might be her naïve hope for the future through photographs and resulting human encounters by turning to photographs that confront viewers with difficult realities. Such photographs reach the limits of bearable looking, photographs she refers to as “bad pictures” and “unlovable pictures,” including images of Holocaust victims and inmates in the Abu Ghraib prison. Where Olin has elsewhere argued for the power of the gaze of the photographed subject to question the power and authority of the photographer and viewers, she readdresses this position and its effects in a reductivist turn when such power relations are reversed. Olin asks: “But how are we to react when the person who engages us with what appears to be a proud, direct gaze is engaged in torture? The photograph represents the insupportable dissonance created by the request to take responsibility for a torturer. Is the promise of the tenant farmer’s wife’s gaze in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men cruelly withdrawn in the photographs of Abu Ghraib, the trust of the gaze violated?” (233)

Olin’s crucial ethical question, in this particular instance, seems surprisingly to invest in a notion of the gaze as a theoretical construct that verges on an essentialist concept of photographic looking—unless the viewer takes the next step into ethical perception and, eventually, action. If the gaze outward is usually given by a photographic subject who is in need and is making an appeal to the viewer, albeit through the intervention of the photographer, Olin asks how we, as viewers, can possibly respond to a torturer’s gaze? This question seems to pervert the ethical possibilities of the gaze and the ethical constructions it holds for moral responsibility. It seems Olin is confusing the notion of the ethical gaze with any photographic confrontation created by the gaze of the person photographed and directed outward, including that which is meant to taunt the viewer. In this case, the notion of the gaze needs to be expanded to suggest its complexities, perversions, and unethical possibilities. Indeed, the gaze of a torturer—or anyone involved in an inhuman action—can become an ethical taunt and can ironically challenge the viewer to respond beyond the frame of the photograph.

Nevertheless, Olin’s astute choice of photographic images and literary texts are gathered from the depths and surfaces of the quotidian. These poignant texts give further purpose to her insightful arguments, evoking new ways of thinking about how engagement with photographs reshapes human relationships and allows the real to become accessible, more “touchable.” Her expansive thinking suggests embracing compassion and acknowledging the irony of hope as alternatives to disconnection and despair.

Andrea Liss
Professor of Visual Art and Cultural Theory, Department of Visual and Performing Arts, California State University San Marcos