Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 2, 2015
David Levi Strauss Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow: Essays on the Present and Future of Photography New York: Aperture, 2014. 192 pp.; 25 ills. Paper $29.95 (9781597112710)

In regards to documentary photography, the issue of responsibility—be it ethical, social, political, or a combination thereof—has been a central concern throughout its polemicized history. One could stretch that argument, along the line of memory, from the last photograph uploaded or tweeted onto the World Wide Web at precisely 00:00 tonight, to the first instances when human presence was registered on a photographic plate, as in the famous view of the Boulevard du Temple in Paris, where a passerby stopped to have his shoes polished, seen from Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre’s window in 1838. Yet the fundamental difference between such instances and any others would be, as David Levi Strauss observes, the singular significance of the image created and seen, or what Roland Barthes called the event of the image.

In this new collection of essays, Strauss argues for an ethics of looking, for the necessity and responsibility of seeing politically, and for never divorcing oneself from the angle produced on that sharpened edge, regardless of the pleasures of the text. Divided into five sections, the majority of the short and often lyrical essays in Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow were first published between 2000 and 2012. In them Strauss returns to some of the key themes and positions developed in his earlier book, Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics (New York: Aperture, 2003), which collected texts from 1986 to 2002. Separated by roughly a decade, the two volumes can be seen as complementary, symptomatic of the preoccupations and debates from those years, which Strauss both participated in and commented upon. In his eloquent, passionate style, he assumes the disjointed and seemingly contradictory identity of the participant turned witness, and vice versa; this is an ideal perspective for a writer who demands that the act of seeing be approached as an action of, rather than as a reaction to, light. His short essays likewise establish that we have all become both producers and consumers of images; the question for Strauss remains whether we are prepared or even willing to assume the responsibilities that come with this awareness.

Central to part 4 of the book is the problem of the aestheticization of violence and suffering in documentary photography, particularly in regards to what Susan Sontag described in 2003 as the “pain of others” (Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003). This narrative, he argues, should finally be put to rest, as relevant as it was to postmodern Marxist critiques from the 1980s advocated by Martha Rosler, Allan Sekula, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, and others in the United States. In sorting through this critical history, Strauss could also have drawn useful parallels here to contemporary practices in Latin America, where similar debates about aesthetics and politics were taking place among photographers and critics; the most important encounters were facilitated by the Mexican Council of Photography (El Consejo Mexicano de Fotografía), founded in 1976, which organized three important Latin American photography colloquia. These dialogues enabled alternative strategies for the creation of politicized aesthetics. In the North American context, the argument was that soft, liberal forms of documentary were politically compromised, their sentimental appeal ideally suited to developing consumer markets eager for such facile, exploitative images. However, in the aftermath of 9/11, Strauss argues, “Photography’s special capacity as a medium of mourning brought us close to it again, and made us realize how much we need public, shared images to make sense of such events” (130). Attention has shifted from a concern with authorship and the production of singular images to public, mass-disseminated, and often anonymously produced forms. Aesthetics and politics, in photography and art as in life, have become even harder to separate. Finally, Strauss emphatically asks: “Could it be that what were necessary and substantive critiques of representation in the past have become, in practical terms, hindrances to actually looking at images? And that this has contributed to an effective political passivity in the face of a rapidly changing communications environment?” (133) Here his interests overlap with more recent work by the aforementioned critics as they themselves have revised earlier arguments in relation to contemporary political, social, and technological changes. Leaving the aestheticization debate aside, important parallels are to be made between Strauss’s and Sekula’s writings in particular, their consistent investigations into acts of witnessing, into viewers tacit participation in global systems of economic exchange, and the role photography can play in revealing the fraught connections between power, wealth, and inequality.

In addition to the debates around the social and political implications of documentary photography, a shift toward the attainment of what might be called a global perspective on photography in academic circles in Europe and the United States, in the art world, and beyond, also occurred somewhere in the span between the two volumes. In Between the Eyes Strauss queried photojournalistic practices in Central America during the eighties and the manipulation of these images in the polarized landscape of the U.S. media. He became invested in the work of Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar, who in a series of projects about the Rwandan genocide questioned the efficacy of documentary images, criticizing the spectacular presentation of these images in the news, and sought alternative visual strategies to both describe violent realties and to engage critically their presentation. Strauss contributed the textual component to Jaar’s installation Lament of the Images at the 2002 Documenta 11 in Kassel. Words Not Spent Today returns only briefly to Jaar’s work, pursuant however of similar topics, including the digital manipulation of news content, this time in relation to U.S. domestic and foreign policy during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. “Seeing is believing,” Strauss cautions repeatedly throughout the book, and history has a tendency to repeat itself. The torture photographs from the Abu Ghraib prison and the capture of Osama bin Laden are highlighted as two moments of major impact over U.S. public opinion, when censored images either were accidentally released or were permanently hidden from the public eye. In considering the relevance of art to the present, it might be tempting to believe that photography could be more successful, through its more immediate (although not necessarily unproblematic) relation to contemporary events. Here, too, the main question remains: how can images effect change?

The book ends with two essays dedicated to revolution, social movements, and the role of technology (including photography) in bringing the public together and in supporting progressive agendas and ideals. Looking at the massive demonstrations in Tahrir Square in 2011, which initiated the Egyptian Revolution, the essay “Enough of Us to Say No” reflects on the impact of these events on the U.S. public, building rapport through the investigation of “the role of public images in liberation struggles” (177). The latter is the focus of the final essay in the volume, “Occupied Images,” published here for the first time. Strauss ponders the legacy of the Occupy movement in New York City, which was chronicled primarily by participants with the use of easily accessible communications and imagining technologies. He writes: “The next revolution will not only be televised; it will be instantly disseminated far and wide on stationary and mobile devices, in images made smaller by ubiquity and unspent words. One of the central questions in the future of iconopolitics is: Will we be able to respond to this constant flow of images with action and decision or will we be lulled into inaction and indecision, as passive consumers?” (178–79) Indeed an entire economy of images is now at stake, millions of images, from the ordinary to the iconic, perhaps equally clichéd, often indiscriminately consumed by our daily “feed.” This sheer mass of images, and the speed at which it is generated, is what Strauss is referring to in the title of the book, a quote from a poem by photographer Frederick Sommer from 1962. He explains: “The less time we have and take to read or decode images (thereby ‘spending words’), the less we will get out of them (as they become ‘smaller’), and, paradoxically, the more power they will have over us” (9). In his analysis of both Occupy and the Tahrir Square protests, Strauss returns to the ardent debates of the 1960s and 1970s, now nostalgically idealized; in that era of raised awareness substantial political and social events led to the reconsideration of photographic practices by practitioners, critics, museum professionals, and academics. It was the first decade when photography began to be recognized as a powerful force in civil society, one that could not only “manipulate” (propaganda) and “persuade” (advertising) but could also transform the very ways in which the public interpreted the world.

It is difficult to critique a kind of literature that stands, perhaps too humbly at times, on such high moral ground, especially one that reads like a manifesto for our time, defending what Nicholas Mirzoeff has called the right to look and the right to be seen (The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality, Durham: Duke University Press, 2011). Strauss reminds readers that the act of looking is never straightforward, uncontaminated, or easy, while establishing that photography not only serves various agendas but also counts agency among its strengths. Indeed, Words Not Spent Today presents an argument for choice in contemporary photographic culture: we can still choose how to be governed and what we can change.

Ileana L. Selejan
Linda Wyatt Gruber ’66 Curatorial Fellow in Photography, Davis Museum, Wellesley College

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