Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 17, 2017
Katharina Sykora Die Tode der Fotografie II: Tod, Theorie und Fotokunst Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2015. 517 pp.; 225 color ills. Cloth £58.00 (9783770549160)

We should “work the ‘mirror with a memory,’” the photographer Minor White once said about photographic practice, as if the camera were “a metamorphosing machine, and the photograph as if it were a metaphor” (Minor White, “The Light Sensitive Mirage,” 1958, in Vicki Goldberg, ed., Photography in Print: Writings from 1816 to the Present, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981, 396). In the second volume of her wide-ranging study, The Deaths of Photography, whose title echoes that of the homage Jacques Derrida wrote after the death of his friend Roland Barthes, the photography theorist Katharina Sykora explores this promised transformation of photographic artifacts into linguistic signs.

Sykora’s central thesis is that the interplay between photography and death engenders language and images powerful enough to produce a “multiplication of ideas” (21). She argues that the photographic pact with death does not propel a mortiferous mechanical logic of apparatuses but rather that the “dead mirror of the world” is brought back into the flow of life, continuously resurrected, animated, and reanimated through the act of seeing (13). This topos of a paradoxical structure between life and death, which film scholars have extensively debated in recent years, is explored in the context of the history of photography and its metaphors. It is the link between the first volume, which examined the social uses of postmortem photography, and the second volume, which is dedicated to photography’s theories and artistic positions. The design of the book, however, is diametrically opposed to these ideas about reanimation: a frame of several pitch-black flyleafs seemingly urges the reader to lift the content from a dark, secluded grave. Beyond the hubbub of the discourse between the pages, photography, shrouded in black, is borne to its grave in silence.

While the first volume, published in 2009, examined the social uses of postmortem photography and demonstrated the relations inside the triadic schema of biological, social, and symbolic death as a liminal phenomenon, the second volume focuses on the history of theories of photography’s death in relation to artistic positions. Those hoping to find a strictly chronological or exhaustive account of the different ways in which artists approached the subject of death will be disappointed. Sykora addresses readers who are interested in exploring the history of discourse through the interrelations between cultural history, photography theory, and photographic art.

The first part of the book, a systematic history of discourse, not only catalogues the metaphors of the different photographic theories about death but also delves deep into the web of ideas and tropes, which reveals the mortiferous quality of photography in its different, often contrary connotations. Sykora thus concludes that a photographic print can be considered in manifold ways: as the imprint of a negative form into which a past presence inscribes itself ex negativo—the absence of the photographic referent is decisive here for the photographic act (Barthes, Georges Didi-Huberman)—or as the positive preservation of the living substance of reality (Oliver Wendell Holmes). Her analysis of this history shows that there is a direct link to the perspectivization of the photographic constellation, as introduced by Barthes in his 1980 book Camera Lucida (Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard, New York: Hill and Wang, 1981). How we speak and think about the relation between photography and death depends to a great extent on the focusing of the operator (photographer) on the spectator (beholder) and the self-activity of the object captured in the print (the spectrum), which—according to Barthes—possesses a ghost-like presence. From the viewpoint of the active photographer, the operator can see himself as a “hunter” who, as described in the Deutscher Kamera-Almanach of 1907, pursues the “main operating modes of the hunt” with the camera: “trapping, driving, lying in wait, stalking” (quoted in Sykora, 31). For the spectators encountering their motionless countenances in the photographic image, this language of active assimilation of outer reality into the archive of photographic doppelgängers gives way to the shock of seeing themselves robbed of their living mobility, “fastened down like butterflies” (Barthes, Camera Lucida, 57). In relation to the individual in front of the camera, Barthes has described this as an act of exclusion of the self, the moment in which it is frozen into a pose, “a micro-version of death” (ibid., 14). Sykora’s study excels by going deep into the genealogy of this discovery—which most photographic theories treat in a rather cursory way—showing that our conceptions of death changed through history and reflect their historical context. She makes the interesting point that in the wake of the two world wars in the twentieth century, “the metaphors shift increasingly from the language of hunting to the language of war,” turning the man in the “merry blitzkrieg” with a loaded camera and flash gun into a soldier at the front (31).

It is debatable whether amid modernity’s thunder and lightning photography can really be charged with the task of taking up the cultural-historical legacy of effigies and thus of material culture of Occidental death rites. But Sykora convincingly argues, especially in her reading of Siegfried Kracauer’s 1927 essay about photography, that with the metaphor of a “vast shroud,” which “threatens to cover and asphyxiate reality,” the photo-theoretical debates since the beginning of the twentieth century have been concerned with the mass culture of modernity and the reproduction of images (34). For it only becomes clear from this perspective why the spectral aspect of photographs that have lost their original context often perturbs their viewers like buoys adrift without an anchor. If we extend this idea into our present time, we should consider not only Barthes’s triad of operator-spectator-spectrum but also the continuous reproduction of the mass-media image.

That Sykora is dispersing the essence of photography into the diversity of its histories and—following the theme of the book—its deaths in the plural can also be seen in her decision to establish a link between the work of the three main photographic theorists in this field—Barthes, Kracauer, and Derrida—and the history of feminist and gender theories. The key example is the theme of the Medusa, which Sykora develops over several long passages, equating the sudden severing of the head from the body with the experience of the shock of the becoming-image. Following Sigmund Freud, Julia Kristeva and Jean Clair describe this, according to Sykora, as a “parable for iconoclasm” governed by an “open struggle (between the sexes) for the power of the gaze” (57). Sykora compellingly demonstrates how the ancient myth of the beheading and the simultaneous petrification of the gaze serve as a trope for the interplay of photographic capture and reception in the face of impending mortal danger. By bringing together approaches examining Greek mythology and the mechanisms of photography, she offers a refreshingly novel perspective compared to the various metaphors of eidolon, of traces and impressions, used in a semiotic framework to link photography with indexicality, which do not lack interest but may seem almost conventional from a historiographical and theoretical point of view. This is generally true for the connection between photography and death: photography, in bearing witness to the dead—seemingly ignoring all attempts to unmask it as a sign of a cultural code—appears as a guarantor of a vanishing reality.

Sykora allots the task of confronting this reality in the face of death and shifting the border of its inevitability to artists, and the second part of the book is devoted to their different positions. Almost all the chosen examples of documentary and staged photographs address a central question: how can aesthetic strategies function as a (sometimes failing) self-empowerment of the living subject confronted with death? One of the motifs that Sykora examines is that of the death mask of the unknown woman of the Seine, who appears in the photomontages of Man Ray or Albert Rudomine in a water-lily pond or with living eyes that look straight at the beholder. Again and again, it is the body suspended on the threshold between life and death, laid out, prepared but not decayed or dismembered, that finds its way into the artwork. In Duane Michals’s conceptual photographic sequence The Spirit Leaves the Body (1968), the soul gradually departs from the body laid out on a death bed. The series Noch mal leben vor dem Tod: Wenn Menschen sterben (2003/2004) by the journalist Beate Lakotta and the photographer Walter Schels features a frontal-view portrait of a living but terminally ill person juxtaposed with his or her postmortem portrait. Sykora’s focus on the time of transition—or, in other examples, of reanimation, reenactment, or the fictionalization of dead bodies—can be read, on the one hand, as a wish (and partly as an idealization of the artistic positions) to see the history of theory of the first part materialized in art, and, on the other, it seems to reveal a great trust in artistic photography as active work against death. It is therefore all the more striking to conclude the book with a photograph by Weegee, Their First Murder, from October 9, 1941, a shot of a crowd of onlookers on a Brooklyn street, where the presence of a murder victim turns the photographic constellation of operator and spectator into a scene of voyeurism. This ending is like an appeal: the photography of our dead, and the turning of the gaze toward and away from the dead body, always lead back to ourselves, the living, the spectators.

Katja Müller-Helle
Postdoc, Center for Advanced Studies BildEvidenz. History and Aesthetics, Free University of Berlin