Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 25, 2018
Louis Kaplan Photography and Humour London: Reaktion Books, 2017. 224 pp.; 40 color ills.; 70 b/w ills. Paperback $29.95 (9781780236513)

“No animal but man ever laughs.” Aristotle’s declaration launches this book on technologically facilitated representations, insisting on a historically broad and human framework for machine pictures. Though not unmindful of photography’s material functions, Kaplan’s engagingly written survey explores the medium’s rootedness in human experience and use, elucidating both its productive and destructive uses in the amplification of Self. What might initially appeal as a light-hearted study of levity in photographic practice swiftly transforms into a deeper reflection on the psychological motivations behind comedy, which also includes vilification, mockery, and the fear of mortality. Kaplan’s volume, in other words, is not an effervescent account of photographic foibles but an intellectually holistic view of the medium we make ours, in all of its leveling, democratic, and occasionally vulgar dimensions. And here, it is worth recalling the roots of the word “humor” in the medieval theory of cardinal humors, its meaning tied to mood and temperament rather than amusement specifically. This deeper historical sense of the term encompasses its conceptual breadth in this study.

Accordingly, the book’s chapters are thematically oriented around photographic subjectivity, society, and the mortality that binds us, preceded by the overview “Lenses of Laughter” on theories of humor. Chapter 2, “Messing with Identity,” explores photography’s key role in subject formation and identification; chapter 3, “Social Snaps,” examines the social and group functions of photography, and chapter 4, “A Morbid Sense of Humor,” maps strategies of raucous defiance in the face of our inevitable death. Photographic illustrations of Kaplan’s broad range of points are wielded thematically, not chronologically, resulting in a kaleidoscope of practices and contexts, from nineteenth-century daguerreotypes to Google street-view shots.

This range bespeaks a choice that seeks to highlight the functions of photography in human culture over historical narrative. Though Kaplan invokes the occasional non-Western example, the author is careful to stress that this is primarily a survey of European and North American practices. It is already a challenge to meaningfully interrogate humor across centuries and nations given how mobile and contingent humor can be. In the context of a thematic survey such as this one, the synoptic assemblage of both interconnected and opposing practices in each chapter suggestively charges the account in a way that implicitly encourages further reflection beyond the bounds of the book.

Through engaging prose, the author endeavors to move us seamlessly from case study to thematic point and back again, highlighting the broader issues raised by photographic humor. By virtue of its topic, however, that critical-conceptual journey from micro-instance to macro-framework is variously interrupted or enriched by the psychological charge that these images issue. This is not, in other words, a smooth read. Nor do I think it is meant to be. Depending on individual inclination, responses will range from deadpan boredom to shocked hilarity, but also encompass visceral revulsion (Erwin Wurm’s 2003 portrait of a woman dribbling saliva from her mouth into a bowl of soup)whimsical delight (Joseph Scherschel’s rollerskating horse of 1952), perplexity (Jeffu Warmouth’s hirsute Bagel Belly series of 1999), and horror (Lee Miller’s glistening, severed breast served up on a plate in 1929). The affective onslaught is persistent and warrants reading the book in installments.

The chapter on identity and identification cleverly begins with its inversion, transforming what could be a rote treatment of Foucauldian and Lacanian concepts into an illustration of photography’s subversive dimensions, from its foundations to the present. A brief but startling account of Charles Debrau’s Pierrot the Photographer of 1854–55 succinctly lays bare the institutional power of portraiture and its operations, literally miming the codes of authenticity through mockery. The quiet lucidity of Debrau’s gag contrasts sharply with John Stezaker’s unnervingly disjunctive photomontage of two studio headshots, whose features are so precisely aligned as to conjure a unified face and disrupted identity simultaneously in an uncanny maneuver reminiscent of Surrealism’s convulsive beauty. Spanning photographic holism to ruptured illusionism, Kaplan’s chapter highlights the range of photographic tactics utilized over the course of its history that fracture identity and identification as often as it bolsters senses of self. Double exposures, tableaux vivants, stereoscopic displacements, theatrical staging, trick lenses, distorted mirrors, and digital exaggerations join the battery of tactics employed to challenge discourses of identity all the while implicitly reinforcing the cultural assumptions they undermine.  As a result, Kaplan delivers all the goods, acknowledging the ways in which we rely on photographs to identify ourselves, identify with others, and buttress both in times of uncertainty, at the same time showing us how photographic tactics, be they deliberate or by chance, poke fun at the fiction of the stable, centered, unique self that photography so widely maintains in public and institutional discourse.

From the outset, photography functioned as a social medium, not just as a way of disseminating the self (witness the booming economy of portraiture and cartes-de-visite in the mid-nineteenth century) but also of vitalizing collectivity, be it family, class, or social tribe through the reinforcement of group pictures. Kaplan’s third chapter investigates the intersections of community, photography, and humor as central to the ways in which photography is employed in daily life as a form of bonding. The chapter opens with French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s argument from Photography: A Middle Brow Art (Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990) that the medium represents and reinforces familial belonging and integration, emblematized in the family album, thus stabilizing normative social patterns and rituals (91). True to form, however, Kaplan launches his counterargument with both canonical and unknown photographs that puncture Bourdieu’s theory by contributing to family disunity and social disintegration. At the heart of that dismantling is humor. From the diabolical face of the sleep-deprived father, clutching his two “bundles of joy” (while mama sleeps peacefully behind him) in a stereograph of 1897 to a cynical Great Depression era photo-illustration Human Relations in which a disembodied hand gouges another’s eyes out, Kaplan shows how photography dismantles social cohesion as much as it reinforces dominant systems. Importantly, though, that which keeps these pictures in the realm of the collective—a social glue, as it were—is the tribal or communal aspect of humor, which unifies those who share in its laughter. Of course, not all humorous social photography is grotesque and disruptive, and after challenging Bourdieu’s point with several counterexamples, Kaplan’s chapter proceeds with an arsenal of good-natured social gags throughout photography’s history, featuring the culture of stereoscopic comedy of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the absurd chance encounters and incongruous scenes immortalized by street photography and photojournalism, and “photo-bombing” of group selfies by errant stingrays and a grinning Queen of England. In these instances, humor, ranging from slapstick to teary eyed mirth, solders social cohesion within the photograph and in the practice of sharing and beholding. These might be among the easiest laughs of the book.

The interconnections of photography and mortality are central to photography theory, from Roland Barthes’s melancholia to Christian Metz’s fetish, and weave their way through photographic practice, beginning in 1840 with Hippolyte Bayard’s Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man. As Bayard’s staged death illustrates, pictures that play with mortality and photographically arrested time are often self-conscious reflections about the medium, rooted in the duplicity of laughter. Invoking Friedrich Nietzsche’s observation that “[man] suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter,” Kaplan notes in this fourth chapter that we often laugh so as not to weep (133). Importantly, many of these dark images invoke laughter to shatter taboo, using the tonic mix of anguished humor and revelatory photography to confront that which is culturally suppressed. Levity joins profundity in the search for psychological relief. The psychoanalytic dimension of photographic picturing lurks beneath the surface of this discussion, culminating in a section on decapitation, which appears to constitute its own subgenre in the history of photography since the medium’s discovery. Oddly, though it goes unremarked, all of the subjects of decapitation are male.

Well written and engaging as a book on humor ought to be, this complex and considered book, unique in photography studies, speaks to a nonspecialist audience and focuses on images that poke fun at some of the key roles and functions of photography, turning humor on the discourse of photography itself. Notable is the author’s consistent engagement with and acknowledgement of the work of others, from known theorists to early career scholars, indicative of the generosity that underpins this book as well as its commitment to photography’s humanity. Technology and human endeavor are affably intertwined in these pages to reveal both the unbridled levity and deep fear we mobilize to tenuously master the precariousness of our existence.

Sabine T. Kriebel
Lecturer, History of Art, University College Cork, Ireland