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The construction of historical memory has been a critical issue for photography since the medium’s emergence as a method of mass reproduction and dissemination. German photographer Thomas Demand’s work addresses the question of veracity that remains at the heart of photography’s role in shaping the representation and understanding of history. His work interrogates this concern through a two-stage process that transforms politically charged subject matter from appropriated mass-produced photographic image to sculptural installation to a final life-scaled photograph made by Demand. That he takes on photography’s contested relation to material reality now, at a moment when the cultural field is being shaped by the increased and increasingly invisible use of digital reproduction, gives his work the valence of a critical interrogation of what may be the central representational issue of our time. Yet the full implications of his work were not necessarily conveyed in his recent show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In a typically minimalist presentation billed as the first extended overview of Demand’s work, the photographs were “left to speak for themselves,” and, significantly, they said nothing.
In the exhibition catalogue, Demand’s images are neatly described by Roxana Marcoci as “constructed photography.” Specifically, they are large-format color prints of life-size cardboard and paper tableaux. The fully dimensional models (constructed by the artist) that become the subjects of his finished photographs are in turn based on photographic images—usually clipped from mass media sources—that typically document emotionally and politically resonant historical moments. For example, Room (1994) is derived from a 1944 photograph of Adolf Hitler’s wrecked headquarters, bombed in an attempt on his life; Office (1995) is drawn from a 1990 newspaper photograph of the Stasi central office after it was ransacked by East Germans in the wake of the fall of the Berlin wall; Bathroom (1997) has its origin in a 1987 cover of the German magazine Der Stern, which depicted politician Uwe Barschel dead in a hotel bathtub; Poll (2001) is traced to a series of Reuters images of workers examining ballots during the Florida recount of November 2000; Kitchen (2004) is based on information gleaned from a 2003 photograph of the kitchen of Saddam Hussein’s Tikrit hideout. Thus in every final, monumental image Demand doubly addresses the relation of photography to material reality: most obviously, in the striking illusion of a real and unconstructed site evoked by the images before the viewer fully realizes she or he is looking at a photograph of a paper model, but more subtly, in the initial stage of his process, where Demand attempts to reconstruct a historically grounded, fully dimensional “reality” based only on the information delivered by the media photographs.
It is this initial stage that distinguishes Demand’s work from other “setup” photographers such as James Casebere, Gregory Crewdson, and Yasumasa Morimura, in part because Demand begins with a mass-produced document rather than working from iconic typologies or sheer imagination, but more importantly, because of the specific nature of what is lost in translation in the move from these documents to the models Demand constructs of them. This initial stage provides the final photographs with their distinctive muteness, as it allows the constructed tableaux modeled on them to be wiped clean of readily identifiable historical references. The images have been radically depopulated—“cleared out,” as Walter Benjamin once remarked of Eugene Atget’s photographs. Indeed, for reasons ranging from the violence of their subject matter to their forensic origins, Demand’s photographs are often characterized as describing “the scene of a crime”—another reference to Benjamin culled from his Small History of Photography. Hermann Göring and his claque, prominent in a 1944 photograph of Hitler’s wrecked headquarters, have been excised from Demand’s architectural model of the same scene; the election counters scrutinizing hanging chads in the Reuters recount scene have disappeared from the site reconstruction in Poll; Lee Krasner has gone missing from Demand’s Barn of 1997.
Furthermore, all trace of written text has been erased from the many legible surfaces presented in the tableaux; thus, there are no textual references that might identify the scene with a historical place and time. This result derives from the sheer inability of the original media images to deliver the necessary information (the single exception is Podium 2000, which prominently displays the dates 1389 and 1989, dates that are also legible in the photograph of the Kosovo stage Demand used for his model). One again is reminded of Benjamin’s warning in The Small History that the photograph alone, without caption or supporting text to anchor its meaning, will always be too indeterminate to function critically. For Benjamin, photographs found their critical shortcomings in their plenum of detail—the indiscriminate inclusiveness of the camera-eye—not their lack of it. In Demand’s stripped scenarios, the profound absence of reference signals to the viewer that the images depict artificial spaces; that is, missing from the models is the full complement of gratuitous detail upon which photographs, like all realisms, depend for their “reality effect.” With all recognizable traces of historical time and place erased, the overall effect is a radical abstraction of the scene and a level of anonymity and alienation from context that is not often associated with photography—and never associated with the kind of photojournalism that produces the images from which Demand begins. The viewer is reminded, through the impossibility of reconstituting these historical events from photographic information, of the process of abstraction rather than transcription that occurs at every photographic event.
It is the severe blankness of these images, the sense that they have been blasted clean, that makes Demand’s most salient point about the construction of historical memory and the partiality of photographic vision. This is because documentary photographs depend on specific detail for their “use-value,” i.e., their efficacy as a mnemonic device. However, those things that Demand’s photographs have not “remembered” cannot be noted without the viewer’s knowledge of the skew between the media photographs and the models Demand builds from them. The specific mass-disseminated media images and the ways in which they are appropriated are key to Demand’s artistic production, yet they appear nowhere in the MoMA show. This is an egregious omission, especially since Marcoci, in her catalogue essay, has given the original photographs extensive attention, even indicating that the full import of Demand’s work resides in the historical inferences that swirl around the stories they tell. Marcoci’s assessment of Demand depends on the symbolic value of what she calls “salient events in German History,” yet the utter absence of identifiable references to those events in Demand’s final photographs goes unremarked by her. This is a shame, since the nature of Demand’s address of history has important implications for issues of originality, authorship, and the stability of meaning in the photographic medium.
For once the issue of absence in Demand’s work is raised, other questions arise, questions that have less to do with specific historical references than with the partial nature of photographic vision in general. What lies beyond Demand’s photographic frame? Does he construct a model that is significantly larger than the space represented in the finished photograph? How does he decide how to frame his installations and his images? Is he limited by the space represented in the original photographs? What about point of view? Do his models have a front and a back, an ideal side from which to be viewed and photographed? And isn’t this point of view already determined by that of the photojournalists who made the media images? Do Demand’s desks have backs? Do his tables and chairs have four legs, even though they aren’t visible in any of the photographs? Does Demand “fill in” what the camera didn’t include from the scene in question, or does he not bother, since he is constructing each tableau for a final, necessarily incomplete camera-view anyway? We cannot know these things from Demand’s finished photographs, but then we cannot know these things from any photograph. We can guess—which is what Demand himself may do, building what he “knows” rather than what he sees—but we can never actually be sure from the photographs that there was a wall behind the bookcase or a seat on the chair behind the desk.
Demand’s two-part method—a system that forces him to physically construct a fully dimensional space according to the constraints of representation—raises questions regarding exactly how much visual information is ever actually received from photographs, and particularly images relied upon for their forensic value. The mute paucity of his excised spaces, as set against the sensationalist historical photographs that motivate them, make a powerful statement about the arbitrary construction of collective memory and the indeterminate rather than authoritative nature of all photographic meaning.
But more pertinently for a politics of contemporary representation, the changes Demand makes in the process of “realizing” photojournalistic documents serve as a cautionary paradigm for the mediation of experience in a digital age. At a moment when the visible world is increasingly subjected to surveillance, reenactment, and management via a reduction to exchangeable units, it is important to attend to exactly what goes missing in this process of translation.
Assistant Professor, Department of the History of Art, University of California, Riverside
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