‘Photography’s Critical Stance?’
The Critical Distance, 1986, edited by Virginia Coventry, Hale and Iremonger. ISBN 0 86806 223, pp132-140
How is such a thing as the critical practice of photography possible? How does the specific nature of photography, its inherent characteristics and uses, define its relationship to critical cultural practice as a whole?
Photography and society and politics
Firstly, what is this thing called ‘the critical practice of photography or, as it is sometimes termed, ‘oppositional photography’? Oppositional photography is, first and foremost, a conscious photographic practice, a practice that takes a particular stance in relation to photography as a medium as well as to the society in which it operates. Oppositional photography demands a conscious stance because it sees both these things as structures that define the ways in which ‘our world’ is comprehended and the ways in which individuals behave in it. These structures are regarded as fundamentally oppressive – in need of critique and in need of change. Critical cultural practice assumes that forms of communication and representation – photography, film, newspapers, TV, and even art – cannot be j separated from the society in which they exist.
In the theory of ideology developed by Marx, the material basis of society, its economic functionings, produced a set of implicit assumptions and beliefs that masked its inherent contradictions. To Marx, the basic contradiction of capitalism was that economic wealth accrued to capital rather than to labour Ideology was« kind of false consciousness, the perfect reflection of the contradictions of capitalism. It is interesting to note that one of Marx’s own metaphors for this ‘wrong thinking’ was a camera-obscura, which makes upside-down images of the world in am darkened space.1 This metaphor relies on assumptions that are perhaps not so easy to maintain in the 1980s — assumptions of a’ real’ world, a’ false’ ideological image, and the distorting lens of simple class contradiction.
Within the Marxist tradition, theories of ideology were intensively developed during the twentieth century, when it was realised that classical Marxism had historical limits. It was more applicable to the nineteenth century capitalism which produced it, than to the increasingly subtle and complex forms of capitalism which developed during the twentieth century. An important theoretical development was the granting to ideology, society’s ‘superstructure’, a ‘relative autonomy11 from the economic base. The superstructure of society – culture, beliefs, etc.8 has a materiality of its own and is therefore as important an arena for revolutiona struggle as is the struggle between labour and capital. As the site for revolutic struggle has expanded, so has the cast of possible participants; no longer jud those directly oppressed by capital — the workers — but also those oppressed within other configurations of power — women, blacks, gays, the unemployed and those in the Third World.
Power is not simply direct economic oppression. Power can be technical, encoded in social regimes or architecture.2 Power can be immanent, residing in f assumption that things are the way they are because of simple, ‘commonsense’ reasons. Power is pervasive. As much cultural as economic, it is best described as being hegemonic. Cultural and political power is derived from the assumption that this is a ‘natural’ ‘normal’ society. It is fundamentally oppositional practices that6 gage themselves with this assumption.
Photography is one of the most important and pervasive mediums for construe ing this ‘normalcy’ because it weds an apparently undeniable reality, an unassailable ‘piece of the world’, with specifically constructed, culturally determined, messages about that world. Photography is an essential part of the phenomena of the mass media. In the 1930s Walter Benjamin discussed the ways in which photography, through the mass media, stripped reality of its unique and specific meanings for us as individuals and substituted a homogenous mass meaning, defined by the predominant interests in our society.3
Recently, such ideas have been developed further: the media is no longer simply seen as facilitating communication between individuals and sections of society, and thus passively reproducing capitalism’s contradictions, but rather as transacting in the signs of communication in the way capitalism transacts in any other commodity – as simply consumption for its own sake. Thus we can speak of an ‘economy of signs’ in which information is consumed and paid for as part of the same process as the consumption of products. Commodities and signs dissolve into each other. We are therefore robbed of the possibility of any real response to society because simple attack or transgression still circulates within the economy of the sign.4 Photography lies close to the heart of this process because, in a sense, it commodities the world. It turns pieces of ‘reality’ into messages that can be transacted within the economy of signs.
Photography’s privileged relationship with ‘the real’ has been dealt with by a variety of theorists, though not with the terminological coherency of straight political theory. Virtually all the writers who have discussed what I will call ‘the photographic effect’ have been forced to use individualistic, quasi-metaphoric modes of speech when dealing with photography’s intoxicating, corporeal effects of immediacy and palpability.
Within the photographic tradition Walter Benjamin is celebrated as one of the first to theorise photography’s technological supremacy over all other imaging mediums. In referring to photography’s ‘magical value’, its ‘tiny spark of accident, the here and now’, Benjamin attempted to define the optical and chemical causality of the photograph, its essential nature that not only characterises it as a medium but also absolutely distinguishes it from all other representational mediums.5
The semiologist Roland Barthes divided the photograph into layers, each of which, through different sign systems, carries different aspects of ‘the photographic message’. One of these distinct, but inseparable layers of meaning, connotation, carries specific cultural messages through the learnt codes of lighting, pose, composition, content, etc. The other layer, denotation, is a message sent without a code, undeniable reality resolutely recorded by the camera. This layer was for Barthes, as for all of us, the source of photography’s fascination. Thus Benjamin’s ‘flying spark of the here and now’ transmutes into ‘a message without a code’ for Barthes6 For Barthes, photography’s photographicness is not simply the bare bones of a linguistic/visual message lacking art, interpretation or even an enunciative creator; rather it is a potent, seductive and wily force naturalising and rendering innocent specific (bourgeois) messages within a brutal denotative/connotative alliance.
Through the mass media, with its increasing reliance on electronic, filmic, and mechanically reproduced photographic images, photography has assumed more and more of the very substance, the flesh, of our culture. Photography can thus also be said to play an increasingly important function within culture’s hegemonic structurings. Moreover, a direct correspondence can be made between the ‘hegemonic’ and the ‘photographic’ structurings of our ‘reality’. The photographic process, in its flawless and unquestionable conflation of a constructed, cultural message with ‘reality’, can be seen to operate in exactly the same way as the social hegemony at large, with its construction of a particular political and social order as the only commonsense ‘natural’ one. Marx’s metaphor of the camera-obscura can be revived and expanded: the cultural hegemony is like a photograph, it presents a particular order as the only conceivable order. But this relationship goes beyond being merely a metaphoric illustration: photography, or the ‘photographic effect’ (which spreads itself all the way from the video screen to the daguerreotype’s tarnished surface) can be seen to form part of the very body of our culture. Although, of course, linguistic,7 photography is not simply a mode of speech, not simply a cultural enunciation, it is a breath and a sound – the breath and the sound of the cultural hegemony.
In any oppositional practice the first thing that must be interrupted, therefore, is the even flow of the photographic breath. Oppositional photography of recent years has thus had a primary encounter with photography’s own ‘body’ – the photographic effect. The Critical Distance not only implies a stance in relation to politics and culture in Australia, but also a critical stance in relation to photography itself. The work collected under this title has concerned itself as much with disentangling itself from the photographic embrace as it has with social critique. Indeed it has not only had to deal with the two as thoroughly imbricated functions, but also as two absolute determinants of oppositional speech.
It is for these reasons that oppositional photographers characteristically break into their medium, rupturing it, tattooing it with texts, colouring and cutting it. These processes are of course historically relatable to the Modernist practices of montage and collage, but it remains characteristic of most oppositional photographic discourses that one of the first things to be problematised is photography itself.
‘Photography and . . .’
‘. . . and Photography’
Because of photography’s pervasive nature, because of its ethereal yet palpable presence in our day to day lives, it proves very difficult to come to terms with as medium or as a cultural practice in itself. Put simply, what we mean when we say the word ‘photography’ is never fully resolvable. Usually the word is used in con- j junction with some other term. It is always Art and Photography’8 ‘Photography and Pnntmaking’,9 ‘Photography and Language’.10 ‘Eros and Photography’,11 ‘Postmodernism and Photography’12 or ‘Photography and Politics’.13 Yet photography I persistently retains its identity no matter what it does and no matter what it is associated with. It is generally seen as an indivisible whole which merely displays I ‘aspects’ of itself for attention, aspects identifiable through their congruence with j other cultural discourses. Though there may be art photography, historical photography, erotic photography, and even political photography, somehow photography always remains the dominant term. The ‘photographic’ sets all the images which it characterises into a firm gelatinous mass. The medium of painting, for instance, is variegated, developing, changing and ruptured and can oil in some art discourses, be unified by such transcendent notions as ‘human expression’ or ‘artistic endeavour’. Photography, on the other hand, is fundamentally unified at the ontological level by its ‘photographicness’ and can only be divided and distinguished within itself on the discursive (historical, sociological, artistic) ‘ level. Photography remains predicated on the photographic, that intoxicating, corporeal effect of immediacy and palpability. The over-riding fact of photography, the unstoppable progression of the photographic effect, has always been the defining term of its various discursive formations.
Photography has thus played a problematic role within art and critical discourses,] yet this does not mean its role has been only marginal. Photography has existed close to the very centre of politics and art since its beginnings. It has always 1 dwelled close to the heart, if not the soul, of Modernism in art; by which it has been alternatively embraced or spurned, often as merely emblematic of the ‘spirit of the age’. In addition, it has shared many of its central figures with Modernism (e.g. Alfred Stieglitz or Man Ray). Whether sympathetically or not, photography has been evoked by Modernism as something either to react against or react with. ‘You know exactly what I think of photography’, Marcel Duchamp wrote to Alfred Stieglitz, 1 would like to see it make people despise painting until something else will make photography unbearable.’14
Photography is similarly evoked by traditional oppositional cultural practices in ambivalent, contradictory ways – as simultaneously a potent instrument of oppression and a potential instrument for demystification. (In traditional oppositional discourses photography is usually seen to demystify by either ironically or parodically deconstructing society’s cultural manipulations [photomontage, etc.] or by acting as an ‘alternative’ photography, a separate voice against the dominant ideology [documentary, etc.].)
Thus, although photography itself is central to the cultural hegemony, photographic theory tends to be marginalised within critical discourses. For instance, photographic theory is rarely taught as a distinct area of study in Australia’s tertiary institutions. Articles specifically concerned with photography rarely appear in books or magazines that deal with cultural theory or practice and photographic publications often find themselves begging texts from writers whose main concerns lie in other areas. While it is absurd to call for a separate entity called ‘photographic theory’, the lack of a coherent or sustained theoretical discourse around photography in Australia is at least partially indicative of its ambivalent role within possible critiques of politics and culture. In addition, photography is often deployed within discourses of art and oppositionality as a vague shadowy presence, an evocation of the ‘photographic effect’ rather than a direct engagement with the set of images and practices that go to make up photography.
Some of the most successful art of the late 1970s and early 1980s, that of the ‘second degree’,15 relied implicitly on the photographic effect; but only as an evocation, an informant, a presence of itself. Photography as such is not significantly compromised by this art’s references to media images and media imaging. Elsewhere there are remarkably few artists who use photography in a deliberately self-referential or quotational way, and even Sherry Levine or Cindy Sherman use photographs already over-determined by either art-history or popular culture. It is the specifics of their over-determination, rather than the photographs themselves, that is the principle subject of these artist’s work. Since photography and the photographic effect form such a fundamental part of the very substance of our visual culture there is little leverage left for the operation of the semiotic second degree, for the necessary ‘detachment’. Photography cannot be as easily foliated from culture as painting; it runs through the veins of culture and hence cannot slide across its surface.
The revival, under the rubric of New Expressionism, of the ‘traditional’ primacy of painting has similarly illuminated the still problematic role of photography within art. ‘Has the time come’, a recent article in Art in America asks, taking its lead from Duchamp, ‘to despise photography . . . Expressionism on one level is the effort to transcend the photographic state of mind, and achieve a new philosophical outlook, a new freedom of understanding. It is resistance against everything photography stands for, including the mechanistic society.’16 Arguments like this, of course, fall neatly into the art/photography rhetorical paradigm that has accompanied photography since its beginnings (and incidentally supplied much of the engine-power for its art-historical development). But this argument, in the present-day context of a supposedly heterogeneous art discourse, does more than simply revive old issues, it throws into sharp relief the basic unease with which photography still rests in the bosom of self-conscious cultural production.
Photography stands in a particularly strained and artificial relationship to cultural
theory and practice: its body is untouchable and its effect is demonic – both seductive and repulsive. Photography is still generally seen and used, even in the most ‘aware’ of cultural practices, as a single, albeit multifaceted, object. An object unassailable and unsplittable, without fractures or faultlines, an object whose various histories and cultural uses are conflated, through the agency of the photographic effect into a single word — ‘photography’. This word bulges with associations, potent effects and mysterious powers. It is most often used as a rhetorical trope standing in for an amorphous amalgam of photographic effects. It remains for many cultural producers simply an unstructured and awkward obstacle.
The oppositional photographer therefore has to deal with a photography that is constructed along at least two dimensions within society and its oppositional discourses. One dimension of photography is the very existence of itself as a set of continuous imagery stretching all the way back to 1839 and all the way up to the heights of connotational ineffability – a bank, or perhaps more appropriately, a body of imagery that must necessarily subsume any new photographs into itself. The other dimension is of the photographic effect, the ‘photographic’, which animates the body of photography with the electricity of contiguity, immediacy and palpability — the electrical spark that leaps between ‘reality’ and the photograph. Both of these dimensions are absolutely implicated in, and compromised by, the hegemonic structurings of our culture and society.
Some critical practices and the ‘and’
What approaches are possible, therefore, for oppositional photographers as I have defined them. Historically, political photography has its roots in the represei tation of the ‘real’. The illustrative documentation of social conditions for the purpose of social change goes back almost to photography’s beginnings.17 The efficacy of these images resided primarily in the raw photographic effect. As exposes and revelations they were intended as much to stimulate emotion as provide information. These direct, gritty, ‘confrontational’ images therefore acquired an aesthetic of their own. Explicitly intended to be unaesthetic and non-artistic, even to overtly repudiate artistry with its bourgeois associations, they nonetheles quickly became inscribed within the art-historical photographic discourse. Their implicit reliance on the transparency, and even purity, of their medium has much in common with Modernist notions of integrity to medium. Within the art-historicc photographic discourse the fully-fledged’Documentary Movement’arises at the same time as, and is directly relatable to, the purism of such photographers as Edward Weston or Paul Strand. Both took on the quasi-mystical values of truth ai truth-to-medium. Both were constructed within the paradigm of the transparent, incisive, unmarked18 photographic image.
The Documentary Movement thrived as much in Australia during the 1940s and 1950s as it did elsewhere.19 It was never able to develop a sufficiently coherent ideological or political base, or to fulfill its own expectations, and it rapidly becarr institutionalised as Photojournalism. Photojournalism’s propagandistic triumph, the Family of Man touring exhibition organised by Edward Steichen for the Museum of Modern Art, has become the quintessential example of all the wronc assumptions documentary photography made about the transparency of photography, the universal language it spoke, and the humanist commonality to which it had access.20
The notion of documentary photography still has significant currency, however, within the socialist movement and its publications, and cannot be so easily discounted. The Photojournalism of the 1940s and 1950s has been merely shifted I the right in the traditional political spectrum as much as it has been subjected to fundamental criticism. This process has not significantly problematised the notii of ‘documentary’ itself, which still forms the backbone of the oppositional photography of the 1970s and 1980s. (For instance, during the late 1970s and early 1980s the European Worker Photographer movements of the inter-war years were excavated and used as models for current practice. Although these movements, which consisted of workers using simple, direct photographs to document their work and social environments, were assuredly an unprecedented form of worker unity and opposition at the time, their efficacy and relevance to contemporary practice was open to considerable doubt.21)
Documentary photographs are still generally seen as relatively unencumbered enemy agents within the oppressive structures of society itself. They still have currency as ‘infotographs’ as one Canadian practitioner styles them.22 Emphasis is placed on the possibilities of their enunciation by the oppositional texts in which they are embedded, rather than by any oppositionality inherent to them as constructed images. Such photographs are thus asked to ‘speak back at society; their voice is assuredly the voice of the hegemonic media, but it attempts to speak against it. Hence these photographs almost purposely delimit themselves; like the proletariat themselves, they have ‘working lives’.23 They share the same aspirations and structures as advertising or news photographs, only their functions are seen to be different. A little naivete, a little suspension of judgment, is thus almost essential to a current reading of these images. Although initially assuming an unmarked status, perhaps they eventually assume the mark of ‘the good fight’. As images they must be read along both the metaphoric and metonymic semiotic dimensions. It may be this metaphoric dimension which allows them to maintain the illusion that they can speak within the economy of signs against that very economy. Though they may give voice to certain sections of society, they must not be confused with attempts to destructure representation itself. Only by attacking the forms of representation (even oppositional representation) can the relentless circulation of statements within the oppressive economy of signs be disrupted.
Thus documentary photographs, in their emphasis on exposing the ‘realities’ of society and demystifying its veil of ideology, are most informed by the classic Marxist base/superstructure model of culture within society. With the development of more sophisticated analyses of ideology, and the dissemination of more sophisticated theories of representation and reception within those discourses, attention has shifted, as I have indicated, to the photographic medium itself. Notions of truth and the oppression of truth have ceased to be conceptual predicates. Knowledge is no longer assumed to be a separate entity which can be discovered, learnt and communicated by language, but instead is seen as something that is embodied in language itself. Similarly, reality is not an ‘out there’ clearly or unclearly perceived through representation, but rather something perceived within representation.
Montage and collage, both with a long history in photography, have been resurrected as ‘serious’ practices. Oppositional montage is based on the determination of meaning by medium and reinvents the formerly ‘transparent’ surface of the photograph as a site for the playing out of the contradictions of capitalism. By juxtaposing two or more formerly transparent images on the surface of the photograph or photographic screen-print, the montage or collage creates a new meaning which has lost its transparency, but which in its overt and self-conscious reconstruction of that meaning gains force in reaction to the normal assumptions of photographic transparency. By cutting against the grain these images reveal and use the structure of that grain.24
The concept of truth remains vital to montage and collage, but it is transformed from being the central rationale, the substance of the image, to being a shifting term. No longer ‘the truth’, but ‘their truth’. A term to be dislocated from its construction within the real and relocated on the surface of the photographic image as a manifestation of the image’s representational mechanics.
The subtlety of these juxtapositions is the index of their efficacy. Because they are codes constructed in the second degree they rapidly become exhausted of anything but rhetorical oppositional meaning. Their efficacy also depends on the significatory force of their original components. If these are exhausted of real potency within culture, or are simply rhetorical symbols of it, the ‘new’ meaning is rarely anything but similarly rhetorically oppositional. (This can be said of all those colourful, Heartfieldesque posters of bombs and Uncle Sams, so popular as decorations for living-room walls.)
In parallel with the oppositional use of montage and collage, texts have become increasingly integrated into the photographic image; even intruding across the photograph’s rectangular boundaries and onto its glassy surface. Rather than being merely a linguistic base which enunciates the photograph as simple evidence for the expositional progressions of newspapers, magazines or books, captions and inscriptions are also used to compromise the photograph’s transparency and integrity as an unassailable unit of information. In addition the textual tattoo often serves as an expressionist rhythm with which to drum out the beat of an individually-proclaimed oppositionality, and thus to inscribe the work more legibly within the art discourse.25
The use of text and image also opens up the space in which to deploy an array of visual and verbal puns and parodies. Advertisements are obvious targets for parody since they rely on the ‘natural’ acceptance of certain cultural role and behaviour models. Their construction subtly multiplies a range of visual and verbal correspondences and contrasts into specific messages for particular target groups.26 The transparency of an advertisement is different to that of the ordinary photograph. Although the narrative space of advertisements is explicitly fictionalised, their transparency lies in the common language of consumerist desire and its potential fulfillment which both the advertisement’s actors and the advertisement’s subjects (ourselves) are implicitly assumed to share. This process naturalises the process of consumption within capitalism. Puns and parodies, in laying bare the construction of the advertisement, draw attention to this process of naturalisation.
In a similar, but more complex way, captions can be used to dislocate the safety unified speaking and reading positions of the image and viewer respectively. They can fracture these unities along the faultline of gender, for instance, splitting what would appear to be a ‘woman to woman’ voice into a voice of the male oppression of women.27
Handcolouring serves to give the photographic effect a specific, authorial voice; but not the one normally associated with oppositionality. The handcolourist’s voice is generally not a strident and discordant one to cut through the smooth soporific hummings of the cultural hegemony; rather it is one that speaks from within the history of art. Handcolourists, in their use of colour and in their employment of the gestures and skills of the painter, specifically evoke the artist’s traditional roles of privileged perception and concern. But a tension is thereby created because the site for this evocation is shifted from a neutral ground to the surface of the photographic print. Both the role of the artist as one whose perception is somehow ‘in tune’ and the role of the photograph as a natural, unambiguous reflection of reality, are compromised by their conjunction on the one surface. The traditional opposition of ‘art’ and ‘photography’ remains, but now each exists on the other’s terms. Handcolouring profitably orchestrates the ‘authored’ and the ‘unauthored’ image into a whole which is not subject to the assumptions or expectations of either of its components.28
In conclusion, those phrases ‘photography and . . .’ or ‘. . . and photography’ can be seen to encode the basic formation of photography within most cultural discourses. Within oppositional discourses attention has been, and must continue to be, focused on the equating ‘and’ of these phrases. This ‘and’ is not the pivotal point of the equation, it is not even a point as such; rather it is the name of an implicit agreement, an agreement which subsumes the fundamental imbrication of photography within the cultural hegemony into a simple relation — merely a system of cause, effect and comparison between entities. Whatever their individual character, the words on either side of this ‘and’ retain the fact of their simple structural relationship. It must therefore be this ‘and’, this artificial relationship which obscures the fundamental symbiosis of the photographic body within the hegemonic body, this subtle naming, placement and placation of photography within a relationship, that must be the object of attack and disruption. The smooth photographic speech must be given a stutter.
- Cited in Sylvia Harvey. ‘Ideology: the base superstructure debate.’ Photography/Politics: one. Terry Dennet and Jo Spence (eds). Photography Workshop, UK 1979.
- Michel Foucault. The History of Sexuality. Discipline and Punish. Madness and Civilization. Vintage Books, USA.
- Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.’ Illuminations. Translated by Harry Zahn, UK 1974.
- Jean Baudrillard, ‘Requiem for the Media.’ For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. Translated by Charles Levin. Telos press, USA 1981.
- Walter Benjamin, A Short History of Photography.’ Translated by Phil Patton. Artforum. February 1977, USA.
- Roland Barthes, ‘The Photographic Message.’ Image-Music-Text. Translated by Stephen Heath. Fontana/Collins, UK 1977.
- Roland Barthes, ibid.
- Aaron Scharf, Art and Photography, Penguin 1968.
- Gerry Badger, Photographer as Printmaker. Arts Council of Great Britain 1981.
- Lew Thomas (ed.), Photography and Language, NFS Press, USA 1979.
- Donna-Lee Phillips (ed.), Eros and Photography. NFS Press, USA 1977.
- Michael Starenko, ‘Whafs an Artist to do?, a Short History of Postmodernism and Phc-tography.’,4fte/7mage. January 1983, USA.
- Terry Dennet and Jo Spence (eds), op. cit.
- Quoted in Donald B. Kuspit. ‘Rejoinder: Tired Criticism, Tired Radicalism.’ Art in America, April 1983.
- Paul Taylor, Australian “New Wave” and the “Second Degree”.’ Art & Text. Autumn 1981.
- Donald B. Kuspit, op. cit.
- John Thomson, London Labour and the London Poor. 1851. Illustrated with woodcuts from Richard Beard’s daguerreotypes.
- Roland Barthes, Elements of Semiology. Translated by Annette Lavers and Colin Smith. Hill and Wang, USA 1967, pp. 76, 77.
- Gael Newton, Silver and Grey. Angus & Robertson, 1980.
- Allan Sekula, ‘The Traffic in Photographs.’ WOPOP Australian Photography Conference Papers, 1980.
- For instance ‘Der Arbeiter Fotograf.’ Creative Camera. May/June 1981, UK; or Photography/Politics: one. op. cit.
- Alan Wallach. ‘Info/tograph, the Art of Demystification.’Otoscura. Vol. 2, No. 5, Canada 1983.
- Helen Grace. ‘Working Pictures.’ Australian Centre for Photography exhibition notice, 1983.
- For instance see works by Ruth Waller.
- For instance see Virginia Coventry’s ‘Here and There: Concerning the Nuclear Power Industry.’
- Judith Williamson. Decoding Advertisement Marion Boyers, 1978.
- For instance see Sandy Edwards’ A Narrativi with Sexual Overtones.
- For instance see Micky Allan’s Botany Bay Today.