Archive for February, 2012

crucifixion as a photo-op

February 29, 2012 Comments off

David Feedberg’s The Power of Images is a book on images and affect, exploring the kind of responses they provoke and their various uses in religion, magic and art. It is art history in reverse: from the position of viewer’s response rather than critical reading of the works. In the chapter invisibilia per visibilia: Meditation and Use of Theory, Freedberg writes about the practice of meditation where images were used for the production of mental images. He mentions the “aim of this kind of meditation is to grasp that which is absent, whether historical or spiritual.” Images are used to prevent the mind from wandering and help in the process of ascent from the physical, to the mental to the spiritual. Feedberg quotes Thomas Aquinas’ threefold reasons for the institution of images in the Church, first for the instruction of the unlettered, second for better memorizing the mystery of Incarnation and the examples of from the lives of the Saints, and lastly “to excite the emotions which are effectively aroused by things seen that by things heard.” Further in the chapter, Freedberg quotes a passage from the preface of Pseudo-Bede’s Little Book on the meditation on the Passion of Christ divided according to seven hours of the day:

 It is necessary that when you concentrate on these things in your contemplation, you do so as if you were actually present at that at the very time when he suffered. And in grieving you should regard your-self as if you had our Lord suffering before your very eyes, and that he was present to receive your prayers.”

An example of this “presence” at the time of suffering is a plate in Johannes David’s Orbita probitatis ad Christi imitationem, where he shows Christ carrying the cross over the mound surrounded by nine painters seated at their easels. They are painting the event as it is taking place, but they are each painting it from a different “perspective.” It is only the “bad imitator” who is painting Christ as the devil in guise of the woman. The drawing suggests that crucifixion does not only include the event itself but also includes the historia, that the painters are each painting different scenes of which. Curiously, it is only the painter in the center, who is looking at from the axel point directly at Christ is drawing the representative image. This further emphasizes on the position of both the painter and the viewer in the pyramid construction of the linear perspective. The image also implies the fragmentation of the event as it is happening, the very wandering of the mind that the practice of meditation claims to prevent.

Orbita probitatis ad Christi imitationem, Johannes David

The meditative aspects of the drawing aside, it shows how the event and its representation form a single entity. The representation does not follow the event, nor it is based on the narration of the event through the words of the witnesses, but rather its integral to its conception. The crucifixion and its representation are inseparable. Fast-forward to the live coverage of the arrival of US soldiers to the Somalian beach of Mogadishu in 1992, where they were greeted not by clan fighters or starving children, but by flash lights of photojournalists. Fast-forward to Tahrir Sq, the army tanks are surrounded by civilians’ LCD’s, participating, witnessing and documenting the event as it is taking place. Johannes David’s drawing renders crucifixion as a photo-op.

man films his own death

February 27, 2012 Comments off

Already today there is hardly an event of human significance toward which the artificial eye of civilization, the photographic lens is not directed. Ernst Junger

In a video posted on June 4, 2011 on youtube from the ongoing violence in Syria, a man films his own death. The video shows jittery P.O.V footage, shot from a balcony looking at the opposite buildings, overlooking what appears to be a back alley. The camera jumps rapidly, scans the surfaces of the buildings, the parapet, the sky, satellite dishes etc. We can hear the man panting through the microphone and describes what he is win. A translation of his commentary is provided on the youtube by netspanner: “The armed services are shooting at my country men for no reason on 1/7/2011, there is no protest or anything.” At 0:37 we see the boots of a soldier behind a wall, his head not visible. A few second later we see the soldier as he lifts his gun, points and shoots. At 0:47 the camera man is shot and he falls, we hear the camera drop and the picture goes blank. Later we hear a voice saying: “the bullet entered your head?… what you were filming?”

A man films his own death, youtube still image

Ernst Junger notes that among the most obvious characteristics of the type of human evolving in our times is the possession of a second consciousness. “This second, colder consciousness” Ernst writes, “shows itself in the ever more sharply developed ability to see oneself as an object . . . the second consciousness is focused on the person who stands outside the sphere of pain.” Junger wrote about the increasing incursion on danger into everyday life triggered by technological advancements of weaponry, and cameras. Is this video the absolute instance of Junger’s second consciousness? While the camera man is obviously feeling the threat, documenting the soldier’s movements capturing him on gun point, what prevents him from dropping the camera and running for his life. Does he find the image the only remaining possibility for life? Is the direct encounter with danger normalized through the camera eye in such way that one becomes the object of the situation that ultimately results in one’s annihilation?

A man films his own death, youtube still image

Here the camera/body entity becomes the subject of the event in a kind of phenomenological displacement. The moment of death is captured through the spatial relations defined by the camera and not the representation of the deceased subject captured on the image. The picture of one’s own death is empty from the representational drive of the image of the death of the other. As opposed to similar videos capturing the death of others in similar situations, this video is devoid of the kind of sadomasochistic aspect of disaster spectatorship that Foster writes about. The subject is split in relation to the disaster Foster writes, “even as he or she may mourn the victims, even identify with them masochistically, he or she may also be thrilled sadistically by the victims of whom he or she is not one.” The thrill in this video, is not of witnessing the death of the other, but is the thrill of witnessing one’s own death through the camera viewfinder.

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February 23, 2012 Comments off

In sdlacregirl, (2009) artist Miljohn Ruperto edited a youtube video of a freestyle performance by Trinere. The piece, titled after the user’s screen name, is a meticulously inconspicuous edit of the original youtube footage. The artist muted the video and emptied it from the stage lighting and other accessories, leaving only the figure of the singer performing. Trinerel, glowing under the spot lights, turns into a candle flame flickering against a black backdrop moving in sporadic and unpredictable movements. The movements are however not the movements of the performer on the stage, but the movements of the videographer, holding the camera, dancing. The video is of a camera dancing to the beats of the performance, free from the demands of the subject, propelled not by the logics of the event that its documenting, but rather by the movements of its operator. The dancer and the camera become a single entity, driven by the music. The visual subject/objects relations are inverted in the work, instead of Trinere being the subject of the camera’s operation, it is the camera that is the subject of the event. Here a new space is being formed and defined, one that is not defined by location, but by the movements. The camera creates a new architecture of the event and defines the special relationships according to its movements, separate from the direction of the lens.

sdlacregirl, Miljohn Ruperto, 2009

In a number of his photo activities Vito Acconci experimented with the special configurations produced by the camera. In Throw (1969) Accounci takes photographs while “going through the motions of throwing a ball.“ Each photograph is accompanied by a text, describing the motion and the instance in the motion that the picture was taken. “REACH BACK- GET READY TO THROW-CLICK”, “COME FORWARD-THROW-FOLLOW THROUGH-CLICK.” Similar to sdlacregirl it is the body/camera entity the defines the architectural space in Soho where the photographs are taken. While Throw seizes an architectural caesura, sdlacregirl is an architectural interval.

Vito Acconci, Throw, 1969

In the recent waves of uprisings world-wide, the internet is inundated with videos taken by demonstrators while the events are taking place. Many of which are taken as the protestors are confronting the securing forces or the police, marching down major streets and intersections, gathering in central squares and landmarks, or running for their lives down the alleyways. The videos document the events as the image-makers are engaged in the demonstrations, and they are simultaneously documenting and participating in the events. The videos are instantly distributed online feeding into the live coverage of the events on the internet. Through the footage provided by the protestors and activists, the cityscape is defined and formed through the camera. The camera thus produces a different urban experience, one can travel through the city online together with the crowds of people flooding the streets and alleyways. Similar to sdlacregirl the camera becomes the subject of the event. In sdlacregirl and Throw these spatial arrangements, performed by the camera are explored. It is not the space that defines the movements of the camera, but vice versa, it is the camera that defines the movements of the [architectural] space.

Protester running for his life on bicycle in Syria, youtube still image

visible darkness

February 22, 2012 Comments off

“broadcast yourself” was youtube’s offering to the world. There was suddenly no need for a television mediator, but rather, anyone, from anywhere in the world with an internet connection and a simple video camera could potentially be viewed by anyone in any corner of the world with an internet connection. You can become a cooking channel, a porn star, an idler, a hunter, a documentarist, a voyeur, a detective, a bird watcher, a cat watcher, a TV impersonator, an artist, anything on youtube. But whatever it is that you put on youtube, it is a video file i.e. image cast in time. Curiously it is not only videos that ended up on youtube: youtube also became a listening station and a photo album. Photographs had to stretch out into time and sounds had to visualize, they had to become a video file. JPEG’s into MOV, GIF’s into MPEG’s, MP3’s and WAVE files had to be converted into movie files to be viewed on youtube. On youtube the traditional boundaries between disciplines are transcended all in favor of video, of a particular group of file extensions. In cinema photographs were shown as photographs, music was heard as music, on youtube all become a video file. But other than the appropriation of video format by sound and image, on youtube darkness makes itself visible.

An example of this is the videos of night protests in the aftermath of the Iranian presidential elections of 2009. Every night at 10pm protestors went to their rooftops and shouted Allahu Akbar. The darkness of the night camouflaged the protestors so that they would not be spotted by the security forces. It was the eerie sound of the rooftop chorus in the absence of image that was particular to these nightcaps. But the documents of these actions were not sound clips, but rather they were videos up loaded on youtube. It was the image of the absence of image that documented these actions. What we see in these videos is the sound of darkness. Most of these videos are identical, a few lit windows, headlights, the general image of a city in the dark, but not much more. They are devoid of all detail. They do not represent the picture of the city at night, as most of them do not have a dramatic view from top of a tower. It is in these videos that darkness performs for the camera. Here the image maker is not documenting the event that cannot be seen, but rather s/he is documenting his/her presence in the event. The videos aim to document an experience, not an image. In a letter dating to 599, Gregory the Great wrote of a similar concern: we do not harm in wishing to show the invisible by means of visible.

ghastly distanciation

February 21, 2012 Comments off

In Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 movie Inglourious Basterds the American 1st Special Service Forces group of eight Jewish-Americans lead by Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) are on a mission to “kill Germans”. Butz, a survivor of one of the Basterd’s ambushes, in flashbacks recounts the incident for the German Fubrer, describing every minute detail. The American squad is known for its extreme brutality in killing Nazi soldiers, especially they are known for scalping their captives. This is an example of what poor Butz saw from the script of Inglourious Basterds where the process of scalping is detailed:


His head lies on the ground horizontal. A HAND reaches into FRAME, KNOCKS aside the dead German patriots helmet, and grabs a handful of the cadavers blonde hair. A LARGE KNIFE ENTERS FRAME, and begins SLICING ALONG THE HAIRLINE. This process is called SCALPING. After SLICING is complete, the SCALP easily peels off like a banana.

Butz was set free to tell the tale of the Jewish-American killing squad. The Basterds kill and scalp all of the members of Butz’s squad, including his sergeant Werner Rachtman whose skull is smashed with a baseball bat by Staff Sergeant Donny Donowitz nicknamed “The Bear Jew” by the Germans. After Rachmant “respectfully refuses” to provide Aldo with information regarding the position of a “another kraut patrol fuckin’ around” the area, Aldo calls out the Bear Jew. Donny in his wifebeaters appears with his baseball bat, aligns his weapon, and then smashes Rachmant’s head in one of the most gruesome close up shots of the film. Inglourious Basterds hardly falls short of picturing most ghastly insert shots of bare violence.

William Charles, "A scene on the frontiers as practiced by the "humane" British and their "worthy" allies"", 1812

The movie’s fascinating script, masterfully shot, together with exceptional performances completely captivates the viewer. Tarantino’s classic appropriations and brilliant techniques of montage and storytelling engross the audience into the cinematic spectacle. It is an absolute movie experience in classical terms. But the spectacle is constantly interrupted by the violent inserts that break the dramatic order and makes the audience self-conscious. It is through these narrative breaks, detailed scenes of naked violence, of skinning skulls, smashing heads, carving swastikas, that the viewer comes back to his/her body in the movie theater. The scenes are so gruesome that are difficult to watch, many viewers turn their heads away or close their eyes, and are compelled to adopt a an attitude vis-à-vis the situation. The violence here serves as a tool to produce the famous Brechtian verfremdungseffekt or distancing effect. While Brecht used irony and songs, contemporary cinema of Tarantino uses violence as alienating means. If the audience is readily consuming the [violent] cinematic spectacle, the inserts confront him/her with the actual “content” of the film. A rather utopian reading of this interpretation is that through these violent disruptions of the plot, one would become conscious of the inherent everyday violence of contemporary life. But just as the distancing techniques of “revealing of conditions of production” has now become an advertising troupe, so is violence potentially commodified. The audience at a Times Square theater surprisingly clap their hands and laugh as the Bear Jew shatters Rachmant’s skull. Nevertheless, there is clearly a hysterical undertone to that laughter, it rattles with discomfort. Whether this kind of distanciation is effective or not, the audience of the evening news hardly ever see similar scenes of violence commonplace in conflict zones across the world. It is not that these scenes escape the eye of the camera and happen in its absence. Thanks to omnipresence of cell phone/digital cameras everyday brutal scenes of violence are captured by citizen journalists, spectators, passers by etc. and distributed over the internet. Furthermore, they are many such acts performed for the camera and propelled by it. But while Inglourious Basterds inserts scenes of violence to create critical distance, the news media refrains from providing such alienation effect. The videos of violence are deported to youtube ghettos, archives of opposition groups, NGO’s and human rights activists. Even youtube is quick to remove them due to their graphic content. The viral video of an Iranian female protester who was shot after the protests following the 2009 fraudulent elections, has now a Kitaro like sound track, and the final close up of her bloody face is edited out.

The news media edits the image of death out of the reports of the war, so that the audience overlook its underlying reality. By editing the images of violence or pixelating and redacting  the faces of the victims the media double victimize the subjects of human rights violations, it effaces them in the image just as the perpetrators obliterate them in real life. While for Aldo and his squad “watchin’ Donny beat Nazi’s to death, is the closest [they] ever get to goin’ to the movies”, on the news of the war people are either already dead, or about to die, but they never get to die on television.

No CNN effect?

February 20, 2012 Comments off

Since the start of the Syrian uprising more than a year ago, an estimated  number of 5400 people have lost their lives and many more are left injured, displaced, detained, tortured and disappeared. The Asad regime continues its relentless oppression of opposition forces and shelling of civilian quarters  despite of the efforts, warnings and the sanctions of international community, from the United Nations to the Arab League.  From its outset, the Syrian regime expelled all foreign journalists from the county and the offices of major newscasters were all closed. All information is relayed to international organizations and news media from trusted sources from within Syria—activists or members of Free Syrian Army—or a handful of “fearless” reporters who risk their lives and enter the country illegally and smuggle out their findings in precarious conditions. What makes the Syrian revolution now-turned-civil-war unique amongst the wave of uprisings in the region and beyond is the absence, or rather the extreme scarcity, of images. The Syrian uprising is an Arab Spring without live global spectatorship, an untelevised revolution. The other unique feature of the Syrian uprising is its longevity compared to other revolutions in the region in the past year. Are these two aspects of the Syrian crisis related? Is the absence of the image the reason that the crisis still continues?

Since the live coverage of the arrival of American troops to the Somalian beach of Mogadishu in 1992, many theorists and commentators were quick to announce that there is no war without television. The arrival of American soldiers, on a humanitarian rescue mission, was greeted with an army of photojournalists instead of clan fighters and starving children, marking the beginning of an era of live crisis broadcast where soldiers and reporters, cameras and weapons, march together the zones of conflict. Later the Bosnian war continued under the limelight of news media reporters and the humanitarian observers while the “whole world was watching. In the words of David Rieff, “no slaughter was more scrupulously and ably covered.” The first Gulf war was covered live through the night vision of American bomber planes of the Desert Storm Operation. The latter was dominated by its particular aesthetics of representation that Baudrillard famously announced the Gulf war did not take place.

However the Arab Spring, was not as much reliant on the presence of news casters’ cameras thanks to mass availability of cell phone digital cameras and broadband connections that immediately transmitted the images over the world-wide-web. These images were instantly fed into Al Jazeera’s live coverage of the proceedings, and the station redefined itself as a visual hub and a transmission center selecting the images and providing live commentary on them.

But Syria is absolute darkness, there is no instant coverage, no live feed, no real time broadcast of the crisis. There are images no doubt— mostly courtesy of indigenous reporters—but the drumbeats of total spectacularization of the event are silent. Syria is a phantom, it is reached through distorted phone lines, and talks to us through jittery connections. However the images coming out of Syria, those can be found on youtube and other websites, are the most horrific ones, the most violent of images. There are for the most part quickly removed or marked as “graphic content.” Syria is producing images that we cannot consume, images that cannot be incorporated into an event spectacle to be followed by the global news audience. It is not that other images from the Arab Spring were not violent, but rather that they were part of a larger flood of images filled with revolutionary euphoria of occupying iconic sites and chanting of large groups of crowds in front of a defeated riot police. The violent images were the unfortunate byproducts of an otherwise mesmerizing eruption of human emotions, courage and heroism. The scenes of the crowds pushing back the military and the riot police guards made the few [surfaced] images of absolute violence more tolerable. The consensus was (even amongst the Egyptians) that they sacrifices for a cause, larger than life. Syria is not providing any of this, it is only the brutal violence captured on hidden cameras of civilians who are on the run, or sheltering for their lives. Every image coming out of Syria is in itself a sacrifice of the image-maker who risks his/her life to seize the event on camera. In Syria, in the absence of global viewership, the image becomes a site for public torture and execution. It documents the atrocities, but at the same time it permeates fear, the image becomes an instrument of torture. There is nothing glorifying about the annihilation of humanity on camera, there is nothing dramatic about dying livestream. While the so-called “CNN effect” did not end the war in Bosnia, neither its absence affected the crisis in Syria.

They Shoot Horses?

February 16, 2012 Comments off

Since the mid-1990s, artist Phil Collins has traveled zones of conflict and oppression, in order to “get closer to the event.” What initially began as a response to a mistrust of news media outlets’ coverage of the conflict in Kosovo, became a working methodology and an artistic concern for Collins. In How to Make a Refugee (1999), the artist follows the photojournalists around Kosovo, covering them covering the war. The video documents how a group of journalists choreographed a family displaced and wounded by the war. Collins meticulously documents how the journalists examined a wound on the boy’s stomach, made him take off his shirt (but put his cap back on) and covered him with flashes. All along, the boy was hiding his injured leg from the cameras, as he is obviously troubled by the process and wants it to be over with.

Phil Collins, How to Make a Refugee, 1999

The humanitarian technique of mobilization of shame is based on the belief that the perpetrators, in fear of public opinion awakened by the exposure of acts of human rights violation to the international community, will ultimately stop their violent actions. Shaming becomes a humanitarian tool based on the conviction that ‘‘if mass violations become known, the world reacts.” But doesn’t destruction ask for visibility or is it done to go unnoticed? : The destroyer must be constantly surrounded by people, witnesses to his efficacy (Benjamin, The Destructive Character). In Mobilizing Shame, Thomas Keenan recounts how in the presence of news cameras of BBC and ITN (Independent Television Network), Serbian policemen looted and destroyed the Albanian village of Mijalic. Keenan further closely analyzes a line in the ITN video log: “looters out of house waving to cameras.” Keenan writes: “The wave announces—it performs, it enacts—that there’s no hiding here, nothing in the dark, nothing to be ashamed of. And it demonstrates this for the very instruments that are known for their revelatory abilities—the wave says, ‘expose this, this that I am exposing for you.’” The camera reveals and exposes, but it is also a call for action, it instigates performance. It is not a passive witness, it is an active participant. The camera commands: dance for me, kill for me, cry for me. Technologies of exposure have become opportunities for performance, exhibition, self-exposure. While the boy in Collins’ video wants to hide from the camera, the soldiers wave at it, the soldiers want to be him, want to take his place before the camera.

Phil Collins, They Shoot Horses, 2004

A decade later, Collins travels to Palestine, another conflict zone that has occupied decades of air time and prime visual real estate. There he stages a disco dance marathon in Ramallah for the making of the piece They Shoot Horses. After a series of auditions, Collins chose nine dancers and divided them into two groups, filmed them separately in two days. Both groups danced to the same soundtrack for eight hours without breaks, from 10am to 6pm, and received a day’s wage per hour. The camera, for the most part, is a full frame shot that holds all of the dancers, who dance against a pink wall. About it Collins writes: “In the finished film they do aerobics, they do folk dancing to Gina X. Someone starts dry-retching at Aretha Franklin. They do belly dancing to The Smiths. Later on, they fall asleep to ‘Fame’. They’ve almost had it, stumbling about like drunks, bags under their eyes as Irene Cara rattles on in the background.” In a place 24/7/365 under the gaze of cameras, from news media to aerial surveillance to citizen journalists, the piece exhausts the possibilities of human motions before a camera. For the dancers, the presence of the camera is part of living under the limelight of the occupation. In the age of live televised war, the victims are those who cannot choose not to be on camera, while the perpetrators, invite it in, wave at it, and expel it as they see fit. The victims have to keep dancing until the music is over.

In The Spam of the Earth, Hito Steyerl writes how the immaculate, horny anorexic omnipresent beauties of hyper-capitalism, are bearing the cross of representation for the rest of us, so we can live a life camera free. This visual tabloid-lumpenproletariat divide lens-attention with the other over-represented but invisible crowd who are condemned to dance for the cameras until they stop rolling. Together they divide our emotion spam between pity and envy, empathy and stimulation, charity and over-consumption.



Photography’s move to abstraction in face of human rights violations

February 15, 2012 Comments off

Guardian Project (an application development organization dedicated to making smartphones more secure) and WITNESS (a video advocacy group based in New York), have developed an open source application called Obscuracam. By means of a facial detection technology, Obscuracam detects faces in the photographic frame and provides an option to “obscure” them. The user has the choice to redact, pixelate, or mask the faces of photographed subjects. This feature is developed to protect the anonymity of the photographed subjects, in face of police meta-surveillance of crowd sourced images online, or stored on hard drives and other devices. The software is developed in response to security crack-down on anti government protesters caught on the cameras of citizen journalists who, captured and distributed the images of public demonstrations and protests online. An article on the project on the Economist writes: “Compelling pictures from a traceable source may also prove to be a double-edged sword for protesters. Police can mine video files for hidden information (“metadata” in the jargon) that could help identify the camera’s owner, or use face-recognition software on the people being filmed.” No doubt images could be used by the police to identify protestors and activists and it could have extreme repercussions for them. A telling pre-digital example of police identifying the photographic subject is the cover of Economist in July 17th 1999.  The photograph showed an Iranian student holding a bloody shirt of a fellow protestor who was beaten by the police in the first public protest in country since the massive political crack-downs of the early 1980s. The image has all the requirements of an iconic photojournalistic image: a good-looking student, with long hair and a black ribbon tied to his bicep, a bloody t-shirt, two hands holding a newspaper in front of him with an image of a woman. The picture eventually sent Ahmad Batebi, the Iranian student to prison for ten years. This example (as numerous others) underlines the human rights concerns over the distribution of images of human rights violations.


As discussed in previous posts, history of photography, as opposed to painting’s, is one of a representational mediums move away from its claim to reality, what is known as photographic indexicality. The development of Obscuracam protects the identity of the photographed subjects, but it also questions the very ontology of photography while simultaneously depends on it: the photograph represents the event as it happened, even if digitally manipulated. It is within the assumption that the “obscured” image, somehow still carries with itself the buried photographic claim to reality, even if the image is a modification of what it claims to be. It invites the viewer to believe in what he is not seeing.

By obscuring the faces of the photographed subject, the Obscuracam effaces the subjects in the world of images, before the security forces efface them in the world outside. The image will be of faceless victims in face of human brutality who’s last vestiges of expression are erased from the picture plane.

February 15, 2012 Comments off

[continued] When will the photographic window open to the landscape of truth?[i] It is in a moment of danger that the indexicality of the photograph goes beyond form, the image becomes an index of death. It is this shadow of death, looming over the event, that binds the image maker and the subject in the instance that the camera shutter clicks. Every portrait, or rather, every image produced under such conditions, needs to be also an image of the self, a self-portrait. It is only when the photographer and the subject share the same position within (and not vis à vis) the event that the distance between spectatorship and participation would elapse and the picture taken will be also the picture of the photographer him/herself. The photographer is commonly known to bear witness to the event, but this act of witnessing carries with itself the now-forgotten meaning of the word witness: martyr. In Waiting for Tear Gas, referring to similar concerns Allen Sekula writes “The rule of thumb for this sort of anti-photojournalism: no flash, no telephoto zoom lens, no gas mask, no auto-focus, no press pass and no pressure to grab at all costs the one defining image of dramatic violence. ” The photographer becomes a part of the crowd, moves with the crowd and shares their position. The image and the event become parts of a single entity, not one the documentation of the other. The photograph becomes the event.

Henry Fox Talbot, "Latticed window in Lacock Abbey", 1835

The moment of danger, seized in the photographic frame, also severs the ties between the photograph and the history of photography. As such the image does not signify a canonic progression of a formal dialectic, it will be a primal image, stripped from ontology, an image (as Benjamin puts it) “identical with the historical object.” In the period between the invention of photography and the introduction of snapshot, photography appropriated painterly aesthetics and established its position regarding the history of art. It is within these aesthetic conditions that the notion of a defining image [of an event] was produced. This defining image lends itself to the established aesthetic categories and systems of evaluation that preside over art history.

It is only through a rupture between the photograph and its history that the historical moment could be seized and preserved in one unique image. This image, unburdened by the history of its medium becomes free from the chain of signification, the image ceases to be a text, and without the mediation of meaning, the subject and object will coincide in a “dialectical image.” Here, the photograph (technical image) becomes an image, as in the image before the era of art, an image emptied of words.


[i] Here I am not considering the indexicaliy of images of exchange, e.g. online shopping catalogues that provide an image of what the costumer receives in the mail.

Indexicality as form

February 14, 2012 Comments off

The first [surviving] photographic image is Nicéphore Niépce’s View from the Window at Le Gras, while the first photographic negative is from Fox Talbot’s latticed window in Lacock Abbey. It seems more than a mere coincidence that the first images produced by the new representational medium pictured the 15th century architect, sculptor, painter, and theorist Leon Battista Alberti’s metaphor for painting: “…an open window through which the subject to be painted is seen” While the former show a grainy image of rooftops out side of the French chemist’s window, the latter brings to mind Albrecht Dürer’s glass frame with grids, the painter’s aid for accurately preserving the figure’s spatial relationships.

Marcel Duchamp, Fresh Window (1920), replica 1964

Alberti’s window was not one that opened to the real world out side, but rather its purpose was to produce a window-view of the painting’s subject for the spectator. Similar to fenestra caeli, the “window of heaven” where through figure of Mary the Lord’s light shines over the spectator,  standing in front of the painting from a fixed position, it will open to the historia (imaginative narrative paintings of great events and classical heroes) as an architectural window opens to the orange tree, or the parking lot outside. Until the invention of photography, painting’s technical progress was to deliver an image that seemed perceptually identical from the view through an open window. But the windows that Niépce and other pioneers of the new medium opened, let painting shut the blinds and walk outside of the camera lucida of appearances of the world outside. Painting stopped cross-dressing itself as a window, refused to serve as a decoy, a real-looking surrogate, painting stopped being a [hieroglyphic] text. A lie could now be a color, an impression a flat surface, a feeling an illusion of depth. Just as the Reformation freed the image from God and gave it to the word, photography untied painting from the appearance of the real.

Curiously, while painting’s history (until the invention of photography) is one of maximizing its representational quality to that of an open window, history of photography on the other hand is of a representational medium’s departure from reality. Painting progressed [technically] to render the imaginary real, photography the real as imaginary. Photography at its best claims to show that which is beyond representation, a window that opens to that which does not render itself visible. Therefore at its best, photography questioned its own indexicality and claimed to represent beyond the mere traces of light on the sensitive emulsion. But simultaneously it was through its very indexicality that photography could point beyond its semiotics. From the surrealists to the avant-garde, from propagandists to documentarists, all used this inherent tension of the photographic medium. Thus the photographic index became form, a vessel that carried a semiotic displacement. Colin Powel’s fraudulent presentation before the UN Security Council in support of the Iraq war is a telling contemporary example of this semiotic displacement. Images, aerial photographs and satellite images were used to show exactly what the images were not an index of, rather the representational quality was used as a rhetorical device in support of the administration’s argument that hinged on the existence of weapons of mass destruction storages and facilities. Here, the indexicality of the photograph transformed the contents of the target’s landscape to the desired constituents. But this rhetorical maneuvering is hardly unique to the Pentagon, from early years of snap-shots, people were expected to smile in photographs, here the landscape smiled for the aerial photos. Furthermore, before photographs made time stand still, photographed subjects had to stand still to be captured by the camera. Before cameras could capture the world, the world had to practice posing for the cameras, thus the technological advancement of photography from its outset carried a semblance of an index. Rather than the smoke rising from the chimney signifying the fire, it was the fire that burned to be signified. In Sistine Madonna, Raphael, alluding to the tradition of picture curtain—a curtain before the cult image which can conceal and reveal it as a ritual apparition—frames his painting with an open curtain.

Raphael, The Sistine Madonna (1513-14), Oil on canvas, 270 x 201 cm ,Gemäldegalerie, Dresden

“When the costly curtains were drawn back, the divine conception of the painting (the Iddea) appeared as if alive, being the divine person (iddio) in the ideal of beauty (idea), thus uniting religion and art in one.” The curtain is the only remaining residue of the material image, that curtain’s reincarnation is the photograph’s indexicality: it conceals as well at it reveals.