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Exposed to elements

May 25, 2012

Hito Steyerl writes how the over-exposed, horny, emaciated beauties of hyper capitalism save the rest of us from the burden of representation. These creatures supply the industry with the required flesh to anthropomorphize the commodities that we are applied to later on. According to the dictionary, before its post-1839 currency, the word “exposure” meant “to leave without shelter or defense,” from M.Fr. exposer “lay open, set forth,” and although it still carries this meaning in its contemporary use, not surprisingly in the early days of photography, exposing oneself to the camera was cautiously refused, in particular by philologues.

“The same Balzac who claimed to have drawn up all of his fictional figures like daguerreotypes” writes Kittler, “also said to his friend Nadar, France’s first and most famous portrait photographer, that the himself would dread being photographed. Balzac’s mystical tendencies led him to conclude that every person consists of many optical layers – like an onion peel – and every daguerreotype captures and stores the outermost layer, thus removing it from the person being photographed. With the next photograph, the next layer is lost, and so on and so on until the subject disappears of becomes a disembodied ghost (see Nadar, 1899). Edgar Allen Poe, who also wrote about photography as one of the wonders of the world, made this phantasm universal by positing the thesis that images in general are deadly for their object. Poe’s painter creates a portrait of his beloved without noticing that she grows increasingly pale the more that her oil painting acquires the color of human flesh. Painting, with its extensively discussed handicap of aging pigment, thus uses a photochemical effect against people as if it had become photography. As soon as Poe’s fictional painting is completed, the painter’s beloved drips dead.” Kittler also quotes from Photography and Revenge by Apollonius von Maltiz, “and the mother, who is photographed, is appalled: “Let to the altar from the nursery, beautifully named, deified by painters […] sculpted in marble by Thorwaldsen – now in the hands of a charlatan.”  And while Dorian’s portrait was withered by his sins, it was left unexposed as it started to blemish. Until the invention of photography, for the most of 19 centuries, Christ carried the burden of representation, before it was redistributed to all humanity. Alphonse Bertillon’s mug shot became a universal practice and the “model of criminal became part of our everyday life,” which prompted Thomas Pynchon to ask his readers: “Is that who you are, that vaguely criminal face on your ID card, its soul snatched by the government camera as the guillotine shutter fell? Hence, those exposed, “left without shelter or defense,” if left with a digital camera, remove themselves from the rubble, before being pictured within it.

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