Posts Tagged ‘Allan Sekula’

contextual contingency to medium specificity

March 30, 2012 Comments off

The move to the intersection of contextual contingency and medium specificity of photography in the arts could be from either end of the meeting point. On the one hand artists take on the task of archiving, analyzing and presenting material that either support or disregard the photographic indexical claim to truth. While on the other hand, it is a formal movement that gives shape to the questioned photographic context. The former is a scientific method concerning truth while the latter is a phenomenological one. There are no doubt variety of departure points within this spectrum and variation of methodological approaches.

Cruise Ship in Godard's Film Socialisme, (2010)

Historically the first trope ties the history of photography to that of industrialization, as a medium that lends itself to capitalist modes of production and that gives form to an ideology of value circulation specific to it. It was used to identify, to categorize and analyze to capture, dominate and possess. It turns consumers into producers that circulate and re-circulate the archetypical images that are fed into the visual repertoire of capitalism. This is the Mediterranean cruise ship in Godard’s Film Socialisme, the act of photographing and the images produced propel the movement of the ship’s mode of value production, one is inseparable from the other. One can see this same mode of critique of the medium and the visual ideology that it supports in the works of Allan Sekula. This mode of image making always carries an internal negation as it is cognizant of the exchange value of visualization of critique and it is this very consciousness at work that propels the work’s movement toward formalism and construction of aesthetic impediments that require a laborious process of meaning production in order to access the work. The eureka moment is constantly postponed or at times disregarded as the process of understanding is one of theoretical alignment that is not instantaneous but rather pre-established.

Untitled, Sharon Lockhart, C-print, (2005)

The second trope—considering an assumed consistency in this text—ties the history of photography to that of art history and looks at the medium within the aesthetic canonical movement that propels the institution of art. It questions the external referentiality of photography in favor of an internal one. Context becomes here an external redundancy, and the image rather needs to be examined within the aesthetic conditions of meaning production. Here the form of criticality becomes a linguistic one as the reading of the image implies an understanding of an institutional lexicon. Nevertheless any question of ontology is consequently a question concerning truth a la deconstruction. Looking from this position, in photography (technical image) the context becomes form. Not surprisingly, this is the concern of the second half of Film Socialisme. A noting example could be the photographic and film work of Sharon Lockhart. Here, while taking the liberty of a possible inverted reading of the work (as it could easily be argued that the work departs from a concerned position), the formal movement of the work gives form to the context that otherwise could be deemed redundant in aesthetic readings of the work. This might be the result of the work’s concern with regards the becoming form of labor within the properties of the medium. It is the form of the concern that propels the medium specificity of the work, the movement of context to form is visualized in the work. Here the labor of meaning production is derived from an aesthetic position. What becomes astonishing is the theoretical alignment of the abovementioned movement towards the intersection of the contextual contingency and medium specificity.

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.