Posts Tagged ‘Geoffrey Batchen’

as authentic as a photograph

March 28, 2012 Comments off

At some point in October 1833, while visiting Lake Como in Italy with his wife, Fox Talbot’s “frustrations with pencil come to a head.” Superimposing the image on the back of a camera lucida he “found that the faithless pencil had only left traces on the paper melancholy to behold,” as he recounted in his book The Pencil of Nature.

In Burning with Desire, photography historian Geoffrey Batchen writes on the epistemological shift that occurs towards the end of 18th and the first half of 19th century that created the conditions of possibility within which photography came to life. He mentions how amongst photography historians there is a genre of origin stories, each trying to determine when exactly the new medium was born. He brings together an almost encyclopedic collection of the stories of proto-photographers. The book’s title refers to a letter sent from Daguerre to Niepce in 1828 in which the former expresses how he is “burning with desire to see your experiments with nature.” Batchen shows how in the period that he is examining, there is a desire to permanently “fix” the fleeting world, the images on the back of a camera lucida, experiences of the observing subject.

The Head of Christ from a Painting on Glass, William Henry Fox Talbot, Iodide-fixed photogenic drawing negative,1839

One might be able to trace back this “desire” further back in time that the period that Batchen is examining. A telling example of the attempt to fix an ephemeral image can be traced back to the Holy Mandylion and the Veronica image, both carrying an imprint of the features of Christ on a piece of cloth. According to the legend of the former, King Abgar of Edessa’s painter, instead of coming back with a drawing of Jesus, brings a cloth with which he wiped his face and thus imprinted it on the cloth the sight of which instantly cured the kind. The Veronica image is on a cloth that was offered to Christ to wipe his face as he was climbing the Mount of Olives. Both these images one can say carry the same “desire” that Batchen mentions in his book on photography. Images did not rely on artistic imitations of the “faithless pencil,” but are created in direct contact with the subject testifying to historicity and the presence of the subject at some point in time. Thus the desire to fix the fleeing moments of time for the future, is not necessarily limited to the modern period discussed in Burning with Desire. About the Veronica image Hans Belting writes “it was as authentic as a photograph… It ranked as a touch relic (brandea), as it had been in physical contact with the Original—Christ himself.” He follows by saying that the idea of a “true portrait initiated a development that would have long-term consequences in Western art.” The images of Veronica, similar to photographs, were reproduced in thousands bearing the inscription Copie authentique de la Sainte Face de Notre Seigneur.

the day nobody died

March 12, 2012 Comments off

In the Day Nobody Died, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, exposed rolls of photography paper in the Helmand Province as they traveled embedded with British forces on their 2008 trip to Iraq. The photos are colorful non-figurative abstractions produced in one of the deadliest months of the war. According to text on their website about the project, “On the first day of their visit a BBC fixer was dragged from his car and executed and nine Afghan soldiers were killed in a suicide attack. The following day, three British soldiers died, pushing the number of British combat fatalities to 100. Casualties continued until the fifth day when nobody died.”

Geoffrey Batchen writes about the two parallel histographies of photography, one that maintains that photography does not have a history of itself, but rather its contingent on what broadly we can call the [photographic] “context”, while the other troupe argues for medium specificity of photography as an art.

While the project might easily come off as a contemporary art gimmick, it does point to an intersection of two histories of photography. Taking the first argument to its extreme, in the example of these photographs, the image is stripped from its representational claims, and is solely dependent on the context of production. It is an image of a day in Iraq where no body died, as much as the discursive setting that it is included in claims to be. It could easily change its meaning, if there are other contextual developments, changes in policies, negotiations, positions etc.

The Day Nobody Died, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, 2008

If we think of this image within the second troupe it is a perfect example of the specificity of the medium that its mode of production is that of the effect of light on sensitive emulsion. If photography is drawing with light, then this is the degree zero of it. The context is redundant, it does not have any effect on the image and does not infuse it with external meaning, rather [meaning] is arrived at through an ontological movement that defines the photograph within a set of aesthetic relations contingent upon history of art.

However, with regards to these photographs, it is the indexicality of the image that both gives it meaning, and takes meaning away from it. The first approach maintains that the index is contested, if we want to describe the photograph, we need to look where, how, within what social/political relations it was produced. The second approach will argue that the index does not produce meaning, but rather the meaning is produced ontologically. It is the history of art that give the image meaning, not the indexicality of the photograph. The indexicality at best provides the conditions of the photographic production: the trace of light on paper.