1. Photography - A Promiscuous Life
Published: 29.02.2012
in the series What We Talk about When We Talk about Photography
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What we talk about when we talk about photography. This phrase had been going around in my head as I thought about this blog in the last few days. It can’t be an accident that the phrase echoes the title of Raymond Carver’s 1981 short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”, about two couples discussing love as they sit around a kitchen-table drinking gin while the afternoon light slants across the room. The phrase seems to imply that photography, like love, is one of those irrepressibly miscellaneous topics of conversation that can’t help opening up, in a rather unruly way, into other topics even as one tries to discipline one’s thoughts into some sort of purity and rigour.It is as if one can only talk about photography by talking about other things, as if any proper conversation about photography is necessarily an improper one. And what if one moves from talking to doing, from discourse to practice? Can there be a way of doing (and not just thinking about) photography that is less about photography per se than about aspiring to the conditions of other modes of representation, imagination and experience well beyond its conventional limits? Historically and in its essential nature, isn’t photography – the word yoked to writing at its root – suited to this alluring, though often discomfiting, openness more than any other medium? And what is this openness but an engagement with the fluidity and accidents of life itself, the outer as well as the inner life?

Yet, paradoxically, in spite of this openness, photography often leaves one with the sense of a dead end, an impasse. This happens at two levels. First, a photograph is always a photograph of something ‘out there’. Hence, its relationship with the world is, at its core, a closed circuit (although it is precisely this deadlock with the real and the material that could give the photograph its mysterious or heroic quality). Second, photography is now perhaps the one truly democratic medium: mastering its rudiments is like learning to speak, write or use a phone. As the Pet Shop Boys sing in “Rent”, “It’s easy, it’s so easy.”

So, when a young photographer, all fired up after buying his first expensive camera, asks to borrow my copy of The Europeans or The Americans, I give him, together with these invaluable photobooks, John Szarkowski’s 1962 lecture to teachers of photography. According to Szarkowski, the best teachers of photography are those who were committed to an openness that leads their students out of, and ultimately beyond, photography. They give their students what are ostensibly escape routes to other things. And these routes, seeming to lead away from photography, eventually become the paths for returning to it. For Szarkowski, photography becomes one of the arts, like literature, painting and music, only when it stops obsessing over its own history and theory – when its mirrors become windows, as much to the world as into the soul. To break out of its documentary cage, photography must risk a kind of intellectual and existential promiscuity, an all-absorbing hunger that is at once outwardly directed and inwardly trained. It must learn to look, as William Blake had put it (well before photography was invented), not only “with”, but also “through”, the eyes.

This is how photography can hold on to its self-reflexivity without turning it into a narcissism that fails to discover anything beyond itself. “I think this nourishment, this new blood that allows any creative field to become something new and something richer must come from outside of the medium,” Szarkowski elaborates, “an art medium is not like the snake with its tail in its mouth. We cannot expect to find all of the nourishment that we need within the works of the tradition.” This vitality must come from outside postmodernism’s hall of mirrors, from “the business of probing and exploring life, including all those intuitively sensed realities for which we have not yet found formal expression”. This is why photographers must commit themselves to “ideas from life...that do not yet have a form”. The consequences of such a commitment could be nothing less than revolutionary, and Szarkowski knows how radical a challenge to, and claim for, photography he is making here: “Revolutions in art come from concerns that are outside and beyond art” (cf. John Szarkowski, “Commitment” (1962) in The Education of a Photographer).

For photographers, and equally for writers on photography, what Szarkowski opens up here is the question of ‘reference’, in the widest sense of the word. A photograph is the depiction of a relationship with reality in a much more necessary way than a poem or sonata is. So how can photography be sustained by this inescapable connection with reality and yet free itself from the tyranny of this connection, from what Samuel Taylor Coleridge had called “the despotism of the eye”? Photography must create its own access to a whole universe of reference – allusions, echoes, resonances and reflections – drawn from the myriad worlds of the other arts, determined by the peculiar character of the individual photographer’s inner life and circumstances. Together they constitute the photographer’s “inner darkroom”, in which, according to Marcel Proust, the ghosts and shadows of his art develop into more substantial and enduring, but no less mysterious, creatures. In this chamber of creation, the reality that photography must refer to is an amalgam of art, life and inwardness in which each element dissolves into and enriches the others. This is why photography is never enough for photographers – it is merely the place where all the ladders start.

The word, promiscuous, combines the Latin pro or forward and miscere, to mix. So, the promiscuous moves forward through indiscriminate mixing – a tendency that had to wait for the Victorians to become a sin. In my explorations, for this blog, of the map of photography’s creative and intellectual promiscuity (to me, an entirely fortunate fall), I will range across literature, music, cinema, the internet and social networking sites, and everyday experience and perceptions to open up ways of thinking about theories as well as practices of photography as irredeemably mixed up and unruly, difficult to pin down to one discipline, one kind of discourse or perception. This, I hope, will take us well beyond the Benjamin-Barthes-Sontag trinity, blurring the lines not only between photography and the other arts, but also, crucially, between theory and creative practice. So, Proust and Derrida, or Wallace Stevens and Tarkovsky are equally the providers of ideas or approaches as well as creative practitioners who help us make, look at, curate, hang, sequence, edit, write or think about photography in all its diverse forms.

Photography’s haunted house must also be a house of ill repute, for in that house of shifting forms and values, the uncanny and the promiscuous stalk each other. That is why, in the next few weeks, we might try to think of photography as the handmaiden of both love and death, fantasy and fear, desire and grief, substance and shadow.

6 comment(s)
Prateek Dubey
Posted 01.03.2012 at 12:42

The one fundamental question which is largely left unanswered by writers who themselves are not photographers is the desire to photograph when the purpose of the image is not ascertained. A view of the world achieved through a picture when the photographer himself does not know what he wishes to capture,yet he goes out to collogue with this world using his camera because he finds the need to do so. These quite secret conversations reveal the heterotelic nature of photography. From my own experience, as a photographer, I feel like a kleptomaniac. Compelled to take a picture of something because I like it and then just keeping it safe as a digital file on a hard disk or a DVD. All that is contrived, planned and presented as a photographic story in my opinion comes from the compulsions of social needs rather than the intrinsic nature of the photographer himself.Here he is simply a person with the skill to capture the image. But when he is overcome with a simple desire to take pictures to quench something within, then he is truly a photographer.
Please read a simple essay I have written in my blog at Prottle.wordpress.com. It is called Rediscovery.

David Campany
Posted 01.03.2012 at 18:20

(As the Pet Shop Boys sing in the same song, “Words mean so little and money less, when I’m lying next to you.”)

Thanks for your opening post Aveek.

Three responses on the matter of writing and photography:

Let’s accept that because photography is thrown into the world (or the world is thrown into it) that it will always open onto things other than itself. And by extension let’s accept that the discourses of photography will do likewise. That doesn’t mean the medium has no specificity. What’s perplexing and fascinating is that photographs are instances of the world and instances of photography.

John Szarkowski’s writings wouldn’t have been so influential had his sentences not been so well constructed. And I think the same might also be true of Susan Sontag’s writing. Both were exemplary stylists. Szarkowski knew how to play off the image reproduced on the page against his writing (and often his best writing does not address the medium at all but the subject matter – think of his passages on turn of the century Paris in his monograph on Eugene Atget). I’d go further and suggest that Szarkowski’s finest writing might not have been his prose at all but his highly literary way of sequencing photographs in books and exhibitions – a kind of writing ‘with’, rather than writing ‘about’ photographs. By contrast Sontag knew what she could get away with if images were kept well away from her writing. I’m not convinced she was that interested in specific images. Her prime book was titled ‘On Photography’ not ‘On Photographs’.

What do we write about when we write about photography? The medium, its subject matters, and the ideas and feelings to which it gives rise. But the question came be framed differently if we see writing about photography as a form of literature (the way Adam Phillips has suggested it might be better to read the psychoanalytic writings of Freud as a form of literature). Then we might ask ‘What kinds of photography give rise to what kinds of writing’? Roland Barthes’ ‘Camera Lucida’ is only a dead end with nothing to say about the medium’s status as art if we read it simply as a ‘theory of photography’. And the reason it tends to be read in that way is because ‘photography people’ encounter little else by Barthes. If students were to first read ‘The Pleasure of the Text’ I can’t imagine they would see ‘Camera Lucida’ as a theory of photography only, or even at all. Indeed, I think they’d get much, much more out of it. Those who wish to banish that book miss the point. The same might be said of the fate of Benjamin’s writings on photography in the hands of photography specialists. It’s not the texts that are lacking: it is the readers.

Ray Amery
Posted 06.03.2012 at 10:47

Lots of words

Martin Jaeggi
Posted 06.03.2012 at 15:16

Thank you for delightful blog, Aveek.
The photographic promiscuity you describe resonated very strongly with me, since it is essentially a writer's experience of photography. Writing about photography, well, in a way it allows you to write about almost everything, or rather everything contained in the photographic double of the world. I wonder, however, whether photographers experience this as intensely as writers. But then again, this may be the role writers play in the field of photography – celebrating the promiscuity and hybrid nature of the medium and guarding its essential openness.

Stuart Handley
Posted 06.03.2012 at 15:47

"We are the keeper of the moment", what is written is mostly written by those who don't. Our practice is our practice and it is our capture, our inner self, those moments when we are in one with our senses.
If everyone read Barthes, Benjamin, Sontag, Berger, Greenberg, Heidegger etal and could make themselves at one with the theory, then where would we be. It is our intuitive behavior that makes us practice, keeps our fire burning. We strive to make that important image, that perfect moment that we, are the keepers of.
Many photographers will ever be noticed, like many who have gone before, Atget, Lartgue, Belocq, Sander. Their work is no less important than than those names purported to be great, by those who don't or can't in their life time.
The decisive moment, the moment when we know we have mad a great image. It's not about, what someone is supposed to be but about the moment when science gave us a tool to be creative. To make imagery, the problem came when money changed hands by those who don't. Those with the MONEY make money by and from those who make art, those who make it very rarely see any benefit.
Robert Mapplethorpe said when asked by an interviewer, "how do you make great art", he said "If I knew I'd stop."
We just keep making pictures, mostly for ourselves but for a reason, it escapes me at the moment but some day I'll remember.

Zisis KardianosWe ta
Posted 01.04.2012 at 15:10

When we talk about photography, we talk about ourselves the same way that our photographs are primarily talking about ourselves.

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