1. A Moving Target
Published: 01.11.2013
in the series Marvin Heiferman
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Using Still Searching as a shared space, what I hope to do over the next six weeks is both to stimulate a dialog and extend a project I’ve been working on lately, which involves taking a broad look at photography as the medium itself is in the midst of transformation. To that end, watch for links I’ll post periodically to online news reports and timely stories about provocative images, events, and issues in visual culture. My goal is neither to attempt to nail down what photography is, nor to advocate for one or another factionalized view of how the medium does or should work. What I want to do is acknowledge and celebrate photography as a moving target, to point toward the kinds of photo-driven incidents and narratives that pop up and underscore that when it comes to photography, there is much to marvel at, admit to, and reconsider.

I’m honored to have the opportunity to do that here. It has always seemed to me that the Fotomuseum Winterthur has, since its inception, shrewdly and uniquely positioned itself in relationship to the medium by fully embracing both photography’s power and slipperiness. In 2003, Urs Stahel, the Fotomuseum’s founding director, acknowledged the competing discourses within a medium that, ironically, refuses to be stay still in a lecture titled “What is Photography?”

Without hesitation, people take a deep breath and announce in a booming voice: “This is photography!” “No, this is photography!” “This isn’t photography anymore!” “You are wrong, this is photography!” The more forceful the claim, the more likely it is that someone is standing nearby ready to declare the same three words just as emphatically but with a different meaning in mind.

In the years since then, I’ve watched from afar as exhibitions mounted by Fotomuseum Winterthur have explored an impressively eclectic range of subjects--advertising, industrial, architectural, and scientific imaging are just a few of them. One of my favorites—The Ecstasy of Things: From the Functional Object to the Fetish in 20th Century Photography, curated in 2004 by Stahel and Thomas Seelig (now a co-director of Winterthur)—was a bold admission of how the how often and insistently photography is called upon (for good or insidious purposes) to elevate the everyday and to inform or rope us in.

What is most impressive about photography, now, is how resolutely it resists being tamed by any singular perspective or set of standards. The medium that impacts every aspect of our lives, that plays a pivotal role in defining our rational and fantasy lives, is unruly. The democratic nature of the medium and its malleability insure that the dialog around photography will always be rich, unless you see those two specific qualities as being problematic. On that front, I have been fascinated by how often in recent years—and mostly in the context of the art, art photography, art museum and gallery worlds—I’ve heard people worry over some “crisis” or another in photography. As the medium’s 19th-century practitioners knew well, as writers like John Tagg and Geoff Batchen have repeatedly said, and as artists like Thomas Ruff or Catherine Opie or Roe Ethridge have shown in restless work that jumps from genre to genre, there is no single or simple story to tell about photography. There never was.

“When I first became interested in photography,” Edward Steichen said in 1969, “I thought it was the whole cheese. My idea was to have it recognized as one of the fine arts. Today I don't give a hoot in hell about that. The mission of photography is to explain man to man and each man to himself.” Say what you will about Steichen. Criticize his spectacular Family of Man project if you like and as many have. But keep in mind that he—a  darling of the early 20th century’s avant-garde who went on to boldly reshape military, fashion, portraiture, celebrity and advertising photography—got it right by whole-heartedly and unapologetically embracing the central roles  photographic images, of all sorts, play in contemporary life.

Ironically, it was after Steichen’s death and in the 1970s that the more insular approaches to “creative” photography he turned away from reemerged triumphant. In the past four decades, art photography has flourished as galleries, private collections, advanced degree programs, festivals, critical theory, and juried prizes of up to five and six figures proliferate. And as a former gallerist and artist representative, and in my work as a curator, writer, and educator, I admit to have done my share to bolster what myopically calls itself “the photography world” on those fronts.

But the reality is that there is no photography world; there are many of them. And so we have no choice but to keep rethinking the medium and our relationship to it. People point to the “digital revolution” as if it were some 21st century phenomenon when, in fact, it’s been going on for well over forty years. The first digital cameras, bulky things the size of microwave ovens, were introduced in the mid-1970s. What is new now is that, as a result of advances in digital technology, options for the making, mining, and sharing images are increasing exponentially. As a result, what photography is, what photographs are, and what “the photographic” means have to be continually and, at times, dramatically rethought. And as a result, so will our relationships to the medium, the world, and each other. The more photography and imaging change, the more it looks as if Steichen was right. If you want to understand how the boundaries of the photographic are being redrawn, how our lives and identities and futures are being reshaped, and how the consequentiality of imaging is being reimagined, look around.

Which is what I propose we do in this space and over these next few weeks.

3 comment(s)
Peter Burleigh
Posted 05.11.2013 at 20:18

Apocryphal or not, the tale of a non-“moving” target from then can tell us a lot about photography now. The story goes that on 2 July 1860 at the inaugural meeting of the National Rifle Association, Queen Victoria fired a rifle on a mechanical rest triggered by a cord.

The Whitworth rifle, fired by The Queen at Wimbledon. Roger Fenton 1860, Royal Collection Trust.

Sophie Gordon writes that “After The Queen had hit the bull's eye, an artist ran across to sketch the exact position of the bullet hole in order to show the Queen. Upon being handed the sketch by Prince Albert, the Queen laughed and then asked to see the actual target. It was however made of solid iron and required a number of men to carry it. So, the newspapers reported, it was decided that a photograph of the target would be taken instead.”

The Queen’s Target. Roger Fenton 1860, Royal Collection Trust.

Three things this anecdote tells us:

Photography replaces the object or event it pictures as a representation beyond both direct experience or other symbolic transcriptions. In the newly mechanized instantaneous world, the “bullet event” evaporates and the photograph is reified above the hand drawn sketch as witness.

The immediacy and instantaneity of the photograph compresses time, space and causality into a single plane of visual experience. The target that was distant, that only functions as a distant object from where the bullet is fired—that is what a target is—becomes the cause and effect in the photograph in one fell swoop.

The signalisation (the technical transcription following the normal codes of perception) rather then the signification (relation of symbol to its referent) of photography gives its products the value of the real. The actual event of the bullet being fired, of its flight, of its impact are NOT pictured. And even if we were to think Muybridge and capture a string of immobile moments in sequence, or reduce exposure times, focus right down to the object-moment as in Harold Edgerton’s stroboscopic work, the actual event is still absent from the image, always slipping away. The photographic event is thus the frame of but not the event itself. And yet, The Queen’s Target despite its incompleteness becomes in its reception the whole event that it was never a picture of.

What is interesting about the partialness of photography is that it cannot script the totality of the event, even if we take it to do so, the temporal syntax of the two photographs here silently register the before and after. The rupture in time of the bullet event is mirrored in the slice of time that disrupts the normal elasticity of time. The photograph snaps time, breaks, is divisive and categorical. Yet it cannot actualize the event, it bears the marks, scars, wounds of the event but not the event itself. It is exactly, however, this rupturing that drives its integration back into a meaningful experiencing of the world, and as Marvin Heiferman writes tells us about ourselves as well as always already caring its own story with it.
This Victorian image—pertinently without agency, apparently automatically made in their ghostly presence suggest how photography is an accompaniment to experience that parallel and may often replace experience. As Marvin Heiferman suggests we have to always think photography new.
One such direction does not think photography as a system producing stultified, calcified, fossilized signs, signs to be read like language with the order of one, the power of the monolingual tongue, but as a multiplicity that actualizes images with the order of the infinite. For any single photograph is, or perhaps better may have been one of an infinite number of other possible variations. It just so coincidentally, contingently happens that a particular constellation of the arrangement of the world is actualized with this one particular form. Any of other not merely multiple parameters but multiplicities could have actualized a parallel, yet uniquely different image. In this sense, then, photography does not have a unity, which operates outside itself, a transcendent law which dictates the relations between object, subject, message and code. We must think, too, of all “those many photographs which don’t particularly work, that fail to sting our inner thoughts, that don’t help preserve our treasured memories, don’t offer any useful information, and aren’t especially edifying, noteworthy, curious, disturbing, cute, awe-inspiring, kitschy, skilful, delightful, or entertaining.” (Elkins 94). Think then of the “usual state of photography” (Elkins 94).* No doubt a number of factors have focused our attention exactly on the exceptional rather than the typical in photography: the “miracle and wonder” of the early images inscribed in our cultural history via the various accounts of the invention; the worthy repertoire from Talbot to Barthes; the limitation of number of exposure from carefully prepared by hand paper to Collodion sheets, to roll film with the 24 or 36 exposures (a couple extra if you were lucky at the beginning and end of the film).
This discourse of value has forced itself up to now—up until the absolute ubiquity of the photographic image—onto the very nature of that image: a good likeness, a moment, an encounter, a message. Whereas, thanks today to the unending hysteresis of the electronic sensor, we know that the condition of photography is mostly chance, redundancy, meaninglessness in itself, yet—even thus— simultaneously opens up a vast field of multiplicities of aesthetic experience.

*James Elkins. What Photography Is. New York: Routledge 2012.

Marvin Heiferman
Posted 07.11.2013 at 21:22

Hello Peter, thanks for the thoughtful post and that fantastic proto-modernist image of Queen Victoria’s Target.

I was particularly interested in your comments about how photographic images tend to show cause and/or effect but not process. That’s because one of the things I’m thinking about writing about soon, if not next, is the selfies phenomenon. And one of the things I wonder about them is whether what they document--all those all those preening, sultry, bemused, or serious moments and looks-- is, in fact, the event itself.

Peter Burleigh
Posted 08.11.2013 at 11:55

Hello Marvin, I look forward to that blog: it follows on naturally from your River post, where you hint at the way in which the profusion of images might be changing how the image actually works, and how we use them. Does that mean how the image is changes?

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