Photographic Relationality | George Baker | Freitag, 31.05.2013

The Relational Field of Photography

At the end of last summer, during one of my trips from Los Angeles to New York, I was lucky enough to be able to visit the artist Zoe Leonard’s first exhibition at the gallery Murray Guy.
I knew what to expect. Leonard is one of the key figures in my forthcoming book on what I’ve been calling photography’s contemporary “lateness” or, perhaps more provocatively, its “afterlife”—a recalcitrant use of the medium that alters its fate today through a paradoxical reconnection to photography’s earlier histories, its specific and unrealized potentials. The book intends to trace a deepening of the transformation in the artistic practice of photography that I tried to map some time ago in my essay “Photography’s Expanded Field.” Leonard had also visited Los Angeles not too long before this 2012 exhibition, where she spoke to a capacity audience at the art school at USC on her recent projects. She spoke then about her recent works that involved turning a given exhibition space, a gallery room, into a camera obscura. And this was one of the central gambits of her recent exhibition at Murray Guy.
“What is photography?” Leonard asked, in the textual apparatus surrounding the show. “Is it a print or an object, is it a jpeg on your screen or does it only exist if you print it out? Is it a snapshot on your phone, a slide projection, or the image you see in your mind before you click the shutter? In short, is photography a thing, or a picture, or is it a way of seeing?”
I thought I knew what to expect. As I entered Leonard’s camera obscura--titled simply with the street address of the gallery’s physical site, 453 West 17th Street, 2012—I was plunged into darkness. I was not alone. For I had visited the exhibition with a close friend, and we stumbled about together in the unlit space. With blacked-out windows and a lens embedded in a small hole on the exterior wall, Leonard’s piece was simply a camera obscura like others that still exist—now usually as curiosities, or fading tourist attractions, such as the camera obscura near the seaside in Santa Monica.
Given the presence of such tourist attractions in Leonard’s previous projects (for example, her DIA installation relating to postcard images of Niagara Falls, You see I am here after all, 2008), and given the move within her previous work to reconnect with earlier moments of photography’s history—its cameras, or its iconographies, or its film stocks, or its central authors—one mode of understanding Leonard’s decision to begin to transform art galleries into camera obscura spaces immediately asserted itself. Clearly, this was an archaeological move—a return to one basis of photography as an apparatus and as a medium, a movement back to something like a long-forgotten origin, held-over from the past, persisting as a relic today, and not often privileged by our contemporary artists who focus upon photography.
As I stumbled around in Leonard’s dark room, eventually huddling in a corner with my friend, my eyes habituated themselves to the obscurity of the space, and a faint image began to form. Upside-down and precarious--for the day outside was overcast and dim—the image was seen by us projected onto the gallery wall and floor but not by the others we noticed walking into the room, disoriented by the darkness, and quickly making their way back outside. It was uncanny to have an experience you could watch others not having, but we had paid for our precarious image with time, earning it over duration and the slow habituation of our eyes to the cave-like space. The longer you stayed, the stronger the image glowed. Another reading, then, of Leonard’s work further suggested itself: Here was an intensification of the artist’s move from photography (often treated as an object, emphasizing its materiality, and its attachment to objects and materials in the world) to spatial or even sculptural concerns, such as her modular or quasi-serial works made from salvaged suitcases found at flea markets. The move back to the camera obscura opened up the photographer’s concerns to space, to the physical site of the exhibition, to the traditional concerns of sculpture. Hunting back photography to its origins took photography beyond photography, it would seem, to some complex form of medium sharing, or intermedia as it was once called. A spatial extension of photography, from which, nonetheless, the photograph had once set out or begun. An expansion and a return. Photography and sculpture. Architecture too, of course, given the camera’s reliance on the gallery room, and the exterior buildings’ infiltration of the space inside.
ZOE LEONARD, 453 West 17th Street, 2012 (lens and darkened room; installation view) © Murray Guy
But thinking of Leonard’s suitcase sculptures complicated my two immediate reactions to or readings of the artist’s new work.
For the suitcase sculptures were not just found and eminently portable objects, witnesses of an almost mythic drive toward homelessness, displacement, and travel, they were literal containers, receptacles for the packing and holding of one’s possessions. In this, the reclaimed suitcases find their siblings in Leonard’s photographic iconography, such as the many images in her series Analogue that show us shop windows holding other objects, buckets and baskets and trash bins, receptacles and containers of all kinds, echoing the photograph that holds such images, and the camera that invited the image into its domain to begin. At the start of her dalliance with sculpture, Leonard’s series Strange Fruit offered up so many reconstituted fruit skins - banana peels, citrus rinds - sewn back together as a testament not just to persistence and the remembrance of that which is gone, but as literal receptacles, skins and empty vessels that once held an immense sweetness and yet now simply held themselves open, desiccated containers but receptacles once more. Leonard’s understanding of the photograph followed, allegorically and procedurally, a parallel path.
And clearly, my experience of the artist’s camera obscura moved in the same direction. Huddled in the darkness, conversing with my dear friend, I had the experience of being pressed upon by the obscurity that surrounded me, in the way that Surrealist writer Roger Caillois long ago asserted that dark space has of pressing upon the observer, filling the surround, an experience of one’s environment as full and palpable as opposed to empty and transparent to vision. I had the experience of entering fully and physically into Leonard’s latest instantiation of her thinking around photography--of being literally part of photography, held within its receiving camera or room, entered into its receptacle, received by the camera, part of its invitation to the world outside. Here was an expanded photograph, an ur-photograph too in its way, and it was a photograph that now held its viewers within the apparatus, within the photographic experience, receiving viewer and world both--subject and object both--in some fused or indistinct way.
My experience, then, was like anything but the normal rhetoric that has surrounded the camera obscura since its origins. Leonard reversed this traditional rhetoric, it would seem, as well, moving back to origins to produce transformation, not essence. Art historian Jonathan Crary has clarified the historical rhetoric of the camera obscura most eloquently, in his magnum opus Techniques of the Observer. The camera obscura, according to Crary, is the visual device that instantiates Descartes’ notorious battle cry, the philosopher’s rejoinder to our more recent desires for embodiment and carnality, the mot d’ordre of metaphysics: “I will now shut my eyes, I shall stop my ears, I shall disregard my senses.” The camera obscura, in Crary’s words, “performs an operation of individuation; that is, it necessarily defines an observer as isolated, enclosed, and autonomous within its dark confines. It impels a kind of askesis, or withdrawal from the world, in order to regulate and purify one’s relation to the manifold contents of the now ‘exterior’ world...the camera [sunders] the act of seeing from the physical body of the observer, to decorporealize vision.” It is the great device of visual separation.
But my experience of Leonard’s experiment with the camera obscura was collective, not individuating. It was a social space of a kind. And given her prior work, one felt a distinct relational drive characteristic of her understanding of photography--a drive that holds, that insists on attachment, that explores so many receptacles and containers for the photograph to embody like a subject holding on tight to its object, like a lover holding on tight to its love object. More radically even than this, Leonard’s camera space now insisted on an undoing of the kinds of separation that camera space has long been understood to found, to need, and indeed to embody. Separation gave way to incorporation; distance and individuation to relationality, to indistinctness, to a fusion between subject and object, viewer and image, looking and feeling, body and photograph.
I begin this blog with my experience of an example of photography’s expansion at the hands of contemporary art to underline how radically photography is now being rethought or re-imagined in our present. The entire history of the medium, of its practice, its experiences, its central concepts, once more seems up for grabs—in a way that I for one did not sense to be the case for some time, since the classic years of postmodern criticism in the 1980s. My concerns with this re-imagining have been various, but increasingly it seems that one of the shared stakes in contemporary art’s dalliance with photography has to do with transforming what we could call the “relational field” of the photograph.
Despite the central position within photographic discourse of the social claims of what we call documentary, regardless of the destiny of photography to suture itself to the world and its objects—puncturing the autonomy and separateness long claimed by the hegemonic forms of modern art—photography has been conceptualized throughout its history as a profoundly un- or a-relational medium. The photograph is actively hostile to what I am calling relationality. Art historian and theorist Rosalind Krauss, for example, long ago attempted to think photography in terms of the semiotic operations of language—colliding photography with the deep linguistic imperative to separate the sign from the thing signified—describing ultimately what she called a theory of the “gap” or of “spacing” as the central experience of the photograph.
The photograph, in this view, enacts an operation of visual isolation. We “frame” reality, we “crop” the photographic image, we “freeze” and slice-up the continuum of that which exists in the great photographic logic of division through which our world has developed into so many atomized bits and pieces, an immense fragmentation.
Any number of voices, the most eloquent of voices involved in thinking photography, could stand in here to instantiate these claims. I will begin with Susan Sontag, chosen as so often for the simplicity and directness of her claims. Here are some selected lines and passages from Sontag’s canonical essay “In Plato’s Cave,” and her vision of the social dimension—we might more accurately say, the profoundly asocial dimension—of the photograph.
In Sontag’s text, the photograph is described from the start almost sexually, as “insatiable”—but the desire of the photographic image is only understandable for Sontag as “acquisitive.” “To photograph,” writes Sontag, “is to appropriate the thing photographed.” The profound a-relationality of this form of appropriation rears its head in all of Sontag’s subsequent descriptions of the photograph as violent: “There is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera”; we face the production of a “chronic voyeuristic relation to the world.” Reciprocity, deeper forms of relationality, have little place in Sontag’s vision of the photograph, it would seem, and her opening gambit to sexualize or eroticize our conception of photography does not fare well in the end. “Using a camera is not a very good way of getting at someone sexually,” Sontag concludes. “Between photographer and subject, there has to be distance. The camera doesn’t rape, or even possess, though it may presume, intrude, trespass, distort, exploit, and, at the farthest reach of metaphor, assassinate—all activities that, unlike the sexual push and shove, can be conducted from a distance, and with some detachment.”
Things get worse for poor photography after this in Sontag’s text. I’ll just cite one more passage. It is almost cliché, but I want it here; I want it on the record that this is the vision of photography against which I feel the need to take a stand. That I want to destroy. Or at least displace. And that I believe we are in the process of witnessing a grand displacement of, in the practice of our greatest photographers and contemporary artists. We return, in Sontag’s text, to the camera as separation, to the photograph understood as an essential act of framing, cropping, isolation, fragmentation:
“In a world ruled by photographic images, all borders (‘framing’) seem arbitrary. Anything can be separated, can be made discontinuous, from anything else: all that is necessary is to frame the subject differently,” Sontag reports. And she continues: “Through photographs, the world becomes a series of unrelated, freestanding particles...The camera makes reality atomic, manageable, and opaque. It is a view of the world which denies interconnectedness, continuity...”
If this once was our understanding of photography, it is an understanding that can no longer stand. In the weeks to come, I will poke and prod at our possibilities for producing a “relational” theory of photography, but also such a history of the photograph as well. I will consistently remember where these thoughts began—next to my dear friend, in the darkness of Zoe Leonard’s camera obscura, pressed upon by the space inside and outside the camera, by the collusion of body and image one found there, and by the profound sense of being held by a version of photography, received by it as it were, sharing some aspect of what photography is and means in a deeply physical and bodily manner. My entries to come will be speculative. They will surely not be systematic. They will jump about and around, and I can already guarantee they will not produce a single direction in which thought will travel, a single thread that sketches out my project.
But such singularity may not in fact reflect the key experiences and ideas that have come to embody what I want to call the relational field of photography.