Photographic Relationality | George Baker | Donnerstag, 20.06.2013

Blind Spot

Not too long ago, I was combing through an antique store in a California town populated today mostly by the remnants of the counter-culture. There was a large selection of used books. To my surprise, I came across a copy of a monograph I had long wanted for my library, Mary Ann Caw’s volume on the photographer Dora Maar. Hippie villages, even post-hippie villages, always have the best bookstores.
I want to start this week with a few lines from a poem Maar once wrote, and that I found in this book I dragged back to my home.
I am blind
and made from a bit of earth
But your gaze never leaves me
And your angel keeps me

I was held by these words when I encountered them in the book I had found. For they reminded me not of Maar’s tragic role as Picasso’s “Weeping Woman,” of being a model, an object of the artist’s gaze, but of one of my favorite photographs by Maar, her Blind Beggar of 1934:
Maar’s image (and it is not her only photograph like it in the work) has long been part of a collection of photographs of the blind that I have been building—not an actual collection (no money for that!) but a scholar’s list, a typology of jpgs placed aside, a set of notes on a group of images. For years, I have wanted to write about such images as a key or crucial iconography within the history of photography.
My attention was drawn to photographs of the blind by the work of August Sander, on whom I published my first essay on photography, an essay written in 1994 or 1995. When published—as “Photography between Narrativity and Stasis,” a piece of writing that would lead directly to my later essay “Photography’s Expanded Field”—the essay was given a frontispiece by Sander, one of the most extraordinary of the group portraits of blind children (and old men) that the photographer made around 1930 in Düren, Germany, in an asylum or institute for the blind. Some twelve or thirteen children—in street clothes or a striped uniform, holding hands or an over-sized broom—gather tightly around a nun, who faces the camera at the image’s center. The children face the camera as well, though some hide their faces behind their friends, or huddle in the shadows, or seem to look down or away from the camera, though “looking” is of course precisely the wrong word. One or two, perhaps by chance, perhaps because their blindness is not complete, also meet the camera’s gaze. (One young boy wears glasses, glinting strongly in the daylight as his small face falls into a frown.) But most of the blind children simply close their eyes before the camera, calmly, habitually; though a few seem to squint violently, grimacing unselfconsciously, like the little boy with the outsized broom. We seem to be confronted by an apparatus of pain. It is as if the light burns too brightly in this open space, as if the camera with its mechanism of exposure and flash has hit the children unprepared, though of course nothing of the kind occurs. The asylum wall looms vaguely behind the group, an over-exposed sea of bricks, indeed a variegated grid that returns as the ground of almost all of Sander’s photographs of the blind; and the dirt upon which the children pose expands in its black-and-white desolation, never to be ameliorated by the labor of the unseeing boy and his sturdy broom. He is the image’s Oedipus and Sisyphus simultaneously, a modern-day Sisyphus before Camus.
I am projecting. But the image is haunting, and has haunted me since my early work on Sander. I do believe that I said precisely nothing precise, not a single word in fact about it in my long ago essay. It simply stood, emblematically, without words, for the project at the start of my writing on the photograph.
Collecting or gathering such images, establishing the image of the blind as a photographic iconography of some importance—I have not encountered much writing or thinking about this. In contemplating this entry, I did come across someone’s online collection of similar images, on “Pinterest” of course, and since we are online together I might as well share the collection here:
Many of the key images in my own collection are there. For the photographs of the blind stretch from the nineteenth century to our own day, from Nadar and his canonical story of the “Blind Princess” to various projects in recent years by a contemporary artist like Sophie Calle. No treatment of the subject could ignore the image that looms at the origin of documentary or straight photography’s attraction to the subject—indeed looms at the origin of straight photography itself. I am thinking of Paul Strand’s Blind, 1916, the image to which Dora Maar seemed twenty years later to respond.
I have to admit that part of my bringing this subject into the space of this blog might be rather selfish. I want to know more about the iconography itself; blogs seem good for such responses; I hope others will share more photographs with me that perhaps I have not yet seen, information I do not yet have. This is research, in other words. Strand’s image of the blind beggar woman, its disconnect (or linkage?) between image and language, seeing and reading, photography and writing, looking directly and looking awry (Strand notoriously used a trick camera with an angled lens to produce his street photographs), connects to a much larger and longer development by later photographers of the topos. I have already mentioned Sander. One cannot avoid of course Walker Evans—who repeatedly photographed the blind, but also structured the form of his “Subway Portraits” around the same camera deception utilized by Strand, shooting these photographs “blind”—without looking through the lens—and also ended the sequence they became in Many Are Called with an image of a blind musician, a sightless accordion player.
I could point to images by André Kertész (a famous photograph of another wandering blind musician, similar to Walker Evans’ image, was chosen for Barthes’ Camera Lucida). I could point to images like the canonical portrait by Lucia Moholy of Franz Roh (1926), who was not blind but seems to be portrayed as such, eyes wide shut, at the heart of the operations of the so-called “New Vision” in photography. I could point to my favorite images of the blind in the small collection that I have built, all of which—beyond the photographs by Sander—were produced by women photographers. Have you heard of Lisette Model’s photographic series called “Lighthouse, Blind Workshop,” 1944?—a magazine assignment bringing together so many images of workers, blind workers, at their looms and their machines. (Model also, like Maar, made street photographs of unaware blind subjects in the lineage of Strand’s Blind.) Have you seen Imogen Cunningham’s photographs of blind artists, images of a blind sculptor? There is also a rather stunning portrait by Cunningham entitled Robert Irwin, Executive Director of the American Federation for the Blind, 1933.
This posting on my part, while hopefully not solipsistic, might be selfish in another way. Actually, the solipsism of the photographic images I have been highlighting here might be characterized as their most central relational characteristic—we seem to face images of the most extreme instantiation of photography’s a-relational vocation, its anti-relational destiny. Photographic isolation. Photographic separation, non-communion, involution. This, at least, is the way I long thought of the prevalence of such images within photography history. From Strand to Sander to Model, the photograph of the blind subject seems to allegorize the condition of photography as a medium, the parameters of the photographic object—in what could be called a self-reflexive way, though surely not one modernism would be prepared to recognize, the opposite of a kind of super-vision or prosthetic eye. When it has to do with portraits, with people, with social scenes—but we could say the same of photographs of objects, any photographic visual scene—one stares at a subject that cannot return the gaze. The photographs of the blind underline this dynamic, making it palpable, unavoidable. As opposed to modernist painting and its triumphalism of vision, photographic vision—in this understanding—is precisely a masterful surveying of the blind object. We confront vision and its undoing simultaneously. With photography, we see without being seen, and the photographs of the blind spell this out, unseeing subjects placed before the all-seeing vision of the camera. In its pure asymmetry, the photograph of the blind achieves utter a-relationality. It is the purest structure of photography as voyeurism that one could imagine, surpassing perhaps even the pornographic photograph in this regard. But it spells out the structure of most photographs, most forms of photography’s aesthetic usage, whether documentary, portraiture, street photograph, or the like.
Selfish in another way: What I meant by this is that I am struck, in remembering my old Sander essay and the images there that most effected me, by the fact that I published this essay in the last year or so of my grandmother’s life, my mother’s mother. Forgive me this solipsism, but I am also grasping for connections: My grandmother lived through the years photographed by Sander; she was my living connection back to them in a way, and she had existed in similar institutions to the one pictured by Sander in Düren, being from a large immigrant family where the youngest children at one point had to be sent to an orphanage for care. Impaired visually throughout her long life, by the end of it she was also completely blind. I’m looking at a photograph of her now, one I cannot share, and while somewhat uncanny I can see that I have her eyes, it seems to me, eyes that did not see; eyes that I always saw nonetheless as sweet. They were one of her most prominent features, regardless of their sightlessness, protruding and slightly bulbous.
I always imagined I would dedicate an essay on photography and blindness to my grandmother. She died two months (to the day) before Dora Maar’s death in 1997, whose lifespan she almost exactly shared. I bring up my memories of her, perhaps the underground or unconscious (vaguely conscious) connection of my photo-historical interests and my personal attachments, to shift the claims on relationality and photography I just made above. Can we understand the relational dynamics of the photographic iconography of the blind in different terms than just laid out? Given at least my own deep attachment to such images, is there anything here beyond victim photography, beyond voyeurism in its pure form—something more than a spelling out of the extreme separation that exists between photographer and subject, between (more importantly) viewer and photographic image? A theory of gazes and looks is surely at stake here, and blindness needs to be confronted in any such theory as well.
Different questions might be asked. Barthes once said, in his Camera Lucida: “Ultimately—or at the limit—in order to see a photograph well, it is best to look away or close your eyes.” Blindness structures photographic seeing here in a different way, as the image and its objectivity give way to the experiences and affects to which the photograph might give rise, the subjective life the image takes on beyond its exposure and the material limits of the photographic print, a broadly psychic and carnal phenomenology provoked by photographic images. At times, in Camera Lucida, Barthes names this experience—of that which can be added to the image when it is no longer seen, when one closes one’s eyes—the photograph’s “blind field,” an attribute of the image more appropriate to cinema, with its “off-screen” space, its narrative trajectories and events.
Has photography been attracted to the image of the blind in part to give voice to the manner in which photography deepens our understanding of the gaze? Are such images devoted to producing a kind of self-consciousness with regards to the limitations of looking? Is the camera not in fact the prosthetic tool modernism once dreamed it to be, a machine of vision and the primary embodiment of super-sight? Is it not rather the great teacher of a kind of visual ethics, its lessons directed toward the limitations of our ability to see, or rather, the shackles we must acknowledge in order truly to see?
Another mythic reference that my iconography suggests: I remember a passage by Jacques Derrida in his book on blindness and representation, Memoirs of the Blind, on the myth of Perseus and the Medusa. In this story, one avoids petrifaction only by not meeting the other’s gaze—by looking awry, at a reflection, at an angle. This observation reminds me of Strand’s camera, of Evans’ shooting blind, of what might be called the Medusa logic of the ethos of documentary and street photography. But also: The photograph of the blind subject opens up a relational space of gazes that will not meet, which is the condition of the photograph more generally, or rather of photographic seeing, but perhaps not its curse. The asymmetry here can be trans-valued.
Yes, the looking awry in the Medusa story represents a murderous gaze, a self-preservative looking. But the non-engagement of the photographic gaze, the inability to meet the other’s look, the structure of simultaneous looking and of looking away, the multiplicity of gazes that meet in the photograph only by not meeting—the photographer’s, and the subject’s, and the camera’s, and the viewer’s (many viewers’ gazes, a potentially infinite number)—we still need to think these dynamics through, to bring them into a higher state of self-consciousness. Photography, in other words, is a school of the visual, a master-class in seeing, and we have been particularly obtuse students, our lessons and homework incomplete. Photographs of the blind make (painfully) inescapable the ethics and the parameters of such questions. When a subject in a photograph “meets” our gaze, that gaze in fact meets nothing of the sort; when a subject looks away, off-frame, we see a kind of looking that seems to look at nothing, a form of blindness. But this is in fact a gaze that sees that which we cannot see, will never see, and will never know. It is a matter of a look that is limited, but it is also about the limitation of the look. Not everything—in photography, or elsewhere—is given to be seen. Confronting such a gaze and recognizing it as such: This is the most important of ethical tasks.
I find this set of dynamics immensely moving and also immensely productive. I will end with one last set of images, bringing my considerations here back to the contemporary moment, and to the artists today who have suggested through their work the relational rethinking of photography in which I am involved.
Artist Sharon Lockhart is known in part for a series of Untitled photographs, large in scale, that seem to emulate cinematic scenes or structures, using location scouting, and “actors,” and a crew in their production. Documentary or snapshot-like in appearance, the photographs are in fact elaborately staged. Each photograph usually has an image “model” on which the scene is based, often but not always from a cinematic source. In Untitled, 2007, however, Lockhart “remade” one of Sander’s photographs from the Düren institute for the blind.
Sharon Lockhart, Untitled, 2007Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery
Two young girls are seated at a table in a shallow space, and while small within the expansive frame they seem pressed close to both table and wall, and their hands in turn press against the pages of their books while reading in Braille. Often discussed as Lockhart’s appropriation of a Sander image of blind girls reading Braille—and there do exist many incredible Sander photographs of young blind girls reading, a very different engagement with the looking/reading couple than that explored by Paul Strand—the image in this case seems based upon a photograph of two blind boys, not girls, that Sander once produced.
An image of the Sander photograph can be seen here:
I would ask the reader, as I end, to look closely at the two images, to move back and forth between them, between Sander and Lockhart, the model and the “appropriation.” Surely, if one does so, it becomes impossible to call Lockhart’s photograph an appropriation, in any strict sense of the word, or in the ways in which postmodernist criticism once used it. Lockhart’s photograph, perhaps, is based on the Sander image, in subject matter and in setting and in pose, but the differences wind up being as important as the similarities. In fact, Lockhart seems to return to Sander’s image of the blind boys to set up a spiraling series of relationships between the images, an image that echoes another image but will not, cannot, coincide with it. Boys in one image become girls in the other. Shorter and taller retain their positions. But look at the boy, or at the girl, on the left: hands are held in similar positions against the page, but in reverse, an image chiasmus, with one to the right and one to the left. The images take up non-coincident relations to each other, becoming reflections that are not copies, echoes that are not exact doubles, and their non-coincidence here is staged around the subject—but perhaps also the experience—of blindness. This is a photographic lesson we need to continue to explore.
For Agnes Squillante, 1910-1997