“I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor.”
I am citing Roland Barthes, from the opening of his book on photography, Camera Lucida. I want my post this week—a shorter post than usual, a set of questions or ponderings more than an essay—to act as a kind of postscript to last week’s entry.
I intimated there that photography invokes a rethinking of vision, of the look and of the gaze. Surely this is well-trodden territory. But is it exhausted? Does it need to be re-opened? Last week, my subject was the irreconcilability at the heart of photographic seeing, the non-coincidence of the gaze in photography as one of its most essential features. But there is of course another set of relations attached to the photographic gaze that needs further reflection. I am thinking now not of non-coincidence, but of doubling; I am thinking of what I want to call the recursive structure of photographic sight that non-coincidence spawns.
This is what Barthes names at the opening of his book. I am looking, the critic marvels, at eyes that saw... a ruler, a figure of history, the Emperor, providing a new and wondrous attachment to the past. Rather than this understanding of Barthes’ wonder, however, I want to shift our attention to the recursiveness of the situation, to its unstated or unrepresented conditions.
“I am looking at eyes that looked...”
Barthes’ passage directs our attention to the eyes within the picture, to the gaze of the photographic subject. But nothing disallows us from dissociating this structure from that which a photograph gives to be seen. In other words, I am interested and wondering about not just the gazes and the eyes and the looks that we might see in a given photograph. I am wondering instead about the looks and the gazes that structure the photograph’s form. I am wondering instead about why we haven’t spoken much in photography history and photography theory about the fact that every photograph involves, at the least, and as its structure, two gazes, two looks. We look at the photograph, and in doing so look through someone else’s eyes, or (even if we are the photographer) at the very least through the camera’s eye. In other words, in Barthes’ photograph, we look at the scene produced by eyes that looked at the eyes that looked at the Emperor.
Is this not a momentous development in the history of vision? The arrival of photographic reproducibility means, among other things, this: that the act of seeing can now itself be reproduced. And in its reproduction, experienced again. Why has this not been the focus of our attention? Reproducibility is not just about the objects within the photograph, not just about the photograph as object, not just about the scene of representation. Photographic reproducibility extends and doubles the irreducible singularity of the gaze, of looking, of the act of seeing and perception that the photograph concretizes. (Yes, of course I’m talking about lens-based practices here; but can even this be made more elastic?)
Does this idea about reproducibility mean that seeing—precisely in its non-coincidence—can be shared? That this primordial act of individuation and subjectivization, the act of looking that has for so long been taken to found the sovereignty of the subject, suddenly—with photography—becomes multiple, unmoored from a singular set of eyes, set loose upon the world to repeat, and to be repeated again? As opposed to doubling, or technical reproducibility, the photograph as recursive structure makes emphatic that every photograph is the product of multiple gazes—that each photograph instantiates a structure of “seeing again,” of seeing redoubled.
Momentous? Or utterly cliché? I am, and expect my reader might be, torn. The program of “sharing seeing” might be an apt description for the most trite and tired models of documentary photography the history of the medium has ever known. I surely do not want to be heard as arguing for a return to such “humanist” models of documentary.
In her book World Spectators, Kaja Silverman begins with a chapter entitled “Seeing for the Sake of Seeing.” Here, she undoes many entrenched understandings of vision and visuality, employing a psychoanalytic model to arrive at the inherently “recursive” nature of sight itself. For the theorist, each act of vision is a form of “seeing again.” This is so for Silverman’s model of vision internalizes the Freudian notion of desire, the finding of an object as the re-finding of a lost object, thus: “Every act of visual affirmation,” Silverman writes, “...occurs not only via the incarnation of a formless and unspecifiable nonobject of desire, but also via the visual reincarnation of previous incarnations.” And this: “The world spectator is consequently not just someone to whom the past returns, but someone who holds himself open to the new form it will take—who anticipates and affirms the transformative manifestation of what was in what is.”
For such a model of vision, photography indeed represents a momentous event in the history of human culture. Perhaps it would not be an exaggeration to position the invention of photography as the necessary achievement of this more complex understanding of human vision—its potentially inherent recursive structure, its need to open itself to the structure of “seeing again.” (And here we could cue the thinking of a figure like Jacques Derrida, undoing the “presence” so often attributed to perception and to the visual in our culture; “seeing again,” recursivity, and photography-as-the-doubled-gaze undoes such ideas from the start.) The light writing of the photograph is the prosthesis not of super vision, machine vision, a technological sight—it is the crutch of our less heroic need to see again what has been seen before, to share in this deeper sense the scene of the visual.
I want to know more about this structure—the recursive structure of the photograph. I want to understand how we might radicalize the idea of “sharing seeing.” It would surely not be to aggrandize the photographer, to proclaim an aesthetic of sharing “individual visions”—the aristocracy of the photographic auteur that art photography long proclaimed.
What instead would it be? What could it look like? My concern throughout the past weeks has been with viewers more than authors, with experiences created by photography rather than the object or the medium in itself.
Since I ended last week with the work of Sharon Lockhart, very briefly, I thought I might take up her work again—if only once more too briefly. Lockhart has been lumped by certain critics in the camp of the “constructed” photograph, the staged and appropriated image, the postmodern legacy that emphasizes the twisted irreality of the photograph as signifier. For a long time, her engagements with images modeled on cinema, photographic scenes borrowed from filmic images (and it must be said, vice versa), would seem to confirm Lockhart as working in the lineage of an artist like Cindy Sherman. But her most interesting projects evince other qualities. Primary among these is the hybrid place her works occupy precisely between reality and fiction, between documentary images and cinematic ones, between observation and construction, and this often in hermetic or almost invisible ways.
For example, many of Lockhart’s Untitled photographs, cinematic tableaus, seem based on image models—from the history of art or mass culture—but these models have remained uncertain. It now seems clear that many of these “constructed” images are the re-working by the artist—recursively, we might say—of snapshots, documentary images, of her own past, her family albums, photographed again. Calling each of the original images an Untitled Study (re-photographed snapshot), Lockhart has been engaged in a long process of analysis of her own photo-biography, a process of re-photographing her own intimate collection of photographs. Nominating these re-photographed snapshots as “studies,” the artist then submits the image to a further repetition—engaging actors, and sets, and lighting, to replicate various elements of her re-photographed scenes.
Here are some links, some examples, of Lockhart’s Untitled Study series. They are only now being shown for the first time in exhibition (previously they were sometimes reproduced, mysteriously, and fitfully, in catalogs), in the show in Poland to which I provided links in my last post’s comments section.
Sharon Lockhart, Untitled Study (re-photographed snapshot #4), 1998:
Sharon Lockhart, Untitled Study (re-photographed snapshot #7), 1998:
Some earlier examples:
And here is a still from Lockhart’s film Pine Flat, 2005—a film that approaches the stillness of photography, and whose “documentary” scenes representing children performing simple actions in nature approximate in various ways these earlier photographic scenes, these personal snapshots—these self-images. I will let the reader draw their own connections between this still and the images that preceded.
Enacted here as both image and process, Lockhart’s projects develop a modality of what I would want to call the photograph’s recursiveness, the project of “sharing seeing.” Rather than a simple—or perhaps better—a “simplified” structure of seeing again what was seen before, rather than viewers simply consuming the products of the photographer as author, seeing what the artist sees, “sharing seeing” emerges when the recursive structure of seeing employs the photograph to reach beyond the self, beyond the subject. Modeling what she sees on what she has seen before, creating images that settle between self-portraits and ethnographic documents, allowing memory images to be instantiated in new forms and events out in the world at large, Lockhart’s practice uses this recursiveness to unsettle our categories and expectations—including producer and viewer, photographer and audience—for photographic objects today.