Processing | Sean Cubitt | Mittwoch, 22.02.2017

Assembling Photographs

Looking at animals is like looking at photographs. Or at least, looking at familiar animals like dogs and cats and horses is like looking at photos. They offer themselves up to us, but they expect us to respond as well. Pictures are the same. As W.J.T. Mitchell asked some years ago, whenever we try to get something from images, we should also ask "What do pictures want?" There is a yearning for comprehension on both sides. There is so much each can understand about the other, but only so much. There is something fundamentally incomplete in that relation that starts from the necessary instability of being when it is unavoidably coupled with appearing; and when appearing is also the condition of the one who sees as well. Although seeing and being seen are fundamentally generous, they also involve withholding something. How much truer that is under conditions of anonymity. When our names and faces are only streams of data, we may as well be nameless figures in a vast background wash of faces.

We have a century of protests against that anonymity, from Chaplin to The Matrix. But what if it turned out to be the grounds of our liberation from the dead weight of identity? Against Chaplin, the great Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci argued that the road to socialism lay in embracing the anonymous teamwork of the factory. What if, after all, Gramsci was right, and the road to our emancipation lies in the 21st century equivalent of factory labour: the vast collective labour of recording everything?

In my last post I quoted Hegel on the way being is doubled by the necessity that always comes with it, the necessity of appearing to others. And I slipped in Hegel’s idea that that other might well be what he calls the Absolute. Hegel’s Absolute is a kind of monotheistic God, one who needs to create the world as something apart from itself in order to really exist, and spends the whole of history drawing the world and itself back into unity. Hegel’s Absolute needs the world in order to exist, but equally needs to find a way to reconcile the external world with itself by a process of assimilation. It seems to me that this is a pretty good description of the mass image.

I started out arguing that images negate the world they picture. They show not what is but what the world, or events in the world, are capable of becoming. The mass image negates that negation by assimilating images into one enormous statement – that the world exists: complete, present, completely present – and therefore without past or future, without the capacity to become other than it already and irrefutably is. The mass image database as the repository of truth would then be the true mirror of the world, and more than that: it would define the world as what can be mirrored in it as data, as the given.

But we have three aspects of the single image that make it refuse that role of telling the truth. First, it negates the unhappiness of the world in order to create a vision of what, otherwise, the world is capable of. Second, images appear and because they appear, they are not self-sufficient, in the way that truth is. They require someone to pay attention to their appearance, without which they aren’t images at all. And third, even in their appearance, they withhold: they hold back from giving themselves wholly to the other who attends to them. Putting those three things together, we can get a basic thesis about what images do when they negate, appear and withhold. What is withheld is what the other has to supply, and that is what constitutes the happiness of images: that capacity they have to capture not what is but what might be. Don McCullin’s photograph of West Hartlepool does all of these things. We cannot see in that image what brought it about: the coal and steel industries, the careless poisoning of the environment, the class structure and class struggles, the forms of industrial capitalism or the National Health Service that picked up its wounded, the gendering of employment and the monoculture of North-East England in the 1960s. At the same time we can see what none of those grand social and historical forces can: the horror and waste they visit on this specific landscape, this specific man, on this specific day.

Then what happens in the mass image? In a radio lecture from 1931, the great photographer of early 20th century Germany, August Sander, observed the difference between socially oriented photography and “the cooperative work of scientists in observatories, who have taken approximately 20,000 photographs of the heavens from 18 observatories for our total orientation in the universe. In this case the photograph speaks the universally understood language of a high culture; the photograph would speak a different but equally expressive language if the film camera were set up and simultaneously activated in the 365 unemployment bureaus which exist today in Germany alone. If we photographed the people there, fit our results together, and labeled the whole with the date, 1931, the tragedy of our photographic language would be understood by all present and future human beings without further commentary.” 1August Sander & Anne Halley, “From The Nature & Growth of Photography: Lecture 5: Photography as a Universal Language”, The Massachusetts Review 19 (4), Winter, 1978, 674–679. Sander is making a claim for photography to be counted among the major forms of the 20th century, and it’s clear he hovers somewhere between the claims of art, science and social activism. But equally he is trying to place the practice he had already been engaged in for twenty years at this point, and which is best known from his book Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts (People of the Twentieth Century). This involved, by the year 1931, by his reckoning, five or six hundred photographs, largely portraits, in an attempt “to arrive at a physiognomic definition of the German people of the period”.

August Sander, Bauernkapelle, 1913 Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur August Sander Archiv (30054)August Sander, Bauernkapelle, 1913 © Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur August Sander Archiv

Each of Sander’s photographs speaks of a place, a time, a person or, in this case, the dynamic of a group or a profession. We can make sense of the faces, the poses, the clothes and the haircuts. We appreciate the mixture of presence and absence, the direct gazes into our line of sight that make us co-present, and the distance in time and temperament that divide us. The photo inveigles us into imagining the music of this peasant band, to wonder what the pins sported by three of the musicians stood for, and to surmise why the violinist with the upturned moustache, for the moment of the exposure, is the only one looking away from the lens. It seems pretty clear that Sander’s subjects posed and composed themselves for the long exposures he used, and so were conscious participants, but at the same time little gestures like that glance away from the photographer are clues to an unconscious moment during the shot. Or a conscious experience that becomes unconscious as the sitter forgets, the next day, what was going through their minds or a decade later cannot even recall the day their face was captured by the famous August Sander in the midday wood on the way to a wedding or a village feast day. And now those people in the photograph can no longer speak, their thoughts are truly and forever beyond consciousness. An unconscious dynamic runs through even the most sociological of photographs.

Individually, every image draws us in to dialogue with the scene. Collectively, they seem to push us away. How are we to make sense of the facing portraits of a government bureaucrat and an exhausted, opium-raddled prostitute or, flipping the page, of a steel worker on one side, and a legless veteran begging in the street?

Sander had his own categories to organise the sequence of his photographs. Here I don’t want to even attempt to bring in the array of scholarship around them or his work. It is said that he wanted each to stand for some human type (or even archetype). Perhaps this contributes to the sense we get that each image has its specific immediacy while their place in the collection seems to make them somehow colder and more distant.

At the same time, it is important that he curated his subjects and his photographs. Even when placed in an order that satisfied his sociological imagination, the images never feel as if they could be substituted. They retain that sense of intensity that stops them being interchangeable. The sad proof of this is that the plates for a first publication from his archive were destroyed by the Nazis, and more negatives were lost in a fire after the War. It is impossible to find other photographs to fill the void they leave behind. And so we know that the individuality of the images is critical. They are not, in this sense, commodities that can be exchanged for any other commodity. Indeed Sander himself, in the essay cited above, distinguishes the scientific purpose of an aggregation of images from the replication of one image in millions of copies made possible by the daily press, and which is tempted by sheer scale towards lies and propaganda.

The curatorial impulse driving his selection, first of subjects and then of images, is never purely additive. There is a direction involved: Sander’s now unfamiliar and even unsavoury categorisations. People of the Twentieth Century neither pursues accumulation for its own sake nor for an entirely putative completion, in which every aspect of Germany would be recorded. Selection and organisation cut across accumulation, in this case under the slightly bogus rationale of types and archetypes. Sander’s intentions are today as unknowable (or as open to interpretation) as the thoughts of his sitters. We confront the collection without his guidance, his truth. What is more, the collection announces itself as incomplete, even before the destruction of large numbers of elements from it. These losses, incompletions and failures of mutual understanding are not disasters. They are features that we can learn from when we try to understand how we might rework the databases of the mass image.