Future Histories | Steffen Siegel | Dienstag, 30.06.2020

Leaving the Book Behind

When I started writing this blog series a couple of weeks ago, we all were busy with very different things than photography and photo history – and we still are. The current pandemic is shaping our lives in previously unimaginable ways. In the strict sense of the word, there is no photograph of the virus itself. Yet, in this current situation, photography plays anything but a minor role: Pictures are currently an especially important tool for our day-to-day orientation. At this moment, photographs are not just relevant when it comes to depicting current events. In a remarkable number of projects, artists underscore the importance of looking at the world and representing it with the help of a camera. From social media to individual websites, various artistic initiatives aim at reflecting the given situation. It seems impossible to keep track of it. Yet, I want to address at least one of these projects as it focuses on one fundamental question: What is the appropriate medium to render the historical value of specific photographs in particular and photography in general?

For several weeks now, the French-German TV channel arte has been broadcasting “Letters from photographers.” 1 The shows are available online through March 2023!Week after week, altogether nine photographers from France and Germany broadcast their camera-based impressions and observations. But what does ‘broadcasting photographs’ mean exactly? In these contributions, we witness a film-like stream of fifteen minutes, single photographs cut and put together by arte’s editors. Fast and slow, full-frame and close-up, the camera standing still and moving over the photograph’s surface – these ‘letters’ appear in manifold ways. The participating photographers are present and absent at the same time: We never see them, but we can listen to their explanations as they take us through their view of the world. Spoken by a voice-over, these narrations work as one extensive caption for the whole set of pictures.

If you are watching arte quite regularly, you may know that this channel has reactivated and adapted a well-established model for current purposes. The idea dates back to the 1990s, when the French Centre National de la Photographie produced “Contacts,” consisting of 35 episodes, each of which featured the work of one photographer. The result was a series of short films in which we can contemplate photographs as we listen to the photographer and his or her comments from the off. We hear the voices of Henri Cartier-Bresson and William Klein, Raymond Depardon and Nan Goldin, Roni Horn or Wolfgang Tillmans – but we never see any of these artists themselves. This simple trick renders a vital effect: the television show focuses on photographic images. Its producers, the artists, remain present without dominating the exploration of their work. As if we were a studio visit, we look over the photographer’s shoulder.

In “Contacts,” the artist is the interpreter of his or her work. There are plenty of reasons to criticize such a concept. 2Steffen Siegel, Ich ist zwei andere. Jeff Walls Diptychon aus Bildern und Texten (München: Wilhelm Fink, 2014). However, in the context of my blog series, I am interested in one specific aspect: The television show shifted the typical approach to the history of photography from text to image, from the printed page to the photograph on TV (or computer) screens. It is still possible to access all these “contact sheets” at any time: Fortunately, they have been published on DVD. But what exactly does it mean to have this box on the bookshelf, maybe somewhere in between older and newer books on photo history? Firstly, the format itself reveals a telling difference: a rupture that runs between the printed book and digital film. Secondly, there is also an interesting continuity: the film provides the opportunity to think about pictures in pictures. If we consider moving images as an extension of the photographic, we could even say: via photographs within photographs. Spoken words are not absent from “Contacts,” yet the general approach is different: Images no longer accompany texts, but – the other way round – images are accompanied by texts.

Between 1988 and 1998 and parallel to “Contacts,” Jean-Luc Godard produced his film project Histoire(s) du cinéma – a comparable endeavor related to the historiography of visual media. 3Jean-Luc Godard: Histoire(s) du cinéma, 4 films in eight parts, 1988–1998. The whole set is available as Histoire(s) du cinéma. Geschichte(n) des Kinos (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2001). Concerning the history of film and cinema, which sits at the center of Godard’s interest, his turn to film as a medium of representation and reflection was undoubtedly even more urgent. At least some parts of the history of photography can appear in print, thus on a book page in rather good quality. But there is no way to represent moving images within the classical realm of the book. When writing film history, there was (and is) a pressing necessity to leave the book behind. Godard arranged his material into four chapters with a total of eight episodes. As a whole, they form a stream of consciousness, which in turn is an original and challenging cinematic experience. We may not find any project that would deal with the history of photography in comparable ways to Godard’s rigorous and profound endeavor. Nevertheless, it remains challenging to think about how the paradigm of the book – the standard practice for dealing with photo history since 1839 – could be replaced by alternative media.

For an answer, we cannot rely on too many examples. There is the “Stilgeschichte der Fotografie” (“History of Photographic Styles”), a series of eight episodes that ran on German television from November 1970 through January 1971. 4Esta Marshall, Bernard Larsson, Thomas Neumann: Stilgeschichte der Fotografie, eight episodes for television, Westdeutscher Rundfunk Köln, 1970–1971. The producers were Esta Marshall, Bernard Larsson, and Thomas Neumann. As far as I know, the photographer Larsson led the project. To characterize the ambition of the show, I only have to quote some of the titles of these eight episodes, each thirty minutes in length: “The Invention of Photography,” “Studio and Bourgeois Pose,” “Documentary Photography,” “Manipulation and Aestheticism.” Even in the early 1970s, these conventional chapters could hardly surprise or challenge the (few) experts of photo history. However, we should appreciate that Larsson and his team considered the history and aesthetics of a medium interesting enough to produce shows for a general audience that would be aired by the most popular visual medium of the time: public television.

As far as I can see, encounters like the “Stilgeschichte der Fotografie” or, two decades later, “Contacts,” never really worked as role models for comparable attempts at showing (instead of writing) the history of photography. Yet, even if they remain more or less solitary attempts, we should acknowledge the very idea of working with photographic material in the realm of visual media. Presented within and as a TV show, pictures become media for pictures. It is appropriate to speak in the plural: Fifteen or thirty minutes will always deal with more than one photograph. However, the French television offered another attempt to deal with the history of photography, but this time the strategy was much more focused. Between January 31st and July 22nd, 1983, the French broadcasting station FR3 aired “Une minute pour une image” – the title of that series says it all. Each image was the subject of a minute-long examination, featuring a remarkably various group of artists, filmmakers and photographers: Agnès Varda, Robert Doisneau, Hervé Guibert, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Yves Montand, and others. Furthermore, the daily newspaper Libération returned to a more classical form of presentation: it printed each picture together with the spoken comments as a caption. 5For an early critique of this idea see Rosalind Krauss, “A Note on Photography and the Simulacral”, in: October No. 31 (Winter 1984), 49–68 .

Whether in the form of episodes for television, newspaper articles, or, a result of TV shows, a short film, “Une minute pour une image” limited itself to a minimum: One picture and just one picture is the starting point of photo historical reckoning. But can it reach beyond this frame (in a double sense of the word)? Can it draw and finally lead to the ‘bigger picture’ I was talking about in the first part of my blog series? Except for this particular project on FR3, the cinematic possibilities of cinema and television might offer a variety of techniques that help to argue for a connection between images. If Jean-Luc Godard had worked on his Histoire(s) du cinéma only some years later, he might never have started it in the first place. He was looking for new means of montage and annotation, interrogation, and accumulation. His approach to mixed-media was anticipating a more connected way of working on and playing with the history of visual media. Godard answered it by exploiting the whole set of cinematic means of expression. Just when Godard brought his Histoire(s) to a conclusion, the internet would offer it in truly new abundance.