Photographic Realism, an Attempt | Bernd Stiegler | Sunday, 29.01.2012


When I recently visited the Diane Arbus exhibition in Paris (to be shown at Fotomuseum Winterthur from March 3 till May 28, 2012), I realized to a greater extent than ever before that Arbus in effect stages a photographic order of the world in a highly ostentatious manner. She uses photography to define, critique, and ultimately subvert the order of the world, which, in and of itself, is only first perceived and shown through photography. If one were to create a list of her criteria for this order, it would be long: fat - thin, young - old, person - doll, alive - dead, original - copy, black - white, face - mask, naked - clothed, idyll - horror, war - peace, inside - outside, singular - double, observed - observing, human - animal, friend - foe, original - copy, tragedy - comedy, private - public, dwarf - giant. These are just some of the numerous categories that she more or less plays out through manifold examples. Each image has its counterpart within her oeuvre. Every single image needs this referent to be appropriately describable. To me, the decisive factor does not seem to be that Arbus subverts supposed existing orders (that would be too predictable and, beyond post-colonial and post-modern theory, ultimately banal), but instead that the aim of photography apparently seems to be a claim of alliance to certain orders, for better or for worse.

To formulate this more pointedly, Arbus' photographs are, in the best sense, exemplary of photography as such. Her works manifest something that is generally less noticeable but nevertheless present. So then, one might further ask, is not one of the essential characteristics of photography the fact that it addresses visual orders? Are not all important photographic oeuvres also or perhaps primarily manifestations of different orders? Does photography not represent an attempt to uncover and invent orders that lie beyond familiar formal categories? And is this not an element of photographic realism. In keeping with this thesis, photography would be a mode of visually addressing a certain order—even including, as in the case of Arbus, destabilizing it.

The list of possible examples would be long: Die Welt ist schön (The World is Beautiful) by Renger-Patzsch, the serial works of the Becher School, Gursky’s “global images”, the models of Demand and others, the countless explorations of the faraway close to home and the familiar in the foreign, the Parisian universe of Atget and the Russian cosmos of Mikhailov, Sander's Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts (People of the 20th Century) and the “Pilgrimages” of Leibovitz, and Sugimoto, Boltanski and Sherman’s series. Is an order a manifestation of the “real” in photography? This is both the question that I would like to ask and the thesis I would like to propose.