Conventions, Conditions, and Practices of Photography Conceived as a System of Relations
As works of art have increasingly embraced the polysemy of images—to the point where the question of what a particular image depicts has become all but minor in the discussion of contemporary art—what we generally describe as photography continues to be understood as primarily depictive (and to that end as a transparent medium) and taken in unitary terms (i.e. taken as discrete pictorial worlds rather than as objects in an expansive aesthetic distributive system). In fact, the level of self-awareness about images seems to be the metric by which those who practice photography are relegated to either the attribution “artist,” or “photographer,” the absence of aesthetic reflexivity delineating the latter from the former, while the photographic itself is often, despite its instrumentality, delivered in theoretical terms as an exemplar of a loss of meaning (at various times theorized as death, or absence), and the domination of the image over the material.
The peculiar instability of photographic meaning has lead many on a fool’s errand, leaving its history littered with false ontologies and misplaced certainties, diverting attention from the political implications of aesthetics to the phantasmagoric world of likenesses. This is not unique to photography, but perhaps photography is exemplary of this confusion. Yet the material conditions underpinning the current state of affairs in the distribution, reception, and production of what we might loosely refer to as the photographic apparatus (conceived in a broad sense as including not only the machinery, but the social systems within which photography operates), have all too easily been swept up in this fantasy of our transcendence into a dematerialized image world.
Needless to say, it is curious that a medium that was born less than two hundred years ago, in the midst of the industrial revolution, would be the primary contemporary vehicle of the western pictorial tradition, as its more established siblings continue to reinvent, and intervene within the conventions of aesthetic reception. There are certainly many reasons for this, some more compelling than others, but this forum seems a valuable opportunity to sketch out this theoretical problem, and reexamine the assumptions associated with that loose collection of practices and theories that we call the photographic, and attempt to propose broader, and perhaps more dynamic tools through which to understand it. This process seems best begun with a discussion of the functional construction of the category of photography.
And in my next posting, I will provide a loose history of this apocalyptic imagination of photography, one which I will argue, is predicated upon the false separation of representation from its material substrate, a problem which begins in structuralism, and has led to a general problem of what Alfred North Whitehead referred to as “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” In short, my postings will speculate about the possibility of recovering the term photography, and to reconceive it not as a category whose boundaries are to be analyzed, but a dynamic ever changing system, more a relation between elements, that organizes interactions and flows, than a category that we place certain types of objects within.
I’ll end with the following questions that come from those I posed last year in the context of the Museum of Modern Art’s ongoing series of discussions of photography, questions which are, to me, still unresolved, and also seem germane to the discussion of photography taking place here:
What, if anything, is to be gained by approaching photography as a discrete medium? Is there truly any solidity to a category that links together everything from the gelatin silver print, to the magazine page, the computer screen, the billboard etc. all of which have distinctly different modes of address, access to audience, and distributive networks? Do they all require the same or similar questions? Even if the “same” image occurs in each of these instances, does it make them, for all intents and purposes, equivalent? Or is this just a vernacular misuse of the term photograph, using the word photograph as though it was synonymous with picture or image, a confusion of a schematic formal similarity for material/epistemological/ideological continuity? Does it make as much sense to describe a reproduction of a painting in a magazine as a painting? Or should our approach to how to discuss that material shift be different, and if so, exactly how should it be different, since the material transformation from a painting to the printed page is akin to the transformation of the photographic print or digital file to the printed page? Does it have to do with what qualities we assume are germane to the photograph, and which are not? What qualities are these? And finally, what tacit assumptions are being made when we link these, or the multitude of other distributive forms of the photograph together?