What Can Photography Do? | Hilde Van Gelder | Monday, 09.07.2012

Photography and Humanity

In the catalogue essay to the 1981 exhibition he curated at MoMA under the title Before Photography, Peter Galassi traces photography’s origins in relation to the history of Western painting. Much more than being the offspring from a fruitful juncture of scientific, cultural, and economic determinations, Galassi argues, photography is the final, perfected result of centuries-long pictorial efforts to depict the world. The photograph, he writes, possesses an inherently modern “pictorial syntax of immediate, synoptic perceptions and discontinuous, unexpected forms.” It is common knowledge that the design of the early nineteenth-century camera obscura was influenced by the requirements of art as they developed throughout the modern Western tradition, at least since the Renaissance discovery of the single-point perspective.

Photography’s capability for “pictorial syntax” has further been defined in terms of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment,” a term he coined in his eponymous book from 1952. John Szarkowski has famously claimed, in his 1966 book The Photographer’s Eye, that Cartier-Bresson’s phrasing has often been misunderstood. The depicted climax of the decisive moment is not a dramatic but a visual one, and the photographic image does not tell a story but is a picture, Szarkowski argues. In his own writing, Cartier-Bresson appears to confirm such understanding: “inside movement there is one moment at which the elements in motion are held in balance. Photography must seize upon this moment and hold immobile the equilibrium of it.” The decisive moment represents harmony, however brief. As Liz Wells writes in Photography. A Critical Introduction (1996), it is “a formal flash of time when all the right elements were in place before the scene fell back into its quotidian disorder.” The photographer’s eye was able to capture the scene as if in an instant of genius. The picture aspires to make us believe that the “decisive moment” came about spontaneously, even if we know it may often have not been the case. Many pictures in the absorptive model today seek to confront us with a visual climax about which we feel incited to believe the same: that they came about spontaneously (in one push of the button) even if we positively know (often from the artist himself) that this is not entirely so and that, for example, digital software helped here and there.

The photographs of Aïm Deüelle Lüski, which I consider to be part of the intervening model, radically go against this very logic of picture-making. The artist constructs his own, analog cameras, which he rather calls “instruments.” Each of them is built with a particular intention to photograph a specific occasion in mind. The cameras take on a wide variety of shapes, and the peepholes through which they capture reality operate independently from the photographer’s eye. The resulting images are multilayered indexical, physical traces of the reality that they depict. For more information on Lüski’s methods, see: http://rhizomes.net/issue23/lebovic/index.html and the very rich writing on his work by Ariella Azoulay.

Lüski’s photographs operate as critical tools against the reigning scopic regime of photo-aesthetic conventions, Azoulay states in The Civil Contract of Photography. Their aesthetic is analytical instead of synthesizing. They make a radically neutral registration of everyday reality as it presents itself to the camera. The act of the photographer consists only in placing the camera in a certain spatio-temporal environment – nothing more, nothing less. The image is not necessarily taken from a frontal perspective.

Lüski’s photographs put reigning hegemonic discourse, both within the art world and in political reality, in perspective. He does not work with a commercial gallery. As he writes in a correspondence that we exchanged, “I can say that my work has always been on the verge of art, being more like a scientific way of working, thinking about photography and photographic issues from a scientific-philosophical point of view, without any relation to the market whatsoever. My work is more invention than creation, and it is developing according to its own rules, according to its own logic, to the problems optics and experiences are posing to me, according to philosophical dilemmas and paradoxes. That is why I am not part of hegemonic photography – which is not only a problem of the relations to the market – my work is basically against the hegemonic vision that photography has been creating over the 200 last years, influencing the way we think we see/know the outside, seeing reality following the Renaissance (Albertian) vision.” He adds that it is his intention “to deconstruct the hegemonic relations between photography and the decisive moment: my project is against the domination of the one frequency, the one moment, of capturing the relations between the absolute present and the image we are creating – against Barthes for example, from one side, and the whole modernist structure of photographic apparatus, which developed into the cinema-camera apparatus, video-television way of producing images, and now, [against] the computers and phones cameras which are all based on the same one and only model of viewing, of perceiving reality.”

Lüski’s philosophy of photography is based on a radical holding on to the medium in terms of its ontological status as an indexical image. From their physical ties to reality as it presents itself to the camera’s multiple “eyes” (and not to the photographer’s “cyclopean” eye when he looks into the lens), Lüski’s images convey a strong desire to speak about the situations that they bear the marks of. In this way, photography aims to cut its ties with a humanism that considers man’s position as the central one in the world (thus installing hierarchies, even among humans). In Lüski’s approach, the photographer’s eye is no longer relevant, and loses control over the image. Instead, the many, simultaneous perspectives that his cameras take are radically egalitarian. Yet, even in their divergence from the traditional photograph, these images beyond any doubt can be identified as photographs. They thus obtain a certain metaphorical potential for humanity: they are part of a truncus communis of photography, but at the same time they radically open up photography’s horizon and perspectives. In the case of human beings, this translates as a shared humanity that needs to acknowledge its many multiplicities without losing sight of their equally belonging together.

(Please note: the first four minutes of the clip are highly relevant, the other four less so).