Photography and Dissemination | Geoffrey Batchen | Sunday, 07.10.2012

Photography and Authorship

My previous post touched on the complications that arise from photography’s dependence on a negative-positive system of reproduction, a system that divides the photograph from itself but also divides the act of photographing into a number of separate elements, each of them able to be undertaken by different workers. The authorship of individual photographs is therefore often a collective enterprise stretched over a considerable time period, even though this fact tends to be repressed in our historical accounts of photography. Those histories instead privilege individuals and the logic of individualism and this allows them to avoid having to address the complexity of authorship in all its various manifestations.
Photography’s authorship has always been a matter of controversy, given that a selling point of the new medium was that it apparently dispensed altogether with the need for an artist’s intervening hand. Photographs were made by the things they depicted, not by the photographer who operated the camera. As Talbot put it in January 1839, when describing a photograph he had taken of his own house, it was the first building "that was ever yet known to have drawn its own picture." When he gathered some of these “curious self-representations” together to be published in The Pencil of Nature, he included in that volume a photograph titled The West Façade of Westminster Abbey. A richly-toned salt print from a calotype negative, it was published in April 1846 as one of three photographs to be issued with the sixth and final part of The Pencil of Nature. Although Talbot wrote a text to accompany this photograph, nowhere does he mention that the negative from which this print was made had been taken two years before, and not by him but by his former valet Nicolaas Henneman. The print itself was made at Henneman’s Reading Establishment, which means that as many as nine people might have worked on some aspect of it. Perhaps, then, it is industrial capitalism, with its alienated workers, systems of mass production and calibrated divisions of labour, that is this photograph’s true subject?
In this same spirit, Talbot took it as a given that The Pencil of Nature was a book of his photographs, even when it wasn’t. In the modern economy of the 1840s, names had become trademarks. Accordingly, it was common for commercial studios, like those established in London by Richard Beard or Antoine Claudet, to claim a single authorship for all the studio’s photographs—even though it is likely that Beard never took any photographs during his entire career and that Claudet, who was frequently away in Paris, had many of his taken by anonymous subsidiary operators. In these cases, the economics of photography displaced the photographer from his or her own subjectivity, disseminating in its place a name that, in the process of being made over as a ‘corporate’ identity, has been emptied of its substance, its authenticity.
This kind of situation creates all sorts of problems for historians. The effort to decide who did what, to find the truth of the image by deciding to which individual it properly belongs, is, after all, a standard art historical desire. Attributions to particular individuals make interpretation easier (meaning and biography are so quickly collapsed into each other) but also enhance a picture's value in the market place (a Talbot being worth more than a Henneman). In a history of photography driven by such connoisseurship, propriety and property have all too often found themselves in this kind of forced marriage.
Nevertheless, the history of photography is full of examples that trouble precisely this desire for a fixed attribution. For example, the collective signature attached to the work of early operators such as Hill and Adamson or Southworth and Hawes speaks to the combined talents of chemists and painters, personifying the photographic image's own apparent confusion of art and science. But these pairings also again complicate our traditional understanding of authorship, with its assumptions about individual creativity and personal inspiration. Who, in these sorts of partnerships, did what? Who took responsibility for what aspects of the photographic event (and of what does this event actually consist)?
There is obviously nothing new about teams making photographs, even if the Bechers (a married couple) and Mike and Doug Starn (twin brothers) have managed to add a familial and even genetic twist to the genre. Faced with multiple authorships of this kind, we are confronted once more with difficult questions: when (at what point in the process of production and reproduction) is a photograph made? Where is the boundary between the creative moment we acknowledge as involving 'authorship' and mere labour? In other words, point of origin, and the value we continue to grant it, remains the key issue raised by all such cases. This is no doubt why the 'illegal' collaborations staged by Sherrie Levine, in which she copied or simply reframed reproductions of the work of earlier photographers, struck such a chord in the 1980s, when themes of originality were much discussed; Levine seemed to be literally presenting her own creative work as nothing but a "tissue of quotations," in Barthes' famously prescriptive words. More recently we have had a similar merger of past and present with Andreas Müller-Pohle's Digital Scores, a printed web of electronic code generated by Nicéphore Niépce's supposed first photograph (the beginnings of photography are here made to collaborate with a computer to signal the medium's ends).
Andreas Müller-Pohle, Digital Scores III (after Nicéphore Niépce), 1995
These various examples of mixed authorship foreground the economy of exchange which makes any collaboration possible (an economy deliberately obscured by some of these pairs of operatives, who pretend to act as one). Any exchange, even when it is voluntary, involves a differential of power, an unavoidable negotiation of difference. And this is what continues to make collaborative or collective image making a provocative activity; not because it subverts the market place (which long ago found a way to sell the work of the Bechers) but because it necessarily asks us to engage the politics of exchange-- because it presents photography itself as the embodiment of this politics.