Photography and Dissemination | Geoffrey Batchen | Wednesday, 17.10.2012

A Subject for, a History about, Photography

My previous posts have explored the various ramifications of photography’s reproducibility, pursuing the way this attribute disseminates the photograph, securing, dispersing and dissipating its identity in about equal measure. I have suggested that this pursuit considerably complicates the traditional representation of photography’s history, undermining any narrative based on single artists or single prints or indeed on chronology or purity of medium—undermining, in other words, much of the traditional infrastructure of published histories of photography.I began my contributions with a brief commentary on the famous essay by Walter Benjamin about the social and political effects of reproduction, an essay that I suggested had not generated the kind of sustained investigation of photography’s reproducibility that one might have expected. There is a particularly challenging passage in that essay deserving of such an investigation: “Just as the entire mode of existence of human collectives changes over long historical periods, so too does their mode of perception. The way in which human perception is organized—the medium in which it occurs—is conditioned not only by nature but by history.” Benjamin has his own thoughts on this issue (he speaks of a perception “whose ‘sense for all that is same in the world’ has so increased that, by means of reproduction, it extracts sameness even from what is unique”) but I wonder if we could finish my contributions, written roughly two hundred years after the medium’s conception, by reflecting on photography’s accumulative effects on “human perception,” even on human subjectivity in general?

As we have seen, reproduction has exponentially increased the audience for certain photographs, thus securing photography’s presence in the culture. But the price for this has been a disconnection of the photographic image from photography itself, blurring any firm distinction of form and substance, and introducing the post-medium condition that digital technologies have since only exacerbated and prolonged.In other words, once it was harnessed to the engine of reproducibility, photography could not help but be haunted by its own ghosts. Much the same could be said about those subjected to it. A photographic portrait, for example, affirms one’s place in time and space but also functions to divide the sitter from him or her self, creating an experience of temporal and spatial dislocation that is distinctively photographic and peculiarly modern. Such a portrait is an image seemingly produced by the very bodies that are represented, as if those bodies have left a part of themselves, as a visual trace, on a two-dimensional surface. Not necessarily a truthful rendition of appearance or personality, a photographic portrait is nevertheless an indisputable certification of each photographed subject’s presence in some past moment. The photograph both confirms the reality of a sitter’s existence and remembers it, potentially surviving as a fragile talisman of that existence even after its subject has passed on. But that very same photograph, by placing its referent indisputably in the past, is itself a kind of mini-death sentence, a prediction of the subject’s ultimate demise at some future time. That’s because photographs certify times past but also time’s inevitable passing--and with it, our own. Each portrait therefore embodies a paradoxical message, speaking simultaneously of life and death even while suspending the subject somewhere in between.

Seated woman with shadow of photographer (29226) Unknown (USA), Seated woman with shadow of photographer, 1940s (written on verso: “This was taken out front. boo the shadow”)

To look at such a photograph of oneself is to become the subject and object of one’s own gaze. It’s an uncanny encounter, being confronted with your own virtual other. You are looking at a thing that happens to be a trace of yourself. You have been turned into that thing by a picture-making machine, and in image form you can now be bought and sold, exchanged or distributed, just like any other manufactured thing. Among all its other consequences, photography commodifies one’s relationship to one’s self, instituting a mode of representation that simultaneously reassures and alienates, secures and divides, all who are subjected to it. In short, the experience of being photographed embodies the processes and effects of capitalism in their entirety.

Once again we are confronted with the unruly, fractured nature of this thing we too simply call photography. But also of what is at stake in its study—subjectivity itself. My posts to Still Searching have suggested that a tracing of photography’s dissemination, as evidenced in particular photographic instances of repetition and difference, reveals the medium always to be fraught with its own divided and multiplied identities. One can find evidence of the effects of this division and multiplication wherever we look, from photography’s beginnings to the present, in high art as well as vernacular practices, in the West and elsewhere around the planet, in the photograph and in our experience of it. Certainly an investigation of photography’s reproducibility has allowed, even forced, me to address issues and practices insufficiently dealt with by existing scholarship. I have proposed here that a pursuit of this one theme might therefore offer up a productive way of writing a new kind of history for photography.

Abandoning the linear narrative structure and hierarchical values of most existing histories of photography, this new version would seek to engage the medium’s entire history at once and as part of the same story. Chronology must be discarded as an organizing principle in favor of clusters of specific “practices” of photographic reproduction drawn from throughout the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Art can of course be included (as it has been in my posts) but ordinary and vernacular practices will necessarily dominate any history that attempts to tell us something useful about photography as a total phenomenon. On this basis, our histories of photography can at last abandon the effort to be comprehensive (an impossible and perhaps even dangerous ambition anyway) and instead aim to be at least representative.

What I’ve tried to persuade you is that, if we are to finally to have a history that seeks to tell us something useful about photography, that tells us what photography does and how and why it does it, a traditional narrative centered on origins, great individual achievements, and purity of medium will simply no longer be adequate. We need to set about inventing a mode of photographic history that matches the complexity of actual photographs. In short, we need to come up with an entirely new kind of history for photography.

Thank you for reading.