From One Photo to Another
We rarely make or see photographs singularly. They come in sets, suites, series, sequences, pairings, iterations, photo-essays, albums, typologies, archives and so on. Daily experience involves moving between one image and another. Editing, the selection and arrangement of images, provides perhaps the most vital bridge between photographs in the particular and photography in general, although more so for image-makers and publishers than for critics and theorists, it seems. I’m struck by how few writings there have been about the complexities of photo editing as it takes shape in mainstream media or in more resistant practices. Aside from occasional essays on the arrangement of a few famous photographic books (Walker Evans’ American Photographs of 1938 and Robert Frank’s The Americans of 1958/9 are the obvious ones) writers have had surprisingly little to say on the matter.
There’s a whole history of editing yet to be addressed, particularly as it becomes so central to photographic culture with the growth of the illustrated press in the 1920s and 30s. Suddenly there was a whole array of professional image handlers: the magazine picture editors and art directors, the new art historians taking advantage of photographic reproductions (e.g. Aby Warburg and Franz Roh), as well as the managers of the fast growing picture libraries, archives and news agencies.
That said, there have been some notable contributions lately. Jorge Ribalta’s work on what he has called the universal archive expressed by the choreography of huge numbers of images in exhibitions such as Pressa (1928) and Film und Photo (1929), Victor Burgin’s The Remembered Film (2004), Blake Stimson’s The Pivot of The World: Photography and its Nation (2006) and Hito Steyerl’s very recent collection The Wretched of the Screen (2013) come to mind. Nevertheless, even the belated recognition that the photographic page – magazines, journals, books and now screens – have been photography’s primary vehicle does not seem to have prompted much of a reflection on just what is at stake in our movement from one photographic image to the next and the next, at least not without resorting to the generalized criticisms of quantity, overload and spectacle.
When Blake Stimson writes that “The photographic essay was born of the promise of another kind of truth from that given by the individual photograph or image on its own, a truth available only in the interstices between pictures, in the movement from one picture to the next”, he points to perhaps the most vital key to our experience of photographs in particular and photography in general. If he then struggles to conceptualize exactly what is going on between one image and the next, it’s only partly because there’s almost no critical tradition to draw upon. The dearth of writings on photo editing is a symptom of how difficult it is to articulate. But I would maintain that it’s essential to try. Without it we’re left with photographs as dissolute fragments and photography as a totalized mass, precisely what any and every photo-sequence attempts to overcome.
Last year I responded to one of Bernd Stiegler’s suggestive posts on the subject of ‘Order’ with an edited sequence of quotations about photo editing: http://blog.fotomuseum.ch/2012/01/3-order/#respond. It was a kind of meta-commentary on the problem. I had been keeping a file of these remarks as I came across them while putting together a book about the long-standing dialogues between the moving and the still image (Photography and Cinema, 2008). Although it was to be a ‘history and theory’ book, I had wanted images to do a lot of the work on the page. So before I began writing I spent several months selecting and sequencing the 127 illustrations my publisher allowed me. Film stills, posters, constructed tableau photographs, sequences, spreads from various books and magazines, and so forth. The idea was to see if I could apply the qualities of photo-sequencing I was describing to the form of the book itself. Such experiments with editing have been my main challenge and source of pleasure in all the books I’ve published. I do the same with essays for journals and magazines, working out the images first (this blog is an exception, an attempt to bend the stick the other way). It’s partly a fear of the blank page but largely it comes from being an image-maker, writer and occasional curator. Editing is the shared term we use to describe the fashioning and arrangement of words and pictures.
Interestingly, while Photography and Cinema was well received only one reviewer picked up on this, wondering, correctly, if the picture editing had preceded the writing and if it was arranged to express and nuance the book’s central points. I’ve kind of got used to nobody really noticing, and presume that most picture editing has its ineffable effects upon experience anyway, be it in books and magazines or our own ad hoc shifts from one image to another as we move through a city or around the internet. Maybe we only notice when it’s done badly or it somehow jars. And perhaps it is this difficulty with paying attention to editing that is the reason for the lack of critical reflection. But what is photography without editing? As Walker Evans put it:
The essence is done very quickly with a flash of the mind, and with a machine. I think too that photography is editing, editing after the taking. After knowing what to take you have to do the editing.