Photographic Relationality | George Baker | Tuesday, 16.07.2013

Image Couple

Of all the arcana produced by our collective obsession with Roland Barthes’ theory of photography in the book Camera Lucida, by the endless exegesis and investigation this text on photography seems to inspire, I find the following the most impressive. Buried in a footnote two-thirds of the way to the end of Eduardo Cadava and Paola Cortés-Rocca’s essay “Notes on Love and Photography,” a text first published in October magazine a few years ago, we read:

If Barthes desires to resurrect his mother, if he wishes to recover and revivify her body, we should not be surprised by his effort to reverse the trajectory of her life...This effort is legible, in its most secret and hidden form, in the very structure of Camera Lucida...We can begin to read this effort by first noting that the text is composed of two parts, with each part consisting of twenty-four chapters, for a total of forty-eight chapters. It was written between April 15 and June 3, 1979, which means that it was written in forty-eight days. There are twenty-five photographs reproduced within the book, but, since the first one, Daniel Boudinet’s 1979 color photograph Polaroid, is, strictly speaking, outside of the text, there are twenty-four photographs within the text proper. The number twenty-four seems particularly significant within the context of the book, since it evokes the number of still frames—the number of photograms—that pass through a film projector every second as well as the number of hours in a day, that is, the number of hours that constitute the cycle between day and night and light and darkness. The number forty-eight perhaps becomes more significant, however, if we recall that Barthes’ mother died at the age of eighty-four, which, read backward, is forty-eight. This reversed identification would seem to be only coincidental, and perhaps only a game of numbers and chance, but it becomes less so when we remember that Barthes claims to have discovered the Winter Garden Photograph, the photograph he associates most closely with the “essence” of his mother, “by moving back through Time.” Moreover, he seems to reinforce this gesture of reversal by noting that “[t]he Greeks entered into Death backward: what they had before them was their past. In the same way I worked back through a life, not my own, but the life of someone I love.”...[W]hat Barthes seems to want—because of his love for his mother, because of his desire to have her alive and beside him—is to have his text embody the trajectory of his mother’s lifespan, but in reverse, as if, in doing so, it might, by reversing the movement of her life from life to death and thereby transforming it from death to life, magically restore her to him....It is this experience of the displacement and reversal of time that encourages him to seek to conjure his mother through an act of writing that is as much an act of desire and love as it is an act of counting.

I am fascinated by this type and level of reading, by the almost paranoid or lunatic exposure of hidden or otherwise secret dimensions of meaning in Barthes’ now-classic book. But Cadava and Cortés-Rocca’s essay has been important to me for its more central claims, its attempt to tie love and photography together, and to see this as the central achievement of Barthes’ text.

When I began this blog, it had been my intention to develop intensively some ideas I have been chasing that share the ambitions of this text. In part as a renewed level of response to the contemporary art I have been pondering, in part due to the responses I received from my co-bloggers and others, the direction of these posts changed—my concern thus far has been with the opening of photography to the relational field structured by the experience of the photograph, by the viewer’s relation to photography, an almost phenomenological theory of gazes and viewing and spectatorship that, it now seems to me, photography studies sorely needs. In this last post, and in the spirit of the non-systematic meandering I promised in my first entry, I want to turn to how the relational can potentially shift our understanding of the photograph as an object, and of the history of the object’s producers, the art history of crucial photographers.

For Cadava and Cortés-Rocca, Barthes’ book on photography is his true “lover’s discourse.” This is based on an analogy, for the authors, between photography and love, between their mode of operation (we could, too technically, say): “the relation between life and death, between testimony and its impossibility, between the self and an other, and among the past, the present, and the future,” these relations “within the delirious space of photography” are all for Barthes “suspended and ruined in order to be rethought in relation to the madness of love ‘itself,’ since the experience of love also breaks down and shatters these same oppositions, along with many others (including the relation between interiority and exteriority, presence and absence, singularity and repetition, lucidity and blindness, and necessity and chance).” Given this parallelism, “to speak of photography is always to speak of love.”

Love unfixes. And this experience is the one the authors see in Barthes’ vision of the photograph as well. “Camera Lucida proceeds in a way that could be said to belong to the experience of love; it proposes a theory of photographic becoming in which the photograph is a force of transformation: in which models become images, images become subjects, and subjects become photographs.” We face “a logic of transformation and metamorphosis” as the central experience of love and photography, both. Speaking of the encounter between subject and photograph, the logic of gazes and looks that has been my larger subject here, the authors parse Barthes in the following way: “Within this amorous relation, what evokes and attracts the gaze is called ‘adventure’...Like music, the photograph breaks into the subject and produces a kind of agitation and interruption that...transforms the subject and thereby prevents him from remaining ‘himself.’...Barthes suggests that, ‘In this glum desert, suddenly a specific photograph reaches me; it animates me, and I animate it’...This is why, we might say, love (as another name for the photographic adventure) means: adventure, animation, a transformation that displaces the lover onto a new terrain, one in which neither he nor his beloved (neither the observed subject nor the subject observing) can remain who they were ‘before’ their encounter.”

Barthes suggests, the authors claim, “that the essence of photography lies in its affirmation of becoming.” This is the opposite of how the photograph has traditionally been thought. “Photography names (without naming) the process whereby something stops being what it ‘is’ in order to transform itself into ‘something else.’” More: “Photography prevents us from ever recognizing this or that identity—ours, but also that of someone or something else—because ‘photography’ is the name of the destruction of any consciousness of identity.” And this experience is also the experience of love, or perhaps, rather, it is the experience that love and photography reveal together, about each other: “This law of both love and photography—a law that interrupts identity by marking it with the sign of difference and transformation—belongs to what makes Barthes’ meditation on love and photography so radically provocative: against a sense that photography’s signature lies in its capacity to fix and preserve—to arrest—what is before the camera, he mobilizes a network of associations that, practically and textually, seek to disorganize and destabilize the opposition or difference between opposing terms, such as stasis and movement, preservation and destruction, survival and death, and memory and mourning.” The authors conclude: “That this work of disorganization and destabilization is shown to be at the heart of the experience of love—as Barthes would have it, love is nothing else than a process of disorganization and destabilization—is what we are meant to trace” in photography, “as if we were tracing and listening to a kind of secret.”

How might such ideas change our received notions of photography as a medium, the photograph as an object? For some time, I have been wondering if the relational and affective idea of the “couple” should not be allowed to infect and displace the terms with which we have traditionally described photographs. Can we name the photograph as the advent of the image as couple? What would this mean? Immediately displaced, it seems to me, would be the dominant trope of considering the photograph in terms of the double—an image repetition that in its processes of reproduction seems to adhere to an object in the world, to reconstitute it, to multiply it, to affirm the serial logic of the copy. Rather, can we instead affirm the photograph as “coupled” to the world and the object or subject it represents—an image couple rather than an image double?

Along the lines of the transformative operations of affect and love, the entire apparatus for thinking of photography in terms of truth and the document would receive a blow. The photographic couple relates to rather than merely reduplicates the object or world it represents; it internalizes as it images; it transforms as it reproduces. And in doing so, it opens the description of the photographic object not only to the processes of becoming we can attach like Cadava and Cortés-Rocca to love, but also to the ideas of betrayal, of self-difference, that for so long have been held at a distance from our descriptions of the logic of the double and the copy, the document and the index, as the central photographic operations.

This sounds to me at least—this should sound—like a Surrealist description of the photograph. (And so, of course, for many, have Barthes’ photographic theories more generally.) The photograph makes love with its image and object world. Photographs—as the Surrealists once said of objects—photographs are making love! The photograph as couple reconceives the image as a form or modality of love.

This is speculative thinking; perhaps wild thinking; everything remains to be considered, and will only become interesting based on what can be done, further, with such an analogy or set of ideas. Image couples. Couples and images.

Whether this is coincidence or not—I am enough of a Surrealist to think it’s not—the idea of the photograph as couple has seemed to me to be most immediately useful in retelling certain under-appreciated moments in photography’s history, in the art history of photography and its authors. Biography and form, methodologically speaking, are the two most fraught concerns to attempt to combine; but my notion that photography might be described as an image couple led me immediately to realize and think further about how frequently in photography history we confront the phenomenon of photographers working as couples, exploring the photograph while a couple, within the relational dynamics of the couple.

Photography history has had very little to say about this.

One exception might be the most extraordinary and beautiful attempt by a photography historian to enact a concrete revision of photography’s history through a close re-reading of Barthes’ Camera Lucida. Again, this hardly seems coincidence. I’m thinking of the series of essays on women photographers written by Carol Armstrong, and in this instance her field-changing essay on Tina Modotti during and after the latter’s relationship with Edward Weston (“This Photography Which Is Not One: In the Gray Zone with Tina Modotti”).

But relationships, couples, mark and specify the larger history of Pictorialism and straight photography, the early 20th-century history of art photography from which the Modotti-Weston couple emerges. I have begun to imagine a kind of counter-history of photography staged around moments where the photograph as couple can be seen embodied in and embodying the relational dynamics that form in the life and work of photographer or artist couples. A key monument of this counter-history would be Alfred Stieglitz’s serial portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe. Now, O’Keeffe of course was not a photographer. But the structure of Stieglitz’s strange and paradoxical use of the photograph—in all its reduplicative seriality—to image intimacy and love and desire, this urge to create what I have always understood as an archive filled to the brim with singular and irreducible moments, an archive of that which cannot be archived (the undoing of the opposition between singularity and repetition, as Cadava and Cortés-Rocca might put it), this gets passed down in photography history, as a structure, to important if still untold effect.

For example, we could point to the way Stieglitz’s serial portrait of O’Keeffe gets taken up almost immediately by Paul Strand, as a language to represent his own love and lover, his wife Rebecca or Beck Strand. Crucial here would not just be the shared intimacies in the biographies of Stieglitz, O’Keeffe, and the Strands, but the manner in which Stieglitz and Strand push and pull their aesthetic language of love in dialog with each other, borrowing and pressing close to each other in deeply de-individuating ways. The aspect of a photographic aesthetic that belongs to “Stieglitz,” or belongs to “Strand,” gets lost in this dialog, and it is a loss that comes to the fore in the attempt to transmute the photograph into a vehicle of love, an image of love, a “relational” document, if such a thing can exist.

But this already happens in the Stieglitz serial portraits themselves. For in important ways, of course Stieglitz’s images of O’Keeffe devote themselves not only to representing the painter via Stieglitz’s tool of the camera and photograph, but portray the artist through many of the key tropes of her own work and her own aesthetic. Metonymically substituting body parts for subjects, eroticizing the image through reformulations of the landscape of the body and the relation to nature, Stieglitz finds his image of love by losing himself in the aesthetic language of his lover, and the photographs settle into a space that show Stieglitz becoming other than himself in the process of representing his other, rather than merely objectifying or using O’Keeffe’s body and her beauty, as is often remarked.

It is this structure of mutual transformation that makes of this photographic project an instance and exemplar of the idea of the photograph as couple, and of photography as analogous to the phenomena of love (in content and in form). We might trace the ways in which it is precisely this logic that gets handed down not just to an artist like Strand, but to figures like Weston and Modotti as well. I, for example, would be interested—beyond the wonderful account of Modotti’s work that a historian like Armstrong offers—in the ways in which Weston’s photography becomes completely marked by his experience with Modotti, the ways in which he continues to use and transform aspects of an aesthetic language that belongs or belonged to another—especially in his nudes, which endlessly return to the encounter and photographs of Modotti (both of her and by her).

If it sounds Surrealist, the photograph as couple idea surely would reformulate the place of photography within Surrealism proper. My counter-history, thus far, focuses on a reformulation of a series of heroic moments within modernist photography. Man Ray and Berenice Abbott, Berenice Abbott and Atget, Man Ray and, of course, Lee Miller: All of this Surrealist material could be reconsidered, the normative narratives of such partnerships or apprenticeships challenged. But there is one couple within the history of photography and surrealism that has become emblematic for me, and with which I will end—both this post and my blog.

If it seems I am barely scratching the surface of something much larger, I can offer as a promissory note to continue musing on this counter-history and bring it closer to the present in the comments that might get posted later.

But I simply want to end this set of thoughts with the example of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. For a long time, the collaborative nature of their artistic practice was obscured; for much longer, both figures were more or less consigned to oblivion. But as Cahun’s work has been resurrected, it has slowly become clear that her photographic portraits, her self-portraits, involve some kind of collaboration with her partner and lover, with Moore herself.

One of the best writers or scholars on this subject is Tirza True Latimer. I won’t rehash the parameters of the scholarship here. I just want to end with two images.

The images can be found as the first reproductions in this online version of an essay by Latimer:

Or here:

Or in a larger size, with one of the images flipped and the two prints sutured together, here:

I have ended most of my posts for this blog with a pair of images, an image couple. This has not been coincidence, of course. With the images of Cahun and Moore now before us, we face a photographic pair of the most reflexive sort: not in the modernist sense perhaps, but a pair of photographs that instantiates and gives vision to the pairings that photography can create, the affective relations it supports, the coupling rather than the doubling it potentially produces. The first image, of Cahun in her checkerboard costume, has long been known. I remember Rosalind Krauss musing over it in her lectures on Surrealism, many years ago. With the black and white grid, and the self-image of the photographer confronting the reflection and doubling of the mirror, Krauss described the photograph as a pre-eminently reflexive object, but in the Surrealist sense she had in so many cases been the first to describe, the Surrealist engagement with the double.

When the second image of Moore became well known, a writer actually suggested that Moore was being used by Cahun as a “stand-in” for her self-portrait, in something like the Hollywood sense. She was holding a pose that Cahun could then use to figure out lighting and exposure and focus, for her own self-image to be made a moment later. The image of Moore was the practice shot, the study; fully subservient to the photographic work of art to come.

Clearly, we now know this to be a misrepresentation of the partnership and collaboration between Cahun and Moore; it seems obvious that Moore took many of the photographs art historians are busily attributing to “Cahun”; this is a practice emerging from a couple that takes a shape that conventional notions of authorship cannot acknowledge. But the images that Cahun and Moore have produced, in this case, also seem to model or express their vision of love and their partnership, their vision of photography too—simultaneously, with the one informing and forming, producing, the other. Love and photography: In the first image, of Cahun, the artist turns toward the camera and her mirror reflection turns away. In the second image, of Moore, the artist looks away from the camera, toward her self-reflection, only to have her double in the mirror exceed her gaze, meeting instead the camera’s own. We are back to a story of gazes, of looks that meet and looks that turn awry, of the non-coincidence of gazes that the meeting place of the camera supports. In their absolute precision, the two photographs work like clockwork. They embody a circuit. We face an image chiasmus, where two lovers press close; they hold the “same” position, but in radically different ways. One looks, only simultaneously to look away; the other looks away, only to meet a potential gaze. The double alters, it side-steps the copy, becoming more than a chiasmus. It shows a couple—to use the words of critic Douglas Crimp—a couple “misfitting together.” It becomes what I have been chasing here week after week. It becomes an embodiment of the photograph as a relational form.