François Brunet | François Brunet | Tuesday, 14.01.2014

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose?

Happy new year everyone on “still searching”.

This is my first real attempt at writing a blog, and I want to thank the Fotomuseum Winterthur for inviting me. I have to beg readers to bear with me while I adjust my academic style to something more conversational, hoping indeed to continue the lively conversation on “Still Searching”. I say continue, because even though I mostly want to concentrate on history — how do we, how should we, write histories of photography today, in 2014? — I would like to interact with previous bloggers here, especially Marvin Heiferman’s very suggestive comments and questions in the previous series.

One big question is about the continuing sense that we are witnessing an “explosion” of images, linked with the digital revolution. Marvin commented on this in his post on “The River”. This is obvious, and yet it is something troubling, historically, because we have a very large record of previous expressions of the same sense — descriptions and interrogations about “a flood of pictures”, since at least the 1850s. The American historian Daniel Boorstin once constructed a whole argument about American culture and its evolution on this sense of the invasive presence of “the image” and what he called “the graphic revolution” (The Image, A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, 1962). Today the art historian Michael Leja is at work on the implications of the “flood of pictures” on pictorial and cultural change in the 19th century. Are these visual rivers, floods and explosions (metaphors that in themselves are of course telling) always the same? And therefore a kind of “business as usual” of the modern age, so that we might as well not try to historicize them? Or, on the contrary should we historicize them and if so, how? How, for instance, do we measure floods and explosions of pictures? And would a quantitative measure — if it could be done, and today we actually have some pretty reliable markers, better than before — be enough to build a plausible narrative upon? Or, would it help to be able to map channels of visual circulation, as a Google-derived program called sightsmap, thanks to Jean Kempf for alerting me to this) now enables one to “see” geographical concentrations of pictures made with the panoramio application at popular sightseeing spots?

Similar questions of repetition and difference in the history of images come to my mind when I read this and other blogs discussing the digital age, its novelties and discontinuities from previous ages.

Digital photography itself is getting old. 2015 will mark the 30th anniversary of a somewhat famous issue of the Whole Earth Review announcing — celebrating?— “the end of photography as evidence of anything,” with a lead article on digital retouching by the West Coast guru Kevin Kelly. And this is a good example of what I am talking about—of the historical question of “new” and “same.” (The phrase I used for the title of this post, “Plus ça change et plus c’est la même chose,” by the way, is French, but I had never heard it until I went to the US.)

Is the “sceptical gaze”, as I would like to call it, a new or a recurring trend in the history of photography and visual culture? These days expressions of scepticism in front of news photographs are routinely agitated in the American press, and tend to revolve around the possibilities and ethical limits of digital manipulation (for one example, think about the scandal at theLos Angeles Times in 2003).

But the current sceptical “explosion” addresses historical photographs as well as news pictures, as spectacularly illustrated by Errol Morris in his New York Times blogs (lately on “November 22, 1963”) and his book Believing is Seeing.

Is the rise or recurrence of the sceptical gaze primarily a function of the digital age? Or do the digital controversies simply reveal, or highlight, something inherent in photography, namely that all photographs are manipulated, or constructed, or “legendary,” as Martha Sandweiss brilliantly suggested in Print the Legend? Could it be that the sceptical gaze is really an intellectual or critical trend more than a “simple” reflection of evolving photographic technologies or their supposedly stable relationship to reality? Could one relate this trend, for instance, to another trend that is similarly new and old—what A.D. Coleman famously called “the directorial mode” in 1975, and which continues to trigger debate today?

Then there are the more recent debates about connected images, and more broadly the channels of circulation and sharing that perhaps no longer serve merely to transport images but instead make them the topics or instruments of new modes of conversation and social networking. For instance, the recent debate on selfies, and how they relate or not to self-portraits, and whether or not they constitute, as primarily connected images, a new form or a new object. Marvin, again, leads the way in his post “Here’s Looking at Me”. André Gunthert has also addressed the selfie recently in a very stimulating way. In both cases we witness and share the bloggers’ need to relate the new to the old, and the problems involved in doing that.

Being a 19th century specialist, I will be not be discussing the contemporary per se. What I am interested in as a historian is how these novelties, and discussions about them, both incorporate established conceptions about the history of photographs and images and reverberate back on these established conceptions. For instance, is the selfie as conversational image entirely new, compared, say, to amateur Kodak-type family snapshots and privately printed postcards of the 1900s? Or am I wrong to raise this question? Is this an anachronistic projection of the present into the past?

I incline to think, at the outset, that photography’s history is new and young enough, in certain ways, that it would be imprudent to reject such possible interactions of 2014 with 1914, especially considering the weight, until now, of a history of photography that has been predominantly art historical rather than social, and has not yet delved enough into social practices. (Here again, I could not agree more with Marvin.) So, what I would like to do in the following weeks is, always using of course the vantage point of the present, share some interrogations about how to frame, understand, write histories of photography and images today. Of course I will be writing from the particular angles of my own current research on images and history, raising questions about portraiture and its minor place in existing histories, the notion of photographs as historical documents, or the related notions of “circulation” and “connection”. But I will welcome other questions, keeping in mind the “larger picture” and the fact that as we slowly approach the bicentennial of the invention of photography (when and how will it be celebrated, who knows?), it may be a good time to start rethinking our global narratives.