Let Us Now Praise Damaged Photographs | Christoph Ribbat | Monday, 05.02.2018

Ripping Up Mountains

A kerosene monster is tearing up the skies. I’m on Austrian Airlines flight 232 from TXL to VIE and I see this town called Gmunden on Lake Traunsee, Salzkammergut, Austria. On Traunsee’s clear blue waters a white ferry floats, decorated with multicolored flags. I see a church on the far shore and those amazing mountains. A middle-aged man of privilege in seat 17 C, I am about to do enormous damage to beautiful Gmunden and gorgeous Traunsee. Because I take my coffee with cream and because the cream sits inside a tiny container and because a photographic representation of Gmunden, Traunsee, the ferry, the church, and the mountains decorates the container’s lid. Which is why my enormous thumb and index finger are now tearing a wedge-like hole into the lake and into the ferry. Then I have my coffee. And at the same time, though we’re certainly not directly over beautiful Gmunden, flight OS 232 is contributing its share to the destruction of the planet, including Lake Traunsee, home of the minnow, and the mountains, domain of the golden eagle.

All of this is magical thinking, of course. But how can you not use magical thinking when you’re talking about photography? Why did this one specific person photograph beautiful Gmunden for these containers? Because beautiful Gmunden wants to be loved. Visited. Physically explored. By tourists. Who might actually run into – make physical contact with – the person who took this shot. It’s all about bodies. Our bodies. The bodies of images. Obviously, there is a completely organic relationship between photographic representation, photographic materiality, and what we call reality. We’d be fools to think otherwise. (Which is not a particularly sound line of reasoning, I know, but then I’m just about to doze off in 17 C, so let’s skip the Q & A). To damage a photograph then, even this miniature one, has enormous symbolic implications. That is my last fully conscious thought.

Damaged Photographs, Cream Container (154527) Photo taken by the author

A few hours later I’m combing the streets of Vienna’s 9th district. Again I see destroyed landscapes. Himalayan mountains torn to pieces. A Norwegian fjord ripped in half. Though an apparently Bhutanese girl smiles and seems to ask for some restraint, someone must have attacked her country as well. New Zealand’s also showing traces of destruction.

It is my job these days to look for damaged photographs. And the ones I see on these streets, photos reproduced for placards, all advertise a certain type of event that may be peculiar to the German-speaking world – photographic slide shows presenting “exotic locales. This is the formula. Photographers travel to some place where there are mountains, trees and natives they find picturesque. They take as many super-exotic pictures as they can possibly store. Then they hit the slide lecture circuit. To call attention to their fascinating performances, they put up placards everywhere. Which means: everywhere. Then they show slide after slide after slide. And one fine day, schlepping heavy-duty camera equipment, they set off again for more pictures of the breathtaking and the sublime.

Damaged Photographs, Himalaya (154528)
Damaged Photographs, Norway (154530)
Damaged Photographs, Bhutan (154526)Photos taken by the author

Right here the damaged state of breathtakingly exotic posters indicates that Vienna’s 9th district doesn’t seem particularly fond of this particular cultural practice. The status of the super-sublime slide show more generally, in the global art world? Well, let’s say you’re not going to find them in a Venice Biennale pavilion any time soon. Everyone hates them and their cheap exoticism, their tech-obsessed sense of the spectacular, their exploitation of the sights.

Fully rested after my nap in 17 C, I see a strangely fascinating phenomenon that breathes life into photography. These photographers, just doing their thing in Bhutan, just selling their thing on Viennese streets, putting posters up that they know will be torn down? They’re in the right territory. Not to sound too Scorsese‑y here, but photography was born in the streets. I could pretend I’m meditating on Daguerre’s “Boulevard du Temple, but I’m really thinking of Weegee. How he took photographs of Lower East Side kids on his pony. How he sold these pictures to their parents. How nickels and dimes went from their hands to his and prints from his hands to theirs. Photography. Before they ended up in the slender white-gloved fingers of Digital Age museum curators, analog photographs were everywhere, constantly touched, stained, creased, carried around, sold, bought, and damaged. A true folk art form. So these slide show hucksters are the last real photographers.

Alright, let’s be honest. I’m just as elitist as the next guy. I’d rather walk 10 miles against the driving snow for a Rineke Dijkstra exhibition than get paid next door to look at neocolonial bullshit on Bhutan. Sure. But right now, just before dusk in the 9th district, looking at the remnants of an “Iceland slide show poster, this one almost completely scratched off by some upright citizen totally focused on exterminating this illegally placed placard, I just want to praise these damaged photographs, and maybe also their authors, because simply by putting up their nerve-wrecking stuff anywhere they please, these journeymen of photography also risk having their work torn apart. However inadvertently, they illuminate the fragility, rather than the power, of the photographic process.

Damaged Photographs, Iceland (154529)Photo taken by the author