Back to the World Itself: Photography as Exposition (with a Postcript on the Politics of Art Criticism after the US Election)
Photography has never been content to simply represent the world. From Moholy-Nagy’s early photograms to their rediscovery and resurgence around the turn of the 20th century, artists working in photography have resisted the idea that the photograph is simply a reference or index of a reality outside of itself. “A photograph is not of something; it is something,” writes Geoffrey Batchen.1 Similarly, when Ruth Hoaken and Liz Deschenes put on the show Rethinking Photography, they declared that they were seeking “photographs that focus on photography itself.”2 Not just a representation of reality once removed, photography can be reality itself. As Batchen puts it: “photography is freed from its traditional subservient role as a realist mode of representation and allowed instead to become a searing index of itself, to become an art of the real.”3
The photographs produced in this self-conscious way (by artists including Liz Deschenes, Adam Fuss, Eileen Quinlan, and others) have been visually arresting. And they have opened up a way of using light (writing with it) that brings photography back to its etymological and experimental roots. But there are philosophical concerns here. Why is it that we draw sharp distinctions between representation and reality? Why is a photograph that refers to itself believed to be more “real” than a photograph that refers to another object in the world? What is the theory of reality embedded here?
We might say that we are back on the old philosophical battleground of Kant and Hegel. Briefly put, the Kantian aesthetic is one of internal reflection on the structures of a given form (be that consciousness or photography), while for Hegel one could not separate out a form from the totality of the world in which it was formed. For the Hegelian, then, there is nothing that is not of something; there is no self-consciousness in reflecting on the medium; there is only self-consciousness as it forms in the traversals and reversals of world history.
There is an undeniable power to Hegel’s claims against formalism. We see it just by looking at the world around us – it is shot through with mediation as much as presence, with representation and figuration as much as abstraction, with pictures as much as forms, with blurred images and peripheral glances as much as clarity and distinction. And our subjectivity processes this reality with a blend of capture and grace, an intertwining of letting be and making be. Perhaps there is then another history to be excavated here, one that we will find not in the opposition between self-conscious photography and photographic representations of reality, but rather in photography that interrogates the ways in which the world and we ourselves are complex bundles of form and content. To get at this other history, we could think with photographs that reflect the complex entanglement of abstraction, growth, development, change, manipulation, and figuration that is the world itself.
It is in this context that some recent photography has caught my attention, including work by Leah Beeferman, Anthea Behm, and Lucas Blalock. For these artists, I would suggest, the photograph is neither an index of itself nor a referent of something else. Rather, it is an exposition of the world. I use the word exposition to invoke two definitional meanings: the common usage of revealing what is, and its etymological meaning of displacing what is (ex-posing – moving out of position). This does not mean that photography displaces what was an already stable reality. Rather, it shows that reality is itself this duality of posing and ex-posing, revelation and transformation, stasis and movement, being and becoming. These recent photographs are expositions in the sense that they reveal to us our own relationship to reality by showing us the entanglements of our perceptions, and, in so doing, have the potential to move us away from our false presuppositions about reality. They can take us out of the poses we have struck, and let us understand our relationship to the world anew.
Beeferman, Behm, and Blalock have used different strategies to arrive at these kinds of expositions.4 For Beeferman and Blalock, it has meant creating what they call “digital drawings,” combining photographic material with computer-generated images and marks. In Frittblblkkd, Blalock, for example, redacts the text in the image with dark marks. These marks mimic the Photoshop masking lines that usually only appear in the image-editing process as part of the still life itself. The resulting image not only calls attention to the daily manipulation of images, it also reminds us that all products (fruit or plastic) too long exposed to light will eventually rot and decay. This is the world as photograph, as ongoing process of composition and decomposition through the elements. Beeferman, meanwhile, works to connect spaces we can see to ones we cannot. The “real” emptiness or denseness of space posited by theoretical physics, for example, cannot be representationally photographed, but it can be gestured toward in works like Strong Force (Chromodynamics 24), which link up visual spaces, computer renderings, and gestures toward the theoretical dynamics of invisible space.
Behm’s work, meanwhile, engages more directly with the history of photograms as well as the immediate political concerns of the photograph as exposition.5 She exposes photographic paper to light, and then draws an image directly onto the paper using developer solution before processing. In Rage for Order, for example, Behm draws a generic plastic bag within a border of postal stickers turned pink through excess exposure to light. Behm here ex-poses the plastic bag: she takes it out its hiddenness within everyday life and reveals its function in an economy of circulation. No longer the wrapping for the commodity, the bag is a commodity itself in Marx’ sense of an object that hides its relations. The “real” here is not the indexical quality of the bag or the postal stickers so much as the reality of production and circulation that informs everyday life. Such a reality is obscured by claims that the photographic real occurs when photographers cease representing the world around them.
What is to me salient across their practices is this combination of the photograph and the process of exposition. While one theory of reality might say that these artists add to their photographs in the drawing process, what I am suggesting is that they merely continue the process of exposing not just what is seen, but also what else exists in the duration of the world as photograph. That is to say, the world as an ongoing process of light-generated growth and decay that exists beyond the purview of either abstraction or representation alone. If there is to be a photography of the real, it will be found in the questions posed by expositions like these: ones that refuse to limn reality to a formal shell, and instead expose it in all the sordid ambiguities of the world we daily confront.
A slightly longer version of this text was originally composed in March 2016 and was slotted for publication in a self-proclaimed left-leaning art journal earlier this year. Right before publication, I was informed by the editor that the piece would not be published because of the “post-election situation.” This is perhaps fair. But the suggestion that followed was absurd: that I should instead do an interview with Lucas Blalock about the trajectory of his work for the next issue. I asked the editor why such an interview fit better with the post-election situation, and if this were not in fact the exact opposite of what we should be doing by giving more space to a commercially-successful male artist at the expense of two lesser known female artists. Out of fairness, I inquired if there were something special about Blalock’s work that fit the times that was different than what was found in Behm’s or Beeferman’s work. The editor simply replied that they hoped I would get over my frustration soon and be willing to discuss a new topic for the essay. I was not.
This is simply another instance in which a vague notion of politics is invoked as cover for preserving the gendered star system of contemporary art. I agree that after the election we need to rethink some of our assumptions and claims, and certainly some forms of neoliberal identity politics should be shunned. But so should crass reproductions of the existing order. If there is something in this essay that might require more nuance after the election, it is not the artists discussed but the general argument about the complexity of reality given the current administration’s assaults on truth. Don’t we now need to hold fast to objective reality and scientific truth as never before? And don’t photographs that question this fall in line with the postmodern repudiation of truth that paved the way for this moment?
Such questions insist too much on the “post-election” moment, and forget that these battles over the nature of truth were as much a concern as recently as the Bush years. They forget that complexity is not the same as relativism, and ignore the historical value of questioning objective reality. As Edward Said put it when responding to similar concerns over two decades ago, “the critique of objectivity and authority did perform a positive service by underlining how, in the secular world, human beings construct their truths, and that, for example, the so-called objective truth of the white man’s superiority built and maintained by the classical European colonial empires also rested on a violent subjugation of African and Asian peoples.”6 After such critiques, the point is not to then abandon reality; it is to engage with the different ways human beings have of registering it, and, at times, criticizing their representations – whether they are by Donald Trump or by left-leaning art journals. The photographers discussed in this piece are not denying the world; they are simply questioning a somewhat myopic philosophy of what constitutes its reality. In so doing, they are exposing us to ways of thinking about the world that combine criticality and complexity.
There is a risk today that in fighting back against the ongoing assault on ethical culture, we will come to defend the very institutions (mainstream media, the establishment, scientism, and so forth) whose complicity in oppression we had so long rallied against. As Stuart Hall said during Thatcher’s reign: “the Left can only seize the political advantage by mounting its own critique… We may have to acknowledge that there is often a rational core to Thatcherism’s critique, which reflects some real substantive issues, which Thatcherism did not create but addresses in its own way.”7 The way forward in today’s context, then, is not to fall back on “eternal truths” or respect for established ways of doing things. It is to push forward into an appreciation of complexity without losing site of the values of scientific inquiry, solidarity, and liberation that guide us through the chaos.
- In “‘Photography’: An Art of the Real,” in What is a Photograph? ed. Carol Squires (Munich: Prestel, 2014), 50. This claim also structures his curated show, “Emanations: The Art of the Cameraless Photograph,” at Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, April 29 – August 14, 2016. ↩
- Ruth Horak, “Rethinking Photography,” in Liz Deschenes, Secession (New York, 2012), 23. ↩
- Geoffrey Batchen, “Emanations: Exhibition Proposal.” ↩
- And to be fair, I should note that their own theories of the relationship between photography and reality at times differ from mine. See, for example, “Leah Beeferman by Lucas Blalock: Drawing, the digital, technique,” Interview in BOMB, May 28, 2015. http://bombmagazine.org/article/4494512/leah-beeferman ↩
- I should disclose that it was after a studio visit and long conversation with Behm that the ideas of this essay coalesced, and that, sometime after the writing of this essay, we began a relationship. ↩
- Edward Said, Representations of the Intellectual (New York: Vintage, 1996), 91. ↩
- Stuart Hall, “Thatcher’s Lessons” Marxism Today. March 1988, 23 ↩