For this week of studies the theme set was ‘Strategies of Freedom’ and during the week we discussed at length the phenomenon of post-photography, and, more specifically, one of the genres falling under this rubric, namely non-human photography, that is photography that is not mediated by a human agent.
From my readings on non-human photography, it seems to me that the academics’ concern with this genre of photography is whether we can imbue meaning into an image which was (knowingly or unknowingly to the artist or the beholder) originally captured without human intention. John Tagg, for example, states that with the introduction of certain new technological developments, namely the CCTV system and the radio telescope, “photography loses its function as a representation of the ego and the eye and even as a pleasure machine built to excite the body. In place of those figures, photography is encountered as an utterly dead thing; mindless in a much blunter sense than imagined [by Burgin] twenty-five years ago… [It is] driving towards a systemic disembodiment that, accelerating in the technologies of cybernetics and informatics, has sought to prepare what has been hailed as the ‘postbiological’ or ‘posthuman’ body for its insertions into a new machinic enslavement” (in Kuc & Zylinska 2016: 205).
My concern with post-photography in general is otherwise. From my studies of the different work produced by artists working under the guise of post-photography, I was struck by the way particular post-photographic works brought to the fore what I came to term ‘reality horror’. I particularly experienced ‘reality horror’ while looking at the body of work titled Encounters by Véronique Ducharme, and another body of work, Stolen Images, by Juliet Ferguson. Both bodies of work consisted of photographic imagery captured using automatic cameras.
In a previous post I discussed Barthes’ terms “studium” and “punctum”. What the works of Ducharme and Ferguson (amongst others) seem to emit is the “punctum” that is experienced by the beholder in its core etymological sense as “a prick, puncture” (Lewis 1890). These bodies of work do not merely arouse our interest and curiosity – only a common reading of the term “punctum” would be satisfied with these dregs. No, the “punctum” experienced here literally hurts us, cuts inside us and then abandons us. Talking about James Casebere’s work, Batchen states that it “leaves us with that most troubling of apparitions: photography’s architecture as a site of deconstruction” (Batchen 2001: 122). This devastating “punctum” could have only arisen with the advent of the photographic. As Barthes states: “in Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there” (2000: 76). The subject/s of these photographs insist/s on his/her/its/their presence, in his/her/its/their “irrefutable place in space and time” (Batchen 2001: 125). In these bodies of work, the triad I spoke of elsewhere takes on new significance: the photographer now in connivance with the subject, and us helpless, defeated, condemned witnesses.
This devastating “punctum”, this feeling of the “reality horror”, leaves its effect on us the viewers but it itself (assuming it has being) remains forever undisclosed, nameless and indescribable.
How can I describe the feeling “reality horror” has on me? It is a horror that comes alive when witnessing the above-mentioned and similar works, and which I mistakenly (or credulously) believe to have referent in reality. I live its terror and horror; I am repulsed but drawn to it. I recoil from it, become squeamish, turn my back, and helplessly try to forget about it. It seemingly transports me to a past reality I am curious to remember; the minute the floodgates of memory open, I want to run away and forget. It could be that these images point to a reality that does not exist – hence the effectiveness of this stratagem, of this “reality horror”. Yet, fictional and imaginary as its nature may be, it is an experience that cannot in any way be romanticised, made docile. It could well be that the propulsion caused by these images is unto a future state, or is even one anchored to its starting point, its own present state (like a rocket repeatedly failing takeoff). Whatever it is, “reality horror” seemingly has no fixed temporality and its significance is ungraspable. The “reality horror” leaves me in a state of perpetual anxiety – I return to try to understand, to resolve, but the labor is all in vain.
My experience of the “reality horror” might then explain our fascination with Auschwitz – that best exemplar of all modern art; that most visceral of museums afforded to modern Man. We visit to lay our invisible wreath, tucking it into some corner, only to leave the place feeling the weight and deadening silence of lack. Like with the works mentioned previously, the feeling we experience when witnessing Auschwitz can never be resolved – we linger unredeemably.
Though not really related to the photographic work discussed previously, certain works by Jeff Bark emit this “reality horror” stupendously. The subjects in the two photos shown below are not the product of time spent doodling caricatures. They resist any type-casting and any act of emphatic encroachment by the observer. As witnesses, we stand there in front of these subjects crushed.
And it is through Bark’s photos, that I found my way out of this dirty, deadly trap: “reality horror”. I came to the realisation that Bark’s photos, through, and yet irrespective of, their rawness and gruesomeness, voice life in its multiplicity of differences.
As Zylinska states: “let us start from a very simple proposition: there is life in photography. If living in the so-called media age has become tantamount to being photographed on a permanent basis, with our identity constituted and verified by the ongoing development of our photo galleries and photo streams on mobile phones, tablets and social media platforms such as Facebook, Tumblr and Pinterest, not to mention the thousands of security cameras quietly and often invisibly registering our image when we pass through city centres, shopping malls and airports, then, contrary to its more typical Barthesian association with the passage of time and death, photography can be understood more productively as a life-making process. As Sarah Kember and I argue in Life after New Media, it is ‘precisely in its efforts to arrest duration, to capture or still the flow of life – beyond singular photographs’ success or failure at representing this or that referent – that photography’s vital forces are activated’ (Kember & Zylinska 2012: 72). Photography lends itself to being understood in a critical vitalist framework due to its positioning in a network of dynamic relations between present and past, movement and stasis, flow and cut” (Kuc & Zylinska 2016: 214).
Juliet Ferguson herself, talking about her work Stolen Images, states that in the process of making the work she began “to see a certain beauty in the images as they became removed from their original intention of surveillance. Instead, they offered a unique perspective on the ebb and flow of a day, from a vantage point and rigidity that ordinary photography doesn’t offer” (in Kuc & Zylinska 2016: 212-213).
How does all this relate to my current work?
My current work revolves around the vernacular. The subject is stripped of context, and light and form alone are the constituent ingredients in this process of stylisation. An often neglected subject in the art photographic market, the mechanical crane is not here captured in a state of dereliction, as some would presume should be done were these images thought to be hoping to align themselves to (a misshapen comprehension of) the post-photographic world. No, they stand there in their self-conscious bareness and in resolute stoicism, existing by endlessly referring to their own selves. They seem to live a very different life from ours, away from the mayhem and fanfare; and in towering above us, all they exude is compassion. They do not suffer our pains or even feel the urge to do so in order to connect; their all-encompassing eye still warms our hearts and homes, while they, out there, face with humility the daily aggression of the wind and the rain. They have always lived this life; they did not need to get accustomed to the climate and its vagaries. Turning our eyes upon them, they seem to continue breathing at the same pace as before, and, bent low, just like Lipa and her mother in Chekhov’s story, our ears seem to catch them uttering that most beautiful of greetings every time we pass them by:
“Good-evening, Grigory Petrovitch.”(Chekhov 2006: 237)
BARTHES, Roland. 2000. Camera Lucida (1980). Translated by Richard Howard. London: Vintage.
BATCHEN, Geoffrey. 2001. Each Wild Idea: Writing, Photography, History. MIT Press.
CHEKHOV, Anton. 2006. The Tales of Chekhov: The Witch and Other Stories (Volume 6). Translated by Constance Garnett. Ecco.
KEMBER, Sarah & ZYLINSKA, Joanna. 2012. Life After New Media: Mediation as a Vital Process. MIT Press.
LEWIS, Charlton T. 1890. An Elementary Latin Dictionary. New York, Cincinnati, and Chicago: American Book Company.
ZYLINSKA, Joanna. 2016. ‘The Creative Power of Nonhuman Photography’. In KUC, Kamila & ZYLINSKA, Joanna (eds.). Photomediations: A Reader. London: Open Humanities Press, 201-224.
Jeff BARK. 2018. David (Maria). Palazzo delle Esposizioni [online]. Available at: https://www.palazzoesposizioni.it/mostra/jeff-bark-paradise-garage-000 [accessed 28 June 2019].
Jeff BARK. 2019. Little Romeo. Palazzo delle Esposizioni [online]. Available at: https://www.palazzoesposizioni.it/mostra/jeff-bark-paradise-garage-000 [accessed 28 June 2019].
Old door in Malta. February 2019 at Moll ix-Shipwrights, Paola. Photograph by the author.