The Unphotographable

Notes on photograph and dust

 

A pair of small hands motion in front of elevator doors, the hands both reflected and abstracted by the brushed aluminum surface. There are seven such black-and-white photographs, each mounted on a sheet of brushed aluminum, in Incantation, a series by Jennifer Bolande. Why are they so troubling? True, it’s a strange conceit, using incantatory gestures to open electronic doors, (The artist says she was looking to find a new form of “interface” with an everyday object.) Perhaps what’s unsettling is the reference to touch. The quintessential expression of postmodernism, photographs are not typically considered tactile objects. And yet here the hand is doubly implicated. The artist’s hands dissolve into the metal in the picture, enticing us to touch the metal of the frame, which has the mirror coolness of what one imagines photography to be. It’s a surface that, once touched, would be physically spoiled, like a photograph is by a fingerprint.

Equally troubling is Gerhard Richter’s 128 Fotos von einem Bild (Halifax, 1978), from 1998. This portfolio of eight offset lithographs reproduces in black and white the 128 photographs Richter made of a colorful abstract painting for his Pictures exhibition held in Halifax in 1978. (The original set of photographs are in the Kaiser Wilhelını Museum, Krefeld, which published the recent prints. A sub-generation is the artist’s book 128 details from a picture, Halifax 1978, published by the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in 1980.) This endless endgame of painting and reproduction has, since 1962, been a familiar strategy for Richter, who once reflected, “Suddenly, I noticed that the copying of photographs had more to do with painting than everything I had ever painted before …”1 Indeed, just like the latest discovery scientists are bound to make of yet another infinitely tiny particle of matter and material measure, there’s something reassuring about this artist’s ability to parse another layer of imagery out of his own art. Our systems of representation continue to function and find interesting things to do.

What is disturbing about 128 Fotos is the view it offers, or fails to offer. “The photographs were taken from various sides, from various angles, various distances and under different light conditions,” Richter has said.2 Consequently, each frame in this Atlas-like grid reads as a picture in its own right; some resemble landscapes; others, weirdly blurred by the camera’s focus, make abstractions of abstraction. Still others appear as straightforward documents for a painting conservator: mug shots of brushstrokes. Throughout, there is a sense of mapping, of gathering and plotting information. Upon pulling back, the overall impression is of a terrain, but one that in no way resembles the original. This terrain has been deconstructed into a panorama of particles-particles of photography attempting to coalesce into painting. At this point, Richter’s work comes full circle. His abstract paintings always appear loaded and wet with the potential of the photographic image—they both look and feel like emulsion assaulted by a squeegee during the darkroom act of development.

To write of particles is to speak of dust, or in this case, Dust Breeding (Elevage de poussière), which Richter’s 128 Fotos visually and conceptually resembles. For this collaborative work of 1920, Man Ray photographed Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass covered by several months’ accumulation of dust. Like Richter’s various views of his painting, Elevage de poussière shows a painting rendered invisible and pitched into relief by the particular. It also brings to mind Duchamp’s response to the question of photography. “Dear Stieglitz,” he wrote in a letter to America’s champion of the question, “Can a photograph have the significance of Art?” that was published in a 1922 issue of Manuscripts, which Stieglitz edited:

 

Even a few words I don’t feel like writing. You know exactly what I think about photography. I would like to see it make people despise painting until something else would make photography unbearable.

Affectuesement,

Marcel Duchamp

(Painter, Chess Expert, French Teacher, and Type Expert)

 

Seen together, Bolande and Richter’s practices come close to fulfilling Duchamp’s wish. Photography, while perhaps not made unbearable by painting, can no longer be simply itself. Richter cannot make a painting without referring to photography (and vice versa).

Photography, meanwhile, has taken on board the attributes of painting and, as encountered in Bolande’s work, sculpture: photography now has their surface, texture, abstraction, scale. Without the gigantic dimensions of French history painting, it would be impossible to explain Andreas Gursky’s recent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Indeed, his photographic images, digitized into patterns that reproduce “reality” as museum wallpaper, make traditional photography an unbearable constraint. And yet, photography continues to be everywhere. Witness Camera Works: The Photographic Impulse in Contemporary Art, held at Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York last summer. This show was packed from floor to ceiling with photographs by artişts ranging from Jessica Stockholder to Yoshitomo Nara.3

At the same time, every medium is more than just a form of picture-making it has a specific set of identities, histories, physical characteristics, processes—in short, a culture. In this respect, the culture of photography has never been more pervasive. It is, among other things, the subject of The Photogenic: Photography through its Metaphors in Contemporary Art, a group exhibition that I curated at Philadelphia’s Institute for Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania (through April 28)4. Comprising painting, sculpture, installation, drawing, sound, prints, and, yes, photographs, the works I selected for this exhibition all point to photography, which is made all the more present by the medium’s relative absence in the show. For example, sound artist Stephen Vitiello is creating a new site-specific work using a photocell—the device photographers use to test light—hooked up to a microphone. A computer translates the light vibrations into sound. He discovered this technique during a 1999 residency at the World Trade Center.5 From the communal 91st- floor studio space, with its 360-degree views, what struck Vitiello was the 24hour symphony of lights: the natural light of the sun and the moon, rising and setting, subdued or amplified by weather, disappearing behind clouds; all the variations on artificial light from cars, apartments, the streets, architecture. He has made several light albums, including Bright and Dusty Things, which gets its “dirty” quality from the battery coming loose from the cell during recording.

As seen, or heard, in the context of The Photogenic, Vitiello’s work presents a sonic version of photography’s earliest metaphors—light writing and photogenic drawing. Since the medium was first announced in 1839, photography and light have been deemed inseparable properties. Other characteristic metaphors for the photograph are proof, pencil of nature, index, the blind spot. All make appearances in the show. And while the exhibition seeks to use these metaphors in order to chart the expansion of photography’s culture into other mediums, here I would like to take an opposite if parallel approach, considering some of the photographic works in the ICA exhibition precisely in order to observe what it is about them that is not photography. In the case of Jennifer Bolande’s Incantations, what is not photography is haptic, and comes from the performative element that underlies all of her work. With Richter’s 128 Fotos, it’s the particularity of paint that gives his photography its substance (and vice versa). Brought into the picture from outside of the culture of photography, these qualities point to something that has permeated contemporary photography as much as photography has infiltrated contemporary art—a something I want to call the unphotographable. The unphotographable, too, is permeable and changes according to the artist who takes it on. The unphotographable is the pointer within the picture that beats a path out of photography at a moment when distinctions between all mediums have clearly collapsed.

Let’s return to the dust. The place where it accumulates may be dirty, but is also rich with signs of the unphotographable.6 Last May, the Whitney Museum of American Art presented The Things Themselves: Pictures of Dust, an exhibition by Vik Muniz based on a site-specific project he created in response to an invitation from the museum’s photography curator, Sylvia Wolf. Ever since reproducing icons of photography in chocolate sauce, Muniz has been known for his ambivalence toward a medium (photography, not candy) that is matched only by his intelligence when it comes to making pictures that dismantle (and maintain) photography’s illusions. For the Whitney project, he selected a group of historic installation photographs of Minimalist and Post-minimalist art from the museum archives. He reproduced these images as drawings using dust collected from the museum, which complied with his request for spent vacuum cleaner bags. Muniz then photographed and destroyed the drawings.

As exhibited at the museum, the prints were enlarged to a scale that shows each more to be a piece of fuzzy or hairy filth. In these images, which photorealistically depict works by Donald Judd, Barry Le Va, and Robert Ryman, among others, Muniz has a field day with, among other things, the artist’s intervention as archaeology; the purity of Minimalism and the messiness of what followed; the sanitary sanctuary of the museum as institution and repository. But these are mere riffs compared to Muniz’s challenge to the mantra of modern photography, “the thing itself,” as coined by Edward Weston, who charged photography with no more or less of a mission than to record “the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself.” Ricocheting non-stop between drawing and photography, reality and reproduction, dust and emulsion, Muniz’s pictures ultimately render unphotographable “the thing itself.”

Man Ray and Duchamp conducted their collaboration in the studio, a place where ideas and materials accumulate into art and debris. Combining their efforts, Katurah Hutcheson is at once a photographer and a painter. Marked by blobs and stains, her monochromatic works read as abstractions, but they are actually representations of “the thing itself,” in this case her studio production. Hutcheson uses her studio as a camera to capture images of shadow and light. Its windows are the apertures whereby light enters, filtering through acetate sheets upon which random drips of paint have accumulated. These silhouettes are then recorded either photographically or on canvas. The paintings are “multiple exposures,” developed layer by layer, always with found materials: recycled and repaired canvases, cast-off cans and tubes of paint, and building over time a solid identity in painterly abstraction. As opposed to these images of duration, the related photographs are fleeting, with the unphotographable a constant by-product of Hutcheson’s weird, hybrid process. What’s more, there’s something sordid about it all—the corporeality of her paintings, the fluidity of the photographs—that speaks to the Duchampian moment when both mediums might suffer some collapse.

Debris is the subject of a suite of four photographs by sculptor Rachel Whiteread entitled Furniture (1992–98). These are basically tourist snapshots of garbage day. Taken internationally, they show the sad street life of household objects. A mattress slumps against a car in Athens; another stands next to a wardrobe against a fence in London. The world grows that much smaller, more homogenized, bridged by the common wasteland of consumer culture. Cast onto curbsides on moving or garbage day, these objects, in Whiteread’s eyes, are both poignant and awful in their exposure to public view, surrogates, of sorts, of homeless men and women. But of course what one really sees in them are studies for Whiteread’s sculptures. Cast from just such household objects, these too are images of aggressive vulnerability, intimate memorials of contemporary life. I have often wondered what makes these somewhat abject works so effective, and what distinguishes them from the early works of Bruce Nauman, invariably cited in writing on Whiteread as a predecessor who cast the undersides of shelves and chairs in the 1960s. Her photographs answer the question, because they have made me understand the specific relationship that exists in her work between the positive and the negative: Whiteread’s art embodies a desire to be the thing that is not there.

A similar line of questioning is raised by the work of Stephan Balkenhol, whose figurative sculptures carved from wood might seem more folkloric than contemporary. However, the artist’s recent foray into photography suggests ways in which all of his works are essentially postmodern snapshots in wood. Mounted on a large panel of pływood is a screenprinted photograph showing in enlarged detail the eye of one of Balkenhol’s sculptural figures. One can see clearly that the technique behind Balkenhol’s carving has nothing to do with carefully rendering an image. The close-up shows that his chisel moved quickly, chipping out details with the same rough strokes that shaped the entire form. Thinking of these strokes, one recognizes an echo of Roland Barthes’ recollection that “at first photographic implements were related to techniques of cabinetmaking and the machinery of precision: cameras, in short, were clocks for seeing, and perhaps in me someone very old still hears in the photographic mechanism the living sound of wood.”7 Thus Balkenhol’s photograph is more than a reproduction of his work. It is an image of something quite immaterial, quite unphotographable: the mechanical precision that underlies both his sculpture and photography.

Perhaps the most compelling sign of collapse between photography and sculpture occurs in a recent body of work by the conceptual artist Karin Sander. Exhibited last spring in New York at D’Amelio Terras was a gallery of miniature plastic men and women, each elevated to eye level by a tall white pedestal. Posed casually and dressed in professional attire, these figures were depicted with such veracity that they appeared plucked out of a photograph of people networking at an exhibition opening. Indeed, as the titles revealed, many of those represented were members of the art world. There was a diminutive David Ross, now-former director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; a lilliputian Olivier Renaud-Clement, photography dealer; a peewee Werner Meyer, the curator whose invitation to participate in an exhibition of Kleinplastik (small sculpture) launched this body of work; and a “mini-me,” Karin Sander herself.8 The series they are part of is called 1:10, which refers to their shift in scale—these sculptures are exactly one-tenth the size of their subjects—which Sander achieved with digital photography. Deploying a technology familiar to the fashion industry, a battery of cameras bounces light off a living person to produce a three-dimensional body scan. The measurements are then fed into a machine that translates them into crosssections, which are output as layer upon layer of sprayed plastic. The resulting sculpture is, in fact, a photograph. Several of these works recently entered the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art—notably, by way of the department of photography.

Harking back to Duchamp’s prediction, one wonders if the digital might be the “something else [that] would make photography unbearable.” This discussion certainly finds photography straining its bounds, falling in with other mediums and even returning to its experimental infancy. Just briefly note two of the artists in The Photogenic: Sheila Pepe, who has developed a drawing practice based on Surrealist automatism and photograms; and photogrammatician Adam Fuss, who has been using that most precise of techniques, the daguerreotype, to make images that are perversely blurry. It’s as if the presence of a new technology, and all the anxieties attending it, have shaken up the old one. In response, photography kicks up its heels and succumbs to collapse. It affirms its own historic identity (modern, experiential). And it (blindly) points the way toward the virtual by showing us that some things are simply unphotographable.

The author would like to thank Dr. Geoffrey Batchen, whose writings on photography (most recently Each Wild Idea: Writing Photography History, Cambridge, 2001) and whose reading of a draft of this essay have been greatly informative.

Endnotes:

  1. Richter, quoted in Works from the Crex Collection, Zurich (Zurich, 1978), p. 110.
  2. Quoted in Gerhard Richter, exh. cat. (London: Whitechapel gallery, 1979), p. 65.
  3. Coincidentally, next door at 303 Gallery was another big group show of photography, Overnight to Many Cities: Travel and Tourism at Home and Away, composed by artist Collier Schorr. In contrast to the Boesky show, this one featured works by photographers in the strict, pre-postmodern sense of the word—such as Walker Evans and Joel Meyerowitz—when mediums inhabited their own distinct domains, viz. Roberta Smith, “Quick as a Shutter, Group Shows Shatter Conventional Wisdom," New York Times, July 6, 2001, p. E32.
  4. The Photogenic includes work by Richard Artschwager, Stephan Balkenhol, Jennifer Bolande, Adam Fuss, Arturo Herrera, Katurah Hutcheson, Josiah McElheny, Vik Muniz, Sheila Pepe, Gerhard Richter, Karin Sander, Stephen Vitiello, and Rachel Whiteread. It evolved from Constructing Images: Synapse Between Photography and Sculpture, a 1991 traveling group show organized by the author with Lieberman & Saul Gallery, New York.
  5. “This is the residency sponsored by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council that artist Michael Richards was participating in when he was killed in the September 11 attack chat razed the towers.
  6. On dirtiness and photography, see Ingrid Schaffner, "Dirty Hole: Steven Pippin's Obscure Routes," AOP 4/3, pp. 34–39.