Friday, April 23, 2010

Photography Post II: "Never trust any photograph so large that it can only fit in a museum"

The title quotation is from photographer Duane Michals' book Foto Follies: How Photography Lost its Virginity on the Way to the Bank. Published in 2006, it is ridiculously funny and politically incorrect, but at the same time quite serious about the problems with new photography, or photography of the tableau form. (The term "tableau form," coined by Jean-François Chervier, refers to a style of photography characterised by its large-scale format and its intended display in a gallery or museum space. It is most commonly associated with the worked of Jeff Wall and Andreas Gurksy.) Michals' criticism of the tableau form is implicitly marked a discussion of indexicality, (arguably) the main point of contention in contemporary photography theory. (For a good introduction to the indexicality debate, check out James Elkins' edited volume Photography Theory, published in 2007.)

Indexicality is in many ways an extension of Barthes' studium and punctum theory - the seeing (of the object) and being there (of standing before the object). Addressing how “the sign represents its object,” or “on what basis does it come to stand for its object,” indexicality applies Charles Sanders Peirce’s semiotic “trichotomy of icon, index, and symbol” to photography: The sign may act as an (i) icon, representing the object in its likeness to it; as an (ii) index, representing the object in its existential connection to it; or as a (iii) symbol, representing the object by convention.[1] The photograph is an index. It exists as the “relation between the object photographed and the image finally created,” resulting from “the transformation of light sensitive emulsion caused by light reflecting off the object photographed filtered through the lens and diaphragm.” [2] The indexicality of the photograph is the medium specificity of the photograph, which ultimately differentiates photography from painting. However, indexicality also burdens photography a representational limitation – the photograph is casually related to the object it photographs – which since the late 1970s has been challenged in the tableau form.

Wall's The Destroyed Room (1978) is one such challenge. Confronting The Destroyed Room, measuring 1.5m x 2.3m, the spectator encounters a wealth of detail made visible by the photograph’s size: the diagonally ripped mattress, the exposed insulation, empty light-bulb socket, overturned table, the single gold-lamé shoe, the bed-sheets and gowns, the painted brick hallway, the dancing figurine, the broken mirror, and the peeling paint. The act of "seeing" is confused. As well, each object is meticulously placed by Wall. The act of "being there" is denied. Agency is now attributed, not to indexicality - object and light interaction - but to the photographer, to Wall - as artist.

James Elkins, Photography Theory (London: Routledge, 2007): 222-223.
[2] Tom Gunning, “What’s the Point of an index? Or Faking Photographs,” NORDICAM Review (5:1-2 September 2004): 40.

1 comment:

  1. What an interesting blog, introduced by a thought-provoking photo. The unusual wall painting of the dwellings is also a strangely modern interpretation. Something like this hieroglyphic view of a park by Swiss painter Paul Klee,
    The image can be seen at who can supply you with a canvas print of it.