Photography's Ghosts: The Image and Its Artifice
After Photography "makes no attempt at prophecy," Ritchin cautions. "It is rather an attempt to acknowledge the rapidly evolving present for what it is and what it might become, while engaging one of the less violent strategies for social change still extant: media." Disclaimer aside, After Photography predicts nothing less than the metamorphosis of our visual schemata. "Digital media work off a representational model that, while able to simulate analog media, eventually will be more transformative than the perspectival changes of the Renaissance or the experimental arts of the past century," Ritchin writes. An estimated 250 billion digital photographs were made in 2007. By 2010 "it is expected" (he doesn't say by whom) that "we" (humans worldwide) "will be producing half-a-trillion photographs annually." These virtualizable pictures may or may not record real-life activity. Nevertheless, their circulation will increasingly define how elections, tsunamis, demonstrations, melting icebergs, court decisions, famines, troop deployments and such are understood. To protect against disinformation and voyeuristic sightseeing in far-off disaster areas, the beholder must demand a digital image rendered more responsive, engineered to confess the conditions under which it was made by embedding information that might otherwise be obscured--including where and when it was shot, by whom and what has been done to it in Photoshop.
Fried sounds no alarms about fourth-estate ethics or public gullibility. Nor does he encourage interaction between the visual document and its receiver. Rather, he aims to prove that, standing before a wall-mounted photograph by the likes of Jeff Wall, Andreas Gursky or Rineke Dijkstra, the observer is forced to acknowledge isolation. These pictures do not invite identification; in fact, they rebuff it. It is "as if what ultimately is at stake in that work is precisely the depiction or evocation of a separation of worlds." Fried speaks elsewhere of "circumstances that rule out the possibility of any implied communication between the personage in the photograph and the viewer," and returns throughout his book to a comment by Sontag. "There is something on people's faces when they don't know they are being observed that never appears when they do," she writes in On Photography. Fried rings changes on her statement as he demonstrates how artists like Patrick Faigenbaum and Luc Delahaye exploit the mutual impermeability of actual and pictorial space. For these photographers, the wish to fix selfhood's secret flicker is itself theatricalizing. Inverting Ritchin's wholesome interactivity, the fantasy of access infects everything it sees. "I suggest," Fried continues,
that once it became imaginable that a "world" could be "contaminated" by the mere fact of being beheld, the situation was ripe for the emergence of an esthetic that would accept such "contamination" as the basis of its procedures. Inevitably, that esthetic found its home in photography.
Given privacy infringement and identity piracy, an assertion that the "mere fact of being beheld" can poison a subject makes unnerving sense. For Fried, however, it is not the Patriot Act or e-mail phishing scams but eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French painting that has brought us to this pass. Art photography inherits painting's problems because painting, too, has tried to keep the pictured world uncontaminated and has found that it cannot.
Key figures in this history--as laid out in Fried's trilogy Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (1980), Courbet's Realism (1990) and Manet's Modernism: or, The Face of Painting in the 1860s (1996)--are Chardin, Greuze, David, Courbet and Manet, all discussed in terms of the writing of the father of art criticism, Denis Diderot. Fried never quite explains why these men were so keen on the fiction of a beholderless artwork. Martin Jay suggests, however, that they imbibed ambivalence about outward show and its invitations to dissembling from Jean-Jacques Rousseau. According to Jay, the author of The Social Contract thought that people must "become completely transparent to each other and each individual must become no less transparent to himself. Rousseau's desire to lift the veil of appearance and reveal an essential truth beneath was so intense" that it compares with that of Plato.
Right. But--hang on--isn't the goal of anti-theatrical absorption to draw a veil, to maintain the wall separating worlds? Yes. Or at least, Fried says, that was the Diderotian ideal. For Courbet and Manet the illusion broke down, until "by 1860 the supreme fiction, advocated by Diderot, that paintings are not made to be beheld could no longer be sustained." Painters instead began to confront looking head-on, via what Fried calls "facingness" or "to-be-seenness." Manet's Olympia (1863), staring down her would-be johns while glorying in naked self-merchandising, becomes the poster child of "facingness." In recent decades, large-scale art photographers have continued "to acknowledge to-be-seenness in the course of pursuing antitheatrical aims--in that sense to drive a wedge between theatricality and to-be-seenness." Olympia's stepchildren, as photographed by Beat Streuli, Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Thomas Ruff, stare toward viewers but are immured in noncommunicating realms. Their essence, if they have any, rests so far behind their eyes that no prying act of beholding can penetrate.
If the doctrine of the separation of worlds erects a cordon sanitaire between intrusive stage-managing and thoughtful distancing, Ritchin believes in it as much as Fried does. Reportorial objectivity and the fact that a camera can capture details missed by the naked eye are aspects of traditional photojournalism that he seeks to protect, and each in its way can "sever" (Fried's word) observer from observed. If, on the other hand, such severance precludes exchange between audience and image, Ritchin wants nothing to do with it. Documentarians in the digital dispensation have a duty, he believes, to invite commentary, modification and defiance. Viewers have a duty to respond. "Information," Ritchin argues astutely, "is not a consumer right but to be earned through the manner in which one seeks it, even in the virtual world." Accordingly, he advocates web-based work that "confounds an otherwise simplistic sense of interactivity in which there is a menu of choices but no resistance, coming out of a singularly direct, consumerist American culture." Online editors might facilitate active viewing by developing a tool kit for digital forensics:
A new photographic template for the digital environment could be devised in which information is hidden in all the four corners of the image so that those interested could make it visible by placing the cursor over each corner to create a roll-over. The bottom right corner might contain issues of authorship and copyright; the bottom left could contain the caption and amplifying comments by the photographer; the upper left could contain responses to the image by its subjects; and the upper right could give information as to how the reader can become involved, help, learn more, by providing Web addresses and other guidance.
These are interesting proposals, and a few key early adopters might make them de rigueur. But while Fried insists on a hermetic seal between reality and image, Ritchin downplays the objection that new conventions breed new chicanery. Once institutionalized, would amplifying rollovers not be bastardized like any other guideline promulgating transparency and justice? Photographers, designers and editors obviously ought to be conscious about pandering to click-addicted passivity. Fundamentally, however, the essence/appearance conundrum cannot be solved by more or better data and interfaces. Images promise, and never quite deliver, reliable witness--because they can't. Complete, unadulterated transcription of the world did not exist in technologies known to Plato or Daguerre, and it doesn't exist in any we invent now. The wonder is how forcefully the problems of photographic plenitude persist.