Photography’s Ghosts: The Image and Its Artifice

Photography’s Ghosts: The Image and Its Artifice

Photography’s Ghosts: The Image and Its Artifice

Two new books explore the truths and artifice of photography.


Jeff Wall/Marian Goodman Galley, NYCPicture for Women (1979), by Jeff Wall

Photography is haunted by distortions, or what philosophers and media theorists call “simulacra”–those devils or replicants that blur authentic essence and mere appearance. Pictures in general trigger these anxieties, Plato having bequeathed to Western culture a fear that overidentification with images will dull perception of a spirit that eludes sight. Photography, however, has been especially seductive, seeming to offer unmediated access to how things “really” are. As Martin Jay explains in Downcast Eyes, his marvelous history of antivisual themes in French thought, “Because of the physical imprinting of light waves on the plate of the camera…it might seem as if now the oeil was not trompé in Daguerre’s new invention. But doubts nonetheless soon arose.” By the 1840s, it was clear that even apparently direct imprinting could not rout the ghost of simulacra. “Yet as late as the Dreyfus Affair,” Jay notes, “it was still necessary to warn the naïve viewer against concocted images.” Photographs could be retouched or faked through double exposures–as when, in 1899, the newspaper Le Siècle printed composite pictures of enemies in the Dreyfus Affair appearing friendly. Technologies have drastically evolved, of course. Nevertheless, according to new books by Michael Fried and Fred Ritchin, warnings about photography’s uncertainties are no less necessary.

Fried’s still controversial essay “Art and Objecthood” was published in 1967, when he was in his 20s. In it, he accuses Minimalist art of “theatricality” because it plunks a de-aestheticized object–say, a steel cube–in the viewer’s path and proposes that real-time engagement with this object constitutes art. Fried, who has explored the implications of his daring article across the decades, has become J.R. Herbert Boone Professor of Humanities and the History of Art at Johns Hopkins University and written a great deal else, notably a trilogy of studies shifting the emphasis from sculpture and tracing a path through eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French painting, toward the nexus of imperatives and disjunctions that we name modernism. Through it all, he examines the convention that paintings “primordially” are “made to be beheld.” This apparent no-brainer exists paradoxically in tandem with another bedrock assumption of modern visuality, “the ontological illusion that the beholder did not exist.” From Chardin to Manet and on to Stella and Caro, Fried contends, artists have negotiated between self-conscious or “theatrical” display–playing to the beholder–and meditative or self-sufficient “absorption”–pretending the beholder isn’t there. His new book, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, extends the inquiry into art photography as it has developed since the ’70s. Trilogy enlarges to quartet, and arguments that have engaged Fried since “Art and Objecthood” are staged anew via large-scale images produced by American and European artists. Like painters, these photographers intend for their work to be displayed on the wall. But they seek in best anti-theatrical style to keep their subjects, and their viewers, at a distance.

After Photography, by Fred Ritchin, is a very different book. Ritchin is a professor of photography and imaging at New York University and director of PixelPress, an online journal dedicated to documentary and social justice. He was picture editor of The New York Times Magazine from 1978 to 1982 and founding director of the Photojournalism and Documentary Photography Program at the International Center of Photography in New York. After Photography is the third book he has written or edited, and it heralds the arrival of what he calls “hyperphotography,” or “Photography 2.0.” The digital turn, for Ritchin, is a revolution untelevised. This is because television is analog, but more important because a collective lack of imagination has sidelined the potential of image-driven technologies into the realms of commerce and celebrity. Nevertheless, while new media are still new, we have the chance to perform unlikely feats of consciousness-raising about the effects of our image use. If we succeed, the revolution may yet be e-mailed to an iPhone or uploaded to a virtual coffeehouse in Second Life.

The two authors make strange bedfellows. Fried remains a conservative provocateur attempting to define the nature of art. Ritchin, who is a generation younger, theorizes progressive photojournalism. Fried promulgates a lineage connecting medium-specific abstraction and theories of pictorial realism, while Ritchin analyzes the impact of digitization–the manipulability of the visual document at the level of the pixel–on reportorial objectivity and public commentary about the news. Fried says nothing about journalism, and Ritchin de-emphasizes art. Both cite classics of photographic criticism from the predigital, pre-big-art-photo era, including Susan Sontag’s On Photography (1977) and Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida (1981). But they consider pictures made with cameras to belong to distinct cultural systems, and they make opposite claims regarding the state of photography. Either photography matters as never before; or, as we have known it since Daguerre, it is over.

Yet reading Fried’s and Ritchin’s books together is a useful, if disorienting, experience. In a sense, each corrects the other’s blind spot. Both authors focus on conditions of beholding, the perceptual and political opportunities and responsibilities incumbent on the person who looks at a photo, be it in a magazine, on a website, in a book or in a gallery. Both are fond of antithesis: theatrical images are bad, anti-theatrical images are good, and it’s not hard to tell the difference. Or: Photography 1.0 is dead, and a wired yet lazy populace needs new literacy. Each then admits significant ambiguities. Theatrical methods are sometimes the only way to produce anti-theatrical effects; and the new literacy might cause as many problems as the old. Ritchin, not surprisingly, has more to say about the dangerous blessings of e-innovation and its disembodied spectacles. Many of the artists Fried champions also manipulate their photographs on computers and criticize neoliberalism’s symptoms: commodity fetishism, tourism, racism and uneasiness about claiming an inner self in a maze of ideological mirrorings. Fried concedes this without being much impressed. His issue is not social critique but ontological perspicacity. How do photographs project conditions of truth? Ritchin’s crux is precisely social. How do projected truths block or solicit well-informed, compassionate response? In short, both ponder the proper uses of artifice. For both love the image yet worry constantly about its powerful near-enemy, the histrionic come-hither simulacrum.

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.

Ritchin nods to Sontag, Barthes and numerous other writers who have wrestled with such puzzles–including Walter Benjamin, whose 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” remains a touchstone for techno-ethical visual criticism. Fried engages these thinkers too. He also makes extended forays into Wittgenstein, Mishima, Heidegger and Hegel. Ritchin’s reader might wish for tougher dialogue with the theorist predecessors. Fried’s, meanwhile, must hang on to his or her philosophical hat. In addition to extensive quotation from Fried’s previous writings, and substantial asides relating to his career-long animus against Minimalist art, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before includes a Hegelian chapter called “‘Good’ versus ‘Bad’ Objecthood” (related to “genuine,” or present, versus “spurious,” or invisible infinity) and another centered on Heidegger’s distinction between “ready-to-hand” and “present-at-hand.” (Compare a hammer used to pound nails to a broken hammer, one confidently grasped as a means to an end, the other suddenly betrayed into lumpen thingness.)

Nuances notwithstanding, Fried’s antagonisms are less rigid than his antithetical terms suggest. He reflects, for example, that things depicted in photographs have traditionally–wrongly–been regarded as broken hammers, mutely present-at-hand in the unmodulated continuum of matter. (This is more or less what Barthes meant when he famously called the photograph “a message without a code.”) However, as Fried elaborates, when Wall sets forth a dizzying array of objects in a photograph like After “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue (1999-2001), the light bulbs, furniture, clothing and other junk that cram the basement lair have all been placed exactly and symbolically by the protagonist, by Ellison, by Wall. They are not dumbly “present-at-hand” at all. Similarly, in the photographic grids of Bernd and Hilla Becher, the artists’ taxonomies of obsolete water towers, blast furnaces and the like–shot in deadpan black-and-white–can in principle be infinitely extended but in practice are rigorously controlled. “The infinity at play in such incompleteness,” Fried explains, “is of the kind Hegel calls ‘true’ or ‘genuine.'” A less polemical argument might put the play of incompleteness first. This would alleviate the necessity of admitting (halfway through the book) “the embarrassing truth is that the entire issue of absorption in photography is more complex, less ‘pure,’ than it is usually made out to be.”

German idealism and French poststructuralism, Canadian and German artists, an American novel and a bristling handful of buzzwords all packed in a paragraph: it’s difficult not to write like this when discussing Fried’s work. Doubling back to Ritchin and the emergence of “hyperphotography,” the story is refreshingly–possibly deceptively–simpler. According to After Photography, Photography 2.0 emerges not from centuries-long intellectual adaptation but from the rupture consummated in a single editorial sleight-of-hand:

If I had to pick a date when the digital era came to photography, it would be 1982. It was then that National Geographic‘s staff modified a horizontal photograph of the pyramids of Giza and made it vertical, suitable for the magazine’s February cover. They electronically moved a section of the photograph depicting one of the pyramids to a position partially behind another pyramid, rather than next to it. It was a banal change–after all, the original photograph was an already romanticized version of the scene that excluded the garbage, tourist buses, and souvenir hawkers–but it opened the digital door.

Later, National Geographic editor in chief Wilbur Garrett reportedly claimed that the fix equaled, in Ritchin’s words, “merely the retroactive repositioning of the photographer a few feet to one side so as to get another point of view.” But Robert Gilka, then the magazine’s director of photography, countered that the introduction of the technique was “like limited nuclear warfare. There ain’t none.” Indeed, as Ritchin shows, more disquieting doctorings have included the darkening of O.J. Simpson’s complexion on a Time magazine cover in 1994 and the juxtaposing, on a conservative website in 2004, of young John Kerry with “Hanoi Jane” Fonda. The propagandists who pirated Kerry’s picture also forged an Associated Press credit for the shot. Such dirty tricks, of course, are not the same as forwarding a cellphone snapshot to a friend, or even inventing a virtual double who spends virtual money in a quasi-utopian virtual community. Digital devices enable them all, nonetheless, and Ritchin’s survey of the tech-scape seeks to remind viewers of their troubling, exciting intertwining.

Fried implies that he can set aside the issue of digitization, and the visions of a flattened, all-commodity world that it transmits, because manipulation has been the name of the image game since the 1730s. Digitization may or may not change anything important.

The issue of “truthfulness” versus “falseness” in this connection already looks beyond…painting, with respect to which it makes no sense to ask what a personage in a canvas is “actually” or “truly” doing, thinking, or feeling, toward the mechanical reproduction of reality in photography, with respect to which such questions are inescapable. (Or with respect to which such questions have been inescapable; I am thinking of the advent of digitization, the consequences of which for photographic practice and theory have yet to become fully clear.)

This bracketing of the problem prompting Ritchin’s entire exegesis is literal; Fried relegates digitization to parentheses. Regarding, for example, Thomas Struth’s “Audience” series–apparently candid shots of museumgoers–he asserts,

we sense intuitively that the actions and expressions of the tourists–also their distribution in space–are genuine, spontaneous, Diderot might say “naïve,” one of his highest terms of esthetic praise. (We sense this, I say, but we might be mistaken: since the advent of digitization it has become possible for scenes such as these to be staged…. In actual fact that is not true of the “Audience” series. However, technologically we are forever now on insecure ground….)

Of Gursky, he remarks, “(I am deliberately putting to one side the question of the digital manipulation of his pictures, to which I shall shortly turn.)” He does turn there, noting that

commentators on Gursky’s art have noted his interest in subjects–such as the Siemens plant at Karlsruhe, the Tokyo, Chicago, and Hong Kong stock exchanges, the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank building in Hong Kong, and the coolly lit modernist shelves lined with Prada shoes or Nike sneakers–that belong to the social and economic phenomenon known as globalization. As in the case of his use of digitization, I have nothing to add except to say that this too fits my larger thesis.

Shift again from art to journalism, and such sophisticated, absorptive phantasmagoria are exactly what Ritchin wants to undo. For Ritchin, the “ontological illusion that the beholder did not exist”–that images float unmoored from living creators or perceivers–can’t help but be a pernicious cover for power, be it corporate interest or state ideology.

Fried discusses twenty photographers in some detail. Just one of them–Hiroshi Sugimoto–is not European, American or Canadian. Women contribute sixteen out of the 213 illustrations in the gorgeously produced Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before. The number rises slightly if collaborations between the husband-and-wife Bechers are included. But then, regarding Cindy Sherman, Fried declares that he finds “almost all her work” after 1981 uninteresting. So, de facto, Dijkstra and Candida Höfer are the only female artists, and Sugimoto is the only artist of color, whose work sustains the critic and historian’s attention. How can a compelling theory of the most important image-regime of the past hundred years fail to account for work produced by artists who are not white men? Fried would likely dismiss head-counting as irrelevant to his emphasis on the interrogation of pictorial aesthetics as pursued since 1970. But haven’t we spent those same decades extricating ourselves from such circular logics of “quality”? The emphasis on historical continuity here sours.

I quail to say so, though. Fried countenances little deviation from his view, so that despite his capacious consideration of matters poetic and theoretical, his argument feels narrow. He goes so far as to “preempt” queries regarding narrowness. As he states in the introduction, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before relates closely to his preceding trilogy:

This means, among other things, that the chapters that follow constantly refer to my own earlier writings; I declare this up front, to preempt the facile criticism that I am excessively preoccupied with my own ideas. I am preoccupied with those ideas, for the simple reason that they seem to me to hold the key to much (far from everything, much less than half of everything, but still, a great deal) in the pictorial arts of the past 250 years.

Let it be so noted.

Ritchin has none of Fried’s hauteur, but his style also tends toward hyperbolic pronouncement. We might give him a pass on flare-ups of melodrama (“Cause and effect, even life and death, flicker nostalgically in the rearview mirror that is now the twentieth century”). Occasionally, though, his hyperbole obscures a deeper point. “The originality and spontaneity of experience is at stake, with a chance to be revived.” What do these words mean? Were originality and spontaneity guaranteed by old-fashioned Photography 1.0, with its portraits of fairies and darkroom obliterations of fallen Soviet commissars? If photo fakery is as old as photos themselves, whither revolution?

The answer lies, perhaps, in the drastically altered economies of time that Ritchin analyzes. Digital media deliver data, and the opportunity to rewrite data, with instantaneous rapidity. This is revolutionary. Very Large-Scale Conversations (to use a term from information theorist Warren Sack) can now be joined by anyone with an online connection and the social freedom, or daring, to use it. This is very large-scale democratization. As Ritchin argues, crowdsourcing, wikis and sousveillance (“vigilance from underneath”) have the potential to transform fact-gathering and the communal conversations dependent on it–albeit in terms of ever-fluctuating access and potentially problematic speed rather than some stable, transcendent “truth.” Diderot the skeptical encyclopedist would be fascinated.

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