But to say that Paper Graveyards is a series of meditations on photography, or to offer the list of those who are the subjects of such meditations, doesn’t reveal much about Cadava’s book. Following the lesson of negative theology, the best way to begin explaining what this book is would be to say what it is not. It is neither a work of traditional art history nor one of literary critical reading. Nor is it a work in the history of ideas, notwithstanding its astonishing erudition. Drawing on all these methods and approaches — and with extraordinary attention to language and style — Paper Graveyards amounts to something truly interdisciplinary. None of the disciplines Cadava draws on is summoned as a mere superfluous illustration of the argument; each is interlaced with the arguments and logic of other disciplines. This is a most challenging way to think, requiring knowledge not only of how different epistemes approach the same question or object, but also how one might fuse those different approaches into a seamless and compelling argument.
Another thing this book is not is a mere compilation or collection of heterogeneous essays: it is not as if any other essay on photography could be added to or omitted from it, leaving it with the same logic. Instead, to use the word Cadava himself employs, the book is a “constellation” of rigorously related essay-chapters, each of which addresses the nature of photography from a different point of view, adding to it each time so that the effect is cumulative, moving from “premises” advanced in the essay on Niépce to the work of contemporary photographers such as Fazal Sheikh. In being interlaced into a coherent whole, each essay becomes a stepping-stone along the advancement of the overall argument, following the method of reading the visual and textual materials that Cadava calls “historical.”
The meaning he gives to that word is far from straightforward and is counterintuitive. To explain what the historical method means, Cadava references Benjamin’s understanding of “time” as a “photographer” taking photos of the “essence of things.” However, the nature of “earthly time” — the time of human history — is such that it can capture only the negative of those essences. No one can deduce from the negative on which time records objects what the true essence of those objects is, because the “elixir that might act as a developing agent is unknown.” The events, processes, phenomena, and beings whose relations constitute the time of human history cannot be read; “earthly time” is constitutively opaque, which is why discussing the historical context in which a photograph is taken will not clarify the text of history one wants to read in it. Knowledge about the distant past can’t reveal the secret of the “photographic plates” of time. Perhaps nothing can, as Cadava himself acknowledges, but if anything is to bring us closer to discerning the opaque plates generated by historical time it is only, as he puts it, a “constellation of the then and now,” which isn’t a “matter of the now reading the then; it is a matter of reading the then in the now, or, more precisely, of reading the then now.”
In order to be read, however approximately, what has been must be not from the present understood as distant from it but rather on the basis of a “what was” read as “what now is.” Cadava’s historical method of reading does not commit to letting the past be gone, and that is not because of a conservativism, still less because of sentimentalism, but rather because the present has the logic of a flow that enfolds and encompasses the past which in turn constitutes it. Since the past is not something that can be isolated — not even by a photograph — and framed in a way that would distinguish it from the present, to read historically, as Cadava so beautifully and rigorously does, is to read contemporaneously. It is to read in a “flash,” which is what Benjamin called the contemporaneity of two temporalities fused in a single moment that constitutes the “now.” Hence, in Cadava’s historical reading of photographs by artists who lived as distant from each other in time and space as Nadar and Fazal Sheikh or Leon Golub, much attention is paid to our current historical moment, a moment addressed directly in a wonderful postscript, entitled “Lessons of the Hour,” on the art of Isaac Julien and Carrie Mae Weems in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic and Trump’s America.
Since no method worthy of the name can be detached from the argument it organizes, Cadava’s “historical” reading, proceeding by summoning constellations and capturing fleeting flashes that traverse the present from the past, introduces us to his novel and even revisionary claims about the nature of photography. For Cadava, to read the “then now” in every photograph means that a photograph is a special kind of archive, one which, by virtue of being both the support and the texture of traces, functions not as depository of the past but as its vital embodiment.
So much has been said about photograph’s relation to death — from Benjamin via Barthes to Cadava’s own earlier writing on Benjamin in Words of Light — that the philosophy of photography came dangerously close to a thinking of death. But what emerges here is a different, indeed original reading of photography’s relation to death. On this reading, if photography is always about death and destruction, it must also always be about survival; thus every image — and especially a photograph — “bears witness to the enigmatic relation between […] loss and life, destruction and preservation, mourning and memory.” Photography, therefore, captures and contains traces of the past only on condition that those traces are operative or active in the now, functioning as a sort of a vital force. As we learn from the remarkable essay “The Image in Ruins,” if photography “tells us that it is with loss and ruin that we have to live,” the emphasis is on “to live.” Photography is not a mere representation of what used to be; it is not a spectral trace of cadavers and ruins. Rather, it is an animating presence that mobilizes and transforms the living. It is a memory only to the extent that memory has the nature of affect, indeed the very feeling of a body living in the present.
We also gain a strong understanding of that from the book’s title, which states explicitly that the logic of the photograph is that of a paper graveyard. The phrase comes from Benjamin, but Cadava articulates it via Derrida, who says this about the relationship between paper and trace (figuration and image): “Paper here is already ‘reduced’ or ‘withdrawn’ … but can we speak here about paper itself, about the ‘thing itself’ called ‘paper’ — or only of its figures? Hasn’t ‘withdrawal’ always been the mode of being, the process, the very movement of what we call ‘paper’?”
What appears to be withdrawn does not in fact withdraw. Withdrawal doesn’t seem like the right word for this type of imperceptible existence, since withdrawal is its very mode of being; withdrawal is the means by which that existence came to be, it is its way of living and thus its manner of being fully present. And if “paper” — the embodied substratum that bears the image — is in fact a “process” by virtue of being a mode of being, then it never stabilizes but functions rather as an animated texture of mixtures; it is literally living tissue made of different ingredients.
To call such living tissue a “paper grave” makes of the photograph not an inert, but a vital entombment, one that enacts the survival of what is lost and in so doing keeps producing it as present. Or, as Cadava explains, paper in the phrase “paper graveyards” is fundamentally related to photography not only because “for a long time, the paper was […] the photograph’s material support,” but because what the relation between paper and photography implies “is that the surfaces of art and photography seal within them, like a kind of graveyard, a body, subject, object, archive, or network of relations. That paper is here a graveyard instead of simply a grave implies the plurality of traces buried in each surface.”
Like a graveyard, the photograph is always multiple, made of traces, relations, and references.
This plural and constitutively relational nature of paper serves as the basis for one of the significant claims Cadava advances regarding photography: namely that it is and always was multi-natural or “multimedial” in nature. Cadava frustrates the claim that digital photography, no longer grounded on paper, radically changes the photographic medium, as many have argued. This is not because he doesn’t acknowledge the difference between the analog and the digital, but because, as he puts it, he “want[s] to resist the claims that digitization has led to the death of photography.” Instead, he maintains, “all the philosophical or conceptual questions raised by digitization already are anticipated and comprehended by pre-digital forms of art and photography.” The arrival of the digital isn’t a mere contingent outcome of the development of technology but something that is intrinsically inscribed in the multimedial “body” of analog photography.
Cadava’s idea of photography as multiple or multimedial leads to one of his most powerful insights. If, as Cadava so convincingly demonstrates, even the first photograph was “not a photograph, or rather is not simply a photograph, since, beyond its being framed like a painting, it is an archive of an entire network of relations and traces, of several different practices and processes, many of which were related to other media, including engraving, lithography, and painting,” then the question of the photographic referent is itself in question. If what is photographed is not a simple unit or an object, precisely because no such “simple” object exists outside of an “entire network of relations,” then what is it, where does one look for it, and how does one define it?
Whereas it is typically presumed that a photograph is an index or representation of what is photographed, Cadava complicates the supposed indexical nature of photography, best summed up in Barthes’s famous claim that when he looks at a photograph, he sees “only the referent, the desired object, the beloved body,” because “love” enables him to “erase the weight of the image.” How, Cadava asks, can photography be indexical if one sees the photograph’s referent not in it but only by virtue of its weight being erased. What is a photograph if, in order to see the photographed, the photograph should be erased? Barthes’s own answer to that question is that the photographed is as multiple as the viewer. The viewer multiplies himself when viewing a photograph because it mobilizes memories, feelings, or moods, all of which codetermine his gaze. But, like the viewer, the subject — especially if it is a human body or face — also multiplies itself in front of the camera, since, as Barthes has it, “in front of the lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art.” This is crucial for Cadava, for it suggests to him
that Photography — and the portrait as its genre par excellence — constitutes a radical and absolute destabilization of the Cartesian subject, “comparable to certain nightmares,” and not unlike the one advanced by psychoanalysis, in which “I think where I am not; therefore I am where I do not think.”
This insight turns the whole chapter into a veritable ontology of photography in which “photography” becomes a force that “shatters the subject of reason — a subject that would be complete and coincidental with itself.”
It is in the chapter on Fazal Sheikh that we come to understand the radical political consequences of this disruption of any straightforward connection between a photograph and its referent. Cadava mobilizes a reading of Sheikh’s portraits in order to address the claim that, for being multiple in its nature, the photographed is always social, historical, and politically determined. What, in other words, is the status of the face of a photographed person if a whole network of political and historical forces is in play when we read it? To answer that question, Cadava summons discourses of political philosophy, human rights, and literary theory. He argues that the disruption of the straightforward relation between referent and photograph should also subvert the identificatory power of photography ascribed to it by so many nation-states today in order to organize, produce, and track human identities, above all those of migrants.
Sheikh’s portraits thus never present a face in an isolated way, severed from its cultural, political, and even natural background. In a superb reading of Sheikh’s beautiful double portrait of Ajoh Achot and Achol Manyen, two Sudanese women refuges in Kenya, Cadava shows how the photographer’s human faces never appear alone, for this “double portrait suggests that the identity of either of these women cannot be thought of without considering the relation they have with one another, or with the figures and landscape behind them.” Faces themselves constitute contextual and relational, political and ritual contexts.
The portraits of refugees in Sheikh’s photographs “are not reducible to the representation of a singular and autonomous person; instead, they ask us to think about what we mean when we say ‘person’ […] [they] engage and enact an entire philosophy of the subject,” and the question that haunts is, above all, “what it means to be human, and what it means to have the right to be human.”
By asking that question, and by answering it in unexpected, yet historically legible ways, Paper Graveyards is more than a remarkable book on photographic art; it is also a profound meditation on justice, dignity, and care. So many pages in Cadava’s book could classify it, beyond a reflection on photography, as an indispensable companion to integrity, attention, and commonality.
Branka Arsic is Charles and Lynn Zhang Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.