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THERE’S A SECTION in Don Delillo’s first novel, Americana, in which the narrator, an advertising executive, finds himself in the lobby of his office building, contemplating an exhibition of prize-winning war photographs. One of the images depicts a woman holding a dead child. Other children surround her, some crying, some waving and smiling at the camera.
A young man was down on one knee in the middle of the lobby, photographing the photograph. I stood behind him for a moment and the effect was unforgettable. Time and distance were annihilated and it seemed that the children were smiling and waving at him. Such is the prestige of the camera, its almost religious authority, its hypnotic power to command reverence from subject and bystander alike, that I stood absolutely motionless until the young man snapped the picture.
DeLillo’s passage raises many questions about the nature of photography and its relation to society at large. Why do we trust, or distrust, photographs? What are the forces that exist behind these images and why do they command such authority? Is it the subject of the photograph, or the photographic technology itself that commands this reverence? These questions, which have been debated for at least a century, lie at the heart of the medium’s history. These are the problems of photography, the sources of its central contradiction. From the beginning, the medium has had a fickle status: it’s been, at once, a tool of science and a tool of art; a servant of objective fact, and a creator of subjective experience.
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s current exhibition, See the Light – Photography, Perception, Cognition: The Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection attempts to trace the source of this dual history. The show, which once again draws from the Vernon collection — an expansive set of images stretching from the birth of photography to the late 20th century, purchased by the museum in 2008 — was created to educate viewers on correlations between the progression of neuroscience, the study of human sight, and the history of photography. Curator Britt Salvesen attempts to connect the medium with a specific kind of scientific inquiry, claiming that science and technology set the possibilities for what photographs can say and do. This is a particularly broad project, one that does not quite fit within the relatively small parameters of this exhibition. But it’s important to note that Salvesen is writing a survey history here: she is not attempting to say something about one particular genre of photography. Rather, she wants to make a comprehensive statement about the nature of the medium itself.
Though it’s one of her most under-publicized, this new exhibition is one of Salvesen’s most thematically and theoretically ambitious. By proposing that sweeping technological and cultural forces have shaped our conceptions of photography (or, more specifically, our culture’s approaches to photography), she is saying that the medium is never anything at all on its own. Rather, our conceptions of photography at any given time were (and are) contingent upon social, scientific, technological, and cultural (in a word, ideological) currents.
Salvesen sets out to describe four distinct approaches to photography throughout its history. It’s within these four separate aesthetic templates, she suggests, that we can connect the dots between science, technology, art, and the phenomenology of perception. Some of these headings are further separated into subcategories, such as naturalism, which during the first half of photography’s history, is split into “descriptive naturalism” and “subjective naturalism.” The exhibition points to a sudden rupture in the late 19th century: naturalism, which aimed to record form in photography, transforms into modernism, which aspired to generate form. Viewers are introduced to what Salvesen terms “experimental modernism” and “romantic modernism,” which track two separate, yet coterminous, theories of the avant-garde. However, the real substance here seems to reside in the suggestion of what lies beneath these broad tactics. Without lapsing into technological determinism, Salvesen gives us an explanation of the material and ideological forces that provide the basis for each approach, mapping out specific stylistic criteria.
The exhibition guides viewers toward thinking about the style that characterizes these different approaches, and the ways in which that style was contingent upon both the historical moment in which the picture was taken and the context in which it is being received. For example, the first approach, descriptive naturalism, seems to be based on a style of scientific truth and objectivity, of the camera’s ability to reveal some basic reality that, until its invention in the 1830s, had been hidden from the view of the naked eye. Within this first aesthetic template we encounter pictures from Henry Fox Talbot’s book series, The Pencil of Nature, 1844–46, whose sole raison d’être was to document as many things as possible, no matter how ordinary: from architecture, to pottery, to the fine China of Victorian Britain. It’s also under the banner of descriptive naturalism that we find the photographic detritus of colonialism, pictures documenting “far-off lands” like Jerusalem and Egypt, as well as Linnaeus Tripe’s pictures of India’s archeological treasures.
The first half of the exhibition does a good job of tracing photography’s metamorphosis from a mere vessel of objective fact and tool of science to an artistic medium. Descriptive naturalism capitulates to subjective naturalism. This latter approach is characterized by a quote from Pictorialist photographer Robert Demachy: “Our process, documentary in origin, can be transformed into an interpretive process in the hands of a photographer who sees like an artist”. The viewer is taken from the recording of scientific or historical “fact” to a kind of photography, famously advocated by Alfred Steiglitz, which attempted to imitate the fine art of painting. Here, Salvesen gives us the progression from physiology into psychology. The advent and proliferation of experimental psychology, according to the exhibition, deserves credit for allowing photographers to make subjective, artistic statements. As evidence of this, Savelsen points out in an accompanying timeline that Freud was developing his theories of memory lapse and loss of recognition, agnosia, in the same year as one of the first exhibitions of Pictorialist photography in Europe. The viewer is supposed to make a connection between this artistic movement, which aimed to take the familiar and make it strange, with psychology’s understanding of the loss of ability to recognize familiar objects.
Salvesen is tracing a particular discursive shift: her thesis says that developments in psychology allowed the entry of the figure of the artist into the history of photography, a field once reserved for the scientist and the historian. What began as a medium restricted to the discourse of objectivity is now given permission to play, to be pretty and to be published in art books and hung on gallery walls.
Still, photography’s awkward relation to both science and art continues to be the subject of many theories. This particular mode of inquiry blossomed in the 1980s when the writings of Michel Foucault were translated into English and imported to Anglo-American academia. Foucault’s influential writings on discourse, that is, the cultural, institutional, and linguistic forces that set limits to what can be said and known at any specific historical moment, gave art historians a useful framework for understanding and unpacking photography’s place in the two separate (and often opposing) fields of science and art. John Tagg and Rosalind Krauss first brought these concepts to the study of photography. Though working separately, both reached similar conclusions. For the two art historians, a photograph is nothing in-itself. Rather, photographs are ineluctably bound up with the discourse in which they are framed; a photograph in a police archive is seen as “evidence”, while the same photograph in a museum is seen as “art”.
The most eloquent advocate of this theoretical template was Allan Sekula, a photographer and writer who passed away earlier this year. “In effect,” writes Sekula in a 1981 essay titled “The Traffic in Photographs,”
we are invited to dance between photographic truths and photographic pleasures with very little awareness of the floorboards and muscles that make this seemingly effortless movement possible.
It is these floorboards and muscles (or at least a few of them) that Salvesen is trying to illuminate.
In his essay, Sekula uses the idea of flows of traffic to show us how we “dance” between these different and conflicting views of photography. Half of his description of the “traffic” in photographs is literal: Sekula the Marxist points to the commercial traffic of production and consumption, the social relations that underlie photographs. His Foucauldian half, on the other hand, emphasizes “traffic” in a metaphorical sense: the discursive flows of traffic that often shift directions, allowing photographs to exist between art and science, between subjectivity and objectivity. These multiple flows of traffic in photographs are guided by discourse and ideology.
It’s possible to follow Sekula’s logic through every conflicting approach laid out in the exhibition: how can naturalism go from being descriptive to subjective with such ease? We can track the same conflicts in the two subcategories of the modernist approach, experimental modernism and romantic modernism. After World War I, experimental modernist photographers like László Maholy-Nagy and his protégé György Kepes returned to the paradoxical view that photography can, at once, reveal truths through technology while acting as a creative instrument. The exhibition claims that this paradox arises through a fascination with technology after the war and an impetus to use new technologies for productive rather than destructive purposes. We can also return to the realm of psychology, with Gestalt theories of humanity’s ability to perceive certain configurations of forms underlying a new fascination with photographic abstraction.
While in the first half of the exhibition, Salvesen gives a clear and precise account of how, via the advent of psychology and cognitive science, photography began to be seen as more of an art than a science, she later fails to take adequate account of the role of cultural institutions in the full adoption of photography into the field of fine art. Instead Salvesen may pay too much attention to the correlations between photography and neuroscience in the final section of the show. She points out a possible connection between Ansel Adams’s and Fred Archer’s formulation, in the late 1930s, of the Zone System in photography and scientific developments in the understanding of how the eye’s light receptors work to create images in the brain. The Zone System, which helped photographers visualize, based on available light, what their final product would look like after exposure, could be said to have more to do with the artistry of photography than it does with the science of light and perception. What the Zone System presumes is that the photographer has artistic control over every nuance in the frame. The system is a means to an end, rather than a scientific end in itself.
It is arguable that the Zone System and the skill of precise previsualization that it engenders have more to do with a conception of photography promulgated by John Szarkowski, former head of the photography department at The Museum of Modern Art and one of Ansel Adams’s most vocal advocates. It is Szarkowski who is often credited with the full and unquestioned co-option of photography into the world of fine art, which resulted in the appreciation of photographs as singular objects d’art endowed with an aura of uniqueness. Salvesen does remark on this, though not enough attention is given to the full role played by Szarkowsi and his department at MoMA from 1962 to 1991. His writings and exhibitions are the antecedents for the current conventions surrounding photography’s status in a museum context, including the practice of creating taxonomies of pictures and styles.
“Photography,” according to Sekula, “is haunted by two chattering ghosts: that of bourgeois science and that of bourgeois art.” The image of the ghost is a useful one for describing what is at stake in this exhibition. See the Light does its best to reveal some of the hidden specters that haunt the history of photography. Salvesen reminds the viewer that “the prestige of the camera,” as DeLillo called it, is multifarious. And if there is a simple lesson to take away from the show, it is that photographic meaning is fragile: the medium that is associated with concreteness is often the most malleable, the most easily flexible. Yet, to change the meaning or the status of an image is far more complicated than merely manipulating it. Salvesen points to the material conditions that allowed for the entry of the figure of the “artist” into photographic production and reception, but perhaps due to a lack of space, she never questions the constructed nature of the category of art itself.
Despite this, though, her juxtapositions reveal that broad cultural, technological, psychological and scientific developments constantly shift the rules of photography, altering our collective relationship to images.
James Draney is a freelance writer and researcher with an interest in art theory and aesthetics.