‘Words can’t represent the sensation of freedom; the age of freedom will be the age of pictures.’ Frederick Douglass, 19th century
The text at the entrance of the current Frida Khalo and Diego Rivera exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales notes: “Some scholars suggest that Frida first saw herself in a photograph before she discovered mirrors.” Khalo was well aware of the power of photography to fashion and shape ones identity and she used it candidly to construct hers. So was Frederick Douglass, the late nineteenth-century orator and former slave who early on recognised the contradictory nature of photographic medium – both its objectifying and its revolutionary power. Douglass’ relationship to photography was one of the topics discussed in the recent Photography.Ontology. symposium held at the University of Sydney and developed by the university research cluster Photographic Cultures.
In the Opening Address of the symposium, renowned photography scholar Professor Shawn Michelle Smith challenged the canon of art history by presenting Frederic Douglass as astute and prophetic art critic and art philosopher. Douglass celebrated photography’s democratising power as it offered a seemingly universal tool for self-representation and, thus, gave African Americans an unprecedented opportunity to claim self-possession and a new status as citizen subjects. ‘Words can’t represent the sensation of freedom; the age of freedom will be the age of pictures,’ announced Douglass. But at the same time as being enthusiastic about photography’s fugitive potential, Douglas was also very much aware of photograph’s fixity. First of all, noted Professor Smith, he knew that photographs convey Dubois’s “double consciousness” – the sense of always looking at one self through the eyes of others which in itself enslaves. Secondly, a century before Roland Barthes, Douglass recognised the power of photograph’s longevity knowing that it will outlive the subject’s life and conserve our understanding of the past. It will cause us to move forward only by constantly looking back.
This looking back was discussed in further length in a couple of presentations on the second day of the symposium, when Professor Katherine Biber spoke about the crime photography and Dr Donna West Brett about archival photography. A legal scholar, criminologist and historian, Professor Biber spoke about the photography used for legal purposes, reminding us of Susan Sontag’s claim that photographs furnish evidence and crack open the secrets. But today, noted Biber, we also know better than to simply trust a photograph. What is in an image is only an extraction of the whole event (a fraction of a second) and entire lives could be captured in accidental details. ‘Law proves things through photographs but sometimes they are insufficient and misrepresent,’ noted Biber adding that the photograph is never only representative but also aesthetic. (It was Dr Toni Ross who later on during the symposium reminded us of Renciere’s move from the Aristotelian notion of art as mimesis to art as aesthesis.) What is more, these ‘evidential photos could be so powerfully emotive that they could be dangerous.’ We could be so moved by the image as to loose our agency and our capacity for rational and critical thinking. We, therefore, need to keep in mind that ‘photographic evidence is rarely self evidence.’ It can, in fact, ‘reveal more about the viewer than about the event.’ Crime in the museum is a burgeoning market after all, noted Biber.
Dr Donna West Brett gave a talk on ‘Witnessing the Archive: The Stasi, Photography and Escape from the GDR’ and reminded us of the role that photographs play in shaping culture, memory, and identity. Photography, as noted by Brett, is ‘a record maker and memory container.’ But the strangely aestheticised Stasi photographs put the viewer in a particulate position where purely retinal experience is augmented with profound emotive sensations. Looking at these archival photography we are reminded of Barthes’ analogy between the photograph and the wound; the photography’s power to affect us so profoundly as to pierce us open. The analysing of emotional affect and feelings in photography brings about the issue of ethics of spectatorship. ‘What do these photographs expect from the contemporary viewers?’ asked Brett.
Dr John Di Stefano who gave presentation on ‘Witnessing the Self: Making Visible the Displaced Self’ noted that once understood as the mirror of the real, today photograph is understood as something much more complex. If anything ‘photography is an absence of presence” it ‘records not the real but the effect of the real,’ and ‘obliges the gaze to treat an event as an object.’ To record something is to ‘arrest by device.’ Always consisting of making abstractions, recording embodies ‘a performative dimension.’
In his presentation, Di Stefano focused on the ethics of spectatorship and the role of the viewer in (de)constructing the image. He referred to the video art of Shigeko Kubota’s in which the artist films herself engaging with the spectral image of her father (as a way to mourn her father). As viewers, we observe her sorrow and there are multiple layers of watching – we observe Kubota’s grief as she observes the subject of her grief. In doing so, we become conscious of ourselves as observers. Kubota, therefore, ‘transforms a mere observer into a more engaged and more complicit viewer.’
The last session of the symposium offered an interesting contrast to the ideas outlined at the beginning of the symposium. By the early twentieth century photography lost much of its original appeal. Once seen as a mirror of life, it was now condemned for its deceitful and illusionary nature. With the emergence of mechanical mass-production, it became clear that ‘even one print can speak widely different things,’ noted Professor Andres Zervigon who gave a Closing Address on ‘Photo Profusion and Walter Benjamin’s Optical Unconscious in the Weimar Era’. Since the 1920s, photography came to be seen as ‘a strike against understanding.’ Brecht, for instance, saw mass printed photography in the hand of bourgeoisie as a weapon against truth, and Walter Benjamin described photography as a form of deluge – there are too many images and too many meanings, he maintained.
This notion of the power of photography to shape human mind in dangerously misguided direction lead to the early twentieth-century anxiety around photography which remains to this day. In today’s era of mass media and Instagram culture, images overwhelm our perception. We are confronted with the ‘daily onslaught of pictures and too much information that a single image conveys,’ noted Zervigon. Unaided by the photographic record, memory filters. Capturing the past through images, on the other hand, leads to the problem of ‘photographic garbage’ and we are as a consequence at a loss of how to reconstruct the past.
Early insights in the nature of photography of the likes such as Frederic Douglas and Frida Khalo are no doubt still relevant today when more than ever we all construct our identity through images. What Khalo and Douglas understood prophetically, we now all follow and employ automatically, well aware that our legacy, the way we are remembered will in large part be fixed in and dependent on those images. However, today we are also aware of the photograph’s power to deceive and fragment. We know that what we see is a constructed and deliberately arranged frame. Don’t we?
THE SYMPOSIUM TOOK PLACE ON 2 AND 3 JUNE, 2016. ALL THE SESSIONS WERE AUDIO RECORDED AND THE PODCASTS WILL BE AVAILABLE ONLINE BY THE END OF JULY, 2016.
Post thought as heard in a talk by Professor Natalya Lusty on the history of Art Manifestos:
“If our lives have become oversaturated by images maybe there is something about words that resonates.”
An interesting contrast to Frederic Douglas’ 19th century thought that ‘Words can’t represent the sensation of freedom; the age of freedom will be the age of pictures.’
[Text: Ira Ferris, 12 July 2016]