The Opa­ci­ty of the Me­dium: the Re­turn of Pho­to­gra­phy as Trace

Des­pite the sup­po­sed trans­pa­ren­cy of pho­to­gra­phy and its di­gi­tal de­ma­te­ria­li­za­tion, some ar­tists to­day are ex­plo­ring its aes­the­tic po­ten­tial as a re­cor­ding of traces.

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In a context do­mi­na­ted by di­gi­tal tech­no­lo­gies and an ob­ses­sion with ma­ni­pu­la­ted images and the truth/fic­tion di­cho­to­my, there is a gro­wing in­ter­est in the phy­si­cal di­men­sion and hu­man in­ter­ven­tion cha­rac­te­ris­tic of ear­ly pho­to­gra­phy. Once again pho­to­gra­phers are ex­pe­ri­men­ting with the me­dium’s cha­rac­ter as an im­print. Ever since the in­ven­tion of “pho­to­ge­nic dra­wing” by William Hen­ry Fox Tal­bot in 1834, some ar­tist pho­to­gra­phers have wor­ked wi­thout a ca­me­ra, di­rect­ly res­ti­tu­ting the traces of an ob­ject on pho­to­sen­si­tive pa­per. Once again pho­to­gra­phic im­prints are a source of a high­ly pro­duc­tive ima­gi­na­ry concer­ned with the ge­ne­sis of the image, the fra­gi­li­ty of its ap­pea­rance and its fu­ture, and with pho­to­gra­phy as a me­dium that can ma­te­ria­lize a re­la­tion to time. Va­rious modes of the fa­bri­ca­tion of images are mo­ving away from the al­le­ged trans­pa­ren­cy of the me­dium and do- cu­men­ta­ry aes­the­tics, es­pe­cial­ly the va­lue gi­ven to cla­ri­ty and rea­da­bi­li­ty. In this sense, the new in­ter­est in pho­to­gra­phy as a re­cord of traces can be un­ders­tood as a constant in­ter­ro­ga­tion of the pho­to­gra­phic pro­cess. “Pho­to­gra­phy has kept its soul but lost its bo­dy,” says Joan Font­cu­ber­ta, who in­ter­ro­gates pho­to­gra­phy’s loss of sub­stance in his book Die Trau­ma­deu­tung.( 1) These consi­de­ra­tions on the soul of pho­to­gra­phy re­call the 1970s theo­ri­za­tions of what is now cal­led the “on­to­lo­gi­cal mo­ment.” Au­thors like Su­san Son­tag, Ro­land Barthes and Ro­sa­lind Krauss dis­cus­sed the me­dium in terms of its de­pen­den­cy on rea­li­ty, of which it was said to be a trace or in­di­ca­tion. In the sym­po­sium “Où en sont les théo­ries de la pho­to­gra­phie ?,”(2) An­dré Gun­thert no­ted, “Eve­ryone agrees that on­to­lo­gi­cal theo­ry mi­shandles the ques­tion of iden­ti­ty […] But pe­rhaps the most stri­king thing about this dis­cus­sion is, on the contra­ry, the stub­born per­sis­tence, des­pite eve­ry­thing, of a be­lief in the na­ture of pho­to­gra­phy as an im­print.” While to­day theo­ries of pho­to­gra­phy as evi­dence of rea­li­ty are wi­de­ly ques­tio­ned, the aes­the­tic po­wer of pho­to­gra­phic traces is stron­gly felt among pho­to­gra­phers who prac­tice a kind of ex­pe­ri­men­tal slow pho­to­gra­phy clo­se­ly lin­ked to the use of pri­mi­tive tech­niques such as pho­to­grams, cya­no­types, am­bro­types and he­lio­gra­vures, and unu­sual hy­brids of di­gi­tal and ana­logue pro­ce­dures. These ar­tists are re­con­si­de­ring or rein­ven­ting pho­to­gra­phy’s pa­ra­me­ters by conscious­ly going back to its ma­te­ria­li­ty. This is evi­den­ced by recent ex­hi­bi­tions such Mé­moire du fu­tur (Mu­sée de l’Ély­sée, Lausanne, 2016) and What Is a Pho­to­graph? (In­ter­na­tio­nal Cen­ter of Pho­to­gra­phy, New York, 2014), whose cu­ra­tor, Ca­rol Squiers, ex­plai­ned, “Al­though di­gi­tal pho­to­gra­phy seems to have made ana­log ob­so­lete, ar­tists

Page de gauche, de gauche à droite / page left from left:

Syl­vain Cou­zi­net-Jacques. « Ex­trait de Eden ». 2016. (Col­la­bo­ra­tion avec Fred Cave. Édi­teur : Aper­ture/ Fon­da­tion d’en­tre­prise Her­mès. 31,1 x23,5 cm. 1030 pages. 1000 exem­plaires) Tho­mas Hau­ser. « The Stable and the Col­lap­sed (Eden) ». 2015. Im­pres­sion la­ser sur pa­pier ar­gen­tique. 17,5 x 12,5 cm. (Court. l’ar­tiste) Ci-des­sous / be­low: Chris­tian Mar­clay. « Al­lo­ver (Ma­riah Ca­rey, Glo­ria Es­te­fan and others) ». 2009. Cya­no­type. 130,8 x 254 cm. (© Chris­tian Mar­clay. Court. Pau­la Coo­per Gal­le­ry, New York)

conti­nue to make works that are pho­to­gra­phic ob­jects, using both old tech­no­lo­gies and new, criss­cros­sing boun­da­ries and blen­ding tech­niques.”(3) In re­tur­ning to the ma­te­ria­li­ty of the me­dium and in this sense the fa­bri­ca­tion of the pho­to­graph, Chris­tian Mar­clay, Ali­son Ros­si­ter and Wolf­gang Till­mans have re­clai­med pho­to­gra­phy’s cha­rac­ter as an im­print of light, a kind of em­bo­di­ment, which seems to have been lost in di­gi­tal work. Es­pe­cial­ly in France, youn­ger ar­tists are in­ven­ting hy­brid pro­cesses whose aes­the­tic im­pact in­volves re­ve­la­tion, me­mo­ry and the in­ex­pres­sible.

EM­BO­DI­MENT The cya­no­types Chris­tian Mar­clay made at the Gra­phics­tu­dio at the Uni­ver­si­ty of South Flo­ri­da (2008) left an im­pact on the last de­cade. See­king to re­con­nect the image with its fa­bri­ca­tion, Mar­clay reac­ti­va­ted an in­ven­tion da­ting back to 1842, wor­king with ve­ry large for­mat pho­to­grams to re­cord the light im­prints left by tan­gled reel-to-reel tape. Mar­clay rear­ran­ged the ma­gne­tic tape du­ring the long ex­po­sure time, twis­ting some pieces and ad­ding and sub­trac­ting so as to create the ef­fect of mo­tion. Thus he mel­ded two modes of ana­logue re­cor­ding now consi­de­red ob­so­lete, ma­gne­tic tape and pho­to­sen­si­tive emul­sion. These images pay ho­mage to ana­logue for­mats, a ma­gis­te­rial po­si­tio­ning in the face of the loss of ma­te­ria­li­ty in di­gi­tal pho­to­gra­phy. The uni­que­ness of each image fur­ther rein­forces the fe­ti­shis­tic di­men­sion at­tri­bu­ted to the pho­to­gra­phic print. This idea is even more ra­di­cal­ly present in the work of Ali­son Ros­si­ter. In­vi­ted to show at the 2012 Arles pho­to fes­ti­val, she ex­plai­ned that she had “amas­sed al­most 1,200 batches of ex­pi­red pho­to­gra­phic pa­per. The la­tent images pro­du­ced by light leaks, oxi­da­tion and phy­si­cal da­mage are the source of these pho­to­grams.” In her first se­ries, Ros­si­ter fixed the ex­pi­red and spoi­led pa­per, thus ob­tai­ning pho­to­gra­phic rea­dy­mades. Then she in­ter­ve­ned by de­ve­lo­ping some parts of the pa­per, dar­ke­ning some and crea­ting swatches of dif­ferent light in­ten­si­ties. Ros­si­ter’s abs­tract images confer a ma­jor im­por­tance on light, its ra­diant and ir­re­me­diable ef­fect pro­du­cing a hap­tic di­men­sion. In the face of to­day’s se­vere over­load of re­pre­sen­ta­tion through a constant stream of images, Ros­si­ter’s pho­to­grams re­turn to the most ba­sic consti­tuent ele­ment of the sil­ver ha­lide pro­cess, the im­pact of light on grains of sil­ver. Other as­pects of pho­to­gra­phy’s che­mi­cal di­men­sion are in­ter­ro­ga­ted by Wolf­gang Till­mans, who does much of his work wi­thout a ca­me­ra. The fact that Till­mans makes his own co­lor prints al­lows him to in­te­grate ac­ci­dents in­to his crea­tive pro­cess. For example, in the Sil­ver se­ries traces of dirt and re­si­due de­li­be­ra­te­ly left in the co­lor de­ve­lo­per ap­pear on pa­per that may or may not have been ex­po­sed to light, thus com­bi­ning control over the pro­duc­tion pro­cess with alea­to­ry che­mi­cal ef­fects. For Till­mans, “the re­sult is just as much a slice of rea­li­ty as a pho­to of a tree—in both cases, I didn’t create the main sub­ject.”(4) The di­men­sion of a trace of the en­vi­ron­ment re­mains, but freed of mi­me­sis. Un­like an ap­proach that seeks cla­ri­ty, the use of pho­to­grams pro­duces a breach wi­thin the re­pre­sen­ta­tion and a kind of opa­ci­ty bet­ween the bo­dy (ob­ject, light, che­mi­cals) and its re­pre­sen­ta­tion. Even when a lens is used, the ma­te­ria­li­za­tion of traces pre­serves this opa­ci­ty. This is the case in Sal­ly Mann’s va­rious se­ries of am­bro­types. Using a large-for­mat view ca­me­ra with a da­ma­ged lens and hand-coa­ted wet plate col­lo­dion, Mann seeks to en­dow her images with den­si­ty. This pro­cess al­lows her to en­cou­rage light leaks, along with im­per­fec­tions, dust and all sorts of im­prints. Com­bi­ned with the de­li­be­rate fuz­zi­ness of the images, the traces di­rect­ly ins­cri­bed in the emul­sion are as vi­sible as the pho­to­gra­phed rea­li­ty and contri­bute to the abo­li­tion of the dis­tance bet­ween the vi­sible and re­mi­nis­cence. This is par­ti­cu­lar­ly dis­tur­bing in the se­ries Bat­tle­fields (2000-03), shot on Ci­vil War sites in the South where she lives. The per­cep­tion of traces of light speaks to the dis­tor­tion of me­mo­ry, the en­du­rance of forms and what hu­man beings leave be­hind. The spec­ters of sol­diers who died in bat­tle seem to arise from the fields. The opa­ci­ty of the me­dium of pho­to­gra­phy, concei­ved as en­tan­gled tem­po­ra­li­ties, a mix of the pal­pable and the in­des­cri­bable, is par­ti­cu­lar­ly per­cep­tible in the de­te­rio­ra­tion of phy­si­cal pho­to­gra­phic ele­ments in­vol­ved in her work. This spec­tral, poe­tic di­men­sion is al­so found in The Stable and the Col­lap­sed (2015), a se­ries made by Tho­mas Hau­ser du­ring a re­si­dence at the Lit­tle Red School­house in Eden, North Ca­ro­li­na. The ar­tist Syl­vain Cou-

zi­net-Jacques bought this 1884 buil­ding and trans­for­med it in­to a site for art ex­pe­ri­men­ta­tion. Tho­mas Hau­ser uses dif­ferent ge­ne­ra­tions of prin­ters in a hy­brid, out­side-the-box prac­tice that puts the image’s re­sis­tance to the test through a pro­cess of ap­pea­rances and di­sap­pea­rances. His la­ser prints on pho­to­sen­si­tive pa­per are ne­ver fixed; the pa­per conti­nues to react to light and be al­te­red by it. The in­evi­table fade to black al­lows tran­si­tio­nal images to ap­pear. Ar­ran­ged on the ground with other raw ma­te­rials, they evoke pre­ca­rious re­cli­ning sta­tues. Ra­ri­fied, al­most im­pos­sible to make up, the image is sa­cra­li­zed. Syl­vain Cou­zi­net-Jacques, for his part, used a do­cu­ment scan­ner to pre­serve the traces of eve­ry nook and cran­ny, from the foun­da­tion to the roof, of this for­mer school­house sla­ted for de­mo­li­tion.(6) With this clo­se­ness to the pho­to­gra­phed sub­ject, it might seem that there is on­ly a sli­ver of se­pa­ra­tion bet­ween the bricks, wood and nails, and their re­pro­duc­tion. Yet that isn’t so, and cer­tain images are out of focus, dis­tor­ted or other­wise un­rea­dable—me­ta­phors for an im­pos­sible quest for mea­ning. As with Hau­ser, there is a constant os­cil­la­tion bet­ween what we’re shown and opa­ci­ty. We think we re­co­gnize so­me­thing, whe­reas we can’t see hard­ly any­thing—or are loo­king at so­me­thing else. This is a ma­te­ria­li­za­tion of the im­pos­si­bi­li­ty of any ob­jec­tive vi­sion.

THE AB­SO­LUTE IM­PRINT The same concerns mark the work of Sa­rah Rit­ter. For a long time she did not al­low her­self to stray ve­ry far from images of rea­li­ty and do­cu­men­ta­ry va­lues. “It’s been so drum­med in­to our head that we have to pho­to­graph rea­li­ty and com­pose images of it that I didn’t dare ap­proach abs­trac­tion. Now I’ve been eman­ci­pa­ted from my pho­to­gra­phic su­per­e­go. I’m al­so nos­tal­gic for being able to work with pa­per.”(7) In her ex­hi­bi­tion La Nuit craque sous mes doigts (Gra­nit, Bel­fort, 2017), she crea­ted a conflic­tual space in­ha­bi­ted by dark­ness. Her pro­duc­tion tech­niques in­clude the use of a scan­ning elec­tron mi­cro­scope to make fas­ci­na­ting lit­tle abs­tract images of ex­tre­me­ly small bits of mat­ter and then print them as he­lio­gra­vures, the tech­nique of sun­dra­wing in­ven­ted by Ni­cé­phore Niépce. Yet the images thus pro­du­ced are not the re­sult of the ac­tion of light but of an elec­tron beam swee­ping across a ti­ny sur­face, in res­ponse to it emit­ting cer­tain par­ticles that when ana­ly­zed can be used to re­cons­truct an image. Rit­ter ex­plains, “The ex­ci­ta­tion of par­ticles makes it pos­sible to rea­lize the as­pi­ra­tion of an ab­so­lute im­print, even though phy­si­cal­ly it’s not the im­print of light.” Here the pho­to­gra­phic trace is no lon­ger as­so­cia­ted with the pri­mi­tive act of pla­cing a plant or other ob­ject on pho­to­sen­si­tive pa­per. It can be reac­ti­va­ted using contem­po­ra­ry tech­no­lo­gies like prin­ters and scan­ners. This makes it pos­sible to re­pea­ted­ly go back and forth bet­ween on-screen images and their ma­te­ria­li­za­tion on pho­to­sen­si­tive pa­per. The se­ries Ga­laxy (2014) by Bap­tiste Ra­bi­chon com­prises large-scale blo­wups of - fin­ger­prints left on the screen of a Sam­sung Ga­laxy cell phone. The title re­fe­rences the am­bi­gui­ty bet­ween the ma­te­rial and cos­mic. Ephe­me­ral traces of eve­ry­day ac­ti­vi­ties are lin­ked to the im­me­mo­rial.

What these pho­to­gra­phic works have in com­mon is that they shift the me­dium’s po­wer from the re­fe­ren­tial to the aes­the­tic. These images pro­du­ced by pro­ce­dures that at­tach im­por­tance to the qua­li­ty of pre­sence ra­ther than mi­me­tic re­pre­sen­ta­tion re-pose, in a dif­ferent way, the ques­tion of the pho­to­graph as do­cu­ment, and open the ques­tion of the spa­tia­li­za­tion of pho­to­gra­phy.

Trans­la­tion, L-S Tor­goff

(1) Joan Font­cu­ber­ta, Die Trau­ma­deu­tung, Fun­da­ción María Cris­ti­na Ma­sa­veu Pe­ter­son, 2016. (2) See the contri­bu­tions to the sym­po­sium “Où en sont les théo­ries de la pho­to­gra­phie ?” on the oc­ca­sion of the ex­hi­bi­tion Qu’est ce que la pho­to­gra­phie ? (2015) at the Pom­pi­dou Cen­ter, sub­se­quent­ly pu­bli­shed in Études pho­to­gra­phiques no. 34, spring 2016. (3) Ca­rol Squires, cu­ra­to­rial text for the ex­hi­bi­tion What is a Pho­to­graph? (4) Wolf­gang Till­mans, Neue Welt, Ta­schen, 2012. (5) Ro­land Barthes, Ca­me­ra Lu­ci­da—Notes on

Pho­to­gra­phy, Hill and Wang, 1981. (6) Syl­vain Cou­zi­net-Jacques, “Eden,” Aper­ture, 2016. (7) Conver­sa­tion with Sa­rah Rit­ter, Bel­fort, May 2017. Anne Im­me­lé is a pho­to­gra­pher and cu­ra­tor, au­thor of Constel­la­tions pho­to­gra­phiques (Mé­dia­pop, 2015). She teaches at the Haute École des Arts du Rhin.

Ci-des­sus / above: Sa­rah Rit­ter. « La nuit craque sous nos doigts ». 2017. Hé­lio­gra­vure. (Court. l’ar­tiste). Page de gauche / left: Ali­son Ros­si­ter. « Du­pont De­fen­der Va­ri­gam, ex­pi­red De­cem­ber 1954, pro­ces­sed 2016 (#2). From the se­ries Fours » . 4 ti­rages ar­gen­tiques. (© Ali­son Ros­si­ter, Court. Yos­si Mi­lo Gal­le­ry, New York). Ge­la­tin sil­ver prints

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