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.
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