Other Pictures by Thomas Walther - Floh by Tacita Dean
Book Review by Paul Tebbs
Other Pictures by Thomas Walther
Published by: Twin Palms
Floh by Tacita Dean
Published by: Steidl
In the 'Restitutions' section of The Truth in Painting, Derrida considers to whom the two boots in Van Gogh's famous picture Old Shoes with Laces belong. Heidegger interpreted them as peasant's shoes; the philosopher Meyer Schapiro disagreed and proclaimed them the footwear of Van Gogh; while the multiple voices that contribute to Derrida's text ('for n + L-female-voices') proffer other nuanced possibilities. In a familiar deconstructivist move, Derrida's polylogue stages a problematisation of the distinction between what is internal to the work of art and what is external to it. For Derrida, both Heidegger and Schapiro are guilty of appropriating Van Gogh's painting in accordance with their own presumptions. In their haste to restore to the painted boots their true subject, Heidegger and Schapiro succeed only in instating themselves.
The internal/external distinction is manifest less subtly in the modernist and post-modernist traditions of photographic criticism: photography's identity and meaning being either a function of its fundamental characteristics or a function of its context. Pertinent to the validity of this distinction is the significance of the individual photograph's provenance - the nature of its particular origin. Information that may or may not register in the pictorial field of the print, but includes details such as the date the picture was taken, authorship, location, circumstance, (and perhaps even that elusive psychologism that is the operative's intention).
Where and how does the loss of known provenance register in the economy of pictorial significance? Is provenance just another (expendable) context or is it a fundamental characteristic, that is unfortunately and perversely characterised by its losability. Are photographs without known provenance, non-trivially, incomplete? Two recently published collections of found photography manifest different approaches to the found photograph's provenancial lack.
FIoh (meaning flea in German) is a collection of found imagery from Europe and America by the multi-media artist Tacita Dean. The only word and numerical intervention inside the book (outside of any words and numbers which constitute the images) is the artist's signature and the handwritten number of the book's edition. There is no copyright page, no introduction or essay, acknowledgement of publisher or printer, no page numbering, or details about any of the found images.
By contrast, Other Pictures, a collection of 'anonymous photographs' from the Thomas Walther archive, is a more traditional publication. Exquisitely produced, it contains an essay, an Acknowledgements page and a country of origin and approximate date of creation for each photograph. Virtually all the photographs were taken in America between 1910 and 1965.
Where Floh omits any external context in which the reader's response can be directed, Other Pictures contains a decisive intervention in the Acknowledgements section written by Thomas Walther himself. He writes: "Most pictures in this book reveal a great deal about America and the people who have shaped its history during the twentieth century. They document a profound innocence, tremendous pride and a unique sense of humour in American society..."
Whatever the merits of this description, vis a vis the nature of the pictures (and there are many pictures of joyful athleticism for example), Walther's entry forcefully imposes a 'subject' upon the collection. The 'subject' approximates humbly as the United States of America. This 'subject' drips democratically down through the examples of American citizenry on show and comes to rest with Thomas Walther himself (as the collector and as its interpreter).
What has been left out of this collection to produce this particular vision? What silent criteria found these images rather than other ones? No word is given to the possibility of an America that ties outside of this collection. What motivates the claim that this collection can 'reveal a great deal' rather than a 'great little' about America? The phenomena of found photography, naively perhaps. gives hope to the desire to see a visual language that partially escapes the institutional determination of what we see: the gallery, the publisher, the editor and ways of the trained and professional photographer. But this is also an unashamed expectation. An imposition. (For an alternative perspective arguing for the insignificance of amateur photographer, see review of Vilém Flusser).
Floh, registers something of the raw, varied, inexplicable and contingent nature that my expectations for found photography insinuate. Thomas Walther's collection feels as if it has already entered photography's institutions. The images feet highly collectable. Precious even. Floh is a visual outlaw by comparison. It may turn out to be one of the year's best photographic publications. But similarly, the question of how this and not another collection has come about stands. Floh includes necessary interventions and significant choices, in the juxtaposition of images and the size at which they are printed.
In its mode as an exhibition (a selection of the prints was shown at Frith Street Gallery, London to taunch the book) Tacita Dean does provide a small introductory text (not printed in the book). She states, "I want them to keep the silence of the fleamarket; the silence they had when I found them; the silence of the lost object". For Dean, to be found is to have resistance to that which is external - for the image to withhold of itself. Walther, by contrast, is more confident of what is present. They speak for him. Dean expresses the hope that Floh will 'return, ownerless and silent to its origins in the fleamarket'. Some of Walther's archive by contrast has recently found its way to the Museum of Modern Art in New York as a part bequest, part purchase by the museum.
The questions raised by these two books are self-confessedly peripheral in nature. Both collections contain wonderful imagery. Not least their inescapable portrayal of their respective collectors. Found photographic collections are as much about proclivity and purpose as they are about contingency and accident.