The Burden of Affect
What Photography Is - James Elkins
Book Review by Mark Durden
Published by: Routledge
This is a strange book on photography. It is written ‘against’ Roland Barthes’s thirty-year-old "Camera Lucida", (the English translation was published in 1981) in order to find what Elkins refers to as "another sense of Photography". It mimics the book’s format in consisting of brief numbered sections, beginning with a close ventriloquism of the opening of Camera Lucida: rephrasing Barthes’s "'ontological' desire" of wanting to "learn at all costs what Photography was 'in itself'" in response not to a photo portrait of Napoleon’s younger brother, but "a photograph of a selenite window" from a New Mexican pueblo house. This picture, together with a photograph showing the cracked layered surface of black lake ice and a photograph of a piece of rock salt, in which had been preserved two hundred and fifty million-year-old bacteria, all provide emblems for his book as "failed photographic windows" and "failed looks into or through something". They offer less optimistic metaphors for photography than the more dominant brilliant metaphors to do with "perfect windows, lucency, transparency".
Like his earlier What Painting Is, Elkin’s What Photography Isis a subjective book: he says how both are "personal attempts to capture what I care about when I am not preoccupied with academic concerns". Elkins proceeds to demolish the romantic and affective account of photography centred on portraiture in Barthes’ influential book. In its place he gives us a series of responses to a range of diverse and mostly unfamiliar photographs, images which he says are "hard to see", either because they are violent or unpleasant or obdurate, which represent photography’s "routine hardnesses". His examples include his own photomicrography that shows the fundamental otherness – "a sexual and conceptual chaos" – of the organisms that inhabit water, a microphotograph of organic (human) dust particles from Ground Zero and Harold Edgerton’s Rapatronic images of atomic explosions. The book ends with an inhumanly calm account of looking at intolerably painful photographs showing the graphic depiction of a body being cut – "the most painful photos I know" says Elkins – a 1905 series of lingqi photos from Beijing showing the "lingering death" through the barbaric public execution of someone by slicing.
Elkins from the outset declares he has no interest in the stellar fine art figure photographers, whose work he feels is made to be interpreted. On Jeff Wall, for example, he says how "The photographs seem to be on an elaborate life-support system, intravenously fed by pure streams of academic art history." Elkins also has no interest in portrait photography in this book. Portraiture in photography is a problem because, as he says, "I tend to focus on the face, and my sense of the rest of the photograph goes out of focus. I’m apt to be distracted [like Barthes] into musings on history, society, art, portraiture, empathy, and presence, or time, death, memory and mortality."Having discussed, briefly, some family photographs he bought on Ebay, he says how he has no interest in found photographs, saying how they elicit a "secondhand nostalgia": which, as he wonderfully puts it, is like "[a] breath of someone else’s life, breathed out into my mouth".
There is an intriguing discussion of Mark Klett’s rephotography project. Klett finds and photographs places that have been photographed in the nineteenth century by such geological survey photographers of the American desert as Timothy O’Sullivan. He’s especially interested in one pairing of pictures that look initially the same: Klett’s 1979 Scene in the Green River, which was taken on the same time of day and year as O’Sullivan’s 1872 view. But while the cliffs, rocks and irregular shadow line in both pictures initially appear identical, Elkins starts to note the shifts and changes in small pebbles and stones between the photographs and a dizzying infinity of differences is opened up (He even illustrates the tiny variations he notes with arrows overlaid on O’Sullivan’s image – I can only assume Klett would not have been happy with such a use of his photograph). Elkins claims that such an abnormal and pointless seeing is integral to what photography is.
In portrait photographs, Elkins is more interested in what he refers to as the "surround". The surround is part of the unuseful information that all photographs carry – to do with what he refers to as "the on-and on of the world". And it this that links with his example of Klett’s photograph, accenting photography’s capacity to give us "too much senseless detail", its supply of often dull and sometimes uninterpretable stuff.
At one point he refers to art photography’s "attempts at sublimity", a less dramatic "postmodern sublime""trumpeting sublime of the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, with its belching volcanoes, its thunderclouds and rainbows, its snowy peaks and dizzying abysses". For Elkins, Gurksy’s "airport-lounge size photographs" and Sugimoto’s "foggy becalmed oceanscapes" epitomise this new sublime. He says how the problem with such photographs is that "I can’t help think of anything except infinity, silence, and time." The photographs he is interested in in his book are not as "soothing" as this and their effect is more painful. But his obsession with a sense of something uninterpretable and beyond within photography could nevertheless be seen to fit very well within an idea of the sublime.
There is a certain perversity in this book’s desire to strip the human dimension away from photography. What is the point of all this? To show us a truth of photography – that it is an essentially cold, unemotional medium, its identity resistant to the pathos, sentiment and nostalgia we tend to attach to it. Surely this is an obvious point? Elkins even says how he wants his writing, with minimum interruptions from "Pathos, art, memory, loss, or nostalgia", to mime photography’s painful inhumanity. In this respect, the intolerable lingqi photographs mark an appalling culmination of the extremity of his argument, of how far he dares to go from the affective and human. But where does it leave us? A kind of black hole in photography writing is opened up here. Elkin’s believes he is drawing attention to photography’s ultimate searing wound, against which Barthes’s Punctum is tame or, as Elkins says, "just a pinprick". Barthes’s Camera Lucida was written in defense of desire against mediation within an emergent postmodern climate, against a society generalising photography to the extent it, as Barthes put, "derealizes the human world of conflicts and desire, under cover of illustrating it". Elkins argues Barthes’s thesis is flawed because he is writing the book in mourning over the death of his mother and everything gets skewed to his condition of grieving. Nevertheless Elkins own attempt to eliminate pathos is made in a book which is at the same time very personal and written against an academic field in which it is, as he says, "easy to spend your entire working life without thinking of your own voice". The book is rewarding, especially in its jaded but often amusing dismissal of so much that tends to be celebrated and cherished within photography. Surrealism, for example, is for Elkins, "as exhausted as the ordinary bourgeois life that seemed to call it into existence in the first place". But it is ultimately quite maddening and indulgent, and skirts a dangerous fascism, in his clinical and dispassionate account of the dissections in the lingqi photographs.