Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problems of ‘Late Photography’

Photoworks/Photoforum, 2003

‘Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problems of “Late Photography”’, first published in David Green ed., Where is the Photograph?, Photoworks/Photoforum, 2003.

(Author’s note: although it’s quite old now, I still see this essay cited frequently. Perhaps this is because the notion of photography as an ‘eclipsed’ or ‘secondary’ medium of traces, remnants and echoes now seems to be common currency. The book Where is the Photograph? is a fine collection of essays by, among others, Geoffrey Batchen, Peter Osborne, Laura Mulvey, Pavel Buchler, Olivier Richon and Richard Shiff. It is long out of print so I republish my essay here.)

Several weeks into the intensive coverage of the aftermath of the collapse of the World Trade Centre, Britain’s Channel Four News screened a thirty-minute special report entitled Reflections of Ground Zero. It followed New York photographer Joel Meyerowitz as he manoeuvred diligently around the smoking rubble and cranes with his large format camera. He was the only photographer to have been granted comprehensive access to the scene and the clean-up operation. He produced a substantial body of colour photographs, exhibited in the city (and later internationally) which was eventually published as the large format book Aftermath. Just about everyone worldwide with access to a television had seen the strike on the towers. The ensuing news reports were transmitted globally, electronically and instantaneously. Lower Manhattan became the most imaged and visible of places, the centre of a vast amount of state of the art news production.  Nevertheless here was a report featuring a solitary man, his tripod and his heavy, sixty-year old Deardorff plate camera. It was a slow and deliberating half-hour documentary, imbued throughout with a sense of melancholy by the constant tinkling of a piano in a minor key. There was an air of ritual too, since this was at least part of the function of both the programme and the photographs. Yet the most telling aspect of the Reflections of Ground Zero was the contrast drawn between the complexity of the geopolitical situation and the simplicity of Meyerowitz’ camera and working method. There was a suggestion that photography rather than television might be the better medium for ‘official history’ and ‘images of record’. The photographs were being positioned as superior to the television programme in which they were presented.

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Joel Meyerowitz, The base of the North Tower, looking east, toward the Woolworth Building, 2001. Copyright Joel Meyerowitz, Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery.

The programme contained video images at least as informative and descriptive as the photographs, yet television was presenting itself as unable to perform a task now given over to photography. Meyerowitz was filmed telling us at one point: ‘I felt if there was no photographic record allowed, then it was history erased’.

No doubt the special status of his images will symbolically structure how they are seen as they tour and are published. Even so this will probably become less secure in the future – it is likely that they will take up a place alongside so many other images in the constructions of history. What may mark them out in posterity is the very act of sanctioning itself and the idea that there was a need, a desire, to nominate an official body of images, and that these should be photographs.

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Joel Meyerowitz, Flags on the façade of the World Financial Center, 2001. Copyright Joel Meyerowitz, Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery.

Meyerowitz’ imagery is not so much the trace of an event as the trace of the trace of an event. His ‘late’ photography is a particularly clear instance of an approach that is becoming a commonplace use of the medium. What are we to make of the highly visible turn toward photographing the aftermath of events – traces, fragments, empty buildings, empty streets, damage to the body and damage to the world? These images appear to us as particularly static, often sombre and quite ‘straight’ kinds of pictures. They assume an aesthetic of utility closer to forensic photography than traditional photojournalism. They are an example what Peter Wollen has called ‘cool photography’ as opposed to the dramatic ‘hot’ photography of events. Sometimes we can see that something has happened, sometimes we are left to imagine or project it, or to be informed about it by other means. The images often contain no people, but a lot of remnants of activity. If this type of image was only present in contemporary art it might be overlooked as a passing trend (of all art’s media photography is still the most subject to curatorial whim). But we see it increasingly in new photojournalism, documentary, campaign work and even news, advertising and fashion. One might easily surmise that photography has of late inherited a major role as an undertaker, summariser or accountant. It turns up late, wanders through the places where things have happened totting up the effects of the world’s activity.  This is a kind of photograph that foregoes the representation of events in progress and so cedes them to other media. As a result it is quite different from the spontaneous snapshot and has a different relation to memory and to history.

The theoretical framework connecting the photograph to collective memory is as well-established as it is complex. The photograph can be an aid to memory, but it can also become an obstacle that blocks access to the understanding of the past. It can paralyse the personal and political ability to think beyond the image in the always fraught project of remembrance. However, in the popular culture of mass media, the frozen image is often used as a simple signifier of the memorable, as if there were a straightforward connection between the functions of memory and the ‘freezing’ capabilities of the still camera. Indeed this is such a well-established assumption about photographs that to even question it seems a little perverse. So rather than thinking about a direct relation between the photograph and memory let us think about the two of them in relation to other media.

Television and cinema make regular use of photographic snapshots and freeze-frames as a kind of instant history or memory that they, as moving images, are not. Indeed it seems plausible that it is this kind of use of the still photograph that has cemented the popular connection of photography with memory, rather than there being some intrinsic relationship. There is nothing like the ‘presentness’ of the moving image to emphasise the ‘pastness’ of the photograph. It does this even more effectively than the continuum of life itself because as a technology the still is a part or a ghost of the moving image; its memory or primitive ancestor.  Yet to presume that the still image or the freeze-frame is inherently more memorable or closer to the nature of memory, is to overlook the fact that the very operation of our memory is changing. It is shaped by the image world around us. The structure of memory is, in large measure, culturally determined by the means of representation at our disposal. As our image world shifts in character, so do our conditions of remembrance.

It may well be that the special status granted the still photograph in the era of television and newer technologies is not so much a recognition of its mnemonic superiority, as a nostalgic wish that it still might have such ‘power’; a wish fulfilled in the moving image’s use of the still image. This is to say there is an investment in the idea that the relative primitivism of photography will somehow rescue the processes of our memory that have been made so complicated by the sheer amount of information we assimilate from the diversity of image technologies.

In popular consciousness (as opposed to popular unconsciousness) the still image continues to be thought of as being more memorable than those that move. Yet if the frozen photograph seems memorable in the contemporary mediasphere it is probably because it says very little. It relies for support upon the surfeit of audio-visual information in the culture at large. Its very muteness allows it to appear somehow uncontaminated by the noise of the televisual.

While its privileged status may be imagined to stem from a natural capacity to condense and simplify things, the effects of the still image derive much more from its capacity to remain radically open, radically laconic. It is not that a photograph naturally ‘says a thousand words’, rather that a thousand words can be said about it. This is why television and film tend to use the still image only for contrived and highly rhetorical moments of pathos, tension and melancholy.

That said, the static photograph taken after an event, rather than the frozen image made of an event, is the radically open image par excellence. It is ‘pre-frozen’, its stillness complementing and underscoring the stillness of the aftermath. So, of course, it isn’t the kind of photograph used ordinarily by television and film to evoke the memorable. Indeed television is usually very wary of this kind of image as it confuses the register of stillness (‘Is this a photograph or is this a continuous video shot of an immobile scene?’) When it is used, as in the case of the programme on Meyerowitz’ project, the stillness is emphasised and defined for the viewer by a restless use of the rostrum camera zooming into details and roaming about the photographic frame.

To think through the current turn toward the ‘late photograph’ it is instructive to think about images taken before, during and after events. I mean this in two senses. The first is the usual one – literally, photographs taken before, during and after a particular occurrence. However we could also think more broadly of three phases of the social history of photography. Over its one hundred and seventy year history, there was a finite period in which photography carried the weight of events and defined what an event was. In its first several decades the medium was slow and cumbersome both in its technical procedures and in its means of social distribution. Only from the 1920s, with the rapid expansion of the mass media, the growing dominance of print journalism, and technical developments within photographic technology itself, did photography become the definitive medium and modulator of the event as a moment, an instant, something that could be frozen and examined. Good photo-reporters were thought to be those who followed the action. The goal was to be in the right place at the right time ‘as things happened’. This lasted until the late 1960s and early 1970s, in other words until the standardised introduction into journalism of portable video cameras. Over the last few decades, it has become clear that the conception of events was supplanted by video and then dispersed in recent years across a variety of media technologies. In this situation, photographers often prefer to wait until the noise has died down and the event is over. The still cameras are loaded as the video cameras are packed away.  The photographs taken come not just in the aftermath of the event, but in the aftermath of video. What we see first ‘live’ or at least in real time on television might be revisited by a photography that depicts stillness rather than freezing things. Photojournalists used to be at the centre of the event because photography was at the centre of culture. Today they are as likely to be at the scene of the aftermath because photography is, in relative terms, at the aftermath of contemporary culture. Photography is much less the means by which the event is grasped. We have learned to expect more from a reported situation than a frozen image (even though in the climate of emotive news television we might be offered the static image as an ideological ‘distillation’, a mythic summary). Video gives us things as they happen. They may be manipulated, they may be misrepresented and undigested but they happen in the present tense. Today it is very rare that photographs actually break the news. The newspaper constitutes only a second wave of interpreted information or commentary. Furthermore when ‘late photographs’ appear in the slower forms of the illustrated magazine or gallery exhibit they are at one further remove.

Late 20th and 21st century photography takes on something of the visual character of celebrated 19th century images of battlefields such as Roger Fenton’s photography of the exhausted terrains of the Crimea from the 1850s, or Matthew Brady’s images of the scarred earth and corpses of the American Civil War from the following decade. Yet this is a false comparison in key respects. The similarity masks the radical changes that have taken place in our image culture since then. Consider, for example, the question of stillness. Although it might be a scientific truism that photographs are still, this fact is always subject to cultural and historical interpretation. Those 19th century photographs were not still in the way in which we think of stillness today. I don’t mean this in the sense that things moved during long exposures (which we all know they did). They weren’t still because nearly all images of that time were still. That is to say, the immobility of the photograph would be almost too obvious to mention. Stillness in photographs only became apparent and definitive in the presence and context of the moving image. The whole drive toward precision, the stopping of time and freezing of action takes place in the era of cinema. Cinema, we could say, was not just the invention of the moving image, it was also the invention of the stillness of photography. In the era of cinema, the frozenness of the snapshot – professionalised in photojournalism, democratised in amateurism – came to be understood as the essence of the photographic. It found its exemplary form in the middle of the twentieth century with the notion of the ‘decisive moment’ where the speedy modernity of the now cinematized world would be arrested by the speedy modernity of the handheld, high speed compact still camera used in conjunction with the photographer’s quick reactions.

However in the era of video, photography loses this monopoly on stillness and immediacy. This is a material circumstance and a social one: as a technology the video image is stoppable, repeatable, cheap and quick; and institutionally it has come to usurp many of the roles formerly held by photography. It is interesting that a recent book on the history of photojournalism opts to conclude in the mid-1970s, in an attempt to contrive a clean and dignified end (Robert Lebeck’s Kiosk: a history of photojournalism).

To be sure, the influence of photojournalism has declined since then. Images from its heyday now find a questionable afterlife in the coffee table book, while many of its vestigial forms have turned into pastiches of a glorious past for colour supplements and audiences who prefer an air of aesthetic classicism.  Yet announcements of the ‘death of photojournalism’ are quite premature. If it faced its demise in the 1970s it was only insofar as it was mistakenly assumed that its only possible significance could derive from a monopoly over stillness and over our comprehension of events. The last three decades have seen a coming to terms with photography’s historical situation on the part of many photographers and writers. Redefinitions of the possibilities of photojournalism are beginning to emerge which seek out new contexts and they touch on the kinds of approach I am discussing here. But first let me to sketch in a little more of photojournalism’s past.

If the war in Vietnam is regarded as the last ‘photographer’s war’, this is as much a function of the shifting nature of warfare as it is of media coverage. Vietnam was chaotic on two levels. The environment was messy (and mess is highly photogenic), and U.S. military and political policy was erratic. As a result the conflict was prolonged, increasing the photographer’s picture making opportunities. By contrast the [‘first’] Gulf War is often described as the first war experienced in terms of image simulation. What few images we saw were satellite images from news journalists along with abstracted military footage and interpretive television graphics. Very few photographers covered the war. They weren’t allowed in. After the war many photographers went to Kuwait to document the leftovers – destroyed tanks, bodies, scarred desert and burning oil fields. Their images often had a post-traumatic disposition, and a mournful paralysis. And they were often accompanied by similarly melancholic writing. Photojournalism became elegiac, poetic and muted. It communicated the feeling of being outside the time of history, of events and of politics. We may have been able to see the damage afterwards, but at the cost of a sense of removal. Photography was struggling to find a way to reconcile itself with a new position beyond the event. And it was discovering that sombre melancholia was a seductive mode for the still image.

Today more than half of all news ‘photographs’ are frame grabs from video and digital sources. The proportion increases in the coverage of international conflict. This has two related consequences. Firstly, there is a partial blurring of the distinction between different image technologies (a result of this there is a radical shift in the understanding of what photography is, what it is good at and what it is for). Secondly photography is finding other roles, or more accurately, contemporary visual culture is leaving photography with certain tasks and subject matters such as the aftermath.  Far from being its ultimate incarnation, the decisive moment that epitomised the photographic ideal can be grasped as a historically specific ideal. The definition of a medium, particularly photography, is not autonomous or self-governing, but heteronomous, dependent on other media. It derives less from what it is technologically than what it is culturally. Photography is what we do with it. And what we do with it depends on what we do with other image technologies. In the age of instantaneous and global moving images, Meyerowitz’ 1942 plate camera is given a new role.

It seems clear that contemporary art has a predilection for the ‘late photograph’. It has become a central trope in its current dialogue with documentary. The works of Willie Doherty, Paul Seawright, Sophie Ristelhueber and Richard Misrach are some of the more interesting examples (but as I write it is hard to avoid the cheaper moodiness of images of derelict buildings and urban wastelands on display in galleries across Europe and North America). There is a reticent muteness in these images that leaves them open to interpretation. Moreover their status as traces of traces fulfils for art a certain modernist reflection on the indexicality of the medium.  They can also offer an allegorical, distanced reflection on the photograph as evidence and on the claims of mainstream documentary photography.

In forfeiting any immediate relation to the event and taking up a slower relation to time, ‘late photographs’ appear to separate themselves out from the constant visual stream emitted by the convergence of modern electronic image technologies. Part of the appeal of these static, slow and detailed photographs is that they strike us now as being somehow a new kind of ‘pure’ photography that can’t be confused with other kinds of image (this is no doubt another reason for their profile in museums and galleries). They look like a very photographic kind of photography and seem to do something no other medium does, although as I have said, what strikes us as particularly photographic is very much subject to change. At the same time they refuse to be overtly ‘creative’, deploying the straight image with a mood of deliberation and detachment that chimes with a general preference in contemporary art for the slow, withdrawn and anonymous. It is telling that in the television programme Reflections of Ground Zero Meyerowitz opted to describe his photography as an automatic process in which creativity is avoidable: ‘I was just going to be there as a witness and photograph it for what it was, without trying to put on it some formal idea of how to photograph it. I was told how to photograph it by the thing itself’. Avoiding overt ‘originality’ in such circumstances is an admirable aim, but we would do well to bear in mind that there really is no ‘degree zero’ of photography, not even at Ground Zero. Meyerowitz’ images are a mixture of epic scenes, portraits and details of excavation work, all illuminated by his celebrated attention to light and atmosphere. He has photographic skills honed over several decades. It may be second nature to him now, but he knows what makes a good photo and can’t avoid the beautiful. He certainly does have a very strong formal aesthetic even though it clearly overlaps with a popular sense of what a photographic document of a ruin should look like. 

As I have remarked the late photograph has a long history. Art and literature have had an interest in it at least as far back as the Surrealist’s appropriation of the street photographs of Eugene Atget for their stoic artlessness.  Looking back over this history, writer and photographer Allan Sekula warned of the political pitfalls of decontextualising a document in order to make it enigmatic or melancholic or merely beautiful:

“Walter Benjamin recalled the remark that Eugene Atget depicted the streets of Paris as though they were scenes of crime. That remark serves to poeticise a rather deadpan, non-expressionist style, to conflate nostalgia and the affectless instrumentality of the detective. Crime here becomes a matter of the heart as well as a matter of fact. Looking back, through Benjamin to Atget, we see the loss of the past through the continual disruptions of the urban present as a form of violence against memory, resisted by the nostalgic bohemian through acts of solipsistic, passive acquisition … I cite this example merely to raise the question of the affective character of documentary. Documentary has amassed mountains of evidence. And yet, in this pictorial presentation of scientific and legalistic “fact”, the genre has simultaneously contributed much to spectacle, to retinal excitation, to voyeurism, to terror, envy and nostalgia, and only a little to the critical understanding of the social world … A truly social documentary will frame the crime, the trial, the system of justice and its official myths … Social truth is something other than a matter of convincing style.”

In the light of Sekula’s closing remark it is worth considering why it is that the ‘late photograph’ has become a ‘convincing style’ in contemporary culture. Its retreat from the event is no guarantee of an enlightened position or a critical stance.  Its formality and visual sobriety secure nothing in and of themselves. Yet it is easy to see how it is that in an image world dispersed across screens and reconfigured in pieces, a detailed, static and resolutely perspectival rectangle can appear to be some kind of superior image.

Certainly the late photograph is often used as a vehicle for mass mourning or working through (Meyerowitz’ Ground Zero project was produced primarily for New Yorkers). The danger is that it can also foster an indifference and political withdrawal that masquerades as concern.  Mourning by association becomes merely an aestheticized response. There is a sense in which the late photograph in all its silence, can easily flatter the ideological paralysis of those who gaze at it with a lack of social or political will to make sense of its circumstance. In its apparent finitude and muteness it can leave us in permanent limbo, obliterating even the need for analysis and bolstering a kind of liberal melancholy that shuns political explanation like a vampire shuns garlic.

If the banal matter-of-factness of the late photograph can fill us with a sense of the sublime, it is imperative that we think through why this might be. There is a fine line between the banal and the sublime, and it is political. If an experience of the contemporary sublime derives from our being caught in a geo-political circumstance beyond our comprehension, then it is a politically reified as much as an aesthetically rarefied one.

i To further extend and deepen the tension between photography and other technologies that incorporate it, let me say right away that I have had my closest look at Meyerowitz’ images via the internet, having seen them firstly on television and secondly in exhibition After September 11: Images From Ground Zero held at The Museum of London. The exhibition was organised by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State in conjunction with the Museum of the City of New York.

ii Peter Wollen, ‘Vectors of Melancholy’, in Ralph Rugoff, ed., The Scene of the Crime, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. and London, 1997. See also Thierry de Duve’s essay ‘Time Exposure and Snapshot: The Photograph as Paradox’, October, no. 5, 1978 (reprinted in Campany ed., The Cinematic, MIT Press/Whitechapel Gallery 2007), which makes a similar opposition.

iii See, in particular, Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida. Reflections on Photography, Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, New York, 1980 and Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1936) in his Illuminations, Jonathan Cape, London, 1970. For broader discussions of the subject see Celia Lury, Prosthetic Culture: photography, memory, identity, Routledge, London, 1997; Scott McQuire, Visions of Modernity, Sage, London, 1998; and Eduardo Cadava, Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1997.

iv See Laura Mulvey’s discussion of the reconfiguration of memory by the new technologies of spectatorship elsewhere in the book Where is the Photograph?

v An unnamed New Yorker in the television programme I am discussing declares at one point, ‘People will come back to Joel’s [Meyerowitz’] photographs. They have a very powerful silence in them. They are very still’.

vi It might be argued, however, that in such circumstances it becomes possible to look at the overlooked or unreported.

vii Robert Lebeck and Bodo von Dewitz, eds., Kiosk: A history of photojournalism, Steidl, Gottingen, Germany, 2002.

viii For an account of those press photographs that were made during the Gulf War see John Taylor’s ‘The Gulf War in the Press’, Portfolio Magazine, no. 11, Summer 1991. For an account of virtual representation see Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, Power Publications, 1995, and Tim Druckrey, ‘Deadly Representations or Apocalypse Now’, Ten/8, vol. 2, no. 2, 1991.

ix For a useful discussion of this see Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed, (enlarged edition), Harvard University Press, 1979.

x Interestingly, Meyerowitz is a photographer who first came to prominence shooting ‘decisive moments’on the streets of New York, deeply influenced by Henri Cartier-Bresson. As his career moved on there was a general shift from those fleeting snapshots to a slower way of working with a large camera, and from a photography of ‘events’ to a photography of longer duration.

xi For a particularly rich discussion of allegory in documentary work see Justin Carville’s ‘Re-negotiated territory: the politics of place, space and landscape in Irish photography’, Afterimage, vol. 29 no. 1, July/August 2001.

xii Looking back over Meyerowitz’ career I found myself returning to a book titled Annie on Camera from 1982.   He was one of nine photographers commissioned to make images during the production of John Huston’s film Annie, the cheesecake musical set in Depression-era New York. Meyerowitz’ folio includes an image of piles of concrete rubble and broken paper-thin walls lying at the foot of slanted architectural buttresses.  It was refuse discarded by set builders.  He made a strikingly similar image at Ground Zero. As photographers we tend to carry visual templates around with us wherever we go, however much we feel subject matter dictates the form of our images. I wonder if Meyerowitz had the form of his knowingly fake image from Annie in mind when he came across the same scene twenty years later in a very different situation – a situation so many likened to something cinematic. See Nancy Grubb, ed., Annie on Camera, Abbeville Press, New York, 1982.

xiii Allan Sekula ‘Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary (Notes on the Politics of Representation’, in Terry Dennett and Jo Spence, eds., Photography/Politics: One, Photography Workshop, London,1980.

xiv I borrow the simile and the general critique of the passivity of neo-liberal ideology from Slavoj Zizek’s ‘Self-Interview’ in The Metastases of Enjoyment. Six Essays on Woman and Causality, Verso, London, 1994.

 

Published in French as ‘Pour Une Politique des Ruines: quelque reflexions sur la photographie ‘de l’apres’ in Jean-Pierre Criqui, Diane Dufour and Christine Duval eds., L’Image-Document, Entre Realité et Fiction, Le Bal, Paris, 2010; and in Spanish in David Green. ed., Qué ha sido de la fotografîa?, Gustavo Gili, Barcelona 2007.

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