‘Dust Breeding, Man Ray, 1920’
Singular Images, Sophie Howarth, ed., Tate Publishing, 2005
Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp: Dust Breeding 1920
It’s my dream. A world where all would be silent and still and each thing in its last place, under the last dust. Clov in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame
Photographs sometimes work upon us very slowly, their resonance building over time. For a decade or so I have circled around one photograph more than any other. When I first saw it – I cannot even remember the occasion – it made no immediate impression on me. There was no flash of recognition, no deep connection. But it is an image with which I have had many encounters in various settings and it has crept up on me.
Elévage de Poussière (Dust Breeding) is attributed to Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp. It has had an unusual life, and its origins were also unusual. In 1920 a very young Man Ray was asked by Katherine Dreier to photograph some of her art collection. She was planning to set up a new museum. It was not something Man Ray had done before and he was far from enthusiastic about the task. ‘The thought of photographing the work of others was repugnant to me, beneath my dignity as an artist’, he declared in his memoir. But he was keen to please and he set a date.
In the meantime he went to the studio of Marcel Duchamp on New York’s Broadway, where a sheet of glass, covered in dust, rested on saw-horses. Duchamp had been cultivating the dust as a stage in the making of what later became his great work La Mariée mise nu par ses célibataires, même (The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even) (commonly known as The Large Glass, 1915–23). The dust would eventually be wiped away from all but a key area, where it was fixed in place with clear varnish. When Man Ray told Duchamp about Dreier’s request, Duchamp suggested he practice on the dust. His camera was duly positioned, and the daylight was supplemented with a bare electric bulb. The shutter was opened and the two of them went for lunch. After about an hour they returned and closed the shutter. Man Ray developed the sheet of film that night. ‘The negative was perfect’, he stated. ‘I was confident of the success of any future assignments.’ The image bears little resemblance to the functional photography of paintings or sculptures that we associate with inventories and catalogues, and it can hardly be thought of as a technical test or apprenticeship. It is too odd, too singular.
The original negative shows the edge of the dusty glass and a little of the studio beyond. Man Ray cropped it down, removing the spatial certainty, letting it become a separate world. The first publication of the image played on this. In the October 1922 issue of the French Surrealist journal Littérature it is attributed to Man Ray and accompanies an article about Duchamp written by André Breton. This is early in the history of Surrealism, so early that it may make Dust Breeding the first Surrealist photograph. It was captioned Voici le domain de Rrose Sélavy. Comme il est aride – comme il est fertile / comme il est joyeux – comme il est triste! Vue prise en aéroplane Par Man Ray 1921 (Here is the domain of Rrose Sélavy. 1921. How arid it is – how fertile it is / how joyous it is – how sad it is! View from an aeroplane By Man Ray) Aerial reconnaisance photos had entered the popular imagination with World War I. Rrose Sélavy was a more obscure reference. She was the female figure invented by Duchamp as a second persona, muddying any idea of the singular, masculine artist. Already the photograph had become doubly ambiguous. Dusty glass alternated with an aerial view; Man Ray alternated with Duchamp and his alter ego.
Dust, like water, is an enemy of photography. It might be photogenic but it needs to be kept at a distance. Dust is a trace – a trace of mortality. A photograph is a trace of what was before the camera. So a photograph of dust is a trace of a trace. In this sense Dust Breeding emphasises what is known in semiotics as the photographic ‘index’. Traditionally defined, an index is a sign caused by its object. For example smoke is an index of fire because it is the burning wood; a footprint in mud is an index of the foot. Similarly, light bouncing off a object registers on a light-sensitive surface, and thus the photograph obtained is the index of that light. However a photograph is an index in another sense too. It is an indication of the presence of a camera or vantage point. Looking at the Man Ray/Duchamp image we may be unsure what we are looking at and from where we are looking. So we turn to the title. ‘Dust breeding’ gives us information. It describes the stuff in the picture and implies the distance of the lens from the object. ‘View from an aeroplane’ gives information too, but it works differently. It indicates a false vantage point and leaves it to us to deduce what the subject matter might be.
Micro or macro Dust Breeding resembles, to borrow the French title of another Man Ray image, a terrain vague. It looks like a waste ground or disused area, perhaps the overlooked edge of a city. It is an indoor image alluding to the outside, particularly when titled View from an Aeroplane. Modern Europe saw the terrain vague as a site of anxiety: ‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust’ warned T.S. Eliot in The Wasteland. In North America there is more terrain vague than anything else. There, it appears more as a motif of boredom or entropy. Dust has a place in both schemes. It is abject, liminal, bodily stuff that threatens the modern and rational order. It is also a sign of dead time passing. The photograph was made in America, but the dust had been gathering in Duchamp’s absence while he was staying in his native France. The American Man Ray made the picture and took it to Europe, where it appeared in print in the different spatial order of Paris. All of this may have been on his mind because around that time he made another image looking down at detritus which he called Transatlantic.
As a terrain vague the photograph bears a striking resemblance to an image made by another European in America. There is a famous scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest 1959 in which a desolate plain is observed from above. It is timeless and airless. There is no horizon, just a single road across the frame. A bus drops off a solitary man in the expanse. Out of a blank sky an aeroplane arrives to terrorise him. It sprays him with toxic dust meant for crops. ‘Every place’, said Hitchcock, ‘is potentially a scene of a crime no matter how harmless or meaningless it appears to be’. For him, American space was as anxious as it was entropic and this is what makes the scene so tense. Like Dust Breeding it is all about the uncertainties of identity: Cary Grant, born Archibald Leach, plays the advertising executive Roger Thornhill, who is mistaken for a spy called George Caplan.
In 1935 the photograph appeared once more, this time as a backdrop on the cover of the Surrealist journal Minotaure. The main motif was one of Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs – his circular discs with spiral designs intended to spin for optical effect. Dust Breeding can be glimpsed behind. It is not given a title or even mentioned. Ten years later it was again used as a backdrop, this time behind the poem Flag of Ecstasy by Charles Henri Ford, in an issue of the American magazine View,dedicated to Duchamp. Ford’s verse praises Duchamp to the heavens, elevating him rather grandly above earthly art: ‘Over the towers of autoerotic honey; Over the dungeons of homicidal drives…’ On the page the words float over the photograph’s aerial view. Both publications carried André Breton’s account of Duchamp’s The Large Glass. This was the essay that began the securing of Duchamp’s erratic reputation, but it was not all Breton’s thinking; he drew on Duchamp’s own cryptic notes issued in 1934 as the Green Box. This was a loose collection of facsimiles of hand-written fragments and drawings. Also included was a reproduction of Dust Breeding. Much more than a supplement or set of anecdotes the Green Box is an integral part of The Large Glass. No clear separation can be made between the art work and its commentary, such is its enigma and complexity. Together they are a machine for generating meanings. In 1949 Duchamp was clear: The Large Glass ‘should be accompanied by a text that is as amorphous as possible and never takes on a definitive shape. And the two elements, the glass for the eye and the text for the ear and the mind should not merely complement each other but should above all each prevent the other from forming an aesthetic-visual unity.’ In Littérature, Minotuare, View and the Green Box, Dust Breeding is embedded in a dense weave of images, thoughts, ideas and associations. There is no tugging it free to make sense of it on its own terms. To get out you have to go in deeper.
For all its indeterminacy Dust Breeding has a realistic dimension too, rooted in the base materialism of dust. In conventional accounts of photographic realism it is the overlooked, the incidental details that underwrite its claim to truth. Roland Barthes called this the ‘reality effect’ – the camera exposure takes in the wanted and the unwanted all at once, without discrimination. The machinic indifference of the optical image, its ability to ‘see’ without hierarchy, was what distinguished photography from the outset. Indeed dust, that lowly, almost invisible substance, crops up in the earliest commentaries on the medium. In 1839 the Englishman Sir John Robison said of Fox Talbot’s first photographs: ‘A crack in plaster, a withered leaf lying on a projecting cornice, or an accumulation of dust in a hollow molding of a distant building, when they exist in the original, are faithfully copied in these wonderful pictures.’ The difference is that Dust Breeding turns photography’s background condition into the main subject. This dust is not ‘matter out of place’. It is willed, encouraged, bred.
Modernist photography, particularly in North America, had at its heart a paradox. It was preoccupied with a quality of the world that the photograph conspicuously lacks: texture. As the surfaces of the modern world became ever smoother, photography retained a fascination with the extremes of texture. The gleaming facades of the modern city and the crumbling, cracked hands that built and maintained it offered themselves up to a lens fascinated by both. As Edward Weston, the high priest of the photographic surface put it: ‘The camera should be used for a recording of life, for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself, whether it be polished steel or palpitating flesh.’ Let us not forget here that beneath the flaky surface of Dust Breeding is smooth industrial glass.
The play between the roughness of the weathered world and the surface (or surfacelessness) of the photograph is also a play between two notions of time. The slowness of the world’s attrition, erosion and deposition contrast with the sterile, immaculate conception of the camera image. The settling dust on Duchamp’s glass created a textured, opaque surface. It was later fixed by varnish as a smooth, permanent translucence. The process of fixing the fallen dust and sandwiching it between glass plates in the final form of The Large Glass is quite photographic. Dust Breeding is an extraordinarily self-reflexive image of photography understood as a trap for the incidental.
Trapping incidents became an important strategy early on for Duchamp. Among other things it helped him make art that downplayed the mark of the artist’s hand. ‘Canned chance’, he called it. It is not, of course, that allowing a substance to fall will eliminate entirely the role of the maker. Think of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. Gravity was no longer depicted exerting itself upon objects in representational painting. Instead it became an active element of the painting as process. The receptive surface became a repository of events. Perhaps we can see a connection between Dust Breeding and the famous photographs from the 1940s of Pollock working on canvases on his studio floor. In each we look obliquely at a horizontal surface as it receives its marks. Their function is similar too since each works at the level of the anecdotal document intended for publicity.
The full impact of Duchamp’s art took a long time to penetrate. In many ways his insights seemed too complicated for the art culture of the inter-war years. Everything he did connected with everything else and there was no pretence at making singular, autonomous art works. Not until the 1960s, when vanguard art was turning away from the reductions of abstraction to ‘dematerialise’ into process, documentation and performance, did his approach seem prophetic. Dust Breeding was caught up in the delay: it is the dust swept under the carpet of purist modern art, only to be uncovered by Conceptual art.
In 1970 the photograph was given another audience. New York’s Museum of Modern Art put on Information, a large survey show that attempted to predict the artistic concerns of the decade to come. This was the first major exhibition to showcase the emerging Conceptualism that was preoccupied with art as data collection and experimentation with forms of evidence. The catalogue included a set of keynote images. One of these was Dust Breeding, reproduced as a full page. A photograph made half a century earlier now heralded radical contemporary innovations.
Many Conceptual artists relished the double relationship that photography has to form. As an apparatus, the camera is always on the side of the formal and the rational, but it can preserve the formless and ephemeral. Instead of making an object, one could perform an action and document it through a photograph. Bruce Nauman, for example, could shape a heap of flour into various forms on his studio floor and photograph it as he went along. The photograph becomes a sign to focus our attention on transient or minor things. (In 1920 Duchamp had hung a sign on his studio wall that read ‘Dust Breeding: To Be Respected’).
Dust Breeding exploits the fact that photography has always had two roles in art. On the one hand it is an art form, on the other it is the functional means by which all art forms are documented and publicised. In the 1920s, photographic reproduction was beginning to transform the entire culture of art. The ability to turn all art into photographic images would have a far more wide-ranging consequence in the form of fine art publishing than any artistic photography. Perhaps Man Ray was aware of this in his gut reaction against photographing art works.
Mulling over this duality in 1928, the cultural critic Walter Benjamin pieced together a set of binary pairs. They inlcuded: ‘The artist makes a work / The primitive expresses himself in documents’; ‘The artwork is only incidentally a document / No document is as such a work of art’; ‘The artwork is a masterpiece / The document serves to instruct’; ‘On artworks, artists learn their craft / Before documents, a public is educated’. Dust Breeding belongs to the oeuvres of both Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp as distinct artists. It also belongs to a joint body of work. Do we read the image as an artwork insofar as it is by Man Ray, then as an artless document insofar as it is by Duchamp, author of The Large Glass? Perhaps one cannot answer this in a clear-cut way. But the tension between art work and document is there, just as it is there at the core of nearly all the shades of debate about photography’s merit as art. Of course, the debate was not in the end decided in this ‘either/or’ manner. Through the conceptual strategies prefigured by Dust Breeding, photography ultimately triumphed by flirting with automatism, with being an artless document. Andy Warhol’s use of archival news pictures in his silkscreens, or Bernd and Hilla Becher’s flat, neutralised photographs of industrial architecture are examples of this. In other words photography became central to art at the very point when art was asking: ‘What is art and what is its relation to what isn’t art?’
In 1989 I saw Dust Breeding in one of the many shows that celebrated 150 years of photography. There it was, this odd-looking photograph, conventionally window mounted, hanging quietly in London’s Royal Academy, which was trumpeting the official acceptance of the medium as art with a grand exhibition. However, this was an image that had anticipated not the pompous arrival of photography through Art’s great gates but its sneaking in the back as a slippery, unreliable, mercurial medium. Dada, Surrealism, Pop, Conceptual art – photography was central to them all, but none of them had elevated it as an ‘independent art’. Dust Breeding embodies so many of the formal ambiguities and expanded possibilities of what an artwork can be. In this single photograph there is an exploration of duration, an embrace of chance, spatial uncertainty, confusion of authorship, ambiguity of function, and a blurring of boundaries between media – photography, sculpture, performance.
Now Dust Breeding is eighty-five years old and its place in our current understanding of things is different. Is there not something resonant in the resistance to all things fast in this image? Dust Breeding refuted the instantaneous. It denied the quick snap of the shutter that came to dominate the medium’s relation to modern time. Its exposure was made over a leisurely lunch, not in the blinking of an eye. Its subject matter is the epitome of all that is slow. Today photography’s romance with speed is all but over. The ‘decisive moment’, the art of the caught photograph, seems like a distant chapter. Where photography was once the medium of moments, it now appears in many ways to be a deliberating, forensic medium of traces. This may sound like an end but it could be a new beginning. Photography is coming to terms with its relative primitivism. Finding itself sidelined, it is becoming a leftover medium for, among other things, leftovers. The dust of progress will go on breeding and perhaps photography will be there to record it.