Tomorrow’s Headlines Are Today’s Fish and Chip Papers

Duncan Wooldridge with David Campany for Either/And, 2013

Tomorrow’s Headlines Are Today’s Fish and Chip Papers

David Campany  interviewed by Duncan Wooldridge for Either/And website.


Duncan Wooldridge: In your essay ‘Safety in Numbness: Some Remarks on Late Photography’, you wrote about how the contemporary photographic document had changed: it no longer attempted to capture some spectacular momentary instance (that social and technological function being passed to the moving image, television and now the streaming web): instead photography was something ‘late’, emerging after the event. It recorded traces and signs, and engendered thought as well as sheer affect. Now, with many newspapers selling their original archive images, and some, including the Baltimore Sun and Chicago Tribune doing so online via eBay, could we say that methods of reception for photography have changed even further in the light of the accelerated web? Is our reception of photography different?

David Campany: I think there are several temporalities at play here. Some might well be specific to photography’s overtly material forms and contexts, such as the printed image, while others might be specific to the Internet. But there is plenty of crossover.  More to the point I sense our thinking about temporality should be focused not so much on the technological bases but the way in which they are experienced: the temporalities of those habits of seeing, conventions of reading, patterns of cognition and comprehension, modes of attention and so on. These are not ‘defined’ by image technologies in the last instance.  The Internet is no more possessed of ‘a’ temporality than a book or a print.

DW: One thing which seems to occur in a slowed down method of working with photography is a concerted effort by the photographer to make imagery with an expanded sense of time – to anticipate an encounter in the future where the viewer witnesses the past, with a prolonged duration and attention. After considerable amounts of discussion about time being compressed in the 24/7 culture of ‘presentness’, can a photographer or image make time?

DC: Again I don’t think we can ascribe temporalities in advance to any kind of image technology or medium. Uses give rise to temporalities and we cannot know what uses may arise. This is easier to grasp in cinema, where new temporal and spatial forms are shaped by, and in turn shape new experiences. Everyone understands this process on some level. Patterns of editing, shot length, speed of camera movement, cross cut stories and so forth. In still photography it’s less easy for people to discern but it’s there. I do remember in my essay on ‘late photography’, which is a decade old now, describing the way the instant, the decisive moment, was once definitive of photography, or the popular conception of photography. We can see that conception as historically bound, tied to the dominance of the illustrated press. It might be that in a culture of permanent news coverage (which is not the same thing as considered, reflective journalism) there’s little investment in the idea of the summative picture, the instant that encapsulates and symbolizes an event or situation. I sense photographs are more and more associated with the ‘ongoingness’ of our present news culture. Their pastness, their anteriority, their quality of noting ‘what has been’ is modified by the idea that there will be another photo along in a few seconds or a few minutes to update it. Ontologically the photo today is no more or less tied to the past than it was, it’s just that this aspect may not be the source of its significance.

DW: You seem to suggest that we could risk drawing too heavy a distinction between old and new technologies – that it would be a mistake to suggest that something like an epistemological break occurred with the digital image or the web.  But you also seem to place considerable emphasis on reception alongside and even above production.  Perhaps you can say some more about these modes of attention?  Is there a need to return to a more active concern with the quality and even responsibility of viewership? Barthes’ arguments for the birth of the reader don’t seem to have been truly taken on.

DC: Well, put it this way: if you start attributing temporalities to technologies or platforms, before long you end up making a whole set of presumptions about how viewers interact with them. It can be reactionary and very passive. (Do you remember those awful rants about television diminishing concentration spans? They became a total dogma and then, almost out of nowhere, came long–form TV dramas with the complexity of nineteenth century novels, and viewers who embraced them). Why not actually look and think about how viewers behave? I don’t see an ‘epistemological break’ between analogue and digital because it’s not really an epistemological question.

DW: It must be almost a year ago that you introduced me to the phenomenon of newspapers selling their ‘original’ archive prints to any willing buyer online. Perhaps you could say more about this and what you have encountered?

DC: It’s been extraordinary to see major newspapers dump their archives of 10×8 inch news photos (while other archives, such as the Black Star news archive, have found good homes where they will be kept and looked after). Suddenly eBay became a resource not just for buying, but for studying these images. Many of them carry crop marks, indicating how the newspapers used the images. The backs of the images carry all manner of related data: photographer’s names, agencies, captions, clippings. I ended up acquiring images on several themes for different projects that I’m working on. Artistic projects, curatorial projects, book projects. When these things are gone they’re gone. It may turn out to be a peculiar moment when such rich material was pretty much given away.

DW: I like that you regard eBay as a place to study images!  It is as if in this space, the image should also be subject to our considered gaze and given our time, which perhaps goes against the ticking clock which accompanies many objects which are placed on there for sale.  Is there an aspect of rescue to the reuse of this material for you?

DC: The term ‘rescue’ has a whiff of nostalgia about it but I think it can also be much more dialectical, and directed much more to the present and future.  We know what happens to cultures that – as a result of trauma or ideology – pay no regard to their past. They go mad, psychotic. One must live in the past a little, the present a little and the future a little. And finding a way to do that is a real challenge, because we live in a culture that does not encourage it. So yes, as strange as it may seem we can learn a lot from studying images that are unwanted and up for sale. I just wrote a book about the work done for magazines by the photographer-writer Walker Evans. The museum has little regard for that work but I’ve always found it fascinating and important because he made up his own assignments, shot, wrote, edited and designed it. Each piece was published once only (no syndication) and disappeared. But Evans valued that audience. There’s no complete inventory of his magazine work, and on eBay and various old magazine websites I found forgotten stuff. Why is that relevant now? Well, Evans grasped that photographers are often what Allan Sekula once called the ‘proletariat in the production of meaning’ and the power tends to reside with the editors. Evans became his own editor, making a living and negotiating his way through corporate American publishing with his own politics and integrity largely intact. There are lessons to be learned there, even in our very different media climate.

DW: The ripping of an image from its context is something quite distinctly connected to photography, from editorial work to André Malraux and Aby Warburg’s non-linear art histories, built upon selected images.  Since Szarkowski and arguably before, we have understood that the photographic image is in part ‘taken’, extracted or reconfigured. You seem drawn to images that retain signs of their use.

DC: One cannot have photography without ripping, in two senses. Firstly, the photograph rips something of reality out of its temporal and spatial continuums. Secondly, photographs are thoroughly dependent on context for their meaning, yet only ever have a provisional relation, not a permanent relation, to context. In this sense I think the history of photography is, or should be, the history of the image ripped and redeployed. Another name for a ‘ripper’ is an editor. It’s interesting that the image editor emerges with the illustrated press in the 1920s and 30s and becomes dominant for several decades. These editors – magazine editors, archivists, art historians (including Warburg and Malraux), art dealers, movie editors – were an entirely new breed of image professional whose job it was to see and marshal images and in doing so they formed the culture. I think photographers and artists have come to realize this, in the light of these huge corporations that now own so many of the world’s image copyrights. We see it in the renaissance of the photographic book, in which significant editing can be established and fixed in ways different from the Internet, and in the emphasis placed on editing by contemporary artists. I was in New York last week. The ICP’s Photography Triennial is totally dominated by image editors: collagists, found footagists, sequencers. And I’m just back from the Venice Biennale where the main show is titled The Encyclopaedic Palace and features any number of incarnations of this impulse: the artist as collector, taxonomer, archivist, intuitive assembler, critical media allegorist, list-maker and so forth. On the flight between the two I found myself sitting next to a photography collector, in his sixties, who asked why no-one is making ‘strong’ images any more (singular, arresting, formally compelling).  I replied, only semi-flippantly, that it’s easier to edit with weaker ones.

DW: Perhaps we can return to the selling of archived prints from newspapers. What strikes me as particularly interesting is the severing of the printed image from its other rights. It seems more pronounced here. You purchase an image, with all of its histories; the newspapers retain a digital copy, a digital master, and all of the resulting rights to reproduce. The image, that is to say, it’s ability as an image to circulate, is mysteriously outside of our ownership, whereas for the newspaper, the artifact is lost. So we are left with the support and a chemical reaction; the newspaper has the image as data and idea. Does the photograph in this case seem to undergo some osmotic division and become newly multiple?

DC: Well it’s always been the case that physical ownership of an image is not the same thing as ownership of its copyright, or the rights to reproduce. The selling off of newspaper images only highlights this. There’s an interesting parallel with the history of the film still. Stills were dumped by the millions in the early 1970s, because cinema distributors didn’t want them any more. They became a gold mine for artists such as John Baldessari and John Stezaker who picked them up in second-hand stores for next to nothing.  I can foresee a generation of artists making use of these news photos in the same way, although news imagery is a very different thing to Hollywood cinema.

DW: The division between the physical possession of an image and the rights to reproduce forms a gap in which artists can work, that’s for sure. But I wonder if we become aware here of another additional separation at work beyond the rights to use. The film still was a promotional tool and perceived as worthless in itself, wasn’t it?  Like the movie production continuity image (which John Divola has re-presented) it was understood as at the very most a fragment of the film, which remained the actual end result, the product. This doesn’t seem to be the case for these press images: whilst they might be the fragment of a story, the images here are being sold at a cost ($9.95-14.95), that seems very low, but carries some (perhaps repressed) acknowledgement of their value as historical documents.  Clearly their relationship to history is quite explicit, but perhaps our interest in them is quite different?

DC: There’s a whole counter-tradition which runs from Charles Baudelaire up through Walter Benjamin and beyond that calls for a vigilant attention to the minor expressions and ephemeral products of a culture, because they are often much more telling, much more revealing than ‘official history’. That means picking over the rubbish heap, looking for those objects – material or otherwise – that may release a different account of the past and thus prompt us to redefine the horizons of our present and future.

DW: Finally, I wanted to ask you about the direction of the archive, as it continues to develop with increasing comprehensiveness online.  You’ve said that eBay is a space to study images, and this also leads to an emphasis on our roles and responsibilities as viewers of these images, whatever their location.  As the material images that previously constituted an archive are dispersed, does the archive matter in a context of all-encompassing digital storage?

DC: I must admit to a certain impatience with the notion of ‘the’ archive. Countless books and essays are published discussing ‘the’ archive. I’ve never seen or visited the archive, only this or that archive. And they are such varied things. I know there’s a valid line of thinking, best expressed in the brilliant writings of John Tagg, that identifies ‘the archive’ with a will to power expressed in modernity and wielded over the totalized field of objects, images and people. There’s something compelling and true in that. But I feel I need to be much more on my toes when I’m actually in this or that archive, whether it’s eBay or the archive of Victoria & Albert Museum. Expect the unexpected.

As for viewers’ responsibility, anything that increases critical attention to images is to be welcomed and encouraged. You don’t have to be in a museum or the British Library to do that. We must have our way with images before they have their way with us. I’m with the composer John Cage who called for us all to recognise our ‘response-ability’. And of course Roland Barthes’ famous argument on this point was a polemic and he knew full well that the birth, and life, of the reader – the vigilant, imaginative, brave reader – would not be easy. But we have to start somewhere.

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