Victor Burgin’s Photopath

MACK Books, 2022

Victor Burgin’s Photopath, by David Campany

‘A path along the floor, of proportions 1×21 units, photographed. Photographs printed actual size of objects and prints attached to the floor so that images are perfectly congruent with their objects.’ With these words of instruction, typed on a humble card in 1967, Victor Burgin conceived one of the most profound and remarkable works of photographic art. Each time it was exhibited, it had to be made anew, unique to its setting. Embracing Minimalism and Conceptual art, performance and site-specific installation, there is no other artwork like Photopath. In his characteristically analytical and associative manner, writer and curator David Campany takes the reader through the history and implications of Photopath, and their place in the breadth of Victor Burgin’s art and theoretical writings.

Paperback with flap
12.5 x 19.5 cm, 112 pages


Extract from the introduction:

Paths of Thought

The better ideas occur while walking, noted the poet Friedrich Hölderlin. The regular and unconscious movements of the body supply the mind with blood and oxygen and set it free. Routine is best. A familiar path may give rise to unfamiliar thoughts.

A few years ago, I was taking a familiar path across London’s Hampstead Heath to think through a book I was planning on the place of the camera obscura in the prehistory of photography. My destination was Kenwood House, where Johannes Vermeer’s painting The Guitar Player (c. 1672) can be seen in a quiet room. It is thought that Vermeer made use of a camera obscura or a similar lens-based viewing apparatus. Many of his scenes give the impression of a shallow depth of field; foreground and background fall out of focus with a precision that feels derived from an optical aid. Staring closely at the painter’s tiny brushstrokes replicating fine detail and vague haze, my vision became self-conscious and strained. I looked down at the floor before returning to the surface of the painting.

After twenty minutes or so I turned to leave. Passing Kenwood’s remarkable self-portrait by Rembrandt, I decided to take a look at the elegant library of the house. Approaching the threshold, I stepped on something slightly soft and looked down. I was standing on a mat bearing the likeness of the wooden floor beneath it. To protect the historic boards from visitors’ shoes, Kenwood House had commissioned a covering based on photographs of the floor.

Taking the same path home, I decided not to write that book. Others could do it better than I could. But the floor of the library and its strange mat preoccupied me. For reasons that may be obvious, it called to mind Photopath, an artwork by Victor Burgin in which an area of floor is covered by an actual-size photographic image of it. It also summoned a striking passage I have long remembered from his writings:

Consider these instructions: suppose an interior wall of a room to be concealed by a skin. The skin is parallel with and an eighth [of an] inch above the surface it conceals. The colour of the skin simulates that of the concealed surface.[1]

It occurred to me that just as Vermeer had pursued an important technical development in the picturing of three-dimensional space, so too had Burgin anticipated aspects of representation that are just as pervasive: the replication of surfaces, and the uncertain space between images and their mental impressions: fake leaves on plastic plants; laminated tabletops imitating stone or wood; synthetic clothing pretending to be denim or leather; construction sites cloaked in actual-size depictions of their demolished past or projected future. Photographic ‘skins’ are everywhere in contemporary life. They are not pictures, at least not in the conventional sense, but are a fact of our contemporary material, visual, and virtual experience. I would write about this instead.

Presented publicly on just a few occasions, Photopath remains one of the most simple, profound, and singular gestures to have emerged from the rethinking of art, photography, and representation associated with the conceptual practices of the late 1960s and early 70s. As an idea, Photopath is immaterial: a thought, a proposition. As a work that must be produced anew every time it is exhibited, it is emphatically material. As a set of photographs documenting its various realisations across the decades, it is perhaps somewhere in between. This in-between interests me. I have never seen Photopath in an exhibition, and it is likely that you have not either. All we have are descriptions and photographs of it.

Homely / Unhomely

In 1967, aged 26, the British artist Victor Burgin wrote an instruction and typed it out on two identical file cards, each 8 × 5 inches in size:


The instruction was given a title, Photopath, which is not included on the cards. To read and comprehend the instruction is mentally to picture what it describes. Although it has been reproduced in publications, the card itself is not shown in exhibitions.

The language seems exact but the parameters are quite flexible. They do not specify a location, a type of floor or any specific part of it. The word ‘floor,’ rather than, say, ‘ground’, suggests an indoor surface—but it is no more precise than that. The need to ‘attach’ the photographs implies that the surface ought to be something hard—not carpeted, for example. How they are to be attached is not stated. What size should a Photopath be? One by twenty-one is a ratio, not a dimension. Is it one by twenty-one centimetres, metres, or kilometres? The suffix ‘path’ is somewhat anthropomorphic, implying the scale of the human body; it suggests something wide enough to be walked along. What does the word ‘units’ refer to—individual photographs? Or would one photograph sized one by twenty-one suffice? Are the photographs glossy or matte? Should they be black and white? Colour? Tinted? And by what criteria should they be judged to be ‘congruent’ with their objects? There is, so to speak, plenty of wiggle room. Any number of legitimate interpretations can be made, all conforming to the basic instruction. Indeed, in lacking the specifics for fabricating a Photopath, the instruction leaves things at the level of an idea.

Burgin made and installed the initial version of Photopath on the bare wood floor in a friend’s home in Nottingham, England, in 1967, the year he began teaching in the city. There are two known black-and-white photographs of the completed work. One that is often reproduced shows the feet (shoes) of Burgin and his friend, Roger Lewis, at the top of the frame. Their presence gives Photopath a sense of scale, though we cannot discern the work’s exact dimensions. We can see the piece was made at a slight angle to the floorboards, straddling five of them. We can make out some of the work’s component photographs; all have the same width, but their lengths appear to vary, suggesting they do not correspond in a regular way to the ‘units’ mentioned on the instruction card.

This photograph was taken standing at one end looking slightly downward, so that the piece recedes into the distance. Most images of subsequent versions are similar. The pronounced linear perspective of the installation photo is unlike the Photopath itself, which appears to have no perspective at all: it is a flat representation of a more-or-less flat surface, as much like a scan or photocopy of the floor as a photograph as traditionally understood.

The feet in the frame also make the image an endearing trophy and quiet celebration. An idea is an idea but executing it—overcoming all the practical problems to produce an acceptable result—is something else. Let us imagine that Burgin was pleased with how this first Photopath turned out and invited friends over to see it. Did they walk on it or keep a respectful distance? Did they take off their shoes? Did the nondescript floor, now photographed, become a sacred arena—imbued with some kind of aura? Did the friends get on their hands and knees to look closely at the seams and edges, at the way its parts were joined together and attached to the floor? Or was a quick glance to register the idea enough? Did this image-object seem cold and rational? Perverse and unsettling? Was it serious? A joke? Both? Did Burgin tell them it was titled Photopath? Did he show them the instruction card? Did the piece feel photographic, sculptural, or more like the material remnant of the performance of its making?

Burgin removed and kept those first Photopath prints and has them in his archive. They make little sense beyond the situation for which they were made, but looking at them all these years later is fascinating. They reminded me of aspects of photography so obvious that we rarely consider them. First, almost all photographs, whether they are scientific records or artworks, are intended to function beyond the place where they were shot. They capture a time and place but are not themselves confined to that time and place. They are materially and culturally mobile. Second, photographs are rarely the same size as their subject matter and are rarely made to be ‘perfectly congruent’ with it. What point would there be in a photograph of the Eiffel Tower printed at the size of the Eiffel Tower, and installed on the site of the Eiffel Tower? Most photographs are smaller or larger than what they depict or document. An actual-size photograph may be truer to its object and medium—perhaps—but it is unusual. All this to say, Photopath can be thought of an exception that proves if not the rules, then at least the presumptions that have dominated photography since its inception and allowed it to become so widespread. Photopath seems at once the purest kind of photograph and an anti-photograph.

Burgin also kept fourteen six by six centimetre (medium format) black and white negatives from that first production, along with his first test print. In these pictures, we see parallel sections of string held taut by drawing pins marking out the area of the floor to be photographed. We also see a pen—perhaps it was laid on the floor as a visual marker—along with the tip of a shiny leather shoe and the legs of a camera tripod. These images have the feel of forensic documents of a crime scene. They are functional, affectless, and a long way from ‘art photography’ as it was understood at the time. But that was precisely the direction in which many artists—particularly those associated with conceptualism—were beginning to push the medium, posing playful yet philosophical questions about how photography is granted its status as truth, evidence, and art.[2]

Just as significant were artists’ explorations of photography at one-to-one scale in the late 1960s. For example, in 1967 the California-based artist, musician and comedian Mason Williams made an actual-size image of a Greyhound bus, thirty-six feet long. Printed on billboard paper and produced in an edition of 150, each took nine hours to assemble before being folded and placed in its box. Mel Bochner’s two-part Actual Size (1968) comprises photographs of the artist’s head and hand alongside measurements placed in vinyl on the wall directly behind him. Michael Heizer’s Actual Size: Munich Depression (1969–70) is a multi-screen projection of photos taken of an earthwork he made near Munich, Germany. The projections are one-to-one but the work’s circumference is transposed to flat gallery walls. Gordon Matta-Clark’s Pipes (1971) is an installation of actual-size photographs of the plumbing behind the crisp white walls of the room in which they are shown. In New York between 1969 and 1971, Harvey ‘Hank’ Stromberg surreptitiously photographed hundreds of small surface details at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, such as light switches in the galleries and brickwork in the sculpture garden. He returned with small, actual-size prints which he placed without permission. On 15 June 1971 a small crowd gathered to celebrate the longest running photography show at the museum.[3]

In all these works, including Burgin’s Photopath, we see a rethinking of photography that looks both inward to the properties of the medium itself, and outward to the points where it connects with the world and with other art forms—notably sculpture and performance. Photopath seems to combine something of the grand scale of Williams’s BUS and Heizer’s Munich Depression, the rigour of Bochner’s images, the site-specificity of Matta Clark’s intervention, and the understatement of Stromberg’s gesture. There are other points of reference for Photopath in the advanced art of that moment, including the use of the floor made by Minimalist and postminimalist sculptors such as Carl Andre; the instructional wall works of Sol Lewitt; actions exploring space and dimension, such as Bruce Nauman’s Walking in an Exaggerated Manner around the Perimeter of a Square (1967–68); and works of Land Art documentation such as Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking (1967).

It is hard to imagine an act of photography more straightforward and uncompromising than Photopath. It aims to fulfil the basic potential of the medium, which is to copy and to put itself forward as a stand-in or substitute. Yet in meeting this expectation so literally, it somehow estranges itself. Something of this character was also present in, for example, the experiments of Structuralist film and in the nouveau roman of 1960s literature. One can imagine a filmmaker like Michael Snow making a long, single-take shot looking down at a floor, the camera tracking slowly, turning small details into objects of banal fascination; or one can picture writers such as Alain Robbe-Grillet or Georges Perec oscillating between indifference and cosmic significance as they describe a floor, pushing to the point of exhaustion where language becomes unreal, even pathological.

[1] Victor Burgin, ‘Situational Aesthetics’, Studio International, Vol. 178 No. 915 (October 1969), p. 119.

[2] Burgin’s test print would not look about of place in Evidence, the landmark 1977 anthology of anonymous scientific photographs assembled by the artists Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan. Published a decade after Burgin’s work, Evidence stripped photographs of their context and function, leaving the viewer to ponder the ambiguities that plague all uncaptioned images. Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel, Evidence, 1977 (Santa Cruz: Clatworthy Colorvues, 1977).

[3] Released in 1967, Jacques Tati’s film Playtime also makes remarkable use of one-to-one photographs. Many of the steel columns and beams of the film’s modernist architecture were covered in actual-size matte photographs of steel to reduce unwanted light reflection. When the production ran over budget, Playtime’s army of extras was partly supplemented by full-size photographic cut-outs of people, placed strategically among the living.


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