March 2016 Archways

Faculty News

The Afterlife of Photography

By Miriam Seidel

History of Art Professor Lisa Saltzman begins her new book, Daguerreotypes: Fugitive Subjects, Contemporary Objects, with a historical event from three centuries before the invention of 10-11_ARCHWAYS_Afterlife_Saltzman photography: the celebrated 16th-century case of the French peasant Martin Guerre. This story of imposture and mistaken identity might seem an unlikely point of departure for a book that contemplates the changing role of photography in contemporary visual culture, but Daguerreotypes pops with connections among far-flung areas of inquiry.

The fantastic story of Guerre, whose return home after many years’ absence helped convict the man living in his stead, is suffused with issues of identity and raises fundamental questions about identification that would later be answered by the invention of photography. As Saltzman puts it: “Who’s real, and who’s the impostor? Who’s the original, and who’s the copy? Without a photograph, or so many would claim or imagine, no one knows for sure.”

In her book’s introduction, Saltzman segues from the case of Guerre to Ridley Scott’s science fiction film, Blade Runner—a tale that hinges on human “copies,” or replicants, and their poignant reliance on photographs for evidence of their identities. Both Blade Runner and the film The Return of Martin Guerre came out in the early 1980s, a moment that Saltzman argues marks a pivotal shift in the understanding of photography, from its status as a cultural icon of the modern documentary tradition to a more ambiguous, postmodern, aesthetic object.

Saltzman’s third book, Daguerreotypes continues the exploration of the role of history and memory in contemporary art that she explored in her previous books, Anselm Kiefer and Art after Auschwitz and Making Memory Matter: Strategies of Remembrance in Contemporary Art. But it’s also a departure, venturing into the field of photography, which has its own developed body of theory and criticism.

One of the first photographs, Boulevard du Temple, taken by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre in 1838.

One of the first photographs, Boulevard du Temple, taken by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre in 1838.

The book follows what Saltzman calls the “afterlife” of photography: the idea that in the digital age photography has been “displaced as a tool of identification by genetics and biometrics and dematerialized and dispersed as a document into the virtual archives of data centers and social networks.”

“We have moved past the time when a photograph stood as the authoritative chemical trace of a particular place and time,” says Saltzman. “And we must now confront photography under the competing signs of ubiquity and obsolescence.”

Among the works Saltzman examines in Daguerreotypes that adaptively reuse photography, digitally or otherwise, are Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home and W. G. Sebald’s hybrid novel Austerlitz.

In Fun Home, Bechdel points up the subjectivity and ambiguity of old family snapshots by re-drawing them instead of reproducing them. In Saltzman’s reading, this allows the author/artist to embody the malleability of her own memories, particularly those of her late father, as tantalizingly suggestive yet equivocal as the pictures themselves.

As Saltzman writes: “Neither elegy nor eulogy, Fun Home is an ambivalent homage to an absent and elusive father … Mining whatever materials she can find to reconstruct an account of growing up in a household in which the nature of her parents’ relationship was, as for any child, deeply enigmatic, Bechdel produces a recursive story that reveals both what she has come to find and remember about her father and how those discoveries and realizations inflect and inform her sense of self. … Recreated as and in drawings, with all the subjectivity, intimacy, and fallibility of the handmade mark, even as these images forsake the evidentiary object for the avowedly personal testimony of the drawing, they manage to lay claim to something of photography’s legacy as objective record.”

Austerlitz, the story of a man struggling to remember and reclaim his forgotten childhood in 1930s Prague, broke ground with its provocative use of actual photographs to illustrate a fictional character’s life.

“Exiles and émigrés all, the subjects of Sebald’s literary imagination reach for photographs as if for moorings,” writes Saltzman. “And yet, the subjects of Sebald’s fictional histories and historical fictions experience themselves as not so much anchored by the photographs that accompany their stories as cut adrift. For Austerlitz, the central character of the novel that bears his name, it is the stories that surround a photograph of himself as a child that undo, rather than secure, his identity … He has what comes to function as a lost twin, a double whose image is preserved in a photograph but whose identity he cannot fully assimilate as his own. One might say, he is his own Martin Guerre.”

The emergence in contemporary art photography of often large-scale, staged works by artists, including Jeff Wall, Gregory Crewdson, An-My Lê, and others is also examined in Daguerreotypes. Saltzman coins the term “retro-spectacles” for their work—which makes photography into a zone of theater, of tableaux, a contemporary form of that age-old tradition, practiced by artists from Rubens to David and Delacroix, history painting.

Now, with smartphones and instant photo-editing software, we’ve all become photographers, awash in an ocean of images, and increasingly aware of photography’s ability to edit and present reality in certain ways. Saltzman herself doesn’t use any form of social media but is willing to jump in and consider, for example, the parallels between the disappearing images of Snapchat and the pre-photographic period when images were captured, only to evaporate without chemical fixatives.

She views the deluge of photographic sharing on the Internet as “another instance of the hold that photographs have on our imagination. Nothing taps into sentiment the way a photograph does. No matter what we know about the staging and manipulation of photographs, even in the decades right after the invention of the medium,” she continues, “we also still believe in them … There’s an affective and evidentiary dimension to the photograph that’s unparalleled in the arts.” Saltzman’s fearless speculations shine unexpected light on the new territory we find ourselves in now.

 

Is Film Still Film?

by Matt Gray

In her latest book Virtual Memory: Time-Based Art, and the Dream of Digitality, History of Art Professor Homay King looks to reframe the current debate about digital film.FQ6901_12_Longo 93..96

“The primary debate has been, ‘Is film still film when it’s not celluloid, or do we have an entirely different medium on our hands?’” explains King. “My argument in this book goes against that medium specificity. If you watch a beautifully restored digital copy of The Searchers, there are differences from the celluloid version, but it’s still a film.”

However, King does argue for a distinction between analog and digital that is more conceptual in nature. “What I call digitality is an approach to filmmaking that aspires to numerical calculability, timelessness, permanence, and transcendence,” says King. “Whereas the analog is a mode that’s associated with durational time, with things that are grounded in real physical time and space, with earthly concerns and with entropy and decay. So while these works are made on digital film, they are about the fragility of the real world rather than about some Matrixy world of ones and zeros.”

King also looks to revise a previous understanding of the term virtual. “When I use the term in this book, it’s in a way that is at odds with the way many use it today but may actually be more in keeping with earlier interpretations of the word,” says King. “If I say ‘virtual reality’ today, most people are going to think, Oh, this is a fake reality that’s completely computer-generated and simulated. But the word virtual only started to mean that in the 1980s. Before that, it referred to things that were immanent or on the verge of actualization. What I want to do is recover that older, more philosophical sense of the virtual and apply it to thinking about contemporary visual media.”

The book’s publication caps off a busy year for King, one in which she was involved in the development of China: Through the Looking Glass, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute exhibition. King became involved in the project after getting an email from the exhibition’s curator, Andrew Bolton, who had read her book Lost in Translation: Orientalism, Cinema and the Enigmatic Signifier.

“He had read my book and wanted to do an exhibition that was very much aligned with my research. The exhibition wasn’t meant to be about authentic Chinese fashion but instead about this sort of fantasy that had been created by the West,” says King.

Grauman’s Chinese Theatre graces the cover of King’s book and serves as a prime example of the cultural objects King studies and that were showcased at the Met through fashion. Built in the 1920s, Grauman’s, home for so many years to the Oscars and site of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, is probably the most well-known movie theater in the world.

And as a piece of architecture, it’s pure fantasy, explains King.

“It’s called the Chinese Theatre, and it has a pagoda-type of structure. It has these curved eaves, things that are vaguely reminiscent of a traditional Chinese aesthetic, and yet it turns out that the building’s designers actually were inspired by the Orientalist period of the furniture maker Chippendale and a movement know as Chinoiserie in Britain and France in the 18th and 19th centuries. This was actually an amalgamation of styles from throughout the Far East fused together to create a fictional, imaginary fantasy world.”

In addition to providing support in the development of the exhibition, King contributed an essay to the exhibition catalog, “Cinema’s Virtual Chinas.”

 

 

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