AN ARGUMENT IN FAVOUR OF THE DIALOGIC IMAGE

In an era that is hyper-saturated with images, it is necessary to ask the question: why is it that we privilege, in photography, the singular over the plural? Or, in other words: is it reasonable to task an image or body of work with delivering to us a representation of its chosen subject in such a manner that is all encompassing?; is it fair to consider an image that omits, or worse, occludes (sometimes violently) as an inherent failure with diminished value? Critics over the years have almost unanimously agreed that these are, irrefutably, reasonable claims. The image that fails to show fails. This is the stance of Jacques Ranciére (1), Shawn Michelle Smith (2), T.J. Demos (3) and many, many others; perhaps rightly so, at least from within a traditional framework. But it appears to me that this very framework renders the task we have given the image impossible to fulfill from the start, and thus theorist Ariella Azoulay’s claim that “photography has come into the world with the wrong users’ manual” (14) is a more than appropriate descriptor of the problem at hand. Could it be possible that it’s not the images themselves but, rather, our structures for looking that are inadequate? Perhaps the isolation of the singular is a reflexive response against the oft-remarked and hackneyed “barrage” of images; a need to separate and contain, to create definite points of reference to grasp onto amidst this assault. But, if this is indeed the case, can these points truly serve their intended function if they are not tethered to one another in such a manner as to form larger structures? Wouldn’t they instead, in absence of such interlocking, float off vague and directionless (and us with them), atomized points in an astronomical constellation of images? It is my suspicion that this may be the case, and that the traditional stance outlined above is wildly reductive and fails completely to acknowledge the intertextual capacity of images and the human capacity to both cross-reference and arrange (curate); two essential skills that are required to make the judgements of perception (4) through which knowledge is acquired. 

The historical underpinnings to the questions I invoke here are twofold, and both originate from the same dated handbook of which Azoulay speaks. The first is the status of the image as objective document, a sentiment that can be traced back even to the first photograph, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s View from the Window at Le Gras; or, more precisely, Niépce’s characterization of his invention as Heliograph (literally “writing of the sun”), a phrasing that positions the photographic image as a direct imprinting of reality, a “writing” of natural rather than human origin (a motif that the second of the three “founding fathers” of modern photographic practice (5), William Henry Fox Talbot, would take up in his book - the first photo book - The Pencil of Nature). The advent of Modernism would bring with it perhaps the first significant rupturing of this “objectivity-membrane” that had hitherto encased the photograph (6); chiefly, this came in the form of Walter Benjamin’s notion of the optical unconscious, the scopic equivalent of the subconscious undercurrents of the mind as explored in psychoanalysis. What this meant was that photography was no longer congruent in definition with an absolute  certitude of the visible (and as a consequence, objectivity), as sight itself was shown to be fraught with blind spots, incongruent with anything approximating incontestable access to the world in such a manner as to extract “pure” empirical knowledge. Thus, photography understood as a reflection of sight  “(undermined) confidence in the authority of the eyes” (Jay, 136). Perhaps unsurprisingly, this brought us into an awkward relationship with truth: if sight can be and is constructed, how are we to determine what is truly there when we see? Is there anything truly there? (7) Of course, there is. Only, it appears we have forgotten how to see using the faculties available to us. Sight physiologically requires selection, and when there is more than ever before in the history of mankind to select from, it is easy to become blinded, hence the oft-remarked condition of the present as being in a state of “post-truth,” a crisis of the real that has produced an overbearing wave of vexatious disorientation; even nihilism that echoes that in Raskolnikov’s nightmarish vision at the end of Dosteovesky’s Crime and Punishment (8). In such a moment as this, atomization will do us no good. And yet, we cannot see everything. Thus, we must select, but in such an intentional manner as to arrange cohesively. 

 

Bruer, Frank. Antwerpen, Belgium (#1215), 2003.

 

Consider Frank Breuer’s series Poles / Trailers / Buildings / Containers. A graduate of the Düsseldorf School in Germany, and thus following in the ‘objective’ tradition of Bernd and Hilla Becher, Breuer’s images examine each of the aforementioned subjects in a deadpan-typologic aesthetic. He highlights form through repetition and isolation such as to transmute the banal and disinteresting into the sculptural (and thus visually pleasing). Consequently, and perhaps inevitably, such formal aestheticization begs the question: where is the rest? That is to say, in regard to, for example, the containers, what do these images tell us about their contents; about their modes of production; about systems of global trade amidst late-stage Capitalism and the consequences of such systems; about human cost? To put it bluntly, nothing at all. In fact, it would hardly be implausible to say that they obscure such considerations altogether, for this is what philosopher and critic Jacqués Ranciére posits:

 

“(Breuer’s) containers were to be, or were to have been, filled with merchandise unloaded at Antwerp or Rotterdam, and probably were produced in a distant country, perhaps by faceless workers in Southeast Asia. They were, in short, filled with their own absence (9). (...) The containers (function as) representatives of the ‘mystery’ of the merchandise - that is to say, of the manner in which (they) absorb human work and hide its mutations” (12).

Sekula, Allan. ‘Unsuccessful fishing for sardines off the Portuguese coast.’ (1992)

 

For Ranciére, the images that comprise Allan Sekula’s Fish Story would be much more adequate representations of globalized commodity exchange, for they shed light on the “mystery” which is rendered highly problematic in Breuer’s Containers. Over the course of six years, spanning multiple continents, and incorporating an extensive textual component, Sekula’s Fish Story leaves virtually no stone unturned. We are shown seaports, shipyards, docks, fishing villages, markets, vendors, LNG carriers, containers (of course), engine shops, pipe fitters and welders at labour, dismantlers, shipyard workers’ housing, strikes, unemployment offices, diagrams, paintings (10), illustrations; but most importantly, photographs by Alfred Stieglitz, August Sander and Walker Evans. Through this intertextuality, it becomes clear that even such comprehensive images as Sekula’s must enter a dialogic relationship with other images in order to synthesize enriched or altogether new meanings (11). Here, Ranciére’s argument - which is very much reflective of an atomized sight -  begins to fall apart: firstly, if we were to segregate any one of Sekula’s images from one another, they would be rendered inadequate were they liable to the same quality of absence attributed to Breuer’s Containers. Second, if we were to facilitate a channel through which Sekula’s images could be read together with Brueur’s, a third meaning would be produced by their interplay that would bring into focus a parallaxed view; that is, the consumer’s failure (or refusal) to see. The containers, in conjunction with Sekula’s images, become a metaphorical meditation on and visualization of the exit of industrial labour and human cost from the consciousness of both Western visual culture and thought (and thus, Breuer hardly fails to “deliver the content”).

We could define this “releasing from the frame” as the restoration of the channels that make possible the dialogic image - an image that “resists closure, (...) extends meanings and relationships, and is never singular but always contextually multiple” (SFU). Adopting such a framework, we become attuned to a spectral element in the photograph that I term Latency. Latency here denotes a presence defined by its very absence, a phenomenological feature that is intuited which rests dormant underneath the substrata of each image. For example, Edward Burtynsky’s monolithic depictions of the Anthropocene - the present geological epoch, defined by human intervention - viewed in isolation, are characterized by (and often criticized for (12)) their absences. This is, of course, somewhat ironic given their immense scale. But one must remember that absence is precisely what gives way to presence; to give form to something, or for “form” to mean anything at all, it must be surrounded by absence. In this sense, absence becomes part of presence, and as such, in much the same way that Sekula’s Images cannot be considered more adequate that Breuer’s we cannot consider, for example, Richard Misrach’s images in Petro-Chemical America to be superior to those that constitute Burtynsky’s Oil. Only once we recognize this can latent presence be visualized in each image. In Oil, that presence is human cost; in Petrochemical America, it is the sheer scale of desolation. But it doesn’t end there, for there are many more latent presences that may be brought forth. Both Burtynsky and Misrach’s images become further activated by Mitch Epstein’s American Power, which links the American extractivist economy to broader dialogues of imperium. The affect of an imperial dynamic on the individual is articulated in Catherine Opie’s High School Football; and the images that Opie made for that series in Twenty-Nine Palms become a channel to An-My Le’s images of the Twenty-Nine Palms Military Base (13). This grouping of images could also extend to include Andreas Gursky’s 99 Cent (1999), (by way of Misrach’s exploration of Economic Power), Brian Ulrich’s images of consumerism, and, finally, to Sekula (by way of Ulrich), and from Sekula back to Breuer. What I have done here is not circumstantial, nor is it arbitrary. Rather, I have demonstrated a process of selection; that is, a judgement of perception through a linking-up of the photographs so as to narrativize them; or, rather, to allow them to realize their latency and in doing so become dialogic. 

 

This process of constructing is similar to that which Hal Foster describes in Real Fictions as “the fourth framing of the real”: the real as “fragile construction to tend with concern” (153). This concept he introduces by way of Bruno Latour’s reconceptualization of the role of the critic (post-Barthes); in Latour’s words, “the critic is not one who debunks, but one who assembles. The critic is not one who lifts the rugs from under the feet of the naïve believers, but the one who offers the participants arenas in which to gather. (...) if something is constructed, then it means it is fragile and thus in need of great care and caution” (246). When we deatomize images through the tethering of narrativization, the resulting structure is the arena to which Latour speaks; this arena is fragile as a result of the precarity of the post-truth present, but also as a result of its overtly manufactured status. Here, the danger - and most pointed reason for “great care and caution” - becomes apparent: regardless of trueness or falsity, such narrativization can and does bleed into the fabric of reality itself; in fact, representation has become the primary means by which we can be at all. It is most helpful to think of this in the Heideggerian sense; that is, in relation to the concept of “The World Picture” (14):

Where the world becomes picture, beings as a whole are set in place as that for which 

man is prepared; that which, therefore, he correspondingly intends to bring before him, have before him, and, thereby, in a decisive sense, place before him. Understood in an essential way, “world picture” does not mean “picture of the world” but, rather, the world grasped as picture. Beings as a whole are now taken in such a way that a being is first and only being insofar as it is set in place by representing-producing (vorstellend-herstellenden) humanity. Whenever we have a world picture, an essential decision occurs concerning beings as a whole. The being of beings is sought and found in the representedness of beings. Where, however, beings are not interpreted in this way, the world too, cannot come into the picture - there can be no world picture. (Heidegger, 67-68) 

 

In simplified terms, as we place being itself before us, reality-making becomes picture-making; and picture-making, here, denotes “the representedness of beings.” Constructing representations (representing-producing) - a process of deatomizing, tethering, narrativizing - becomes the means by which the “world picture” is facilitated. 

 

We have now moved from a critical-curatorial reading to that which is metaphysical. This is an important distinction. From this repositioned view, we gain a new perspective on the questions posed at the beginning of this essay: atomization is clearly a fool’s errand, for selectiveness and arrangement are inherent to sight, and thus images must be viewed as reflective of these processes (as manifestations of the optical unconscious), that is, as being characterized by a perpetual absence that gives form to (and becomes part of) presence. The image that omits or occludes reveals an invisible spectral element - a latent capacity - that can be brought out to make perceptible the limitations of an interpretation of the world, and in doing so can reveal to us the textural properties of the “world picture.” The critic and / or artist's propping up of the “arena” provides a space in which we may see seeing, and in doing so make a judgement of perception so as to construct a view of the world; to reconstruct the real in a post-truth present (a process of representing-producing). Here, there is an essential question: can we effectively maintain the role of the curious, ever-attentive pilgrim, who sojourns in different arenas, championing the dialogic image? Or, will we abjure this role; become drifters against the black of the indecipherable, that land of untruth, a distant and atomized entropic existence?

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FOOTNOTES

1. See Notes on the Photographic Image.

2. See At the Edge of Sight: Photography and the Unseen.

3. See Against the Anthropocene.

4. Bertrand Russel’s interpretation of Plato’s Theaetetus: “the percept is just an occurrence, and neither true nor false; the percept as filled out with words is a judgement, and capable of truth or falsehood. This judgement I call a “judgement of perception.” (Plato’s) proposition “knowledge is perception” must be interpreted as meaning “knowledge is judgements of perception.” It is only in this form that it is grammatically capable of being correct.” (153-154) Also consider: If we are to define words as Robert Frank suggests in Mabou (Words, Nova Scotia, 1977), that is, as “images of language”, then judgements of perception are filled out by photographs (images of the gaze) just as they are filled out by words. In fact, Media Theorist Vilem Flusser would argue that percepts are primarily filled out by photographs (or, as he would define them, Technical Images) today.

5. (The third of course being Louis Daguerre.)

6. And, to a certain extent, still does; I am not suggesting that this membrane has been obliterated altogether, only that it has been significantly dilapidated.

7. It would seem that we find ourselves in a situation much alike that in Plato’s allegory of the cave, only we are now made to confront the possibility that the cave might actually be a cranial structure, that we are both prisoner and puppeteer, the fire the nucleus of Being itself. In such a restructuring, to leave the cave does not mean to go out into “reality,” for we are already in it; we actively create it, continuously. If we ceased to create it, we, ourselves, would cease to be. That there is an exterior “real” world we can inhabit in an embodied manner becomes the myth.

8. “Never had people been more unshakeably confident in their decisions, their scientific deductions, their moral convictions and beliefs. (...) Everyone was afraid; people no longer understood one another, they all believed that they alone knew the truth, and suffered dreadfully at the sight of everyone else, and beat their breasts, weeping and wringing their hands.” (483)

9. (My emphasis).

10. Such as Joseph Mallord William Turner’s Snow Storm - Steamboat off a Harbour’s Mouth, 1842.

11. Or, new information (a negentropic gesture), to put it in Flusserian terms.

12. Such criticism very much resembles that which Ranciére levels at Breuer’s work: Burtynsky’s images “aestheticize,” are “apolitical,” fail to take into account “human cost,” and so on.

13. And in doing so solidify the dual performance and motif of the stage. The affective element to which I speak is the act that takes place on both of these stages: that is, the trial of “becoming a warrior” (Opie).

14. The definition of which is as follows: “World” serves, here, as a name for beings in their entirety. The term is not confined to the cosmos, to nature. History, too, belongs to the world. (...) We also include the world-ground, no matter how its relation to the world is thought. (...) The world “picture” makes one think of a copy of something (...) but “world picture” means more than this. (...) Picture means, here, not a mere imitation but rather that which sounds in the colloquial expression to be “in the picture” about something. (...) To “put oneself in the picture” about something means: to place the being itself before one just as things are with it, and, as so placed, to keep it permanently before one.” 

WORKS CITED

Azoulay, Ariella. “The Civil Contract of Photography.” Zone Books 2012, p. 14.

Bruer, Frank. “Antwerpen, Belgium (#1215), 2003.” C-print, Diasec Face, mounted on MDF.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. “Crime and Punishment.” 1866. Oxford University Press, 2019, p. 483.

Epstein, Mitch. “BP Carson Refinery, California, 2007.” 

Foster, Hal. “What Comes After Farce?: Art and Criticism at a Time of Debacle.” Verso Books, 2020, p. 153.

Heidegger, Martin. “Off the Beaten Track.” 1950. Oxford University Press, 2002,  p. 67-68.

Latour, Bruno. “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry, 2004, p. 246.

Le, An-My. “Corporal Hoepper, 29 Palms, 2003-2004.” Silver Gelatin Print.

Opie, Catherine. “J.D., 2008.” Chromogenic print, 30 × 22 ¼ in. 

Niépce, Joseph Niépcephore. “View from the Window at Le Gras, 1826.”

Rancière, Jacques. “Notes on the Photographic Image.” Radical Philosophy, 2009, p. 12

Russel, Bertrand. “The History of Western Philosophy.” 1945. Touchstone, 1972, p. 153-154.

Sekula, Allan. “Fish Story.” MACK, 2018, p. 147 

Simon Fraser University. “The Dialogic Image.” https://www.sfu.ca/~sbitter/image_glossary/DIA LOGIC.html 

WORKS REFERENCED

Benjamin, Walter. (1999) Little History of Photography. in: Jennings, M.W., Eiland, H., Smith, G. (eds) Selected Writings: Volume 2 1927-1934. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Demos, T.J. “Against the Anthropocene.” Sternberg Press, 2017, p. 60-65. 

Flusser, Vilem. “Into the Universe of Technical Images.” University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

Morris, Errol. “Believing is Seeing: ​​Observations on the Mystery of Photography.” Penguin Books, 2014. 

Opie, Catherine. “Penny Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series: Catherine Opie In Person.” University of Michigan, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uSx4H23xWXA 

Pinney, Christopher. “Photography’s Other Histories.” Duke University Press, 2003. 

Roberts, Bill. “Production in View: Allan Sekula’s Fish Story and the Thawing of Postmodernism” Tate Papers No. 18, Autumn 2012.

Rubenstein, Daniel. “Lecture 2: Heidegger: Age of the World Picture.” Central State Martins, London, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9naIYWddEpM&t=2039s 

Smith, Shawn Michelle. “At the Edge of Sight: Photography and the Unseen.” Duke University Press, 2013.

Talbot, William Henry Fox. “The Pencil of Nature.” Longman, Brown, Green & Longmans, London, 1844.