Petersson, Dag — Photographic Space 2013
In collaboration with Walter Niedermayr
With this chapter, the aim is to construct and further develop a theoretical concept of photographic space. This concept has on earlier occasions been drafted from a technical point of view, i.e. chiefly with reference to the technical side of the photographic process. 1This concept has previously been outlined in a number of texts, published mostly in Scandinavian languages, e.g. Dag Petersson, ”Upptäckten av fotografiets rum” in Fotografiske dialekter eds. Mogensen and Krogholm (Svanesund, NSU Press: 2005), 165-184; ”Det fotografiske rum” in Filter – for fotografi, 1:2, 2008, 122-127; ”Fotografischer Raum / Photographic Space” in Olafur Eliason: Life in Space 09.05.2008 (Dornbirn, Zumtobel: 2008), 12.09-12.27; The Art of Reconciliation: Photography and the Conception of Dialectics in Benjamin, Hegel and Derrida, (Houndmills, Palgrave Macmillan: 2013), 22-24. With this essay, we wish to bring the concept beyond that stage of determination. We will try to make it clear that photographic space, as we think of it, is not dependent on shutter speeds, photons, ionized salts, lenses or other chemical, optical, or electronic processes. While such elements should not be excluded from the definition, neither should they provide the key determining elements.
The virtual Urbild of photography
A general thesis underlying the following deliberations will be Hans-Georg Gadamer’s conceptual determination of the image and its mode of presentation. As is well-known, this is a modality that he considers to be particular and distinct from other modes of presentation. For example, it differs decisively from that of the performing arts, the one with which his seminal Truth and Method opens in view of laying out the fundamental concepts of presentation and play. The mode that belongs to the image – which I here will call the iconic mode of presentation – differs from that of a theatre piece or a music performance in that it does not depend on an ontological distinction between original script and ensuing performance. Whereas a music piece or a dramatic work of art at first presents itself – and therefore has its origin – in its performance and not in the script, the image presents itself and its origin at once, in itself. Like Hamlet only appears with the performance of the play, a painted prince is only represented by the presentation of paint. Both of these representations are therefore comparable to, but also very different from, a copy [Abbild] or a mirror reflection. For unlike a copy or a mirror image, an image proper always affirms its own autonomous being relative to the depicted and, says Gadamer, won’t give it up for the depicted, to which it nonetheless is tied. 2”””Hans-Georg “Certainly, in the aesthetic sense of words the image has its own being. This being as presentation, as precisely that in which it is not identical with the represented [dem Abgebildeten], gives the image the positive distinction of being a picture as opposed to a mere reflected image.” 3Ibid., 135 (144). Translation modified. With this strong concept of iconic autonomy – pertaining particularly to the pictorial work of art – Gadamer not only raises the image above the thing represented but sets the represented free in the image to ontologically present itself. For this to be possible, one should note two things: first, that the image proper is intrinsically two-sided, with one side turned toward the purely iconic presentation of image elements and the other toward that which is represented; second, that the represented entity, by being in a sense doubly depicted (presented as image elements and represented in itself), is no longer just represented by the image. Being tied non-arbitrarily to its image elements means that it also presents itself in the image, wherefore Gadamer can make the strong ontological claim that the image presents the depicted as what it is. This ‘what it is’ – this essence – is of course not presented in the image as a Platonic essence or as a display of necessary properties. Rather, and a bit cryptically, Gadamer suggests that the depicted ‘experiences,’ as it were, how it attains or appropriates for itself the being that is so presented. Experience should not be taken literally. But fact remains: the being of the depicted is modified with an iconic presentation – and when the modification is tied to it, the depicted ‘experiences,’ in the formal sense of the word, its inner alteration. The artwork implies for the thing depicted an ontological increase. The capacity to produce this ontologically augmentation is what distinguishes the image from the symbol, which is one-sided in the opposite sense of the mirror image. For whereas the mirror presents a reflection of the thing without affirming its own autonomous being, the symbol fails conversely to add anything to the being of the represented. It stands opaquely in its way and simply replaces it. 4Ibid., 147. Gadamer is explicit, but notoriously brief, about the ontological purchase of the image proper and the associated growth of its depicted being.
If it presents itself in this way, this is no longer any incidental event but belongs to its own being. Every such event is an ontological event and occupies the same ontological level as what is presented. By being presented it experiences, as it were, an increase in being [Durch die Darstellung erfährt es gleichsam einen Zuwachs an Sein]. The content of the picture itself is ontologically defined as an emanation from the original [des Urbildes]. 5Ibid., 135 (145).
What does this increase in being mean? From where comes the addition that must already, strictly speaking, belong to the depicted? One – perhaps unorthodox – way to pursue the question is to take note of Gadamer’s conception elsewhere in Truth and Method of virtual Being. Virtual Being, or ‘potentiality-for-being,’ describes Heidegger’s concept of understanding as Dasein in its primary, undifferentiated modality. He writes, “Before any differentiation of understanding into the various directions of pragmatic or theoretical interest, understanding is Dasein’s mode of being, insofar as it is potentiality-for-being and ‘possibility.’ [Seinkönnen und ’Möglichkeit’]” 6Ibid., 250 (264). This non-differentiated understanding, which is potentiality-for-being, is neither an ideal being-in-the-world nor an actual mode of understanding; it cannot even be the subject of a directed inquiry. Pure understanding merely holds in itself the potentiality for being, and holds therefore also the possibility for its own being. Historically changing interests and pragmatically conditioned circumstances may render actual these potentialities in such a way that the understood, or the interpreted, appears determinable from a particularly actualized mode of understanding. It is true therefore that, “[e]very actualization in understanding can be regarded as a historical potential of what is being understood.” 7Ibid., 366 (379). As Gadamer clarifies it, this means that on the one hand, it belongs to our historical finitude that we recognize that someone else may always come along and understand a text or an artwork differently later on at which point, on the other hand, the work in its apparent fullness still maintains the possibility of being understood. As John D. Caputo has put it, “The fullness of meaning […] cannot be contained by either author or interpreter, neither of whom is a match for or can contain the fullness which sweeps over them and holds them under its claim.” 8John D. Caputo, More Radical Hermeneutics: On Not Knowing Who We Are, (Bloomington; Indiana University Press, 2000), 47. Thus, in Truth and Method, “for our hermeneutic experience it is equally indubitable that it remains the same work whose fullness of meaning is realized in the changing process of understanding.” 9Gadamer, Truth and Method, 366 (379). Translation modified. If it is always this “fullness of meaning” that is actualized by a historically mutating understanding, and if therefore any historically differentiated understanding must always keep its undifferentiated potentiality-for-being with it, then the increase in being is possible, and can be experienced, only with a being whose presentation of entities (iconic or otherwise) is tied to and yet distinct from that which is represented (the thus understood). The actualization of potential beings can only take place between those two if they are tied together yet irreducible to each other. This is how images – unlike mirror reflections or symbols – make us see the world differently.
Now, as Gadamer expresses this by saying that the ontological event of iconic presentation occupies the same ontological level as the presented, he allows us to think the original [Das Urbild] in an equally unorthodox way, namely as a project, as what is being-thrown from the potentiality-for-being. In Gadamer’s aesthetics, ‘the original’ is conventionally taken to mean the real entity that is depicted in the artwork. If we challenge this trivial notion by recognizing in iconic presentation the fundamental prerequisites of the actualizing movement of understanding, then we see that pictorial art brings into view not merely some arbitrary new property of ‘the real thing.’ With an artwork, new visible percepts are rather thrown into being, literally “emanating” with the iconic event of presentation. “The content of the picture itself is ontologically defined as an emanation of the original. Essential to an emanation is that what emanates is an excess [Überfluß].” 10Ibid., 135 (145). Translation modified. Iconic presentation would take place on a field of actualization that stretches out only into the past and the future. The event is never present to itself. An image actualizes the virtual by offering at once its double sides to the projecting original, and that offering has no sense of now. Iconic actualization remains Janus-faced.
With this brief sketch, we hope to have outlined a sufficient framework for a possible definition of photographic space. Photographic space, we suggest, is a particular mode of iconic presentation. With regards to Gadamer, this is not suggested arbitrarily, for photography is to him a border case of image presentation. This much is clear from a passage in Truth and Method that can be found immediately prior to the one on the increase in being. Photography is described as the image form that is closest to the copy and the mirror reflection while nonetheless being an image proper. Gadamer reveals a classical ambivalence about mechanical image technologies, but he clears it up with the ontological notion of art. “Even today´s mechanical techniques can be used in an artistic way, when they bring out something that is not to be found simply by looking. This kind of picture is not a copy, for it presents something which, without it, would not present itself in this way. It says something about the original [e.g. a good photo portrait].” 11Ibid. 135 (144-5).
By writing “this kind of picture [Ein solches Bild],” a concept is reserved for a mechanically produced mode of iconic presentation. If this particular mode has its own place on the field of image actualization, then photographic space would constitute this delimited area. Photographic space actualizes potentialities in a particular way, which we may call photographic. With the term ‘photographic presentation’ we understand the event of making something show itself photographically, the event whereby the photographed comes into being. Gary Winogrand allegedly once said: “I photograph to see what things look like photographed.” He recognized that photographic presentation is an actualizing event that lets emanate the photographic being of something photographed. In a similar vein, but with a different artistic outcome, we speak of photography’s Sichtbar machen, its way of rendering things visible. Insofar, then, as one considers different photographic modes of presentation – for there are several – focus turns upon the deictic and representational practices that operate within some regime of expression. A regime of expression is a dominant (but never entirely hegemonic) structure that is organized by institutional framings and regulations of lasting but limited stability. With this shift of focus toward institutional regimes I deviate perhaps even further from orthodox hermeneutics. But it seems necessary not to overlook the ontological import from regional, social and historical structurings of what can be seen – what with a term from Gilles Deleuze’s book on Foucault one might call ‘visibilities.’ 12Gilles Deleuze, Foucault (London, Continuum: 2006), 41-58. The visibility of central perspective, for example, would speak of a dominating historical structure that is other than the technical device, other than its artistic use, and other than what it brings into view. The concept tries to grasp not a particular mode of presentation, but that which makes it hermeneutically, epistemologically, and politically operational. Visibility concerns how a particular mode of presentation finds for itself expansive possibilities in a strictly regulated distribution of gazes, bodies, and representations. For example, the invention of the coordinate system in the 17th century and the panoptic regime in the 19th century both rendered operative certain modes of presentation, whose expansive integration then supported the dominance of these visibilities in different ways and to different degrees. With these slowly shifting visibilities – which rarely replace each other linearly – iconic modes of presentation become operational. It means to say that their actualizations form part of an institutionally maintained machinery. Representational machines, as Philip Ursprung speaks of them, are such operative institutions of iconic presentation. As he makes it clear with the case of a GDR image archive, mutations of visibility amount to dramatically changing conditions for the presentation of the photographically depicted.
Space Mutations and Changing Visibilities
Conversely, there are ample opportunities within a dominant visibility to mutate its representational machines with new iconic presentations. And this means not necessarily to overturn the structure itself. When, for example, the nineteenth century journalist and tenement reformer Jacob A. Riis and his team of photographers began to photograph and showcase life in the working class districts of New York, he altered the established machines and their visibility but without causing a new one. 13Cf. Maren Stange, Symbols of Ideal Life: Social Documentary Photography in America 1890-1950 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989); Keith Gandal, The Virtues of the Vicious: Jacob Riis, Stephen Crane, and the Spectacle of the Slum (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997). Now, this mutation of a visibility occurred by way of modifying the iconic contexts and regulations that until the 1880’s distinguished various modes of presenting urban poverty and working class housing (e.g. slum-guide illustrations, theatre melodrama, circus display, educational lantern lectures, Christian philanthropy, etc.). We could say that with Riis’s dissemination of other photographs in other venues and together with other words, a change occurred among the representational machines that upheld the visibility of urban poverty. Their buttressing of distinguishing traits and values held suddenly lesser popular sway. But Riis’s alteration occurred within a visibility that thereby also accommodated this change. There was therefore no revolution of visibility. With Riis occurred a minor mutation of a structured order. But in turn, this mutation helped the photographic presentations – which in effect had challenged the order – take center stage in the modified structure.
One sometimes says, when in great haste, that Riis’s photographs were conditioned by the inventions of the flash, the fast dry plates, and portable cameras. One then hurries into techno-determinism. These technical achievements (and other developments as well) were important, not to say crucial for making the images, but they were not in themselves responsible for a modified photographic space. One has to reverse the argument: only in so far as we have a concept of photographic space is it possible to accurately describe how the representational machines of urban poverty changed with Riis’s work. By expanding available photographic space into new territories, thus to make other things photographable, did he move toward a mutation of visibility. And this expansion was conditioned by a will to represent, not by new technical means. By expanding into unchartered territories of iconic presentation could he actualize mere potential beings of the tenements, and thus he altered the fullness of its meaning. The means of exploring this territory was to make the photographic image offer its double sides otherwise to the virtual being of the tenements. Riis and his team had to experiment over and over in order to probe with the photographic apparatus for potential beings to actualize. Thus the expansion of photographic space: the space in which what can be photographed is distinct from what as yet can not.
Non-spatial aesthetics: Barthes vs. Kant
We must wait a little yet before proposing our positive definition of photographic space. First, we find it important to assess the theoretical implications of excluding the concept of space from photographic ontology. Among the things that Roland Barthes left most conspicuously unconsidered in his seminal study Camera Lucida were the implications on space from his radical non-distinction between photographic presentation and representation. Of course, the great marvel about photography is for Barthes that its images possess an irrefutable and irreducible oneness with their referent. What in semantic terms would be a signifier and a signified collapse with photography, and by that token is the referent, which Saussure had once expelled from the sign, not only back again, but laminated to the signifier. You cannot tear them apart without breaking both, says Barthes. 14Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (New York: Hill & Wang, 1981), 6. No longer a sign then, but a coexistence or a ”co-presence” 15Ibid., 84. of photographed and photograph, this intractable presence must be understood ontologically. The photographed, the image and the beholding experience become, as it were, spatially inseparable. There is no spatial distribution in a photographic experience as it is when I in a painting over there am presented with a landscape, a scene, or a face from yet somewhere else. When Barthes immerses himself in a photograph, what is photographed is no longer spatially ordered and presented before him; only temporally does it stand apart from his own presence. Note here the fundamental difference to Gadamer, to whom a photograph belongs to the iconic mode of presentation and who therefore can say of a portrait photograph: “it says something about the original.” This is not radical enough for Barthes. The meaning of his ”that-has-been”, or ”the thing has been there”, which he famously claims to be the noeme, the essence, of photography 16Ibid., 76. goes beyond any other deictic image. In the strongest ontological sense possible, the photograph is the being of the photographed – but in its past tense. Photographs are therefore experienced in time alone. To experience a photograph is to co-exist without spatial distinction, only in time, with what has been photographed. This is why Death is the eidos of photography, 17Ibid., 15. and why Barthes can explain this attribute with the sound of the camera. The clicking ”noise of Time” that makes of it ”a clock for seeing” also implies the necessary past: my singular past, my un-being, my Death. With the punctum experience, which is the searing, tearing, piercing of experience itself, space—and here is implied the Kantian form of intuition—is nullified. Punctum describes a purely inward experience that exists solely in time, differentiated only by time. It is absolutely singular.
According to Kant, the possibility of human intuition is conditioned by time and space. In the Transcendental Aesthetic of the Critique of Pure Reason, it is made clear that these two forms, time and space, are fundamental prerequisites for the ordering of interior and exterior sensations. Whereas time is conditional for the possibility of intuiting the soul’s inner state, space is conditional for the possibility of outer sensations. This is obviously said at the expense of intuiting space (and time) itself. Neither can one deduce an intuition of space itself from relations between exterior appearances. As he puts it, “the presentation of space cannot be one that we take from the relations of outer appearance by means of experience: rather, only through the presentation of space is that outer experience possible in the first place.” 18Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996), 77. In other words, we are only able to experience outer relations because we have space as a conditional form that so orders empirical intuition. Kant goes on to say,
Space is a necessary a priori presentation that underlies all outer intuitions. We can never have a presentation of there being no space, even if we are quite able to think of there being no objects encountered in it. Hence, space must be regarded as the condition for the possibility of appearances… 19Ibid., 78.
Unless Barthes blatantly ignores these Kantian cornerstones – and I think that the opposite is true – he suggests that photography is capable of provoking a sensation of the soul alone. This signals what he calls the adventure of photography, the arrival, the waiting for a past to come, which the intuition of the photographed implies. Again and again Barthes describes encounters with photographs as this temporal emergence. That which pierces and punctures the experience is usually discovered a short moment after the image has appeared before him, but when it comes, it arrives as the first and absolute thing. A glance through a magazine, a distracted leafing through a book, and a photograph appears; at first it is out there among all the other ordinary phenomena but then, suddenly, it is a strictly interior sensation, a primary one, an event exclusively of time, in the soul. ”This photograph which I pick out and which I love […] produces in me […] something more like an internal agitation, an excitement, a certain labor too, the pressure of the unspeakable which wants to be spoken.” 20Barthes, Camera Lucida, 19. What is this ‘the unspeakable’ but the Kantian thing in itself, albeit from the past? In this sense, Camera Lucida is a realist manifesto for the melancholic. ”The realists, of whom I am one…do not take the photograph for a ’copy’ of reality, but for an emanation of past reality: a magic, not an art.” 21Ibid., 88. The photograph is ”neither image nor reality, a new being, really: a reality one can no longer touch.” 22Ibid., 87. As Barthes here proposes metaphysical certainty about a thing which exists in itself presently and independently of human consciousness but in the past tense, as it were, he certainly exceeds the limits of all phenomenology.
What saves the proposition – or makes it worse – is that the thing in itself of the past affects only him. Its absolute presence is absolutely singular. Hence, the argument goes, this singular event of the image may be pursued analytically to no further level of generality than what the individual allows, given his particular whims, desires and taboos. This unique stand-point, this poignant perspective, this point of the punctum produces a solipsistic phenomenalism. In other words, the singular event is not analyzed in terms of sharable knowledge: it makes a point of esoteric insight and solitary introspection. With every chapter, Barthes closes the perspective a little bit more to finally become a hermit, an Abbott, a polar bear. He who initially wanted to “remonstrate with my moods” and keep from filling ”the scene of the text with my individuality” 23Ibid., 18 winds up confessing to ”a need to be alone with the photographs I am looking at,” 24Ibid., 97. comparing himself to medieval monks who withdrew from collective prayer for an individual, under-the-breath worship. The point of view is absolutely private: ”I will finally reach my mother’s very being,” 25Ibid., 99. and it is mystical: ”I get closer, I am burning: in a certain photograph I perceive the lineaments of the truth.” 26Ibid., 100.
Because Barthes found it necessary to jettison any distance to the photographed, the text is all the more effective in producing a certain distance to his readers. Quixotean pursuits are not to be accompanied; not even Sancho Panza could entirely follow his master. One may trot behind in awe and admiration, one may support the master, agree with him, and sympathize with his ordeals, but if anyone truly wishes to follow, it becomes imperative to stake out a singular path for oneself. But then, the approach repeats itself nonetheless. It forms for itself a model and is generalized. Hence, in either way, Barthes’ notion of absolute photographic singularity can only be read and understood in its repeatability. Absolute singularity always reveals in its difference from itself the mark of necessary iterability. No science of the singular is therefore unanimous with a singular person’s method. Placed in a certain post-Kantian context, the question of reconciling knowable phenomena with the ‘thing in itself,’ or of reconciling singular sensation with the question of Being, or of reconciling sense certainty with knowledge – none of these questions may be adequately approached with the moral consciousness that Hegel named a ’beautiful soul.’ Because this problem of reconciliation is in a sense the photographic problem per se, a problem that photography poses to phenomenological thinking as well as to our everyday consumption of family snaps and news footage, the photographic image is poorly grasped without a spatial notion for the potentiality of its sensuous appearances. A concept of space must be constructed for photography that conditions the sensuous appearance of the photographed. It would be an a priori space, conditioning not all possible exterior sensations, but all experienced modes of presentation that we call photographic.
Photographic Space as Translatability
What, then, is photographic space? In the most simple terms, it is that in which the photographed presents itself. (One can also say that relative to visibilities it is what renders representations recognizable and therefore potentially operative.) This means to say that the iconic differences in every photograph have emerged from a particular photographic space. Photographic space could be defined by what delimits it practically, when we photograph. It is then delimited by the configuration of values in the ratios of approximation that are at play between the photographic apparatus and the potentially photographable. A ratio of approximation would be the name for variable scales, each of which in different ways relate the photographically actualizing apparatus with the potentially photographable exterior, thereby determining how the latter will be actualized and presented/represented in the image. There are always several such scales involved in every particular actualization, for example, one can think of the scale of focus, the scale of color, the scale of movement, the scale of depth, and many others. Now, how does one set the conventionally correct value of the scale of focus? As we all know, it’s not enough to focus the lens on the target. Focus depends on many things: movement, proximity, lens transparency, focal depth, parallel lens and film planes, grain size, contrast, and so on. There are lots of parameters that affect focus. There equally many instructions available on how to set it correct. What is of interest here is not how to set it correct, but how variations of focus and non-focus distributed over an image surface may differentiate the photographic presentation of the represented. A photographer must know how to make an image by manipulating the scale of focus – and, of course, also by manipulating all other scales that are involved in actualizing the image. In short, one must enter photographic space. And although the configurations of values that in each case defines it are instrumental for the differentiation of image elements, what should be said about photographic space is not a matter of technical skills. It’s rather a matter of seeing things differently, of a prosthesis one may learn to use. And therefore a photographer must learn how to work the photographic space beyond focusing on technology, how to mind the image without aiming for an ideal image.
Walter Niedermayr makes the world visible in ways not seen before. His work reveals a fundamental interest in the creative potentialities that lie between the photographic apparatus and a potentially photographable world. Photographic space is here designed not for the sake of showing off technical mastery, but in view of making the world present itself otherwise. With Gadamer, one may well say that the being of the represented grows. Mountains become bigger. And nonetheless, it is not exclusively a matter of photographic space being manipulated here – these images are constructed in other ways as well. Diptychs, triptychs, and polyptychs present a singular image by juxtaposing several photographs, and these panels have therefore been carefully framed when photographed and are later sometimes mirrored, rotated, inverted, afterwards to produce the resulting view. However, what does involve photographic space is for one thing the careful coloration, which is all important for a consistent yet dynamic atmosphere to saturate the series of images. Coloration, like focus, involves numerous parameters and is a matter of letting the photographed world and the photographic apparatus relate in ways that will affect not only the image being made but also other images in the same series. What is more, for a composite to work, Niedermayr must maintain when photographing the same distance between camera and subject. Image elements that present a certain represented entity – say a group of hikers walking in line one after the other – must have the same size throughout the series of panels. They cannot follow perspective into the depth of the image, but must stay more or less on their picture plane, and this obviously needs to be taken into account when designing photographic space. To produce a mirror image for a diptych means to produce a new represented space by juxtaposing the ‘representing side’ of two images. By contrast, to produce images that so order their presentation of image elements that they may combine and construct an entirely new image means to consistently and consciously explore photographic space.
A poetics of photographic space could perhaps be developed, but I will instead turn toward the question of addressing a general notion of photographic space. One then begins to speak of something different, namely about what can be photographed, of what photography can do. This, of course, one cannot know in its totality. Which means to say, we are unable to declare the actual limits of what can and cannot be photographically presented. Now, this does not keep us from recognizing that, much like Jacob Riis, today’s photographers, scientists, military researchers and amateur enthusiasts still work to expand areas of the photographable while other areas fall into oblivion. For not only do we add new territory to what is already chartered; previously claimed areas are laid to waste, rendered inoperative and sinking into forgetfulness.
A promising way of thinking about photographic actualization is in terms of translation. In so far as photographic space translates what we can see and what we cannot see into the photographically presented, it is clear that photographs do not give way to the ‘original’ in any immediate sense. Like a passage through translation, photographic space is never neutral. Although we use photographs as if they had a privileged reference to the past, and rightfully we do as they have something unique to say about it, their common privilege is accorded on doubtful grounds. Forgetting as we often do that it is a matter of translation, we sometimes read so much of our desires for presence into them that we become deaf to what photographs actually have to say. This is what is happening in Camera Lucida, which amounts less to a theory of photography than to study in self-observation. If photographs were to legitimize their privilege otherwise than in psychological or political desires for pure presentation, it would necessarily be extracted from their mode of translation.
When photographic space actualizes an image in a photograph, it will always leave certain potentialities untouched, as much as it will distribute those actualized otherwise than a human gaze. Things do get lost in translation, but other things only present themselves with it. This is an arguably trivial way of introducing what Walter Benjamin termed translatability. 27Walter Benjamin, ”The Task of the Translator” in Selected Writings vol 1: 1913-1926 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996), 254. See also Samuel Weber, Benjamin’s –abilities (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008), especially 53-94. In a general sense, photographic space is translatability, übersetzbarkeit, i.e. the potentiality to translate from one ‘language’ into another but thereby also to bring into articulation something yet entirely inarticulable. With a Nietzschean inspiration, übersetzbarkeit suggested to Benjamin a field of capacity-regulating powers that enable and disable each other in response to changing actual conditions. Translatability pertains, as Samuel Weber has pointed out, both to the possibilities of translation as well as to the impossibilities of translation. And therefore one cannot quite compare the potentiality of translatability with Kantian conditions of possibility. One cannot derive the state of translatability from what is actually translated, precisely because it also contains that which makes translation impossible. But while it is impossible to determine its state of being, one may detect historical changes. Jacob A. Riis’s work reflects such change. It does not simply reveal the conditions of possibility that suddenly enabled photographs to show what his ones actually showed and to be operative as his ones were in fact operative. It reveals a modification of possibles and impossibles, a modification that brought into view previously unseen views of urban poverty – but at the expense of closing others. (What Riis made impossible to maintain, for example, was not only the prevailing iconoclastic taboo among serious reformers and philanthropists, but also the taboo against humor, irony and sarcasm in a charitable context.) The photographic capacity to bring into view something not seen before – from the edge of the image category where images are almost not autonomous – should be what legitimizes the photographic privilege.
Space of light
For the sake of clarification, allow us to give some vernacular examples of how the translation between the photographable world and the photographic apparatus would take place in the days of chemical photography. On a bright and sunny day where shadows were deep and highlights blazing, a photographer would regularly overexpose the film with a couple of stops in order afterwards to under-develop the film proportionally, thus to pull in the extreme contrasts within the sensitivity range of the film. In other words, the photographer would manipulate photographic space to make photographable what otherwise would not present itself. Likewise, when using flash in dark environments, one would adjust the aperture to the distance of the photographed object and to the power of the flashlight, while perhaps allowing a rather long shutter speed to allow ambient light to fill in an otherwise non-presenting background. A fast or a slow film, a choice of one developer over another: both would then affect how the image elements could present themselves in the negative. As a more advanced example, consider Jacques-Henri Lartigue’s famous race-car shot from 1912, where the camera’s focal plane shutter, which moves upward before the film like a scanner or a Xerox machine, creates in conjunction with the photographers’ panning movement, and the faster movement of the car, an exposure that literally tears background from foreground in each direction. In those days, photographers also knew that colors were not simply ‘left outside of’ black-and-white translatability, for many black-and-white emulsions responded more sensitively to high-energy blues than to reds. A red polka dot dress would appear white with black dots whereas a blue one would be white and light-grey, unless a colored filter changed this particular circumstance. Generally, while processing one’s negatives, one would learn how to affect photographic space in different ways: by choosing between an array of various chemical compounds (or by mixing them oneself), by calculating the duration of the developing process, by controlling the frequency and the intensity of agitation and by adjusting the temperature of the fluids, in short, by selecting carefully among infinite possible combinations, or conversely by resigning and hope for the best, the actualization of exposed film would in any case render a singular, particular distribution of elements, which, if the result was a negative, only constituted once more a virtual image. From the negative, another emulsion had to be exposed and developed, which meant a new photographic space to be designed.
In spite of what may now have been suggested, photographic space is not a technical thing. In fact, photographic space is not itself a thing at all, it cannot be an object for a photographer, it cannot photograph itself and while it is nonetheless conditional for every photograph, it is different from itself. It is this self-difference that mandates the irreducible multiplicity and distinction of scales. All scales are at all times during the process set at some value, regardless of whether or not they are consciously determined. Some photographers are very nitty-gritty about it, others more relaxed. Like an architect, a photographer designs his or her photographic space with a set of relevant scales, whose values serve to actualize the photographable. To make some final comments on the self-difference of photographic space, we return to the works by Walter Niedermayr.
What represents itself in his photographs is easy to see: skiers, glaciers, mountain tops, rocks, ice, hospital rooms, motorways, public interiors, prison cells, detention centers, high clouds, cityscapes and tiny people. What by contrast presents itself are iconic relationships. One image element relates to another; others relate to one or a few to all others. We have already spoken of how colors relate in an image and between images, and how a group of hikers must relate in a polyptych to the perspective order of many elements. But one element in particular may be worth dwelling upon a little. For what in a unique sense holds many relationships together is the color white. A bright whiteness saturates the images, and it has become a hallmark of Niedermayr’s photographic space. One might even say that what presents itself in Niedermayr’s work do so relative to this whiteness. And that holds true also for the few exceptions where it appears less pronounced than most. So what the picture represents seem to bathe in it, as if in an artificial luminescence.
We have take note of the common privilege of photographic veracity, and that it is legitimized by the presumed correspondence between presentation and that which is represented. What is interesting about Niedermayr’s whiteness, is that it reveals a logic of non-correspondence. Before we see how this non-correspondence of whiteness relates to the dividing white stripe that connects and separates two or more photographs in a multiple, let’s turn again to the phrase, ‘it seems as if the represented bathes in it.’ Many commentators have over the years remarked upon it, and particularly the paleness it gives to the depicted objects. The artist himself called his 1993 series of mountain images “Die bleichen Berge,” and the attribute seems to have caught on. About the prison interiors it has been said that, “With the momentum of overexposure he creates an aesthetic that almost gives way to an impression of the uncanny upon extended viewing.” 28http://www.artfacts.net/index.php/pageType/newsInfo/newsID/2593/lang/1 About the images from Iran, entitled ‘Recollection,’ one may read on a website that “the light colour composition of his photographs takes them beyond a purely documentary style and towards that of narrative. ‘Recollection’ could refer to the photographer’s memories of his travels or also the recollection of Tehran…” 29http://www.gosee.de/news/shop/walter-niedermayr-recollection-die-schoenheit-der-iranischen-architektur-und-ihre-historie-9520?gos_lang=en. In fact, the title ’Recollection’ stems from Aleida Assman, Erinnerungsräume:Formen und Wandlungen des kulturellen Gedächtnisses (München, C.H. Beck: 1999), 91-107. It names a subjective, Romantic, approach to remembrance, cognition and articulation and is distinct from the Enlightenment’s Memoria and the Modern Anamnesis. But what if that paleness of the mountains and the prison cells, the Iranian cityscape and the architectural marvels of Sanaa would be something else than an attribute of the photographed? What is it about this paleness that makes the mountains ‘Majestic’ 30 whereas it turns Iranian cities into a reminiscing narrative, Sanaa’s architecture into an airy paradise and the prisons into something uncanny? If the whiteness somehow deepens the emotional associations that viewers have about prisons, Alpine landscapes, ethereal architecture and so on, well, then the effect is a psychological, or, at most, a semiotic phenomenon. But if the whiteness belongs to the image, it is another matter. Then we might recognize that it does not represent anything, that it is part exclusively of the relational distribution of image elements, and that it then belongs to the translation of the photographable. In other words, what whiteness does on the side of representation is something other than what it does on the side of presentation. On the latter side, which is where the distribution of the translatable takes place, where image elements are actualized by a photographic space, the whiteness, which has no signified, nor is itself something represented, is itself not meaningful. It has no meaning – although it has everything to do with making visible. Hence, on the one hand – on the side of representation – it obviously conjures up in the viewer attributes of the represented subject, but on the other, so to speak, it is mute. Whiteness is only insofar as all other iconic relations also relate to it. It repeats itself, in image after image, being thus what makes each image unique, ‘a Walter Niedermayr’ as one would say, a unique work of art, a signature, and therefore is it also fundamentally repeatable: a series, a variation, without original.
The artist himself calls it ‘brightness’ and has, upon direct questioning, this to say about it: “It appears to me to as brightness, for brightness is to me about making some other thing visible. I don’t aspire to a documentary representation, I rather try with technical means of photography to dispute the medium’s ostensible claims to realism and instead to point out the openness and the boundlessness that lies in front of and behind the image.” 31 Brightness is not a reference to photographic space, nor is its expression. In Jacques Derrida’s sense of the word, it would be its mark. (If brightness were to appear as a reference to photographic space, or as its expression, it would impose a signifying relationship, a relationship that then makes of it a token of photographic space, a representation of it. This is hardly possible, however, as iconically signifying relationships subsist only between image elements and the represented. What conditions the possibility of their signification cannot itself be signified, be part of signification, without at the same stroke transforming into a symbol of itself. So how to speak about brightness, given that we have characterized it as being different from itself, an iterability that conditions uniqueness? As a mark.) Brightness re-marks photographic space out of its repeatability. Mark is not merely a dent or an impression, it is also the iterability, i.e. the potentiality to be repeated, which is what conditions the uniqueness of the singular dent, the unique one, the first, the presented. Brightness marks the moment of actualization where something becomes photographically visible. It marks, in other words, the ontological event of photographic space and the growth of being that it implies. And this is how this whiteness also relates to the dividing line between photographs. As this line divides and connects, binds and cuts at the same stroke, it also marks the distinct relationship between iconic presentation and representation. The frame of the image, marking the outside without which the image could not represent something and be operative within a given visibility, this frame stands out, appears to the viewer, as the image’s unique limit with the introduction of the white section. Repeatability as condition for uniqueness is also visible on the side of the represented. The prison cell must be repeated, indeed repeatable, for the prison to justify itself as a means of justice, as a just means of justice, in response to particular, unique crimes. Similarly, a crime must be repeatable for it to come under the law and be subject to justice and to correction. Likewise in the hospital, your sickness is yours, unique, singular, but in order for it to be a disease it must be diagnosable, and hence repeatable. This relationship between uniqueness and iterability reflects in the architecture of the hospital, in the prison, in the ski resorts, the glacier tours, and in the unique city of Teheran, the antipode of the west, the unique anti-city which repeats so many suburbs, highways, and public areas.
Photographic space is re-marked by Niedermayr in order that the space of the ski resorts and the architectural masterpieces be unfolded as photographed. To produce, to present, to represent – this is a spatial enterprise for photography.
Published in: A. Dahlgreen, D. Petersson, & N. Lager Vestberg (Eds.), Representational Machines: Photography and the Production of Space. (pp. 107-147). Aarhus Universitetsforlag.
1 This concept has previously been outlined in a number of texts, published mostly in Scandinavian languages, e.g. Dag Petersson, ”Upptäckten av fotografiets rum” in Fotografiske dialekter eds. Mogensen and Krogholm (Svanesund, NSU Press: 2005), 165-184; ”Det fotografiske rum” in Filter – for fotografi, 1:2, 2008, 122-127; ”Fotografischer Raum / Photographic Space” in Olafur Eliason: Life in Space 09.05.2008 (Dornbirn, Zumtobel: 2008), 12.09-12.27; The Art of Reconciliation: Photography and the Conception of Dialectics in Benjamin, Hegel and Derrida, (Houndmills, Palgrave Macmillan: 2013), 22-24.
2 Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (London, Continuum: 2004), 133-34. [Gesammelte Werke, (Tübingen, Mohr Siebeck: 2010) Bd. 1, Hermeutik I: Wahrheit und Methode: Grundzüge einer philsophischen Hermeneutik, 143.)
3 Ibid., 135 (144). Translation modified.
4 Ibid., 147.
5 Ibid., 135 (145).
6 Ibid., 250 (264).
7 Ibid., 366 (379).
8 John D. Caputo, More Radical Hermeneutics: On Not Knowing Who We Are, (Bloomington; Indiana University Press, 2000), 47.
9 Gadamer, Truth and Method, 366 (379). Translation modified.
10 Ibid., 135 (145). Translation modified.
11 Ibid. 135 (144-5).
12 Gilles Deleuze, Foucault (London, Continuum: 2006), 41-58.
13 Cf. Maren Stange, Symbols of Ideal Life: Social Documentary Photography in America 1890-1950 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989); Keith Gandal, The Virtues of the Vicious: Jacob Riis, Stephen Crane, and the Spectacle of the Slum (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).
14 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (New York: Hill & Wang, 1981), 6.
15 Ibid., 84.
16 Ibid., 76.
17 Ibid., 15.
18 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996), 77.
19 Ibid., 78.
20 Barthes, Camera Lucida, 19.
21 Ibid., 88.
22 Ibid., 87.
23 Ibid., 18
24 Ibid., 97.
25 Ibid., 99.
26 Ibid., 100.
27 Walter Benjamin, ”The Task of the Translator” in Selected Writings vol 1: 1913-1926 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996), 254. See also Samuel Weber, Benjamin’s –abilities (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008), especially 53-94.
29 http://www.gosee.de/news/shop/walter-niedermayr-recollection-die-schoenheit-der-iranischen-architektur-und-ihre-historie-9520?gos_lang=en. In fact, the title ’Recollection’ stems from Aleida Assman, Erinnerungsräume:Formen und Wandlungen des kulturellen Gedächtnisses (München, C.H. Beck: 1999), 91-107. It names a subjective, Romantic, approach to remembrance, cognition and articulation and is distinct from the Enlightenment’s Memoria and the Modern Anamnesis.
30 See for example the blurb for “Recollection” at Amazon.com: “As with Niedermayr’s famous winter landscapes, the majestic, pale color composition of these photographs transports them far beyond mere documentary, towards a sense of tremendous scale and implied political narrative.”
31 Interview with Barbara Hein, “Dunkelheit lässt Dinge verschwinden” in Art: das Kunstmagazin 23/12, 2008. http://www.art-magazin.de/kunst/13933/walter_niedermayr_interview