infra-thin: Creating a Dialogue between Photography and Philosophy

It is ten years ago this month that I first encountered conceptual photography. In the summer of 2006 I was interning at a small artist-owned gallery in Washington D.C. and spent most days off exploring the capital. The marbled halls of its museums and air-conditioned galleries offered a welcome alternative to the unforgiving midday sun, and on what turned out to be the hottest day of the summer I found myself in one of many galleries of the Smithsonian Institution. The American Art Museum had been hosting an exhibition entitled Passing Time: The Art of William Christenberry, which featured paintings, sculptures and over one hundred and thirty photographs by the artist from the Southern United States. I remember finding Christenberry’s rather personal record of Alabama’s regional heritage moving, particularly his photographs of weathered buildings in Hale and Tuscaloosa County. I had never experienced photography in this way; despite his analytical, objective approach Christenberry’s photographs seemed to convey something far more profound than the examples of “fine art” photography I was familiar with at the time, something which, to this day, has remained ineffable.

For years to come I would return to Green Warehouse, Newbern, a series of color photographs taken by the artist over a period of thirty-two years. The images, which depict a warehouse constructed from weathered, corrugated iron, offer the viewer a variety of vantage points; some provide a full-frontal view of the warehouse while others are taken from a distance, shifting the focus from the unwavering shed to the surrounding rural landscape. A number of images are details of the buildings structural elements, e.g. its central pitched roof and its wooden door, supported by a set of rusted metal hinges. Despite the series’ rather mundane content, I remember, as I moved from from one photograph to the next, being absorbed by it. What exactly was it I found so utterly captivating about Christenberry’s seemingly banal subject matter, particularly his small-scale photographs which may as well have been commissioned by the Tuscaloosa County Archives?

I felt so strongly about Christenberry’s œuvre that his topographic archive would become the topic of my BA dissertation some six years later. My thesis presented the ideal opportunity to articulate precisely what it was I found so captivating. However, I soon realized that writing about photography seemed to differ greatly from writing about other art forms and, perhaps inevitably, my thesis in no way mirrored my experience of Christenberry’s work. There was, firstly, the challenge of writing about photography itself; what was meant to be a thesis on the rather oblique nature of Christenberry’s photographs and my experience of them, turned into yet another “history of photography”. I learned that from its inception, photography had been almost exclusively discussed in terms of its relation to society, i.e. its social, commercial and political uses throughout history, its inherent temporality, which is often associated with psychological trauma and finally, its relation to other art forms, particularly painting and cinema. My experience of Christenberry’s work, what I had felt, was eclipsed by what appears inextricable from writings on photography: the medium and its relation to time—the trauma resulting from the temporal dualities within the photograph as well as its inability to depict movement—would become the main focus of my thesis.

Christenberry’s commitment in documenting the decay of selected structures undoubtedly creates an additional, temporal dimension in his work. His photographs, which register natural as well as artificial changes over a prolonged period of time, allow for the construction of a narrative; they tell stories that contribute to a history related to the Southern United States. While it may not have been misguided to acknowledge this inherent temporality and its interrelation to the experience of Christenberry’s photographs, it seemed impossible to think about the essence of the photographs themselves. Needless to say I was dissatisfied with the outcome of my thesis, which I believed was defined by justification and reiteration. In the months leading up to my MA I continued my research into the history of photography, determined to find a theory that did not reduce photography to its perceptual, technological or political conditions of existence, a piece of writing that would make as much, that is to say as little sense to me as the photographs I had seen seven years earlier. The rather abstract question underlying my research would ultimately inspire my thesis:

Is it possible to write about photography without writing about photography?

It was not until I wrote an essay on Henri Bergson’s concept of progressive memory, and its relevance to the phenomenology of photography that I came to a rather significant realization: due to the nature of Bergson’s hypothesis, the essay examined the act of taking a photograph rather than the photographic image itself, and suggested the former was purely intuitive. That is to say Bergson’s theory led me to believe that the act of taking a photograph was not based on conscious reasoning. My renewed understanding of what preceded the photograph did not only change the way in which I thought about the image itself; suddenly, the numerous interpretations imposed on photography since its inception were rendered invalid. If only for an instant the photographer’s relationship to the world was radically indeterminate, how could we begin to “think” our relationship to the photograph? I found myself thinking about William Christenberry again, only this time I considered the photographer himself, his commitment to place, and the structures he chose to photograph. I never believed that Christenberry thought of his subject in relation to a “history” or “theory of photography”. It was only upon completing my essay that I began to think of Christenberry’s photographs as a relationship between his subjects and himself. I believed it was precisely through this relation, a radical indeterminacy that we must seek to describe, or think the essence of photography.

The question then was no longer, “is it possible to write about photography without writing about photography?” Indeed, it was never photography I wished to dispose of. I believed in order to think the essence of photography it was a way of thinking about photography that must be suspended, a thinking that takes itself as the authority on what can be “thought”. After all, it was this way of thinking that led to my frustration with what I believed was photography itself. The second question, no less disorienting than than the first, was:

Is it possible to write about photography without writing about philosophy?

In his book The Concept of Non-Photography, François Laruelle develops a rigorous new thinking of the photograph in its relation to philosophy, science and art. He believes in order to think the essence of photography it must be thought separate from a burden imposed upon it with the help of philosophy. Laruelle maintains that the work of non-photography does not designate an anti-photography, but “a new description and conception of the essence of photography and the practice that arises within it; of its relation to philosophy; of the necessity no longer to think it through philosophy and its diverse ‘positions’ but to seek an absolutely non-onto-photo-logical thinking of essence […]” [1]. Laruelle’s writings on photography in particular prompted me to think about photography in more general terms: photography as-a-whole, in-itself. While my MA thesis was essentially an exegesis of Laruelle’s work, I felt it had brought me one step closer to what I felt, or thought about photography and its relationship to philosophy. In 2013 I started my PhD, with the hope of finding what it was I was looking for, of answering the many questions left unanswered.

One week ago I decided to end my studies. While I want to continue my research into the relationship between thought and the photographic image I felt that a PhD—a rigorous, structured analysis—was not the way I wanted to explore this relationship at this stage. Interestingly, it is Georges Bataille’s notion of nonknowledge that permeates most of my writing on photography, a term which denotes the very opposite of delineated knowledge. I came across nonknowledge during my BA, at a time when I was struggling to come to terms with my own art practice, as well as an overwhelming amount of critical theory and philosophy. Bataille did not place nonknowledge outside of, or in contradiction to knowledge, but inside its very fabric. He believed that not-knowing was prerequisite for the creative act, and it is with this idea in mind that I want to keep this blog, which aims to explore the relationship between knowledge and art production, or art and knowledge production, by way of the photographic. Thanks for reading.

[1] François Laruelle. The Concept of Non-Photography, trans. Robin Mackay (London: Urbanomic, 2011) 4.

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