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What Photography Is 1st Edition
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'The most exciting feature for me of this fascinating book was its articulation of the importance of writing in our engagement with photography. Writing for Elkins means the capacity to elicit articulate intensity in the tracking of the intricate turns and balances that can, and should, take place in a mind responding to expressive non-discursive materials. Here the distinctive feature of photography as a medium is not the punctum or the pursuit of sublimity but the photograph's powers for producing self-reflexive attention to how the work makes us see our own seeing--a power that is at risk when we become proud of the rhetorics that displace what the engagements of distinctive writing can bring to our attention.' - Charles Altieri, University of California, Berkeley
'In an impassioned dialogue with Roland Barthes, Jim Elkins argues that photography is not "about" representation and memory―those aspects of the Barthean punctum; rather, photography is "at war with our attention." If we focus on its essential materiality and physicality, photography shows us things we would often prefer not to see―the "splotches and stains, cracks, unpleasant shadows, errant dust" in our natural environment as well as the human pain too hard to look at and yet unavoidably there. What is given by photography is the "grainy substance of the world" in all its irritating contradictions, its "displeasures"--the aporias that make the act of seeing itself so difficult. Elkins’s disillusioned meditation on how photography actually works upon the viewer is as original as it is profound.' Marjorie Perloff, author of Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media and Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the 21st Century
About the Author
James Elkins is E.C. Chadbourne Chair in the Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is the author of Pictures and Tears, How to Use Your Eyes, Stories of Art, Visual Studies, Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles, Our Beautiful, Dry, and Distant Texts, On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art, and Master Narratives and Their Discontents, all published by Routledge.
He is editor of Art History Versus Aesthetics, Photography Theory, Landscape Theory, The State of Art Criticism, and Visual Literacy, all published by Routledge.
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Possibly one of the worst books I've read. This is an internal monolog of the author, full of digressions, resulting in very few interesting conclusions. If "Camera Lucida" is your bedside book you might want to read it, but do you read it, because otherwise you will never understand the fight that Elkins has with Barthes.
Photography is not a medium for some art form but is an art form itself. Elkins' book establishes this fact.
A must read for anyone that wants to understand what photography actually is. Readers that agree with James Elkin's opinion may also go through an essay by Paul Graham entitled " The Unreasonable Apple" to be found at - paulgrahamarchives.
In the preface to the book he states his intention to "write against and through" Barthes, and moreover to do so in the form that Barthes chose for Camera Lucida, which is free-flowing personal writing which avoids, as much as possible, the heavy apparatus of academic discourse (above all documented references to the author's own and other academic writers' theories and sayings) and explores its subject in a direct, subjective, even introspective way.
He begins Chapter 1 "Writing" by offering his own version of the first couple paragraphs of CL, taking over whole sentences but making two substantive changes: (1) the inciting image, where he substitutes for Barthes' picture of the younger brother of Napoleon ("I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor") a picture of a selenite window in a Southwestern adobe structure, and (2) the medium to which photography is declared to be in opposition, substituting for Barthes's Cinema his own Painting. (The latter seemingly referring to his other book because he does not talk at all about painting in the body of WPI). After that he goes off on his own and talks about writing and Barthes' CL and concludes the chapter by saying (p. 14): "The only way to reply to a book as strange as Barthes's is to write another one even stranger." And then, in the next five chapters, he does exactly that.
In Chapter 2 "Selenite, Ice, Salt" he comes back to the image of the selenite window that he started out with and adds two more, one looking down into transparent (where not cracked) lake ice and another, a magnified image of a crystal of rock salt that contained (until scientists extracted it) a bubble of trapped water - and bacteria - from the Permian Age. In the end he dismisses all three as "failed looks into or through something" and "failed photographic windows." He includes some more photos, including Kertész's Little Ernest, which Barthes' included in CL as an example of death as punctum ("Is he alive today?") and which Elkins takes as Barthes' canonical "ordinary" image (i.e. other than the described but unshown picture of his mother at age 5 posing with her brother in the Winter Garden). In this chapter Elkins rejects Barthes' punctum-dependent way of looking at photographs as yielding only "toy journeys" and at the same time, I think not totally consciously, starts to reveal his own way of looking, which, with its little made up stories about the origins of scratches and marks and smudges and masked out areas, seems every bit as much about toy journeys, even if of a very different kind.
Chapters 3, 4, and 5 "From the Green River to the Brunswick Peninsula", "A drop of Water, World Trade Center Dust", and "The Rapatronic Camera" are the heart of the book (even though Elkins says at some point that his book has no heart). They contain many photographs that most people would accept as within the normal limits of photography, and they are clearly carefully selected and grouped. Elkins continues to "write against" Barthes in these chapters, but he also talks a lot about various kinds of photography, even if, more often than not, mostly to reject them. In Chapter 3 he rejects photographs of people (Barthes's terminal weakness). In Chapter 4 he gives a much longer list, starting with people (including family photos, found photography, and street photography), and then also the sublime, the picturesque, the surreal, the simply beautiful, and anything with overt cultural or emotional content. As part of this he rejects practically all fine art photography (the one exception being Thomas Demand, because he takes pictures of paper). For him all these kinds of photography are "distractions". What's left when you eliminate them all is what he calls "hard" photography.
The approved images, with some omissions, are as follows. Chapter 3: side-by-sides, including Mark Klett's uncannily exact reshootings of Timothy O'Sullivan images done over 100 years before, Robert Humphrey's reshootings of all (?) the obelisk markers on the Arizona-Mexico border (done by a scientist for scientific purposes), and his own grandmother's "Red Dot" stereoscopic images (which Elkins praises as exceptionally high-quality 3D), then photos that become interesting through blown-up details, including the anonymous ca. 1924 picture of Darwin's Rhea (a rare flightless bird found in Tierra del Fuego, which appears on the WPI cover). Chapter 4: pictures with murky (unfocused, smeared-looking) "surrounds", and lots of microphotographs of one-celled (or less?) organisms, some made by the author using his own equipment. And Chapter 5: five 1 millionth of a sec exposures of the beginnings of an atomic explosion taken by Harold D. Edgerton (whose iconic drop of milk image had been rejected by Barthes in CL as an example of a "shock" picture i.e. a guaranteed attention getter).
In Chapter 6 "Lingqi" Elkins returns to pictures of people, but only of the most bizarre - or for him, "hardest" - sort. Apart from some general discussion it is entirely devoted to a series of anonymous photos taken in Beijing in 1905 of a man being executed by lingqi or "death by a thousand cuts". The chapter includes 11 images, some of which are details of others. Elkins indicates that he learned of the pictures from a posthumously published book of George Bataille and has published them himself in other places and also has used them as course materials. Here he gives virtually no context (what he does give is on pp. 193-4, where he says that the goal was not infliction of pain but the destruction of the soul - ah the mysterious orient). He stresses the difficulty of looking at the pictures and seems to advocate (including to his students) their use a way to experience pain through photography, but it's not clear to me whether the goal is enlightenment or simply self-flagellation. He talks a lot of theory in the chapter, about the body as a locus of pain and monstrosity, but does not touch on a point that Barthes might have made had he looked at the pictures and thought about them, which is the difference between photography and film: what Christian Metz said after him, that looking at photography is fetishism (the looker controls the image), whereas looking at film is voyeurism (the image controls the looker). I think the linqgi would be much more "difficult" as film than as the collection of photographs that Elkins presents.
Chapter 6 is the last chapter, and the last nine pages of it leave the main subject of lingqi behind and offer a conclusion to the whole book. He returns to the world of art history and theory and criticism that he left behind (mostly) at the beginning of the book and appears ready to go back to academic business as usual. He concludes as follows: "I have tried to write against the warm, moist and invasive sadness [of Barthes' CL]. I have tried to write a sterile book, with a minimum of interruptions from pathos, art, memory, loss or nostalgia, because that is what I think photography also is." The final sentence is ambiguous, but I read it as meaning that photography is also sterile as the book is.
As opposed to each other as they seem to be, WPI and CL are for me much more alike than different. Two smart people who care about photography pick a few photographs (from thousands, from millions) and weave stories around them. They put aside their academic modes of thought and focus on articulating and rationalizing their feelings. Barthes' pictures cluster around the center of photography (what it is about for the vast majority of people); Elkins are scattered around the periphery, where few people go. But interestingly, they agree on something where many others would disagree: they both gravitate to straight photography in which the relationship of the image to the object (or at least the physical object) is as direct as the optics will allow. (I assume this is why Elkins, p. 175, dismisses the work of Noriko Furunishi, whose dizzying earthscapes, manipulated as they are, seem a perfect fit for his "hard" aesthetic.) They also are both accepting, if not actively biased towards, black and white photography. And finally I would say that they are both resistant to whatever in a photograph is being forced on them by the photographer, and respond to it by settling on something else to look at in the picture. (This, I believe, is what underlies Barthes' jump from the studium to the punctum.)
CL and WPI are both all about reception of photographs and say little about production, intent, or cultural significance, or about photography as art. CL is more proactive (creative if you will), Elkins more reactive. That may be partly due to timing, but it probably also reflects a difference in their temperaments. I personally prefer Barthes because he says things that catch me by surprise. Elkins doesn't do this, his thought process is just too orderly.
CL is a great book. WPI is a good book. Neither is for everybody. If you're going to read either one, I recommend reading both. 4 stars for WPI.