Photography’s New Materiality?

From its earliest manifestations in the form of the reflective Daguerreotype or the utilitarian Carte de Visite, the photographic image has been an active rather than passive object.

Manipulated in the hand, or physically exchanged, the image combines a function—an act of representation—with a use and history that constructs how that image communicates. We might say that the image constructs a meaning specifically navigated through use.

Early photographic images were specific in what they chose to depict, along with their modes of communication and distribution. The development of photography in its early years has been widely reported, but the history of the medium too often becomes a history of chemical development and technological determinism. We currently lack a history that aligns the technical advances of photography to specific material properties of the image; understood as decisions and not technologically determined limitations.

The experimental and material photography that resulted from the practices of Pictorialism, Dada and Surrealist montage (where technological considerations did not hold sway) reappear today in the form of new abstractions and photographic objects that have become a staple of recent art practice. As the material sites of intervention, and three-dimensional objects whose physicality operates within the spatial limits of the gallery, these works emphasise the long established, but easily neglected, detail of the image’s objecthood.

But what propels this return to materiality and the emergence of an object-based practice in recent photography? Why now? Is it resonant in and of this moment in the twenty-first century, or can it simply be reduced to the perceived crisis in photographic practice caused by the ‘death’ of analogue?

The early incarnations of photography were defined by the medium’s relationship to its materials of making: the specific properties through which the photograph came into being. From Heliograph to Daguerreotype to Calotype, each seemed to depend on its own chemical and material constitution, distinct characteristics that were subsequently possessed by the viewer in the act of consumption. But in the making public of the medium’s invention that dominates most histories of the medium, two important properties are sometimes forgotten, such are the emphases on a medium ultimately understood as democratic.

First, we should remember that in the Heliograph or the Daguerreotype, as with many early processes, the end result was a unique image. Photography was not multiple, but singular. The photograph maintained rather than displaced any notion of aura inscribed within the image through the expanded moment of exposure in which, as Benjamin suggested in his ‘Short History of Photography’, the sitter was not excised, but grew into the frame. Following Benjamin, it is in the cultural re-deployment of the image under reproductive conditions that Photography, as we know it, began. Undoing Benjamin, could we state that Photography is actually singular, and is made multiple?

Second, we might recall the competitive claims for ownership of various photographic methods by Niépce, Daguerre and Fox Talbot, which reveal the entrepreneurial undercurrent of photography’s early development. Founded not upon the ability of the camera to capture an image (the much earlier camera obscura), but to record it permanently, the dispute was not one of conception, but execution, chemical, and based upon material substrates: founded upon a supposedly “unique” composition, rooted in a material constitution.

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We might conclude that the early experimentation with the medium had as its objective two values: first, to fix the latent image—something which Sir John Herschel had identified chemically and which Niépce also achieved before Daguerre—but secondly to possess it, to exploit this formulation for profit through patenting. The making public of photography and circumvention of Fox Talbot’s Calotype patent—to produce a more affordable reproducibility—only came after processes were clearly identified with specific chemical compositions and legally attributed authors. Why else would the invention of the medium continue to be so hazy or contested?

All of this suggests that the early practice of photography was rooted in its objecthood and materiality. We might see a similar concern in the earliest cultural uses of its images at a time in which the initial appreciation of the medium’s technical wonder had not yet begun to fade. Prior to George Eastman’s introduction of the infamous labour-saving claim ‘You Press The Button, We Do The Rest’ in 1888, photography was a painstaking process: the coating and processing of plates and hand-printed negatives was constitutive of a labour that would not be appreciated by the ordinary viewer, as (ideally) technical refinement obscured the hand of the maker and eliminated any chemical irregularity that threatened to draw attention to the print’s surface.

It fell to early Pictorialism and abstraction—and the intention that photography be accepted and appreciated as a practice of art—to reject the automaticity of the photograph and make apparent its manipulation by hand. An early photographic self-portrait by Edward Steichen shows him holding not a camera but a paintbrush, a symbolic gesture that at the time would have been read as an aspiration to the status of the painting, but might now signal instead the impurity of the photographic image as a representation on a material support.

Marcel Duchamp stated famously that ‘(y)ou know exactly how I feel about photography. I would like to see it make people despise painting until something else will make photography unbearable’. But this challenge to painting’s hegemonic status was not without its wilful contradictions. Duchamp himself also used painting against photography – his delicate working in oil and pastel over the surface of a reproduction of his own Nude Descending a Staircase subtly transformed the image. If photography would supersede the hand that draws, such a gesture—a subtle and yet exaggerated retouching—might already anticipate a return. We could see Duchamp’s wish fulfilled in the static photograph’s fall to cinematic motion; but it could be argued that that which makes photography unbearable has actually arrived from within. Today, with claims for separate analogue and digital ontologies, and with frequently cited crises, anxieties and ‘ends’ provoked by the digital image, the field of photographic discourse frequently resembles a panicked crowd.

Transformations in the digital technologies of the late twentieth century have provoked an anxiety of the photographic image that seems related to the loss of its material presence as it has become reconfigured as data for a potential (rather than fully materialised) image, encountered on screen, if at all. And while the conditions of new media have generated new reflections on how we might experience—and understand—materiality itself, developments in technology recognise our obstinate desire, still, to consume photographs through both vision and touch. However displaced and fetishised by the shiny gloss of the screen, touch-screen technology encourages that haptic gaze.

At the same time, a concern for re-finding or redefining the photograph’s continuing claim to materiality has returned in contemporary practice. A number of recent exhibitions have foregrounded this material turn in a variety of ways—from the testing of the limits of photographic materiality in The Photographic Object at The Photographers’ Gallery and The Object of Photography at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery in Leeds in 2009; the emphasis on camera-less photograms for the tracing of light, water, and the effects of photographic chemistry at the V&A’s Shadow-Catchers (2010-11), to explorations of relationship between the dexterous logic of both photography and weaving in Glenn Adamson’s Shot Through, in Norway in late 2011.

It could be argued that a concern for materiality never really went away. An understanding of photography as a hand-dependent print-making process was central to the persistence of so-called “alternative” methods that continued to be practised throughout the twentieth century as a parallel, if sometimes hidden, tributary of the silver-based mainstream. Crystallised as a resistance movement in the late 1960s in reaction to the commercial dominance of “Kodakification”, “alternative” photography at times threatened to disrupt the twentieth century’s technologically determined aesthetic—sometimes even breaking into the modernist institution (in the replacement of Minor White by Betty Hahn at the helm of Rochester Institute of Technology in 1970, for example).

Hahn, along with other prominent female photographers such as Bea Nettles and Barbara Kasten were intent on exploiting a full range of photographic processes in order to both foreground and question the photograph’s materiality. Experimenting with the abstraction offered by cyanotype, the ephemerality of gum bichromate and the paper fragility of the calotype, and deploying camera-less techniques, sensitised fabrics and hand-sewing, the concern for materiality did not simply revoke outmoded methods, but staged critiques of photographic representation that looked forward to the concerns of postmodernism and retained a resolute commitment to the medium itself.

The contemporary concern for materiality in some of photography’s biggest names—Sally Mann’s use of wet collodion and ambrotype, Chuck Close’s return to the daguerreotype, Adam Fuss’s exploration of the photogram, to name just a few—might offer a similar gesture of resistance toward digital dominance as it threatens to squeeze out difference and create homogeneity where once there was variety and experiment. Sally Mann is particularly vocal in her rejection of digital technology, insisting on the importance of the making of the analogue photograph rather than the taking of the digital image—an act that she likens to the violence of a “drive-by shooting.” In contrast, her adoption of the painstaking labour of the collodion process inscribes a bodily quality in the very structure of the medium, one that is excised in the digital photograph’s disembodied taking. ‘The digital image’, she has suggested in an interview, ‘is like ether, like vapour that never comes to ground. It simply circulates, bodiless. It has no material reality’.

Couched in the language of nostalgia, it would be perhaps too easy to interpret such a reaction as a conservative gesture, the appropriation of the nineteenth century’s once dominant mode of making as a heel-digging rejection of progress, returning us to the moment just prior to Kodak’s introduction of the dry plate—the technological development to which the medium’s ever-increasing commercial viability, portability and reproducibility was indebted. As Susan Stewart argues in her treatment of the topic in On Longing, the nostalgic yearning for the hand-crafted unique object in whose surface the trace of the craftsman’s touch is indelibly etched is symptomatic of industrialisation and mass production, offering a mythical recuperation of a lost touch, re-found in the handling of the object of consumption. Such a seductive encounter seems invited in Mann’s work. Her ambrotypes cultivate the look of the outmoded, the touch of the hand-made, as the ebb and flow of the collodion’s pour quite literally traces the presence of the artist’s hand and the flecks and accidental cracks in their surface draw attention to the object’s unique, fragile materiality.

In drawing attention to the emulsion’s surface, materiality forces the photograph’s recognition as both indexical trace and photographic object, a duality that cannot be denied. There is no simple return to the medium’s early days here: it cannot be simply recovered, there is no going back. It is not the presence of Mann’s subjects that we long for here, nor the trace of her hand, but photography itself. Staging an encounter with a lost material past, Mann’s analogue prints illustrate the nostalgic condition that Lev Manovich has described as the fate of the photographic image in the digital age as we cannot help but seek in its indeterminate connection to the real a return to the era of the pre-digital, of the ‘pre-post-modern’.

Can this concern for photographic materiality—the longing for the stuff and matter of the photograph—ever amount to more than just that, a fruitless longing for a simpler or more authentic photographic era that, in fact, never really existed? Perhaps instead, the material turn in contemporary photography poses different questions about the nature of its own condition.

There is an inherent tension between image and object in the photograph. Photography has been characterised as that which generates visibility – as a process that makes what would otherwise be unseen, visible. Yet as Roland Barthes has indicated ‘Whatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see’. We do not see a photograph as such, but rather the image it depicts: the photograph’s materiality disappears in this same operation. In this act of depiction the photograph, as object, is lost: the photograph itself becomes invisible. Barthes’s position epitomises the general tendency of photography theorists who insist that the photograph is an invisible medium that records reality transparently without transforming it. Focusing on the details of the photographic image requires a disregard of the medium as such. Although the image is a property of the photograph as an object, the image belongs to the category of depictive qualities rather than pertaining to the form of the photograph.

Conversely, much contemporary photography rejects the referential and depictive mandate of photography, choosing to reference itself and reflect on its condition as a medium. This is not without precedent: John Hilliard’s Camera Recording its own Condition: 7 Apertures, 10 Speeds, 2 Mirrors (1971) produced a depiction of the process of photography. The experimental “structural/materialist” film that emerged in the 1970s also recorded its own making, but it did so by rejecting depiction in the conventional sense and by focusing on practices such as manipulating the surface of the film itself. The current interest in photographic objecthood is similar in its rejection of representation and its engagement with surface. However, what distinguishes contemporary self-referential photography from previous reflexive practices is that its exploration of medium occurs by transcending the characteristics of the photographic.

The work featured in The Photographic Object at the Photographers Gallery demonstrated not only the materialist turn but also that reflections on objecthood were increasingly taking the form of a post-conceptual hybrid investigation of medium. The work of Catherine Yass, Walead Beshty and Wolfgang Tillmans highlights a sculptural approach to the photograph. This occurs through a destructive action—by either subjecting the photograph to burning, scraping and drowning—resulting in a degraded image and curled photographic form (as in the case of Yass), or by the action of folding and creasing photographs as in the case of Beshty and Tillmans. Beshty’s pulped photographs (papier-mâché like moulding forms sandwiched between sheets of glass) take the destructiveness to another level. In contrast, Maurizio Anzeri’s Priscilla/Second Hand Portraits draw attention to the photograph’s surface through intricate hand stitching, an action which demonstrates a desire for craft and making. The nostalgia inherent in Anzeri’s found photographs is further highlighted by his embroidery – an addition which at once obscures and preserves the original portrait. Gerhard Richter’s over-painted photographs also obscure the representational content of the photograph through the application of another medium.

Hybrid photographic works that posit photographic objecthood via the explicit merging of mediums demonstrate photography’s potential to be metamorphosed with or into another medium. This reflexive work asks us to consider not only what is the photograph?, but also when does the photograph stop being a photograph? For Geoffrey Batchen, we have entered a moment that is ‘after but not beyond photography,’ so the implications of the current post-photographic moment are best expressed in ‘work that reflects on the “objectness” of the photograph’. Many of the artists producing hybrid photography explicitly state their interest in objecthood. Tillmans has stated that his Lighter series are:

…photographs which have not been taken with the camera. They are actually objects. They are sheets of photographic paper which are folded and then exposed in the darkroom to light, and the picture that emerges is a representation of the three dimensionality of this sheet of paper. So it’s like an entangled thing of two dimensions and three dimensions, like a photograph that no longer represents the world as it is supposed to be, but that is asserting itself as an independent object.

Aliki Braine’s Black Landscapes series are created by physically cutting holes in medium format negatives with a hole-puncher. Light from the enlarger floods through the holes in the negatives forming black circular voids in the resulting photographs. By disrupting representation and foregrounding the hand crafted aspect of their analogue production Braine aims to show the ‘photograph as an object’. Martina Corry also utilises chemical based processes but does so without using film. Corry’s work draws attention to the most direct of analogue processes (such as the photogram or luminogram) produced via the interaction between light and chemistry in the darkroom. Her current work comprises saturated colour prints that are created through creasing and crumpling the actual photographic paper, sometimes employing fibre optics in the process to highlight ‘the fundamentals of the chemical based photographic process, namely the play of light on the surface of a light sensitive material’. Corry states that she is ‘interested in how photographs are experienced simultaneously as image and object, tangibly real and yet somehow remote. Not merely images, but seen, encountered and negotiated as real objects’. As photograms, these photographs are already unique but the action of folding literally introduces another dimension and further emphasises their capacity to function as objects rather than reproductions.

The materialist turn in contemporary practice is one that seeks to both look back to analogue processes and go beyond those limitations. Rather than being motivated by a nostalgic longing for the analogue, this work confronts the materiality inherent in photography from its earliest manifestations. Such practices highlight photography’s potential to transcend two-dimensionality and to acquire objecthood; something which, paradoxically, it has had all along.

This text was a collaborative essay by Sandra Plummer, Harriet Riches and Duncan Wooldridge originally published in Photoworks issue 18, 2011
Commissioned by Photoworks

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