Ingrained in Grain

paper delivered at the Photography & Postmodernism forum, Centre of Contemporary Photography, Melbourne, 1990

Postmodernism is a term of self abuse : whenever you use it, you will most likely run into greater problems than those you wished to avoid by using the term. This is neither new nor surprising, considering that the term postmodern has been given life partly through its excessive applications and partly by hysterical reactions against its spread. The result has been a confusing mess of dialectics which have tended to loose sight of their initial relationships and conflicts with each other. One can only hope that after having suffered a decade of theoretical emissions there might be some use value left in all the discursive rubble.

On the subject of photography and postmodernism, I wish to propose some ways of sifting through the rubble to (a) evaluate the medium of photography in relation to postmodern cultural effects, and (b) discern what postmodern communicative effects (if any) the medium of photography can generate. To do this, though, will involve an awkward mix of both modernist and postmodernist strategies, for such is the state of contemporary art criticism ie. a weird mix of looking at the postmodernists within modernist parameters and the modernists as producers of the postmodern. In other words, I am saying that despite the rubble there is clear space to discount many of the purported differences between the modern and postmodern and that the stale mate of many 'post' debates prompts us to rethink some of their key issues of difference.

So, we start with the photographic medium. I stress the term 'the Photographic medium' because all political and textual effects (to pick extremes) are embodied by material effects, and material effects are the result of the potential, actual and virtual interaction between technological and physiological states. If one appreciates this enough, one is capable of reconciling the microscopic with the microcosmic and the macrocosmic that is, of describing the medium, its manipulations and its messages in each others' terms. In this sense which I should point out is not a scientific measure but a solely critical apparatus photography is primarily defined by its grain : the molecular fusion of the textural and the textual, where all manner of photographic effects (generated from anywhere within the medium's spectrum of processes) establish a dialectic relationship with the medium's grain. The photographic grain is simultaneously the dimension of the medium's existence and the material means of materializing photographs into existence : all photos have 'a grain' of sorts or at least are perceived in relation to existing grains, and all photos are produced in line with their perceivable outcome in grain. An analysis of this 'grain' reveals or declares the medium as still, frozen and immobile, caught and captured. This can be explained through two qualifications: photography as a 'reading', and photography as a 'passing'.

The notion of photography as a 'passing' relates to the medium's death erotic, where the photograph somehow captures life, freezes it, mummifies it in a zone that only requires memory maintenance. This idea of the photographic process centres on the registering of light and warmth, both at the stage of taking the photograph and throughout its multiple development. The photograph that comes from such a process is a mapping out of image as a chart of chemical reaction, where ever microscopic realm across the granular terrain of the photograph is a recording of an occurrence of incidental light and interactive warmth. Textually, the life in front of the camera has now passed on, passed by and passed through the photographic apparatus. The death erotic arises in the tactile play on the photographic surface which transforms all into the microscopic, via the execution of matter.

In correlation with this notion of 'passing' is the notion of photography as a 'reading'. This is marked by the photograph's status as a consumed event : not only as something that has already occurred, but also as something that is defined as an occurrence by the event of taking the photograph. Photographic technology is thus designed in terms as a set of readings which gauge the event and work as an interface between all microscopic and mechanical features. The textual outcome is the reading of photograph, via both the perceptual logic which constitutes our interpretation of the medium's phenomenological effects (how human and camera optics interact) and the linguistic codes which arise from perceptual permutations of the medium (stylistic representations and abstractions). At this level of 'reading', photography once again restates its status as something frozen and immobile, as something excerpted and reported both infinitely and indefinitely.

While these qualifications of photography as a 'passing' into and 'reading' of the photographic grain might be rudimentary and even somewhat outdated, I am nonetheless left with two problems : (a) no still photography I have encountered has marked any extra dimensional or contra granular potential for the medium, and (b) this fixed status of the photographic medium as something 'still' is at total odds with the established effects of postmodern culture. This is because if postmodernism is about anything at all, it's about the event of the pseudo quantum point of eventfullness erased by the disappearing presence of the present. Well, that's a flowery way of putting it, but my point is that postmodernism in its many manifestations often exhibits a desire to come to terms with the present at odds with and at the very expense of time, rendering the past immaterial and the future immemorial. Now, if ever there was a medium that disavows experience on the plane of the present, it has to be photography. Photography renders the present immaterial and transforms the past into material. Thus, nothing is 'becoming' in photography : everything has already happened and is in the process of being transformed into a document of transformation. Postmodern effects generally can not be rendered by acts of transformation, development, definition, displacement or replacement. Such acts require processing, and processing covers over the implosive events of simulation, of things becoming things. Photography leaves us with something, while the postmodern impulse drives towards leaving us with nothing except what we already had in the first place.

But while there is an inherent impossibility for the photographic medium (unlike other media) to ride postmodern drives, we can reinterpret certain so called postmodernist tendencies in contemporary photography as interesting failures and new developments in previously unexplored modernist potential in photographic exchanges. To this end, I wish to briefly discuss some of these tendencies Basically, I can distinguish three subsidiary drives, where art photography has attempted to 'become' other media (via either appropriation, situationism or recontextualization) but in the end has succeeded only in defining its own spherical trajectory. These subsidiary tendencies I would call (a) the printed advertisement (eg. Kruger and Burgin) ; (b) the film still (eg. Sherman and Prince) ; and (c) the tableau vivant (eg. Zahalka and McDonald). Quite obviously, all three terms here accent stillness once again, from the printed advertisement boxed in by surrounding type and contained within the magazine, to the film still wrenched from the celluloid strip and left fragmented and frozen, to the tableau vivant and its theatricalization of mummification in the repose of motionless silence. What is most telling yet nonetheless interesting is how photography has harked the postmodern clarion call but ended up chasing its own tail.

While the appropriation of the the advertising space (both surfacially as in Kruger's appropriations and Burgin's simulations, or geographically as in Holzer's transmissions or Wodizco's projections) is deemed part of socio political stratagem by occupying said space, there is something impotent in their contemporization of image text explorations which have lived in various forms of social satire throughout this century MAD magazine from the late fifties being the best example of image manipulation intent on disservicing the appropriated image. Art photography that attempts this simulation of the advertisement and all its text image logic and rhetoric in the end has to face the limitation of its recontextualization, wherein the images resonate only in their new art context and provide a reading of the printed advertisement rather than a disclosure of the advertisement's own contextual implosion. The art photo ad detonates no new meanings, no new insights, and renders the cultural livelihood of advertising's continually evaporating discourses into a fine art grain no matter how big the benday dots are enlarged. If anything, the art photo ad demonstrates the ease with which many socio politico mandates are met in a postmodern era.

The film still photograph is jouissance at its most protracted and pathetic. Here, the photographic document goes to extreme measures to become film, to become cinema, but only so it can flaunt its own stillness and play with the narrative effects it can generate by mimicking the film still. This is not to say that, for example, Sherman's or Prince's work is thin or shallow (on the contrary : they are rich and complex) but that their relationship with the cinema is extremely perverse. The problem, though, is that what at first seemed like a new appreciation of cinema has ended up being a solely photographic appreciation of cinema, where the cinematic text (a multi dimensional mobile machine) is plundered for those wonderful scenes which would look great as stills or photos. People now pour out of art house cinemas talking about 'haunting images' from the film they just experienced. That is perverse : treating the cinema as 'moving photography'. But such is the omnipotence of photography's granular textuality, that its affairs with the cinematic have tended to belie their seduction by the cinematographic. The photographic appreciation of the cinema (which is held up as being 'visual' or 'contra literary') is fact no more than idle ponderings on filmic grain : on light, density, saturation, exposure, tone and texture. The fine grain aesthetic of photography is transferred into the cinematic apparatus only to become a hyper illusory image of textual movement.

Finally, the tableau vivant. This tendency is the most ironic, because its desire to become something in the realm of fine art has led it to the most morbid and necrophiliac of painterly measures : controlling and freezing the subject to theatricalize an image of life which is thus set up (literally) to be passed on for the photographic reading. In other words, photography becomes engaged in freezing the frozen, which is not unlike frozen reconstituted orange juice which I guess is pretty postmodern at that. Tableau vivant photography tries to be perverse but it ends up being too clever for its own good. It attempts to become theatre, to theatricalize its mode and method of photographic presentation, but in the end the material effects of the medium are already outcoding the photographic discourse. For at the microscopic level of the medium, the textual effects have been and are already being forged by material forces and mechanical means. Photography remains still.

In summary, it is worth noting the possibility that these subsidiary postmodern drives in fine art photography are displays of the act of implosion registered within the nature and status of the photographic medium. Laterally, an awareness of the technological/textual fusion of the medium can aid in defining the postmodernist potential the medium fails to realize. As such the value, worth and interest of these exercises in contemporary art photography should not be lost in the firing between sides concerned with solely placing the works on one side of the fence or the other.

Text © Philip Brophy. Image © Cindy Sherman.