Harri Laakso – Grey Matters (Aftercrop)
Harri Laakso (2007)
published by The Finnish Museum of Photography
Harri Laakso, Doctor of Arts, works as Professor of Visual Culture at the University of Art and Design Helsinki, Pori School of Art and Media. He has previously worked as a photographer, curator and researcher and published several articles on art and photography in Finland and abroad. He is also the author of Valokuvan tapahtuma (The Event of Photography, Helsinki: Tutkijaliitto, 2003).
Grey Matters – Aftercrop
We encounter photographs furtively. We arrive by surprise, we happen upon the image much greater force than one could believe based on the smallness of the aperture. Photographs also hold additional elements of surprise and excess, similar to a desert fire, or love.
A photograph – literally – fixes our attention. With its optics and its chemistry a photograph might reveal the semblance of the things in the world; the way things appear to us. But only thinking really discloses an image, when the light emanating from the object encounters the perceptive gaze.
The world that we see in photographs has already been wounded by experience. Time has been forced to fit the frame of the photograph; the image has become the cicatrized part of the world. A photograph is a buffer between the world and us, something overflowing our perception – a separation from the world that is being held together by its own composition.
Philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy has said that love, poetry and thinking happen at a threshold and that photography is the place, where thinking is. All these words signify something that is not yet, is still to come, only has an existence at the limit.(1)
There is always something unforeseen in surprises, in photographs and in love. In them the immemorial takes place as if it were somewhere far away and still in the thick of our world. The images themselves are present even if they make an absence visible.
A description of an event, love for example, is not the same thing as the event itself.(2) Philosopher Alain Badiou writes that from the perspective of philosophy it is possible to see how love and art are crossed. Love is similar to photography in that love is not fusion, sacrifice or an illusory form of compensation. “Love, I believe, does not take the place of anything. It supplements, which is completely different. It is only messed up under the fallacious supposition that it is a relation. But it is not. It is a production of truth.”(3)
Love itself does not come across in the torments of lovers, even if such experiences and also relations are implied in the process of love – experiences that do not constitute conceptual knowledge or even creativity in the usual sense (and are therefore also not forms of science, art or politics – the three other truth – procedures of humanity.) “Love, as an experience of thought, does not think itself.”(4) As an event love is an encounter in the most authentic sense.
Photographic images are often approached by resorting to (ultimately) theological problematics. Images are examined as the copies that are faithful or garbled in relation to their subject, in varying degrees; they are viewed as a relation that refers to something else.
Then images are seen to have a sort of static and uneventful core that guides the interpretation. From this follow many of the important themes of photographic theory: evidence, memory, context, interpretation. Alternatively one can identify a form of immanent visuality that does not refer to anything but itself. Photographs, more than many other forms of image, sway between the issues of truthfulness and present visuality.
When semblance and correspondence no longer dominate photography (“illustrate” it) photography opens onto all that is thinkable in it, onto everything that shapes the image, onto to the ways that the photograph thinks, when it presses against our eyes. Because thinking can form many other alliances in a photograph than just resemblance.
These connections are anachronistic by nature (even if a certain form of thinking can attain its most dominant stature at a particular time, like photography, at one time as the “window of reality”). The connections are also potential and virtual; thinking nests in images, continually transforming. Photographs are singular operations, swayed by many influences, they are bonds between visibility and the possibility of signification. Sometimes they also dissemble and are not bound to seeing with only the eyes; their art is based on this, as is their poetic flexibility and political power (which is related to their ability to transform under varying circumstances).
According to art historian Margaret Olin looking at a photograph is a no more one sided form of reception than encountering another person – distant or dear. The moment of identification of a photograph is just as significant an indexical cord, as the moment when the picture was taken. Sometimes the act of looking reveals invisible things, sometimes it can distort the visible into something unidentifiable. At the moment of identification we do not set apart a photograph from other images (paintings, for example, or even events in the world). Then we only see the image… and in the way that it is necessary for us to see at that time.
Encountering images, like the relations between people, are based on the things we need. For that reason the relations with images are “established, like most relations, with no guarantees at all”.(5)
The power of looking founds a kind of “photographic community” that connects the private life of the beholder and his close ones to complete strangers in the photographs. To facilitate this community we might “distort” the image to whatever degree. We might find the features of our dear ones in an unfamiliar face. Identify a costume that we have never seen. See colour where there is none.
Photography means being exposed to the events of the world. For this reason photography is always coupled with courage. The bravery of photography means not only the photographer’s ability to face danger (and his or her courage to see) but also the way in which the photograph itself reveals its own character.
Fortunately one still finds a lot of courage, strength of heart (Lat. coraticum), in the visual battlefields of today’s world. When thinking of photography in connection with bravery, one inevitably begins by wondering about the various perils and threats an individual photographer can face, can be exposed to, and can thereby, in turn, expose his or her camera to. The photographs taken at such times, often literally within eyesight of death, no doubt epitomise what can be courageous in photography. This rather military understanding is based on a string of battle metaphors (amidst which the well known topic of “shooting” with the camera is perfectly at home): war photojournalism becomes a success story, an act of colonising and conquering new ground, and the photographs themselves become trophies, taken like booty.
According to Susan Sontag the invention of cameras set a particular heroism to roam free in the world, the heroism of vision. This determination or passion to see is perhaps photography’s lowest common denominator, something that remains from the times of Alfred Stieglitz – who Sontag describes standing three hours in a blizzard in 1893, waiting for the “proper moment” – right up to the work of any brave contemporary photographer exposing his or her anger and capturing the conditions of a sorry world.(7)
The “photographic seeing” was directed at those things that the eye usually does not see, the “everyday life apotheosized”;(8) the things that were outside of the everyday, thus exotic by definition.
Here heroism and courage became determined as action, as achievement, as a closing in on things, as the overcoming of one’s fears and the distance of separation, even at the risk of peril.(9)
However, this action, where the projectiles of sight, of reflection and of perspective intermingle with the heavier and deadlier metallic ones flying through the air, can by no means adequately represent the whole story of photography’s courage. More profound, even if clandestine, binds must exist. One can, for example, consider the alikeness of photography and courage as such, as operations. One can think to what extent courage is issued from qualities located within, from the hero’s potential to do heroic acts, and alternately to what extent courage can only be said to exist when it manifests itself, courage being the presentation of courage, the necessary performance of bravery.
Courage – like photography – is an exposure. (This exposure, in both cases, is connected to death – which Roland Barthes aptly called the eidos of photography(10).) Courage is the exposure of character – the courage of photography hence being the revealing of photography’s ethos?
Courage can also be the revealing of the heart of photography by photographing. It is courageous to be unyielding and in place, when the image is so obviously out of place (ex-position). Jean-Luc Nancy has written that the character of photography (its ethos) is deposition: A photograph testifies “here and now” – which in photography means “there”. Deposition also connects photography with crime. Before the law the truth of our character is determined on the level of actions and not appearances.
Courage refers, not only to a photographer’s being there, or to an achievement in positive terms, but to the courage of seeing with and within photography, of seeing the photograph’s potential unfold in singular events. And implying further: perhaps an art work is ultimately not an “accomplishment” or a production at all, a work of bringing to light, but has an imaginary centre that opens in “unwork-ing” (désoeuvrement), as French writer Maurice Blanchot has suggested of literary works. And maybe photography’s courage attests to the allure of this darker heart.
And still, seeing requires a suitable distance: Here exist two different kinds of simultaneous movement, like the work of an undecided magnet; the proximity to which passion and courage lure us, and the inevitable separation and difference that “photographic seeing” entails. (This is why Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is so fascinating: for Captain Ahab’s inability to keep at a distance, his monomania, his lack of judgment, his heightened sense of direction -always towards the white whale. Ahab’s tragedy is that he cannot but fail – he wants to capture a majestic beast, but how majestic can a beast be, if a man can conquer it?)
Photography is often an art of little moments, and therefore idyllic. The word ‘idyll’ comes from eidyllion (diminutive form of eidos), which originally meant “little image”, not just the pastoral themes that the association with the poems of Theocritus later moulded its meaning into. Idylls, then, always harbour a kind of smallness in them. In its etymological childhood the idyll was as small as a child, the childhood of an image.
As subject matter the idylls in photographs are sometimes the accustomed romantic and peaceful countryside views. The world of idylls can be fantastical and their time so tinted by paradisiacal light, so perfect, that one does not even know how to envy it. However, idylls are also associated with a longing for what has been lost as well as with a fear of the future – we usually speak of idylls only when something has already shattered.
Sometimes the things in the world are (actually or seemingly) in order. An idyll is a construct, therefore it has its po- tential breaking points. In all idylls there germinates a form of brittleness and a disparity between exterior correspondence and the event itself. In the blaze of decorative hypocrisy things are all too beautiful, “too” something, hence unreal. Idylls are linked to “being with” and for that reason (as its necessary shadow) it always also speaks about solitude. The idyll is a decisive moment, an instant of petrification, the producer of tears. In it there exists the simultaneous desire to see and not to see. Every idyll tells the story of child god Narcissus – the story about ideal beauty and unattain-ability. The image reflected in the pool transfixed Narcissus in his place, as Narcissus did not covet the image of himself, but the image itself. (Is this why there is so much water in idyllic images? Because a surface can both reflect and ripple?)
The images we take seriously need not be serious. Light casts itself lightly onto the surface of the photograph. Sometimes fascination takes away the ability to make sense, as happened to Narcissus. A fascinated gaze no longer complies with the distance and separation that seeing and control usually demand. At such times it is the lightness, laughter and madness that sketch the sensible edge of photographic reason. That edge is also the limit of man.Absurdity flashes in photography as the quick reordering of what is seen, as its new state. The softness and hardness of things (and of light) might exchange places, the menacing caterpillar tread becomes compared with bare skin, the light of the flash competes with sunlight – we see a world, that we were not prepared to encounter.
There is always something superhuman in the nonsensical side of photography, as also in heroism (etymologically derived from demigods, Gk. heros). Heroism does not always have to be related to a sensible achievement. For example, in Maurice Blanchot’s reinterpretation of the Orpheus myth, Orpheus’s real heroism is situated in his “failure”. Orpheus fails to save Eurydice to the light of day, but is at the same time faithful to his own desire (that was not aimed at seeing her saved but at impossibly gazing at her in the darkness, lost, as image). Orpheus wants not to make the invisible visible, but to see the invisible as invisible, which is an impossible task.(11) Such was also the nature of Ahab’s obsession, and Narcissus’s. And such is sometimes also the photographer’s desire for the photographic image. According to Blanchot, it is precisely images that keep us fixed to this enigmatic site, close to the oscillation where ordinary vision becomes fascinated vision.
Photography is a marked art, a spectacle of light marks. A photograph is a touch from the distance that has its own unforeseen time. In photographs nature thinks with light, sometimes almost invisibly, on the threshold of perception. Science seeks the meanings and classifications of things, whereas photographic art examines the limits of its own seeing.
At the junction of these two kinds of vision there operates a world with its own laws, where new and fantastical creatures have a fleeting existence. Gaze seeks out the blind spot of meaning, from which it examines the world through the eyes of a poet.
Some artists photograph at the quintessential scenes of science: alongside researchers and natural scientists. Here also becomes revealed the way in which photography is itself a form of research – and the ways in which scientific quest for knowledge works differently from artistic work, where bringing to light is coupled also by its limits and necessary failures (in the orphic sense).
In art the act of collecting “specimens” is not for the purposes of scientific comparison, ordering and signification. Instead it is about being fascinated by the capacity for possession – the ability to isolate things for closer inspections, from the abundance of natural phenomena and life forms, and to wonder about their diversity, just as much as one can marvel at our incessant desire to control, measure and to find signification. At the same time photographic art reminds us of all the beauty that has always had an unacknowledged place amidst the presentations of science.
Photographic art plays incessantly with the analogies of knowledge and light. Every mark light makes, every area lit by beams of light, reminds us of what is visible – but just as much of the fact that the uncharted darkness is never far away.
Photography is a process of construction. It is the construction site of things, of time and space, and most significantly of sight itself. The construction of the world is guided by many invisible (and unknown) plans and laws that anchor and release our vision (work it, in other words). At the same time photographs can demonstrate the various unpredictable forms of the plans’ execution – what becoming image means.
Photographic art resides at the limits of science and perception and thinks about (their) inadequacies. In this way photography also questions its own limits. It examines its own ability to narrate, represent and master – sometimes even time itself, its very existence. If, for example, the luminosity of one moment is subtracted from another moment, as in the photograph of Tuomo Rainio, is the ensuing photograph an instance of pure difference between one moment and another? Or has time itself been then so deeply wounded by photography that it no longer makes sense to even say that time exists, at least in any comforting way that is necessary for our daily existence?
The Order of Images
A photograph is a singular, solitary being. It is only in the company of other images that this isolation becomes really clear, like a person’s solitude is amplified in the bustle of a big city.
In what ways do photographs connect with other images and become shared, when we want to see more than just relations of meaning in them? Photography combines by the power of the thinking with which we encounter it. Even if the images sometimes converse like strangers, like gatecrashers; even if the beholder is himself an uninvited guest on the threshold of the image.
Sharing comes in many forms. Sharing is portioning and sharing is joint proprietorship and sharing is giving. A shared community is at the same time something divided in parts, something owned by many, and something given – the share of its members.
But what could really become shared but our own insufficiency (like Georges Bataille thought), our own limit, death? Perhaps the community of photographic art is also based on the principle of shared limits. In other words, not on the idea of being in relation with each other, but on sharing a limitation, that can itself ever only be jointly experienced as an impossibility.
Does this limitation signify a turning aside from the visible, that so compulsively makes itself felt in the work of many photographers? Does all the invisible matter, so abundant in the world, address and torment photographers and the friends of photography because it exists behind a limit that their medium cannot reach – even if so much of the world is pressingly in sight and so clearly in form? And is this limit the same one that defines the medium itself and makes sense of the photographers’ labour?
Or does photography only limit itself in darkness? We may well think that every click of the shutter negotiates, before anything else, with light and with darkness. In 2003 there was an extensive power failure and blackout in New York. In Newsweek -magazine Jerry Adler wrote that the blackout did not then cause the same kind of looting that had happened in similar incidents earlier (and later). Adler thought that this feeling of compassion and togetherness was due to the fact that the 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre was still a fresh bruise in every New Yorker’s mind.
People shared the darkened city eating ice cream, gathering in bars and dancing on the streets. The black and white photographs that Ilkka Uimonen took of those events can of course not say the same things about togetherness as the written article, but they convey, in all their grittiness, an idea of the same gently paused and shared world. Perhaps the blackout itself – an apt metaphor for the community of photography – became allied with Uimonen’s camera to leave on film impressive marks about photography’s way of binding things and people together, about its way of sharing light.
Images expect our thinking and await our approach. Art historian Hans Belting has remarked how in some languages there exist separate words for memory (as an archive of images) and memory (as an act of remembering). The distinction speaks for the idea that we possess images and produce them. “[Images] live in our bodies or in our dreams and wait to be summoned by our bodies to show up.”(12)
1. Jean-Luc Nancy, “L’approche”. http://www.parlement-des-philosophes.org/Tapproche.html. 15.3.2006.
2. For this reason a film about love is most felicitous when it feels unreal: In Luc Besson’s Fifth Elementh (1997) this unpredictability and outworldliness form an ideal combination: the supernatural power (Leeloo, in the beautiful form of Milla Jovovich) falls to her future love, through the roof of his taxi, the ferryman of the everyday.
3. Alain Badiou, “What is Love?”, Umbr(a). no. 1,199S, 39.
4. Ibid. 40. According to Badiou there are two separate positions in love and a third position does not exist (that position would be the imaginary one of an angel or infiniteness), and still there only exists one humanity. Love is the place where this paradox is processed. The love of Two can appear to a third position (as the presentation of love), but then it is not a question of the process of love.
5. Margaret Olin, “Touching Photographs: Roland Barthes’s ‘Mistaken’ Identification”, Representations 80, Fall 2002,115.
See also Harri Laakso “Photography touching itself”, Backlight 05 catalogue, Ed. Petri Nuutinen. Tampere: Photographic Centre Nykyaika, 2005, 78-97.
6. A part of this passage has been published in different form in Polish in Harri Laakso, “Bohaterowie obrazu, obrazy bohaterow”, Odwaga patrzenia. Eseje ofotografii. Ed, Tomasz
Ferenc. Lodz: Fundacja Edukacji Wizualnej, 2006,115-132. [Heroes of vision, visions of heroes]
7. Susan Sontag, On Photography. (London: Penguin books, Ibid. 90.
9. In Oliver Stone’s film Salvador (1986) a war photographer reminisces the work of Robert Capa: “You gotta get close… if you get too close you die.”
10. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida. Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1998), 15. Barthes continues: “For me the Photographer’s organ is not the eye (which terrifies me) but his finger: what is linked to the trigger of the lens, to the metallic shifting of the plates (when the camera still has such things).”
11. See Blanchot “Orpheus’s Gaze” in The Space of Literature. Trans. Ann Smock. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982), 171-176
12. Hans Belting, “Image, Medium, Body: A New Approach to Iconology”. Critical Inquiry. Winter 2005, 305-306.