Object-oriented photography


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Object-oriented photography

Paul Caplan


Interlude: Eugene Atget

“It has justly been said of him that he photographed them like scenes of crimes. A crime scene, too, is deserted; it is photographed for the purpose of establishing evidence. With Atget, photographic records begin to be evidence in the historical trial [Prozess]. This constitutes their hidden political significance. They demand a specific kind of reception. Free-floating contemplation is no longer appropriate to them. They unsettle the viewer; he feels challenged to find a particular way to approach them” (Benjamin, 2008, p. 27).1

Atget walked the streets of Paris from 1897 until his death in 1927 with his view camera and a particular sensibility. He was a working hack. He took pictures to sell as “documents for artists” in the nearby town of Montparnasse. At the same time as Russian constructivists and Italian Futurists were feting speed as technique, source material and inspiration, Atget plodded around Paris like the fabled flâneur and his turtle,2 unfurling his equipment, waiting as the light encoded Paris as information and then waiting while light encoded it again as an Albumen print.

The long exposures meant the pictures were often devoid of people but that is not what makes his sensibility object-oriented. Rather it is the ghostly traces of humans occasionally caught in the doorways, on street corners or reflected in windows alongside the rags ‘n refuse3 of Paris that make Atget object-oriented.

His object-oriented sensibility (his “eye” as photographers might call it) is democratic, in the sense in which Levi Bryant uses the term.4 His litany includes gargoyles and statues, steps and railings, beds and bottles, hats and mannequins, toys and fruit, traders and trees. Like an istockphoto freelancer5 compulsively imag(in)ing in the belief that someone, somewhere needs a picture of X, Atget documented. But here there is no “decisive moment” or even privileged access. His scopic flânerie was extensive but not comprehensive. He selected particular objects to make into objects but there was no hierarchy of Parisian reality. No Eiffel Tower at the top and a particular staircase at the bottom nor vice versus. His was not a humanist imaging nor an anti-humanist one. He simply didn’t care or maybe even see the distinctions.

For Atget, as for anyone walking the city, Paris withdrew. Yet he encountered it. There was a sensual dimension to Paris that Atget and his camera connected with and it was the withdrawn reality that made the sensual so powerful. His images are a trace of those encounters. Our encounter with them echoes that withdrawal/access tension as we enjoy the coffee table book or search online, as the images resonate or evoke and yet something, somewhere withdraws.

In The Genius of Photography TV series, photographer Joel Meyerowitz makes strange Atget’s Coin du Quai Voltaire of 1916 by turning it upside down (Kirby, 1996a). When he has defamiliarised the image of the Paris street with its Colonne Morris, streetlamp, trees and cobblestones, he sees Atget’s object: “[a] white zipper. Zip! Running right up the middle of the building” (op cit.). For Meyerowitz, this is a “punctum” (Barthes, 1990). This pricks him as he argues it must have Atget. But the cemented-up chimney flue can also be seen as a street object, alongside, not above or underneath the Morris column or the window, just another object connecting with the wall and the tree and the light and the photographer and his stall of images for sale and... Trees and a cathedral share the frame in Notre-Dame, 1922 as well as the ontological space. Like the cluttered Collector’s Room (1910) or the barrels and gramophones in the Grocer and wine merchant (1912) everything and nothing is punctum.

When Atget wrote “Va Disparaitre” on the back of 41 Rue Broca in 1912, it was a note to himself and us that the building would soon disappear. Literally it would suffer the fate of La maison no 5 de la rue Thouin on the 10th August 1910. It would soon have its day of demolition with its new rubble objects nestling next to a blurred ghostly figure and a boy who seems to have stepped out of a Diane Arbus picture. But Atget is not nostalgic. Nor is he simply a recorder of passing time. His object-oriented sensibility knows that 41 Rue Broca disappears in another sense. As an object it disappears from access at the moment of taking and viewing in 1912 as much as it does a century later. Just as Atget knew it was sensually present for him and for us then and now, it was also out of reach. It had already, inevitably and irrevocably disappeared. It had withdrawn.

Atget’s Paris, often the name for the books published about him, as an object then and now for the Paris tourist board, Eurostar, Woody Allen, my iPhone and the wheel of Mark Cavendish’s bike is never fully there. It is not just a brand, an ideology, a metaphor or a sign, but it is also never fully accessible as a real object. Those objects encounter its sensual dimensions as did Atget, his camera and the light that fell on the Door knocker (1909) or the House of pleasure (1921) and rendered his albumen prints. Atget’s object-oriented sensibility emerges from his willingness to sink into that mesh of objects and sensual/real connections, to refuse the correlationist agenda offering him a subject as opposed to object position or some privileged access to Paris’ objects.6

Interlude: Sally Mann

“In this confluence of past and future, reality and symbol, are Emmett, Jessie, and Virginia. Their strength and confidence, there to be seen in their eyes, are compelling - for nothing is so seductive as a gift casually possessed. They are substantial; their green present is irreducibly complex. The withering perspective of the past, the predictable treacheries of the future; for the moment, those familiar complications of time all play harmlessly around them as dancing shadows beneath the great oak” (Mann, 1992, n.p.)

Part of the fuss around Sally Mann’s collection Immediate Family (1992) was that she had turned her children into objects. In the images of their childhood in rural Virginia, parts of their pre-pubescent bodies that should only have been visible (a matter of concern) to their parents had been objectified. The girl or boy, the “child” maybe “childhood” had become an object for Mann the artist. Further, Mann’s cumbersome view camera had become an object in their growing up, an interloper in the childhood where it had no right to be.

In her later work What Remains (2003), Mann was again accused of objectification. As the omniscient artist-subject she had violated another taboo, turning decomposing corpses in an FBI scientific facility into “bodies”, objects of her art. Once again, she as subject turned her camera on objects.

But Mann is an object-oriented photographer in a real not a caricatured sense. Her images are of objects connecting: the sacks next to Virginia in Virginia Asleep, 1988; The Yard Eggs 1991; the adult earring and necklace around Jessie’s neck in Jessie at 5, 1987 - these are are as much the “child” as the famous naked bodies. In Mann’s object-oriented photo-philosophy, they are players in the “childhood” and the “family” objects. Hers is a democratic eye, but not an un-discerning one. Every object is carefully composed and connected. But more than just a litany of objects on the groundglass, Mann is object-oriented in her sense of her own objectness. Her work with objects is not as a separate subject, standing outside the flux of material things in the world. Hers is not a dispassionate eye secure in its subjecthood and correlationist relationship to “the world”, “the family”, “the South”. Sally Mann is an artist-object enfolded in the mesh of objects, connecting within the heart of new objects: “the Mann family”, “the Civil War”, “death”.

Mann’s object-oriented sensibility extends beyond her democratic eye. She is fully present in her images. Immediate Family is as much a picture of her as of her children. She is modelling just as they model. Her images of Civil War battlefields are less of landscapes out there, than of the interior landscape she argues Southerners carry with themselves. She says: “To identify a person as a Southerner suggests not only that her history is inescapable and formative but that it is also impossibly present” (2005, p. 7). Mann knows that she is at the same ontological scale as her children, their childhood objects, her home and history.

Mann’s use of not just ancient cameras and lenses but also antique processes is also a part of her object-oriented sensibility. The glitches her technologies introduce, like the cliched inclusion of the photographer’s shadow, inscribed the technology-object across the image. The “failed” coating of the wet collodion plate, the dust, the refracted light in the ancient lens, are themselves objects connecting with each other, with Mann, the thing being photographed, the gallery, the art market and... Mann is open to those objects. More, she embraces them and their connections.

Mann the photographer is co-present as an object in the mesh of her imaging in the shape of those glitches, faults, qualities. This is not some self-reflexive gambit simultaneously modernist in foregrounding the medium but also postmodern in playing with the death of the auteur-imager. Rather it is an object-oriented sensibility, a realisation and acknowledgement of the inevitability and power of object meshes within imaging.

In The Quality of the Affection, 2006 an image part of the Proud Flesh series (Ravenal, 2010), Mann’s naked husband Larry is an object. Posed, arranged, positioned he sits with his back to Mann’s camera, a parabola intersecting with a dark shadow on which other objects - a glass, a pencil shape rendered illegible by the camera. One encounter with the work places Sally, Larry and the glass within a field of relations interwoven within the history of nude art, gender, the body (Larry suffers from adult muscular dystrophy) and power. But The Quality of the Affection, 2006 is an object-work. It is created through and with objects - not in some value-laden sense of powerful subject, powerless objects and the gaze - but as a series of objects connections within the frame, at the moment of exposure, the moment of viewing and the moment of analysis. Larry’s back, the lights falling on his spine, the glass, the streaks in the collodion, the glass, the gelatin in the print, the Aperture Foundation and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Sally, her lens... connect and reconnect within the image object, the art object, the photographic exposure objects, the family object... This is not a photo of objects by a subject but a photograph with objects, by an object.

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