Photography is flourishing as never before and this has plunged it into a profound ontological crisis. In the field of mass photography it has changed from a medium of representation to a means of communication: pictures that are perceived and decoded in less than a second. As autonomous photography it has evolved from a medium used for the recording of definitive pictures into a research method of which the results are intrinsically provisional.
The photograph is originally a picture in itself, a two-dimensional summary of an actual event that happened at some point in time somewhere in the world, a permanent recording, a unique witness of a one-time occurrence. At the same time, it is a symbol of coherence or confusion, an expression of the essence of a situation or person. It is both the result and the cause of the photographed, because everything that gets photographed now anticipates the picture that is still to be taken. ‘I photograph to find out what things look like photographed’, Garry Winograd once said about the photographer’s motives. Today the opposite holds true: things look like photographs in order to get photographed.
An autonomous photograph is a picture that is complete in itself, that does not require any external support or explanation to remain interesting. It looks its best in a photo book or hanging as a beautiful print on the wall of an exhibition hall. But the autonomous picture, powerful in its solitude, has overstrained itself and is becoming more grotesque with each edition of the World Press Photo, distress that adorns itself with a glittering colour print or time-tested black-and-white aesthetic. The photogenic, once a unique feature of the photographic image, is now one of many software applications by means of which post-production can artificially touch up even the weakest snapshots.
The autonomous photograph originally depicts something and in that sense it maintains a relation with the reality outside photography. But the photographic image is always also an index, an open channel to what once actually happened and happens again as soon as we let the picture reach us. An ontological photograph is old light shining in the present, a gaze cast on us from far across time – and we look back. It pricks and it cuts, it is loaded with what Barthes identified as photography’s temporal punctum, the shocking realisation that everything and everyone in this picture is past, perhaps even literally dead. And yet here it lives on, in me. The medium of photography is an extension of our mortality. Today that realisation once more forms the core of photography that is worthy of the name.
Ontological is all photography that holds on to the ur-paradigm, the basic legitimation of the medium and its contents. An ontological photograph reveals something that would have remained invisible without photographic mediation. And that would be a great pity because this photography enhances the world with new pictures instead of, like communicative photography, plucking it bare and ironing it out until it is no longer necessary to look because everything has already been seen before.
In communicative photography – photography as communicative act – the picture is a bundle of signs that must be interpreted in real time. The codeless picture gets overcoded à la Deleuze and Guattari. A visual rule is imposed on the open channel to the world, an immediately recognisable structure with, however, one exception, one attention grabber: the affordance that the picture offers. What can I do with it? How must I react? The communicative filter inserts the picture – depending on the interpretation – into existing cultural, social, political, philosophical, technological and/or semiotic power constellations. Social-media marketing here offers the most striking example: not since the invention of the beaver shot has photography been put to such villainous use.
That an image must communicate means that: the viewer must a) be kept glued to the picture for that one second that the attention span lasts. It must b) impress a brand image, a visual structure that the viewer recognises in real time and searches out as though naturally so that c) conditional readiness for goal-oriented behaviour emerges in the image user to act at moment X as he or she has been programmed to, and d) to buy what is on offer, without seeing what has been left out, pushed out of the picture, obscured. Climate change takes place behind the screens. Communicative images eliminate pre-emptively the viewer’s critical ability and replace it with taste and opinion.
Photography as research takes itself as its object of study. In that it differs strongly from the critical photography of the 1970s, which wanted to highlight abuses in society. Research photography is less interested in content than in procedures and methods of knowledge development. It examines photographic processes and modes of presentation in order to be able to apply these as consistently as possible. The aim is to make reality visible again, but in its medial definition: a double image, which depicts the mode of representation as clearly as the represented, which thereby becomes perfectly understandable – as in the ontological photography of yesteryear, which is the actual object of study.
Photography as research no longer wishes to create brilliant or diaphanous pictures, nor to analyse or criticise archetypes and clichés, like its critical predecessors. It is not after symbolic photographs of what has disappeared and yet always appears present, and is no more interested in random shots that facilitate communication and that in their randomness are sometimes interesting. Photography as research wishes to pull out the photograph’s indexical power from under the dead weight of history, restore it as a material object and as a material experience of an elsewhere, recorded in a photographic emulsion or in digital pixels.
Photography as research aims to restore to photography its legitimate status. Photography as an image of the passage of time, as a restitution of the natural experience of time, in its most gruesome indexical form too, that of the flashlight, tamed lightning. In photographic research, the photograph is no longer an autonomous image, but always a step in a investigation. The objective is the survey, not in that one arresting picture, but in the mind of the viewer/reader/student.
It is in this field of tension that photography must function these days. Each photographer, including the not self-photographing, is confronted with the ontological crisis of their medium to which they must find an answer, a practice of their own. I describe two below, reflecting along with them.
As the archivist at the Foto Museum of Antwerp, Dominique Somers handled thousands of ontological photographs, ultimately coming to two conclusions. First, that photographs from the distant past are three-dimensional objects, both immune to time and a victim of time. Second, that it makes no sense to want to add new pictures to the existing stock of photographs. The world does not need any new photographs – a harsh conclusion now that per day, or even per hour, millions of photographs are produced worldwide.
What Somers has since been researching is the ontological question as to how the photographic image comes about as an object, and what that does to the portrayed and portrayer, and to our view of the world. Photography is incident light, energy that burns itself into film, fire from the sky that is tamed by the lens and allowed through in such a dose that a wonderfully clear picture of reality’s contours appears on the film. A photo is a technically controlled natural disaster.
The flashlight is indeed the photo camera’s most murderous aspect, a medial extension of the nocturnal lightning stroke. The explosion of white light, whether a bulb or powder, renders the invisible visible, but at the same time blinds what it depicts. For a moment no one no longer sees anything, neither the portrayed nor the photographer, and in that dead time, the photograph realises itself, as an acheiropoetic image, an image that is not man-made.
Acheiropoetic images in Somers’ research are, among others, the red Lichtenberg figures that appear after lightning strikes a victim’s torso and arms, as a sort of photo made by lightning with the living body as its medium. The lines form long fractal patterns, like lightning itself, or a river system, a delta, and disappear after a couple of weeks. When lightning strikes in the desert sand, it leaves fulgurites: three-dimensional glass forms in brown and ochre that are created when the sand melts during the violent discharge of energy delivered on impact. A fulgurite is an index, the image as a consequence of its content and in that sense definitive, made by the lightning strike, unique and one-off. Both are examples of what lightning finds beautiful.
In the acheiropoetic image, nature photographs itself. It etches itself into a body or condenses itself into an autonomous object. That is also what photography does. It is an acheiropoetic technique. Everything and everyone on a photograph taken with a flashlight is fulgurite.
Stephanie Kiwitt is also conducting research in her beautiful ‘Wondelgemse Meersen’ (2012), but what is remarkable is that she uses self-made ontological photographs as her working material. The many hundreds of pictures in her photo book are each autonomous, they reinforce one another rather than homogenise the gaze, but that is not what Kiwitt wants to get out of photography.
For a year and a half she walked with her camera through the rough terrain north of Ghent, full of half-demolished pavilions and caravans, burned-out cars, sludge, rampant creepers and towering shrubs. Each page features three rows of three photographs, to be read from top to bottom, all the same size, each taking its title from the number of Kiwitt’s digital file, always in chronological series from her enormous image archive that runs from _MG_0049.CR2 to _MG_9700.CR2. Almost ten thousand pictures in a year.
Her camera has two positions: aimed at the ground, or at eye level. No sky, no grand panoramas behind the junk in the foreground. The paper of the book edition has a matt sheen gloss, which hugely increases the photogenic quality of the distinct pictures and lends great beauty and value to the carefully selected details of waning civilisation and stubborn nature. On a double-spread page with 18 photographs of grey sludge, mud-covered rags seem to come to the surface like bog bodies : Tollund Man on _MG_1671.CR2. In a traditional way the book follows the course of the seasons, but in a terrain full of mud and junk, floating plastic bags, muck and smashed wooden constructions and advancing plants.
Waste bags or burned beams are sometimes photographed two or more times, as if the right angle remained elusive. What to photograph when all pictures are equally cluttered? The first result of Kiwitt’s research: the outside world – architecture or urbanism – imposes an order, determines the way in which we move in a space, prescribes the direction of a gaze. On a wasteland there is no hierarchy, everything is equal. That is where the photograph loses its legitimacy as an autonomous medium of depiction. It is only in series in which images reveal how they are defined by their medium of expression that photography can still show what lies beyond the power of the medium, the ontological foundation, the order and utter panic in the face of chaos and decline.
The surprising thing about Kiwitt’s digital photographs in ‘Wondelgemse Meersen’ is that I already know them all, those quagmires and rotting mattresses, those bags with nappies, those smashed-up partitions. The photographs always show a single piece of wasteland, but it is precisely their absolute uniqueness that renders them universally recognisable. We see them flash by almost daily – an overflowing bin, a plastic bag on a drainpipe, a mouldy wall in a corridor, sludge on the edge of a lawn, crooked trees with grabbing branches – but we do not register them, we actively forget them, airbrush them out of our image of the environment.
Kiwitt brings these pictures to light. She makes the invisible visible, that part of reality which we look beyond, the disruption and destruction in which we, moderns, live. Yet these are not dark pictures. Because of their large numbers they wake a joy in me, trust in reality, comfort as in: it has not gone unnoticed, and the mission: face it!
‘Wondelgemse Meersen’ consists of series of autonomous photographs that, thanks to their number, reinforce each other’s autonomy but break through their closedness. This is again photography as an open channel. Yet Kiwitt’s research results in a conclusion, the one decisive image, even though that is once more a series: ten full-page photographs, at the end of the book, of trees cut at a height of one metre, scattered over the land. Monuments of broken indomitability. This is our world and this is how it perishes. Stephanie Kiwitt travelled for us to the land of the real and this is what she brought back. The ‘Wondelgemse Meersen’ is where we live all the time.
About the author
Arjen Mulder is a biologist and media theorist and has published several books of essays on the relationship between technical media, physical experiences and art. He lives in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and teaches media theory and semiotics in Ghent (Be).