[Deutsche Version ]

Bernd Scheffer

Taking Pictures Literally: Photography as Paratext (1)

Birth Certificate, 1962   Useless, 1974   Job Hunt, 1976
During the fight, her mother threw her birth certificate at her. This is how she found out her real father´s name.   Her father´s nickname for her was 'useless'.   After tree weeks he still couldn´t find a job. His mother said to him, 'maybe you´re not good enough'.

Copyright by Tracey Moffat, Courtesy: LA-Galerie, Frankfurt/M. Lothar Albrecht www.lagalerie.de

The Legibility of the World (to coin a phrase from Hans Blumenberg) transcends texts (in the strictest sense), and that is why legibility will endure, whether we will still call it such while media undergo essential changes or not. Pictures overlap with texts: We have to be able to “tell” a picture to ourselves or to one another, like we can tell each other a story, if and whenever we are able to grasp it, to hold it in our minds, and ultimately to “understand” it. By principle, it is not only those pictures that are demonstratively equipped with titles or accompanied by short texts in exhibitions or in books, but all pictures anywhere, that affect an area of intertwined pictorial and textual perceptions, as well as perceptions emotional and corporeal. Pictures make for visual “texts”, and in doing so, they always incite the production of further texts, some in languages as well as some “texts” that are “written” in emotions and in human bodies: So it is by no means just a (false) metaphor or a (mere) equivocation, when photographer Stan Denniston, making use of literary concepts, refers to features of photography as fictitious personal histories, when he speaks of shared authorship or of a prescribed reading; nor when Duane Michals confesses: “I am a short story writer. Most other photographers are reporters”; nor when John Hilliard calls his pictures “readings”.

What renders photography so meaningful for the interrelations of texts and pictures in our time is this: They make demonstrate, in the most recent fashion, that each perception always involves several semiotic systems playing together and playing apart, and that this opens spaces of (play) in-between into which we may project the mechanisms of our own individual and social perceptions. So we need to correct a number of stubborn prejudices, in spite of the premature claims (from popular media criticism): There is no strict and universal distinction between the perception of images and that of language, and the falsely polarized rigidity in judgements pitching traditional written media against new digital and pictorial media should best be abandoned, if it wasn’t for the prevalent conservative forces of our cultures that are (for now) pulling us in the opposite direction. While we don’t know what (neuro-physiological) mechanisms directly affect such perceptions, it is no longer questioned that prolonged, detailed image perception cannot take place without simultaneous language processes. In turn, activating certain verbally coded memories suffices for us to “see” images: ‘Einstein’s tongue’ or ‘Marilyn’s white dress’ or ‘my first day at school’ – and all of these images of the imagination prove to be astoundingly “faultless” when checked against the “proper” pictures. But envisioned images are more important: Nobody carries the “actual” pictures around with them. Some very few exceptions in wallets and handbags are intended for show and tell more rather for our own pleasure.

Producer and recipient realize images and texts as they realize all kinds of perception: as if the artefact was made by two creators (shared authorship, Stan Denniston called it). Or more precisely: Concepts of perception afford us the luxury of not having to distinguish strictly between production and reception, that is, they allow us to generalize “(productive) reception”. The artist finds himself in a situation of reception in the course of his perception of perceptions, albeit a markedly productive kind of reception. Whatever that perception, and most of all: Whatever one perceives as perception in any broader act of (self-)observation, it will always deal with ‘semantization’, with “meaning” and “texts” and “histories” or other, similar things. We cannot circumvent the signs and return to a place or time preceding their referential web. We cannot refrain from interpretation. In this way, perception cannot be separated from interpretation. Perception inevitably implies that we ascribe meaning: There are no pure signs or structural messages, and there is no reception that deals purely with signs or structures. (This in spite of all attempts of the 20th century’s many advanced art forms trying to accomplish just such a void of meaning, such “de-semantization”.) We cannot understand a void. We always understand, project, interpret something, and even if this “understanding” can no longer be unequivocally assigned to definite meanings, such irrescindable “understanding” is always a reaction, para-semantically at least, to some “opus” (or rather, to some “incitement”, some “impulse”, some “offer”).

And yet seeing and language (and thought) do not coincide completely; if they did so without any kind of remainder, those words: “seeing” and “language” and “thought”, would all signify the same thing, and that is indeed inconceivable in several aspects. In fact, the inevitable (para-)semantization, i.e. the participation of language in image perception, is subject to modification; it can be strengthened or weakened by certain devices of art: Important art, music and literature in the 20th century resulted from attempts to decrease conventional ascriptions of meaning. They almost arrive at the empty painting, the empty sound, the empty word (John Cage’s “Empty Words”), but all of these remain but ‘almost’ empty. In spite of all hindrance to or refusal of communication (in Kafka, Joyce or Brecht, for the realm of literature): The realization of these attempts (in production or reception) still retains a certain (para-) semantic remainder; the attempts remain “revealing” in the true sense of that word (notwithstanding that one should best avoid trying to name the “exact” nature of that “(specific) revelation”). In Kafka, the narrative itself narrates that the narration concerning the “Schloß” or the “Prozeß” or the “Gesetz” is not narrated; narrative halts before it arrives (it stops “Vor dem Gesetz”, “In Front of the Law”), it stays upon the threshold, in the in-between, running on the spot.

What was presented and narrated, in the advanced art of the 20th century, was always limited to conditional situations, possibilities, experiments, never arriving at definite revelations or conclusions – but never limited to pure exercises in form either, never spaces completely void of content matter. “Great art” (whatever that might be) does have its traceable building blocks, and one of them is the tendency to become meta-art: Presenting presentation, speaking about speaking; literature on literature; pictures of pictures; photography about photography.

In art, artfully, photographic texts enhance the tendency of images and photographs towards semantization. They’d be “naïve” if they didn’t do it in experiments of their own, if they didn’t employ stylizations and ironic reflections. They introduce principles that seemed to be reserved for literary culture. They graciously and gratifyingly ignore traditional verdicts; Lessing, for instance, thought that images and texts couldn’t be gainfully combined because of their differing temporal structures. But now we’re beginning to realize that texts are not merely rigidly “linear” (no-one can understand a text reading it word by word without ever doubling back); and we also realize that it is impossible to perceive images as purely “simultaneous” (unless perhaps in moments of sudden enlightenment). In John Hilliard’s pictures, spatial distortions of focus are experienced one after the other, that is: in time; and our perception cannot help but be “narrative” (it’s a “temporal conscience”, says John Hilliard). Never did a photography depict a truly isolated instant; it is only the “camera itself” that could take that view if it could “speak”, but no human participant can adopt such a perspective; a photography never did depict one instant on its own, because no-one has ever perceived one instant on its own: The inevitable assignment of meaning always takes place in time; enduring simultaneity is impossible. And one’s (own) “desire” (e.g. in the scenes of happiness in “Le Bonheur” by photographist Florence Chevallier), that desire that almost every picture of art will incite in us, is nothing else than (more or less) directed time; with a tendency to an (as yet) unlived “story”; that is, a design for time.

Several factors reinforce a nexus of language, written words and literature within photography. With some caution concerning too easy propositions such as “all is text” (everything is texture; everything is interwoven), the concept of text and most of all that of context might be broadened; for at least the contexts that enable the understanding of texts as well as images will include the same semiotic systems in various modes. The context of visual allegory is per se a specific cultural text. Whether I “say” or “show” “Le Bonheur” – the context is always the same. In that way, “narration” too must be broadened to include more than just the return of anecdotic (and thus: narrative) contents in photography: We perceive by means of various, even rivalling, “stories” that we are “writing” by living them; there is hardly any other way to explain the things we do with images and texts in each specific case. The assumption that art does not only imitate life but that life will imitate art is not just of an anecdotic, but of essential and existential relevance. “Staging” a piece of art then, is no rare nor is it a peripheral event. The otherwise well-known “stagings” by Jeff Wall or the gruesomely gracious “stagings” by Joel-Peter Witkin are virtually no more than an emphasis given to the process of staging, of the general process of invention that we helplessly call “perception”. Photographs stage “theatre” in a motionless state, but that lack of motion is not what it seems.

The artists included here integrate important ideas from the concepts of literary authorship and literary authority: “suspicion of the authority of the photographer’s image” (Stan Denniston); “authorized voyeur” (John Hilliard). In a manner similar to “pure” texts (but they in turn do not lack imagery; literature abounds in imagery), this photography too deals with fictions, with the game of truth and lie (“in an extramoral sense”), but not with an overly distinct difference between truth and lie, nor with their coincidence, nor even with their indifference. No-one can think indifference (as no-one can actually perceive “chaos”, but only “order”); one is always, even if oscillating quickly, either on one side or on the other (e.g., on the side of truth or that on the side of the lie). Presence and absence are never visible simultaneously; the pictures of Duane Michals show this, and so do those of John Hilliard amd Stas Klevak; one either sees and says one thing (presence) or the other (absence), and so one spends time and gets involved in “(hi)stories”. The fact that they are presented as photographs in the first place renders the “real” possibility of the depicted scenes relatively doubtful; the phantastic aspect of pictorial and alphabetic texts is (as the work of Tracey Moffatt might show best of all) this: That the very moment that these photographs seem to capture will likely never be photographed “in fact”.

We often encounter images or texts that are part of a “good education” (with some “cultural capital”, as Karen Knorr says, apparently referencing Pierre Bourdieu). The knowledge we demand from each spectator cannot be assessed highly enough for these pictures; that is as true of “Le Bonheur” by Florence Chevalier as it is for “The best love stories of the world” by Manuela Burkart (these images “quote” photo novels so popular in other countries: love comics, not drawn but photographed and rendered that much more obviously fictional in the process). Such “good education” is explicitly topical in the series “Connoisseurs” by Karen Knorr: “In this work I have tried to reveal the self-righteous gestures of the British Upper Class by means of irony, an irony that became obvious when the image was read in conjunction with the text. The attention was on the interplay of image and accompanying subscription […].” Whoever offers allegorical photographs will also produce (and that is no objection) pictures that originate in “the library”. Vibeke Tandberg’s pictures are forms of allegorical (textual) narrative, although these “allegories” are not classical, but colonial: The white, sacrificing benefactor floats in on poor Africans, and she makes them happy “for the first time”; this or something like it inevitably adds “stories”: Old and new myths, also some archetypical motifs, always some cultural “history” and most of all: various masks and quotations. “As the mask is a social, historical product most of all, it contained more truth than any image that presented itself as ‘true’; the mask carried a plethora of meanings within itself, which would be revealed one by one. […] To photograph photographs [was] the one way that remained, the true way even, which he had been darkly searching for before.” (Italo Calvino: Abenteuer eines Photographen. In: I. C: Erlebnis eines Reisenden.)

The pictures by Florian Merkel or Dany Leriche or Bernhard Prinz would elicit allegorical (textual) narratives even without being given such titles as “Perseus” or “Diana” or “Allegory of Intuition” (this being the title of a picture by Bernhard Prinz); we see ‘proof’ of that in Stas Klevak’s pictures and their unspecific allegory (or how else could you look at them?). And of course the dominant male gaze will continue the “narration” started with the aspect of female bodies in Dany Leriche’s “Individual Allegories”, while those body images continue to “write” themselves visually and textually. – What texts do we (inevitably) bring to the table when we recognize an (inevitably) “elegiac” quality in the woman’s face in Bernhard Prince’s photograph? Without doubt, the “History of the Elegy” will be included among other such texts, especially if we know that the photographer considers his pictures to be deliberations on a “visual moral” (an “allegory” in its own right); Children and young people might only recognize something like “sadness”, but nothing that reminds them of an “elegy” or that constitutes an “allegory”. – And whoever lacks knowledge of the preceding discussions about the “German woods” and the “German living-room” (knowledge the artists obviously expect from their audience), will not enjoy the full extent of (textual) joy incited by Anna and Bernhard Blume’s pictures – a joy depending not least on our (likely predominantly textual) knowledge of “deconstruction” (from “desaster” through to the “cussedness of things”); and similar incitements are offered by titles such as “Sunday Neuroses” and others among the works of Jürgen Klauke.
We might wonder whether such “Sho(r)t Stories” that do without title or any further alphabetic text are not, in the end, of greater interest, more radical, and farther advanced examples. But to the “Sho(r)t Stories”’ benefit, the search for such rules and regularities soon proves hopeless: Additional alphabetic text can, although it does not always, strengthen the visual components of perception. Once we know what the alphabetic text of Tracey Moffat’s pictures says, we will hardly be able to imagine a possible “innocence” in those scenes, and thus weaken them; in “Birth Certificate”, we will hardly be able to imagine the situation of the woman with the letter as “harmless” or “temporary”. – The military airport that Stan Denniston mentions, at one point, in alphabetic text, can now no longer be overlooked in the landscape in the corresponding photograph, although it is all but inconspicuous in a “purely” optical sense.

We don’t see the artists’ “thoughts” when we see their pictures. Instead, we always come up with our own picture and assume that it might have been in their thoughts, too. “The pictures themselves” are always merely necessary, but never sufficient default conditions: Proposals, incitements, occasions, inspirations, impulses, traces, opportunities and more of the same. But neither can we do whatever we (idiosyncratically) like with the pictures: Everybody is influenced by society. We can suspect our own personal emotional risk, but we cannot take the pictorial narratives presented by Tracey Moffat, Florence Chevallier, Manuela Burkhart or Betina Rheims (“Why did you leave me?”) and do with them as we please. Emotional and physical risk (both individual and social) is always involved, and again we find that we are dealing with more than just pictures and texts: “Holistic” models of perception are in high demand.

Either way: Any speech discussing what the “pictures themselves” or the “photogarphs themselves” are or do has long become meaningless. It is we who can do anything with pictures and photographs that is possible in the course of those “life stories” that the pictures strengthen or weaken: Pictorial text, lingual text, emotional text, body text: in their recouplings they change our “stories” in return – and it is with a justified sense of caution that we call them: paratexts – in between “view” and “sound”.

1.(The original German version of this text was first published in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition “Foto Szenen / Sho(r)t Stories” in the Alte Rathaus in Göttingen, Sept. 8th thru October 20th 1996.) (top)

Ausführlichere Angaben zum Thema über e-mail beim Verfasser des Artikels: Bernd Scheffer

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