I suppose one of my great concerns, as someone who writes a fair amount, is the omnipresent fear of repeating myself. To approach a topic, a topic burdened by the weight of familiarity, and to always write something new and insightful, is an enduring challenge. For to repeat oneself, regardless of that repetition’s validity, is to cease learning: it becomes merely a fruitless engagement with a priori judgements and thought processes. And so it is with this in mind that I approach this text. This is not to claim mastery over the subject matter dealt with in this text, far from it. Rather, I merely have reservations about the prospect of saying anything new, or contributing anything of merit to an already well-articulated topic. My aim is to contextualise a discussion that took place at the Joinery in conjunction with the group show that was held there recently, Three Farmers on their Way to a Dance[i]. The discussion itself involved theatre practitioner Cathy O’Carroll, contemporary art historian and lecturer Dr Francis Halsall, and journalist and essayist Donald Mahoney, and was situated around themes raised by the exhibition; namely, appropriation, representation, photography, and the hold of the photographic image. The conversation was at times inconsequential and ill defined – for example, the word ‘image’ punctuated it, yet
no one actually attempted any definition of it. And although I am pretty certain of what an image constitutes, the result of the conversation, and the ad hoc application of the term, actually caused me some confusion. It was only by reflecting on the exhibition itself that I understood the specific application of the word.
The exhibition contains work by Vanya Lambrecht-
Ward, Colin Crotty and Justin Larkin: all very different artists, but ones joined in their interrogation of the contemporary photographic debt. For Lambrecht-Ward, this preoccupation underscores her physical manipulation of photographs, taken by her, into physical, sculptural, entities. For Crotty, his painterly corpus is rooted in the use of found photographs and an ‘intention to flesh out the implied narrative of the photograph.[ii]’ Larkin also uses the photograph as a starting point, capitalising on the capacity of the found image for infinite manipulation and appropriation. Reduced to the very barest, all three artists undoubtedly share a mode of working in which the photographic image figures highly. And yet a plethora of contemporary artists share in this: what the discussion elaborated on successfully, I think, was the rationale behind choosing these artists over a variety of contemporaries, and this was a willingness to tackle the issues raised by an approach of photography by other means. The title of the exhibition, taken from the name of a photograph[iii] later appropriated by a novel[iv], is in reality already an appropriation of an appropriation of an appropriation. Thus, implicitly, by choosing this title, one already elicits a notion of the image as something that might cross medium and epoch, holding a capacity of
enduring across time under ever altering, appropriative guises. The discussion elaborated on this suggestion, scrutinising the hold of the photograph and its ineluctable power to prompt some kind of narrative construct. To start the discussion going, an excerpt from Brian Dillon’s In the Dark Room[v] (2005) was read aloud. Contained within it was the author’s recollection of his mother’s funeral, most notably the kind of self-protective minutiae
that accompanied the ritual, that which aimed to disfigure the physicality of death. Thinking about loved ones as inert and unresponsive is intolerable to those close to them, it is as though the image of the way that person once was cannot be compromised by their own death. Instead, a bizarre ritual is fabricated so far removed from life, and from living, that it cannot impact on our memory of that person. It is here that the photograph holds its power. Now I think of a line from Barthes’ beautiful Camera Lucida, of which I realise on checking my books – perhaps fittingly – I have lost;
Photographs are signs which don’t take, which turn, as milk does. Whatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see.[iv]
On apprehension of a photograph, or an image more generally, it is not the technical processes that we consider, the thin slip of paper on which it is printed, the chemical processes that enabled it to be. Rather, it is that which is presented to us within the alternative reality that is presents us with. We are always looking through the thingness of the image, ignoring the ontology of what is
essentially an object. Going back to Dillon’s description of his mother’s death, one can imagine, and share in, the continued resonance of her image. After death, it holds a resonance that supersedes the physicality of death, and begins to embody her as what remains. As W.T.J Mitchell writes,
Pictures are things that have been marked with all the stigmata of personhood: they exhibit both physical and virtual bodies; they speak to us, sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively. They present, not just a surface, but a face that faces the beholder.[vii]
Thus the image can never be mute. Even abstraction in painting does not cease the image from speaking. And so it is interesting that the three artists in the exhibition, Lambrecht-Ward, Crotty and Larkin, would voluntarily choose a secondary or competing voice, that of the photographic image, in creating their work. The practice is well worn at this stage, admittedly, and yet it holds a strangeness not appeased by familiarity. What I wonder is: why admit into the work a factor over which you have no control? Of course, Lambrecht-Ward does not happen upon her photographs, and yet with them comes a plethora of memories and associations, in the viewer, of which she cannot anticipate. With Crotty and Larkin the risk is more straightforwardly incalculable: the found image, for Crotty, exists as an opportunity to ‘flesh out the implied narrative of the photograph’[viii]; for Larkin, it is a signifier of nostalgia, and the capacity of this narrative to
endure in various appropriative forms. All three, however, deliberately introduce this unpredictable non sequitur into their work. This reminds me of some words spoken by Donald Mahoney during the course of the discussion, in which he articulated, seemingly with some exasperation, the unequal distribution of gravitas separating word and image. The example he described was a piece of reporting done in response to the Irish fiscal collapse.
After finding an interesting interviewee, writing the piece, and submitting to print, Mahoney was appalled to find his words deemed utterly contrary to the large photo placed alongside it: any hint of positivity or advance, to which his text alluded, was bleakly negated by a large black and white photograph of an Irish ‘ghost’ estate. The image is instantaneously communicable; even if, after reading the accompanying text, one gleams a slightly different take, that view is still shadowed and compromised by this tour de force of an image. Mahoney came to the view that his work merely backed up a photograph, it could not compete. Therefore, in introducing an image – any image – into an artistic practice seems almost counter-intuitive: this secondary image, found or otherwise, runs the risk of creating a narrative against which no counter-narrative might be constructed.
And yet this practice dominates in contemporary art. We might explain this by means of our post-historical specificity, our increasingly nostalgic tendencies, a renewed interest in the reality idyll or medium specificity, but I am not certain that any of these get to the root of the problem. What it inarguably suggests is the continued
hold of the image: it’s capacity to ‘mark’ as it does in the central protagonist in Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), another important point of reference for the above discussion. More than anything else, the artist is captured by the image. This might constitute an engagement with the image’s formal or aesthetic qualities, but also might work in reverse i.e. be chosen by virtue of its lack of these very qualities, or apparent blankness. In any case, the artist allows into their practice something of which they
cannot control fully, which can never be fully made malleable to their wishes.
The danger is that we might deem these images ‘truer’ or more pure than other images, or that contained within them lies a kind of nostalgic truth untainted by fabrication. We might indeed be ‘marked’ by an image, but this process is never arbitrary: thus the image can never be neutral or mute. What the discussion dealt with, on which I have attempted to gain some traction, certainly supported this view. Photographs do not involve some fast-track route to truth or reality: rather, they are often duplicitous or misleading, creating an often-dangerous semblance of literal, unambiguous truth, where there is none. One such photo, which was mentioned during the discussion, was a famous photo[ix] taken by photojournalist Eddie Adams, which depicts the execution of a Viet Cong member during the height of the Vietnamese War in 1968. The image subsequently had the effect of turning public opinion against the war in the United States. What the photo does not say is that the man being executed was responsible for death camps in the area; instead, we begin to mourn another senseless casualty of war. Adams, in witnessing the obfuscation
that followed the photograph’s release, actually seemed to regret his role in propagating an illusion:
The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths ... What the photograph didn't say was, 'What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers[x]?
Perhaps illusion is too strong of a word. Regardless of context, this remains evidence of the most extreme horrors of war. However, the public based their change of opinion not a balanced or full account of the context leading up to and surrounding the photo, but on an immediate, partial and emotional response. Not one, in short, that might be seen as adequate on which to base such an important decision. As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said, ‘there are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole
truths that play the devil.[xi]’
And so I have attempted to elaborate somewhat on themes suggested by this discussion and exhibition. I fear these thoughts might make no linear sense, or any kind of sense for that matter, though I think this entirely apt. I am not, and have never been sure as to why the photographic image, or any kind of image, holds such sway, particularly as it pertains to contemporary art practice. Perhaps it connotes a yearning for immediacy or truth; perhaps it is simply indicative of how image-saturated our world has become. In any case, I am not certain as to why we place such expectancy before them. Right now I cannot offer any answers either, just an invitation to consider this proposition, and to maybe think this why with me.