1000 Words

Writer Conversations

#6 Daniel C. Blight

Daniel C. Blight is a writer based in London and Lecturer in Photography (Historical & Critical Studies) at University of Brighton. Recent work includes “Ways of Seeing Whiteness” in George Yancy: A Critical Introduction, eds. Kimberley Ducey, Joe R. Feagin and Clevis Headley (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) and The Image of Whiteness: Contemporary Photography and Racialization (SPBH Editions/Art on the Underground 2019). He is currently working on a monograph, Photography’s White Racial Frame (Bloomsbury 2024), and slowly completing a PhD in the faculty of Social Science and Public Policy at King’s College London. In April 2022, he will be Visiting Scholar, Department of Art and Art History, University of Utah, Salt Lake City.

At what point did you start to write about photographs? 

I developed an interest in photography via post-rock and “electronica” album covers. The cityscape on the front of Fugazi’s End Hits (1998), the obliquely angled road sign on Hoover’s The Lurid Traversal of Route 7 (1994), or the pixelated “terrain” on the cover of Autechre’s Incunabula (1993) LP, which I took to be extra-terrestrial Swindon as I walked its streets, mashed at night, strangely under-stimulated. 20 years ago in that place, I made digital photographs and electronic music as part of a photography foundation course at Swindon College because, having quit my A Levels to become a pizza chef, it was the only route to university, an overdraft and a student loan.

My work then involved software editing digital photographs into CD artwork for the glitchy music I was making. I recorded the mechanical sounds of analogue camera shutters, cutting them up and sequencing them into drumbeats, and then manipulating tonally-inverted photographs of lightning to visually represent the glitches. It was as bad as it sounds. One of the compositions I completed then was titled Just take the fucking photo. This was the first time I wrote about photographs – or should that be “photography”? – eventually repeating the phrase into a microphone and layering the recorded voice track over camera shutter rhythms constructed in Fruity Loops, an audio sequencer of sorts.

My first experience of writing about photography is a species of repetitive song lyric: “Just take the fucking photo”, I wrote aggressively, over and over, on a piece of note paper in my teenage bedroom. In a sense, all my writing about photography since then has been born from the frustration captured in that phrase. Although I like to think I’m able to work with more “complex” forms of writing nowadays, there is a large part of me that appreciates teenage quotidian writing, an adolescent poetic writing, a writing apart from the perceived maturity of scholarly aptitude and normative citation practices.

On reflection, I feel there is something to learn from my frustration. What if my writing is frustration? What if I was supposed to be a writer not because I had anything interesting to say, but so that I could enjoy all the other things I do because my frustrations were absorbed by and confined to my writing? I count myself lucky that I have figured out how to confine frustration. I’ve sealed it into a sort of literary defeat.

What is your writing process?

‘Process’ sounds like such a clinical and serious word to describe how I write, although I like the sound of one of the word’s synonyms — ‘unfolding’. A procrastinatory unfolding. I enjoy reducing myself to a state of under-stimulation over a period of two or three days. Eventually, boredom compels me to write. At that point the smallest thing feels new, wakes me up and gets me excited again. Often cooking, or fixating on a particular image in a book.  

I spend most of my time not writing. I find this a necessary part of the process leading up to the act itself (which is both a struggle and a performance to myself – can I do it? Should I do it? Will it work?). Things don’t unfold this way deliberately. Most of the time, I just can’t write. It seems too hard, too difficult. I think coming to terms with this is the most important part of my writing in a philosophical sense. I like the idea, more and more, of slow writing, and of selective writing.

The rest is practical: reading, mostly on a screen, apart from poetry which I tend to read on paper. Looking at pictures in printed books. Making mental notes. Forgetting things. Then eventually I write something when I feel I can. I collect quotations when I’m reading. When I’m writing essays, I often use these to structure text. I write before them, after them, in the middle of them to disrupt them, and to see what happens. I largely write in incoherent, broken fragments which I call paragraphs. I can’t always be clear because I don’t really know what I mean. I call this writerly honesty. I’m trying to describe a feeling using words that are always wrong.

Since 2013, I’ve been making visual cues to aid my writing. I call these Image Reconstructions and they are collages comprised of visual symbols that summarise the subjects of texts I am working on. I collect images in folders as I research and read: the QAnon “logo”, a photograph of some weed, a Creative Commons image of oil burning on the surface of the sea, a .png of a pizza held up by a white hand. I then group them together into meaningful compositions (see the image nug, 2021). The rest is a weird form of visualisation in which images come to life through speculation, appropriation, trying things out to visually represent meaning. Sometimes I can’t finish the essay, or the poem, and it instead becomes an image reconstructed from the practice of writing. Sometimes I can’t finish the image. Most of the time nothing is finished, and nothing gets made, and that’s OK too.  

It sounds a cliché – and I hate the empty verbosity of the conceptual framing – but I prefer to write with photographs rather than about or, in the oft-repeated phrase, on them. I produce an essay plan using images and quotations in close and strange juxtapositions. I look for resonances, contradictions, parallels. My habits have been reformed by The Virus and by family life, particularly children. I no longer feel a need to write all the time. Most of the time I just don’t want to. I’d rather read or listen. I write towards happiness and in the direction of freedom. I’m much more comfortable with that cliché.

Can you expand on what draws you to slow writing? Is there an act of refusal, a determination to take time, in this? You’ve begun to focus much more on longer form writing over the short form.

In a sense, this isn’t true because I write many more short poems than I do long essays. Perhaps a poem a month, and two or three essays a year? I politely decline most invitations to write short form for magazines and newspapers nowadays. There are other people much better placed to comment on new projects and exhibitions than I am. There are certain spaces I don’t wish to occupy any longer. I am also disillusioned with the way badly paid short form essay writing for magazines and newspapers forces me to focus on some specious idea of right now, responding to “current practice”. Slow writing is something that the world of photography magazines can’t contend with, but they need it badly. Slow writing is a needed practice in academia too, in which scholars are forced to produce at pace to satisfy the various “excellence frameworks” they are compelled to adhere to. How many journal articles do I need to get a promotion? Are we talking 10 mediocre articles, or one bad boy one? Who gets to decide whether I’m any good or not?

If “right now” is both a fashionable position culturally speaking, and a global catastrophe unfolding in strikingly visual terms (images of the sea on fire, shamanic QAnon fascists storming the Capitol, Boris Johnson talking shit on the BBC), I’m looking to respond more slowly certainly. Part of what capitalism’s recently rejuvenated intersection with fascism requires of us is that we keep up. Move fast and stay relevant! I’m not the first person to say we should refuse that. I want to go back to a time when I could walk the streets stoned at night slowly with nowhere to be. I want to make pizzas for minimum wage again. But this time they’re texts, and I get to bake them for longer than four minutes. Unfortunately weed makes me puke now, so I can’t smoke, and I earned more money working as a waiter at Pizza Express than I do as an academic.

Slow writing is a form of epistemic protest. It says to me: stop producing knowledge habitually until you understand your own epistemic standpoint. Or: work to produce a kind of counter-knowledge that supports other people. Slowing down is me trying to be less selfish. Perhaps the “knowledge” I possess is a form of what Charles W. Mills called ‘white ignorance’ before he recently passed. I have thought about this in more detail in a chapter for a new book on the philosopher George Yancy. In that essay, I consider his work, his excellence, and myself, as I am.

What are the questions or problems that motivate your writing? 

I write to edge away from the disappointment of my social self. To be white, and to be a man, is in two interlinked ways to be a problem. Therefore, the superficial problem of my work is me, and by extension the fundamental problems are white supremacy and the elite white male dominance system. I write in the hope that I can become someone else, someone better. I am in my own way, tripping over my own feet. This is a process of discovery in which my social self is cracked open; breached to form a sort of aperture. I want to write despite myself. I have come to understand this more recently as a willingness on my part to become vulnerable, to fail publicly, to not care about the consequences of doing so. It’s only through a kind of risk that anything meaningful can come of my writing. The trouble is risk is predominantly about failure. My process is just that, then: attempt to escape myself; fail. A strangely productive failure.

Isn’t it true that writers can’t name themselves? My writing began with frustration, and its continuation now involves wondering whether what I write next will result in another “race traitor!” death threat via email. Yet, with this violence in mind, how can I not name myself? I am a white writer coming to terms with what it’s like to unravel in words. I think all white writers should try this. This is not a melancholy unfolding though, and it is not one that requires any emotional sympathy, nor undue attention. I am deeply happy. I am filled with love for other people’s writing, other people’s poetry, other people – for the first time in a long time.

What kind of reader are you? 

I read long essays quickly and short poems slowly. Then I read the same essays slowly and have no time left to read poems. I read with admiration, curiosity, frustration. I read searching for something I never find.

What do you go looking for in your reading?

I look for a mix of deep exegesis and personal reflection. Often one leads to the other. It’s sort of like asking what I go looking for in food. How much time do I have? Am I in the mood to cook? Do I have a Tesco lasagne I can put in the microwave, squirt extra ketchup on top of, and dip chunks of garlic bread into? Or am I in a Michelin Star pub for my birthday rinsing it hard on my credit card? When I read, I gorge uncertainly, and its often done in such a way that makes me feel I’m avoiding rather than looking for things. I’m avoiding writers like me. I do think “What do I want to read?” before I read sometimes, but it’s not like I always have much choice when one article takes me via a hyperlink to another, over and over again. I’ve read so much, partially. I keep trying to read in print again, and then I start missing all the hyperlinks, the distractions on Wikipedia, the stopping and searching for things I don’t understand in journal articles on the University of Brighton’s online library.

I enjoy reading my student’s essays. They teach me how to read and they teach me how to write. It’s a wonderful thing, teaching. I used to conceptualise it as something I did to feed myself so I could concentrate on my writing, but now it’s a thing I do to actively learn. I read with pleasure in a community of student-scholars. This year, I will work with students to encounter racial whiteness in reading photographs. This is a process in which we “let go” of the white logic and white racist visual foundations that underpin the western colonial history of photography and instead turn our attention to forms of white uncertainty. Irrespective of our individual racial identifications, we all work together in a white university. In a white space. In white complicity pedagogy, this involves de-centring forms of “knowing” and instead centres notions of white humility (“I do not know”/”I am not sure”) and white listening – learning to listen while giving up on needing to feel like a “good” white scholar. I take my lead here from educators such as Barbara Applebaum, Stephen Brookefield and Zeus Leonardo.

Reading should always be paired with writing. This doesn’t necessarily mean essay writing, but perhaps a simpler form of writing notes, questions or incomplete fragments. I encourage students to read in such a way that excites them to produce fragments of text, as roughly as they like. We then work through those texts together and make sense of them in critical relation to scholarly conventions. What results is a form of photo-textual essay practice; a manner of writing with photographs in order to produce literary essays that respond both to a history of the essay form in photographic cultures, and importantly, embodied, reflexive and phenomenological approaches to images derived from methods in visual sociology. It sounds technical, but it’s exciting, in practice, in the classroom.

How significant are theories and histories of photography now that curation is so prominent? 

The sort of canonical history of photography taught in British Higher Education is undergirded by the white logic of European settler colonialism. This isn’t discussed nearly enough, and it has a huge impact on what is often falsely named the history of photography and how we theorise its structures and meanings (in this way history and theory go hand in hand). We desperately need new historical and theoretical frameworks because the European invention of photography from the 1830s – which is not the first invention of photography, but rather the most convenient white inauguration – is founded upon the same intellectual traditions that justify the genocide of Indigenous, Black and Brown people the world over. After Gerald Horne, let’s call this tradition the apocalypse of settler colonialism, and, after Charles W. Mills, let’s call it the white ignorance of epistemological individualism in the historical project of racial liberalism. In short, white supremacy continues to govern the world at large, and all cultural phenomena including photography falls within its scope and power.

More precisely, the European invention of photography, which is to say the “fixing” of images by such figures as William Henry Fox Talbot in the middle of the 19th century (some 200 years after the invention of racial whiteness), is a visual project that inherits the social dynamics of what Joe R. Feagin calls the white racial frame and extends this into particular types of “image-schema”. This image-schema, which I am theorising in a new book, Photography’s White Racial Frame, can be described in several ways. It is first and foremost a mental frame, or what has been described differently as the colonial gaze by Frantz Fanon and Edward Said. More precisely, this mental frame is named white scopophilia by George Yancy, and a regime of seeing by Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks. These concepts share a common truth: that with the invention of racial whiteness came what might be called a psychology of colonial picturing. This is a form of white imaginary, which is of course etymologically to say white imagery. We white people look at the world through what Stuart Hall called a white eye, and we do so full of an often-unconscious desire for power, wealth and knowledge. Photography is the great inheritor of this perceptual frame, this image-schema and its false narrative of white violence then and white innocence now. Thus, I theorise the European history of photography as a white racist visual dynamic full of emancipatory potential in the hands of those artists that choose to work against it. Like racial whiteness, photography can be abolished.

Understanding the significant violence of this visual framework should result in nothing less than seeing the world in an entirely new way, and as I have contended, seeing one’s white self in an entirely new way. If curation is the care and organisation of cultural phenomena, then in a white supremacist world it either stands within or without the white racial frame. The practice of curating is an historical and theoretical positioning which takes place in relation to the history of the western museum defined as (what Dan Hicks calls) ‘white infrastructure’. So, the question becomes, why is curating now so prominent? And for me, the answer has to do with the false choices racial whiteness continues to offer curators (remember, everyone is a curator, but it is most often white people that declare themselves so or who are awarded the title institutionally). To curate is first to possess knowledge, and then to make choices based on that knowledge resulting in some objects getting attention and others not. Possession is privilege. Knowledge is racialised, gendered, made bodily. Which curatorial bodies are most prominent? Ones like mine. Like racial whiteness, white curators can be abolished too.

Your book The Image of Whiteness, examining photography’s construction and perpetuation of racialised hierarchy, felt like it could have been an exhibition, but existed in book form. Was that a choice you made, or does it reveal something about the spaces of writing and display?

The Image of Whiteness is visually intrusive and conceptually shocking for lots of white people – certainly if encountered as an exhibition, in a public museum space (white infrastructure). I owe this to the artists featured. They have done the work and I have brought it together. I think it would be interesting if there was an accompanying events programme in which people could thrash out some of the ideas in the project. George Yancy might deliver the keynote on the question of symbolic white death – he’s an excellent public speaker – and I could be available as white visitors feel more and more uncomfortable, just like I do every day as I try to learn about my white self. I would be there to care for them (the curator’s role), not to make them feel good but to make them understand that it’s OK to feel uncomfortable and confused by something we are only just coming to understand: that being white is to embody a violent lie; that the exhibition is teaching us that we have been lied to, and that we are upholding that lie and that what we need do is look, and then see differently, and listen attentively. That’s what I hope The Image of Whiteness is about: rendering white people uncomfortable so that we can be challenged and then learn. We white people need to learn to feel – to racially empathise – and then to self-disclose. I’m not interested in books or exhibitions that revive whiteness or make it “good”. That is an impossibility. A paradoxical space of both white projection and display.

White self-disclosure starts from the position that there is ‘no contradiction in whites working as anti-racists and their being racist,’ as Stephen Brookefield writes. So, I start from that position in my own work, and when I encounter white denialists – those individuals socialised white that have unfortunately still not realised their racial whiteness has very little to do with their skin colour – I seek to help them through a form of creative care. Imagine if that could be communicated to an exhibition audience? This is not to say white viewers should be told they are racist upon entry to the museum, but that they will surely come to realise to be white is to be racist by the time they leave. The exhibition becomes a form of white abolitionist narrative disclosure in which white people are prompted to learn through a process of looking and seeing differently.

Whatever The Image of Whiteness is, I hope it is not a mere anti-racist declaration. I am interested in avoiding spaces of epistemic comfort for myself and other white people. I want to create thankful spaces in which abolitionist practice is uncomfortable and ongoing. An anti-white social ontology requires a complex theory of practice that understands the space between white agency and white social structure as a fissure in which a series of epistemic possibilities might be revealed. My writing, and any exhibition making that follows it, is about revealing in this way. I reject error avoidance as I will make errors as I go. In a sense to be white is to be a human error, so what would it be like to accept that glitch in the social matrix from the get-go? What if instead of conceptualising my work as “good” I call it an error – which is different from a mistake – and brings me all the way back to where I started: frustration, erratum, not writing until I have something to say, or rather, something to do.

What qualities do you admire in other writers?

I admire anyone who has the courage to write against themselves.    

What texts have influenced you the most?

Here’s what is influencing me this week: Simple Men (2019) by Rachael Allen; To Revive a Person is No Slight Thing (2016) by Diane Williams; White Self-Criticality Beyond Anti-Racism: How Does it Feel to Be a White Problem? (2014), edited by George Yancy; Weird Fucks (1980) by Lynne Tillman; Black Bodies, White Gold (2021) by Anna Arabindan-Kesson.

What is the place of criticality in photography writing now?

Criticism gets me in trouble. Always with white people in positions of power, which is reason enough to keep getting in trouble.♦

Further interviews in the Writer Conversations series can be read here.


Writer Conversations is edited by Lucy Soutter (University of Westminster) and Duncan Wooldridge (Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London), upon the invitation of Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University). 

Images:

1-Portrait of Daniel C. Blight. © Idris Khan OBE

2-Book cover of Daniel C. Blight, The Image of Whiteness (SPBH Editions and Art on the Underground, 2019)

3-Daniel C. Blight, 010 (After Julia Margaret Cameron, The Echo, 1868 (2021), from A selection of white people’s expressions from the great period of realism organised into a grid and positioned in such a way that they can smell a lemon. Photographs on archival paper, walnut frame © Daniel C. Blight

4-Daniel C. Blight, nug (2021), from Image Reconstructions. Photographs on archival paper, walnut frame © Daniel C. Blight

5-LP cover of Autechre, Incunabula (1993) © Warp Records

The Image of Whiteness:

Contemporary Photography and Racialization

Book review by Paul Halliday

We live in strange times. Recently, a senior British politician thought it acceptable to describe Muslim women wearing burkas as looking “like letterboxes”; this, after having previously described Black people as “Piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”, and gay men as “tank-topped bumboys”. It is quite possible that such overtly, Islamophobic, racist and homophobic utterances would have been considered unremarkable, had it not been that the speaker eventually became the British Prime Minister. All this, at a time of national crisis, the likes of which has not been seen during the post-war period. As Boris Johnson moved closer to seizing the reigns of parliamentary power, the more horrified the British Left became, as if watching a slow-motion car crash unfolding on a dimly lit CCTV screen, without any possibility of switching to pause or rewind.

On reading The Image of Whiteness: Contemporary Photography and Racialization, edited by Daniel C. Blight, one is immediately struck by the complexities around some of the contemporary uncertainties associated with the inexorable rise of alt-right identity politics and the sociological space of an imagined future. This book invites us to reconsider the normalcy of the now, set against a future that may materialise through the Baldwin-esque fire of engaged memory, truth-making, agency and utopianism. Many of the writers are concerned with the historical optics of concealment and revelation, and this has particular resonances for those artists and cultural thinkers working in the difficult and shape-shifting area of ‘race studies’.

The book is effectively a series of conversations about the crisis of being; of making sense of being, and of being made sense of. On the cover, we see a photograph of what appears to be a white middle-class family surrounded by the accoutrements of a consistent, effortlessly maintained comfort. In this group portrait, there are no apparent signs of austerity impacting on the sitters as we so often see within the lives of families living at the edge; the so-called ‘left behind’. The book starts with an engaging and insightful introductory essay by Blight outlining some of the core thematic and theoretical concerns of a wide range of interdisciplinary writers and cultural commentators approaching ‘race’ from a variety of critical perspectives.

In Blight’s chapter, he outlines his central thesis that the very discussion (or the absence of discussion) of ‘whiteness’ is predicated on two primary responses; the first being White Denial ‘in which certain white people won’t acknowledge whiteness at all, it being more conspiracy than concept to them, a mere apparition.’ He contrasts this with a second response, which he intriguingly terms Relative White Silence. Having worked in British Higher Education for well over two decades, this resonates with me, both in terms of my actual experiences of just how difficult it can be to have conversations with some academic colleagues utterly convinced of the rightness (moral or other) of their ideological positions around institutional cultures that promote structural inequality ‘because’, as Blight puts it, ‘white people can never be truly silent, finding it necessary to recapitulate their subjectivity at every turn – a form of taciturn behavior in which they simply won’t engage either positively or negatively, preferring to be silent so as to remain “moderate”.’

Therein lies one of the central questions all of the contributors respond to, namely, how does ‘society’ make sense of difference and acknowledge the relationships that exist in real concrete terms for people of colour? Relatedly, how might ‘whiteness’ itself be seen beyond the epidermal surface? This book doesn’t attempt to answer what whiteness is exactly; how could it and why should it? Instead, it focuses on the implicit tensions of denial and silence; of hidden power relations not spoken of, or indeed spoken to. Through a well-considered image edit and thoughtfully designed layout, an extended conversational encounter is played out. There are portraits by Buck Ellison of young white people in a variety of natural settings; an interior-designed sitting room, a verdant meadow, a gymnast balanced atop an American Civil War-era light field artillery piece. Elsewhere, Ken Gonzales-Day offers images of a lynching of an absent African American in the Deep South. Absent, because the artist has removed the mutilated and twisted body of the victim; but what still remains is the delighted, carnivalesque faces of those witnessing and contributing to the ritualised murder that underpinned the true relationship between Jim Crow and a post-slavery society based on the racial terror that William DuBois, Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison, Bell Hooks and Paul Gilroy have so eloquently written about.

There is a power and relevance in this, particularly for those researching and teaching photography and urbanism informed by social anthropology, socio-legal studies, cultural archaeology and art history. What excites me about this book is that it speaks to the conceptual foundation of interdisciplinarity, namely, that meaningful philosophical and epistemological insights may be found through practices working through ideas, pushing boundaries and being prepared to take risks. And there’s the rub. Interdisciplinarity, by it’s very nature is risky. It flies in the face of Bourdieusian Habitus in terms of its lack of ontological centeredness. As one works through this book, there is a strong sense of an indefatigable de-centering; of narratives around ‘race’ folding back, of then recapitulating within a written component, an interview, a visual element.

So we see in Nancy Burson’s images of Donald Trump, an all-seeing, all-powerful, assured white man comfortable within his own skin, transitioning through a series of colour shades and putative ‘races’, not entirely dissimilar to the colour classification system used to distinguish ‘true whites’ from ‘mulattos’ through to the outer edges of dark-skinned ‘negritude’. Suddenly Trump inhabits a different space, there, but not fully there. And of course, suffice to say, this continuum is arbitrary, relative, constructed, contested and imposed. Even now, decades after the big battles in social, cognitive and evolutionary anthropology have moved on from the conceptual prevarications and self-indulgences of experimentally and methodologically-challenged ‘race science’, there are the rumblings of a new awakening in eugenics research that promotes itself as dispassionate, objective, impartial, truthful and above all, ‘good for us.’

The white woman stands in front of a group of squatting Africans as seen in Michelle Dizon & Viet Le’s White Gaze. Education; it’s good for them. A Black man stands against a dark background draped with a Union flag in Abdul Abdullah’s, Self-portrait as an Ultra-nationalist, from the series Homeland. On his shirt is the legend “Fuck Off We’re Full”. Abdullah’s photograph confronts the white viewer with an image of difference that functions less as an experience of looking at or looking into a void; but rather challenges the viewer to think about the Black man as a projected mirror image drawing on a paradoxical innermost terror.

The conversations with David Roediger (The Advent of Whiteness), Yasmin Gunaratnam (The Borders of Whiteness), Claudia Rankine (On Blondness and Whiteness), Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa (Picturing the Invisible) and George Yancy (Symbolic White Death), are focused, philosophically rich and well-crafted explorations of what ‘race’ today means within academia, literature, art-making and curatorial practices. As such, this book will be highly relevant to those readers engaging with some of the core issues surrounding such a complex, controversial and, at times, incendiary field. On reading the texts, one senses a real and present urgency, and the conversations, whilst not offering any easy ‘answers’ to some of the most pressing cultural, historical and geo-political issues of the day; often point to the possibility of mediation, conciliation and engagement, contrasting with stark warnings about the sharp shift to the outer edges of nationalist extremism.

There is a telling moment where Blight, in his final conversation with George Yancy, recalls a question he had previously asked the philosopher, “what should white people do?”, to which Yancy responded: “Lay down and die. White people should die a symbolic death.” There is so much confusion, invective and entrenchment around how best to approach the issues of ‘white privilege’, ‘white fragility’, institutional denial, silence and complicity; and it does feel that this timely book will make a contribution towards engaging and bringing into sharper focus a much-needed paradigm shift around addressing ‘whiteness’, ‘otherness’ and ‘difference’ as constituent parts of our mundane, and often unremarkable lives. On reflection, I would suggest that rather than “lay down and die”, white people might consider doing something altogether more radical; they could engage differently with the history and cultural politics; they could reject denial, silence and complicity; they could stand up and live.

All images courtesy Self Publish, Be Happy Editions and Art on the Underground.


Paul Halliday is a photographer, filmmaker and urbanist based at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he convenes the MA Photography and Urban Cultures. After training in photojournalism and Fine Art film at LCC and Central St Martins, he studied social anthropology, art history and archaeology at Goldsmiths, and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. A member of UPA – the Urban Photographers’ Association, a former Channel 4 film director and British Refugee Council Media Advisor, he now researches urban spaces, identities and material cultures through visual and written forms.

I-Broomberg & Chanarin, Shirley 1, from the series How to Photograph the Details of a Dark Horse in Low Light, 2012. Courtesy the artists and Lisson Gallery, London and New York.

II-Nate Lewis, Focused Heads, from the series Social Patterns, 2017. Courtesy the artist.

III-Ken Gonzales-Day, East First Street #2 (St. James Park), from the series Erased Lynchings, 2013. Courtesy the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.

IV-Nancy Burson, What If He Were: Asian, 2018. Courtesy the artist.

V-Nancy Burson, What If He Were: Black, 2018. Courtesy the artist.

VI-John Lucas & Claudia Rankine, Stamped, 2018. Courtesy the artists.

VII-Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Mirror Study (2140278), 2018. Courtesy the artist and team (gallery, inc.), New York; DOCUMENT, Chicago; and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, Los Angeles.

VIII-Michelle Dizon & Viet Le, White Gaze (book spread), 2018. Courtesy the artists and Sming Sming Books.

IX-David Birkin, Detail (Death Row Gate), from the series Midnight Blue, 2018. Courtesy the artist.

X-Richard Misrach, Wall, east of Nogales, Arizona, from the series Border Cantos, 2015. Courtesy the artist and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco; Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Marc Selwyn Fine Art, Los Angeles.

XI-Libita Clayton, Untitled, from the series Quantum Ghost, 2019. Courtesy the artist.

XII-Libita Clayton, Untitled, from the series Quantum Ghost, 2019. Courtesy the artist.

XIII-Sutupa Biswas, Birdsong, 2004. Production still. 16mm lm transferred onto 2 DVDs. Dual-screen projection. Colour. No sound. Duration: 7’7”. Dimensions: variable. Commissioned by Iniva (London, UK) in collaboration with FVU (London, UK). Realised with the generous support of the AHRC (UK) and Chelsea College of Art and Design (UAL). Courtesy the artist.

Buck Ellison

Perfect White Family

Essay by Daniel C. Blight

Picture this if you can. The obsequious glow of white skin, in your house, at your work, in your mirror. If you “don’t see race”, see it now. See the thing you were taught to ignore. This signifier — this sallow epidermis — is what renders you invisible. Without your conscious permission, it places you at the unseen centre of what it is to be human. The ‘unmarked nature of whiteness derives from it being the centre point from which everything else can be viewed’, writes Steve Garner in his Whiteness as a kind of absence.[i]

White people are ghosts, invisible to themselves.

Photography is the social and technological history of “seeing white”. It finds its origins in the long 19th century and is often framed as a miraculous invention pioneered by the polymathic glow of elite European men. Sir William Henry Fox Talbot, the imperious Knight of the British Empire. Nicéphore Niépce, the son of a wealthy French lawyer. Photography then rapidly becomes the visual tool of European Imperialism — power, war, continued colonisation. At first, wealthy white men set out to photograph the world around them; “dark” things they find outside the centre of whiteness. White skin commands the signification of purity at home and black and brown “natives” form the subjugated portrait of the Grand Tour abroad.

Google Image search “family portrait”. The algorithm offers us a picture of white familial normativity. Perfect teeth, rose-tinted skin, wavy locks of hair. Race is also a question of class, of course. The same algorithm delivers us a picture of wealth: three of the first ten images in the search return a photograph of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge with their two young children. Immaculate teeth, snow white skin — human “perfection”. Where does this image come from, why does it appear so avaricious and white, and what happens if we turn it against itself?

Buck Ellison flips the antipathy of such an image on its side. His “perfect” family is an image of acknowledgement; one that references a history of art bound to white, upper-class familial representations, from Dutch Golden Age painting to contemporary photographs of monied elites. But it is also an image of critique; one which captures the currency of financial aspiration and success in the present-day West. The psychology of wealth-making underpins our consumerist drives to accrue money and the sense of power and independence that often comes with it. As a recent research paper, The Psychology of Wealth[ii] notes, ‘Individuals endorsing the beliefs that self-worth and net worth are intertwined, that success is defined by how much money they earn, and that money helps give their life meaning were more likely to have attained a high-income level.’ In short, if you believe you are a high-value person in social terms — if you are able to perform that kind of vanity — you stand more chance of earning highly, so the story goes. One might pose the question here: what is the relation between narcissism, wealth and cultural traits associated with the social construction of whiteness?

In a period of ludicrous economic inequality, the photographic representation of this type of domestic space provides a seldom-granted look in to a 1% culture which owns 90% of American dollars. Ellison visually documents this space, and at the same time renders it artifice, fiction. As Gillian Rose writes, domestic space is ‘connected to the public space of political, economic and cultural relations’[iii] and we might therefore interpret it as a space that is constructed. While reflecting a social class that is very real indeed, the subjects of Ellison’s photographs nonetheless perform their identities, assembling the meaning of the space around them. How might this function, as an image?

One of Ellison’s visual references is 17th century Dutch painting. As Martha Hollander notes in her An Entrance for the Eyes[iv], Dutch painters designed a complex and thoughtful series of signifiers into their images which in equal parts documented and allegorised the lives of the subjects featured. Ellison has made a series of photographs that work similarly to reveal various tropes and details. An American war of Independence drill manual, a First World War cannon, a diamond engagement ring, a phone call made or taken in the Ritz-Carlton.

The Prince Children, Holland, Michigan, is a semi-formal group portrait. The photograph gives us a number of venerably posh signifiers: flowery upholstered furniture (good taste); a large, welcoming fireplace lined with parquet woodwork (a warm and wholesome environment); plenty of pictures and books (knowledge is power); the boy wears his polo-neck tucked-in (smart, well bred) and the girls sit or stand in plaid skirts and knee-high hosiery (European cultural heritage, check). This type of family photography, as French writer Jean Sagne notes,

puts in place a system of signs, which translate
into the image of a class…. The conformity to
the model, the constraint imposed on the individual
to bend to [certain] rules can but translate into
a voluntary assimilation, a recognition of a social code.[v]

I cannot claim to know these people, but I am socialised to recognise the image they project for I have come to unconsciously desire it myself. As Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks shows in her Desiring Whiteness,[vi] whiteness is the ‘master signifier’ to which all other racial categories must be submitted. White people are thus lured towards it; our lives lived in a state of flux between ignorance of what we are and a certain crisis of knowing, somehow, that we are living in a state of denial; a refusal to give up that chimerical promise that was offered to us, for nothing, at birth. It is not our skin that makes us white, but rather the way we act upon the world. As Cheryl Harris has shown[vii], whiteness was in part devised as a system of property ownership, and it is with the notions of property, assets and profit that white people continue to be obsessed. In this respect, whiteness is capitalism, and we barely know it.

Photography complicates questions of race and class considerably. As a medium shifting between documentary and fiction, it both reaffirms the dynamics of social, political and economic power and at the same time places them out of reach. Ellison’s pictures are enigmatic in the way that they both “image” and “imagine” a certain kind of reality. To look at the family group is, as Philip Stokes writes, ‘to add the assumption of a whole thicket of connections between the sitters; most viewers allow themselves the pleasure of extravagant supposition.’[viii] We, as viewers, do not know who these people are, but we can suppose who they remind us of, if not directly ourselves.

All images courtesy of the artist and The Sunday Painter, London. © Buck Ellison


Daniel C. Blight is a writer based in London. He is Lecturer in Historical & Critical Studies in Photography, School of Media, University of Brighton and Visiting Tutor, Critical & Historical Studies, School of Arts & Humanities, Royal College of Art. His first book, The Image of Whiteness: Contemporary Photography and Racialization is forthcoming from SPBH Editions co-published with Art on the Underground.

References:

[i] Garner, S. (2007), “Whiteness as a kind of absence” in Whiteness: An Introduction. London: Routledge.

[ii] Klontz, B.T., Seay, M.C., Sullivan, P. and Canale, A. (2014), The Psychology of Wealth: Psychological Factors Associated with High Income. Journal of Financial Planning, 27:12. Denver: Financial Planning Association.

[iii] Rose, G. (2003), Family photographs and domestic spacings: a case study. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. London: Royal Geographical Society.

[iv] Hollander, M. (2002). An Entrance for the Eyes: Space and Meaning in 17th Century Dutch Art. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

[v] Sagne, J. (1984), L’atelier du photographe. Paris: Presses de la Renaissance.

[vi] Seshadri-Crooks, K. (2000). Desiring Whiteness: A Lacanian Analysis of Race. London: Routledge.

[vii] Harris, C. (1993). Whiteness as Property. Harvard Law Review, 106:8. Cambridge: The Harvard Law Review Association.

[viii] Stokes, P. (1992), “The Family Photograph Album: So Great a Cloud of Witnesses” in Clarke, C. The Portrait in Photography. London: Reaktion.

Michelle Dizon & Việt Lê

White Gaze

Essay by Daniel C. Blight

At the end of Señorita, a music video by rapper Vince Staples, the camera withdraws backwards from a street scene, through a window and into the ground floor of a house to reveal a white, affluent North American family looking out, smiling at what they have witnessed. This scene is effectively an urban prison. As the song unfolds, its socially diverse characters — working class black, latino, ‘white trash’ men (berating Staples as he walks by), a homeless man and two sex workers — are either celebrated, ridiculed or shot one-by-one by gun surveillance turrets above.

The video’s narrative is a metaphor for contemporary America: bourgeois whiteness reigns supreme at the expense of an underclass, comprised largely of people of colour and those Trump-voting white folks left behind by their middle-class counterparts. The window through which the camera withdraws frames the ‘disturbing’ scene outside for the ‘perfect’ white family to watch from a position of comfort; allowing them to look out both protected by, and in possession of, a ‘white gaze’. This underclass is mere spectacle or entertainment to that gaze. The camera, which tracks the narrative of the video is an extension of this form of ‘white sight’, eventually reclining to safety within the house. As George Yancy writes, ‘It is the social world of white normativity and white meaning making which creates the conditions under which black people are always already marked as different/deviant/dangerous.’ It is this precise sense of difference and danger Staples engages in his video.

Whiteness, which in this instance takes the form of monstrously bearing witness to from a position of safety, is reflected in a system of class dominance maintained by a violent, colonial prison state more commonly referred to as the USA. Cameras and guns conflate to form a single technological and militaristic entity that protects the hegemony of white power at all costs. Whiteness – which desires to track violence outside itself – is ignorant to the fact that the real source of violence lies within its own house. Whiteness, it might be said, is the root, the provenance and the source of social barbarity from its invention in the early 17th century to its present-day murrain. As Richard Seymour notes in his essay on Salvage, ‘whiteness is a plague.’

In a poem by Viêt Lê with an accompanying image by Michelle Dizon, whiteness gazes on in the form of a gesticulating white woman standing above three crouching black men. The image suggests she has something to explain; that her knowledge – her performance of a certain kind of education – must be articulated both verbally and physically ‘above’ – thus gazing down upon – the bodies of people of colour. The accompanying poem reads:

Eyes wide
in class
classed—
the British university
was also a technique
of pain
of the deserted
of painting
the raw desert
of humanity
of the humanities
in automatic shackles
Return to the colonies
of the mind.

Here, whiteness takes power as a form of European knowledge, the all-seeing and knowing eye of white sight manifest in the gestures of the white body and the utterances of the white mind. Here the white gaze offers – incognizantly, tediously, repetitively – its intellectual fruits to people of colour on their own land. In a different form of education-as-violence than the colonist Sir Thomas Dale promoted when starting a college along the Powhatan River to ‘educate the natives’ in early 17th century British America, this anonymous white woman professes her ‘unsurpassable’ knowledge to those she deems to be below her cultural imperialism. Criticised directly in Lê and Dizon’s image/poem intersection, the elite British university system is the network of institutions that socialised and educated elites who paved the way for the formation of the earliest inventors of whiteness – a group of governing individuals named the House of Burgesses (a word which is aptly derived from ‘bourgeois’) who, in 1619, forced the first group of twenty African slaves into servitude in the British colony of Jamestown, Virginia.

Across multiple images and texts, and spanning various periods of colonial rule by different nations, Lê and Dizon’s White Gaze reveals page-by-page the way in which those socialised white often unconsciously experience – and therefore gaze upon – the world around us. Named after both a philosophical theory and the practice of one of the most violent forms of seeing, this book stands as a potent visual and poetic affront to whiteness.

Central to the idea of the gaze is the notion of desire. ‘In the beginning… desire is always competitive,’ writes Peter Wollen in his essay On Gaze Theory, which traces the genealogy of human desire in the form of looking and wanting from G.W.F. Hegel to Laura Mulvey. The desire of one human portends to the desire of another: I may want what you desire, I may shadow or mimic your desires, and it’s in this kind of relationship that human history might be thought as the ‘history of desired desires’, remarked Alexandre Kojève in a 1947 lecture on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. In this way, you and I are constituted as truly human only when we focus our desire on the desire of an “other”, and, that in this instance, according to Wollen in his reading of Kojève, becoming human is somehow about being self-consciously in competition with an “other” via the gaze as a form of shared desire (because I desire what you desire above all else). I want not exactly what you want, but more precisely I yearn to be within the throes of that which you desire.

In Hegel’s view, during the early 19th century the gaze as a form of power was a struggle between two different kinds of unequal human: the master and the slave. The slave desires to take the position of the master and the master desires the acknowledgement of their power over the slave. At this point we would do well to remember Hegel’s immensely ignorant words on the “Negro” which, as Achille Mbembe reminds us in his On the Postcolony, are ‘an example of animal man in all his savagery and lawlessness.’

This interpretation of the gaze puts emphasis on, as Wollen continues, ‘the possibility of struggle’. In a simple sense this demonstrates that it is entirely possible to desire an object or thing – to struggle to obtain it – because others around us also desire it, not because we actually want it. When we desire things – for example whiteness, to be white, to act white – what form of power dynamics are at play as we do so? When we unwittingly project our white desires onto others, who are we in “competition” with? Might it also be said that we thus desire at the expense of others supposedly unlike ourselves? These are not the only relevant questions in the case of Lê and Dizon’s White Gaze, which begins to ask what the relationship between a certain form of white desire and photographic images might be?

Much like the way in which Vince Staples’ video seeks to metaphorise White America as a form of racialised power – the final scene literally framing the world of people of colour as an urban prison apart from the white familial space of comfort – Lê and Dizon’s project demonstrates that the history of photographic images and the camera itself equally reflect forms of deeply violent white sight. In my view, the importance of White Gaze is that it uses photography and poetry to ask white people to feel less comfortable in our whiteness (and for an increasing number of us, our new-found ‘wokeness’) and instead find ways to meaningfully resist our own white subjectivity. As George Yancy quite rightly suggested at a symposium in response to the question what should white people do? – and we white people might think of this book as a catalyst for the same action – “I want them to confront their own whiteness. That’s the kind of honesty I’m looking at; the kind of humility I’m looking at. That fearlessness to be torn apart… White people should go home tonight, get naked, look in the mirror and ask themselves, what’s so special about me?”

All images courtesy of the artists and Sming Sming Books. © Michelle Dizon & Việt Lê


Daniel C. Blight is a writer based in London. He is Lecturer in Historical & Critical Studies in Photography, School of Media, University of Brighton; Visiting Tutor, Critical & Historical Studies, School of Arts & Humanities, Royal College of Art and Online Editor, Viewpoints at The Photographers’ Gallery, London.

Edgar Martins

Siloquies and Soliloquies on Death, Life and Other Interludes

Essay by Daniel C. Blight

You talk about death very flatly”, says one of Roland Barthes’ students disdainfully upon leaving his class. These words are Barthes’ own segue into his concept of ‘flat death’: the flat surface of the photograph and the ironic flatness of death itself, which the writer identifies by having, in Camera Lucida, “nothing to say” about the subject. Death is an ineffable thing. It’s very difficult to write about, and it’s even more complex to find anything new to say when doing so. Perhaps there is literally nothing to say; what do we, the living, know about it really? This ‘literally’ – one often heard and ambiguous colloquialism of our time – is, as we shall see, important in considering the connection between death and soliloquy. Or put simply, death and the language of photography, an idea central to Edgar Martins’ work here.

Siloquies and Soliloquies on Death, Life and Other Interludes is in fact several parallel projects, not least various iterations of the work in exhibition form, but also a substantial book project. As the introductory essay by Sérgio Mah tells us, Edgar Martins shot in excess of a thousand photos, and scanned more than three thousand from the archives in the National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences (INMLCF) in Portugal. Displayed in complex and elegant sequences – visual testaments to the complications of thinking death, and to the idea of an interlude, be it between the world of the living and the dead, or in the space between ordered images.

The writer Laura Mulvey offers us a crucial scheme, in two parts, with which to think photography’s relationship to death. First, she suggests that there is a sense of intellectual uncertainty on the subject of death, which finds expression in Barthes’ stiflement in Camera Lucida (1980), and more recently in Thomas W. Laqueur’s The Work of the Dead (2015), which foregrounds the importance of, as he puts it, the longue durée – similar patterns and cycles of thinking about, and behaving towards, death that appear over and over again in its long cultural history. Second, Mulvey goes on to state that it is impossible to consider, at its fundament, that photography is a language and a system of meaning bound to expression through signs.

If one cultural history of death is the history of intellectual inconstancy, and the other is the difficulty in reducing the photograph to a linguistic system of meaning, where does that leave us, and indeed Edgar Martins’ project? It seems reasonable to assume that any intellectual endeavour on the subject of death in the context of photography should take stock of this. Returning to a discussion of the words ‘literally’ and ‘soliloquy’, we may find a partial answer as to how Martins goes about this.

We can’t literally talk of death because its expression requires figuration. In this sense death expressed through language is a ‘figure of thought’, which is an idea obvious enough to any poststructural linguist. However, it is important here as it speaks to our separation from death: a distance both in understanding its meaning, and inasmuch as we attempt to say something about it using words or images, failing as we go. The writer Roger Luckhurst, in another essay in Martins’ book, cites Jacques Derrida, a theorist key to understanding the complexities of language. In doing so, he reiterates one of the central tenets of Derrida’s theory of deconstruction: that writing – and therefore we might say photography, as it is generally understood to be at least a quasi-language – can never be “finally identified or exhaustively delimited.” The meaning of a photograph is flexible, figurative and best understood as operating within a system of changing tropes – metaphor and irony being the most familiar to us. Analogy, as we find in Kaja Silverman’s book on photography, The Miracle of Analogy (2015), is another literary expression of theoretical importance to understanding photography’s relationship to death. She writes, “a death mask analogises the face that shaped it.” We might similarly suggest that in more general terms, the photograph analogises the world that shapes it.

One history of photography is a history of literature; or at least a history constituted in part by photography theory importing literary terms from the subject areas of linguistics and literary theory. Equivalently, Edgar Martins engages the complexities of the language of photography by offering us a soliloquy – the literary and dramaturgic thing that it is – on death.

The soliloquy form is, simply and etymologically speaking, the act of talking to oneself. However, as with the study of most words, etymology proves near-on useless for reaching any sense of complex understanding. The other word often associated with soliloquy is ‘discourse’, and it’s here that we find an early Western philosophical relationship between soliloquy and death. In Martins’ book’s final essay by Timothy Secret – the most vivid of the three in the publication – he reflects on how, in an Athenian marketplace, Plato came to realise the “enigma of Socrates’ joviality on the day of his death”. This is the emergence of the concept of a ‘good death’. As is well known, Socrates drinks poison and professes that death is not a thing to be frightened of, but rather an experience to be welcomed bravely. Crucially, Socrates also considers how, as Secret writes, “a life dedicated to reason is itself practicing death”. A synonymic link emerges here: soliloquy is a form of discourse, discourse a form of reasoning, and reason a form of death. Death is here tied, in this Socratic reduction, to the nature of soliloquy understood in the transitions or separations between related literary or philosophical terms.

It is this sense of transition that is important, in my mind, to Martins’ work. The word ‘interlude’ in his project’s title offers a clue. The artist asks us to pay attention to the transitory spaces between his images, which, alongside the photographs as a form of soliloquy, which we must ourselves speak, forms a ‘discourse’ in the sense that the word simultaneously means relation, formation and expression. This is a discourse created by, as Timothy Secret suggests, “an investigation that contributes towards the task of learning to die.” Edgar Martins has, in some strange and profound sense, undertaken a research project that presents detailed visual documentation on the subject of death in the form of a series of fictional extrapolations. He starts with archival images, or ones of his own making; ambiguously appropriates and sequences them; and then asks us to consider two things: the figurative nature of the photographic image as it relates to the involutions of language, and the spaces or interludes between photographs inasmuch as they appear to us as a series of linguistic signs.

Laqueur tells us in The Work of the Dead about the process in which the body’s enzymes literally eat away at flesh post-mortem, thus beginning the process of corporeal decay. Figuratively – to enable one of the medium’s many changing tropes – the photographic study of death is a strange sort of autolysis with which images, as they circulate and propagate, eat away at their own meanings. We might therefore call this photography’s essential figure of thought: like death, photographic images have no inherent meaning, yet it is our task, as people learning to die, to attribute whatever meaning we find worthwhile to them.

It seems that soliloquies articulate the personal construction of a world of language: one speaks to oneself aloud or in the form of an inner monologue. I would hazard a guess that more than 50% of my experiences in life are accompanied by an inner monologue. Sometimes, although not always, that includes me talking to myself about death. I can only imagine a situation where, having spent some time looking at and thinking about Martins’ work as I have, that percentage will increase. That isn’t to say I know anything more about the subject than when I started, but that’s ok, because in the world of the living no one really knows anything about death, which is why we need joviality, soliloquy and analogy to distract us until it arrives.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Edgar Martins

Daniel C. Blight is a writer based in London. He is co-editor of Loose Associations, a periodical on image culture published by The Photographers’ Gallery; visiting tutor in the department of Critical & Historical Studies, Royal College of Art and lecturer in photography at the University of Brighton.

I-Autopsy technique, circa 1950

II-The albufeira (bayou) of Borba (Alentejo, Portugal), where several suicides by drowning have taken place over the years. Figures published in 2005 showed that the Alentejo district of Odemira had the highest suicide rate in the world, with a rate of 61 suicides for every 1000 inhabitants, 2001

III-‘Bloody drama in a humble home: mother of six is stabbed to death by her husband (1968)’

IV-Personal belongings of a deceased individual, 1965

V-Personal belongings of a deceased individual, victim of a crime, circa 1920

VI-‘Man leaves a 1,904-page suicide note and then shoots himself as part of a philosophical exploration (2010)’

VII-Self-inflicted injuries sustained in a suicide attempt by a male involving a knife, 1968

VIII-Suicide by hanging by an inmate at Coimbra Prison in Portugal (2010)

IX-Othalanga nights, 2007

X-When a honeybee stings a person, it leaves a scent mark on its victim that smells like bananas. When one beekeeper had bananas for breakfast and then tried to stock his beehive, the insects poured out and stung him to death, 2016

XI-Albumen print from the collection of Edgar Martins by unknown photographer, circa 1915

XII-Untitled, 2015

XIII-Paper plane inspired by a suicide letter written by an inmate in the early 1900s, which was thrown from a prison cell window, 2015

XIV-Note written by a female who died as a result of suicide by poisoning through the ingestion of strychnine (1933), 2015

Amy Elkins

Black is the Day Black is the Night

Essay by Daniel C. Blight

Those prisoners that write while in prison do so as a means to manifest themselves; to declare to the outside world their otherwise concealed lives and to preserve something of their memory for others. In his The Consolations of Writing (2014), Rivkah Zim considers the canon of prison literature – from Anicius Boethius to Irina Ratushinskaya – as an experiment in memory, stating that the prison has historically “denoted a place of extreme suffering that forced attention on vital matters worthy of remembrance and careful consideration… the arts of memory may also be fixed and rendered distinct by the action of writing.” From a sense of confinement and immobility arises a need to articulate oneself, to resist one’s own invisibility. So it is said, writing from prison is an act of literary resistance. 

Amy ElkinsBlack is the Day Black is the Night considers the concept of prison time in relation to the personal identity of seven male prisoners in separate American penitentiaries, with whom she exchanged letters. In her images – often abstracted but rarely altogether evanesced – Elkins has visualised a very specific kind of confined remembering. Based on personal details – age, place of incarceration, sentence length and type of conviction – the artist has made a number of composite photographs, illustrations and found objects that reflect the lives of her subjects. In various formal and conceptual ways, these are visual portraits of people gleaned from their prison writing, or from their memories penned within the obsolete time of penal servitude.

To write from prison is to remember within a particular and defunct form of time. In durance, writing shifts time into redundancy: “The value of an hour changes and all the apparatus built up over the years for dealing with the passage of time suddenly becomes obsolete… measured as the outside world measure it, time becomes intolerable.” says Michael Fitzgerald in his 1977 Prisoners in Revolt. The time of prison writing is like no other, and images created by it, or deriving from it, take on strange and unique characteristics as a result.

Of course, prison writing reflects social concerns as well as literary ones. The Western ‘correctional’ system at large, marketed by neoliberal politics, is far less poetic in its socioeconomic associations. The “punitive turn” – a phrase coined by David Garland in his 2001 publication The Culture of Control – describes the way in which the American state has a new political identity for its intolerant approach to crime and imprisonment. Unsurprisingly in today’s world of post-fact politics, this new attitude to crime is the result of a kind of populism; one in which experts are ignored and instead a sense of vague ‘power to the people’ rhetoric pervades in which it’s better to appeal to the ‘rational’ and ‘moderate’ political centre, than it is to the minority views of statisticians or academic experts which might suggest or describe a less digestible image of America’s penal system.

In the recently published 465-page National Academic Press study The Growth of Incarceration in the United States (2014), the statistics are shocking: in the last four decades the rate of imprisonment in the US has quadrupled – one in one-hundred people are currently in prison; the prison population is predominantly comprised of poor, ethnic minority men under forty years of age; more than half the prison population suffer from a mental illness or drug addiction; and there has been a 400% increase in prison spending, much of this allocated to basic amenities scaled up to manage large numbers of inmates, which as a result leaves lacklustre funding for prison education and psychological rehabilitation. By these results, the punitive turn is one that disavows the idea of prison as a ‘correctional’ facility – ideally one in which adults might receive mental health support and education in order to prepare them for living in the outside world – and instead reframes it as a place of permanent residence for socially immobile people of colour. Its financial structure is for profit and its politics are indisputably racist. So when you hear Donald Trump say “we need to get a lot tougher”, what he really means is “we need to get a lot more racist, bigoted and intolerant”. This is neoliberal penal populism in action.

Elkins stopped writing to her pen-pals under different circumstances: three were executed, two declined to continue corresponding and two were released. It is clear that writing to prisoners comes with huge responsibility and prisoner well-being, relief from isolation and the balance between friendship and safety developed when writing is both of utmost importance and case-specific. Yet the commitment begs various questions: what do you say? When do you stop?

Alongside pixelated portraits, Elkins has included a number of images of landscapes composed of layered photographs. Of all the painterly detail of these composites, it is the vivid green of trees that stands out. A subject not unfamiliar to prison writers, trees are successful metaphors for life and freedom. In 2014 the graduating class of Goddard College in Vermont invited writer and journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal – a man who had been sentenced to death and wrote ferociously on politics and ethics from prison – to undertake their commencement speech. Of the many poetic allusions and political affirmations made, it is Abu-Jamal’s description of trees that best reflects Elkins’ images, and one can imagine how he might have visualised his own landscapes not dissimilar from the artist’s: “I last walked on campus during the late 1970s. But although it was undoubtedly quite a long time ago, it still sits in memory, and sometimes even visits in dreams of the funky atmosphere that suffused the campus like a cloud of exhaled marijuana smoke. What really moved me however was the green life – the abundance of grass, trees standing like ancient sentinels, the majestic mountains of Vermont, which possessed a beauty that was, to a guy from the city, simply breathtaking. I remember with crystal clarity walking through the woods back to our dorms and feeling pure rapture in the presence of those trees. How many centuries had trees stood on this earth? My mind looked back to Indians who must’ve trod through these very woods, my steps touching the ground that once crunched under their moccasined feet.”

From within prison, a person penning a letter to another individual they do not know or will never meet, might think of them as the representative of an invisible, silent audience in the outside world. As is the case with Abu-Jamal’s essay writing, prison forces you to dwell on things, in strange durations. Time in prison has contingent as well as poetic uses. Rivkah Zim observes that for those locked up, prison writing is a welcome intrusion: “Writing distracted them, thus alleviating (to some measure) the contingent pressures of time and place”.

What is the relationship between prison time and photographic time in Elkins’ work then? Photography’s specific rendition of time is opposed to the literary resistance of prison time, which is there to be survived in movement. Prisoners must move forward in time as quickly as possible, while remaining alive. Hence Elkins builds composite images – layers of image and text; small gestures towards a form of durance (to once again use the noun which means both imprisonment and duration) which the stasis of single photographic frames might not provide. Prison time is not the ‘then’ that persists into ‘now’ that defines time in photography for Roland Barthes in his Camera Lucida (1980), but rather the “dual sense of time passing and standing still” understood by Azrini Wahidin in her 2006 essay Time and the Prison Experience.

Laura Mulvey refers to Hollis Frampton’s version of time in his film (nostalgia) (1971) as a “fascination with temporal paradox and contradiction”, which also seems to apply to Elkins’ composite photographic images that transcribe the identities and experience of prisoners through their writings. However, this might also be an example of photography’s power to convert one form of time to another, as Barthes’ or Frampton’s or Ekins’ time does not seem to be a luxury afforded by prison writing’s time-as-redundancy: prison time is “obsolete” and “intolerable”, to return to Fitzgerald – it cannot be converted into anything other than a reflection of its anachronistic self. Hence, Elkins reproduces photographic time as error, abstraction and pixelation as a means to reflect both the philosophical and social experience of time in prison under the influence of the punitive turn.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Amy Elkins


Daniel C. Blight is a writer based in London. He is co-editor of Loose Associations, a periodical on image culture published by The Photographers’ Gallery; visiting tutor in the department of Critical & Historical Studies, Royal College of Art and lecturer in photography at the University of Brighton. 

Dreamtime:

Wolfgang Tillmans’ EU posters

Essay by Daniel C Blight

The modern poster, like photography, was a product of the age of mechanical reproduction. Alois Senefelder’s invention of lithography in 1798 instigated the almost one-hundred-year development of the poster printing press, up to a crucial stage in the 1880s when the ‘three stone’ lithographic process developed by Jules Chéret allowed for quicker and more colourful printing. From this point forward, the photographic image and the poster simultaneously became a ubiquitous method for precise communication – at once the mouthpiece of the state, a means for commercial advertisements, public events promotion and political propaganda. The form is pervasive and persuasive in equal measure.

The poster is also a medium that demonstrates consistent artistic ingenuity. From Toulouse-Lautrec’s Belle Epoque period design for Joseph Oller’s cabaret Moulin Rouge in 1891, to turn of the century German Plakatstil – ‘poster style’ – which saw poster design reject unnecessary embellishment in favour of flat shapes, simplified colourings and increasingly abstract forms. After the First World War the ornamental stylings perpetuated by Art Noveau in Europe would continue to be replaced by progressively geometric and streamlined forms, as seen diversely in familiar art movements including Cubism, Futurism and Surrealism. Importantly, after the Second World War, the prominence of the poster would diminish as people turned to television and magazines for entertainment. It was the Swiss Style of graphic design that made significant contributions to the identity of the poster in the period from the late 1940s leading up to the advent of postmodernism. Designers such as Armin Hofmann, Hans Neuberg and Jorg Hamburger developed mid-century designs for commercial contexts, characterised by grids for the precise layout of typographic and photographic elements, as visual fastidiousness and order prevailed.

Alongside the history of poster design’s visual developments, politics also played an integral role, perhaps most famously articulated by Russian Constructivist design in the 1920s, but also later in the work of the French group Atelier Populaire during the 1960s. It is in the political context that the social importance of the poster is key.

The poster preceded the arrival of the newspaper, as Josef and Shizuko Müller-Brockmann tell us in their 1971 study History of the Poster. Historically, the poster and the newspaper were for a time the same thing. Acta Durna, or ‘daily act’, the earliest form of stone tablet posted around the streets of Ancient Rome publicised official state news. A Roman expression accompanied these posters – “make public and propagate” – an apt description of the act of posting sustained right up to the present day. In this sense, the three ideas of ‘the public’, ‘postering’ and ‘propagation’ could be seen as correlative. Posters are messages to be widely communicated in public space. Public space, as Henri Lefebvre has it, “upholds a measure of democracy”. In its most hopeful state, then, the poster could be seen as functioning in relationship to democracy, as a declaration of the possibility for all voices to be equally heard. This is the political potential of the poster, and we need it most in times of uncertainty – when democracy is on the wane. In these times, posters must attempt to communicate to as many people as possible.

The very identity of democracy is under prominent discussion with regard to the United Kingdom’s relationship to the European Union following the British public’s vote to Leave, and the poster has returned full force. Nigel Farage’s anti-immigrant abhorrence – reported to the police for its fascist overtones – puts politics front and center in a parallel, crass and violent history of the poster. Be it tethered to terra firma, or meme-like on an Instagram account, the poster remains inextricably linked to democracy, either by way of standing for it, against it, or by trying and failing to stand for anything at all.

In support of democracy and EU membership, Wolfgang Tillmans’ posters strangely reflect Pan Am airways’ Helvetica poster campaign of 1971 (evocatively referred to as Dreamtime in 2009 by writer Frederico Duarte), designed at the studio of Chermayeff & Geismar (C&G) and produced the same year that Müller-Brockmann’s The History of the Poster hit the press. Pan Am’s posters made the MoMA New York’s collection the following year – purportedly acquired by curator Mildred Constantine – but it seems unlikely the same fate will befall Tillmans’ effort. Like Pan Am’s then expensive and exclusive planes intercontinentally travelled, Tillmans’ posters made movements all around the moderate arty Left’s niche corner of the internet – on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter – proclaiming the visual identity of some vague ‘art world solidarity movement’ by reducing it to the irriguous trend of the colour gradient, or a sense of empty poetry rendered in the visual platitudes of the sea, the horizon and the coastline. Similar to Pan Am’s corporate Dreamtime, the imagery of infinite beauty and romantic extrication is evoked by Tillmans in the name of democracy, and in relation to the dreamlike allure of the natural landscape. The poster images derive from the artist’s own work, which too often finds itself in that vague expanse between the percipient and the uninspired. This is Tillmans’ attempt to do everything, as Michael Bracewell states in the title of his 2010 essay on the artist, ‘everywhere, all the time and at once’. Photography, in the most democratic sense, can do everything, but it rarely succeeds to do anything when it does.

If both air travel and EU membership are about freedom of movement, we have to ask who gets to travel where and how? In the same way that Pan Am’s Dreamtime spoke to those that can afford the freedom of air travel, Tillmans’ EU poster campaign communicates to those in the networked art world who possess the education, social standing and cultural capital to buy in to the vision the designs promote – simply because hardly anyone else gets to see them. Where it was taken up elsewhere, as was the case on Richard Branson’s social media, it was too easily appropriated by the friendly face of consumer capitalism. This is the political failure of Tillmans’ posters. This is where, to refer again to the historical identity of the poster, aesthetics overshadows real and effective political intervention – a somewhat vacant promise of hope to come, then. Posters always sell something, be it air travel or EU membership, but what do posters do, when they do nothing at all? When they preach to the converted? In such circumstances, political struggle becomes static, defunct.

The European Union is rotten from the inside out. A general observation of its turn from undemocratic to distinctly antidemocratic tells us this: the unelected and unaccountable members of the European Commission; the public-corporate sector nepotism in respect to the disproportionate promotion of big business over small; the centrally encouraged privatisation of state-run services to “develop growth and competition” which has resulted in austerity and a decrease in wages and living standards Europe-wide. Not to overlook the pecuniary authoritarianism – deflation, stagnation, lack of market competitiveness and the rise of fascism and bigotry. Indeed, the policies of the EU render it “imperialism without empires” – to cite Hugo Radice – and have effects that stretch far beyond the bounds of Europe itself. The current migration crisis and the manner in which it has revealed racist and close-minded attitudes across the continent towards people of colour in desperate need, is just one example.

I voted Remain not because I like the EU, but because the best thing to do in the build up to the referendum was to promote the Remain campaign and vote accordingly for there is no doubt that the Leave campaign was characterised by xenophobia and racism. This time, one should clearly have voted to stay in, but if the Left were stronger in the UK – if for example there was a socialist government in power – I would have likely voted Leave in order to encourage a certain political distancing from neoliberal policy-making. Now the highly-controversial decision to leave has been made, perhaps there can be a more open conversation about the vast problems with the EU itself, which are explicit, and indeed some of the shortfalls of Tillmans’ campaign which was, frankly, starry-eyed bourgeois propaganda at its best.

There are perhaps three ways to consider Tillmans’ EU poster campaign, both positively but also necessarily from a critical perspective. The social sentiment is there in Tillmans’ accompanying text on his website. This is the pro-democracy nuts and bolts of the campaign. The sort of articulation for solidarity and democracy we can all support, led by an artist willing to use his profile to try and make an impact. This is what renders the endeavour a good idea at first glance. Second, there is the sense of the project appealing to artists and creative types through its visual identity, however typically superficial it may be. Yet, this is where the project comes unstuck, both in terms of to whom it attempts to speak, and the manner in which it uncritically selects its visual metaphors. Third, there is the political meaning of the project and the way in which it seems to visually and textually camouflage the lamentable nature of the EU, in favour of some distracting statements regarding the cultural and political successes of the union. One poster declares, “We are the European family”, while another states “What is lost is lost forever”. Some of the more successful catchlines are overshadowed by these overly trustful messages. If Germany is dad and France mum, why has the last year – to continue the familiar analogy – seen Greece grounded and offered no pudding? Perhaps the Greek child would have been better off in the long-term running away from home? Or perhaps more importantly the metaphor doesn’t work in the slightest? The idea that the EU is united in some unbreakable union of sibling or parental love is naive, and in fact betrays its own original sense of genuine humanitarian togetherness promoted at the time of its formation.

Whatever one thinks of the EU, Tillmans’ campaign failed to speak widely enough – its largely internet or gallery-based sites of display communicating only to those already convinced of the necessity to Remain. As Susan Sontag says of the afterlife of posters that were produced in Cuba during the political struggles of the 1960s, Tillmans’ designs too seem to be “one more item in the cultural smorgasbord provided in affluent bourgeois society.” Furthermore, as the famed Atelier Populaire group reminded us in their Posters of the Revolution (1969) with regard to their own experiences in 1960s Paris: “To use them [posters] for decorative purposes, to display them in bourgeois places of culture or consider them as objects of aesthetic interest is to impair both their function and their effect.” This is disappointingly the case where the posters have been displayed at Maureen Paley, the established East London commercial art gallery that represents Tillmans.

Why stand in support of the EU as a neoliberal project if, as Alfredo Saad-Filho and Deborah Johnston put it in their edited volume Neoliberalism (2005), it “imposes a specific form of social and economic regulation based on the prominence of finance, international elite integration, subordination of the poor in every country and universal compliance with US interests.”? The EU went the wrong way a long time ago, and it will most probably continue to disgustingly contort from the inside out post Brexit. Now that the UK is set to no longer be a member, other EU nations will likely want their own referendums, and as we clearly saw from the example that has been made of Greece in the last year with regard to their bailout negotiations, the EU powers-that-be – the Troika, a dogmatic triumvirate comprised of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund – are not prepared to make concessions or act with any dignity towards those with lesser means. To put it simply, they promote the interests of business and attack the poor.

With these broader considerations in mind, what might Tillmans’ brand of art world propaganda mean in the context of today’s discussions of the European Union, and in turn how do the posters themselves sit within the historical context of art-photography-cum-poster-design as a form of political ‘activism’?

Despite Tillmans’ agreeable sentiment, it seems clear that the campaign – in political terms, which is crucial to the social importance of the poster – found itself mostly resigned to the limited social media circles and private spaces of contemporary art. The three key aspects of the Acta Durna, relating to the aforementioned Roman expression “make public and propagate”, fail to live on in the artist’s work, instead manifesting as a form of socially-exclusive communication where the veracity of the daily act is reduced to the non-committal share or retweet in the bourgeois spaces of network culture.

All images courtesy of the artist and Maureen Paley Gallery. © Wolfgang Tillmans


Daniel C. Blight is a writer based in London. He is co-editor of Loose Associations, a periodical on image culture published by The Photographers’ Gallery; visiting tutor in the department of Critical & Historical Studies, Royal College of Art and lecturer in photography at the University of Brighton. 

Luigi Ghirri

The Complete Essays 1973-1991

MACK

Written in the first person, this collection of essays by Italian photographer Luigi Ghirri, published by MACK and introduced by Francesco Zanot, is rich, personal and encyclopaedic in its contents. Ghirri tells us in his 1973 essay Atlas: “An atlas is the book, a place where all the features of the Earth, from the natural to the cultural, are conveniently represented: mountains, lakes, pyramids, oceans, villages, stars and islands. In this expanse of words and descriptions, we might locate the place where we live, or where we want to go, and the path to follow”. As the atlas described here is all-encompassing, so too are the subjects Ghirri examines. Ghirri the writer, with clarity and simplicity, muses on diverse elements of his public and private life as well as of course the history and theory of photography. He does so with sharp and informal detail, using anecdotal exordium to connect the personal to the profound in his essays. As Francesco Zanot tell us in his introduction to the book: “each page is pervaded by the echo of his intimate and visceral attachment to his subject.”

Many of the essays are short, a page or two, and this is Ghirri’s strength as a writer – so much encapsulated in so few words. Dispersed evenly but carefully through the book is a collection of photographs serving to illustrate the essays. They seem to do more than simply that though, transforming Ghirri’s references to novels, paintings and other matters cultural into metaphors and complex visual analogies. Ghirri’s photography is a history of sensations, a word he uses to describe the technological impact of the photographic image on the historical canon in his short, typewritten 1989 essay History of Photography. Another essay from the same year, The Doing of Things, sees Ghirri describing the work of photographer Antonio Contiero in a manner that might serve well as the Ghirrian conception of photography par excellence: “for it is not simply a combination of different techniques and materials… nor is it simply an exercise in interference and influence; rather [photography] concerns the deep layering of image and perception, which have always accompanied the ‘doing of things’.”

Perhaps, contrary to popular opinion, Ghirri – as both writer and photographer – is a man of action and movement, not one for getting trapped in the stillness of the deadpan aesthetic with which he is so often associated.

Daniel C Blight

All images courtesy of MACK. © Luigi Ghirri

Stan Douglas

The Secret Agent

Exhibition review by Daniel C Blight

Victoria Miro
02.02.16 — 24.03.16

In Stan Douglas’ work history seldom gets an easy ride. Non-linear and chopped-up narratives respond to real political events or fictional ones, appropriated and reconfigured from novels and other works of canonical modern literature, themselves complex occurrences. “A rejection of easily consumable messages”, as the gallery puts it, for the artist’s exhibition, The Secret Agent, at Victoria Miro in London, who has also just been announced as the winner of the 2016 Hasselblad Award.

Douglas’ literary references include those writers the art world too often goes to for inspiration, such as Theodor Adorno, Samuel Beckett and Franz Kafka – the climacteric orthodoxy referenced and regurgitated yet again. In this exhibition the artist turns to Joseph Conrad and his novella The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale (1907) in order to produce a 6-channel film work based on the book, in terms of its characters and plot but not its original location. In the other gallery space a set of large, partly computer-generated photographic works line the walls of a dimly lit room. This sullen light just about sums up the exhibition’s atmospherics: CGI images appear as grey, spotlighted enumerations of urban city space, and the room in which the film is installed has that fall-asleep ambience – carpeted yet uncomfortable – as is so often the case with gallery film installation.

Running 53 minutes in length, and neck-achingly split over six projection screens situated in two facing rows, it’s a big ask to sit through the film in its near-feature length duration. I found sitting on the edge of one of the benches allowed me to easily spin around in order to catch new scenes emerging from opposite sides of the room, the transitions of the film aligning with the movement of my body left and right – one rear-end or over the shoulder locus dissolving into another. It is fun for the first few minutes, a bit less amusing after that.

My first thoughts involved the mediocrity of the acting, but one probably shouldn’t take Douglas’ selection of actors at face value. What feels like dramatic parody – as if the viewer is having some postmodern joke played upon them, in which they’re asked to read the deconstruction of linear narrative through the guise of perhaps deliberately unconvincing actorly pastiche – is performed ambiguously by the characters themselves. Or maybe the acting is just simply bad? This is the risk Douglas’ work presents to us as viewers: do we read it closely all the time, or are there moments where the whole thing is a big disguise for something else all together less serious? This is what makes it interesting. As Christine Rose says of Douglas’ study of narrative and temporality in her book The Past is the Present; It’s the Future Too (2012), “It declares its necessity and persistence while performing its crisis and near-exhaustion”. Is it then the case that The Secret Agent by Douglas tells us something about Conrad’s writing really, or about Douglas’ own practice, or perhaps both, or indeed about Portugal in the 1970s? This is both history and ambiguity in crisis, and its hard not to find it intriguing, even if it rubs up against itself in all sorts of awkward ways.

For Douglas’ film the novella is re-staged in 1970s Portugal as opposed to the 1880s London of Conrad’s original. In the book the government detective Mr. Verloc – who also leads a double life running a sex shop – is friends with, and a spying member of, a group of ineffective anarchists who plot, when not drinking and smoking, to execute a terrorist bomb attack, electing Verloc to carry out the deed. The bombing goes wrong of course – a reference to the actual attempted bombing of Greenwich Observatory by Martial Bourdin in 1894, which ended in not much other than him blowing his own body up unintentionally in Greenwich Park. In the film, Verloc’s partner’s son is involved, paying the explosive consequences of Verloc’s crazed mission himself. As Verloc’s colleague, Chief Inspector Heat, recalls of the son – in near proximity to the eavesdropping and henceforth catastrophically upset Mrs. Verloc – “I tell you they had to fetch a shovel to gather him up with,” his body having been inadvertently blown to fleshy pieces all over the ground of the Royal Park.

The humour of these somehow ridiculous characters is clear, and it is this element of the book that Douglas’ film excels at recreating. The dialogue offers yet more intellectual satire, evoking some of the profound and humorous turns of phrase one might associate with a certain side of the anarchist left. Conrad’s writing captures this affect well in describing the character Michaelis, purportedly based on the real life nineteenth-century Russian anarchists Peter Krupotkin and Mikhail Bakunin: “Michaelis by staring unwinkingly at the fire had regained that sentiment of isolation necessary for the continuity of his thought. His optimism had begun to flow from his lips. He saw Capitalism doomed in its cradle, born with the poison of the principle of competition in its system. The great capitalists devouring the little capitalists, concentrating the power and the tools of production in great masses, perfecting industrial processes, and in the madness of self-aggrandisement only preparing, organising, enriching, making ready the lawful inheritance of the suffering proletariat.”

The narrative of the book itself remains relatively straightforward, but where the film might follow suit, foregrounding character development, anarchist politics and well-executed, intellectually jocular dialogue as Conrad’s novella does, Douglas instead comes stylistically unstuck. His decision to locate the film in 1970s Portugal during the “Carnation Revolution” runs counter to Conrad’s Soho of 1880s London with its humorous sense of anarchistic impetuosity the characters portray in the book. While this sense of political hopelessness remains in the film, it is overshadowed by the “Hollywood thriller” aesthetic The Secret Agent depicts. Its embracing of a different kind of visual humour through the stylings of 1970s costume and set design leaves behind some important parts of contextual and comedic nuance the novella arouses, as it relates to London and its underground liberatory politics at the end of the nineteenth century.

With the partly computer-generated photographs, things become less colourful. These large, grey panoramic images are technically accomplished. Douglas wraps 2D digital images around 3D computer-rendered buildings, meticulously evoking a sense of film noir space in the dirty urban city. With titles such as Hogan’s Alley (2014), Lazy Bay and Burntown (both 2015), an empty night-time scene, reminiscent of a computer game, finds its strange image in a high art, white cube gallery space. The urban settings evoke the underbelly of a city complete with gamblers, musicians, alcohol and drugs, and were used in a simultaneous theatre production Douglas worked on with screenwriter Chris Haddock, named Helen Lawrence (2015).

The exhibition is complex yet underwhelming: the various senses of space, both physical and intellectual, it elicits don’t always sit comfortably side by side. This is Douglas’ postmodern pastiche at work and, despite its strengths, however celebrated but outdated, it is the gallery space that eventually lets it down. Why is this work in a gallery? The Secret Agent film might have been stripped down and built back up in single screen format for the cinema, with some more nuanced consideration of its historical context and Conrad’s novella. The photographs just make me want to see the theatre production, on their own reading like sketchbook objects for sale, clumsily framed and perhaps produced by the artist at the behest of the gallery’s commercial pressures. A rejection of easily consumable messages perhaps, but less conveniently this might well be rich and interesting work poorly executed.

All images courtesy of David Zwirner and Victoria Miro. © Stan Douglas


Daniel C. Blight is a writer based in London. He is co-editor of Loose Associations, a periodical on image culture published by The Photographers’ Gallery; visiting tutor in the department of Critical & Historical Studies, Royal College of Art and lecturer in photography at the University of Brighton. 

Bill Henson

1985

Special book review by Daniel C Blight

Bill Henson stands in twilight. Or so it has been suggested. In his 2006 exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the photographer was described as having created many grand things, among them: a ‘modern mythology’, ‘quiet melodrama’, ‘a contemporary reworking of the sublime’ and even ‘seemingly supernatural events’. It is not within these crepuscular tautologies that Bill Henson really stands, though. After all, they were written eight years ago. Now and before then the photographer was more likely outside, on his own taking pictures, away from all the verbose discussion.

Twilight is a very short period of time occurring twice daily. However, Henson’s work is not set in two determinable moments, nor a form of stasis, or even a particular stage of the day. Instead, these photographs might be asking us to look for something moving between what we have all managed to hide from at night, and therefore what we all fear from the day. Namely, exposure.

Henson’s camera has the ability, through movement and then poise, to render the best kind of sombre confusion. Henson’s images are subdued not in time, but over skies and through buildings, clouds, naked people, telephone pylons, pyramids and other familiar or extraneous abstractions. They are seemingly underexposed, but we can’t call them badly lit. Somewhere between the ambiguity of eventide and its gloaming opposite, Henson is a wonderer; one whose images intentionally do whatever they can to avoid stasis and perhaps clarity, within the confines of their static medium.

1985, his latest book, is designed by The Entente and published by Stanley/Barker, two individuals based in London, who have taken their time, in the most thoughtful way, to release two books simultaneously this year. This one is divided into two sections, comprising a short narrative prose text by Robert Walser – the Swiss modernist writer who died in 1956 – and in the other a series of intriguingly sequenced photographs taken by Henson. Walser’s text was originally published in 1982 in a collection of posthumously translated short stories, with an introduction by none other than Susan Sontag. Henson’s images were taken in 1985, both in Melbourne, Australia and Egypt.

Contrary to the dizzying curatorial language used to describe Henson’s work in 2006, the first pages of this book offer an altogether less disdainful proposition, in their turn to fiction. Such is the promise of a story.

A captain, a gentleman and a young girl begin their upward rise in a hot air balloon. Various night effects are described by Walser in clear, physical description and the best kind of pleonastic turns of phrase. He also offers us the important contrast of plain language – in a ‘handful’, or something ‘splendid’, ‘subtle’ and ‘beautiful’. A nocturnal river below causes the girl to cry a little. She mourns its passing and throws a flower down to offer the water something symbolic as it passes by. Perhaps she celebrates its flowing power, but also her own tears, which are one in the same, in this gesture.

When the scene viewed from the balloon above moves into suburbia, or the city, the girl observes a burglary as people sleep. She smiles. Everyone is asleep apart from the robbers and those three characters in the balloon.

The story ends with daybreak. The reader, then, has been taken on a journey through night with three strangers. Before one views Henson’s photographs that follow the writing, an entire series of mental images are created through the text. We are therefore asked to consider one set of images, conjured through Walser’s writing, along with another in the form of Henson’s photographs that follow, something from the perspective of the sky and something from down below on the ground. This rich experience of many images at once, articulated from two perspectives, is what Henson excels at. Within his own images, and indeed the book as a whole, we are offered a stream of things paired together. Night and day, the sky and the ground, up and down. These movements are the pattern in which Henson works. Some things are paired logically, and others appear unrelated but nonetheless intuitive and compelling.

Three pages after Walser’s writing, a spread which depicts the vague shape of a pyramid on the left hand page, is pitted, on the opposite page, against two cars stacked on top of one another and a man in a short-sleeve shirt, glancing off to the right. Here we are looking at two pyramids: one shot in Egypt – in all its symbolic meaning reaching from the ground to the heavens – and one shot in the city of Melbourne, an metallic view of two cars either being transported for purchase, or to be salvaged or crushed, that much is unclear.

These relatable images speak of weight, but also of two types of historical symbolism that are vastly distinct. The pyramids in Egypt, in their geometric form, mimic the shape of the sun’s rays. We might understand Henson’s image of a pyramid, then, as a means to offer light where there is none. But a pyramid, photographed in darkness as Henson does, paradoxically withholds any reflection of the light that might emanate from this so-called primordial mound. At its most metaphorical level, Henson’s pyramid reduces the grand stature of the Egyptian sun god Ra to a bleak triangle cowering in shadow. And in a more everyday contrast, the opposite almost-pyramidal roof of a car is reduced to a simple, inert object of industrialisation.

Whatever one reads into Henson’s pairing of disparate scenes, there is certainly some process at work which seeks to compare Ancient Egyptian architecture and its referents, to that of 1980s Melbourne. Like the girl who mourns the passing of a river and then strangely smiles at the burgling of a house, Henson too responds in an unexpected manner by way of his photographic observations of two distant and antithetic cultures. Perhaps 1985 should be read as a work in writing. Not one that gestures towards twilight as a metaphor for photography’s own philosophical relationship to light, nor some grand description of the supernatural or the contemporary sublime, but instead simply of the sort of effect that occurs when the things we normally see lit, are reduced into a sort of tenebrous poetry of cultural contradictions and symbolic juxtapositions. 

All images courtesy of Stanley/Barker. © Bill Henson


Daniel C. Blight is a writer based in London. He is co-editor of Loose Associations, a periodical on image culture published by The Photographers’ Gallery; visiting tutor in the department of Critical & Historical Studies, Royal College of Art and lecturer in photography at the University of Brighton.