Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Walead Beshty's Abstracting Photography

"Perhaps this confusion of photographic theory for the analysis of images is why the discourse on photography shifted from a focus on its instrumentality, to a concern that photography no longer truly exists." - Walead Beshty

Once again Words Without Pictures is featuring a wonderful new essay on their site. This time Walead Beshty discusses the amorphous, ontological nature of photography in light of the renewed interest in photographic theory over the past 5 to 10 years. His essay, entitled Abstracting Photography, explores what functions, both aesthetically and socially, photographs really serve.

"As George Baker wrote in his essay “Photography’s Expanded Field”, “Critical consensus would have it that the problem today is not that just about anything image-based can now be called photographic, but rather that photography itself has been foreclosed, cashiered, abandoned—outmoded technologically and displaced aesthetically.”[1] In other words, the Barthesian theorization of the “this has been” contained in the photographic image, has become the “this has been” of Photography itself.

This lack of certainty with regard to what constitutes Photography as an object of inquiry can be seen for all its abstractness as a mirror of the problem of theorizing the photograph, the clash between the apparent concreteness of the photographic referent and its slippery contextual play. Yet the term persists past its supposed theoretical and practical disintegration, and with it a forlorn pastiche of critical theorizations and aesthetic conventions that repeatedly confront a metaphor for their own self-imposed failure in the photographic image.[2] In melancholic retrospection, the photographic object itself represents the loss of a unity, dispersed within an equally fragmented field that for the art historian requires it to be resituated, re-pictured, a condition that prompts Baker to go on to say “…the terms involved only now become more complex, the need to map their effects more necessary, because these effects are both less obvious and self-evident.”[3] Baker proposes to “read” the contemporary condition of Photography through an earlier text, that of Rosalind Krauss’ “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” at times going so far as to transplant his terms and formulations into direct quotes from her text, inhabiting her text as much as her text prefigures his own.[4] The task at hand for Baker is to re-picture the scene of dispersal, to connect terms again, yet with the nagging sense that this effort is self-defeating, retrograde, it becomes a gesture of traumatic re-enactment that concludes in another moment of defacement and dispersal (in the end his drawing is scribbled over by one of the artists it is meant to contain[5]). Seeing this as a state of crisis for the medium (and thus the historian/critic who defines it), Baker performs as the allegorist does, reading his own moment through a temporally displaced other, the status of the photograph conflated and reread through the urgency of critique in 1979, his own position as a critic within the contemporary academy metaphorically and metonymically tied to that of Photography’s ebb and flow as an ontological category: “For the only pleasure the melancholic permits himself, and it is a powerful one, is allegory.” [6] In this, Baker, as allegorist displaces history with pictures, pictures that resist the linear causal chains of historical development and opt instead for the simultaneity and formal morphology of the image."

Read the whole essay here.