Welcome to the launch at Polycopies Thursday the 10th of November, at 6 pm. To reflect on our editorial theme of the relationship between the written word and the image, we asked the same questions to various people in the field: What makes a great image-text project? How can we bridge the space between ‘the silence of the image and the blindness of language’? Can we reshape our understanding of what a photograph is? Do you have faith in the written word? And finally, what comes after the pictorial turn? Federica Chiocchetti, founding director of the Photocaptionist opens the interview-essay featured in the issue we are launching tomorrow, our full conversation here.
Nina Strand: We have the same title for our issues in 2016: The Flexible Image. These issues look at the current state of the (photographic) image, as it seems to expand into two distinct yet related manifestations: the image as text/sign versus the image as operation. In the latest issue we are looking at the image as text: the image as readable sign. Tell us how you work with image and text?
Federica Chiocchetti: My background is in comparative literature, particularly twentieth-century Latin American and Italian authors. I developed my interest in photography through literature. Calvino and Cortázar played a major influence. I got fascinated with the way in which the two arts can interact and I started my academic research on photography, fictions and texts. I had the desire to go beyond the somewhat rigid academic approach that characterises the fields of studies on the relationship between photography and literature, where the two arts are usually obliged to reciprocal engagement. Most of the books on the topic examine either literature that is about photography (i.e. one of the main characters is a photographer or a particularly evocative image plays a key role in the story), or explore those photographic images whose subject is literary (i.e. portraits of writers or elaborately staged scenes depicting a literary character, like for instance William Lake Price’s Don Quixote in his Study). I wanted to explore and compare the autonomous response of photography and literature to specific themes, such as the supernatural, through what I like to call the ‘photo-literary montage’ as a critical practice.
Academic research is fascinating but also challenging. I was spending most of my days at the British Library overwhelmed by photography theory, and I felt the need for a more playful and experimental way to engage with my research. That’s why I set up a photo-literary platform to promote the practice of ‘concubinage’ between photography and literature, images and words, with online editorial explorations, exhibitions, books and events. The Photocaptionist actually appeared in a dream I had a couple of years back of a grumpy bloke whose job title was precisely Photocaptionist, and whose task was to find or produce creative texts to accompany the photographs he was sent by various institutions, artists and random individuals. From a photo-literary ‘itinerant column’ that inhabits the pages of other magazines to a curatorial platform for exhibitions, where image-text intersections and new commissions play an important role, (for instance Discipula Collective’s video piece Mannequins & Mankind, commissioned for our Feminine Masculine show at London Art Fair this year), we also collaborate with contemporary artists, such as Francesca Catastini and Ignacio Acosta, who work with photography, found imagery and text, to support them with the editing and sequencing of their books.
NS: I truly enjoy the column “Image-text photobooks in a nutshell” at the Photocaptionst site where you ask international photobook experts to share an image-text photobook they find particularly interesting, (regardless of its publication date and where text is a fundamental element in the narrative, not a mere introduction or essay on the photoworks). What makes a great image-text book in your opinion?
FC: Being obsessed with photo-text intersections, and hence completely biased, I couldn’t help but noticing that within the incredibly prolific realm of photobooks a sub-genre was there waiting to be spotted, analysed and embraced by the Photocaptionist. The column is just the beginning of a major project on the subject. It is nice to notice that we are not alone in this obsession, if we consider the recently introduced Photo-Text book award within Les Rencontres d'Arles.
To attempt an answer to your question, I would say that what makes it so difficult to reply, is precisely the diverse and promiscuous nature of this sub-genre of photobooks. The author of the photographs and of the texts can be the same person, like in the case of Larry Sultan’s Picture from Home and Jason Fulford’s Hotel Oracle. Equally, the photographs can be anonymous - or their authorship not so important or not credited - while a major poet is the author of the text, like in the case of Bertold Brecht’s Kriegsfibel (War Primer). And I could go on with many other typologies of combinations. However, regardless of authorship, and in terms of my personal taste, I quite admire books that have a good balance between what Anthony Wilden calls a ‘coding disorder’ (in relation to Magritte’s painting where depicted objects have ‘wrong’ words attached) and a subtle - at times subversive - cooperation between images and words. Political themes, bittersweet sense of humour and ambiguity are also important ingredients for me. I think that Francesca Catastini’s book on the mysteries and misunderstandings behind the study of Anatomy, The Modern Spirit Is Vivisective, which won the 2016 edition of Vienna Photobook Festival Award incorporates all these elements.
NS: We were inspired by Aperture's issue Lit. and want to investigate if the image has taken over for the word, and if the gestures are taking over for the images. For this issue we have included a conversation with Nicholas Muellner and Catherine Taylor from the The Image Text Itacha Initative, where they point out that when image and text is used together, purposefully, it can force us to stop and remember that the world is still unknowable, bridging the space between "the silence of the image and the blindness of language". How do you reflect over this sort of bridge between image and text?
FC: When I came across the existence of The Image Text Itacha Initative I was overwhelmed with happiness. It was perhaps one of the best professional moments of 2015, when I presented the Photocaptionist in Ithaca. There I had the great opportunity to encounter a whole bunch of people, artists, editors, publishers and lecturers completely devoted to the image-text cause. Their presentations were highly performative and the somewhat intrusive presence of sound allowed me to see where this ‘bridge’ that you mention can come to life. W.J.T. Mitchell, in his most recent book Image Science, points out that the lack of sound in ‘imagetext’ interactions makes them ‘slightly impoverished’ as it ‘confines words to the realm of writing and printing’, neglecting the ‘sphere of orality and speech, not to mention gesture’. I see the absence of sound allowing a space for creation. Images and words are intertwined to create a reality, a sort of third object that only starts to exist, and then grows, in the constant back and forth movement of looking at the images and reading the words.
Of course there are many ways in which words and images have been paired together over time to serve different purposes. Walter Benjamin, in his 1934 fundamental essay The Author as Producer stressed the importance of the caption to rescue the picture from ‘the ravages of modishness and confer upon it a revolutionary use value’. Equally, Brecht published the War Primer in 1955 - a unique work of art that introduced a new literary genre, the fotogramm (photo-epigram) - to unmask the true nature of war in a capitalist society by combining poetry and news photography. So, with them we can identify a more unilateral and political ‘bridge’, as text played the important role of identifying and unveiling propaganda (the etymology of caption refers to the idea of ‘seizure’). Later, postmodern and conceptual artists such as Barbara Kruger and Victor Burgin healthily reminded us that, rather than simply seizing the meaning of an image, text can also contribute to its ambiguity, without loosing its political mission, as pointed out by Abigail Solomon-Godeau. Among the many ways in which image-text intersections have been described my favourite is the one by Lessing who, as Mitchell reminds us in Image Science, considers them as ‘the frontier between two countries, normally friendly and peaceful, but sometimes launching invasions into their neighbours’ territory’.
Your question also made me think of Duane Michals’ photograph There Are Things Here Not Seen in This Photograph and to an imaginary textual correspondent that could be entitled There Are Things Here Not Written in This Text. I guess that behind the idea of the Photocaptionist and its photo-literary montages there is the desire to go beyond the image-text hierarchical conundrum, and create the aforementioned mysterious third object that develops and lives only in the constant ‘ping-pong’ of the eyes when they move horizontally back and forth from image to text. This third object is what I hope allows the reader/viewer to reflect on the pleasures and limits of verbal and visual representation.
NS: One of our board members, Lucas Blalock agreed in his editorial that photography has become a stand-in for language but states that this is a fraught proposition. For example he writes, we are currently seeing the ascendency of Donald Trump in the US, which could easily be described as a triumph of pure image over other kinds of information. But if photography is to some degree displacing writing as our common cultural language; it has also (long ago) spawned a literature and a poetics of its own. And this “literary” position has been greatly enhanced by the fact that photography has evolved into this extremely dominant form for expressing content in commercial and social networks, which are themselves ever re-shaping our shared understanding of what a photograph is. How is your view on the photograph in light of this?
FC: I have to admit I struggle to see how photography’s ‘literary position’ could be ‘greatly enhanced’ by its dominant presence in commercial and social networks, but maybe it’s because I normally relate the adjective ‘literary’ to art and, in this example, perhaps it would need some further elaboration. If the question is to be read as whether the ubiquitous nature of digital images and their overwhelming circulation in commercial and social networks has made fine art photography stand out more easily, for its higher ‘literary’ nature or poetics, I think it is perhaps still a bit too early days to give an answer.
On Literary Images, Olivier Richon wrote an illuminating text when he guest-edited the journal Photographies in 2011. However, at the risk of misunderstanding your question and drifting towards another issue, I would say that, in terms of photography displacing writing as our common cultural language, possibly we are even one step further in letting ‘photography’ invade our everyday life. Let’s say, for example, that we need to take a gas meter reading. The likelihood that we take a snapshot of the meter with our phone, rather than write it down as a note, is quite high nowadays. Equally there are artists working with mobile phones and Instagram imagery. But then, after all, a novel and a shopping list are both made of words.
In his Aperture review of the ICP exhibition What Is a Photograph?, curated by Carol Squiers, Jack King criticised the show for looking backwards ‘to produce a certain history which at once marginalizes photography’s digital transformation and yet at the same time is a product of that shift’. Sadly I didn’t see the exhibition, I only read the book, but, if I were to share my thoughts on the current biggest challenge posed by the almost disturbingly ubiquitous invasion of photography in our everyday life, I would say that it encourages, yet also challenges, the reflection on the difference between art and non-art photography. A difference that is deeply influenced by other factors too, such as the fame of the author and the market.
NS: Another board member, Ida Kierulf, who has recently opened the exhibition Seeable/Sayable together with co-curator Helga Marie Nordby at Kunstnernes Hus this fall, writes that it is exactly this resonance and tension between word and image, and between visual art and literature, they wish to explore in a number of contemporary works. She says that the ideological battle between word and image will always go in cycles. She has great faith in the resistance of the written word, in light of the iconoclasms of much cultural theory during the last few years, and the general fear of images in society. How is your faith in the written word?
FC: I totally agree about the cyclical nature of the image-word ideological battle. Intriguingly, within photography theory this battle is linked with another one: the ideological battle between photographic realism and anti-realism. In their brand new book Rethinking Photography: Histories, Theories and Education, Smith and Lefley explore photography ‘as ‘pre-linguistically’ related to the world that defines it’ and show how the realist position, which understands the photograph as linked with a past reality that produced it, is a sign to photography’s resistance to ‘linguistic assimilation’. For the realists language is perceived as an ‘intrusion’. Vice versa, anti-realist positions, such as Victor Burgin’s, believe that ‘we rarely see a photograph in use which is not accompanied by language’, as he writes in his chapter Seeing Sense (The End of Art Theory). As pointed out by W.J.T. Mitchell in his 1994 book Picture Theory, Burgin resolutely affirms the domination of photography by language with his claim that ‘even the uncaptioned “art” photograph is invaded by language in the very moment it is looked at: in memory, in association, snatches of words and images continually intermingle and exchange one for the other’. By denying photography an independence from language, an authority of its own, theorists such as Victor Burgin or John Tagg are also refusing to accept claims of ‘photographic truth’.
Sorry for the digression. To reply more directly to your question: my faith in the written word is quite fundamental and visceral. I believe fear is always a waste of time. How many great novels, movies, artworks are we missing out, while we spend our time being ‘iconophobic’ or, conversely, ‘verbophobic’? Of course nowadays we need an eco-sustainable approach to our daily image-consumption as much as we need to recycle, but I don’t think that a ‘binary oppositional’ approach to images and words is the solution. While I absolute champion image-text and photo-text intersections, as they simultaneously nurture my ‘verbo-visual’ curiosity, I think that what is at the epicentre of my optimism lies in the observation that after all both the visual arts and literature exist, or at least matter, only when they are experienced by viewers and readers. Ultimately it’s the human being with her/his needs, tastes and habits that will decide whether she or he feels more like reading a novel or going to an exhibition, or both. Or both. Visual arts and literature are not enemies or competitors they serve the same purpose of enriching the human spirit in a different way. It might come across as a somewhat naïve optimism, but I would say that if I feel the need to immerse myself in a sequential narrative where the only images I will encounter will be my mental ones, provoked and inspired by the compelling words of a writer, then I will opt for reading literature. However, the overwhelming pressure and omnipresence of images, screens and social media addictions in our society have already invaded literature, if we think about authors such as David Foster Wallace or Ben Lerner (particularly for his inclusion of instant messaging language), or books such as The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present, full of internet iconography. Do we want to find the computer's ghost haunting us also on the printed pages of contemporary literature or, even worse, on some sort of kindle? Personally I would rather not, so I'll stick with Calvino and read the Classics.
NS: Ida writes in our editorial that images, as W.T.J Mitchell claims in his publication What do pictures want?, crave a narrative and discursive framing in the multiple sense of wanting, demanding, and lacking. Images needs words. He calls for a closer reading of images, "to strike them with enough force to make them resonate, but not as much as to smash them." According to Mitchell, we need to reckon with images not just as objects that convey meaning but as animated beings with desires, needs, appetites, demands, and drives of their own. The idea that we live in a culture dominated by images, by spectacle, surveillance, and visual display, has become such a fundamental truth that its meaning is lost. Every day words disappear, and a million new images appear. So, our last reflection for you, (impossible to answer maybe), what comes after the pictorial turn?
FC: Before I offer an inevitably failed attempt to reply to your question I was noticing how the phrase ‘the pictorial turn’ means different things. Mitchell in Image Science writes about pictorial turns, explaining how it is not a unique phenomenon of our time. In his 1994 book Picture Theory he refers to ‘the pictorial turn’ as a ‘shift’ of philosophical interest and speculation towards the visual. He particularly places the ‘philosophical enactment of the pictorial turn in the thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein’, focusing on the ‘apparent paradox’ of his philosophical career that begun with a ‘picture theory’ to end up with a sort of ‘iconophobia’, a ‘general anxiety of linguistic philosophy about visual representation’. ‘This anxiety – he claims – this need to defend “our speech” against “the visual” is a sure sign that a pictorial turn is taking place’. Intriguingly ‘the pictorial turn’, as David Bate writes in his recent book Art Photography, also refers to two specific moments in the history of photography: its turns towards ‘pictorialism’ in the 1870s, ‘when the term was coined to refer to art photography’, with artists such as Henry Peach Robinson, and in the late twentieth century, with artists such as Jeff Wall. If we think about an image by H.P. Robinson or Jeff Wall we can see how they attempt to instil a lingered look, a kind of contemplation, in the viewer, which is quite the opposite of what our image-consumption habits have become nowadays, if we consider instead ‘the pictorial turn’ à la Mitchell. Having said that, if we stick with Mitchell he talks about an age of ‘biocybernetic reproduction’ (‘high-speed computing, video, digital imaging, virtual reality, the Internet, and the industrialization of genetic engineering) following ‘the pictorial turn’. Drawing a parallel between Benjamin’s ‘mechanical reproduction’ he argues, among many other things, that, while according to Benjamin mechanical reproductions, such as photographic images, produced a ‘decay of the aura – a loss of the unique presence, authority, and mystique of the original object’, with biocybernetic reproductions we have a reversed relation of the copy to the original. The copy has, according to him, ‘even more aura than the original’. I partly agree with that, but I also think that we should consider the role of social media in terms of the impact of images’ viral circulation on their aura. Through the ‘sharing’ function of Facebook, for example, how far does a photograph depart from the photographic event that generated it? In our Anti-glossary of Photography ad Visual Culture that the Photocaptionist contributed to Krakow Photomonth’s 2016 publication edited by Lars Willumeit, The (Un)becomings of Photography, we wrote for the entry aura: ‘How does an image that has been shared 335 times, retweeted 104 times, regrammed 87 times, reblogged 41 times, and pinned 155 times contribute to what Benjamin referred to as the “shattering of tradition”?’
Personally, I believe - and I think I am not the only one - that we are also witnessing what could be described as ‘the algorithmic turn’. We live in a culture in which search engines are trying to ‘curate’ our research behaviour, telling us what we should read, watch, listen to, buy etc. based on algorithmic formulas, which are constructed as a result of companies such as Google spying on our online habits. It’s what Eli Pariser calls the ‘filter bubble’. You buy a book on Amazon and immediately Amazon tells you ‘people who bought this book also bought these other books’. The accuracy of the recommendation, which is often presented as an image-text combination, is what really scares me. And we don’t know where this is going to go. Even my deep faith in independent research is starting to crumble. Perhaps in a not so remote future even the British Library will implement an algorithmic system that tells you ‘readers who ordered this book also ordered these other ones’. That is why I find more genuine initiatives such as Photoworks touring photography talks series Desert Island Pics, where Stephen Bull invites artists, writers and curators to select which eight images they would take with them to a desert island. A truly subjective selection, where art and life mingle in an unpredictable way and without the irritating intrusion of algorithms. Of course as social media ‘victims’/users we still have our surrogate subversive act at our disposal. We can decide not to share an image we find problematic, to avoid participating in the superficial narrative that sharing means caring. We can even commit suicide on Facebook. But these options don’t quite seem enough to me.
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