Photography: history and theory

Jae Emerling, ‘Preface’ and ‘Introduction’, pp.xii-xiii and pp.1-16, in:

Emerling, J., 2012. Photography: history and theory. Routledge, Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY.



Every book on photography is always marked by the same limitation: the absence of all the photographs discussed within the text.

In other words, every historical and theoretical text on photography has blind spots, photographs that are missing, absent, untranslatable. Rather than see this as a shortcoming, perhaps it is better to reckon with these blind spots as openings, as disjunctive syntheses.


It is, rather, only to note that there is always a gap between what we see and what we say. For this reason, the missing photographs are as significant, if not more so, than the ones that are present. Photography is a complex play of presence and absence, perception-image and recollection-image. In other words, invisibility and blindness are always pre- conditions of photography as Paul Strand, Walker Evans, Sebastião Salgado, and other photographers remind us.



When considering the history of photography one must be cognizant of the fact that one is addressing complex theoretical questions about representation: signs and objects, narratives and events, life and politics. In other words, to confront the history of photography is to face the double-bind of aesthetics and ethics.


Discourse is the set of statements that defines the concept named “photography.” It is the structure into which specific, individual events are received, discussed, explained, and critiqued; it is the framework through which we understand and think photography. Simply put, there is no “photography” without discourse. Discourse is the “conceptual field within which and around which move various kinds of objects, activities, processes, ideas and theories, subcultures and movements, institutions and exhibition.”

This is not to say, however, that the discourse of photography is a coherent, unified framework. Quite the contrary. Photographic discourse is a continual reworking of positions: it creates by retracing lines of arguments, uncovering archives, redacting histories, and drawing attention to aporias (gaps or impasses, paradoxes) within the discourse itself.


Photographers, philosophers, historians, critics, curators—all take up positions within the discourse of photography. But only photogra- phers—only the creation of an image—executes the “knight’s move.” “Like the discontinuous, L-shaped move of the ‘knight’ in the game of chess, the semantic structure of the artistic product executes a ‘swerve’, a side step, with respect to the real, thereby setting in motion a process of ‘estrangement’ (Bertolt Brecht understood this well).” [citing Viktor Shklovsky]


Critical postmodernism arose as a critique of the ways in which photogra- phy was being appropriated by art institutions in the 1960s. It was then that photography fully entered the institutions of art, particularly the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. Critical postmodernism, especially as it was espoused by influential historians and critics centered around the journal October, sought to recuperate avant-garde strategies and ideas from the 1920s that had been marginalized by preceding art historical narratives that were largely formalist.

In short, the critical postmodern position forwarded an anti-aesthetics in which traditional artistic and aesthetic criteria such as originality, autonomy, self-expression, and uniqueness were forfeited in order to salvage the possibility of staging a socio-political critique.

The height of the “October moment” in the 1970s and 1980s has undeniably changed the study of art history.5 But what has become evident is the acute degree to which it functions negatively vis-à-vis a critique of the formalism promulgated by the influential art critic Clement Greenberg in the early 1960s. For example, Greenberg’s medium-specific, formalist evolutionary model of art’s history is directly actualized in photography in the work of John Szarkowski, the head of the Department of Photography at MoMA from 1968–91.

He argued photography’s case for greater inclusion within the museum and within the history of modern art as such by isolating photography from discourses and functions other than those of art proper. Hence he emphasized style, tradition, and photography tout court as a legitimate form, a continuation of the Western pictorial tradition that began in the Renaissance.

Critical postmodern critics vehemently reject this formalist, medium-specific, approach to photography.

Insisting on the social and political functions of photography above all else, critics such as Allan Sekula focus on how photography exposes a series of interrelated ideological positions, including art, race, economics, and class. Sekula’s “The Traffic in Photographs” (1981) challenges any history or theory of photography that willfully turns a blind eye to larger issues of the social and political context that, for him, is the discourse of photography.


Batchen, and many others, are convinced by the postmodern critique of the formalist position. A critique that centers on how meaning is determined by cultural, institutional contexts; how the production of the political and psychological subject is an effect of photographic representation; and on the claim that there is no discrete and fixed medium that could be named photography.

Although Batchen’s own methodology shares a basis in the same critical theory that makes possible postmodernist positions on photography, his conclusions are not symptomatic of a simple choice between one of the two approaches: formalism or postmodernism.

The theoretical models in which Batchen grounds his methodology are them- selves serious challenges to this structural, binary opposition because instead of accepting a false either/or decision, the work of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault that motivates Batchen’s reading helps him to conclude that both the formalist and postmodern positions “presume that photography’s identity can indeed be delimited, that photography is ultimately secured within the boundaries of either nature or culture.

In other words, he demonstrates how the discourse of photography is, at its origins, always more troubling and feverish than it is definitive and ordered. There is always another line to construct that passes through the origin of photography in the present.


Perhaps the most pressing concern facing photography and whatever historical– theoretical approaches are being formed in the aftermath of postmodernism is the one that has haunted photography from its inception: coming to terms with “the historical and ontological complexity of the very thing” we claim to be analyzing.

History is discursive; it is not as if history exists somewhere outside of discourse; it does not pre-exist it.

Photography: History and Theory takes as its premise that critical theory continues to offer new ways around and through the either/or—between the Scylla and Charybdis of formalism and postmodernism: new ways of recollecting photography.

As the discourse of postmodernism turns it is wise not to abandon the theoretical texts that enabled it because these texts continue to proffer new possibilities, new readings and strategies that were overlooked in the headlong rush to instrumentalize theory in the late 1970s and 1980s.

[This book] aims to demonstrate that the study of photography—its singular images, its discourse, its socio-political affiliations—is a laboratory for how and why history and theory complicate one another. Another name for this complication is aesthetics.

Resisting this type of eschatological talk is clearly one of the lessons that have not been learned from the philosopher Gilles Deleuze.

This holds for the celebration of the digital as well. It is true that digital photogra- phy presents us with a new set of potentialities and issues, some unimaginable with analogue technology. However, the digital does not simply end the dis- course of photography; instead, what has become evident is that the discourse (how we think and use photography, the statements made about it) continues to be operative despite the advent of digital photography.


The beginnings of photography in the nineteenth century has proven as much. The means by which a photograph is made is only one factor among many, including how it is exhibited, its reception, how it is used by its audience, etc.

These factors are only secondary if one maintains an oversimplified notion of analogue photography as automatic, objective, unmanipulatable, and so on. A lot has to do with how we conceive of the photograph. It never was a natural, straightforward, representation void of artifice.

For this reason I have no desire to present photography as a means to put an end to aesthetics (meaning beauty, the autonomy of the artwork), a use endemic to both modern and contemporary art. Instead, a photographic image here will be presented as an essential element in rethinking what we mean by the term “aesthetics” as a multiplicity of strategies, affects, and “images of thought.”

My approach in this book is to focus on art photography because it was art photography that played a crucial role in the critical postmodern position and because it has been art photography that has refocused our attention on the discourse itself. This is not to say that only art photography is addressed below, but it is a primary focus.

So vernacular photography, photojournalism, art photography, medical photography, family snapshots, social networking images are all part of the discourse of photography in its largest framework. However, the discourse of photography that has been generated within art history represents a particular intersection of visible and sayable forms of con- tent (visibilities) and forms of expression (statements). Hence what I have written here is an art history text; it reads and maps the discourse of photography as it has taken form in the modern and contemporary period.

Art history may very well not be the best situation in which to approach photography, but it very much remains the primary one in which we encounter debate on photography. Of course, art history is not the only viable framework in which to grasp the history of photography. The opposite is often more accurate in fact.


Nevertheless, it is within the discipline of art history that photography has been most intensely and even perversely constructed.


For this reason, we must ask ourselves what we inherit—figures, modes of address, theories, and methodologies—as we rethink this inheritance as a set of problems rather than as givens.

To address the predicament we are facing now, as we devise new conceptual personae and tools to face photography anew, I take it to be more productive to map out the discourse of photography—its statements and visibilities, its folds and potentialities.

This attention to how photography has been conceived and reconceived in recent decades reveals the inextricability of history and theory: two concepts that are far from self-evident or simply defined. Situating the subject of photography as something between history and theory affords the opportunity to convey the sheer complexity of a photographic image, which is at once inhuman, fortuitous, and aleatory.


History and theory are not the only means of thinking photography. Photographers present us with unimagined “impossible objects”—images of thought—that think and create concepts. It is the image that has the potentiality to traverse the discourse, that is, to be “untimely” and create new sensations and experiences, new lines through the discourse thereby altering its history and theoretical presumptions. Artistic practice and theory are complementary but not identical.

As Deleuze explained, practice is “a set of relays from one theoretical point to another, and theory is a relay from one practice to another. No theory can develop without eventually encountering a wall, and practice is necessary for piercing this wall.” [Deleuze, ‘ Intellectuals and Power’]

Theory helps us arrive at impasses and aporias that the existing discourse cannot surpass or address. Practice—the production of an image—then “pierces this wall,” opening us to an outside. Art is and opens us to such a becoming, to such an experiment-experience that “goes beyond [anything] lived or livable” since “it exists only in thought and has no other result than the work of art.”

This does not mean to abandon art or thought as ends-in-themselves, but rather to posit each as pure means because, as Deleuze reminds us, “thought and art are real, and disturb the reality, morality, and economy of the world.” [Deleuze, Logic of Sense]

The relation between theory (theoria, contemplation) and sensory perception (aisthesis, sensory apprehension, the primary experience of art, the origin of aesthetics) is never settled. As a discourse is transformed, it exposes how and why it is possible to conceive a unity of photography without unification, without a shared ground.

There is an essence of photography that is in no way a set of medium-specific characteristics or a repeated structure of cultural interpolations. Instead, there is a line that traverses the discourse itself: one comprised of singular photographs that have nothing to do with one another yet nevertheless communicate with one another.


The crucial point is that automatism and indexicality in photography need to be complicated by referring to discourses outside photography (e.g. phi- losophy, literature) and we must be open to experiencing a photograph as an image. It requires us to no longer assume that there is a “similarity between the camera and the eye as optical systems”—there is nothing “human” about the camera’s eye—and that “a photograph shows us (or ought to show us) ‘what we would have seen if we had been there ourselves’.” [citing Snyder and Allen]

The crucial point is that automatism and indexicality in photography need to be complicated by referring to discourses outside photography (e.g. phi- losophy, literature) and we must be open to experiencing a photograph as an image. It requires us to no longer assume that there is a “similarity between the camera and the eye as optical systems”—there is nothing “human” about the camera’s eye—and that “a photograph shows us (or ought to show us) ‘what we would have seen if we had been there ourselves’.”


The crucial point is that automatism and indexicality in photography need to be complicated by referring to discourses outside photography (e.g. phi- losophy, literature) and we must be open to experiencing a photograph as an image. It requires us to no longer assume that there is a “similarity between the camera and the eye as optical systems”—there is nothing “human” about the camera’s eye—and that “a photograph shows us (or ought to show us) ‘what we would have seen if we had been there ourselves’.”

Moreover, our eyes are never still, even if their movement is imperceptible to us. Human vision does not produce a fixed image; instead, “the image is kept in constant involuntary motion: the eyeball moves, the image drifts away from the fovea and is ‘flicked’ back, while the drifting movement itself vibrates at up to 150 cycles per second.” [still citing Snyder]

The still photographic image is an image precisely because it is unnatural, inhuman. The camera is pointed outward, but its lens is not the eye behind the viewfinder. There is a non- coincidence, a movement toward the other without and within.

For Benjamin, one essential new reading is a political one. The shattering of tradition that reproducibility signals, whereby a plurality of copies is substituted for a unique existence, offers a revolutionary potential. Photography, for Benjamin and others, is the epochal event of modernity.31 Modernity refers to the consequences of capitalism and technology.


The main thrust of Benjamin’s work is to create a new relation between past and present, one not based on a linear conception of time as progress or development. Searching for traces of the “past in the present” Benjamin labors to counter modern spectacle—of which photography plays a major role—which “extends to all social life” because it is “the false consciousness of time,” it is when “culture becomes nothing more than a commodity.” As Marx famously said, with modernity “all that is solid melts into air.”

The discourse of photography, perhaps more than other areas, is overwhelmed by debates on whether or not photography is an autonomous medium.


First, critical postmodern challenges to photography as a medium are inseparable from Greenberg’s (mis)reading of Kantian aesthetics that separated aesthetics and ethics. Hence Greenberg too often becomes a metonym for aesthetics as a whole, which is taken to mean questions of beauty, good taste, and formalism. Critical postmodernism largely defines itself through a sustained challenge to Greenberg and his followers. This is a narrow understanding of aesthetics that has held too much sway over the discourse of photography, let alone modern and contemporary art as a whole. Aesthetics is critical thinking as much as it is anything else.

Second, we need affirmative, complex approaches to the question of a medium that exceeds the parameters Greenberg set. These types of approaches are operative outside of art history. In literature and music we do not find the same anxiety about medium, even about post-medium (interdisciplinary) work. A medium need not be a set of internal characteristics, essences, or anemic rhetoric.

What is specific to the medium becomes apparent as the medium itself changes. [Mary Ann Doane] notes how a medium is thought to be a material or technical means that, although limiting, nonetheless enable possibilities and variations.

“Medium specificity names the crucial recursiveness of that structure that is a medium. Proper to the aesthetic, then, would be a continual reinvention of the medium through a resistance to resistance, a transgression of what are given as material limitations,” she writes.

Talking about photography and aesthetics has been difficult in part because aesthetics was putatively the deus ex machina of the formalist position, which reduced it to questions of beauty, essentialism, artistic genius, and visual pleasure. The reduction of aesthetics to a set of ahistorical, apolitical interests is a gross simplification.

This reductive understanding was advanced in the 1970s and 1980s so as to translate a valuable insight from Marxist critical theory into the practices of art history: namely, that intellectual and creative work is a form of socially and politically useful labor and not simply entertainment or diversion or reflection.


Rather than a simple negation of a nineteenth-century conception of the photographic image, premised on the photograph as a mirror-image resemblance, postmodernism in the second half of the twentieth century turned to the photograph in order to investigate the full complexity of representation and to articulate new narratives for the history of modernism. As a result, we have come to understand that representation is not merely an act of seeing; it is a socio-cultural encounter in which entities become visible, that is, recognizable and knowable.

The postmodern, anti-aesthetic, claim to expose the contingency and partiality of the photographic image and its institutional contexts cannot transcend artifice or representation. Attempting to do so still requires a representational—aesthetic—strategy.


The technical invention of photography—the mechanical device, the chemical solutions, the refinements of the lens, etc.—is not the definitive event of modernity, but the production of an image may very well be.

An image is not a picture or a snapshot. Only an image defines a territory and possesses the ability to cut across and remark it. An image becomes visible by more than an act of physiology or even of artistic innovation: an image constructs a complex network of socio-cultural discourse that defines—not once and for all, but contingently—the framework through which both the image and ourselves as spectators become visible.

Writing the history of images—however inexhaustible and incomplete a project it may be—must face the issues of epistemology (how and why is knowledge being produced by studying and representing the past events as happenings) and ethics (which includes the political).

As students and historians of images, we must ourselves undertake an apprenticeship in images that entails rethinking aesthetics neither as impressions or phantasms nor as a retreat from the world; but rather as a creative event that exposes how our becoming-image, becoming-other, demands a responsibility not only to images, but to the temporalities they open.


To study the history and theory of photography is to write and create alongside—and in the middle of—images.


The time of the image is only conceivable if we can reinvest aesthetics as an act of creation alongside the image rather than as an act of interpretation (whether essentialist or historicist) and/or critique. Aesthetics is thus inextricably bound to the histories of the image we construct.