Daguerreotypes: Fugitive Subjects, Contemporary Objects

Daguerreotypes: Fugitive Subjects, Contemporary Objects

by Lisa Saltzman

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In the digital age, photography confronts its future under the competing signs of ubiquity and obsolescence. While technology has allowed amateurs and experts alike to create high-quality photographs in the blink of an eye, new electronic formats have severed the original photochemical link between image and subject. At the same time, recent cinematic photography has stretched the concept of photography and raised questions about its truth value as a documentary medium. Despite this situation, photography remains a stubbornly substantive form of evidence: referenced by artists, filmmakers, and writers as a powerful emblem of truth, photography has found its home in other media at precisely the moment of its own material demise.

By examining this idea of photography as articulated in literature, film, and the graphic novel, Daguerreotypes demonstrates how photography secures identity for figures with an otherwise unstable sense of self. Lisa Saltzman argues that in many modern works, the photograph asserts itself as a guarantor of identity, whether genuine or fabricated. From Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz to Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home—we find traces of photography’s “fugitive subjects” throughout contemporary culture. Ultimately, Daguerreotypes reveals how the photograph, at once personal memento and material witness, has inspired a range of modern artistic and critical practices.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226242170
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 07/06/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 232
File size: 9 MB

About the Author

Lisa Saltzman is the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Professor in the Humanities and professor and chair of the History of Art Department at Bryn Mawr College. She is the author of Making Memory Matter: Strategies of Remembrance in Contemporary Art, also published by the University of Chicago Press, and Anselm Kiefer and Art after Auschwitz.

Read an Excerpt


Fugitive Subjects, Contemporary Objects

By Lisa Saltzman

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-24217-0



On the Fictions of Contemporary Art Photography

And so I begin again, this time with two sets of photographs. In the first, we glimpse tanks, infantry platoons, and commanding officers deployed across an arid landscape of desert and mountain (fig. 1.1). Responsive to the ethical and aesthetic legacies of war photography, the images ground their depiction of contemporary military operations in the visual strategies of prior centuries and conflicts. Shot with a descendant of the British folding field camera, a Deardorff 5 × 7, whose antiquated bellows is elegantly encased in wood and brass, and realized as a set of 26½-by-38-inch silver gelatin prints, the photographs are distinctly documentary in style. But even as the camera and the prints maintain a link with earlier prototypes and processes, their iconography signals their distance from earlier eras. These photographs neither reveal "this republic of suffering" that was America during and after the Civil War nor expose, with all of the immediacy of fast film and hand-held camera, the devastation wrought by twentieth-century geopolitical conflicts. Instead, shot from a safe distance with a tripod-mounted camera, these photographs document something of the current practices of war, presenting a catalog of modern military maneuvers, from troop movements and mechanized assaults to security and stabilization operations.

In the second set of images, a different photographic history is invoked. Devoid of human presence, the pictures present vistas of classical temples and sanctuaries, arches and porticos, stoas and atria, all bathed in the soft light of either dusk or dawn (fig. 1.2). In these quiet, eerie photographs, the ancient grounds are interrupted only by the growth of grass and weeds and occasional bits of detritus. Evocative of the nineteenth-century practice of documenting architectural patrimony, the photographs are also inflected by the aesthetic impulses of the subsequent century. It is as if a melancholy heir to Eugène Atget had sought to counter the surrealism of Giorgio de Chirico's painted piazzas with all the evidentiary force of the mechanically produced image. Though elsewhere the photographer works with an 8 × 10 Hasselblad, here it is a digital camera that captures the remains of the Roman Empire. Printed as a set of 28½-by-35¼-inch pigmented inkjet images, the archeological artifacts of the ancient world are brought forth with entirely digital means. In these photographs, which preserve no vestige of the analog processes that once grounded the medium, it is the relics of a distant place and time that are made visible.

Despite these images' attentive focus on situations of modern warfare or the architectural remains of Western antiquity, the camera lens is an ambivalent instrument of truth. While each set of black-and-white photographs evinces something of a documentary aesthetic, neither is in any conventional sense an exemplar of the documentary genre. For all the veracity of the images, what the camera witnesses are neither combat situations nor classical ruins but, instead, their simulation. In each instance, the camera turns its unflinching eye on proxies and substitutes, capturing and recording fabricated scenes and scripted scenarios. Visual records of simulations, these two series immerse us in a reality structured by the logic of imposture. Documents of fiction, they nevertheless deliver a set of truths. Indeed, these photographs ultimately come to bear an evidentiary function, at least within the context of this book. First and foremost, they help to frame and focus a discussion of the photographic present, a moment when practices of staging and construction, often coupled with digital manipulation, undergird and animate a significant body of contemporary art. Second, they set the stage for an examination of my investments in the historic claims of the medium. Third, such a discussion also allows me to clarify my relation to relevant literature in the field.

This chapter is effectively a second introduction. A bit like the "real" Martin Guerre, who emerges just in the nick of time to stake a claim to his identity against the sustained deceptions of the trickster, this chapter intercedes in the book as a more traditionally scholarly antidote to the essayistic fictions of the first, analyzing but ultimately assimilating and enacting the logic of duplication and imposture that I propose cleaves the history of photography and predicts its dispersed inheritance in the present. And so I begin this book for a second time, turning to two sets of contemporary photographs — documents and fictions both — namely, An-My Lê's 2003–2004 series 29 Palms and Gregory Crewdson's 2009 series Sanctuary.

What does it mean to shoot war photographs that are and aren't war photographs? Exiled as a schoolchild from Vietnam, An-My Lê completed her education at Stanford and Yale, first in biology, then in art, and returned to her homeland shortly thereafter to make her series of photographs, Viêt Nam, 1994–1997 (fig. 1.3). Images only of aftermath, the war-torn landscape of her disrupted childhood remained largely invisible beneath signs of postwar industrial development and consumer culture. It was only in her subsequent series of photographs, Small Wars, 1999–2002, that war, and war photography, became a more manifest subject and recognizable genre (fig. 1.4). But even here, Lê's war pictures were not exactly emblems of the genre. For even as she studiously recapitulated the aesthetic standards of documentary photography and combat photojournalism, embedding with her subjects and shooting and developing irrefutably evidentiary images, her exercises in reportage remained records of pure fiction. Whether the subjects were encampments, hand-to-hand combat, or distant encounters, her lens captured scenes not of actual battle but of its restaging.

Small Wars documents the activities of a group of men who spend their weekends reenacting the Vietnam War in the forests of Virginia. Aspiring to historical accuracy, with detailed props, uniforms, and battle plans, the men sustain the illusion of fighting the Vietnam War, even though the Southern landscape bears little resemblance to that of Southeast Asia. Played out far from Vietnam but quite close to the Maya Lin monument that commemorates its toll on American forces, the war games transform countryside that once served as battleground for the American Civil War as only theater can. Elaborate versions of the games children play as they imaginatively inhabit the roles of soldiers, these dramas also refract the popular practice of historical reenactment that continues to rehearse the defining and divisive national conflict of the Civil War.

Using a technique that blends the ethical imperatives of photojournalism with the aesthetic values of straight art photography, particularly in relation to the landscape, Lê adopts these photographic conventions and genres to uncover and record the forms that the historical imagination takes. Whatever the tenuous relation to reality of the action before her lens, hers is an investigative project. Lê has no direct hand in the events that unfold. Instead, she enjoys the peculiar privilege of bearing witness to full-scale, live-action dramas of historical reenactment and documenting them as something like actual combat. In many respects, though, her project is more deconstructive then documentary. Finding in the recesses of American culture what her predecessors and peers have had to create in the studio or stage in the landscape, be it with toy soldiers and miniature tanks or actors and equipment, Lê's work distinguishes itself by achieving its authenticity through its particular relation to artifice. As such, her project offers a response within the medium of photography itself to the belated revelation, after decades of suspicion, of the fabrications and deceptions involved in Robert Capa's iconic 1936 photograph from the Spanish Civil War, The Falling Soldier, distilling the attendant ethical and historical issues in her own, more detached documents of simulated action.

If in her actual Vietnam photographs Lê was too late to record anything but the postwar transformations of her homeland, in Small Wars, something of that time and place can be seen, again and anew, in the forests of Virginia. There, she was granted permission to watch, photograph, and, in some instances, participate in the theatrical performance of the military operations that devastated the nation of her birth and forced her family into exile as refugees. And yet, what she sees in surrogate exists only as sedimentation, reenactments of reenactments. Performed by Vietnam veterans and history buffs, the war games Lê photographs are fictions of fictions, their action as inflected by television and film as informed by experience. For not only was Vietnam America's first televised war, it also catalyzed the almost immediate and ongoing production of Hollywood films: The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978), Coming Home (Hal Ashby, 1978), Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979), Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986), Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick, 1987), Good Morning Vietnam (Barry Levinson, 1987), Casualties of War (Brian de Palma, 1989).

With 29 Palms, the relation to war is different. No longer structured by the retrospective temporality of reenactment, the photographs in this series bear witness to preparations for an anticipated future. Inverting the temporal logic of Small Wars but maintaining the uneasy relation between simulated and lived experience, Lê here photographs rehearsals, training exercises conducted by soldiers scheduled to deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan. In 29 Palms, the desert landscape of Southern California functions as an anticipatory double of the terrain the soldiers will soon occupy, with scenarios scripted and performed as a means of preparing for the unpredictable experience of combat in the actual theater of war.

Exercises in advance of actual combat, with some soldiers cast in the role of the marines they are training to be, others cast as the insurgents they may soon encounter, the rehearsals also serve as a proxy for what Lê cannot otherwise see. For Lê, the camera is as much a pretext to learn about the military and its preparations for war as it is an evidentiary tool. Denied her initial request to embed with the military overseas but ultimately allowed access to this desert training facility, Lê is able to witness something like war. Much as her sessions with Vietnam War reenactors afforded her a retrospective glimpse of the "American war" she experienced but, as a child, did not fully witness or understand, her access to the marine training facility allows her to see something like the present, if not also the future.

If Lê's images complicate the evidentiary imperatives of investigative and documentary photography, they also produce a complex experience of temporality, one that unmoors the logic of return so characteristic of the traumatic. To the extent that her photographs capture an uncanny double of the real that is, in this instance, not the belated repetition that is reenactment but the anticipatory repetition that is rehearsal, she shifts the experience of the traumatic into a register that is not retrospective but prospective. But at the same time that her pictures extend into the future, they also return us to the past, a past that is not only historic but cinematic. As Lê starts to watch the military exercises she will soon document, she exclaims, "This is just like Apocalypse Now!" And in that moment of recognition, the marine training facility at Joshua Tree National Park becomes one big stage set. It is no longer 29 Palms. Nor is it Baghdad or Basra, Kabul or Kandahar. For all the disjunction of its dry and dusty landscape from the forests and rice paddies of Southeast Asia, it is Vietnam, but Vietnam only as imagined in the work of Frances Ford Coppola and Marlon Brando, a cinematic invention animated as much by the residual literary trace of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness as it was by the documented experiences of American soldiers. In that compressed moment of misrecognition, the desert that is 29 Palms recedes into and reemerges as Coppola's cinematic vision of the American war in Southeast Asia. And it is that cinematic frame that inflects Lê's experience of witness as she watches the military exercises under way in a surrogate desert on the outskirts of Los Angeles, only a few hours' drive from that locus of the cinematic imagination, Hollywood. But, of course, Hollywood is not the only "dream factory." It was Berlin's Babelsberg that inspired the phrase and Rome's Cinecittà, among other studios, that helped to produce those wartime illusions. Striking then, that it is at Cinecittà, in the derelict remains of abandoned sets, that Gregory Crewdson shoots his 2009 series Sanctuary.

A photographer whose principal body of work draws extensively from the codes of Hollywood cinema, Crewdson emerged from the MFA program at Yale to produce a set of hyperrealist landscapes that echo the establishing shots of David Lynch's suburban surrealist drama Blue Velvet (1986) and anticipate the iconography more fully elaborated in the fantastical natural histories of the contemporary painter Alexis Rockman. With his subsequent series, Twilight (1998–2002) and Beneath the Roses (2003–2007), Crewdson opened his work to the human subject and more explicitly embraced the conceptual concerns of performance-driven photography. In that work, Crewdson recapitulated the premise of Cindy Sherman's Film Stills but traded the deliberately amateurish aesthetic of her early photographs for the high production values of Jeff Wall's monumental compositions. Sharing neither Sherman's evolving feminist investment in the visual iterations of identity, nor Wall's in the inheritance of a canonical history of art, Crewdson nevertheless maintained the framing cinematic impulse of Sherman's photographs and heightened their impact with an assimilation of the fuller mise-en-scène and editing characteristic of Wall's work, minus the vibrancy of his signature light-box transparencies. The product of intensive, on-location shoots, each scouted, scripted, directed, and realized with the help of cameraman and extensive crew, Crewdson's photographs are expressly dramatic, characterized not only by saturated color and chiaroscuro lighting, but also by the striking poses of their actors, each intensely absorbed in a role that for all its implication of narrative, extends no further than the framing edge of the photograph.

Languishing postindustrial cities like Pittsfield and North Adams, Massachusetts provide a recognizable yet ultimately generic site for Crewdson's signature photographic series. But whatever the actual backdrop for his photographs, it is the aura of cinematic scenarios that provides their common surround. Whether standing rigid in a beam of extraterrestrial light in an otherwise deserted residential street or posing stark naked amid the mismatched furniture of a domestic interior, his actors seem to hover, as signaled in a 1996–1997 series, in an inchoate space of film scenes past, suspended in a time and place that is entirely invented yet somehow utterly familiar. Ophelia may be a product of the literary imagination. But when she is depicted by Crewdson, in his Twilight series, drowning in the rising waters of a dreary suburban living room, the image seems more attuned to Todd Solondz's dystopian Welcome to the Dollhouse as filtered through Michael Almereyda's slacker Hamlet, Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Douglas Sirk's All that Heaven Allows than it does to Shakespearian drama or, for that matter, even the most fully realized tableaux of Julia Margaret Cameron, Oscar Rejlander, or Henry Peach Robinson (fig. 1.5). Melodramatic moments in the absence of sustaining narrative, Crewdson's photographs nevertheless distill something of the cultural inheritance of the cinema, if only by way of the mimicry of its codes. Their cinematic aura is intensified through the sleight of hand that is postproduction editing and digital manipulation. Unlike the photomontages of the Weimar or Soviet era, with their clearly composite, fragmentary syntax, the photo-constructions of Crewdson and his contemporaries bear no visual evidence of their reworking. Masking their methods of montage and dissimulating their elaborate staging, these seamless illusions depict not perfect moments but filmic fantasies.


Excerpted from Daguerreotypes by Lisa Saltzman. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents


Introduction:  Daguerreotypes: Fugitive Subjects, Contemporary Objects

One:  Retro-Spectacles: On the Fictions of Contemporary Art Photography

Two:  Orphans: On Émigrés and Images in W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz

Three:  Just Drawings: On Photographs, Fun Home and The Pencil of Nature

Four:  Time Regained: On Stasis and Duration in Contemporary Video Portraits


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