Bare bones

Walter Benjamin and Paul Virilio are two theoreticians cited, among a cluster of book-references, by the artists represented in Dead Ringer (a list that also includes Peter Cooke’s Defending New Zealand: Ramparts on the Sea, 1840s–1950s, Henri Bergson’s Matter and Memory, and Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock). Ideas therein usefully bear out aspects of the work at hand – not surprisingly, as thinking photographers, like theorists, seek to travel/advance ideas by studying indicators in the visible environment. But am I just bringing writing to an art form of a different order? Not if we subscribe to Jacques Derrida’s proposition that photography is writing – literally drawing with light. 1 

Each body of work shown here is aesthetically forensic, dealing in evidence, traces, dossiers, investigation, absent meanings, prior actions, deductions etc. This leads me to begin with reference to Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, given that among his ‘convolutes’ there are sub-sections on each of the following subjects: science, forensics, panorama, crime, mirrors, boredom and the eternal return, the collector, the interior and the trace, anthropological materialism, the dream house, archives, and photography itself. Furthermore, he was aware of photography’s earliest forms and how they reveal perpetual truths about the medium, for example:

Task of childhood: to bring the new world into symbolic space.
(Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (AP), Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1999, K1a;3)

Indeed, there is something genuinely regressive – about these photographs. The past is certainly photography’s forte as operationally, after all, it pictures ‘before’. This regression is further compounded by a tendency for people to imagine that the past is always somehow a better place; and to be antique collectors of various orders, hoping to move further away from death. Benjamin believed that from history come the indicators that inform our collective dreams that, in turn, fuel desire and drive meaningful change. In Benjamin’s intellectual landscape, technology belongs to the ‘anticipatory realm of dreams’.

Presently, photography is not just highly theorised, but it is also determinedly genealogical – ancestor-conscious, knowing Its genesis in the non-fine arts professions of science, policing, pornography, portraiture, ethnography etc. Photography’s characteristic regressiveness could be likened to a Freudian analysis of an individual’s infancy in relation to their adult characteristics. It has also been put forward that adulthood is even straight out leaving us. Dietmar Lenzen, in an essay called ‘Disappearing Adulthood: Childhood as Redemption’, argues that childhood is extending further and further due to the abandonment of traditional rites of passage in village life. 2  Maybe some of us are just too busy gratifying ourselves creatively or materially to be grown ups in the manner of a villager. Indeed, photographers spring from Benjamin’s favourite urban types: flaneur, collector, gambler – liminal characters, existing ‘between the worlds of money and magic – figures on the threshold.’ (AP, xi)

Is it not the task of the photographer – descendant of the augurs and haruspices [the diviners of Ancient Rome] – to reveal guilt and point out the guilty in his pictures? The illiteracy of the future, someone has said, ‘will not be ignorance of reading or writing, but of photography.
(Walter Benjamin, One Way Street, p256)

All Ann Shelton’s work is about extremes, and this series mines urban crime legends. Shelton says she is ‘flat out interested’ in cinematised histories, and how, in them, fiction and reality collapse into each other. I am interested in her choice of words – in saying flat, surely a slip of the tongue, I am reminded of the photographic effect. But more specifically, the work here explores cultural anxiety and ideas of what constitutes a crime or a criminal. The doubled form of Shelton’s work could be seen as a response to the 20th Century French critique of photography as monocular, or one-eyed. The splitting of her images, and the schisms created, picture gaps in understanding, where information slips away. 3 

The work here, in particular, explores the photography of crime, two entities that are perhaps closer than one might initially realise – some see a clear link between photography and crime itself. In Cocaine Nights, J.G. Ballard wrote that art and crime are inexorably linked. In it, a dull resort town is shaken back to life by a carefully organised regime of nuisance crimes, property violation, violence and intimidation. It sparks activity, abandon in the community – here, crime is an act of charity, albeit psychopathic:

Does one follow the other? I don’t believe it. If someone burgles my house, shoots the dog and rapes my maid, my reaction isn’t to open an art gallery.

Not your first reaction, perhaps. But later, as you question events and the world around you … the arts and criminality have always flourished side by side.

(J.G. Ballard, Cocaine Nights, Flamingo, London, 1996, p161)

Regressing myself, my father lived in the Christchurch suburb of Cashmere, as a child slightly younger than Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme, the scene of whose crime features in one of Shelton’s photographs, Doublet. The revelation of this crime shattered something for him and his friends who used to innocently play cowboys and Indians in the pretty deciduous forest in the hills behind their houses. Murder was so foreign, he said, in 1950s New Zealand. Crime seems to be everywhere now, or maybe we just consume it more?

But is not every spot of our cities the scene of a crime?
(Walter Benjamin, ‘A Short History of Photography,’ Artforum 15, February 1977, p. 51)

The flipping Shelton’s iinages undergo remind us of the negative, and, in so doing, every non-digital photograph’s technical origins. It also suggests that her photography could be seen to be a ‘mirror world project’ (AP, x), providing an image of a period - not only does it imply the lens diagrams taught in high school physics classes, that show how images are flipped as light is bent through a convex lens, it also reflects Benjamin’s dialetics of seeing:

Image is dialectics at a standstill. (AP N2a, 3)

Joyce Campbell has for some time been making photographic work that employs scientific methodologies such as the culturing of microscopic organisms. Blooms result from the breeding of samples, from the germs of evidence so-to-speak. Another process employed by Campbell involves passing electrodes through chemical solutions affecting colloidal silver suspensions. In doing so she makes under-water atmospheres that last for but a moment, but might pictorially indicate fleeting washes of understanding.

As ever, she is interested in capturing the minutiae of an event unfolding, and in the ‘congealing of made memories’. And we are asked by her latter-day biomorphic surrealism, ‘how much does one project onto an image, and how much comes back to you?’ What is a conscious experience?’ Campbell spoke too of her interest in the state of being submerged in terms of how it is so fundamentally disorienting. Under water one is constantly in a state of ‘coming to’. 4 

Photography, with its devices of slow motion and enlargement, reveals the secret. It is through photography that we first discover the existence of this optical unconscious, just as we discover the instinctual unconscious through psychoanalysis. Details of structure, cellular tissue, with which technology and medicine are normally concerned – all this is in its origins more native to the camera than the atmospheric landscape or the soulful portrait.
(Walter Benjamin, One Way Street, Verso, London, 1985, p243.)

Of course Deleuze and Guattari waste no time in debunking psychoanalysis as destructor of all desire. But there is still much to be learned from dreams, despite Freud’s heavy-­handed attempts to interpret them. Benjamin, for example, wrote that there is a very firm link between dreams and biology: to abridge, the sleeper sets out on a macroscopic journey through his or her own body, the noises and sensations of the insides generating, in the extravagantly heightened awareness of the sleeper, illusion or dream imagery.

Antonin Artaud even went so far to write, at one stage, that “God is germs.” This sort of assertion predates a tendency in contemporary physics to describe ‘the elegance of the universe’ – to demonstrate that the universe has, on a micro and macro level, a structural beauty and cohesion. Earlier photographers prefigured this, such as W.A. Bentley, who spent nearly 50 years recording snowflakes, succeeding beautifully. In Campbell’s work we can truly see the ‘the pencil of nature’ (Fox Talbot’s term) at work, or in other words the poetics of mathematics and science.

Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth by supreme beauty – a beauty cold and austere like that of sculpture.
(Bertrand Russell, ‘Mysticism and Logic’, International Monthly, vol. 4, 1901.)

Dead Ringer, Darren Glass ventured, is a photography show selected on the basis of a relation to the themes of history and death. His work here is a serial depiction of military searchlight installations that ring the Hauraki Gulf, defending Auckland. Originally Glass conceived of constructing a panorama of the views out of these structures, but abandoned this for logistical reasons, just as our military de-mobbed these emplacements. Indeed, the structures he captures could be seen to symbolise militaristic failure: our guns had a range of 17 miles as compared to the 40 mile range of incoming ships in WWII. The attacker also has a better view than the defender generally – a nightmarish disadvantage to a perceived enemy is constructed architecturally, an absurd space resulting.

The paranoia aspect of war interests Glass, who says that the photographed spaces seem psychologically warped, both because of the distorted image, and that they depict anxious psychological space. 5  He said he would like to turn the emplacements into giant pinhole cameras (like Shelton’s and Campbell’s 8 x 10 cameras, it is a massively regressive piece of equipment). He also wanted to document all the searchlight emplacements dotted about the New Zealand coast, but it’d take 30 years, he said. Such a project might constitute what Benjamin termed a ‘magic encyclopedia’. I imagine that by mapping out the ring of these poignant paranoid spaces in their entirety, something odd and mythological might be invoked.

Tomorrow learning space will be just as useful as learning to drive a car.
(Wernher von Braun quoted in Paul Virilio, ‘The Last Vehicle’, p106.)

In ‘The Last Vehicle’ Virilio describes a change in vehicles over the course of the 20th Century, from planes trains and automobiles, to the audiovisual vehicle, to the static vehicle, a ‘substitute for the change of the physical location, and extension of domestic inertia – a vehicle that ought at last to bring about the victory of sedentariness, this time in ultimate sedentariness.’ (Ibid, p108.) It is, perhaps, since the advent of the digital telecommunications and internet (a system incidentally developed by the US military) that the photograph has a new level of conceptual timeliness by virtue of its stilling or stopping or arresting – the way it makes dead ringers for isolated moments of unruly life.

  1. Incidentally, the earliest known photograph by Fox Talbot, the medium’s Anglo-inventor, was of his own writing.
  2. In Dietmar Kamper et al (eds), Looking Back at the End of the World, Semiotext(e),
    New York, 1989.
  3. Incidentally, this flipping is also done by Shelton in her video work. This is also a technique used in the pornography industry)’ to somewhat disguise actors and settings, via the exploitation our significantly asymmetrical faces.
  4. Coincidentally, Campbell has just finished reading J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World, which is, in imagery, reminiscent of the early French photographer, Hippolyte Bayard, who believed that he had invented the medium. He became so discouraged by the lack of recognition he received that he photographed himself as a drowned man.
  5. Also social space, the most frequent users of these structures have been Auckland’s delinquents looking for privacy in public. Somewhat typically in these real estate obsessed times, the Department of Conservation is shutting undesirables out, gentrifying and sanitising the spaces.