24 September 2005

My Review of David Levi Strauss, Between the Eyes

This is a review I published in afterimage (March/April 2004). In my view Levi Strauss has a much surer sense of the relations of photography & politics than does Susan Sontag whose Regarding the Pain of Others appeared at roughly the same time. Aperture has just brought the book out in paperback.


By David Levi Strauss.
Introduction by John Berger.
New York: Aperture 2003/ $29.95 (hb).

In this volume David Levi Strauss assembles 18 provocative essays he published between 1986 and 2002. He wrote some of the essays in response to but others more in collaboration with members of a seemingly disparate group of contemporary photographers including Sebastiao Salgado, Richard Cross, John Hoagland, Joel-Peter Witkin, Bobby Neel Adams, Jim Goldberg, Alfredo Jaar, Miguel Rio Branco, Ania Bien, Francesca Woodman, and Hannah Villager. The essays are unified by his concerted effort to elaborate a view of photography as a tool, a "means of communication," and Levi Strauss repeatedly invokes John Berger to that effect. This view, in turn, allows Levi Strauss to articulate conceptions of "aesthetics" and "politics" that establish them as thoroughly and reciprocally interpenetrating.

Levi Strauss is not naive. He clearly sees that under the best of circumstances photography can only very inadequately communicate the violence, deprivation, devastation and dislocation that pervade our political-economic arrangements. He also clearly sees that our current circumstances are hardly auspicious. For Levi Strauss, a central challenge for contemporary photographers consists in the fact that any potential audience is continuously assaulted by a glut of images. He characterizes the environment we inhabit as a media "pandemonium," which he means in its root sense as "the place of all howling demons." In these circumstances photography is subject to ongoing threat because its usefulness as a means of communication is dissipated by the ubiquitous campaigns to which commercial advertisers, political propagandists, military strategists, among others enlist it. As a result photographers face a complex political task. They not only must try to communicate such complex realities as political repression, war, famine, homelessness, and genocide, they also, and at the same time, must constantly struggle to devise strategies to resuscitate the very instruments--photographic images--with which they seek to communicate.

It is in this more basic struggle that aesthetic resources emerge as truly indispensable. Here, of course, Levi Strauss enters a very treacherous terrain. It is now commonplace among critics that photographers risk subverting their own intended social or political messages if the images they produce are overly aestheticized. The perceived risk is that the photographers' "subjective" and sometimes artistic pretensions will divert any viewer's attention from the "objective" realities they mean to capture in their images.

Levi Strauss counters this commonplace with two of his own. He first reminds us that photographs are useful, perhaps uniquely so, just to the extent that they accrue what he calls an "aura of believability." This aura embodies the presumption among viewers that photographic images "represent the actual." People exploit this presumption as they use photographs to negotiate the social and political world. Individuals, for instance, often use photographs to "construct identities," while government officials, military spokesmen, advertisers, news purveyors, politicians and their consultants, and others pursue their own aims on a larger scale. In the process those who use photography subvert or replenish its believability and hence its capacity to communicate. Levi Strauss thus also reminds us that "The first question must always be: Who is using this photograph, and to what end?" In any instance what is at stake is not just the truth or objectivity or actuality of some particular image, even if these indeed often are at stake as well, but the very usefulness of photography itself.

Levi Strauss makes this clear in discussing several of the photographers mentioned above. He makes it clear, for example, in his discussion of how exceptional working photo-journalists like Richard Cross and John Hoagland reflectively sought to distance themselves and their work from the uses various "news" outlets made of their photographs in different contexts. He makes it clear in his analysis of how Joel-Peter Witkin's phantasmagorical images trade on the presumptive believability of photographs to disturb viewers in ethical as much as aesthetic ways. He makes it especially clear in his essay on the successive incarnations of Alfredo Jaar's Rwanda Projects. This essay, arguably the centerpiece of the book, details Jaar's tireless struggle over several years to communicate to Americans and Europeans their complicity in the hor rors of Rwandan genocide. In his presentations, according to Levi Strauss, Jaar relies on aesthetic means to viscerally convey that horror and complicity in ways that aim simultaneously to "recover the image from the obscurity into which it has been cast" by the turpitude of political elites, the moral indifference of Western publics, and the sensory onslaught of contemporary media. Finally, Levi Strauss makes this clear in two essays on Sebastiao Salgado. In these essays he stresses that Salgado, too, seeks to establish the complicity we denizens of the developed world bear for the ongoing cruelty and exploitation he depicts among workers and refugees in the "developing" world. Although critics regularly assail his images as overly aestheticized, Salgado, as Levi Strauss insists, is often working in the subjunctive, in the realm of possibilities as much as the world of the actual. In this sense Salgado's photographic projects contribute, or at least aspire to contribute, to our capacity to imagine new "collective subjectivities."

Readers, of course, may contest any, maybe all, of these interpretations. To my mind though, Levi Strauss persuasively presents Cross, Hoagland, Witkin, Jaar and Salgado (and others) as intentionally adopting aesthetic strategies that will help them "find new ways to reinvest images with believability." As with any purposeful project, there is in all this a substantial, ongoing risk of failure. Intentionality couples attempt and achievement. The former in no way insures the latter. Photography is especially susceptible to this risk insofar as it is "a complex act of communication," a negotiation that includes at least the photographers, their subjects, actual and potential viewers, and those who subsequently might use any given photograph. By adopting self-consciously aesthetic strategies the photographers Levi Strauss discusses are seeking less to actively compete on terms set by the forces of pandemonium than "to change the rules of engagement, to engage the audience differently." Their aims are political insofar as they resist the surfeit and speed of images to which we are subject by compelling us to slow down, to take time to see, to think, to imagine. By insisting that we approach photography as a means of communication, Levi Strauss also hopes to get us to appreciate that the uses to which different agents put it and conundrums that result from their projects afford an especially perspicuous vantage point from which to approach the intimate intersection of aesthetics and politics.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Visual Studies Workshop

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