09 November 2005

The Peripheral Space of Photography

This is an incisive essay by Murat Nemet-Nejat - Turkish emigre, poet/translator, resident of Hoboken. It is first, perhaps important to appreciate the credo of the publisher Green Integer: "Essays, Manifestos, Statements, Speeches, Maxims, Epistles, Diaristic Jottings, Narratives, Natural histories, Poems, Plays, Performances, Ramblings, Revelations, and all such ephemera as may appear necessary to bring society into a slight tremolo of confusion and fright at least." I am unsure how Nemet-Najet would categorize his essay given these options.

The essay appeared in 2003 and is Nemet-Nejat's response to the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museaum of Art entitled The Waking Dream: Photography's First Century: Selections from the Gilman Paper Company Collection in 1993. Nemet-Nejat confesses that while he had looked forward ot the exhibition, its "initial effect on me was a vague sense of disappointment." He had gone hoping to discern a new medium struggling to invent its own language; instead, he found that even early on, photographers were struggling with received conceptions of "Art."

Nemet-Nejat, nonetheless eventually discerns the emergence of three crucial, related dimensions of photographic language, each of which embodies an excess that effaces the photographer and each of which, he thinks, marks a discontinuity with traditonal conceptions of art. First, the ability of the photographic technology to capture light is "unstable," the light emanating from the photographic subject constantly threatens to overwhelm the medium and those who deply it. Second, "the pose" consists in the way subjects present themselves to the camera, thereby initiating a "dialogue" with the viewer that largely by-passes the photographer. Finally, there is the presumed "thereness" of subjects, that they indeed are independent of the photograph and the person who "takes" it. In combination these three dimensions of photographic language mean that: "What is most relevant in a photograph is not what the photographer focuses on, but what he or she ignores. ...[T]his 'ignorance' may be intentional ... or it may be ... accidental. Either way, the center of power of the photograph moves away from its 'focus' to its peripheries."

On this view, "the photographer is an intrusion." But, while Nemet-Nejat never makes it entirely clear, both of the first two dimensions he discerns trade upon the third. And this gives rise to a perplexity. Reflected light and the pose of subjects (intentionally?) aimed at creating a direct "dialogue" with eventual viewers, each presume the "thereness" of the photographic subject. In the 20th Century, however, this preumption is challenged by various photographic images that are not "of something" (e.g., Man Ray's "Rayograms"). Photographers consequently were compelled to develop techniques and strategies that could keep "thereness" in question by highlighting photographic reproduction. And this, of course, demanded that they re-assert themselves in order to sustain the conditions under which light and pose might combine to efface the role of the photographer.

This is, therefore, a tension in Nemet-Nejat's argument. Regardless of how he might work out that tension, his general theme, that photography is "a medium of democratic meditation" or "reflection" or "contemplation" is persuasive. Here he makes contact with the book by Patrick Maynard about which I posted a few days ago. But in the end, for Nemet-Nejat, photographic reflection operates in the service of inclusiveness. "If photography is the democratic art, it is not because it is mechanially reproducible ... It is because it gives speech to a previously silent multitude."

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