I. Making the World A Little More Unintelligible and Enigmatic
I bemoan is the aestheticization of photography, its having become
one of the fine arts, the photographic image, by its technical
essence, came from somewhere beyond, or before, aesthetics.1
Jean Baudrillard’s photographs exist for him
as an alternative to writing but they also share at least one
thing in common with his writings – they are a way of thinking
the world against Truth, Meaning, the Paradigm, or the Real in
favour of the unintelligible and the enigmatic. Like his writings,
Baudrillard’s photographs share the space of theory – and the
point of theory for Baudrillard is to challenge the real.2
Further, a Baudrillardian photograph, whatever else it is, rebukes
aesthetics and theories of scientific objectivity for assessing
the photograph. This is something a Baudrillardian image and Barthes
writing in Camera Lucida share. Indeed, one of the markers
of the end of aesthetics and scientific objectivity in our time
is this kind of photograph. Rather than attempting to make the
world more intelligible, Baudrillard’s photographs, like his writings,
make it more unintelligible and enigmatic. We see this in Salins
Jean Baudrillard, Salins (1998)
where a simple photograph of a piece of the earth looks like nothing on earth. The world we thought we new (where one expects lakes to be green or blue) is hence problematized.
The photographs of Canadian Photographer Kelly Reid share many of the characteristics we have come to associate with Baudrillard’s photography. Her California (2005) is easily mistaken for a photograph of Baudrillard’s such as Salins. Here once again is the world we thought we knew exposed in the act of challenging our assumptions about it – this is an exchange with theory that also looks like nothing on earth. Here, her camera, like his, participates in an important task of philosophical thought – to press to the very limit of propositions and procedures, even if they are disastrous. What better justification for taking an image, or writing a text, than to participate in these terminal processes? This is where Reid and Baudrillard’s photographs, like his writing, take us – beyond the discourses of truth where the “poetic and enigmatic value of thinking” exist.
Kelly Reid, California (2005)
Looking at Reid and Baudrillard’s images takes me to several places in his writing as there appears to be a certain longing between Baudrillard’s texts and his images and the images of Reid:
...To duplicate the world is to respond to a
world which signifies nothing with a theory which, for its part,
looks like nothing on earth. ...It recognizes that there is nothing
to be said of the world, that there is nothing that this world
can be exchanged for, while at the same time showing that this
world cannot be as it is without this exchange with theory.3
Jean Baudrillard, Bastille (1998)
Perhaps the desire to take photographs arises
from the observation that on the broadest view, from the standpoint
of reason, the world is a great disappointment. In its details,
however, and caught by surprise, the world always has a stunning
Kelly Reid, Montreal (2005)
…at the heart of the photographic image there’s
a figure of nothingness, of absence, of unreality. It’s this nothingness
at the heart of the image that gives it its pure magic…5
It is impossible for me to look upon Reid’s photographs
without thinking about Baudrillard’s photographs and his writings.
As for Reid, she says she enjoys “a love-hate relationship with
Baudrillard’s work” and she refuses to understand her work as
influenced by his. Indeed, her photographs shown here were taken
before she had seen any of his which makes the coincidences all
the more striking. She does however, acknowledge the incredible
similarity of some of her images and his. Concepts may be, as
Baudrillard says “unrepresentable but the image is inexplicable”.
While an impossible distance may separate concepts and images,
it may well be fair to say that at the very least “the image is
always nostalgic for the text and the text nostalgic for the image”.
6 It may well be the case
that Baudrillard’s text and images long for each other. It may
also then be the case that Reid’s images and Baudrillard’s images
and texts also long for each other across a great gulf. For me,
Reid’s photography, like Baudrillard’s, is a way of theorizing
the world, so long as we keep in mind that the task of theory
is not to clarify or simplify, not to participate in the construction
of the real. As such the photographs of Kelly Reid, like those
of Jean Baudrillard, participate in making the world we think
we know more unintelligible and enigmatic – that is – they participate
in a Baudrillardian understanding of the task of philosophical
thought. It is also impossible for me to look upon either the
photographs of Reid or Baudrillard without thinking of Barthes
and this takes us to the heart of the matter for Reid’s photography
– the denial of science and aesthetics.7
II. Beyond Aesthetics and Science
…occasionally a detail attracts me, this detail
is the punctum. I feel that its mere presence changes my reading,
that I am looking at a new photograph, marked in my eyes with
a higher value… very often the punctum is a detail , a partial
object …the punctum shows no preference for morality or good taste,
the punctum can be ill-bred…paradoxically, the punctum, while
remaining a detail, fills the whole picture…the detail which interests
me is not intentional and probably cannot be so.8
So what are we to do with the photography of Kelly Reid and Jean Baudrillard – a photography that presses a world that is given to us unintelligible and enigmatic, to be even more so? What is at stake here for aesthetics and science both of which are eschewed by Reid and Baudrillard, neither of whom is a professionally trained photographer? Rolland Barthes Camera Lucida can help us to begin to probe some answers.
The singular illusion in which the photographs
of Reid and Baudrillard participate is an effort to live in a
world that is indifferent to us. Here the role of theory is neither
to explain nor clarify, but to highlight, and if possible deepen,
an unintelligibility and enigmaticalness already present in a
world which hides behind appearances. The task of this photography,
like writing, is to function as theory. At their respective best,
both theory and photography lose their meaning at their limits
– and this does not happen often enough – when it does, the photograph
and the theoretical text do not participate in some truth building
exercise.9 A provocative
logic comes into play, one that recognizes that we can no longer
occupy the space of truth.10
Here, photography like theory, can serve as a challenge to
the real – to expose itself as illusion. Appearances behind which
the real hides see to this and all we can ever photograph are
appearances. As such, if the photographs of Reid and Baudrillard
share something, it is that they highlight uncertainty – the only
certainty we know. Photography then, the kind in which Reid participates
is, like theory, a kind of simulation – both simulation and challenge.11
The photographs of Kelly Reid shown here do not
attempt to make the world real or to impose a narrative upon it,
merely to capture the world where it is, never seeable, always
hiding behind appearances. It is these appearances which Reid
like Baudrillard is so good at photographing. It is the appearance
of the world that we know ever so briefly before its passing.
The images of Reid shown here work against a narrative understanding
of the world, against linearity, truth and the real. Here meaning,
truth and the real appear locally, “along restricted horizons
as partial objects”.12
Rolland Barthes, like Reid, understood photography
to be an uncertain art.13
In Camera Lucida Barthes gives us the concepts of punctum
and studium. The studium, or “the average effect” is a general
enthusiasm that one has about photographs and photography – the
studium is what allows us to share an interest in many different
photographs and photographers although it is highly unlikely that
we will like all of the work of any one photographer.14
Punctum is an accident in any particular photo, it is the
point where it interests me more than any of the others. Barthes
describes it as “a cut, a little hole, the accident which pricks
me, but also bruises me, is poignant to me, a wound”.15
For Barthes the photograph is pure contingency, existing
outside of meaning.
The above photograph by Reid (Pointe-Claire,
2003) is taken of her twin at a time the later did not know she
was being photographed. It is a photograph in which the punctum
is the whiteness of the light falling across the face and clothing
of a young woman – especially the point of light on her forehead
and under her left eye. Barthes says: “I imagine that the essential
gesture of the operator is to surprise something or someone and
that this gesture is therefore perfect when performed unbeknownst
to the subject being photographed”.16
Later Barthes writes that he is “too much of a phenomenologist
to like anything but appearances” and this is a liking he shares
with Reid. Her surprise photograph may be of a person, a person
closer to her than anyone else, but it is essentially a photograph
of the physical process of “light writing” (photo – graphy, the
writing of light).17 It
is a very thoughtful photograph about how each of us is written
into existence by light which also happens to capture a brief
moment in the history of an individual lost in her thoughts. In
Barthes words: “…the object speaks, it induces us, vaguely, to
think. …photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels,
or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks”.(17)18
The above photograph is not only the record of the capturing
of light, but at the same time having been seized by that light.
19 Light is the
photographers ultimate thought-object.
Kelly Reid, Constance Bay, 2005
Reid and Baudrillard have refused formal photographic
training preferring to operate as primitives within their own
culture. This is a characteristic Barthes recognizes in himself
as he analyzes photographs: “I am a primitive… I dismiss all knowledge,
all culture, I refuse to inherit anything form another eye than
my own”. 20 For Bathes
the punctum “can be revealed after the fact, when the photograph
is no longer in front of me… the punctum is what I add to the
photograph and what is nonetheless already there… the punctum
then, is a kind of subtle beyond – as if the image launched desire
beyond what it permits us to see”.21
The key to photography is the punctum and there
is a deeply personal aspect to recognizing the punctum of a photograph.
Reid will not allow herself, anymore than does Baudrillard, to
be reduced as a subject to the disaffected socius science is concerned
I operate as a reader of Reid’s photographs as you operate as
a reader of this article, without the artifical support of aesthetics
or scientific objectivity. If what I take to be the punctum of
these photographs has no impact on you, then your interest will
remain at the level of studium and no science and no aesthetics
can properly change that. We are truly, each of us, on our own.
Photography suffers when reduced to aesthetics and dies when reduced
to science. This article then, like Barthes Camera Lucida,
is simply the record of our experience of “…that unexpected flash
which sometimes crosses this field of the studium”.
Barthes reminds us, against aesthetics and science, that we know
only deep within ourselves the reasons why we like one photograph
more than others (even of the same photographer). Writing of a
photograph of his mother as a child in a Winter Garden, Barthes
tells us that “it would tell me what constituted that thread which
drew me toward photography”.23
This solitary photograph is for Barthes deeply personal.
He tells us he cannot reproduce it in his book because:
It exists only for me. For you it would be nothing
but an indifferent picture, one of thousands of manifestations
of the ‘ordinary’; it cannot in any way constitute the visible
object of a science; it cannot establish an objectivity, in the
positive sense of the term; at most it would interest your studium:
period, clothes, photogeny; but in it, for you, no wound.24
Kelly Reid, Virginia (2006)
To appreciate a photograph as Barthes does is
to stand in a world where aesthetics and science no longer exist.
We are truly on our own but is this not the case with any text?
Perhaps this is the most important message we can take from Reid’s
images, that in photographs, as in writing, there is always a
secret to be preserved 25
– an unintelligibility and enigmaticalness that makes both worthwhile.
Aesthetics and science are disciplines, perfect crimes against
independent thought as they seek agreed upon truth and meaning.
Photographs, like fragments, take us beyond the discourse of objectivity
and truth and in them we find the poetic and enigmatic value of
thinking – the most quintessential act of being human. Why not
assume that the world is unintelligible and problematic and respond
to it in writing and photography in a way that makes it even more
unintelligible, even more enigmatic?26
Here the fragment and the photograph provide energy for the
theory that sets them in motion. Both serve as tools for renouncing
the truth and the possibility of verification, to remain as long
as possible in the enigmatic, ambivalent, and reversible side
of thought.27 It
is precisely here that theory operates as challenge to the real
and that photography may participate in that challenge. While
writing may indeed be the more seductive form and photography
the more stupefying, both can cast a powerful light on one another
as they participate in theory as challenge. In place of objectivity,
truth, and meaning, a more pleasant collection of effects under
a certain name, where truth and meaning appear as multiples along
restricted, local horizons. This is the world which we inhabit,
a world of appearances, and it is only by achieving escape velocity
from the terroristic force of aesthetics and science that we can
experience the refreshing disappearance of the Real and its twin,
Truth (capital “T”).
Kelly Reid likes to quote a passage from Jean
Baudrillard: “The real has never interested anyone”. 28
Her photographs privilege the independent knower at war with
disciplined knowledge. They also provide us, as do the photographs
of Baudrillard, with a reminder, via Barthes, that photography
still has a chance against aesthetics and science.29
The hostile takeover of photography by art and aesthetics
is not complete, and the photographs of Kelly Reid, read by the
light of Barthes Camera Lucida, like those of Jean Baudrillard,
are devastating weapons in the struggle to preserve photography
from those who have attempted to enslave it. Reid’s photographs
come to us from a place beyond science and aesthetics and this
is perhaps why they share such a high degree of integrity with
the words and images of Baudrillard.
Kelly Reid, Montreal (2004)
* Gerry Coulter is Canadian Correspondent to European Art. He is Professor of Sociology at Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, Quebec, Canada where he has recently been named the 2006 winner of the Turner Prize for Teaching. His research interests are in art and contemporary theory. He is founding editor if the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (Online): www.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies.
Kelly Reid is a Canadian photographer who is currently working towards her M.A. in Sociology at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada.
1 See Jean Baudrillard.
“For Illusion Isn’t the Opposite of Reality” in Photographies:
1985-1998. Ostfildren-Ruit, Germany: Hatje-Cantz, 1999:139-140.
2 Jean Baudrillard. Forget Foucault, Forget Baudrillard. New York: Semiotext(e), 1987:124.
3 Jean Baudrillard. Impossible Exchange. New York: Verso, 2001:150.
4 Jean Baudrillard.
The Transparency of Evil (c1990). New York: Verso,
5 Jean Baudrillard.
Paroxysm. New York: Verso, 1998:93.
6 Jean Baudrillard.
Cool Memories IV. New York: Verso, 2002:2
7 Kelly Reid
is but one example of many photographers today who share with
Baudrillard a Barthesian denial of aesthetics and science.
It is for each of us to decide who they are as Barthes reminds
8 Rolland Barthes.
Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (c 1980)
New York: Hill and Wang, 1981:42-47.
9 Jean Baudrillard.
Forget Foucault (c 1977), Forget Baudrillard
(c1987). New York: Semiotexte, 1987:38.
10 Jean Baudrillard.
Forget Foucault (c 1977), Forget Baudrillard
(c1987). New York: Semiotexte, 1987:129-130.
28 Jean Baudrillard.
Forget Foucault (c 1977), Forget Baudrillard
(c1987). New York: Semiotexte, 1987:46.
29 A longer version
of this argument and several more photographs of Kelly Reid
and Jean Baudrillard will appear as “The Baudrillardian Photograph
As Theory: Making The World A Little More Unintelligible and
Enigmatic”in Volume 4, Number 1 (January
2007) of the International Journal of Baudrillard Studieswww.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies.
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