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Photography’s Ghosts – Frances Richard

March 27, 2009

“Theatrical Images are Bad, Anti-Theatrical Images are Good.”

I lost sleep thinking about that quote the other night. What is it all about? Well, I’m now on my second reading of Frances Richard’s Photography’s Ghosts in the March 16th issue of The Nation. First, please note that this blog is subtitled Thinking with Our Eyes, so I’m not ready to do the heavy word wrestling that Frances Richard is throwing at me from the first paragraph. Her philosophizing is couched as a book review of Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before by Michael Fried and After Photography by Fred Ritchin. Here’s how she gets started.

“Photography is haunted by distortions, or what philosophers and media theorists call “simulacra”–those devils or replicants that blur authentic essence and mere appearance. Pictures in general trigger these anxieties, Plato having bequeathed to Western culture a fear that overidentification with images will dull perception of a spirit that eludes sight. Photography, however, has been especially seductive, seeming to offer unmediated access to how things “really” are. As Martin Jay explains in Downcast Eyes, his marvelous history of antivisual themes in French thought, “Because of the physical imprinting of light waves on the plate of the camera…it might seem as if now the oeil was not trompé in Daguerre’s new invention. But doubts nonetheless soon arose.” By the 1840s, it was clear that even apparently direct imprinting could not rout the ghost of simulacra. “Yet as late as the Dreyfus Affair,” Jay notes, “it was still necessary to warn the naïve viewer against concocted images.” Photographs could be retouched or faked through double exposures–as when, in 1899, the newspaper Le Siècle printed composite pictures of enemies in the Dreyfus Affair appearing friendly. Technologies have drastically evolved, of course. Nevertheless, according to new books by Michael Fried and Fred Ritchin, warnings about photography’s uncertainties are no less necessary.

CONTINUE READING… The rest of the review is better than the first paragraph.

jeff-wall-1979From perusing the Amazon reader’s reviews, I suggest reading Frances Richard first, maybe that’s enough. Thanks to Gregory Thorp who dropped The Nation in my mailbox last week.

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