Towards Assignment 4 – David Campany and Late Photography

Again, I am coming back to things I have looked at during earlier courses, here with the work I did around the Tate Modern exhibition Conflict-Time-Photography (Nov 2014 – Mar 2015) which fed into my final assignment for The Art of Photography. However, I think my understanding of Campany’s essay has moved on considerably since then.

(At this point I should say Campany writes well and persuasively, choosing his words carefully  and using them to powerful rhetorical effect. You can tell that – at the time of writing in 2003 – he was not a particular fan of late photography…)

What was Campany on about? To start with, I’ll  break his examination of the problems with late photography down into three sections:

1: The TV documentary about Meyorowitz.

Reflections on Ground Zero (Channel 4, 2003) discusses Meyorowitz’s photos which will go on to appear in Aftermath (Phaidon) and be shown online and as part of exhibitions around the world. Campany’s essay starts by highlighting the contrast between television’s ‘state of the art news production’ and Meyerowitz’s ’60 year-old, Deardorff plate camera,’  between events happening live, globally and on TV with the slow ritual nature of large format photography, and between the complexity of the geopolitical situation and the simplicity of both the technology used by Meyerowitz and the message it appeared to be producing..

In the Channel 4 documentary, photographs were being positioned as superior to the television programme in which they were presented, despite containing ‘video images at least as informative as the photographs.’ I have had a look at the video that prompted Campany’s article (it is there, of course, on You Tube) and there is a possible argument to be made, qualifying Campany’s statements about television’s ability to make images ‘at least as informative and descriptive as the photographs’ and so act as a better medium of record than still photography. But of course, the ability of video to capture what someone is saying, rather than simply (?) presenting a static, mute portrait of an individual, opens up all sorts of possibilities for the construction of meaning.

The sanctioned status of the images taken by Meyerowitz (he was granted access to the ground zero site by the city authorities) will determine how they are viewed (and may mean that  they continue to stand out over time). They exemplify stills photography having ‘inherited a major role as undertaker, summariser or accountant [turning] up late, [wandering] through the places where things have happened.’

2: Photographs and Memory; Photographs and Stillness.

Campany describes this as being an approach that was becoming (in 2003) ‘a commonplace use of the medium’ – depicting the aftermath of events – ‘traces of traces, fragments, empty buildings empty streets, damage… static, sombre and straight,’ it is ‘cold not hot,’ ‘it forgoes the presentation of events in progress and cedes them to other media’ Pictures of events have, since the 1970s, been provided by television rather than by the Nikon-toting press cameraman; even the stills used in the press have often been taken from video footage.

And even the concept of ‘stillness’ is different from the way the Victorians perceived images in the days before cinema, Campany argues. Then, all pictures were ‘still’; now ‘still’ (like colour) is a choice and as such has its own meaning, one that is closely linked in the popular imagination to memory, the moment and the significant detail.

The habit of tracking and panning over still images (so prevalent it even was given its own name – the Ken Burns effect  – in iPhoto) is repeated in the original television footage of the documentary; it is very difficult to get a television camera pointed at an object or scene to maintain a static frame for any length of time, whereas with stills in a book or framed on a wall, or in a pile on a table in front of you, you can spend as much time looking as you wish, at whichever part you choose. This is, I think, significant. Confronted by a static image (be it a painting or a photograph) television’s preferred position is to act as a stand-in for the viewer, attempting to simulate the way we (the viewer) might look at a picture, reading it in sections as we move from detail to detail.

3: The late photograph and contemporary art.

While acknowledging and disparaging the existence of ‘ruin porn’ – photographs of crumbling grandeur in Detroit or any number of abandoned asylums, anyone? – in passing, Campany finds interest in work by other photographers working with the ‘traces of traces’. Sophie Ristelheuber’s pictures of the abandoned Iraqi defences from the first Gulf War or Paul Seawright’s series Sectarian Murders (or possibly his photographs taken in Afghanistan, after the campaign to dislodge the Taliban as part of the response to the attack on the twin towers – his picture Valley directly quotes Roger Fenton’s Valley of the Shadow of Death, from his pictures of the Crimean War which are also referenced in Campany’s essay). Generally he can find both ‘a certain modernist reflection on the indexicality of the medium [of photography]’ and also reflection on the idea of photographs as evidence and documentary truth.

The best of these pictures are all authored by someone who has chosen and shaped what it is that they depict. Despite Meyerowitz’s claims that his pictures are the result of his being ‘there as a witness…without trying to put some formal idea of how to photograph it [the destruction]’  the pictures still display evidence of his accumulated ‘photographic skills, honed over several decades.’ The pictures become aesthetic objects and as such – and Campany invokes Allan Sekula here – run the risk of  being decontextualised ‘in order to make it enigmatic or melancholic or merely beautiful.’ In this way, what may appear to be a vehicle for mourning can at the same time ‘foster an indifference and political withdrawal that masquerades as concern.’

Rather than offering mute (unmediatied) witness to the events of the age, the late photograph can ‘leave us in permanent limbo, obliterating even the need [Campany’s emphasis] for analysis and bolstering a kind of liberal melancholy that shuns political explanation like a vampire shuns garlic.’


I will discuss Meyerowitz’s Ground Zero photographs in more detail in the post that follows this, but  – while I acknowledge their imperfection as a memory of the destruction of the twin towers itself –   I must say that it is much easier to track them down in a complete, high quality form (I simply ordered a copy of the book from Amazon) than it is to find the transmission details (or a high resolution copy of the full video) of the Channel 4 documentary. Possibly this means simply that time has moved on again and network television is no longer the primary way we experience (and remember) major events.

The internet has become our repository for the images (still or moving) that we use to make our memories of public (and increasingly of private) events. Instead of the official channels of information (newspapers; television; wedding photographs taken by a ‘proper’ wedding photographer) we use search engines to piece together our own chosen version of the events from fragments stored in a server farm somewhere ‘on the web’ . We may still pick and choose which links we follow according to what we think about the trustworthiness of the information to be found there (I’ll go for the Guardian or the BBC over Fox or the Daily Mail for news) but the idea of a single, official, authoritative source for images about major events like the one created by the city of New York and Meyerowitz seems to be a thing of the past.


Reference:

  • Campany, D (2003) Safety in numbness: some remarks on the problems of ‘Late Photography’ accessed on Campany’s site (http://davidcampany.com/safety-in-numbness/) 01-v-18
  • Channel 4 News, London (2001) Reflections of ground zero; accessed (in 3 parts) on You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0E496C00306D0177 01/5/18

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