Photography's New Materiality

Photography's New Materiality: An Introduction

Sandra Plummer, Harriet Riches, Duncan Wooldridge

HR: I guess it would be good to start off by thinking about the origins of this project – why we considered the topic a pertinent and timely one and how, as a group of individuals whose research relates to the overall theme in different ways, we came to define a set of questions that we wished to pose.

One of the contemporary issues that prompted our research strands was the apparent disappearance of photography, particularly within photographic theory, at a historical moment in which its presence within visual culture is ever more present. We are thinking about how photography as a medium has disappeared, and rethought as variously a condition, an event, an idea. More specifically, we were interested in how that impacts on understandings of photographs themselves as objects, that within theory have slipped from view. The attempts to define the ontological shifts engendered by digital technologies, and the retroactive construction of the oppositional analogue that it replaced, have rendered the photographic object increasingly immaterial.

We wanted to avoid this becoming another debate about digital photography or the reasoning behind the resurgence of interest in obsolescent photographic techniques, methods and ‘retro’ aesthetics. While there continues to be essential work done on photographs as material objects produced within vernacular cultural practices—objects that often quite obviously and necessarily combine photographic image and material object, hand crafting and industrial making, commercial and domestic sites of production—in this project we wanted to focus on the question of materiality as it has been and is being explored specifically within art practice, both historically and as a contemporary trend.

DW: What interested me about the subject of materiality is the difficulty in bringing together these dual discourses of the photograph as object and image. We seem to have discourses of one or the other, though rarely both. Why are we unable to perceive the photograph as image and object simultaneously?  A supposedly modern reflexivity around photography (in both abstraction and in an increased physicality) is frequently construed as being myopically concerned only with photography, and not the role of the image as an object. As George Baker has stated, the abstract photograph is a representational image of a culture replete with abstractions, and it remains representational and telling of the culture in which it is produced. I think we need a similar notion of the materiality of photography, if we are to address the often reductive discourses of materiality and immateriality, which are not played out so tidily in a practice of photographic image-making. 

The digital photograph is distinctly material—think of the amount of material required to make the image visible, here on the screen or page—and it always retains the potential to be outputted as a print, which is a second phase of materiality. If we consider what Paolo Virno would describe as immateriality, with its potential to escape the reification or commodification of an action or relation (his solution to this is a renewed idea of virtuosity as an escape from capture), photography, even in its digital format, still produces some kind of fixity. Within a practice of photography as art, this fixity and resolve is constantly tested, pushed and pulled. This characterises the most interesting recent photography for me. The return to certain models of practice, especially the conceptual photography or photo-conceptualism of the late 1960s and 1970s, which were willing to question conventional modes of photography, seems to provide an interesting starting point from which to think about how we approach photography at the moment.

SP: For me the project is practice-led, in that it began both as a response to an increase in reflexive photography with a materialist focus, and to issues that emerged from my own photographic practice. Digitalisation seems to prompt a questioning of what photography is now, but the issue of the ontology of analogue photography has yet to be sufficiently addressed. My research began by looking at the process of photography as a coming into being through light, at the duration of the photographic exposure, at the simulacral operation of the photograph and at the nature of its surface. Through examining self-referential photography I noticed that there is often a focus on surface, and on the ambiguity of that surface with regard to the distinction between the photograph as image and as object. Duncan’s question of why we are unable to perceive the photograph as image and object simultaneously is pertinent.

This problem is not specific to photography. In Art and Illusion Gombrich asserts that it is impossible to see both the surface and the image of a picture. Quoting Maurice Denis’s celebrated announcement of a picture’s flatness—‘a picture, before being a battle horse… is essentially a plane surface covered with paint’—Gombrich concludes that it is impossible to see both the plane surface and the battle horse at the same time. It would be good to get beyond this ‘either or’ and embrace the notion of the photograph as ‘either-and’ image and object (in the spirit of the overarching project).

I think that recent photographic practice offers a way through this dualism by enabling us to see both image and object. Photography has often been mistakenly constituted as merely image, as a purely visual medium. The current focus on materiality is in some ways a response to that. I think that this self-referential photography also provides a critical response to theorisations of the assumed dematerialisation of photography (as proposed by Peter Osborne for instance). I’m interested in providing a response to this practice that entails philosophical reflections on the ontology of photography as such, and on objecthood and materiality in general.

HR: That is to say, we are not dismissing the vernacular practices of photography or the centrality of photographs as objects in, for example, the construction and mediation of identity and individual and collective memory within contemporary life . rather, we want to focus on the exploration and theorization of photographic ‘objecthood’ within contemporary art practice, as it frames a critical space in which the issues and concepts that underpin photography’s wider cultural resonances are acutely focused.

My research interests in this area are concerned with gender and photography – particularly the language and historiographic constructions of photography. To me, the language in which the apparently distinct categories of digital and analogic have been constructed and then explored and perpetuated in more recent writing on photography (I’m particularly thinking about the feminized associations of the nostalgic register in which the return to analogue practices is cast) brings to mind certain recurring historical debates about the ontology, function and value of photography, and reveal wider assumptions and cultural associations in which gender becomes an organizing principle, albeit a covert one. I’m also interested in the tension between materiality and supposed immateriality, both of the photograph itself, but also the maker and then the viewer. If photographs as material objects are made and consumed through the body, what happens when that body is rendered immaterial, and so unmarked by gender and sexual difference? So I guess what interests me here is the opportunity it gives us to reflect on these discursive constructions.

This interest in materiality—or what might be termed more specifically ‘objecthood’—can be evidenced in a number of contemporary practices, and also in exhibitions that foreground some of these issues, often in quite different ways. I am thinking about exhibitions like the Photographers’ Gallery show The Photographic Object; The Object of Photography at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery in Leeds; and the emphasis on abstraction and generative photograms at the V&A’s Shadow Catchers. What I found particularly interesting about some of these shows is the way in which they not only explore the physical materiality of photography, one that sometimes emerges as a fragility or vulnerability (I’m thinking of Catherine Yass’s Damage series for example), but also as a process or principle. It is interesting to see the theme being explored from different disciplinary perspectives: design historian and theorist of craft Glenn Adamson’s recent show Shot Through in Norway presented a different approach as it explored the relationships between weaving and photography.

As someone working with students of photography, I see this interest in the matter of photography emerging, for example, in the work of new graduate Inge Jacobsen, whose stitched interventions into fashion magazine spreads and pornography literally and metaphorically puncture the illusion of the image. They invoke the body, at the same time echoing and subverting the logic of the digital image that, as has been pointed out, finds associations and shared origins in the patterned punch cards of the weaving loom. There’s an interesting conflation of the hand- and machine-made, the digital and the analogue, past, present and future, that works to critique the ideas that the advent of digitalization represents a paradigmatic shift. It posits an alternative sense of recurrence, or at least reveals the ways in which considerations of a ‘new’ medium are always understood within the language of the technologies that it renders obsolete. It seemed important to demonstrate in some way that historical continuity, to recognise that debates about the materiality (or not) of photography have recurred throughout its history. I guess this is where a contemporary consideration of ontology becomes useful – to rethink what we understand by the ontology of the photograph, or even if such an approach is useful.

In light of the overall theme, it seemed necessary to avoid purely textual responses abstracted from the matter in hand: the insistence on materiality seems to invite material responses that far from being an illustrations of a theoretical perspective instead perhaps complicate or question some of the assumptions made therein. The artists that we’ve invited explore the idea of photographic materiality in very different ways: some respond directly to the concepts raised within the texts, others, through the very making and materiality of their work, pose different questions.


Photography's New Materiality