Let us forget the word photography for a short time, at least while absorbing the pages of the five highlighted portfolios. I will explain why. With the prefix of the Greek phos (φῶς) or photos (φωτός) for light, followed by the suffix of the verb graphein (γράφει) for writing, photography as an all-embracing term suggests that light can write. However light, as physical agent, cannot be ascribed such human activity. Or can it? Henri van Lier helps us in his Philosophy of Photography (1983) by suggesting an alternative. A photograph to him is strictly an effect: Photo-effect. Effect-photo (2007 : 20). It is the physical result of a photosensitive material being affected by light and in return has, as image and object, effect on us viewers, which I will elaborate towards the end of this focus chapter. I am aware that since Sir John Herschel introduced the term ‘photography’ in his lecture on March 14, 1839 at the Royal Society of London and thereby to the world, the word photography is irrevocably ‘graphed’ in our minds. For now, I simply stick to the well-known abbreviation: photo.
The excitement caused by Sir Herschel’s particular invention was less about the discovery that something magical happens when light hits certain materials, this had caught the attention already far before the nineteenth century. His discovery was rather about how to fix these images. He found that sodium thiosulfate was a perfect solvent of silver halides. Silver halides are the little particles spread throughout the gelatine layer on photographic film and paper, which are sensitive to light and are crucial for creating an image. When exposed to light, the silver halides turn into silver and form the dark parts on the negative or print. The non-exposed halides need to be washed away in order to reveal the ‘empty’ or white parts in between. Because halides continue being susceptible to light if not removed by Herschel’s panacea, the whole image would otherwise soon vanish into black oblivion. He therefore introduced an essential agent in the photo process for the sake of permanence. But as chemical reactions precede any analogue photo, it continues being highly sensitive (and with that, unpredictable) to external factors throughout its lifespan (which is the most prominent concern for contemporary preservation technologies in museums and other photography collections). Unlike its digital counterpart, the analogue remains in a process of becoming rather than a state of being. The digital image file does not age by itself. It simply is once the button is pushed or ticked (and is not if the same finger consecutively deletes it). The programs and devices with which to handle this immaterial file change, but being fed with software updates or replaced by new hardware they keep pace supporting the eternal file. If ‘untouched’ it can fly in the ether in (between) clouds without ever changing its content; the physical appearance of the digital photo though varies always according to its device.
Transience is an intrinsic and accepted feature in almost every photo, which holds and shows us a fraction of a passed moment. Its subject matter refers naturally to the passing of time and metaphorically to our own mortality. Anca Cristofovici argues in her book Touching Surfaces: Photographic Aesthetics, Temporality, Aging (2009) that the photographic medium is able to construct visual analogies to inner psychic experiences by illuminating the reciprocal relations between photography and ageing. A photo of ourselves underlines that we are evenly subject to transcendent physical processes.
Apparently, there is an intrinsically human urge to freeze aspects of our fleeting life in order to extend its singularity. This urge is equally present in preserving photos through reproduction (a questionable paradox in current conservation practices, when artists want their work to be reprinted) as in preserving ourselves through digital imaging technology and other (future) inventions. The two highly acclaimed photographers Thomas Ruff and Rineke Dijkstra decided for instance for some of their works (in collaboration with the collectors/ collections) to reproduce chromogenic colour prints of works which they made in the 1990s either through the totally different technique of the inkjet print or still as chromogenic photo but with the technological means and papers of today. I argue that a change of material evenly changes the artwork and eventually influences its meaning production. A discoloration of the image, which is over the years likely to happen to a colour chromogenic print, is a big troublemaker for both photographers and (museum) collections. In case of these two artists, the works I encountered were portraits of people made in the nineties with the correlating fashion looks of that particular period. The typical red discolouration, a total fading and/or the vanishing of the blue tints in these photos are to anyone recognizable who has albums at home from the seventies, eighties or nineties. The ageing of the material carries a human note in reflecting visually a similar natural process. Both material and image tell the same story: the passing of lifetime. A reproduction makes the photo schizophrenic: historic content fashioned in a flat contemporary outward. Luckily, the science for reproducing our own bodies while maintaining our soul, character, talents, good and bad habits, and alike is not yet as far as the technologies offered for photos.
Here, the recent graduation work Absence of Existence by Phelim Hoey (b. 1984) comes to mind in which he portrayed cryonicists and other people who wish to be (cryo)preserved after their death. The portrayed contract companies in the United States like Alcor and CI that will keep them under extreme cold conditions for an indefinite period of time after legal death. Clients of Alcor and CI share a hope that future science will gain the insights to revive them and offer them an (immortal) continuation of life in better health. The way in which Hoey as an artist ‘preserves’ these persons on photos is rather peculiar. He collaborated with synthetic biologist Chris Voigt who manipulates cells in order to fight diseases and with that, to extend our lives. Voigt offered him a modified E.coli bacteria to which he had added a photosensitive gene extracted from a photosynthesizing blue-green algae. In brief, Hoey used this modified light sensitive bacteria, suspended in flat glass petri dishes, and exposed them to create portraits of the cryonicists. These bacterial living photos are now stored in the cooling cells of the laboratory at Wageningen University in the Netherlands as after exposure they were not allowed to leave this safe space. Their images float in the digital. Maybe another way to extend and prolong the lifespan of the photographed and the photos, both spatially and in terms of time. Generations after us shall see if bacterias survive the pixel.
One of Hoey’s photos reminds me of Sir Herschel’s iconic Albumen silver print portrait made from a glass negative in 1867 by Julia Margaret Cameron. 150 years old, it is kept in the dark and cooled storage of the National Portrait Gallery in London. It is the men’s similar concerned expression on their faces rising out of the dark background that might lead to my association with one and another. But the visual edges of the photosensitive emulsions represented in the upper part of both photos are evenly responsible for my déjà-vu. In Herschel’s portrait we see that Cameron did not apply the emulsion of egg white (the albumen) entirely over the whole glass plate, or that the emulsion of the glass negative had been abraded along the edges before the albumen paper was exposed to it. By contrast in the portrait made by Hoey, the ruptures of the bacterial emulsion reveal the image carrier, the petri glass and no material signs of the image’s negative.
The Visible and the Invisible
Light in the context of photos is both creative (for their genesis) and destructive (for their decay). To this dichotomy we can add the somewhat philosophical but poignant characterization of light in the introduction of Textures of Light: Vision and Touch in Irigaray, Levinas and Merleau-Ponty (2002) by Catheryne Vasseleu: ”It is neither visible nor invisible, neither metaphoric nor metaphysical. It is both the language and material of visual practices, or the invisible interweaving of differences which form the fabric of the visible” (2002: 12). The photo, as result of the transformation of light into matter, acts as a bridge between the invisible and the visible. By relying on the agency of silver particles, which are invisible to human sight, an immanent part of the photo’s matter and process is hidden to us. The photo is a chemical cosmos on its own; susceptive to light, temperature, chemicals, and the un(fore)seen. French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, known for his phenomenology of perception, approached the unseen by establishing a phenomenology of the imaginary and the hidden in his unfinished work Le Visible et l’Invisible (1964). Referring for instance to meaning as invisible he did not consider it as opposite of the visible. If anything, the visible itself has “a membrane of the invisible, and the in-visible is the secret part of the visible […] we can see it therein, yet all efforts to see it make it vanish” (emphasis in original 1964: 269). By dissecting the photo, we will not dismantle the magic ingredient that causes our affection and fascination for this medium since its inception. However we cannot ignore a certain metaphysical undertone of this transformative process when various substances eventually create an image in the black box of the camera and the darkroom.
Closeted in the darkened space, the mystery of latent images becoming actual photos is seldom accessible to us, who only face the final fixed result. Van Lier characterizes it therefore as “the most vivacious experience of what physicists call the black box, where one can clearly perceive the entrance (input) and the exit (output), without ever knowing quite well what takes place between the two” (Van Lier 2007 : 38). The English artist Ryan L. Moule extends this black box into the exhibition space by either presenting his black and white photos framed under UV-filtered glass or by exchanging all light sources with red bulbs. The exposure of his unfixed photos is slowed down but still continues while we look at his work. Moule consciously did not use Herschel’s panacea, so his images gradually will move towards total darkness. It becomes a meditation on temporality of the material, the image, and life. The momentum of the encounter between his photos and the viewer is all there is.
Touching the unspeakable
Why do the ‘photo-effects’ in the portfolios of August Strindberg, Sylvia Ballhause, Khadija Saye, BOWNIK, and Sam Falls affect us in turn? They touch us in an unpredictable manner which I argue, points out the way in which they came into being. The physical process can be felt when looking at them. By embracing the malleability of photos due to external factors, the artists make space for a more inclusive view on life, afterlife, and the transcendent. The changing matter of the analogue material coincides then with nature’s relentless progression. Coming with that these works evaporate a kind of material immediacy. They touch us through their genesis as well as through their receptive ‘exposedness’.
The act of touching seems rather abstract when light particles hit the surface of the print or when chemical solutions envelope and infiltrate the exposed. But the photo as a remnant is a trace and a trace is in any case tactile, as Margaret Olin, states in her book Touching Photographs (2012). She also suggests that the indexical power of photos may lie less in the relation between the photo and what is pictured, but rather in the relation between the photo and its beholder, an ‘index of identification’. What and how the portfolios trigger us is nearly impossible to be described. Jennifer Fisher, scholar in aesthetics of non-visual senses, tried to conceptualize a haptic aesthetic in her article ‘Tactile Affects’ (2002). She uses this sensory aesthetic in order to “[…] clarify the unspeakable realms of the non-discursive and non-representational” (2002: 21). To her, the aesthetic experience is comprised of other modalities next to the visual, of which haptic sense inhabits a crucial role. Fisher speaks in her concluding paragraph of the haptic engaging with the space in-between as the locus of affect and becoming (2002: 27). The material photo is per definition this ‘locus of affect and becoming’, at least when considering that the image magically and/or chemically rises from plain paper ground. Besides that, the haptic aspect of these photos suggests that we can hold onto the unspeakable, mysterious and ungraspable for a second. Especially the abstract photos in the portfolios heighten our sensibility to the haptic features of the often non-represented photographic process and material. They picture the unspeakable: the photo affective.