[The text first appeared as part of issue 10 of Flusser Studies (flusserstudies.net), November, 2011]
Near the beginning of his justly celebrated essay Camera Lucida (Barthes 2000), Roland Barthes introduced a means of breaking the whole vast topic—photography-—into parts. He proposed three figures: the photographer (Operator), the one being photographed (Spectrum), and the viewer (Spectator). In keeping with the phenomenological purpose that informs this essay (arguably more palpably than in others of Barthes’s writings), these figures stand for three potentially distinct aspects, or forms of consciousness of photography. Barthes declared himself unable, on the grounds of insufficient experience, to enter into the first figure’s position, that of the photographer. He did have experience of the second—he had been photographed. His comments from this standpoint seem largely to confirm a view from the third position, however, namely that of the writer and reader of the essay, a receiver, judge, categorizer who is affected—or not—by photographs.
Near the beginning of his still under-celebrated essay “Die Geste des Fotografierens,” —“The Gesture of Photographing” — (Flusser 1991), Flusser, too, proposed to consider his topic through three figures, and in keeping with the phenomenological shape of his thought at all points, these three present potentially distinct ways of being conscious of photographing: the photographer, the photographed, and a third figure carefully observing what the first two are doing. As in Barthes’s essay, readers “see” the events mainly from the third position, that of the writer-observer. But Flusser and Barthes are not actually writing about the same thing. As Barthes is looking at photographs, Flusser is looking at photographing (the word is a gerund, marking an activity rather than a thing), a visible gesture. Flusser was hardly any more an actual photographer than Barthes was. But by framing his topic as a gesture, a particular kind of movement between states of consciousness and states of affairs, Flusser was able, in a way no other writer on photography has been, to take the photographer’s part.
Virtually all of the voices that have substantially shaped contemporary photographic “orthodoxy,” not only the historians, but critics, including Benjamin (1968), Barthes (1981), Sontag (1978), even Szarkowski (1966;1978) —an accomplished photographer—wrote as a receivers and judges of photographs, from the position Barthes designated the Spectator. Flusser did as well at some points, notably in Towards a Philosophy of Photography (Flusser 2000, 60). But even there, he provides space for a movement of thought, a potential shift or expansion of consciousness beyond that position. There is a passage in which he reflects on a photograph of the war in Lebanon, for example (Flusser 2000, 60). Flusser anticipates readers’ likely conclusion that the image has an ideological significance, then goes on to question the adequacy of any photograph to the construction of ideologies on the grounds that ideologies require linear, rational thought. He proposes instead that the photograph has a magical effect and draws an irrational response, probably below conscious awareness, that it suggests powerful, dangerous forces that need to be appeased (All of this would seem to be what Barthes set aside under the term studium, the ordinary perception and understanding of a photograph that anyone might have.). Flusser opens two distinct positions to the reader, that is, two that Flusser himself seems fully capable of appreciating, of temporarily sharing, even as he moves into yet another position, critical of the first two. In fact Flusser’s writing, in the “Gesture” essays and elsewhere, could well be understood as “shots” of specific objects in particular circumstances, views that not infrequently overlap, or show the same object from a very different angle, at a different scale, or in a set of relationships that may appear “inconsistent” with other shots, although in the context of photographs, alternative standpoints are more likely to draw positive commentary than a charge of inconsistency.
Flusser’s voice is distinctive among serious writers on photography in many ways, but I think above all for its recognition of the photographer as the writer’s peer, as someone who, like a philosopher, searches for a position with respect to objects in the world, tests it, perhaps returns, changes again. In “The Gesture of Photographing,” he quite explicitly compares the movements of a photographer around a chosen subject to “moves” of philosophical thought around a chosen object, that is, the setting up, testing, choosing from among various possible positions, points of view — the process any one of us might use to reflect on ourselves in relation to the world. He concludes that photographing is a gesture of seeing, what the ancient Greeks called theoria. Only for the really ancient Greeks, the visible gesture would have to have been speech, and for the slightly less ancient Greeks, writing; only we have the option of transforming, or translating the gesture without recourse to language—through the gesture of photographing.
Flusser does not explicitly say whether or how the images — photographs — that result from the gesture of photographing resemble more conventional written or spoken philosophy. In fact such a comparison would be inconsistent with his whole position with respect to photography. For such a comparison could only be made from the standpoint of the viewer (Barthes’s Spectator) regarding an object. Flusser rather treats it, as he treats any form of communication, as a distinctive gesture, gestures being configurations of material and movements through which thoughts move from inside to outside, from internal consciousness to perceptibility to others. He further sees each specific configuration—writing, drawing, filming, etc., as decisively shaping and limiting what can be thought in and through it. Photographs are acknowledged to share certain features with writing—particularly the stabilizing and preservation of a conceptual “move,” a thought, so that it can returned to some consciousness (not necessarily the photographer’s own,) in some other time and place. He recognized the “Sprunghaftigkeit,” (roughly, the “by-fits-and-starts-ness”) of photography, for example, the alternation of reflecting and recording, thinking and action, as common to all communicative gestures, including his own writing practice.
In Camera Lucida, Barthes repeatedly lends photographs a voice of resonant, authoritative assertion: this has been. The verb is present perfect: like a word in a sentence, the photograph has a place a continuum, a position in a linear chain of events. Flusser knows, acknowledges this way of understanding photographs: “… Most of us (including most photographers) are still caught up in historical, progressive, enlightened consciousness,” (Flusser 2002, 129), that is, an understanding that events have causes and effects, that the chain potentially stretches from the past moment of the photograph into the present. But he begs us to see photographs differently, as coming from, operating within a quite different universe, one more like a vast play of chance than an orderly chain of events. Photographs are, he says, realizations of specific possibilities within the camera’s program. Sometime he refers to them as projections into the future, sometimes as ritual instructions. Inasmuch as language remains serviceable at all for the purpose, Flusser’s photographs would not say “this has been”; perhaps they would speak in the future conditional: “If this is possible, I must…” And yet it takes a Spectator to make such an observation, to pursue the differences between the ways photographs encode relationships in space and time and the very different ways such relationships can be ordered in a sentence. Flusser probably would not have been very interested. Rather than the differences between things—even complex things like sentences and photographs; he reliably sought more exciting and potentially creative dialogues between gestures, responses, modes of awareness,.
Flusser’s writing on photography is dispersed in multiple sites in multiple languages, diverse in its contexts, quite probably contradictory and, as always, frustratingly undocumented. And yet all of these seem like trivial objections in light of
his singular gesture of reaching out, as a writer, into the photographer’s universe, acknowledging a world on the other side of a viewfinder and its value, in fact its critical importance to all of us. This theme of year’s annual meeting of the Association for Photography in Higher Education (APHE) was “The Burden of Photographic Theory.” It is an obvious reference to John Tagg’s important work (Tagg1988), but also an expression of frustration. For this is a community of educators who keep trying to introduce theoretical texts, in my view written almost entirely by Spectators, to young photographers who do not, on the whole, identify themselves as Spectators.
This year, as Flusser would have turned 90, we have no doubt advanced further toward the universe of technical images he forecast in the 1980s (Flusser 1985). Perhaps the young photographers are displaying, as he would have predicted, a growing impatience with writing as such, a tendency to find critical thought alien and irrelevant, a preference for surface over depth. Perhaps. But it seems at most part of the issue. In my experience, young artists and photographers will read and write critically if they can grasp the terms of engagement, if they can “translate” the writer’s situation into the conditions in which they themselves are living and working. Flusser’s texts, in themselves, rarely provide this: they are always very clear, but nevertheless very succinct and abstract, requiring some effort to fill in a working context. Still, in contrast to the many deservedly-respected, foundational texts that construct our current understanding of photography, Flusser opened a new channel to photographers—a channel through which to speak and listen, or more exactly, to see and picture their gesture as theory. Flusser has given no more than a sketch, a suggestion that such a gesture of translating could, should, go both directions, between verbal and visual universes. The rest is up to us.
Barthes, Roland (2000) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, London: Vintage. First published as La Chambre Claire, Paris: Edition du Seuil, 1980.
Benjamin, Walter (1968) “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” 217-252 in: Illuminations, New York: Schocken.
Flusser, Vilém.1983. Für eine Philosophie der Photographie, Göttingen: European Photography. Translated as Towards a Philosophy of Photography (2000) London: Reaktion
Flusser, Vilém.1985. Ins Universum der technischen Bilder, Göttingen: European Photography. This is forthcoming in my translation as Into the Universe of Technical Images, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.
Flusser, Vilém.1991. “Die Geste des Fotografierens,” 127-150 in: Gesten: Versuch einer Phänomenologie, Düsseldorf and Bensheim: Bollmann Verlag
Flusser, Vilém. 2002. “Photography and History,” 126-31 in Writings, Andreas Ströhl, editor, translated by Erik Eisel, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press
Sontag, Susan (1978) On Photography, London: Allen Lane.
Szarkowski, John.1978. Mirrors and Windows: American Photography since 1960, New York: The Museum of Modern Art
______________ .1966. The Photographer’s Eye, New York: The Museum of Modern Art
Tagg, John (1988) The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories, Houndmills: Basingstoke: Macmillan Education