Experimental Geographies

"There is tenderness only in the coarsest demand: that no-one shall go hungry any more" – Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia (1974: 156)

Rethinking the Photographic Image

I’ve slowly begun to think about a book-length project which tracks the relationship between landscape and contemporary photographic practice. Such a project will undoubtedly have to come to terms with a growing scholarly interest in the philosophical stakes underwriting what the art historian Michael Fried (2008) has recently dubbed the “new art photography” (3). Indeed, Fried’s own challenging (if deeply frustrating) book on the subject has brought a new awareness and sensitivity to the status of photography as an ontological medium. I will have more to say about Fried’s book Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before in a later post. For the time being, I would like to briefly flag up a recent article in the journal Radical Philosophy (July/August 2009 issue) on the photographic image by Jacques Rancière. I’ve often found Rancière’s recent work on aesthetics both provocative and unsatisfying though there is much to recommend in this piece. In particular, I want to single out his understanding of photography’s aesthetic indeterminacy which Rancière adopts via Kant’s formulation of the “aesthetic idea” as it is set out in the Critique of Judgement. For Kant such an idea represents a “presentation of the imagination which prompts much thought, but to which no determinate thought whatsoever, i.e. no [determinate] concept can be adequate” (Kant, 1987 [1790]: 182). Rancière suggests that the aesthetic idea is in fact an indeterminate idea that inhabits the gap between the “intentional production of art which seeks an end, and the sensible experience of beauty as finality without end” (2009: 15). This is, according to Rancière, very much a condition that is explored by contemporary photographic practice. If Rancière sees a form of artistic “indifference” at work here, it is one that is capable – by its very nature – of neutralizing social and artistic hierarchies. As he points out, we don’t ultimately know what aesthetic intentions shaped an image such as Walker Evans’s photograph of a kitchen in a farm in Alabama. “The photo,” writes Rancière, “does not say whether it is art or not…It tells us neither what the person who laid the planks and cutlery in this manner had in mind nor what the photographer wanted to do” (2009: 15). While this may plausibly be seen as a form of dispossession and decontextualization, it is also tantamount, if we believe Rancière to a form of radical equivalence between the subjects of art.  Much more can be said in this respect though it certainly highlights for me a potential for rethinking a wide body of photographic work in terms of a radically common set of aesthetic precepts. How this might change the way in which we attend to the photographic image is, however, a project that still remains to be written.


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This entry was posted on July 11, 2009 by in Art, Photography, Theory/Criticism and tagged , .
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