Experimental Geographies

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

Photographic Portraiture

Art is concerned with the difficult and the good.

                                                -Goethe, Elective Affinities


I missed the Deutsche Börse photography show when it was in London at the Photographer’s Gallery so I was excited to find out that it is now showing in Berlin at the C/O gallery at the old Postamt on Oranienburgerstrasse. The show in no way disappointed and both Paul Graham and Tod Papageorge’s work stood out. At the same time, the show was, in some way, overshadowed by the much larger Visions of our Time gig featuring 10 years of photography at the Deutsche Börse. The list of ‘protagonists’ was virtually self-selecting and included Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld, Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth, Barbara Klemm, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Rineke Dijkstra, Beate Gütshow, Sebastião Salgado, and Beat Streuli.

For some reason, I’ve found it hard since the show to shake Thomas Ruff’s blank and deliberately expressionless photographs of friends and acquaintances. They have always troubled me and I’ve never quite been able to express what my dissatisfaction with them has been. I’ve always found their large format ‘to-be-seeness’ somewhat disingenuous and false. Alienating but without any form of mediation. Surprisingly, it is a passage in Goethe’s Elective Affinities which offers perhaps a modest point of purchase on what I have in mind here. It is a brief excerpt from Ottilie’s journal (itself a mediation on art as a ‘form of life’) on the nature of painterly portraiture:

“You are never satisfied with a portrait of people you know; which is why I have always felt sorry for portrait painters. You rarely ask the impossible, but that is what you ask of them. They are supposed to incorporate into their portrait everyone’s feelings towards the subject, everyone’s likes and dislikes; they are supposed to show, not merely how they see a particular person, but how everyone would see them. I am not surprised when such artists gradually grow insensitive, indifferent and self-willed” (164).

While the very nature of photography may magnify the kind of ‘indifference’ expressed by Ottilie, there is something about Ruff’s images that, in the words of Ottilie’s aunt Charlotte,  “[do] point to something distant and departed and remind [us of] how hard it is to do justice to the present” (160). Maybe this is why to parphrase Ruff’s own words I ultimately find it hard to simply accept these pictures as pictures. If anything, I would argue that something of Theodor Adorno’s telling reading of the disappearance of essence in appearance is made palpably manifest in these photographs. In their large-scale positivity, they dissolve and dissimulate what is meant to pass as a form of strict realism. This isn’t art, pace Nietzsche, in which “the lie hallows itself” or where the “will to deception has good conscience on its side.”


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This entry was posted on July 20, 2009 by in Art, Contemporary Practice, Photography and tagged , , , , .
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