⁞ Photography as a medium for analizing capitalist practices ⁞

m197202490042Oscar Gustave Rejlander, Temps difficiles, 1860, épreuve à l’albumine argentique.

What follows is an excerpt (the Conclusion) of Daniel A. Novak‘s article “Labors of Likeness: Photography and Labor in Marx’s Capital“, published in Criticism, 2007, Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 125 – 150.

Reading Marx alongside the discourse of nineteenth-century photography demonstrates that Marx’s theory of the fragmented and abstract laboring body — a body of value rendered “like” all other bodies — was part of a larger cultural conversation about technology and the body, “likeness” and individuality, identity and exchange. This conversation was not only carried out by philosophers and theorists but also by a wide variety of people and in a variety of formats — from the street to the studio. Along the same lines, it also becomes clear that photography is not simply a “secretion,” symptom, or even agent of capitalist practices. Instead, those in the business of photographic production (many of those who wrote on photography were photographers themselves) were responsible for theorizing how visual technology produced forms of alienation and abstraction. In this context, while Marx uses the tropes of this conversation for a far-reaching and consciously radical critique, his reading of the body in the age of mechanical reproduction is not in itself radical.

artistsrifles02Oscar Gustave Rejlander, double self-portrait, 1872-73.

At the same time, Marx’s theory of a laboring body that seemingly exists beyond the contingencies and limits of the biological is best understood in the context of photographic discourse and technology. This body seems out of place in Scarry’s, Cvetkovich’s, and even Marx’s own narrative of physical pain and economic exploitation. Yet the laborer’s status as a laborer in the first place is based on what I have argued is a form of photographic reproducibility in three ways. First, Marx conceives of labor power as at once a form of “objective” visual reproduction, produced in advance of the laboring process (as a form of advertising) and at the end (as an abstract body of value). In other words, labor can only be sold in the first place as a reproduction and as an embodiment of reproducibility. Second, both the laborer’s body and the reproduction of that body have value only if the reproduction is an abstract “likeness” — a “homogeneous” or “congealed” set of exchangeable values. In this sense, “objectivity” (in terms of quantification) and abstraction are aligned. Finally, Marx makes clear that the laborer’s reproduction of himself or herself as “labor power” is not impaired by the deterioration of the laborer’s “real” body. In terms of commodity production, he or she exists as both a virtual and a reproducible body. That is, Marx posits an impossible or “sublime” body as the foundation of the economic system he analyzes.

7-Henry-Peach-Robinson-1830-1901-des 1852 stt 1857-Fading-Away-1858Henry Peach Robinson, Fading away (Le Dernier souffle), 1858, épreuve à l’albumine (combinaison de cinq négatifs).

By reading Capital in the context of photography, we can see that Marx does not simply critique bourgeois, objective, or “empirical” forms of vision. Instead, his critique of commodity production is surprisingly aligned with a medium that many view as the embodiment of bourgeois vision and empiricism. Yet in the nineteenth century, photography and its “objectivity” were already being theorized in terms that both anticipate and help to explain Marx. In both photography and Capital, “objectivity” is already associated with what appears to be its opposite — effacement of individuality and abstraction. Moreover, Marx’s seemingly invincible laborer most closely resembles the infinitely reproducible photographic “subject.” One can read the laborer’s ability to reproduce himself or herself indefinitely and without return as a photographic talent — a negative capability. In order to sell his or her labor, the laborer has to visually represent the image of labor power he or she would produce. And in order to participate in the economy, in order to reproduce labor power, the worker must be capable of an infinite and abstract self-reproduction. Like the photographic negative, the laborer must be able to produce an infinite number of self-portraits in perfect condition, despite the increasingly imperfect condition of the “original” laboring body. To put it another way, unsightly laboring bodies reproduce a body of value that always remains productively photogenic. In this sense (to borrow a phrase from Stanley Cavell), “what photography calls thinking” is essential for fully understanding Marx’s own “thinking” in Capital.

shalotthenrypeachrobinsonHenry Peach Robinson, La Dame de Shalott, 1860-1861, épreuve à l’albumine (combinaison de deux ou trois négatifs).

┐ Laurie Kang, multiple folds and a print └

IMG_9213sm© Laurie Kang, Untitled, C-print, 2013

Untitled04sm_905© Laurie Kang, Untitled form (Sufficiency), Chromogenic paper, clamp, nail, 2012

RES01_905© Laurie Kang, Untitled Forms (Sufficiency) Chromogenic paper, nail, clamp and C-print, nail, clamp, 2013

01psychogeography© Laurie Kang, Psychogeographic Waterfall, C-prints, 16″ x 20″, 2011

full01SM_905_905© Laurie Kang, Confused archive, 2013

IMG_9246sm_905© Laurie Kang, Natural Image (Unknown duration, Found paper and binder’s board, 2013

Laurie’s website here

┐ A discussion worth having └

Back at the SIP blog, Rotem Rozental posted about Richard Benari and Lauren Henkin’s collaborative project about the nature of photography. Their work, their questions, could be the starting point of a discussion always worth having.
On their site, Richard Benari and Lauren Henkin made available some audio files where you can listen to them talking about essential questions concerning photography (though these are very very short and subjective ideas, don’t expect to hear something ground-breaking). Lauren and Richard talk about Influences and abstraction in photography, Creating Pictures and materiality, Removing narrative in photography, Influences, Minimalism, The importance of the print and Seriality.

BenariHenkin_Pictures_Image6© Richard Benari and Lauren Henkin, Pictures

As photography has matured into its own artistic medium, narrative has become the conceptual foundation on which most work is created. The act of viewing an image is no longer sufficient. Content has been replaced by context. More and more, photographers, gallerists and critics insist on story. Images have become testimony and photographers, witnesses. The photographic object itself has become evidence. Most photography now sets out to answer questions while other artistic mediums set out to raise them.

We began this project by asking what photography can achieve in the absence of narrative. We wanted to know if the essential language of light, texture and tone was enough to hold the viewer. It wasn’t. What was missing was the artist’s hand, the photographer’s eye. We set out to push the camera beyond its natural tendency for pure representation and investigate its capacity to convey the artist’s expressive mark.

Rejecting the current trend toward the accidental in photographic abstraction, Pictures reasserts the photographer’s eye. Authority and indexicality are explored through the artists’s rendering of abstraction in the recognizable, the everyday. By pairing large landscapes of the familiar with small studio constructions of household materials, the photographers reaffirm the sensual power of form. Scale and reference are ambiguous. Narrative is removed. The images are disorienting. They challenge the viewer to rethink old habits of seeing.

BenariHenkin_Pictures_Image4© Richard Benari and Lauren Henkin, Pictures

Pictures is as much about the object as it is about deep looking. The subtly of the tonal shifts and the way the prints annex the ambient light in which they’re viewed helps argue for the uniquely tactile quality of the photographic print and how important it is to the viewing experience. Careful split-toning, combined with the artists’ decision to print on etching rag, renders the image in an almost three-dimensional way. The tension between the flatness of the compositions and the three-dimensional feel of the prints helps to hold the viewer, encouraging a long and quiet engagement.

┐ Lena Amuat & Zoë Meyer, a thing for scientif design └

mathe_modellnr5_© Lena Amuat & Zoë Meyer, Mathematisches Modell Nr.5, 2010

zoe%26lena_9zoe%26lena_3zoe%26lena_5© Lena Amuat & Zoë Meyer, Artefakte und Modelle, 2009-12

“Lena Amuat and Zoë Meyer have won the Swiss Federal Design Award for their project ‘Artefakte und Modelle’. As the title suggests, in this project the two photographers look at scientific models through the lens of art. These are models conceived as a way of arriving at new insights by varying the method of visualisation or by reshaping or using a different type of measurement. The artists are interested in the images of reality conveyed by the models and in the extent to which aesthetic processes are involved in the creation of knowledge.

The capture of reality through mimicry, reproduction, conservation and measurement, and the opposition between reality and fiction: these are the themes that interest Lena Amuat and Zoë Meyer in this project. The process of investigation and the play of perceptions are also at its centre. Viewers of these mostly large-format photographs find themselves confronted with a puzzle. What do the pictures represent? Do they show real objects, or abstract forms? Were they created by computer, or painted with a brush? Is the background really there, or was it added in afterwards?

The two photographers use various media to modify the pictures, trying to rethink the scientific angles from an artistic point of view. They see their work as a subjective pictorial archive that is constantly being expanded. It is always given a site-specific spatial arrangement and presentation concept.

An older work by Lena Amuat and Zoë Meyer is concerned with objects confiscated by Swiss customs. They use their precise pictorial vocabulary to reproduce illegal souvenirs in the form of stuffed animal heads, occult masks and fur coats. These photographs are also part of the two artists’ image archive and are presented alongside the artworks from ‘Artefakte und Modelle’ (in a presentation that varies depending on the exhibition location). The result: multifaceted installations whose quiet motifs absorb and touch the viewer.” source: Swiss Federal Design Awards

Their work can be seen here

┐ William Miller └

@ William Miller, NRuined Polaroid #45

@ William Miller, Ruined Polaroid #50

“I think think that this project was more of a realization than an idea. I bought this old Polaroid SX-70 camera at a yard sale two summers ago. Right away I realized the camera wasn’t functioning properly. It sometimes spilled out 2 pictures at a time and the film would often get stuck in the gears, exposing and mangling it in unpredictable ways.


It turned out the camera just couldn’t produce good photos, but that’s when Miller had an idea to work with that. “Before long I was participating in its process, collaborating with it,” he says.


Ruined Polaroids is the series that emerges, a series of, well, ruined Polaroids that have lovely abstract colors and textures that paint a subtle aesthetic. The results are unpredictable, but Miller harnesses that into foreign landscapes and abstractions. It’s a great way to remix an a nonfunctioning analogue tool and to find a new function: art.


“What I find most appealing with the Ruined Polaroids project,” he said, “is that in this age of digital photography I’m taking this technology from the 70s and through a process making it look like paintings from the 40s.”

excerpt from article by An Xiao taken from Hyperallergic

More of Miller’s work here

┐ Noel Rodo-Vankeulen └

@ Noel Rodo-Vankeulen, hood, from the series Flower City (work in progress)

@ Noel Rodo-Vankeulen, gray, from the series Flower City (work in progress)

@ Noel Rodo-Vankeulen, twin, from the series Flower City (work in progress)

In Flower City I’m focusing on the area where I live (Brampton, Ontario), a relative nowhere city transformed by a failed greenhouse industry, as a stand in for photographic experience. I’m really interested in how the medium functions as both art and photography, specifically how these two distinct aspects of a greater whole can alter and mediate what we see.
For the whole series I’ve worked with a large format camera and shot everything on black and white film, making the body of work a cryptic play not only on the ambiguous nature of photography itself, but showing the medium’s specific nature of looking. There is something archaic in using a 4×5 camera and how it can render basic and minimal compositions of people, places and objects as almost alien or distanced. In this respect I’ve specifically chosen to photograph subjects that range the gamut from quasi-exotic to the completely mundane. I’m interested in how these two extremes can have the same presence and become almost mythologized or iconic.

excerpt from Mossless magazine

More of Noel’s work here