Particular Points of Loss or Hope: Ecologies of the Road

American Fence, Prescott 2010 (Neil Campbell)

A whole history remains to be written of spaces – which would at the same time be the history of powers… – from the great strategies of geo-politics to the little tactics of the habitat …  It is surprising how long the problem of space took to emerge as a historico-political problem.  Space used to be either dismissed as belonging to “nature” – that is, the given, the basic conditions, “physical geography”, in other words a sort of “prehistoric” stratum; or else it was conceived as the residential site or field of expansion of peoples, of a culture, a language or a State. Continue reading


Michael Ormerod as critical regionalist

‘Drugs’ © Michael Ormerod

Some time ago I wrote a long (unpublished) essay on the work of Michael Ormerod for a number of exhibitions of his work in the UK and one in Omaha, Nebraska. I write about him in my book The Rhizomatic West (2008) alongside Nick Waplington and Andrew Cross as UK photographers whose works investigate and interrogate the American West.  Certainly in my earliest essays on Michael’s work I had no sense of critical regionalism as a method or approach to the kinds of interests his work articulates.  With hindsight it works very well to explore the local/global, rural/urban, inside/outside.  Some of this comes out in the 2008 book. But I publish here the raw original essay – full of ‘leaks’ and lines of flight.  One day I’d like to return to the artist and do something with all this.  For now I offer it as a tribute to Ormerod’s immense achievement as a photographer.  Continue reading

critical regionalism and photography

Photography and place are intimately connected.  The regional is crucial to so much photographic practice, particularly in relation to the American West (my concern here). Thinking about photography and place, about the regional within the image is a dimension easily overlooked:

‘Ultimately, Photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks’ (Barthes 1993.:38)

Bakhtin shared with another key thinker, Roland Barthes, a dislike of the reductive and an interest in the plural and the multiple.  Barthes wrote of ‘a desperate resistance to any reductive system’ (Barthes  1993:8). He is troubled by photography’s contradictions and attempts to work through them in Camera Lucida (1980), which recognizes that, for example, photographs are ‘the absolute Particular’ and ‘the sovereign Contingency’, with every image  ‘ballasted by the contingency of which it is the weightless, transparent envelope’ (ibid.:5).  They purport to show the world as it is, to point the finger, as he puts it, at ‘this’ or ‘that’, and yet there is more, for ‘photographs are signs which don’t take, which turn, as milk does.  Whatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see’ (ibid.:6).  Every image ‘curdles’, to pursue Barthes’ image, goes off into something else, something different and ‘beyond’ the immediate reference point of the first sight, and something ‘invisible’ is implied. 

The ‘particular’ nature of the photograph can suggest ‘contingency’ too, since ‘the object speaks, it induces us, vaguely, to think … reflect, suggest [..] a meaning – a different meaning from the literal one. Ultimately, Photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks’ (ibid.:38).  Thus, out of and through the apparently fixed (reduced) frame of the motionless photographic image that only shows what is in front of the lens, comes other voices (‘the object speaks’) that encourage reflection, suggestion and thought.

Homage to Robert Frank, 2011 (Neil Campbell)

Barthes implies, however, that photography was often unthinking or ‘unary’ when it ‘transforms “reality” without doubling it, without making it vacillate … [with] no duality, no indirection, no disturbance’ (Barthes 1993:41).  Thus the ‘unary’ image is an image without disturbance, with ‘no punctum’ and so no shock, only able to ‘shout’ not to ‘wound’, and thus tending to the ‘banal’ with an emphasis upon ‘unity of composition’ (ibid.).  For Barthes, the ‘punctum’ was in the ‘detail’ whose ‘presence changes my reading’ by interruption, puncturing the system of representation, skewing the ‘frame’ until the image is no longer ‘docile’ (ibid.:49), but active in the mind of the viewer, shifting the ‘unary’ towards the ‘dialogical’ (or ‘doubling’, as Barthes has called it) through the ‘power of expansion’ (ibid.:45). As an anti-reductive element, the effect of the punctum is to represent the ‘second sight’ of the photographer – the actual fact of ‘being there’ to take the image and to set in train the dynamic relations between viewer and viewed (ibid.:47). As Barthes states, ‘the reading of the punctum … is at once brief and active’ and yet in the photograph ‘everything is given, without provoking the desire for or even the possibility of a rhetorical expansion’, suggesting that the image is always a closed field, contained within its frame.  Of course, in a material sense it is, since the image is single, hemmed in by the edges of the frame, capturing an event, moment, person or object in time, in space, and so the ‘rhetorical expansion’ cannot take place within the actual image itself, as with the written page that simply moves on and adds more words for the reader to follow.  But Barthes’ argument suggests that despite the photograph’s apparent ‘intense immobility’ (ibid.:49), it has the capacity nonetheless to ‘move’ the viewer in a number of ways.  Firstly, because the image, he writes, ‘worked within me’ ‘when the photograph is no longer in front of me and I think back on it’ (ibid.: 53), touching the viewer as ‘affective consciousness’ (ibid.:55), and secondly, because the punctum ‘is an addition: it is what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there’ (ibid.).  This ‘work’, ‘affectiveness’ and ‘addition’ combine to create what Barthes terms ‘the presence (the dynamics) of this blind field’, where the ‘blind field’ is that which exists in an image once the punctum engages our senses, and ‘constantly doubles our partial vision’, shattering the apparent motionlessness of the photograph, unfreezing it by suggesting all that exists in relation to and beyond the singular, first (partial) sight.  Barthes argues that the punctum ‘takes the spectator outside its frame, and it is there that it animates me’ as a ‘subtle beyond’, a space in which the ‘dynamics’ of the image, which by its very material, physical nature is static, are created from the interaction and dialogue of the spectator and the photograph (ibid.:57-9).

Barthes’ term punctum relates very closely to an earlier essay ‘The Third Meaning’ (1970) in which he explains beyond the levels of ‘information/communication’ and ‘symbolic/signification’ there exists a ‘third meaning – evident, erratic, obstinate’ which ‘cannot be conflated’ and ‘exceeds’ the ‘referential motif’ of the image itself and ‘compels an interrogative reading’ (Barthes 1979:53).  He also calls this ‘third meaning’ ‘obtuse’, ‘the one “too many”, the supplement that my intellection cannot succeed in absorbing, at once persistent and fleeting, smooth and elusive’ (ibid.:54).  As Ann Jefferson writes, it ‘bursts out of the frame’ (in Hirschkop and Shepherd 1989:172) thereby aligning Barthes punctum with Bakhtin’s carnival:

It has something derisory about it: opening out into the infinity of language, it can come through as limited in the eyes of analytic reason; it belongs to the family of pun, buffoonery, useless expenditure.  Indifferent to moral or aesthetic categories (the trivial, the futile, the false, the pastiche), it is on the side of the carnival (Barthes 1979:55).

Suddenly, the photographic text over-flows the ‘real’ frame becoming more than its ‘obvious meaning’: ‘It sets the reader in motion, casts him loose; in short, it launches him into carnival’ (Jefferson in Hirschkop and Shepherd 1989: 173). Photographic ‘thirding’, as we might term it, to borrow a word from Edward Soja (1996), can be seen ‘as an accent, the very form of an emergence, of a fold (a crease even)’ acting as ‘a counter-narrative’ (Barthes 1979:62-3) ‘to counter the doxa and open up representations’ (Jefferson 173).