Between The Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics
David Levi Strauss
Between The Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics
One Sunday morning I opened the New York Times Magazine and encountered a full two-page photograph of a refugee camp in Burundi. The image hit me like a sudden, terrible, hot gust of wind. Despite the glossy magazine format, the photograph felt enormous, monumental, and it was at once lushly beautiful, smoldering, and tragic. Low to the ground and wide-angled, the image encompassed countless thousands: Mothers, children, soldiers, ragged victims, and fleeing killers, all of them there with random possessions, cooking fires, and makeshift shelters in a clearing in the dense jungle. There was a caption, of course, and a long accompanying article, but the image itself had an irreducible singularity which did not so much represent conditions in the camp as broadly allegorize a complex human catastrophe: It had the presence and weight of a painting. The photograph was taken by Sebastião Salgado.
Several years later, I saw Alfredo Jaar’s installation Lament for the Images, that is in many ways a coda to his Rwanda project. In an austere and otherwise empty corridor were three texts, all written by David Levi Strauss and reprinted in his new book Between The Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics: one on Nelson Mandela’s inability to cry, one on Bill Gates’s purchase and entombment in a limestone mine of the world’s largest collection of historical photographs, and one on the U.S. government’s lease on all available satellite images of Afghanistan. At the far end of the hall, the viewer turned sharply and was literally scorched by a blinding rectangle of light that seemed at once to erase the possibility of images altogether and to be the absolute nothingness that underlies the images we are bombarded with day after day. In journalism, images are often a source of confusion, making it difficult to read text with precision; here the radical absence of images set the texts about images in stark relief.
The essays brought together in Between The Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics, which also features an impassioned preface by John Berger, are by turns poetic, analytical, and courageously speculative. Levi Strauss’s aesthetic politics might be thought of as a dialogue between Salgado’s transfiguration of the documentary photograph and Jaar’s austere and often ferocious withholding of the static image.
It is perhaps the fate of the photograph to always in some sense denote the world, but there is a crucial distinction between denoting and representing: Representation makes the ambiguous subjective demand on the beholder that he or she grasp what is in the image. The illuminating first essay in Between The Eyes, “The Documentary Debate: Aesthetic Or Anaesthetic,” implicitly addresses this issue. Salgado’s beautiful and harrowing images of famine victims, mine workers, and refugee camps have frequently been accused of aestheticizing his tragic subject matter, producing photographs that are politically inert if not actually exploitative. Levi Strauss compellingly unmasks the dangerous opposition between the aesthetic and the authentic in the politics of documentary photography that such criticisms take for granted. “To represent is to aestheticize; that is, to transform,” Levi Strauss writes. And at the end of the same paragraph, writing about the purpose of representation, he continues: “To become legible to others, these imaginings must be socially and culturally encoded. That is aestheticization.” In another essay on the work of Salgado, “Epiphany of The Other,” Levi Strauss notes the astonishing dignity and defiance Salgado’s images confer upon those dying of starvation in the Ethiopian famine of 1984. Human dignity in the face of appalling suffering is not information mechanically transmitted by an apparatus; it requires art, an art honed over the past 600 years of painting and sculpture.
Salgado’s photographs often strongly resonate with the paintings of the great masters, like Bosch, Zurbarán, and Goya, among others, and this has, I suspect, been a source of resentment, as though the transcendent and reflective values embodied in those registers of composition were inherently reactionary and untruthful, at odds with concrete political reality. But the political force of photographic images surely depends not upon their having a literal, unmediated relationship with the world, even if that were possible, but upon what those images do to the viewer—what beliefs, ideas, and emotions they inspire. In “Photography and Propaganda,” by contrast, Levi Strauss explores the ways in which the work of celebrated photojournalists Richard Cross and John Hoagland, both of whom died covering the U.S.-funded guerilla wars in Central America in the mid-1980s, can unwittingly serve the ends of propaganda in the pages of publications like Time Magazine and Newsweek. Levi Strauss adopts French writer Jacques Ellul’s broad understanding of propaganda as “an enterprise for perverting the significance of events.” This is, I think, a useful working definition of propaganda, for it places emphasis on the meaning of events rather than on their bare factuality. Given the contemporary illusion that photographs are more objective than words, that they can be used as “objective quotes,” photographic images would seem especially prone to being co-opted as propaganda. Levi Strauss analyzes the impact of the context in which Cross’s and Hoagland’s photographs were presented in magazines, often placed alongside glossy full-page advertisements: an image of a marching rebel beside an ad for tourism in the U.S. Virgin Islands, nuns murdered by death squads in El Salvador beside low-tar cigarettes. “In this equation,” Levi Strauss writes of the grisly layout, “the horror of the event in El Salvador is thus reduced to the communicative level of an advertisement, while the new cigarette is inflated into ‘news’ as part of the ‘enterprise for perverting the significance of events.’” Levi Strauss’s critique here is weak in part because the phenomenon is so easily generalized. Cross’s and Hoagland’s photographs competed with an uninterrupted avalanche of other images from all directions that both anesthetize the senses of viewers and undermine the significance of any single image. In a companion essay on photography and propaganda, “Photography And Belief,” Levi Strauss raises more powerful questions about the authority of photographic images. What is it that we come to believe in the truth of a photograph? What is it that is giving rise to our compassion or outrage?
Some of the strongest essays in Between The Eyes are on artists working with photographic images, but in a way that is critically attuned to the erosion of the effectiveness and meaning of the image. In “A Sea Of Grief Is Not A Proscenium,” Levi Strauss discusses the devastating Rwanda project of installation artist Jaar. Again, Jaar is in a way on the other end of the spectrum from Salgado, but he is responding to a similar problem. While Salgado poetically transforms the image itself, Jaar’s installations work with the immediate context and tempo in which an image is experienced. Jaar traveled to Rwanda in the aftermath of the genocide there, taking thousands of photographs, but the ensuing pieces operate more by withholding the presence of images than by displaying them. In “Real Pictures” (1995), for instance, Jaar entombed 550 color photographs of the massacres and ruined cities in 550 black linen boxes, and silk-screened descriptions of the images on the tops of the boxes. “One wanders among these dark monuments as if through a graveyard reading epitaphs,” Levi Strauss writes. “But in this case, the inscriptions are in memory of images, and of the power images once had in us.” In “A Second Gaze,” Levi Strauss writes about the work of Polish-born artist Ania Bien. For “Hotel Polen” (1986), Bien fabricated 18 replicas of the Hotel Polen’s (a 1930s-style hotel in Amsterdam that burned to the ground in 1977) menu stands, placed enlargements of photographs in them, and installed them in a closed circle in the gallery. The images all alluded to the Holocaust in one way or another: a map of central Poland, death camp I.D. photographs, a winter landscape. Bien understands that, given the proliferation of often graphic images of the Nazi death camps, images cannot transparently reflect the significance of those events. “Hotel Polen,” Levi Strauss writes, “is a polysemous work of absence, in which what happens between images is the most important.”
One of the premises of Between The Eyes is that the inundation of images in contemporary global society has a leveling effect that undermines our subjective capacity to experience the power and significance of photographic images. Images tend to disintegrate into noise, or are co-opted as propaganda: images no longer have the power they once had in us. This is by no means exclusively the result of developments in photography, or in digital media for that matter. In “Can You Hear Me,” Levi Strauss writes:
Under the twin deities of speed and interconnectivity, the technologies of communication have proliferated beyond all previously perceived boundaries… As the resultant all-consuming pandemonium of sound and image sweeps across the globe, and the signal-to-noise ratio plummets, it has become more and more difficult for any one voice to be heard above the collective din.
Levi Strauss suggests that photography—and by this he means classical photography—may have a special role to play in a society overwhelmed by a pandemonium of information by slowing down the rush of images, by demanding that the viewer slow, look, and think. “When you reduce the speed and frequency of images,” Levi Strauss writes in “A Ferocious Philosophy,” “you make it possible to see images differently.” The terrible yet serene grandeur of Salgado’s photographs, for instance, is in a way very slow.
Yet simply slowing down the flow of images, and thereby facilitating a more contemplative beholder, is not enough, and indeed is not entirely to the point. It is not just the inundating speed of images that has eroded our capacity to see, but rather our tendency to regard photographs as denoting contents rather than commanding experiences. In his brilliant, idiosyncratic treatise Towards A Philosophy Of Photography, Vilem Flusser suggests that the photograph promotes a magical, ritualistic relationship to reality by creating the illusion that events can always be present, infinitely repeatable, and equivalent. This eliminates both the irreducible contingency of history and the need for reflection upon experience, for here photographs supplant subjectivity. This, I think, is the fundamental issue that underlies Jaar’s strategy in his project of entombment with images from Rwanda. Levi Strauss approaches it in “Photography And Belief” when he questions the aura of belief surrounding certain photographs, but he does not push it far enough, in part because he overestimates the significance of propaganda. The perversion of the significance of events is, ironically, too omnipresent to be central. Belief, like truth, is a narrow cognitive category. Should our primary relationship to photographs be belief?
Coda. Much, though not all, of the photography exhibited in New York in the past few years has uncritically traded on the immediacy and transparency of the photographic image: Think of the Wolfgang Tillmans and Nan Goldin exhibits, the skateboarders and rock concert goers in the 2002 Whitney Biennial, the work in the recent Triennial at the International Center for Photography. Even the elaborately dramatic, often panoramic work influenced by Cindy Sherman and Jeff Wall is less related to the character and material of the image then to the staged scene the image denotes. Lucas Samaras’s “Auto Polaroids” (1969–1971) and “Photo-Transformations” (1973–1976)—which along with the lavish boxes, form the core of Unrepentant Ego: The Self Portraits of Lucas Samaras at the Whitney Museum of American Art—provide an often inspired historical antidote to this trend. The photographs are small, crude, garish, sullied, and theatrical; in many cases, one can almost feel the chemicals oozing off the paper. In the “Auto Polaroids,” one finds Samaras crawling naked in swarming multi-colored spots, posing on one leg atop a pedestal and holding up a chair, or displaying his cock and balls upside-down beneath agitated water. In the “Photo-Transformations,” Samaras is often dissolved into Francis Bacon-like swarms of blurry color, with a clear fist or mouth collaged into the center of the image, or else he is a frenzy of obscure activity in a luridly lit, hallucinated version of his kitchen, dancing naked, thrashing and singing. These are compulsively narcissistic works, and yet it is never clear what is actually going on in the image. They are physical relics, playful testaments, while at the same time they acknowledge non-knowledge as virtually a precondition of human experience. What is so oppressive about so much recent work is its false air of knowingness. Samaras’s self-portraits are at once goofily beautiful and searching.