26.11 - 22.01.2017
In 1840, a French inventor and photography pioneer, Hippolyte Bayard, created an equivalent of the Schrödinger’s cat in photography. The picture showed a drowned man. Who was he? A description at the back stated: “The corpse which you see here is that of M. Bayard, inventor of the process that has just been shown to you…. The Government which has been only too generous to Monsieur Daguerre, has said it can do nothing for Monsieur Bayard, and the poor wretch has drowned himself. Oh the vagaries of human life....! ... He has been at the morgue for several days, and no-one has recognized or claimed him. Ladies and gentlemen, you'd better pass along for fear of offending your sense of smell, for as you can observe, the face and hands of the gentleman are beginning to decay.”
The drowned man was none other than Hippolyte Bayard, the author of the photograph. Bayard was at the same time alive and dead – in front of and behind the camera, in two conditions and on two sides of existential abyss. It was not hard to guess that the whole situation was a simple mystification, a performance and a joke of an embittered inventor, who had been unjustly treated by the biased French government: they ordered Bayard to wait with announcing his invention just to be able to give priority to Louis Daguerre. Bayard had to come to terms with it. Still, he did make history, since he discovered that a tension can develop between an image and the text, and such a dissonance requires solving. But image and text belong to different registers, hence solving the dissonance is not an easy task. When image and text remain conflicted, we start to juggle the meaning and hidden symbols contained therein so that we can put them in one line – align them in one string. Such an attempt is often doomed to failure – it is like trying to find the other side of the Möbius strip.
“Believing is seeing,” writes Errol Morris. Photographs reveal or conceal. In Antonioni’s Blow-Up movie, a photograph uncovers a murder but it cannot reveal the murderer. Thomas, the protagonist, is left only with an image. Subsequent enlargements don’t explain anything – the well-known shapes decompose and dissolve into grain. The photographer-detective will never find out what happened in Maryon Park. When asked “What did you see in that park?” he answers “Nothing”. Perhaps he should have added that he didn’t know what he was supposed to see.
Photography is passive, it is just an image. It is not given the value: true or false. The latter is ascribed only to the text, which can be consistent with what is pictured or differ from it. As a matter of fact, a photograph does not have any informational value – until we know what the picture shows, we cannot see it. We simply recognise familiar shapes, objects and symptoms. The rest is abstraction. When we look today at an over 40-year-old made up newspapers, as part of Sarah Charlesworth’s Modern History project, we are unable to understand anything. The artist removed the whole text from selected International Herald Tribune issues, and left only pictures. today, we look at them like we would look at someone else’s family photos.
Photography tries to fight for autonomy, but it is utopian because it doesn’t exist outside the area of pure abstraction. And even that raises questions: What is in that picture?