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The itinerant languages of photography / Eduardo Cadava

In reviewing the history of photography, the only thing we can say with any kind of clarity is that a photograph has never been a single thing, has never had a consistent form, has never remained identical to itself. Instead it has continually been altered, transformed, and circulated and is by definition itinerant. We might even say, following Benjamin, that the photographic image comes into being only as a consequence of reproduction, displacement, and itinerancy. I think that some of the most interesting questions for us today have to do with what I have elsewhere called “the itinerant languages of photography” and how they operate in international and global networks of collaboration and exchange. By “itinerant languages” I refer to the various means whereby photographs speak and move across historical periods, national borders, and different media. While photographs have been exchanged, appropriated, and mobilized in different contexts since the second half of the nineteenth century, such movement is now occurring at an unprecedented speed, especially given the new technological and political configurations that now facilitate this movement. We could even say that such movement belongs to the signature of our modernity. Despite the many ominous predictions of photography’s imminent and irreversible disappearance, we all have become homines photographici— obsessive archivists taking and storing hundreds and thousands of images, exchanging photographs across borders with other equally frenzied, spontaneous archivists around the globe. From this perspective, the ubiquity and mass circulation of images that characterize the present are the latest manifestation of an itinerant condition that has belonged to photography from its beginnings.

Indeed, as a practice and as an ever-expanding archive, photography resists being fixed in a single location. While it travels around the globe, it constantly redefines itself whenever it is re-contextualized and reread. This is why we must learn how to trace the movement of photographs as physical artifacts, as means of communication, as disembodied images and, indeed, to begin to develop a visual and linguistic lexicon for understanding and speaking about their migratory character. This is why I believe that some of the more urgent issues within the field of photography today include tracing: i) the means and effects of the circulation and exchange of images beyond cultural, social, ethnic, and national borders; ii) the dialogue between photography and other media such as literature, cinema, theater, and art in an international context; and iii) the relationship between photography and the archive in relation to memory, history, justice, and photographic poetics. I will just say a few words about some of the considerations that emerge within each of these three issues, and in relation to the movement across international zones:

i) Photography’s historical association with travel is entirely relevant to its itinerant condition. Not only was the invention of photography a leap in the evolution of types of image-making long associated with traveling, but also its mode of production facilitated the flow and mass consumption of images by lowering their price and multiplying their number exponentially. If the proliferation and traffic of representations achieved a spectacular global magnitude under capitalism, photography’s contribution to the elaboration of this image-economy was crucial. Nineteenth-century photographs functioned as a type of currency that brought subjects into a global network of valuation and desire. As we know, traveling photographers, with different aesthetic and political agendas, have helped define the visual iconography of whole regions, continents, societies, and cultures, and their pictures continue to intervene in international debates on human rights, development, and ecology (the high visibility and wide circulation of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado’s work on displaced peoples and exploited workers from all over the globe immediately comes to mind here). There are of course images that are produced in order to be circulated, beginning with the invention of postcards in the context of national and international tourism and the economic and symbolic transactions associated with it and continuing all the way to the radical transformations in image production and exchange that have emerged in the aftermath of new electronic and technological developments such as the FAX, the internet, Facebook, cell phones, and so forth.

ii) Since 1839, when the invention of the daguerreotype was made public, photography established itself in dialogue, in relation and in opposition to other media, borrowing, adapting, and incorporating traits of these media, but also questioning the logics of representation put forward by them. At the same time that it struggled to distinguish itself from painting, for example, it continued to share many of its compositional rules and generic conventions. Confronted with the ubiquity of photographs, nineteenth-century modern writers were both fascinated and unsettled by their realism and democratic appeal, devoting many pages to their interpretation and valuation. Taking as a starting point the contemporary debates on inter-media, or the post-medium era—debates that seek to describe the crossing the borders between traditional media and contemporary media—it is critical to consider the question of the itinerant languages of photography, of the various ways in which photography approaches, engages, and intermingles with literature, cinema, theater, art, architecture, and hypermedia, paying particular attention to the developments and technological changes that have taken place in the last fifty years. I would suggest that, when different types of images and languages are correlated and merged with each other on the borders of photography, the interrelationships of the distinct elements cause a shift in the nature of the image itself and this is why we increasingly need modes of understanding and analyzing how the emergence and spread of new technological forms of communication have rearticulated and transformed the production, circulation, and de-codification of photographic images at large.

iii) Finally, the questions of the archival uses of photography, and of the photographic uses of the archive as a contradictory system that holds and stores information in place, even as it is always in the process of re-arranging itself (as more materials are added, or as they are reorganized or reconfigured), seem to me increasingly important issues. As Marcel Duchamp so wonderfully put it in his work “La boîte-en-valise,” the portable authorial museum that he carried in a suitcase, the content of the archive is always on the move. In this way, the archive always is caught in a kind of double bind: it is simultaneously defined as an inert, rational repertoire of historical artifacts and as an active, delirious machine, a Borgesian labyrinth. From its inception, the photograph has been understood to be an archival record. The camera’s capacity to link its act of mechanical inscription to the allegedly indisputable fact of its subject’s existence constitutes the basis of our understanding of photography as a mode of representation. The capacity for accurate description and the ability to establish distinct relations of time and space have come to define the terms of archival production. Because the camera is literally an archival machine, every photograph is a priori an archival object. Since Kodak enabled commercial processing, photography has not only generated endless streams of realistic reproductions, but it also has encouraged a feverish pace of pictorial generation and archival accumulation, no less ambitious than the massive archival structures put together by the state and its disciplinary apparatuses. The role of the photographic archive as an aspect of public memory has retained its power over a wide range of artists and intellectuals, who continue to deploy archival images of media as documentary responses to historical events, and especially traumatic ones.

In this context, I would suggest that it is important today to explore and study the archival uses of photography as a means of producing a legal, historical, or anthropological record, and the photographic uses of the archive as a principle of organization, paying particular attention to those articulations that stress the archive’s unstable economy of production, exchange, and transmission of images. We should be interested in the conspicuous use of archival photographic materials among artists, photographers, writers, and activists preoccupied with issues of human rights violations, ethnic genocide, or social injustice, for whom the photographic record represents both the physical trace of a forced absence, the building stone of a collective monument, the sign of mnemonic ambivalence, and the fragility of memory. Argentine photographer Marcelo Brodsky’s art of memory represents perhaps one of the most extensive articulations of this epistemic and political tension and we could think about how, as a Jewish activist, he has drawn from the discourses and archival images of the Holocaust in order to memorialize the disappeared in Argentina. Of particular interest here might be his collaborations with the German memorial artist, Horst Hoheisel, who, in turn, also has worked on memory projects in Chile, Brazil, and Argentina. Even though Hoheisel has warned that it is not possible to “instrumentalize the formula for every mass-murder in the world,” it is important to measure the role and place of photography in these projects, and the itinerancy that permits it to draw and erase relations between traumatic historical events in Latin America and elsewhere. The use of photography in controversial state-sponsored projects of collective and/or historical memory in Argentina, Chile, Perú, and Spain, among others, are good examples of the same trend, even if in these instances the photograph is sometimes put to different use. In each instance, what will be of utmost importance is to investigate the shifting role of photography within these mnemonic and archival projects.

In what way have the advent of such technological developments as the Xerox, the fax, and the internet accelerated and complicated the exchanges of images? Does the crossing of borders that we have come to associate with globalization have its analogue in the movement and translation of photographs from one context to another? These questions are perhaps more important than ever given the centrality of images within our everyday life and, if these transformations point to a change in how we understand photography’s place within contemporary culture—its privilege or lack of privilege in relation to other, newer image technologies—I would argue that they already belong to what makes photography what it is. Indeed, I would suggest that the photograph’s mobility extends to the concept of photography and to the word itself. Given the way in which photography—the word and the concept—condenses and encrypts a series of associations that confirm its relations to other terms, mediums, and even fields, I would even say that photography’s condition of possibility can only be the impossibility of its ever having a fixed semantic content. This is why there are languages of photography and why they must be itinerant. This attention to the different modes of itinerancy that have characterized the history of photography enables a more compelling, active, transnational lens through which to understand not only the effects of the speed of globalization on contemporary techniques of vision but also the various ways in which the itinerancies already in motion from the beginnings of photography have remained with us today, even if transformed into different and new forms.

Eduardo Cadava is Professor of English at Princeton University

The essay presented here is part of a conversation between Eduardo Cadava and Ilias Liatsopoulos which was first published on the website www.aldebaran.photo

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