The Identity of Photography Michel Onfray

The philosopher Zeno of Elea, as is well known, had his own special way of calculating. He held that tortoises could run as fast as human runners, since the twofaced athletes could never overtake them. He also liked to consider the noise made by a falling measure of millet, two groups of men rapidly running in each other’s direction who would never do more than cross paths, and arrows that would never reach their target, no matter how skillful the archer. How can that be ?! We cry impatiently. Zeno was right in arguing, in his famous and impeccable syllogism, that if movement is made up of discreet immobile moments, then motion is impossible. The arrow would never hit home. And nothing exists except for the sum of immobile moments. For material proof and experimental verification of the validity of Zeno of Elea’s arguments, one need look no further than Nicéphore Niepce and Félix Tournachan (or Nadar), photography’s two founding fathers. We don’t need to consult the explanations of a distinguished Collège de France professor (namely Henri Bergson) on the relationship between thought and motion, time and movement, the mobile moment and immobile eternity, before we conclude that Zeno had it wrong. But photographers prove the opposite every day – Zeno was right in dissecting motion as other did matter, and in isolating the instant as its essential component just as others declared the atom tot be indivisible. The instant is to movement as the atom is to matter; an irreducible essence, the hard core of reality as we conceive it.

The photographer is in constant search of this epicenter. With every shot, he seeks to fox one of the thousands of instants that make up time, in order to extract from it the matter of sense, shape and perception, if not emotion. The embodiment of Zeno’s arguments lie at the very heart of the act of photography; all that moves contains nestled within it a congealed stillness, which must be tracked down and captured so that it can be shown off like a trophy. Those who undertake this act are operating at the interstices of the demiurgic and metaphysics, of phenomenology and dialectics, of ethics and easthetics. By sculpting time, freezing memory and working consciounsness as another might work metal, the photographer embodies a truly philosophical quest.

The demiurge is the creator of images, the maker of icons who seeks to stop time, become its master and posses it in the proposition that he makes of an instance captured in its essence. His prey is what the Greeks called kairos, the right moment, the moment before or after which nothing is possible of conceivable, either because its interest resides in a particular instant of motion bracketed by unimportant vicissitudes, or because it represents the persistence of a configuration that he seeks to make last forever, in a variation on the them of the still life. Every time he photographs a moment of a movement or the eternity of a life that seems still, what he seeks in his viewfinder is the immobility that resides within motion or time.

Muybridge and Marey experimented with the forms of time, succession and duration, decomposing and deconstructing the diverse and multiple into images between which there is room for still more images. Both of them were obsesses with time and strove to demonstrate what Zeno taught, that motion can be reduced to the sum of the fixed instants that make it up, that the dynamics of life are made up of static elements. These two men alone developed and deployed that which was to constitute the substance of every photographer’s search: a quest for the fixity that motion is made of, so that the everlasting can be isolated and exhibited.

In playing with time, in seeking to discover what it is made of, or at least its modes of appearance, the photographer is like a philosopher who strives to reduce and gather into the ambit of a unity that which is manifest exclusively in multiplicity. Both seek a single snapshot or concept that can represent a manifold reality. This predilection for unity is what makes the photographer an adept of Parmenides, as opposed to the filmmaker, who is a disciple of Heraclitus. Parmenides, a Pre-Socratic who like Zeno was also from Elea, was the philosopher who taught that reality is a unity that is self-contained, perfect, without beginning or end, because it arises from itself, absolute and everlasting. That unity could be a photo. Heraclitus, a Pre-Socratic from Ephesus,

 

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is the man who wrote that time is like an eternal river where one cannot bathe in the same waters twice. This fluidity, this flowing away, seems more characteristic of movies.

The photographer and the filmmaker do not share the same notion of ideal time. For the photographer, it is fixed, frozen, stopped. For the filmmaker, it is reconstructed and reconsidered but the point lies in its unfolding and development. In a way, Plato reconciled these two schools of thought by making time the moving image of an immobile eternity, so that the photographer appears to be concerned only with searching for and obtaining the proof of this capture of that immobile eternity in a single image. The purpose of the demiurge is to carry out this magical operation, to concentrate in a snapshot the essence of that which structures motion. In the middle of the river, to express it: a sphere…

Stop-Time In the process of his work, the photographer/demiurge also becomes a metaphysician insofar as he is the creator of signs that take on meaning over time, and this despite, against and with him. The images he creates are the descendants of those our ancestors used to adorn cave walls long ago. There is a Brassaï photo of graffiti, for example, that is a marvelous example and expression of this. Scratches, hands in negative, geometric figures, traces, nicks – everything affirms the power of what Malraux called anti-destiny. The same geographies that can be read in cave paintings can also be read in Brassaï’s silverprints. This is the opposite of a palimpsest. In prehistoric times, despite the time to come and against it, but relying on it the better to overcome it, the artists at both ends of this human chain constantly renew the quest for signs that make sense in opposition to the world’s nothingness. As entropy does its dirty works, in the face of looming destruction and ruin, in the face of a death foretold, the death of an individual as well as that of entire civilizations, the caveman and the camera-man declare their sublime revolt, their desire for eternity. Their work constitutes as act of resistance, a flight in the face of time and its ravages. This game of freezing an instant for all eternity paradoxically carrei as tis corollary the beginning of death. The pose that is required of the subject is that of petrifaction, a state of rigidity, the immobility of death. That is why the subject is asked to smile, to avoid the seriousness usually propaedeutic to nothingness. Memory and remembrance, these two modalities of cruel time, are imprinted equally well on shrouds and photographs.

To photograph is to freeze time, to immortalize the hapax degemena that structure an existence, a landscape, an era, a situation, a person. When we look at a photographic print we partake of a limitless repetition of a instant that was once captured. A photo where the frozen moment lies contains something that can confer on any instant the warmth of our gaze and the demiurge of a new time, giving new access to old moments. In this way long ago and formerly become here and now. The photographer effects an operation on time so that his prints constitute a memory, a mnemonic device that provides our will to recall with fixed reference points. The sculpting of time is a postulate for the organization of memory. In a milky way where any astronomer would get lost, these stolen moments are shining dots of light that serve as cardinal points. Photos are selected morsels of reality meant, though their conciseness, their freightedness, their power, their strength, their originality, their uniqueness, to say in a lighting flash what would otherwise require a long essay. From the caves at Lascaux to the instant photo, what is being said amounts to the same effort to grasp the quintessence of the world, to reduce it into two or three images that would express as much or more than infinite modulations of unfolded time. Photos are lights shining through the jumble of the world.

Along the road that leads from time to memory, every sort of distortion that is possible or imaginable in fact has its day. Photography has an odd relationship with truth. The photographer, while he is conscious of wanting to freeze something, and thus show it and tell us about it, is also an ethicist, in the sense that Kierkegaard defined, someone who struggles in favor of a certain value system. Where is the truth in a photo that merely shows? A war photographer (Cecil Beaton) shows us a corpse or a soldier collapsing under fire-friend or foe? Executioner victim? Is that a real dead man lying there or the lie of an actor? Pretty or true? Right or false? Information or propaganda? The raw brutality of the situation itself or a cynically staged scene? What about the intervention represented by the framing and the printing? What about photos faked through retouching or montage, not to

 

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mention the image made possible by digitization which, by a strange paradox, puts photography today in the same situation of rivalry with painting as it was at its birth. The Pointillists would have loved pixels.

Photography is a fragment of reality that can be read in the same way that archaeologists read the scattered pieces they discover and use them to reconstitute the complete shape and configuration of the object from which they came. Neither true nor false, it is a symptom of that which, in order to make sense, needs to be read, seen in perspective and understood. It is not the same as immediately accessible data and instead requires a whole cultural context to be decoded. The metaphysics and ethics of photography are similar to Nietzsche's perspectivism. He posited a world, a reading, a world outlook, but uttered nothing that could be taken for the truth. An ontological instant - in this case, a photo - cannot recapitulate the metaphysical movement of the world until we have learned what links these two instances. During which war, by which photographer, on which side, in what circumstances, was this or that photo taken? Only after finding our answers can we make out the photo's meaning, after absorbing the initial emotional impact caused by the presence of the image itself.

The Antithesis of Plato's Cave Every photo that claims to be nothing more than what it is, and that this is its meaning, may be hiding the basic point of its project, and this in turn could be threatened by the data added by any informed reading. A photo can also be a falsification, a lie, in the service of political or ideological propaganda. We could cite the hunting down of the survivors of the Paris Commune (Appert), Bertillon's anthropometric facies, Riefenstahl's notorious photo's of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Cartier-Bresson's photos of People's China, or perhaps shots of the most emblematic products of consumer society, or the commercial use of erotic or sensual images of women made by someone like Helmut Newton. All these photos will tell us at least two things, one about appearances and the other about reality. The former is immediately apparent; the latter becomes so only when the viewer is initiated into the metaphysics that preside over every shutter movement. And here, our era is one of complete illiteracy compounded by limitless nihilism.

If a photographer is to achieve time as sculpted by the demiurge, memory as it is constellated by a metaphysician, the truth or falsification of the ethicist, then with every shot he adopts the practice of a phenomenologist. To stand behind a camera and lens, placing them between oneself and the world, to look around, aim, chose a subject and frame it, to allow the entrance of a particular chosen part of the world while excluding all that is not that, to work the dialectic between being and nothingness on reality itself - all of this unquestionably means practicing, realizing and embodying a phenomenology of perception. The terminology employed by Sartre in Being and Nothingness, if not in Critique of Dialectical Reason, is marvelously suited to photography: reification, the ontology and dimensions of temporality, ontological proof, the theory of the other as structuring one's identity, the modes of being-for-others, being-outseide-for-others, the dialectic of in-itself and for-itself, the reversal of passive practice and situation, the concept of the gaze as temporalizing and other categories could all be used in a proposed reading of photography as a phenomenological act. The pointing of the camera and framing of the shot are operations that are consistent with the theory that holds that it is our gaze that gives rise to the being of a situation. What I choose in the viewfinder is a specific piece cut out of the reality of a configuration that comes into being at the same time as the ensemble from which this piece has been cut out is being consigned to nothingness. That which comes into being does so as the result of a project, an act of will. The eye, the finger and the shutter release allow consciousness to be projected and to play its part in a logic of the advent of event: the choosing of an instant, the isolation of a moment, the fixing of a photographic fact as attainment and capture of a quintessence. In celebrating the wedding of consciousness and the object that makes it honest, photographic phenomenology proclaims the radicalism of the materialism it presupposes. This is why photography provoked the wrath of Baudelaire, who detested the fact that an industrial activity whose only talent lay in the exactitude of its pure and simple reproductions could prevail by claiming inspiration from classical painting with its concern for amplifying the imagination, for dreams, the impalpable and the poetic. Photography's objective is sensory reality, that and only that. It is not designed to carry out idealist or spiritualist options of the Neoplatonic variety. You do not take pictures of the world as a paean to another, higher but invisible realm. Painting, in contrast, is conceived, perceived and practiced as the occasion for a constant intercession in favor of a celestial world. What photos show is the visible. Which is why the Church, never at a loss for reactionary idiocy, naturally

 

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condemmed the emerging new art as an impious invention guilty of looking n further than the things of this world. A Revolution Yet To Come The development of a photo on light-sensitive paper is always a pagan icon, proof that the world is the only is possible matrix f being, that is a causa sui, and that photography alone is its reflection, its sensory imagen, its participative shadow. Photography is the opposite f the allegory f Plato's cave, with its idealist play of light and shadows which structured Western aesthetics from ancient Greece until the collapse bought about by Modernism. Of course, this Modernism itself owes something to the invention of photography, which, like all the arts, played a role in the dialectic of living aesthetics. This is what confers upon the photographer the ultimate quality of the aesthetician. At the beginning, certainly, photography was more a technique than an art form. As an industrial activity for the mechanical and primitive reproduction of a part of full-color, three-dimensional reality in the form of a flat, bichrome image, photography served to assist travellers and ethnologists, scientists, prosecutors, journalists, historians, publicists, geographers, military officers and paterfamilias. Only through use would a given photo enter the world of art. And the photo in question could just as likely have been taken by a criminologist, a tourist or a soldier. Museums, galleries and arbiters of taste would all play their role in determining which photos would be admitted to the pantheon of art and which be left abandoned in the loneliness of cardboard boxes, there to await a higher destiny than some closet or attic. Nadar's is the glory, Prudhomme or Pooter's oblivion. But in both instances, it is clear that photography is endowed with a certain artistic power, and, just as much as any painting or sculpture, its status depends on the caprices of history and the arbitrary criteria of judgment. The photographer/demiurge, while simultaneously a metaphysician, phenomenologist, ethicist and aesthetician, is also an artist: his work is philosophy in action, which, to me, is the very definition of the artistic function. And so the categories that apply to the painter, the sculptor, the musician and the poet apply to him as well. Within the context of an aesthetics that announces the obsolescense of those formulated by Kant and Hegel, there is a special place for photography, alongside other disciplines that modernity's malcontents still find too suspect. The first chapter of the history of this new art would begin with an account of what the other arts owe it, namely the main thrust of their development over the last century and a half. When it took up its rightful place, photography made the painting of that era obsolete. With merciless Darwinian logic, it demanded that painting adapt to the new conditions dictated by itself and abandon anything that the new art could do better. Faithful representation of reality, aiming for maximum objectivity, the highest degree of coincidence between reality and its representation - all that became a dead letter. Ingres and Puvis de Chavannes had good cause to be so ferociously opposed to photography: how else could they go on painting scenes that Nadar could have composed and reproduced mechanically with the same degree of fidelity?

With realism dead - and this Baudelaire should have understood better than anyone else - there remained another royal road for the powers of the imagination and of dream so cherished by the poet. Therein lay the germ of the modern aesthetic. After the abandonment of the classical canon, a new reality into account: no longer was there any obligation to respect the categories that had formerly been sacrosanct, i.e.; subject, theme, objectivity. Spiritualist, Platonic idealist ideology had been knocked down. Instead, there was the dawn of a liberated imagination, a radical subjectivity, a thoroughgoing perspectivism. At the same time that photography began to present clear outlines, precise renditions and worked-out composition, painting was proceeding to the triumph of the impression, of Divisionism and Pointillism: the progress of subjectivity through Turner, Monet and Cézanne, demolishing classicism and constructing modernism. We all know what happened next. Later Duchamp would come along, calling for a yet newer art that would make contemporary art what the fine arts were after the invention of photography: an old world. That revolution is yet to come. Translation, L-S Torgoff

 

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