Walcott “Ruins of a Great House”

though our longest sun sets at right declensions and
makes but winter arches,
it cannot be long before we lie down in darkness, and
have our light in ashes. . .
Browne, “Urn Burial”

Stones only, the disjecta membra of this Great House,
Whose moth-like girls are mixed with candledust,
Remain to file the lizard’s dragonish claws.
The mouths of those gate cherubs shriek with stain;
Axle and coach wheel silted under the muck
Of cattle droppings.
Three crows flap for the trees
And settle, creaking the eucalyptus boughs.
A smell of dead limes quickens in the nose
The leprosy of empire.
‘Farewell, green fields,
Farewell, ye happy groves!’

Marble like Greece, like Faulkner’s South in stone,
Deciduous beauty prospered and is gone,
But where the lawn breaks in a rash of trees
A spade below dead leaves will ring the bone
Of some dead animal or human thing
Fallen from evil days, from evil times.

It seems that the original crops were limes
Grown in that silt that clogs the river’s skirt;
The imperious rakes are gone, their bright girls gone,
The river flows, obliterating hurt.
I climbed a wall with the grille ironwork
Of exiled craftsmen protecting that great house
From guilt, perhaps, but not from the worm’s rent
Nor from the padded calvary of the mouse.
And when a wind shook in the limes I heard
What Kipling heard, the death of a great empire, the abuse
Of ignorance by Bible and by sword.
A green lawn, broken by low walls of stone,
Dipped to the rivulet, and pacing, I thought next
Of men like Hawkins, Walter Raleigh, Drake,
Ancestral murderers and poets, more perplexed
In memory now by every ulcerous crime.
The world’s green age then was rotting lime
Whose stench became the charnel galleon’s text.
The rot remains with us, the men are gone.
But, as dead ash is lifted in a wind
That fans the blackening ember of the mind,
My eyes burned from the ashen prose of Donne.

Ablaze with rage I thought,
Some slave is rotting in this manorial lake,
But still the coal of my compassion fought
That Albion too was once
A colony like ours, ‘part of the continent, piece of the main’,
Nook-shotten, rook o’erblown, deranged
By foaming channels and the vain expense
Of bitter faction.
All in compassion ends
So differently from what the heart arranged:
‘as well as if a manor of thy friend’s…’

from Derek Walcott Selected Poems (2007)

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Campany on “Dust Breeding”

Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray “Dust Breeding” 1920, printed ca. 1967. Gelatin silver print. 23.9 x 30.4 cm (9 7/16 x 12 in.) The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Can one photograph made in 1920 really be the key, the codex to all this? Was the last century really foreseen in an unassuming exposure of dust in a New York studio? Across its lifetime, Dust Breeding has been claimed for Dada, Surrealism, Abstraction, Conceptual Art, Land Art, Performance Art and Postmodern Art. It belongs to all of them and none of them. It has also proved itself an unlikely counterpoint to military imaging, forensics, documentary practices, photojournalism and reportage. In this one photograph we have an exploration of time, an embrace of chance, spatial uncer- tainty, ambiguities of origin and authorship, institutional instability, a blurring of photography, sculpture and performance, a meditation on process, a stand-off between image and text, and a scrambling of distinctions between document and artwork, the formal and the formless, the cosmic and the domestic. This most unlikely and unassuming images has turned out to be one of most enduring and revealing.”

— David Campany “a Handful of Dust: from the Cosmic to the Domestic” in a Handful of Dust [MACK, 2015]. Photographs by Martin Argyroglo, from the installation of the exhibition “a Handful of Dust” at Le Bal, Paris (Oct 2015 – Jan 2016)

Installation of “a Handful of Dust” at Le Bal, Paris (Photography by Martin Argyroglo)


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Benjamin on Allegory

Ron Jude, Untitled photograph, from “Lago” [MACK, 2015]

“Once the object has beneath the brooding look of Melancholy become allegorical, once life has flowed out of it, the object itself remains behind, dead, yet preserved for all eternity; it lies before the allegorist, given over to him utterly, for good or ill. In other words, the object itself is henceforth incapable of projecting any meaning on its own; it can only take on that meaning which the allegorist wishes to lend it. He instills it with his own meaning, himself descends to inhabit it: and this must be understood not psychologically but in an ontological sense. In his hands the thing in question becomes something else, speaks of something else, becomes for him the key to some real of hidden knowledge, as whose emblem he honors it. This is what constitutes the nature of allegory as script.”

— Walter Benjamin quoted in Fredric Jameson “Walter Benjamin, or Nostalgia” (1970)

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Campany on the ‘Late’ Photograph

“Over its one hundred and seventy year history, there was a finite period in which photography carried the weight of events and defined what an event was. In its first several decades the medium was slow and cumbersome both in its technical procedures and in its means of social distribution. Only from the 1920s, with the rapid expansion of the mass media, the growing dominance of print journalism, and technical developments within photographic technology itself, did photography become the definitive medium and modulator of the event as a moment, an instant, something that could be frozen and examined. Good photo-reporters were thought to be those who followed the action. The goal was to be in the right place at the right time ‘as things happened’. This lasted until the late 1960s and early 1970s, in other words until the standardised introduction into journalism of portable video cameras.

Alec Soth “2001_08zL0027_FL” from “Last Days of W” [Little Brown Mushroom, 2008]

Over the last few decades, it has become clear that the conception of events was supplanted by video and then dispersed in recent years across a variety of media technologies. In this situation, photographers often prefer to wait until the noise has died down and the event is over. The still cameras are loaded as the video cameras are packed away. The photographs taken come not just in the aftermath of the event, but in the aftermath of video. What we see first ‘live’ or at least in real time on television might be revisited by a photography that depicts stillness rather than freezing things. Photojournalists used to be at the centre of the event because photography was at the centre of culture. Today they are as likely to be at the scene of the aftermath because photography is, in relative terms, at the aftermath of contemporary culture. Photography is much less the means by which the event is grasped. We have learned to expect more from a reported situation than a frozen image (even though in the climate of emotive news television we might be offered the static image as an ideological ‘distillation’, a mythic summary). Video gives us things as they happen. They may be manipulated, they may be misrepresented and undigested but they happen in the present tense. Today it is very rare that photographs actually break the news.”

— David Campany “Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problems of “Late Photography”” in Where is the Photograph? [Photoworks/Photoforum, 2003]


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Hansen on Benjamin and Dauthendey’s self-portrait

“Benjamin’s often-cited passage concerning the double portrait of the photographer Dauthendey and his fiancée — who was to slash her veins after the birth of their sixth child — evokes a complex temporality in which the past moment encrypted in the photograph speaks to the later beholder of the photographed subject’s future:

Karl Dauthendey, “Self portrait with fiancée,” 1857

No matter how artful the photographer, no matter how carefully posed his subject, the beholder feels an irresistible urge to search such a picture for the tiny spark of contingency, of the here and now, with which reality has (so to speak) seared the character of the image, to find the inconspicuous spot where in the theses of that long-forgotten moment the future nests so eloquently that we, looking back, may rediscover it.

The futurity that has seared the photographic image in the chance moment of exposure does not simply derive from circumstantial knowledge of its post history or that of its subject; it emerges in the field of the beholder’s compulsively searching gaze. The spark that leaps across time is a profoundly unsettling and disjunctive one, triggered by the young woman’s gaze off, past the camera and past her fiancé, absorbed in an “ominous distance.” It speaks to the beholder, and the later reader of the passage, not simply of photography’s constitutive relation to death but more insistently of a particular death — suicide — that links the fate of the photographed subject to the writer’s own future death.”

— Miriam Bratu HansenBenjamin’s Aura,” in Critical Inquiry 34 (Winter 2008)

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Azoulay on Benjamin’s reading of Dauthendey

“In his essay “A Short History of Photography,” Walter Benjamin analyzes a photograph of Karl Dauthendey and his wife. Dauthendey was one of the pioneers of daguerreotype photography in Germany. On viewing the photograph, Benjamin writes, the viewer feels an irrepressible urge to identify in it “the tiny spark of accident, the here and now… burned through the person in the image with reality.” Looking at the photograph is an occasion for capturing the present moment — that split second of the act of photography during which physical reality was imprinted on the negative, leaving the seal of the camera’s optical unconscious beside the bare facts. In other words, Benjamin is seeking what the photograph at once exposes and conceals, discloses and encrypts, opens and closes. Benjamin seeks out on almost unmediated intimacy with the moment, the “here and now” of the photograph. he contemplates the photograph mentioned above and describes it as follows:

Karl Dauthendey, “Self portrait with fiancée,” 1857

Karl Dauthendey supports his wife, who appears aloof, her gaze directed past him, as if mesmerized by approaching death.’

Benjamin, who is familiar with the particulars of Frau Dauthendey’s suicide, describes death hovering over the photograph in the same factual terms as he describes the presence of the man and woman. Both descriptions are posited as stemming from what is seen in the photograph. However, in a note to the recent French translation of this essay, translator André Gunther notes Benjamin’s mistaken identification of the woman in the photograph beside Dauthendey: she is not his first wife, who committed suicide, but his second wife. The traces of death hovering above her, which Benjamin sees in the photograph as an expression of an articulation of reality and the photographic moment, are only his own projection about a death that he’d read about in the biography of Karl Dauthendey written by his son, the poet Max Dauthendey.”

— Ariella Azoulay “The [Aesthetic] Distance: Benjamin and Heidegger,” in Death’s Showcase: The Power of the Image in Contemporary Democracy

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Hansen on Benjamin & Baudelaire

“If Benjamin sees the significance of Baudelaire in his having registered the shattering of aura and having given it the weight of an irreversible historic experience (Erfahrung), he finds in Proust a contemporary whose writing seeks to artificially reproduce, as it were, in the “deadly game” that was his life the ephemeral conditions of auratic perception. As someone well versed in “the problem of the aura,” Proust intimates that the ability of objects to return the gaze hinges on a material trace: “‘People who are fond of secrets occasionally flatter themselves that objects retain something of the gaze that has rested on them’”. This mystical assumption is key to Proust’s concept of mémoire involontairea sensorily and synaesthetically triggered embodied memory that can only be retrieved through “actualization, not reflection”. In contrast with volitional remembering, or the recounting of an Erlebnisthe data of involuntary memory are “unique: they are lost to the memory that seeks to retain them”. In this regard, Benjamin writes, they share the primary aspect of aura as “the unique appearance of a distance, however near it may be,” that is, an essential inapproachability and unavailability, related to an irrecuperable absence or loss.”

— Miriam Bratu Hansen “Benjamin’s Aura,” in Critical Inquiry 34 (Winter 2008)

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Smithson on The New Monuments

Ezra Stoller, “Looking from the Seagram lobby across Park Ave.,” 1958

“Instead of causing us to remember the past like the old monuments, the new monuments seem to cause us to forget the future. Instead of being made of natural materials, such as marble, granite, or other kinds of rock, the new monuments are made of artificial materials, plastic, chrome, and electric light. They are not built for the ages, but rather against the ages. They are involved in a systematic reduction of time down to fractions of seconds, rather than in representing the long spaces of centuries. Both past and future are placed into an objective present. This kind of time has little or no space; it is stationary and without movement, it is going nowhere, it is anti-Newtonian, as well as being instant, and is against the wheels of the time-clock.”

— Robert Smithson “Entropy and The New Monuments” (1966) in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings

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Phillips on the Realities of Landscape Photography

“The intellectual control of the land, our mastery of it, appears to be coming apart at the seams. The idealization of individualism and of corporate enterprise, so vividly optimistic in nineteenth century photographs and so important to the word of Ansel Adams, has become despairing, and reveals a flawed and damaged landscape that is only occasionally brightened by an appreciation of the fragile beauty of what remains. The optimism that energised Dorothea Lange and her colleagues to rally for change has been transformed into a weary acceptance of what exists and what we have done.

Untitled (United Arab Emirates, 2011) by Jason Koxvold, from “Everything and Nothing“.

Curiously, the minimalist uninflected aesthetic of contemporary photographers bears a closer relationship to the nineteenth-century photographers’ desire to document the changing, developing landscape and unearth its geometric, intellectual order than to the impassioned approach of photographers of the 1930s. But perhaps this recently achieved “realistic” objectivity reveals the very same conflicts that informed the work of their predecessors: a resignation to the exploitation of wilderness as an inalienable right, and the attendant mythology of a frontier of individual promise.”

Sandra S. Phillips “To Subdue the Continent: Photographs of the Developing West” in Crossing the Frontier: Photographs of the Developing West, 1849 – To The Present

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Arnold on Space after Photography and the Railroads

Alexander Gardner, “Westward the course of empire takes its way” – Laying Track 600 Mile West of St. Louis, MO, 1867

“The expansion of the railroads across the American West during the 1860s and the related influx of would-be settlers coincided with the rise of photography as a mass medium. The development of the wet plate collodion process and the albumen print in the previous decade allowed for the production of an almost unlimited number of relatively large prints from a glass negative that could reproduce subject matter in extremely fine detail and generated new forms through which photographs could be circulated. The ability to accurately render images of remote places and disseminate them to a broader public directly corresponded to the potential to access distant regions of the country held out by the construction of an intercontinental railway, which eventually reduced the time required for a coast to coast journey from eight months to a week. Thus advances in photographic technology and the westward expansion of the railways both carried the promise of a new technological era that could bring “distant vistas into view and [connect] time and space in unprecedented ways.””

— Grant Arnold “The Future’s Remains: The Photographs of Mark Ruwedel,” in Mark Ruwedel Mark Ruwedel: Scotiabank Photography Award (2015)

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