Herve Guibert’s L’Image fantome was published initially in 1982. The English translation, Ghost Image, by Robert Bononno, I have came out in 1996, from Sun & Moon Press, and is available currently from Green Integer Press. The book is comprised of short written pieces which were published originally in Le Monde. A posthumous volume, La Photo, inéluctablement, was published in 1999, which has not yet appeared in English.
Guibert, known primarily for his books, also photographed. Several years ago I saw an exhibition of his photos at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, on upper Fifth Ave., just below the Met, & I have a book published by Schirmer/Mosel. From 1993! (It seems so not so long ago).
The pieces in Ghost Image are short, some the length of a paragraph. Although notable photographers are mentioned (Henri Cartier-Bresson, Diane Arbus, August Sander), the pieces discuss photography in the everyday: Family photos, identity photos, album covers, film stills, etc., as well as the acts of photographing, the tensions & disappointments of it. I enjoyed particularly an account of an adolescent infatuation with a still of Terence Stamp in the Fellini film Toby Dammit (in which Guibert mistakenly refers to the Stamp character as the devil, when in fact Stamp is more a Swinging London version of Faust, who has sold his soul). There is a diaristic aspect to the writing – family episodes are recounted, memory is intertwined with photography – and it is public and brief, in a form that is perhaps more familiar to blog readers of today. Truly, it seems prescient of so much web writing now, although with a much more delirious perversity and greater powers of observation:
. . . I recall an incident that made a great impression on me when I was 8 or 9 years old. My sister was 12 or 13 at the time, and her breasts were just beginning to develop; high and firm, we had already seen them at the beach the year before, but that was the last time, because the following year they were covered up by a bra. That morning, it must have been a Sunday, my sister was locked in the bathroom. My father was at the door, camera in hand, trying to get in. He said, without hiding his intention, that he wanted to photograph his daughter’s breasts, because at that age, the moment of their initial formation, they are at the height of their beauty, and if they weren’t photographed then, that state of perfection would be lost. That was the extent of his argument. At the time, he sadly renounced his failed attempt at appropriation through the image and fought against that limit; he wanted to push back by a notch the phase of abandonment, of renunciation and at the same time, extend his role as a father in order to assume that of a lover within the conventions of voyeurism, for between the father and the lover, desire was probably not very different. . . “Inventory of a Box of Photographs”
Photography, in Guibert’s book, is a multiplicity of effects. It is a technological reinforcement of morbid curiosities, it facilitates social controls, it supplants memories, dreams and perceptions, replacing them with its own mediated Olympus of illusions.In “Photographic Writing” Guibert finds photographic aspects in descriptive writings by Goethe and Kafka – looking backward from the perspective of the technological present to a pre-photography concealed in language. Without any direct quotations, I find traces of Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer and Roland Barthes in Guibert’s considerations of the social aspects of photography. Barthes makes an appearance as “R.B.” in “The Photograph, As Close to Death as Possible” which is an account of Guibert approaching R.B. to photograph him with his ailing mother, who in the interim, died. Guibert presents his own lust for photographing in equivocal terms: it is morbid, it is fetishistic, it is selfish. & the compulsion can be sweet as well.
Written with almost aphoristic brevity, these episodes of photography seem both exceedingly particular & also informed with much larger ideas. To continue with photographic metaphors, these vignettes are like snapshots, fragments which indicate a much larger whole. I last read the book in what must have been 1996-1997, when the translation was published. Rereading it has been as stimulating as I can recall it to have been, with what seems new finds:
A Japanese dancer from the Sankai Juku group dances with a peacock. His entire body is very white, powdered with white clay, and his head is shaved. He wears nothing but a plain linen loincloth tied around his waist and stands out in relief against a wooden backdrop to which varnished fishtails and enormous fins from some cetacean have been attached. He embraces the peacock like a woman in a swoon, and the pattern on the bird’s plumage extends his loincloth with a gold-flecked train. We can see that the peacock’s thighs and feet are very muscular, like an ostrich, but the dancer keeps them bent, broken at the joints, and immobilized in his left hand, pressed against his side. His right hand encircles the peacock’s neck, stretches it, plays with it as if it were a delicate instrument, squeezes it almost to the point of strangling it. Everything is limited to a few contractions, and to the flow of blood, which he must feel and control with his palm: the Japanese dances a kind of slow-motion tango with the peacock, he dances with the peacock’s fear, with its vital fear of death. It really is an extraordinary moment, one of great tension, great beauty. But when the dancer releases the terrified peacock, we no longer know where to look, and our eye, which wanders between the dancer and the bird, loses its orientation. The peacock is nothing but a big terrified fowl who scratches around stupidly and snares itself in the cord that restrains its feet. The dancer is nothing but a dancer gesturing slowly. Our fascination has worn off, and rather than be deceived, we prefer to divert our gaze to the empty space between them, where the magic was created, the site of a latent photograph. Morever, when the Sankai Juko group came to Paris, many people, many photographers, returned to the performance with their cameras mounted on tripods. They bought seats in the front row and waited for the appearance of the peacock. They fired away – they were guaranteed beauty. That eminently photographic image, however, doesn’t belong to them (what is it that eludes photography here, except the infintesimal movements of contraction of the peacock’s neck, which are essential to the dance?), it belongs to the dancer, and he has decided that this will be a dance and not a photograph. And we might reiterate that beauty, like theater, is tied to the ephemeral, and to loss, and can’t be captured. Only I would prefer that photographers put more dance (or theater, or cinema) into their pictures, just as the dancer had put photography into his dance. – “Dance”
The Corinthians – A Kodachrome Slideshow, edited by Ed Jones & Timothy Prus, published by The Archive of Modern Conflict, is a collection of anonymous Kodachrome slides, dated 1947-1974.
I became aware of the press through another book edited by Jones & Prus, Nein, Onkel, which is also of anonymous material, in this instance, snapshots of Nazi soldiers – material which is a bit more difficult, historically, especially in lieu of its innocuous banality and rich un-self-consciousness (the soldiers being innocuously ordinary, cute, without any distinction). As far as I know, Nein, Onkel is available in the US only through Dashwood Books, & I have never seen a copy of The Corinthians available except through the internet.
While The Corinthians does reference a specific historical conflict like Nein, Onkel, the title is taken from the book of Corinthians in the bible, a series of letters from St Paul which address a decadent society: thus the images hover between being a relic & being an ambiguous indictment. Kodachrome itself is of recent obsolescence, & like much analog film material, now represents its own historical passage in the past tense.
In terms of using the specific materiality of Kodachrome (color transparency, vivid hues with a palette akin to Technicolor)and its anonymous usage, there is Guy Stricherz’s book Americans in Kodachrome 1945-1965, which is a much gentler, nostalgic collection. & this is not to diminish the Stricherz collection, either, which has its own fascinations. The title of the Stricherz book also reveals what is often unstated about nostalgia: that nostalgia has national borders, that nostalgia can be used as a technological fantasy of a shared & cohesive history, a Family of Man in lower-case letters. My guess is the images in The Corinthians are primarily from the US, & the sometimes gaudy hues & occasions to photograph are representative of a post-WWII glee, a kind of ascendancy of an ability to observe one’s daily life, which over time detaches itself from any context & becomes cryptic. But the shared “American-ness” of the Stricherz book is not apparent in The Corinthians, where instead the images clash, they do not relate to one another, whether by year, region, practice, or taste. What is revealed can seem simultaneously obvious & opaque. What separates the collections of Stricherz and the Archive of Modern Conflict is in the choice of images & their editing. One of the remarkable things about the images in The Corinthians is that they are often uglier than beautiful. The interiors & family scenes can be claustrophobic if not downright unpleasant. This is so against the grain of the fading twilight of nostalgia, in which a partial forgetfulness is often equated w/ sweetness or tenderness, a slight regret along with a letting go – instead the images are jarring, & whether through accident or intent (the difference between we will never know), there is a crudeness, an awkward possessiveness which resonate w/ more craven aspects of the photographic process: the images force the participants into a pantomime of an image-self, as an illusion of what they would be, which is realized w/ an almost violent lack of skills. In this sense The Corinthians reminds me of the vertigo of the images in Wisconsin Death Trip. Vanitas vanitatum.
If one thinks of the billions of snapshots which exist, in utter randomness, the collection of whatever becomes the ad hoc solution to extract any sort of meaning what is otherwise accident & chance. Both The Corinthians & Nein, Onkel posit the amateur photo collection as a kind of black mirror to the past, in a Barthesian sense of lost time, & also in the excesses of detail which add strangeness & confusion to memory.
I would also recommend The Corinthians for it’s unusual binding, which reproduces the cardboard mount of a Kodachrome slide, with a window cut in both front & back. This is anterior to the content of the book, but still references the original physical form of the slides. It shows a great deal of concentration to the enterprise, & its tally of vanishing forms.
Larry Sultan’s work is most familiar to me from books: Evidence, Pictures from Home, and The Valley. The work also exists as gallery prints & has been used in magazines spreads. My personal attachment is to the books & the experience such a form offers: private, on my own time.
Evidence, made with Mike Mandel, is a collection of industrial photographs, which as a collection, leads to a kind of non-sense of imagery. Nothing relates, nothing really means anything, but the viewer is face-to-face with “evidence” of something somehow. There is a dry humor in the residue of corporate imagery, it’s utter obscurity & obsolescence, but it is also a kind of psychic downward spiral, a tension between the kitsch of execution & a horror of banality.
Unlike a lot of work which uses vernacular imagery often as a kind of nostalgia, or a collection used to codify forms, Evidence uses imagery which traffics between the institutional & the ridiculous – as archaeology, the imagery is ultimately embarrassing in its weirdness, its cryptic passages between intention & effect. We can see the flotsam of bureaucratic engineering, of attempts at social delineation and control, and also it’s limited shelf-life, it’s temporal lapse into nothingness.
There is an agitational quality to Sultan’s work, an unrest, a meta-critique of the uses of photography which is most apparent in Evidence, in which the imagery is found, but which also informs the 2 long-term projects, Pictures from Home, which deals with the suburban culture of Sultan’s parents, and The Valley, which is “behind the scenes” of the adult film industry.
Pictures from Home uses both Sultan’s color photographs of his parents, living on the edge of a golf course, in southern CA, along with frame enlargements of home movies made by Sultan’s father. The home movies are predictably bucolic & idealized – vacations, fun, high points. Sultan’s photographs seem much darker in comparison, although in extremely lush color, in the brilliant SoCal light, in their acute focus & detail (contra the pictorial inexactitude of the home movies). Sultan’s parents are used as kind of a test-case of post WWII prosperity & its retirement, figures placed in an artificial new world of synthetics, hovering in an ahistorical constant present. Sultan’s parents become the post WWII nuclear family, severed from kith & kin, adrift in a sea of commodities.
In comparison, the images in The Valley seem the most illustrative, juxtaposed with both Evidence & Pictures from Home. The images can be read easily in either magazine or on a gallery wall: the behind-the-scenes of the adult film industry, on location in rented McMansions in the San Fernando Valley. The images concentrate on the absolute clutter of the houses as sites of filmmaking, in terms of the logistics of the set-ups as well as everything that is necessary to sustain the shoot. Also the images deal with the hours of waiting behind any film project – hours of tedium distinguishing the work involved. While it has some of the romantic appeal of a film like Boogie Nights& a general fascination with the adult film industry in our culture (a Puritanical vision of carnality at its most commodified, i.e. sensible form), the real subject seems to be the conformity & dullness of work, any work. The hideous McMansions of the Valley photograph extremely well: settings of baroque vulgarity, impersonal except for the particularities of bad taste from house to house, & even then nothing is ever unique or outstanding. Everything is prefabricated, mass produced, & strangely empty. The models for the films reiterate the alienation of the architecture & decor in their utter displacement from it. Everything looks kind of awful & inexplicably expensive.
Larry Sultan’s photographs for The Valley, printed large, fit comfortably in art galleries, wherein large color photographs are a kind of contemporary salon painting. Akin to PL DiCorcia’s images of pole dancers, or the more obscure images of porn sets done by Jeff Burton, which seem more about distraction & daydreaming on the job (Burton was also working for various companies). Still, Sultan’s images have a kind of distancing & self-consciousness which keeps them from being pure commodity. The images are rehearsals for images, attempts, auditions, lapses, distractions. The models look mechanical & bored. The theme of scientific management seen in the images of Evidence is sublimated but constant throughout The Valley.
From Evidence to The Valley: dealing w/ corporate imagery, the family, suburbia & sex. Such an engaged & challenging use of the camera & the photograph.