“Whatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see.” Barthes (1981:5)
Barthes speaks of the nature of the photograph; to the manner through which its surface – its mode of presentation – is often ignored. When looking at photographs, we attend to the subject of that photograph, often dismissing the physicality of photographs themselves.
Barthes considers the photograph, in the manner by which we may also consider the glass frame of the gallery, or camera, or screen. Framing is ordinary, normal, protective, partially unseen – arguably we notice presentation more widely when glass is absent. Commonly, traditionally, the photograph appears behind glass in a frame. More recently, the photograph also appears behind a glass screen – maintaining protection behind this physical and solid barrier.
Baudrillard suggests that: ‘…glass is the basis of a transparency without transition: we see, but cannot touch.’ (1996:42), and in the gallery, unless instructed or intended, we don’t touch. Baudrillard’s glass here is largely an architectural property; windows, buildings, tables, objects – but always a border, physical and solid. I largely photograph on an iPhone, tapping glass to see through glass. Here, I consider the way in which glass mediated my experiences on a recent trip to Paris, considering the photograph, the work-of-art, glass and me.
Paris Photo is an annual photo fair and has just completed it’s 18th edition in Paris. A throng of students, academics, collectors & buyers, dealers, celebrities and photographers, it’s vibrant, exhausting, inspirational and boring. Somebody saw Bruce Gilden, I might have seen Stephen Gill, “he had his photograph taken with Joel Meyerowitz” – it’s a gathering of the most (conventionally) celebrated in Photography, about as glitzy as it gets, Paris Photo:LA being the likely exception.
Paris Photo moved in 2012 from the darkened trade fair/shopping centre chic of the Carousel du Louvre, to the light and history of the Grand Palais. It’s an interesting choice, the building frames the experience in a way that the carousel couldn’t. Like the Eiffel Tower before it, the Grand Palais was built for the 1900 Universal Exhibition, and it becomes complicit in our experience of the work in front of us – its glass roof is everywhere.
I took notes, as photographs, after writing one sentence in a notebook before deciding on this vaguely more elbowing-free scenario. In shooting the images of others I found myself framing, re-framing, deleting and reshooting images; image of images – images of images of images. And so, I was viewing, photographing, touching and ignoring the glass. The glass of a roof, a screen, a lens, a frame. All of it entirely visible.
Heidegger (1993) speaks of the work-of-art as both process of coming to be, and as a thing that is being. Instead of paying attention to the thing on the wall, as work-of-art, as being, I became distracted by my own noting and taking images as the process in coming to be a work-of-art. Heidegger suggests that ‘…the work [of art] makes public something other than itself, it manifests something other, it is an allegory… the work is a symbol‘ (1993:145-146). So I wondered: where is the work-of-art in the images that I began to make?
Does image appropriation manipulate the power of the work-of-art, which work-of-art? The work of Henner, Umbrico, Levine, Rickard, Schmidt are considered powerful works-of-art. Their work is to use the work of others and then re-present it, as another allegory, a reproduction at another time and space.
Interestingly, Benjamin states that ‘to an ever degree, the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility’ (2008:IV) and that ‘in photography, exhibition value begins to displace cult value all along the line’ – art is (re)produced for display, it was not cult, or authentic to begin with, but made for this purpose’. And here I am, displaying my works of art. Reproductions, or reproductions, of reproductions…
Is the symbol and allegory of the photographic work-of-art here? The process by which an image is formed : through the glass of the lens; mediated by touch; the glass of the screen of technology, re-presenting the glass and the image of the already defined (through status) work-of-art on the wall? How can we consider these transient and electronic images, by the terms of the work-of-art, when they have only ever been being, in the physical sense, as light behind the glass of their meditating screens?
‘…glass is the most effective conceivable material expression of the fundamental ambiguity of ‘atmosphere’: the fact that it is at once proximity and distance, intimacy and the refusal of intimacy, communication and non-communication.’ Baudrillard (1996:42).
These images, my own works-of-art, use the glass of the other work-of-art to differentiate glass from glass – to re-present glass and atmosphere. Heidegger suggests that the work of art is the product of a strife between world and earth: that which the art represents and physical beings by which it represents. How far can these images be seen as a product and process of their physical being? Can we see past the invisible glass to understand the coming of their being?
‘We believe that we are at home in the immediate circle of beings. Beings are familiar, reliable, ordinary. Nevertheless, the clearing is pervaded by a constant concealment
in the double form of refusal and disassembling. At bottom, the ordinary is not ordinary; it is extra-ordinary.’ Heidegger (1993:180).
In the Palais du Tokyo there was an exhibition that promised to help us remain constantly immersed in the works. Needless to say, it’s amazing what you can do with a strip of plywood and a tin of paint. I walked straight through the allegorical barrier and into the work-of-art.
Sian Gouldstone is a PhD candidate in Visual Sociology at Goldsmiths College.
All works-of-art by Sian Gouldstone.
Barthes, R. (1981). Camera Lucida. Vintage
Baudrillard, J. (1996). The System of Objects. London: Verso.
Benjamin, W. (2008). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Penguin.
Heidegger, M. (1993). Basic Writings. Harper Collins.