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Art of Photography at the End of Temporality

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POP 3 (1) pp. 121–139 Intellect Limited 2012

Philosophy of Photography Volume 3 Number 1 © 2012 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/pop.3.1.121_1

Ben BurBridge University of Sussex

At photoaphy at th ‘e of Tmpoalty’ Kywos art photography  temporality  instantaneous photography  Frederic Jameson formalism digitization

Abstact This article examines a strain of contemporary art photography marked by its resemblance to earlier scientific motion studies as indicative of a wider ‘scientific turn’ in recent photographic art. Focusing on Sarah  Pickering’s series Explosions (2008), Denis Darzacq’s The Fall (2006), Ori Gersht’s Blow Up (2007) and  Martin Klimas’ Flower Vases  (2008), it addresses the conditions that have allowed for forms and methodologies associable with earlier scientific imagery to be reshaped as contemporary art, particularly the large-scale of recent ‘museum photography’ and its self-conscious indeterminacy of meaning. Adopting a schematic approach based on the identification of similarity, I examine the implications of ambiguity and scale as inherent qualities of the work, along with the interpretations that the projects examined share.  Noting a potential formalism in artists’ repeat ed isolation of frozen motion, I anchor this interest in the medium-specific qualities of photography in two changes associated with digitization. Where digital post production has placed pressure on traditional ontological understandings of the medium, the t he projects are shown to offer a nostalgic return to ‘purer’ forms of photographic production. Drawing on Fredric Jameson’s  2003 essay, ‘The end of temporality’, I conclude by considering how the photographs may be implicated in wider transformations to the construction and experience of time under late-capitalism.


Ben Burbridge

… should certain phases of the movements be considered of sufficient naturally artistic value to permit their being copied without derogation to artistic effect, it is unnecessary to say it is not for that purpose they are published: their mission is simply to furnish a guide to the laws  which control animal movements. movements. (Muybridge 1899: 7) … few periods have proved as incapable of framing immediate alternatives for themselves, let alone imagining those great utopias that have occasionally broken on the status quo like a sunburst. Yet a little thought suggests that it is scarcely fair to expect long-term projections or the deep breath of great collective projects from minds trained in the well-nigh synchronic habits of zero-sum calculation and of keeping an eye on profits. (Jameson 2003: 704–05) The past twenty years have witnessed a ‘scientific turn’ in art photography, with a string of projects marked by formal, conceptual and methodological resemblances to photographs deployed as aids to earlier science. Several writers have noted similarities between an objectifying strain in contemporary portraiture and the ‘instrumental realism’ of nineteenth-century mug-shots and ethnographic photography (Stallabrass 2007; Ewing 2004: 6–15; Sobieszek 1999: 32–79).1  Elsewhere, efforts to disarm the photographed subject through the application of external stimuli have been linked to the clinical studies of Charcot and Duchenne (Lowry 2007 36–40; Burbridge 2010). The nineteenthcentury technologies of X-Ray, photo-telescopy and photo-microscopy have all featured in recent artworks, while a spate of books and exhibitions have addressed the appeal of earlier spirit photography for contemporary artists (Ferris 2003; Durant and Marshling 2005). The tendency is too great to examine in detail here. Rather, I address it through a particularly pronounced example, that uses short exposure times to visually arrest rapidly moving phenomena, suspending subjects as though in a permanent state of stasis. Prominent examples include Sarah Pickering’s series Explosions (2004–2009), which shows pyrotechnic displays designed to simulate different explosive devices; Martin Klimas’s  Flower Vases (2008), for which the artist photographed vases of flowers moments after a bullet had passed through them; Denis Darzacq’s series The Fall (2006), in which the acrobatic performances of street dancers are photographed in such a way that they appear to be falling; and Ori Gersht’s Blow Up (2007),  which depicts floral arrangements that resemble Fantin-Latour still lives, frozen in liquid l iquid nitrogen and obliterated into minute pieces by concealed explosives. I want to examine links between this  work and the iconic images images produced produced by Eadweard Muybridge, Muybridge, Harold Harold Edgerton, Edgerton, A. M. Worthington, Worthington,  Albert Londe and Ottomar Anschutz as aids to the scientific study of motion. While such resemblances are widely acknowledged by the artists, and in the literature generated in response to their



I use the term science broadly here, to encompass pseudoscientific practices such as physiognomy and psychical investigation.

Art photography at the ‘End of Temporality’


Compare, for example, the numerous contextual details in Cartier-Bresson’s iconic ‘Paris, Gare St Lazare, 1932’and the repetitive and non-descript settings encountered in Darzacq’s series.

 work, they have not been subject to any detailed analysis. Neither have the similarities between the  various art projects been explored. The links I go on to outline raise a number of questions; for example: Why have earlier techniques of picture production appealed to artists? What happens to forms of photography associable  with nineteenth-century science as a result of their reconfiguration as art? What forms of knowledge are produced by such images, and what types of subjectivity do they allow for? More broadly, what do these approaches suggest to be true about photography’s current place in the art world? To answer these questions, it is necessary to address specific links between the uses of photography in recent art and earlier science, along with what makes them distinct. It is also necessary to look at the wider social, cultural and technological contexts from which the practices emerged, paying particular attention to two key changes associated with digitization: the post-production of photography in Photoshop, and the experience of time under late-capitalism.

istmtal asthtcs The use of short exposures to suspend moving bodies in time and space is not unique to the scientific analysis of motion. Such techniques have long occupied a wide span of photographic production, particularly within the art-orientated form of photojournalism described by Cartier-Bresson in terms of the ‘decisive moment’ (Jussim 1989: 52). The specific parallels I am suggesting depend on five additional elements that, to a greater or lesser extent, are harnessed in combination in each of the projects under consideration here. Links can be drawn through the types of subject matter depicted. Darzacq shows human subjects moving at speed in a manner similar to Muybridge’s obsessive studies of human and animal locomotion (Muybridge 1887b). Gersht and Klimas document the impact of explosive devices, or of a moving object as it collides with a stationary one, suggesting parallels with Edgerton’s photographs of bullets passing through apples, light bulbs and playing cards, or Worthington’s studies of the splashes created by falling objects entering a liquid surface (Edgerton and Killian 1939; Worthington 1908). The subjects are photographed in such a way that emphasis is placed on the action itself, rather than the context in which it occurred, distancing the work from Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment,  where the documentary function of the picture usually demands its subject be shown within specific and identifiable environments. This is clearest in the work of Gersht and Klimas, which deploys plain backdrops in studio settings, but is also true – though less so – of Pickering and Darzacq, owing to the repetitive nature of the exterior environments shown, and the lack of distinctive features that would otherwise distract from the action depicted. 2 The contemporary images are also marked by a formal consistency across the series, with subjects photographed from similar distances and positioned centrally within the frame. Here, the series recall the visual languages of earlier conceptual


Ben Burbridge

art. In an influential essay, Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison have linked similar methods of framing encountered in nineteenth-century scientific imagery to the constitution of ‘mechanical objectivity’ during the period. This ‘non-interventionist’ trope is said to be ‘related to subjectivity as wax to seal’, requiring that ‘aspects of the personal’ be censured and ‘the subjectivity of scientific and aesthetic judgement’ be overcome (Daston and Galison 1992: 82). The contemporary work instigates a related, if paradoxical, mode of subjectivity, through the decisions to replicate the pictorial characteristics of objectivity within a discursive space that is more often associated with aesthetic decisions and creative expression. The evacuation of subjectivity becomes a stylistic device. The actions shown are either choreographed by the artists for the camera – as in the work of Klimas, Gersht and Darzacq – or are photographed in such a way that th\ey appear to have been so, given the absence of any clear indication of the practical reasons for their occurrence. Pickering focuses on the explosions taking place in nondescript landscapes, rather than the clients, salesmen and demonstration teams that would provide her images with an overtly documentary function. This has led Karen Irvine to describe Pickering as ‘fascinated by the potential of the camera to at once record the real and abstract it’ (Irvine 2010: 7). These explosions are, furthermore, staged for the express purpose of being viewed by potential clients. In consequence, the photographs share an air of experimental staging, linking them to what Elizabeth Edwards has described as ‘a growing trend in nineteenth-century laboratory practice to replicate the actualities of the physical, empirically experienced world in controlled conditions that allowed for their analysis’ (Edwards 1997: 58). Finally, some of the technologies and methodologies deployed by artists hark back to the nineteenth and early twentieth-century pursuit of ‘instantaneous’ images. The photography historians Phillip Prodger and Martha Braun have each examined how the desire to analytically study motion had fuelled the creation of faster shutters, increasingly sensitive chemicals and the use of flash photography, reducing exposure times to the merest fraction of a second (Braun 1997: 15–86; Prodger 2003: 24–112). While Darzacq and Pickering simply deploy the fastest available exposure times on their cameras, Klimas and Gersht synchronize flashes with the rapid motion of their subject using sound triggers and electrical devices, in a manner that directly recalls the earlier procedures of Edgerton. In Gersht’s series, in which a bank of cameras is used to produce a series of photographs in quick succession, the links with Muybridge’s work are clearer still. 3 Such similarities are accompanied by significant differences, relating to the production, presentation and display of the photographs. Whereas the majority of earlier scientific images were encountered as small-scale, black and white prints and reproductions in books, case studies and journals, art photography now usually assumes the form of large-scale colour prints, displayed in frames or behind Perspex on the walls of galleries and modern art museums. 4 This provides the photographs  with an immersive element, taken by some critics as symptomatic of a more general ‘spectacularization’ of contemporary art. 5  The effect exploited by photographers is described by Julian Stallabrass in



A colleague described a  visit to Gersht’s studio as akin to entering a scientific laboratory.


All the artists have exhibited photographs at well over a metre in height.


A number of papers on this theme were given at 2007 conference, ‘Rethinking Spectacle’ at Tate Modern.

Art photography at the ‘End of Temporality’

terms of the ‘data sublime’: the experience of a chaotically complex and immensely large configuration of data acting ‘much as renditions of mountain scenes and stormy seas did on the nineteenthcentury viewer’ (Stallabrass 2007: 82–83). Whereas the practical usefulness of photography to early science relied in part on the diminishing of scale to obscure ‘inessential constituents’, recent artists push photography in the opposite direction: providing an excess of information and asserting the physical presence of the photograph as object (Lynch 1985: 37; Bryson 1996: 52). Earlier motion studies aimed to regulate the engagement of viewers through the ways in which subjects were represented, the relationship of photographs to one another, and the additional information provided. This included extended captions, charts, diagrams, written explanations and drawn illustrations. Bruno Latour has described such combinations in terms of ‘information trans-formation’: ‘the ways mediators align one another and choose what will remain constant through transformations and what may be discarded’ (Latour 1998: 424). Muybridge famously deployed a battery of cameras to produce series of photographs in rapid succession, showing the different phases of motion as though a set of stationary poses. These were reproduced together in grids, demanding the  viewer read phases of movement from left to right and top to bottom, much like a written text (Snyder 1997: 396). Similar methods of production and presentation are encountered in photographs by Worthington, Londe, Anschutz and Kolrausch. Where an analysis of movement demanded an indication of temporal and spatial change, Edgerton’s use of photography to document the impact of a fast-moving projectile upon a stationary object or surface could be achieved through a single picture. Such concerns are evident in the timing of the photographs, showing the precise moment of impact, or the moment immediately afterwards. In either case, both the projectile and its target appear, representing cause and effect within a single image. Captions for the earlier photographs usually described both the specific subject and motion depicted – ‘Athletes Boxing’, ‘Bullet Passing Through Candle Flame’, and so on – while written information clarified the distances represented in the photographs and the length of each exposure time. This translated the empirical data of the image into a series of numerical quantities (Jeffrey 2010: 52–57).  While Martin Klimas’ subject closely resembles that of Edgerton – showing the effects of ‘a 9mm steel bullet…shot through the base of the vase’ (Klimas 8 May 2010 interview) – the photographs are timed in such a way that only the vase is depicted, leaving the precise cause of its obliteration unexplained. Pickering and Gersht show the effects of explosives, further obscuring a visual indication of cause. The majority of these artists produce a single image for each of the actions depicted, which are brought together in series to create a typology of different, related effects. The  viewer is encouraged to compare the visual forms of the frozen movements or explosions, much like a series of sculptures. Only Gersht produced sets of images of a single action in rapid succession in the manner of Muybridge, but – significantly – these are not displayed in ways that correspond spatially to the chronology of their production.


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Burbridge, B. (2012), ‘Art photography at the “End of Temporality” ’,  Philosophy of Photography 3: 1, pp. 121–139, doi: 10.1386/pop.3.1.121_1 Contributor details

Ben Burbridge is Lecturer in Art History at the University of Sussex, where he teaches the history and theory of photography and post-war American and European Art . His research focuses on relationships between photography’s artistic and instrumental applications, and how the medium is


 Figure 1: Rendering, Highbury Stadium development, London, 2005.

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