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Touching Surfaces


General Editor:
Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe

Editorial Board:
Anna Bonshek, Per Brask, John Danvers,
William S. Haney II, Amy Ione,
Michael Mangan, Arthur Versluis,
Christopher Webster, Ralph Yarrow
Cover photo: Jacqueline Hayden, Ancient Statuary (1998).
Courtesy of the artist.

Cover design:
Aart Jan Bergshoeff

The paper on which this book is printed meets the requirements of “ISO
9706:1994, Information and documentation - Paper for documents -
Requirements for permanence”.

ISBN: 978-90-420-2513-4
ISSN: 1573-2193
©Editions Rodopi B.V., Amsterdam - New York, NY 2009
Printed in the Netherlands
Touching Surfaces
Photographic Aesthetics,
Temporality, Aging


Amsterdam - New York, NY 2009

In memoriam

Aurora-Stela Anghel
Aurora Anghel
Daniel Cristofovici

This book had its earliest beginning at the Center for

Twentieth Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin-
Milwaukee, where I was a fellow in 1996-1997. My gratitude to
Kathleen Woodward, its director at the time, for providing me with
exceptional working conditions and a most inspiring intellectual
dialogue. I wish to extend my heartfelt thanks to the staff of the
Center, and especially to Carol Tennessen, associate director at the
time, who assisted me in many ways. I also want to acknowledge the
generous support of a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation that
made my collaboration with the Center possible.
In the absence of any other institutional support since then, I
would like to express my gratitude to those who helped me, over the
years and in diverse ways, to turn that project into a book. I am
particularly pleased to thank my friends, Doris Kiely, Yolanda Lalu
Levi, and Angela Jianu, who read fragments of the work in progress,
Juliet Bates, who kindly read the entire manuscript in its final phase,
Mark Carlson, Corrado Minervini and La Famiglia da Nizza, for
helping me solve details in the layout of images, and Serge Della
Monica, who, over time, showed me the light in the dark room.
My special thanks to the photographers whose work has
sustained this book, and in particular to those who generously
accepted to grant me the reproduction rights and made useful
comments on their work, to Christine Guibert for her permission to
reproduce the photographs of Hervé Guibert, and to Agathe Gaillard,
from the Gaillard Gallery, in Paris. I am also grateful to those who
provided me with high definition images to be reproduced in the book:
Kay Broker and Alexandra Batsford, from the Pace/MacGill Gallery,
in New York; Dan Cheeck, from the Fraenkel Gallery, in San
Francisco; Adam Harrison, from the Jeff Wall Studio, in Vancouver;
Christina Horeau and Marie-Eve Beaupré, from the René Blouin
Gallery, in Montréal; and Jonas Wettre, from the Steidl Verlag, in
The library staff of La Maison Européenne de la Photographie
in Paris, my part-time home during the years when this book was
being written, has been of great help. My thankful thoughts to all for
viii Touching Surfaces

their competence, warm reception, humor, and to Henri Coudoux, in

particular, for his genuine interest in my project.

The first chapter of this book is an updated and revised

version of my essay, “Touching Surfaces: Photography, Aging, and an
Aesthetics of Change”, which first appeared in Figuring Age. Women,
Bodies, Generations (Kathleen Woodward ed., Bloomington &
Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1999), reproduced here by
permission. I have presented fragments from the chapters on Jim Dine
and Joyce Tenneson at the Annual International Conference on
“Literature and Psychoanalysis”, in 2004 and 2005, that were
published on-line in the proceedings of the respective conferences.

I wish to thank Dr. Daniel-Meyer Dinkgräfe, the director of

the Consciousness, Literature, and the Arts series at Rodopi, for his
interest in my manuscript, which was to come out with another
publisher in 2003 and then was mysteriously lost.

Paris, March 2008

Duration is to consciousness as light is to the eye.

Bill Viola, Statement 1989

It is a most recollected small painting. It thinks

that only one thing is necessary & this is
time. But this one thing is by no means
apparent to one who will not take the trouble
to look.

Thomas Merton,
on a painting Ad Reinhardt made for him

Plates xiii
Opening 1

The Visible:
Photographic Statements for an Aesthetics of Change

Argument: Visualizing Different Age-Selves 17

1. A Huge Body in a Small Frame: Jeff Wall 23

2. Long Hair on Older Women:
Jacqueline Hayden; Hervé Guibert 28
3. Images That Matter:
Terry Pollack; Cindy Sherman 38
4. A Space to Hold the Gaze:
Terry Pollack; Geneviève Cadieux 45

Photographs that Make a Change

Argument: the Photographic Unconscious 57

Jim Dine
1. Mirroring Marginal Thought:
an Aesthetics of Doctored Images 67
2. Editing, Composition
and the Visual Reconstruction of Memory 78
xii Touching Surfaces

The In-visible:
Spectral Visions, Transformative Perceptions

Argument: Photography and Perception.

Thierry Kuntzel; Janice Tanaka 87

Duane Michals
1. The Fixation of Unstable Fields:
Movement, Change, and Temporality 95
2. Optical Thresholds:
Thresholds of change 101
Thresholds of movement 109
Thresholds of the visible 115
3. Of Pictures & Words: Flashes of Consciousness 118

Photographic Aesthetics and the Fabric of the Subject

Argument: The Inner Statue. Jacqueline Hayden 125

Joyce Tenneson
1. Transformations of the Self: Motion, Emotion, Repose 135
2. Photographic Diversions, Forms of Consciousness 146
3. Aesthetics and Cosmetics 151

Performing Corpo-realities

Argument: The Spectrum of Aging.

Francesca Woodman; Donigan Cumming 157

Francesca Woodman
1. Photographic Ambiguities and Formal Growth 167
2. Photography, Time, and the Body in Space 183

Coda 193
Works Cited 203
Index 213

1. Jacqueline Hayden. 1998. Ancient Statuary Series, “IX Mixing

Bowl”. Platinum/palladium print, 6.5 x 4.5 inches. Courtesy of
the artist.

2. Jeff Wall. 1992. “The Giant”. Color; transparency in lightbox,

15.1/4 x 18.3/4 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

3. Jacqueline Hayden. 1991. Figure Model Series (2A). Unique

silver gelatin print, 84 x 52 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

4. Hervé Guibert. 1979. “Suzanne”. Courtesy Christine Guibert.

5. Hervé Guibert. 1979. “Louise”. Courtesy Christine Guibert.

6. Terry Pollack. 1992. From the series Homage to Käthe Kollwitz.

Sepia; kallitype print on rice paper, 6.1/2 x 4.1/2 inches.
Courtesy of the artist.

7. Terry Pollack. 1987. “Death Mask”. Color; large format

Polaroid print, 20 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

8. Geneviève Cadieux. 1990. “Blue Fear”. Color cybachrome

print, 73 x 116 inches. Photo: Louis Lussier. Copyright
Geneviève Cadieux. Courtesy Galerie René Blouin, Montréal.

9. E. J. Bellocq. Ca. 1912. “Storyville Portrait”, Plate 41. Copyright

Lee Friedlander. Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

10. Jim Dine. 1999. “Heart’s Door”. Digital pigment print, edition of
three, 68.3/4 x 48.1/4 inches. JD52 D. Courtesy of the artist.

11. Jim Dine. 1999. “North Crescent”. Digital pigment print, edition
of three, 48 x 68.1/2 inches. JD57D. Courtesy of the artist.
xiv Touching Surfaces

12. Jim Dine. 1999. “Nuptials”. Digital pigment print, edition of

three, 66.3/4 x 48 inches. JD59D. Courtesy of the artist.

13. Jim Dine. 1999. “The Veronica”. Digital pigment print, edition of
three, 68.3/4 x 48.1/4 inches. JD77D. Courtesy of the artist.

14. Duane Michals. 1972. “The True Identity of Man”. Four gelatin
silver prints each paper, 8 x 10 inches. DMI.S.243. Copyright
Duane Michals. Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York.

15. Duane Michals. 1978. “Now Becoming Then”. Gelatin silver

print with hand applied text paper, 16 x 20 inches. DMI.104.
Copyright Duane Michals. Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New

16. Duane Michals. [1980] 1997. “My Old Age”. Five gelatin silver
prints with hand applied text each paper, 5 x 7 inches.
DMI.S.431. Copyright Duane Michals. Courtesy Pace/MacGill
Gallery, New York.

17. Jacqueline Hayden. 1997. Ancient Statuary Series, “IV Torso of

Boy”. Platinum/palladium print, 7 x 4.5 inches. Courtesy of the

18. Jacqueline Hayden. 1998. Ancient Statuary Series, “V Aphrodite,

Hellenistic”. Platinum/palladium print, 8.5 x 6 inches. Courtesy
of the artist.

19. Duane Michals. 1966. “The Woman is Frightened by the Door”.

Five gelatin silver prints each paper, 5 x 7 inches. DMI.S.27.
Copyright Duane Michals. Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New

20. E.J. Bellocq. Ca. 1912. “Storyville Portrait”. Plate 67. Copyright
Lee Friedlander. Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

21. Jacqueline Hayden. 1993. Figure Model Series (3B). Unique

silver gelatin print, 84 x 52 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
1. Jacqueline Hayden, Ancient Statuary Series, “IX Mixing Bowl”, 1998.
Platinum/palladium print, 6.5 x 4.5 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

I’m looking for a way to play this part where

age doesn’t make any difference. Age isn’t
interesting; age is depressing, age is dull, age
doesn’t have to do anything with anything.

Myrtle Gordon in Opening Night

Spelling out the subject of cross-disciplinary research is always

problematic because one mostly has to start with what the book is not
about in order to bring into focus such notions as contact zones,
relation, appropriation. I would therefore like to say from the outset
that this book is not about the consciousness of old age from a
psychological perspective in so far as the photographic work on which
it is based covers a much wider scope than that of elderly subjects.
Nor does it claim to present any conclusive definition of such complex
processes as consciousness and aging, but rather considers the varied
ways in which such processes are visualized in the field of art
photography. In his book ironically entitled Questions Without
Answers, photographer Duane Michals briefly defines consciousness
as “how we experience being”. How we experience becoming is, by
extension, central to the photographic material that has come to my
attention over the past fifteen years and prompted me to relate aging to
consciousness, temporality, and subject construction. And it is
paradoxically the aesthetic, as a rule at odds with representations of
aging, which has helped me articulate theoretical questions inspired by
the work of contemporary photographers. For what we learn from
writers and artists in this respect is that in trying to serve or use the
imagination one trusts in the organizing powers of inner life, namely
in the possibilities of form and structure to channel consciousness
toward direction and shape. Direction and shape is what our lives are
about, when we come to think of it, in time. This question is
embedded in the main concern of the book since I believe that part of
the contribution of studies in such fields as consciousness, aging, and
2 Touching Surfaces

the arts lies in measuring our theories and conjectures by “how we

experience being” in order to redefine the domain of the humanities,
and, in the process, to suggest conceptual frameworks adapted to new

Awareness of aging has come to public attention with the

demographic changes in Western cultures at the turn of the twenty-
first century. It seems to have taken cultural and social mediators by
surprise. This sudden interest in the old age fact marks a dramatic leap
from the youth culture of the 1960s to realities of old age that have
lacked appropriate cultural representations. Until very recently the
contrast between the visible signs of aging and the absence of their
representations in visual culture was striking. Hence the need for
models able to generate, as Kathleen Woodward puts it, “alternative
futures for ourselves as we live into lives longer than we had imagined
for ourselves, if we had even previously thought consciously about
aging at all – and many of us have not” (1991: 155). One of the
initiators of studies in aging, Woodward wonders about the form these
models might take. It is precisely such potential models coming from
the field of art photography over the past decades that the present
book explores. These models are not prescriptive but reflective. They
invite us to look closer into experiences of aging, to think of the many
– often contradictory – ways in which we relate to them, to consider
aging not only as an extension of our lives in time, but also as an
extension of our understanding of who we are and of how we relate to
the others. Significantly, my photographic material comes from the
field of art photography or, as it is also sometimes called, speculative
photography*. Instead of testimonies, these works present us with
fictions. Or rather – because of photography’s adherence to the real –

* Speculative photography has more recently come to name the category

of photographs whose intent is neither documentary, nor utilitarian. It refers to
photographs intended as artistic representations. Speculative photography concerns
the visualization of internal and fictional worlds, or the perception of certain realities.
It is distinct from “speculative photography” in the commercial sense. The term
testimonial photography is used here for all other categories of photographs
(documentary, family, archival) with a direct, specific referentiality. Testimonial
photography concerns the representation and/or exploration of the real world, of
objects, of people; although such works can be presented in the space of the museum
(as it is the case more and more), they have not been conceived intentionally for
artistic purposes.
Opening 3

with conjunctions between the real and the fictional, between

perception and convention. Instead of trying to find in these works
what old age looks like (which covers a wide spectrum of
manifestations in any event), I bring into focus the photographers’
gaze projected on the photographed subjects. And I also bring into
focus the responses these photographs call for. This aspect covers an
even larger spectrum of perceptions, some of which we have been
aware of, others that surface in the process of looking at them, and
also in the extended time of reflection.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, a few but decisive studies

opened up the exploration of aging, a category which had been
ignored in previous studies of difference devoted to race, ethnicity, or
gender. Works such as those of Kathleen Woodward (1986; 1991),
Anne Wyatt-Brown and Janice Rossen (1993), or Marilyn Pearsall
(1997) highlight the “invisibility” of aging in Western culture and in
the domain of cultural studies. They explore complex psychological,
social, and cultural implications of aging and its representations
against both “negative” and “positive” stereotypes.1 These studies are
based on literary texts that incorporate representations of, or tropes for
aging in a variety of ways. That they mostly address the field of
literature is itself significant for the scarceness of images of old age in
the visual culture of the preceding decades. With one exception
devoted to painting (Covey 1991), it is only in the late 1990s that a
small number of works considered representations of aging in the
visual arts,2 none of them however devoted exclusively to a
theorization of the relationship between photography and aging.

1 For a more complete bibliography on the issue of aging from a feminist

perspective and from that of the social construction of age, cf. a recent issue of the
NWSA Journal (The National Women’s Studies Association) (Marshall: 2006).
2 These works include: a volume dealing with various forms of corporeal
difference, from obesity to aging in contemporary painting and photography
originating in a Channel Four program (Townsend and Coulthard: 1998); a study
devoted to theater (Basting: 1998); a seminal collection of studies on aging in
literature and the arts (photography and performance included) (Woodward: 1999)
and an overview of historical, psychological, and social aspects related to aging in
American culture (Featherstone: 1995).
“Time of Our Lives”, a show devoted to representations of aging was
presented at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, in 1999, curated by
Founding Director Marcia Tucker with Curatorial Associate Anne Ellegood (all art
4 Touching Surfaces

Yet, when we think of visual representations of aging,

photography naturally comes to mind as a device for “arresting” a
certain moment in time. A photograph is commonly thought of as an
object that triggers off memories, captures a state, one that documents
various stages of life. While in the 1980s photography was entering
academia in the field of cultural studies – mostly under the paradigms
established by the essays of Susan Sontag (1977) and Roland Barthes
(1980) – it was also growing more and more visible in the art world,
namely by reinforcing its place and role in museums and galleries – in
the United States, and developing it – in Europe. Progressively,
photography came to be part of a new paradigm of art history. By the
late 1980s, photographers such as Robert Mapplethorpe or Cindy
Sherman became well known both in the art world and in academia
for challenging the binary visible-invisible and established role
models. Both photographers have used cultural stereotypes in quite
intriguing ways to create powerful images of difference that document
aspects of race and gender without however being documentary.
In the mid-1990s, at a time when youth was still the norm in
the media, other works from the field of art photography came to my
attention. Without taking aging as a major theme, these works were
exploring its wide range of realities. Photographs such as those
discussed in this book by Jeff Wall or Geneviève Cadieux, Jacqueline
Hayden or Terry Pollack, derive aesthetic strategies from the
paradoxical dynamic of attraction and repulsion that we inevitably

media, from painting and photography to video as well as images in the media, such
as television commercials, were represented in this show).
Jacqueline Hayden’s work appeared in an exhibition devoted to the nude in
contemporary art at the Aldrich Museum, Ridgefield, Ct., in 1999. The exhibition
catalogue highlights the variety of approaches to the nude as well as the fact that the
aging body is no longer such a taboo (Philbrick et al., 1999).
Phototherapist Rosy Martin in collaboration with Kay Goodbridge presented
their work on stereotypes of the aging woman in the show “Outrageous Agers”, at
Focal Point Gallery, Southern On-Sea, UK, 2001.
In 2008, La Panera Art Center, in Lleida, Spain, presented the exhibition
“The Gift of Life”, devoted to photographic and video works representing aging and
curated by Juan Vincente Aliaga.
The millennium has certainly brought the reflection on time into attention
with another important exhibition, one which did not however thematize aging but
rather movement and temporality as captured by photographs: “Photography and
Time” at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London (Haworth-Booth: 2000).
Opening 5

associate with bodies marked by time or disease, instead of simply

documenting them. Other photographers – as, for instance, Joyce
Tenneson – engage the viewer, through emotional impact, into
reconsidering both art history models and representations of aging in
commercial photography. Unlike photographers who have addressed
the issue of aging frontally,3 in the works discussed in this book the
question of age is part of artistic projects of wider scope. A variety of
problems of representation are at the core of these projects: the
articulation between images and time; the metaphoric dimensions of
photographic techniques; or the temporality of perception, in a context
of predominant concern with time and the corporeal at the turn of the
twenty-first century. In compelling ways, these works lay stress on a
dynamics of change and becoming in which time is not only an
element of progressive degradation but also a formative category as
well as a source of creativity, a recategorization which shifts the focus
of aging from the condition of being old to a dense network of
perceptions and visualizations of change, movement, and temporality.
From the perspective of this shift in how we relate to time patterns, the
apparently obvious association between photography and aging turns
out to be more than meets the eye.
Aging is commonly thought of as a state, and, consequently,
photography as a means of recording it. However, what I have found
remarkable in the work of these artists is that the strategies they use
are largely transformative instead of reproductive. To the extent to
which they transform conventions of photography, they invite viewers
to reflect on how these images relate to both identity and diversity.
They also let us see how varied layers of time can be articulated with
the experience of the present. This aspect is particularly meaningful
for my argument here, since, together with the problematic
implications of exposing the changing body, it addresses the question
of the possibilities and limits of representation in photography. Such
photographic works visualize aspects of aging by other means than
simply documenting the realities of older bodies in crude or
sentimental ways. In them, perceptions of aging are turned into
resonant visual patterns. In the process, the physical realities of aging

3 John Coplans (1987; 2003), Nicholas Nixon (1988; 1991), Donigan

Cumming (1995; 1996), or Mario Giacomelli (1995), and, in very poignant series of
portraits of their parents in their old age, Richard Avedon (1993), or Nan Goldin
6 Touching Surfaces

captured by the camera have been transformed not with an aim to

conceal them but to make them visible in significant ways. These
works explore, imaginatively, I would say, the possibilities of the
photographic medium not to delude but to construct visual analogs of
psychic space and inner experiences and thereby illuminate the
reciprocal relations between photography and aging. Significantly,
aging is not considered in these works as a fixed situation in time
(documented by the photographic image), but as a process of growth,
one that I read in relation to photography’s ability to record process
along with state, and therefore also in relation to subject construction.
Like aging, photography is inevitably associated with
various time dimensions.4 As a depository of private and collective
history, it prompts associations between the actual present of
perception and a fleeting moment in the past, which we mostly think
of as fixed, arrested within the frame of a photograph. Photography
has long been considered within the present versus past binary, which
is, indeed, a valid distinction for family or documentary photographs.
However, because of their ambivalent relation to the referent,
speculative photographs accommodate heterogeneous perceptions of
time by disturbing conventions in order to visualize different layers of
time or levels of perception. It is therefore the variety of the resulting
associations – and not the fixation of one specific moment – that
accounts for the rich figurative potential of these photographs. Artists
who make use of the photographic medium insist precisely on the
possibility of capturing or recreating images that are not directly
visible to the eye, but rather part of more or less remote areas of
It is along these lines that consciousness relates intimately
to my approach of the subjective and introspective dimensions of
photographs that represent the body as a site for varied perceptions of
the self. In such works, the physical body becomes either a signifier of
interiority or an instrument for exploring borderline zones between the
physical and the psychic. Through this very transcendence of the
physical, aging can be read in these photographs as an organizing

4 Symbolically, it is a way of measuring time (as in individual or family

portraits). But even before the invention of the photographic camera, the camera
obscura was used in the fifteenth century to structure space in monocular perspective,
and the pinhole appeared in sundials as a device of measuring time by way of the
passage of light.
Opening 7

principle of the consciousness of the self. My focus on formal analysis

and parameters of perception calls attention to the possibilities of
composition to shape our consciousness of form in ways that relate to
subject construction. In this respect, consciousness connects to vision
from the perception of a shape or series of shapes to the progressive
perception of correlations that make up a larger picture, one that
corresponds to each artist’s personal idiom and reverberates in the
beholder’s experience. The field of consciousness has, like that of a
photograph, a focus and a peripheral constellation of shapes. In certain
photographic images discussed in the following chapters, the center is
not always easy to distinguish from the margins, the form from the
ground, or the sharp image from the blurred. From a perceptual point
of view, these images relate to certain states of semi-consciousness, a
fact which brings to light the tenuous separation between the
conscious and the unconscious in the creative act. Some of them
correspond to optical misperceptions, which are nonetheless keenly
visualized and can be associated with various degrees of
consciousness. From the perspective of fictions or fables of the self
that photography can create, multiple-focus images or images out of
focus say something about the motion of the subject in space and time,
about displacements, some of which are imperceptible, others
dramatic, many inherent to growth. How consciousness of form
resonates in us as consciousness of identity is a question that has
nourished my exploration of photographic works.
However, like aging itself, consciousness resists
theorization (as commonly understood in cultural studies, and
certainly not in the specialized approaches of philosophy, psychology,
cognitive sciences, or neurobiology). Perceptions of change in Duane
Michals’ photographs, for instance, or perceptions of inner
experiences in Francesca Woodman’s work, are as many ways of
looking at consciousness not as “a” state (a mental or photographic
image of a moment in time), but as a process that defines the living
self. Similarly, photographic equivalents of the unconscious, such as
we find in the work of Jim Dine, do not represent the unconscious in
the Freudian sense of specific repressed information of specific
symbolic scope, but rather as part of life experience accumulated in
layers of images (and time) made accessible through techniques
deviating from mimetic conventions. “What we are less and less as we
sink gradually down into dreamless sleep […] and what we are more
8 Touching Surfaces

and more, as the noise tardily arouses us”, the frequently quoted
definition of consciousness that George T. Ladd gave at the turn of the
previous century, epitomizes the visual and cognitive qualities of the
photographic works discussed in this book.

Although my corpus comes from speculative photography, I

have tried to avoid speculative sources to draw mostly on approaches
of photography by art historians or theoreticians of the visual arts
(such as Rosalind Krauss or Max Kozloff), and by scholars who have
more recently discussed photography within the wider context of the
history of ideas and visual representation (such as Geoffrey Batchen,
Patrick Maynard, or François Brunet). Although Rudolf Arnheim’s
Visual Thinking (1969) – which has recently come to its 50th edition –
and his other studies in the psychology of perception are not quoted
directly, what I have learned from them in my formative years has
determined my understanding of visual art as a form of thinking, and
of composition as an instrument of structuring it. Given the prominent
role of new technologies in image-making today, the phenomenology
of perception has become indispensable to the reading of visual
works. Without elaborating extensively on theories of perception, I
have given priority to close readings of the photographs, to the
understanding of their visual logic, and to the ways in which they may
act on the viewer.5 Instead of placing the focus on the affective
relation that we establish with photographs generically, I highlight
emotional processes alluded to in the making and the perception of
photographs. The phenomenological perspective, that of Maurice
Merleau-Ponty in particular, seemed therefore the most apt to explore
these processes. The central role the body plays in Merleau-Ponty’s
investigation of the relations between the visible and the invisible, for
instance, calls attention to its status as both acting subject and object
of observation, an ambivalence which resonates with the photographs
discussed in the book. Other notions from psychoanalysis, from object
relation theories in particular, connect to such running themes in the

5 This approach has primarily been that of French photography critics,

Jean-Claude Lemagny (1994), for instance, or Régis Durand (1994) who places his
readings within the framework of a critical phenomenology of the photographic
Opening 9

book as real and imaginary spaces, the corporeal, or the role of visual
works in the elaboration of subjectivity.
Few studies in current visual culture critique focus, when we
think of it, on the aesthetic quality of cultural representations as a
carrier of meaning. Paradoxical as it may seem, the association
between aging and photographic aesthetics enlightens the varied ways
in which our understanding of visibility, the visible, and vision have
been redefined by art photography. Instead of sentimentalizing or
merely documenting it, a perspective informed by photographic
aesthetics can, I argue, contribute to a creative thinking of aging.
Reciprocally, because of the zones of time engaged in the process of
aging, the exploration of aesthetic dimensions illuminates aspects of
temporality and subject construction intrinsic to photographic
representation and to our readings of photographs.

The following chapters unfold the steps of this journey from

the visible to visibility, from vision to interiority, and then to the
becoming of the subject in photographs that foreground what I call an
aesthetics of change. Each chapter is introduced by an argument
which connects a question of representation with a technical problem
or with a series of aesthetic strategies that subvert mimetic
expectations conventionally associated with photography. The issues
outlined in each argument then implicitly guide the readings of the
photographs in each chapter. The chapters connect through references
from one work or question to another, and mostly through associations
that are striking, either by way of likeness of purpose and form, or by
contrast. A particular progression evolved in the writing of the book,
one which is intently discontinuous – like our consciousness of aging
itself, and like our perception of photographs, for that matter –, yet
one which reveals a certain coherence of the subject. The search for a
coherent image of the self, in which change and time are inherent,
shows through all the photographs here as a moving image: constantly
eluding us yet persisting in our peripheral vision.
The first chapter sets the ground for the subsequent sections
of the book by presenting the scope of questions related to the
visualization of aging in speculative photography. Here I set in
opposition the invisibility of aging in the visual culture of the 1980s
and 1990s with photographic works that place realities of aging on
various levels of visibility and reveal a wide spectrum of modalities
10 Touching Surfaces

by which art photographs can formalize consciousness of aging. I use

alternatively the term speculative photography to emphasize precisely
the fact that these photographs meditate (speculate) on the becoming
of the self and present the viewers with an internal mirror (a
speculum): a visual echo of their own perceptions, recognitions, and,
in privileged moments, revelations of unfathomed spaces. The
emotional dimension of these photographs – which either avoids
sentimentalism, or uses it demystifyingly – creates such imaginary
spaces that come with life transitions and hold the gaze,
metaphorically, or, metonymically, the body itself, as in the case of
Geneviève Cadieux’s “Blue Fear” or in the photographs of Jacqueline
Hayden that address a wide range of emotions related to aging and
also illuminate its unexplored creative potential.
While the photographs considered in the first chapter
challenge limited notions of “the visible”, the works discussed in the
subsequent chapters belong to artists who explore and extend it along
with varied understandings of the invisible, to begin with the
unconscious, for which photography has provided metaphors since its
early days. In these artists’ specific uses of techniques of visualization,
I see the possibilities of photography to enlighten, modify, or enrich
our understanding of the unconscious as a continuation of these early
associations. From the domain of the visible, I therefore turn to the
visibility of internal spaces, from “an aesthetics of change” to
“photographs that make a change” in our understanding of
photography as index. In these works, the unconscious material is
considered – like memories – as inaccessible consciousness or, in Jim
Dine’s words “as a source of power and information about one’s own
self” (Dine 2003, vol. 4: 4). From this assumption, I analyze
photographic strategies through which the unconscious can be
visualized and thereby become accessible as formalized
consciousness, and I focus on Jim Dine’s exploration of such areas as
the unconscious, memory, and aging.
Memory is in more than one way associated with loss. And
disappearance or effacement can be considered as major anxieties
related to aging. Significantly, in a context in which many deplore the
excess of images in Western cultures, an important number of
photographers and video artists today are engaged in a meditation on
the transience of material as well as of mental images. This particular
aspect, discussed in the third chapter, intersects my exploration of
Opening 11

temporality in this book in a striking way, since it displaces the focus

from the common fear of seeing metamorphoses of the body recorded
in a photograph to more disquieting anxieties related to the effacement
of images as signifiers of identity.
In the third chapter, “The In-visible: Spectral Visions,
Transformative Perceptions”, I focus therefore on photography’s
potential to enlarge our perceptual and imaginative field by extending
the limits of the visible to capture the passage of time in an image.
The concern with movement, change, and temporality defines Duane
Michals’ photographic work discussed in this chapter. Early in his
career, Michals became concerned with aging as change, that is, as a
series of transformations related to the becoming of the self and not to
the state of being old. While Dine reconfigures common
representations of the past by means of photographs, Michals insists
on the present. In his work I read an invitation to reconsider our
attachment to photography as a signifier of the past, a challenge to
Roland Barthes’ nostalgic view of photography. From this
perspective, the loss of the index value of the photographic image is
seen as a gain in perception and also as an enlargement of
photography’s potential to expose a continuum of identity in the very
discontinuity of perceptions of change.
The last two chapters are more directly related to paradoxes
that articulate questions of aging with questions of aesthetics. Joyce
Tenneson, for instance, presents, instead of an ironic vision of subject
construction, a meditative one. In the fourth chapter devoted to her
work, we return to the ambiguous relation between aesthetics and
aging addressed in the opening sections. By contrast with the
overexposure of the body in commercial photography, the artists I
have chosen to discuss in this book represent the body as a visual
metaphor that reveals the subject’s positionings (and displacements) in
time and space. Tenneson’s working in both fields, artistic and
commercial, and the very progress of her vision over time bear out
more recent turns taken by relations between photography and aging
in the two fields that tend to diverge less than they did two decades
Within the logic of my argument, which relocates the notion
of aging from “being old” into “growing older”, the last chapter is
devoted to a young photographer who did not take the time to age, or
to come to old age (Woodman committed suicide when she was
12 Touching Surfaces

twenty-two). The discussion of her work allows me to develop the

hypothesis presented in the first chapter: that of aging as change and
process. Her work echoes in some respects that of Hervé Guibert,
whose photographs of his old aunts (evoked in the first chapter) I read
as a moving projection in future. Woodman’s photographs represent
indeed a strong argument for an extended understanding of time in
photography, namely, its relation not only to the past, but to the
present, and as I point out, to the future as well. The notion of a subtle
continuum of aging discussed in the first chapter acquires here new
dimensions since Woodman also places her work in a continuum of
artistic generations (Michals was one of her models). She transforms
aesthetic visions, reflects on technical ambiguities, and extracts from
them new metaphors for individual artistic growth. Since the visual
integration of realities of old age into an aesthetic circuit is a running
theme in the book, the close-readings of her work allow me to return
to the quality of the aesthetic and to place the issue of aging in the
larger context of the construction of subjectivity (and of the subject),
or of what I call the fabric of the subject, in time. By challenging
readings of her works which have focused on the physical body and
on signifiers of social or cultural inscriptions, I intend to displace the
attention from the domination of the corporeal to the interpretation of
the body as a metaphorical site for the consciousness of the self.

This book project was in many ways inspired by John

Cassavettes’ film “Opening Night”, released in 1978, a time in which
aging was not yet an issue in academia. In the film, Myrtle Gordon
(played by Gena Rowlands), a middle-aged actress, is experiencing an
aging crisis as she is unable to perform the role of an older woman in
a play suggestively titled “The Second Woman”, and written by a
sixty-five-years-old woman. Myrtle Gordon’s crisis reveals however a
larger spectrum of perceptions related to aging and creativity. In spite
of her being the protagonist, Cassavettes also unfolds the complexities
of growing older through her relationships with the other characters
(the male crisis, for instance, is subtly suggested in the roles played by
John Cassavettes himself and Ben Gazzara). Many running themes in
this book were first addressed in a paper on that film, “Imagining the
Older Woman”, which I delivered in 1996 at the Conference “Women,
Bodies, Generations” at the Center for Twentieth Century Studies at
Opening 13

the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. These were themes such as:

the generational continuum outliving generation conflicts; the
importance of physical and psychic holding; the role of images that
accompany transitional phases throughout one’s life; the difficulty of
aging with women and men; the relationship between aging and
creativity, between aging and photography.
“When I was seventeen, I could do everything. It was so
easy. My emotions were so close to the surface. I find it harder and
harder to stay in touch …” runs the “epigraph” of the film. Myrtle
Gordon’s conflict is dramatized by her being caught between the
image of a younger woman (Nancy, one of her fans run over by a car
after a brief exchange with her idol) and what in her is still a latent
image of aging, a dormant image that waits to be developed (for
which Sarah, the author of the play, who watches the younger actress’
crisis with condescending comprehension, stands as a standard that
Myrtle cannot identify with). Eventually, Myrtle overcomes her crisis
precisely by coming to terms with the younger – lost – self, embodied
by several violent apparitions of the dead girl, as many visualizations
of her younger self with which she is actually struggling to get back in
touch. “When I was eighteen my emotions were so close to the
surface…”, Myrtle says later in the film, “… I could feel anything
easily …”. Progressively (and paradoxically, through a series of self-
destructive acts), she manages to integrate that younger perceptual
body in her present, to connect with it. At the end of the film (and of
her journey through the night), she regains indeed her younger self,
once the loss has been exorcised (in a literal way, by her appealing to
a professional exorcist in order to liberate herself from the violent
visitations of the dead girl). From this haunting image that comes
unbidden to her mind, she reaches a perception of her self as a whole
in a moment of her life in which the fear of aging is, in fact, outdone
by her anxiety of losing her creativity (and of being stuck in the role
of an older woman: “I am looking for a way to play this part where
age doesn’t make any difference”, she says). Figuring the younger
body that haunts the older one helps her bring back that younger self
creatively, that is not as a contrasting image but as part of what she
has become. Upset and disturbed by a text with which she cannot
identify, Myrtle does not want to look younger or to be young again,
but to stay in touch with her younger self beyond conflict. In order to
cope with the realities of aging, she has to regain the emotional
14 Touching Surfaces

impetus of the teenager. At the same time, for her to accomplish the
passage, she has to be free, to sever the ties with adolescent traces of
incertitude, hesitation, revolt. She needs the young woman’s emotions,
which are “so close to the surface”, in order to invent the older
Following the hint in the title, the film has sometimes been
read as the night of aging opening up for Myrtle. However, her
remarkable performance at the opening night of the play at the end of
the movie – when humor and improvisation exceed both the original
text and the crisis engendered by it – shows, I would suggest, quite the
opposite, namely the potential that can open up in a different stage of
one’s life. The process of mourning the loss of the younger body
implies Myrtle’s integrating the image of the girl in a generational
continuum represented by all the women in the film. From that image
she extracts, instead of pain, creative energy (“… she is so open … on
top of everything emotionally …”, Myrtle says about Nancy). The loss
of that contact and the conflict with the younger self, at the origin of
her crisis, equals with a loss of meaning in the logic of the self. Only
when that emotional logic has been reestablished is she able to play
the role of the older woman in an authentic way. In her book
Motherless Daughters, Hope Edelman has described such need for an
encompassing consciousness of the self in the special case of
daughters whose mothers’ early death determines their coming of age
without a mirror image of the older mother and, thus, remain
suspended in time, as it were, in a gap between ages: “Sometimes I
want nothing more than the ability to spread my arms and grasp forty-
two [the age when her mother died] with one hand and seventeen with
another [her age at the death of the mother], and then to pull both ends
in tight, until they meet somewhere in between” (1994: 54).
Myrtle’s problem with the text of the play “The Second
Woman” is that it deals with aging in too literal a way and she will
only be able to play it when she has found the metaphorical access to
it. Similarly, this book has been inspired by works in which models of
aging are not literal (as they are in documentary photographs), but
figurative. In my readings of these works, I also have often appealed
to tropes in order to grasp realities for which an excessively
theoretical vocabulary seemed rather reductive. “Touching Surfaces”,
the metaphoric title of the book, plays on an ambivalence inherent in
photography as well as in our relationship to aging. In the sense of
Opening 15

moving, “touching” relates to the emotional work involved in the

creation and reception of the particular images of aging discussed
here. In the verbal sense, “touching” refers to the artists’ interventions
on photographic captures or photographic impressions that locate
older body textures into new imaginative spaces. In Jacqueline
Hayden’s photograph from her Ancient Statuary Series, where she
transforms the stone portraits of a woman and a man that have
outlived temporal and spatial displacements (1), I found a most
appropriate visual metaphor for what photographs have brought to my
understanding of aging over time.
For as it turns out, there is much more to surfaces when we
take the time to look at them. More that helps us stay in touch.

The Visible:
Photographic Statements for an Aesthetics of

Argument: Visualizing Different Age-Selves

Just before the rain it seemed the body

lingered transparent,

had carried one out under the firs, set

one free under the rotating spheres.
Now flesh was a constant breath
at one’s ear, intoning

its litany of limitations. Yet how far the body

had to travel – when finally, after its shape
was fixed, and became one’s signature
in the world of forms,

then faithlessly, like a ship tide-persuaded,

it drifted, abandoning what it sought
to become, the body in youth lingering
only a moment in its own folds.

Ellen Hinsey

Photographs are strange creations. They are depictions of a

moment that is always passing; after the shutter closes, the subject
moves out of frame and begins to change outwardly or inwardly.
One changes. One shifts to a different state of consciousness.
Subtle changes can take place in an instant, perhaps one does not
even feel them – but they are perceptible to the camera.

Susan Griffin
18 Touching Surfaces

By custom, we conceive of aging as a separation – from youth and its

attributes. Or we think of aging, internally, as a split – between a
younger self and another self, a stranger, new self, yet a self that is
always getting older. But on the inner screen of aging, these shadows
– memories of younger selves, anticipations of older selves – meet,
conflict, interact. Separation and continuity are the source of a tension
that helps us accommodate change. Incorporating previous states of
consciousness of the self, we become the sum of what we have been.
It is, paradoxically, a permanently inchoate process. As a rule, loss
and mourning accompany the discourse of aging. Yet loss’s life-long
companion is accumulation – of imaginary selves as well as of
psychic objects, of all that we call the “baggage” of the past. How do
we then relate, in the psychic workshop of adult life, to what the
psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas has called our various “sequential
self states” and “idiomatic dispositions” (1992: 29-30)?
Instead of thinking of old age as a discrete element in a
linear narrative or in a hierarchy, I will focus in this chapter on
continuity, on the possibility of bridging our different age-selves, of
creating a space of communication between one’s own ages and
between generations. While aging may indeed encompass a “subtle
continuum” of generations, in Kathleen Woodward’s phrase (1991: 6),
we mostly experience it as a discontinuous flux of psychic images, of
discrepancies between different age-selves. Psychic space embraces
the multiple transformations that make up the imaginary unity of the
self. But the very multiplicity of these psychic images blurs our vision
of this imaginary unity. Thus aging itself poses a particular challenge
to the very possibility of its representation in visual terms. Yet, in fact,
does not the very indistinctness and indeterminacy of such blurred
images – the elusive possibility of seizing the contours of the state of
being old within the process of aging – seem more faithful to our
actual perception and experience of aging? For at what age, actually,
can we situate the borders of aging? Who decides the age of aging?
As medical research has proved, our body begins to age at infancy.
Cellular tissues, the eye’s crystalline, the nerve cells of the brain all
diminish starting with the fifth year of our life as Paul Virilio reminds
us in his Aesthetics of Disappearance (1991: 13-14). Even before our
body has acquired a distinctive shape, it seems to start vanishing
owing to biological and chemical transformations, many
imperceptible, off focus in our consciousness. Aging equals change,
The Visible 19

everybody seems to agree; yet the ways of reading these changes and
the direction of these changes are richly diverse.
Our Western cultural tradition understands age in terms of a
binary system. Old age is defined in relation to youth and thus
essentially by what it lacks. In keeping with this negative definition,
one of Western culture’s ways of dealing with old age has been to
bring it into alignment with the model of youth. In an attempt to
“combat” the aging process, contemporary practices such as cosmetic
surgery and hyper-fitness regimes have in fact contributed to the
cultural denial of aging through an artificial aestheticization of the
body designed to approximate depersonalized canons of youthful
beauty. The premise of this book is that we need, individually and
culturally, appropriate images of aging, just as crucially as we need
ways of mourning, ways of dealing with loss. To deny aging results in
psychic and cultural dysfunction, a kind of anesthesia of both the
personal body and the cultural body. To hypervisualize it, on the other
hand – as recent images circulating in the media do – often results in
too offensive a rhetoric.

In the art world of the 1980s and 1990s, more and more
photographic images appeared that challenged the artificial and frozen
aesthetics of aging which had for a long time placed youth at its
center. Recently, aging has gained attention in cultural studies
primarily by exploring the sociological and psychological dimensions
of growing old. Work has focused on the cultural stereotypes,
ideological underpinnings, and theoretical deadlocks in which images
of age have been confined. But the aesthetics of aging – one of the
most frequent standards by which we measure the realities of aging –
is still very much ignored. In the following pages I would like to
suggest that the photographic works which I discuss may represent a
decisive creation of new forms of expression and new aesthetic
conceptions that integrate conventionally negative categories into new
visions, very much like the negative categories introduced into
modern aesthetic forms throughout the twentieth century.
Given what has been often called the double standard of
aging for women, research on aging has focused mainly on the
position, perception, and representation of older women. Here,
however, as well as in the following chapters, I will focus on
photographic images of older women and men made by both female
20 Touching Surfaces

and male photographers, images that disrupt that binary division

between youth and age in an effort (more or less explicit, more
intuitive than programmatic) to challenge the devaluation of aging. As
I hope to show, these images foreground multiple visions of old age,
exploring the rich potential of this period of human life, one that is in
fact in the process of extending further and further into the future. The
creative possibilities offered by these art photographs help make up
for our culture’s devastating lack of imagination with regard to this
domain of our lives. It is important to note that many of these
photographers are younger than their models. Their photographs
reveal, in many ways, images of the other we feel growing in us as we
grow old, explorations of what has been called “the gray continent”
(Lapierre 1983). Yet they are also fictions of what we can hardly
visualize as a stable form of consciousness: our own aging.
In its vernacular* uses, photography is associated with
representations of identity and plays indeed a significant part in the
construction of our personal or collective narratives. It has also to a
large extent molded our perception of aging. Family albums, or more
recently blogs, but also journalistic or archival photographs document
our relation to time. Photographs accompany us in mourning losses of
so many kinds. They fill in gaps in our memory, help us build family
narratives, and create a continuum as we move through generations,
one that functions as a mirror to our growing older. The question I
raise here, however, is how can speculative photographs help us think
of aging in different ways, since the images I discuss can express both
idiosyncrasies related to aging and also possibilities of changing them.
In this chapter, then, I will look at photographic techniques and
metaphors used by artists to accommodate tensions between the state
of being old and the process of growing old. For a writer it is easier to
create alternative spaces that account for the ambiguities and
uncertainties we are faced with when we think of aging. But how does
the photographer account not for the signs of aging (signs that up to
recently have been quite invisible in visual culture), but rather for
inner realities, realities that are inevitably relegated to the domain of

* Since the terms low, mass, or popular culture are heavily connoted by
the theoretical paradigms of the 1970s and 1980s, I have preferred here the term
“vernacular”, as used in linguistics or architecture to designate other uses of
photography than artistic: family, documentary, commercial and journalistic.
The Visible 21

the invisible? Rather than insist on old age as static, the authors of the
photographs that inform my argument in this chapter, and throughout
the book, reflect precisely on paradoxical process of physical and
psychic change, as well as on the visual configurations that can evolve
from them.

How does photography visualize aspects of aging that do not

merely correspond in a documentary way to visible realities? How are
such complex psychic structures as those related to aging translated
into visual patterns? If accumulation of the stuff of one’s own psychic
life can be as problematic as loss, what are the photographer’s ways of
dealing with such accumulation? These are all questions that relate to
the modalities of translating inner life into visible patterns. As Bollas
suggests in his book Being a Character. Psychoanalysis & Self
Experience, we function in the awaking part of our existence in
accordance with the psychic mechanisms of condensation and
displacement, of symbolization and overdetermination that Freud read
in the dream work. We ourselves “become a kind of dreaming”, he
states by extension and insists on the similarities between inner world
and actual experience rather than on their differences. “Although the
internal world registers the multivalent factors of units of experience,
rendered into textured condensations of percepts, introjects, objects of
desire, memories, somatic registrations, and so forth”, Bollas writes,
“in fact we become a kind of dreaming: overdetermined, condensed,
displaced, symbolic (1992: 52; emphasis added)”. Bollas uses the
terms of dream functioning as a model of articulation of individual
character based on the capacity “to devolve consciousness to the
creative fragmentations of unconscious work” (53), one that
contributes to the build-up of what he calls “a human form”, which
emerges from fragmentary perceptions and disseminations of
consciousness routinely grasped as a chaos of forms.
Photographs deviating from the mimetic reproduction of
reality bring to light precisely such tensions between external
perceptible form and internal chaos of forms by creating a peculiar
sense of space which relates to temporality as a process instead of a
fix moment in time. In that space, different age-selves, or different
images of aging exist in simultaneity. Most of the works I discuss
below suggest indeed an intermediate area between reality and illusion
(an adult equivalent of Winnicott’s “transitional space”) by
22 Touching Surfaces

imaginatively exploring the possibilities of the photographic medium

not to delude but rather to construct visual analogs of unstable
perceptions and of their possible development into patterns. Focusing
on the intersections of the psychic with the corporeal to approach
realities of aging, they run against photographic conventions and also
against conventional ways of looking at aging.

2. Jeff Wall, “The Giant”, 1992.

Color; transparency in lightbox, 15.1/4 x 18.3/4 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
The Visible 23

1. A Huge Body in a Small Frame.

Jeff Wall

[...] she is not an old lady but simultaneously a young

girl and a child and all of them.
Czeslaw Milosz

[...] people are not just their own age; they are to some
extent every age, or no age…


In his photographic work “The Giant” (2), Canadian artist

Jeff Wall boldly addresses the delicate subject of the female nude.
Through a series of reversals of sizes that make up the illusionary
space of this photograph, Wall suggests a psychic space that can
simultaneously contain multiple ages. A naked woman on the landing
of a library staircase is reading a scrap of paper while other readers go
about their own business. The confusion in the perception of space,
suggestive of Escher’s architectural puzzles, is counterbalanced by the
poised pose of the woman – modest yet unashamed. Another paradox
results from the dimensions of the picture. In spite of its title, “The
Giant”, this is a small format photograph (15.1/4 x 18.3/4 inches), an
otherwise unusual size for Wall’s work. The relatively small size of
the image replicates metaphorically the boundaries and closures
imposed upon representations of the elder body. A huge body in a
small frame. A visual pun as it were: a condensation of growing old,
which is figured as maturing (growing in size) and getting older. But
this is also the naked body of a woman placed in an open, public
space. Size functions here as a visual metonymy for age. Magnified,
overexposed, the woman is self-absorbed in her own private world,
one that remains secret to us. Denuded of any other signifiers of her
identity, she simply gains respect for the human being in its most
genuine – and most vulnerable – appearance. The monumental
architecture of her body defies the structure and size of the public
space. The fact that the naked body is located within the space of the
library suggests a syncopated overlap of the world of experience with
the world of knowledge. In an uncanny way, this image bridges the
large and the small, a sense of openness and a sense of confinement
24 Touching Surfaces

(and perhaps of self-contentment), the geometry of rationalized space

and the unpredictable habitations of the unconscious. Incidentally, in
the 1995 Jeff Wall retrospective at the Jeu de Paume Gallery in Paris,
“The Giant” was placed in a corridor, a space of transition, surprising
the viewers as they rounded the corner with its very discretion. And
discretion is precisely what is so odd about this bold photograph, so
unlike many inauthentic recent photographs of middle-age female
nudes in popular magazines.
As in Lacan’s reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Purloined
Letter”, the mystery of “The Giant” lies in its very openness. It is an
openness that paradoxically suggests interior corridors, flights of
stairs, meanderings and hidden corners of the psyche – knowledge
contained within the covers of books and passing into the body.
Significantly, the photograph is not printed on paper but on a
transparency framed in a lightbox that intensifies the illusion of a third
dimension. The multiple sources of light contribute to the dazzling
effect of the photograph. There is the light in the photograph itself,
there is the impression of light that made the photograph possible, and
there is the light in the box coming from behind the image. Another
space is thus created, one that radiates light from a hidden (inner)
source. Physically and metaphorically, the photograph converts the
unseen into (visible) matter. Yet, at the same time, the image acquires
a transparency that enables us to see through the body into another
space, into another dimension. There, this older woman, the Giant,
probably entertains a dialogue with the younger – smaller – figures in
the picture. And in fact, the geometric center of the composition is
occupied by the small figure of a young woman situated on the same
staircase landing, walking, as it were, in the direction of the figure of
the older woman whose presence she seems to ignore. There are other
characters on that staircase whose structure recalls the centuries-old
pyramidal model of the ages of man and woman: our going up from
childhood to maturity and from there on down to the grave. Its
broken-angle geometry together with the presence of the small figures
definitely belonging to a different reality than that of the Giant (and to
actual photographic captures of different spaces) disturb however that
hierarchical pattern. We might, then, read this image of an older
woman’s body framed by an irregular pattern as an ironic
transcendence of age, for despite the unabashed display of her naked
body, the composition of the work turns the viewer’s attention
The Visible 25

towards inner spaces. Its syncopated visual rhythms echo the conflicts
between internal and external perceptions of age.
Wall uses computer manipulation to obtain effects of
displacement and condensation that unsettle conventions of the nude,
as well as traditional representations of the aging body. Like many art
photographers today, he is known for working across the boundaries
that separate documentary from art photography. He has chosen, in the
words of photography critic Vicki Goldberg (1997: 32), to
“manufacture a reality that has the effrontery to look real”. For most
of his photographs, Wall brings in actors or performers who
reconstruct real-life scenes. He puzzles the convention-laden viewer
by making use of the very conventions he attacks and thereby
visualizes confusions between reality and fiction that clichés coming
from vernacular visual culture can create. Where then can one
psychically situate “The Giant”? In the realm of fantasy? Of desire?
For, to its owner, the aging body is always a reality, always a fiction –
a composite made up of past or prospective images, a portable set of
generational images. Like the Rilkean angels alighting on the reading
tables in a library in Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire, the Giant is
a powerful archetypal presence, one whose meaning, however,
remains suspended in ambiguity. As Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in a
letter in 1915: “Everywhere space and vision came, as it were,
together in the object, in every one of them a whole inner world was
exhibited as though an angel, in whom space was included, were blind
and looking into himself (1963: 16; emphasis added)”.

Do we not sometimes notice in people who are older (our

grandparents, friends, passersby) this sense of looking into oneself, of
detachment and abstraction from the real that Freud associated with
the death instinct?1 With time, it is true, we seem to turn the world
into ourselves. It is probably not (only) because of the limitations of
our body that we tend to move or travel less, but (also) because of a
self-containment that prompts us to pursue longer journeys within
ourselves. Like giants in fairy tales or in myths, we eventually contain
so much space.
Most commentaries on Wall’s “The Giant” have in fact
focused only on this mythic quality of the woman’s body as a fixed
1 For a reassessment of this position, cf. Woodward 1991: 47-51.
26 Touching Surfaces

image, thus rebuffing it as a potential vision of inner experience about

the changing body over time. Discussing enigma in Wall’s work,
photography critic Jean-François Chevrier (1995), for instance,
dismisses this otherwise quite enigmatic photograph as simply
“allegorical” and “funny”, thus voicing, even if unconsciously, the
common attitude of keeping our eyes closed to the exposure of older
shapes.2 Aging can trick an eye trained in conventional readings for
conventional signs. Even more reductive is Richard Vine’s decoding
of the mytho-poetic figure of “The Giant” as a “geriatric amazon”
who “though somewhat withered in her extremities, retains a
powerfully sexual torso and breasts, suggestive both of the physical
losses that accrue with age and of the erotic self-identity which may
nevertheless stubbornly persist” (1996: 91; emphasis added). Vine
interprets the relation between knowledge and experience in the
photograph in consonance with linear narratives of age. He views
pessimistically and, shall we say, dramatically, “the goddesslike
idealization of the cultural pursuits that engage the surrounding
students” as a representation of the futility of those pursuits that “will
not save them from time’s insidious devastations of the flesh” (1996:
91). Is not this reading of the nude as mythical figure in contradiction
with its being a sign of the decaying flesh? For if the fear of one’s
mortality is what probably prevents the viewer from seeing this nude
as a beautiful, accomplished body, is it not also the fear of one’s own
immortality likely to provoke the denial of such images? For eyes
used to idealized representations of the naked body, is the openness of
this image blinding?
Yet, if classical art forms or modern advertising have made
it possible to artificially fabricate youth, one could also imagine the
reverse, namely fabricating old age, and thereby introducing such
images into varied aesthetic circuits. In her article entitled “Photos
That Lie – and Tell the Truth”, Vicki Goldberg (1997: 32) seizes on
the productive nature of this paradox that confuses the relation
between the natural and the artificial. “The most direct way to the
2 Wall also comments about humor in this image in relation to the
discrepancy of sizes. He considers “The Giant” and “Abundance” (one of his other
images representing an old woman) as visual equivalents of a “philosophical comedy”
(Jeff Wall 1996: 21). In his own words, “The Giant” is an “imagery monument” (21)
expressing his intention to magnify “what has been made small and meager, what has
apparently lost its significance” (78).
The Visible 27

visible”, she writes, “is to make it up”. The re-created, illusionary

location of “The Giant” suggests such reversals owing to which the
confusing perceptions of the psychic body turns into physical
stabilized shape. Yet, instead of aestheticizing the body, Wall exposes
it as it is – not as a youthful body, but as an accomplished shape. The
body as significant form. Fiction documents here a reality that sees
beyond the visible, beyond habits of perception.

3. Jacqueline Hayden, Figure Model Series (2A), 1991.

Unique silver gelatin print, 84 x 52 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
28 Touching Surfaces

2. Long Hair on Older Women.

Jacqueline Hayden; Hervé Guibert

Paris, August 12, 1978


The letter that I would write to you

might seem indecent: for it would be a love
You seem to be talking to me, and I
to you, we seem to communicate through these
photographs much better than through words.
With the same love that I wash your hair,
depilate your chin or massage your tender
muscles, my dream would be, of course, to
photograph your body.
Don’t ever be afraid. If you turn
blind, I will come and read to you. And
when you feel yourself dying, call me, I will
come to hold you in my arms.

Hugs and kisses: Hervé

Hervé Guibert

In her essay “Visible Difference. Women Artists and Aging”,

Joanna Frueh (1997: 197-220) discusses the discrepancy between the
formal norms established by the female nude in Western art and
popular culture and the real female body in terms of the opposition
between the norm embedded in cultural icons and what appears as the
shapeless reality of the body. “Aging women”, she insists, “are
excruciatingly aware of the visible changes in form that occur before
their own and others’ eyes, the ‘shapelessness’ that makes them, even
more than young women, unable to be the incarnation of perfection”
(212).3 Important art shows such as “Feminin-masculin” or

3 In Lacan’s description of the throat of Freud’s patient, Irma, we are

reminded that it might be, in fact, the form (as fixed, definitive, that is, not alive) that
we might fear together with the formless (which, involving transformation, is life):
“The flesh one never sees, the foundation of things, the other side of the head, of the
face, the secretory glands par excellence, the flesh from which everything exudes, at
The Visible 29

“Formlessness: A User’s Guide” presented at the Centre Pompidou in

Paris in the late 1990s have explored this problematics in modernist
and contemporary art works, one in which the shapeless takes its place
in the alphabet of forms. Of course, a chain of diverse shapes informs
the history of the nude from archaic Venuses to cubist figurations of
the body. But the primary variable in the history of the nude is the
binary fat/thin. If each period reinvents the feminine, the photographic
images that explore the rich texture of the aging body will, perhaps, in
time reshape the category of beauty.

This seems to be the intention of Jacqueline Hayden in her

compelling series entitled Figure Model (1991-1996) (Woodward
1999: 227-231), a project involving the creation of a gallery of
photographic nudes of older men and women (3; 21). Ranging in age
from sixty to eighty-four, they picture either their own versions of
classical poses or they simply improvise. The fact that her sitters have
worked as professional models in art schools (all but one were still
active at the time of this project) contributes to Hayden’s notion of
challenging canons of beauty in Western art that have informed our
sensibilities for centuries, shaping what we see. As Hayden puts it:
“Our public view of the body is much edited, whether conditioned by
the ideals of classical sculpture or the images of modern advertising”
(1996: n. pag.). Placed on a dark background, the nearly life-size
black-and-white figures of the Figure Model Series are abstracted
from all social context. The pictorial quality of the photographs (the
result of the artist’s direct intervention on the emulsion) foregrounds
the shapes of the models’ bodies and sustains the intense tactile
quality of the photographs. A dripping effect seems to cradle the body.
The light Hayden uses softens the texture of the skin without however
intending to efface the signs of age on the body, only placing them in
a different perspective. For the lighting gives the flesh of the models
the translucent quality of marble or alabaster. They are – as the size of
the works indicates – statuesque. But the effect is double. The soft
light brings the surface of the skin closer to the eye. In the
transparency of these bodies, we also read their frailty. The figures in

the very heart of mystery, the flesh in as much as it is suffering, is formless, in as

much as form in itself is something which provokes anxiety” (1988: 154-55; emphasis
30 Touching Surfaces

these photographs are both art-like and life-like. That Hayden went to
nursing school and worked in a hospital is relevant here. Her
experience of holding, washing, and watching over the elderly shows
in the gaze she projects on her models, a gaze that seems to envelop
them as it places them in a creative space. Where Wall uses distance
as a form of modesty and even pride to protect the exposed body,
Hayden uses closeness, a sensual approach that breeds a space in
which the models act out the realities of their bodies within the forms
and fantasies of art history or of their own imagination. I should add
that these photographs are shown unframed, a fact which enhances the
fragility of the art image and, implicitly, that of the represented aging
self. That they are unframed also points to the human body’s
resistance to being framed by restrictive categories, to being
immobilized into fixed forms. Sometimes the models have brought
along canes or bandages, thus incorporating accessories of the aging
body into its aesthetic reconstruction.4 Each of them has her or his
version of the aging body. That the prints are unique, stresses the
singular qualities of their interpretations of aging.
Hayden’s choosing models of both sexes is an implicit
reconsideration of the relationship between gender and aging, one that
echoes Woodward’s interesting suggestion that “in advanced old age,
age may assume more importance than any of the other differences
which distinguish our bodies from others, including gender” (1991:
16). Makeup and costume discarded, the resemblances in the aging
bodies are more striking than are their differences. Yet, as the large
format of Hayden’s photographs suggests, so is their potential
monumental quality, a quality that symbolically redeems the
diminishing that may come with time.5 Images such as these are
crucial to the visual integration of the realities of old age into an
aesthetic circuit, especially because Western art has mostly relegated
images of old age to the domain of the caricature. Real without being
either cruel or sentimental (as documentary photographs of the elderly

4 In his recent choreographies, Merce Cunningham also wonderfully

incorporates the incapacities of his own elderly body into the performance. Dancers
such as Cunningham, and also Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, or David Gordon have
contributed significantly to a repertory of creative representations of the older body.
5 I am reminded here of Richard Avedon’s dramatic close-ups of his
father’s almost androgynous expression (1993).
The Visible 31

can sometimes be) and fictive (set in an art studio context and placed
against neutral, pictorial backgrounds) without being unfaithful, these
art photographs present the viewer with an aesthetics of expressivity as
opposed to the aesthetics of effacement that we find in the in shape
contemporary icons of aging in the media. Unlike these media clichés,
in which women and men tend to be either idealized or objectified, the
nudes in Hayden’s work appear rather as representations of internal
objects, each of them one among many “sequential self states” (Bollas
1992: 29-30) that negotiate tensions between actual and internal
realities and address in a complex way, in Hayden’s words, “our sense
of identity and our immortality” (1996: n. pag.). In a different way
than family photographs do, these images can function – for both
spectator and models – as transitional objects that accompany rituals
of passage from one age to another. Her models are, Hayden has said,
“professionals who are working to be translated and transformed
through the pictures” (Flynn 1994: n. pag.; emphasis added).6
The effect these photographs can produce on the viewer
compares to a moment of instant recognition – of the phantasmatic
unitary self or of a generational code one is part of. If these figures
can be looked upon as objects of desire, desire has a wide spectrum
here. “The experienced body is deeply erotic”, remarks Frueh, “for it
wears its lusts and (ab)uses of living” (1997: 212). But as she also
notes, the experienced female nude “contradicts the sex object status
of most female nudes” (212). Frueh’s understanding of this
unconventional – or until recently, unrepresentable – form of desire
shows in Hayden’s photographs. “Perhaps the aged and aging female
body”, as Frueh puts it, “can become an object of love, for the old(er)
woman herself to have and to hold” (212; emphasis added). What is
then seen conventionally as a sign of aging could be read as a sign of
the woman’s changing attitude towards herself – her self-esteem, her
desire or, as Germaine Greer sees it, her coming to possess serenity
and power (Pearsall 1997: 363-387).7
6 Hayden has pursued her unconventional exploration in the field of art
canons and art models in her digital photography series Ancient Statuary (1997). Cf.
“Argument”, Chapter 4.
7 We find qualities similar to those I have discussed in Hayden’s work in
a series of photographs that the British artist Melanie Manchot took of her mother:
fifty large-format photographs printed on canvas and processed through painterly
techniques. Manchot also examines the aging body with a protective, inquisitive gaze,
and, like Hervé Guibert, she “projects her own identity into the future”. Manchot
32 Touching Surfaces

Still, the association of eroticism, or of any form of positive

affect with the old body, is indeed against the norm. The photographs
of French writer and photographer Hervé Guibert – I am thinking, in
particular, of his portraits of his aunts Suzanne and Louise – have
been received with reserve at the opening of the exhibition in which
they were first presented in 1979. Their scope belongs however to an
entirely different area than either eroticism or overexposure of aging
figures. Diagnosed with AIDS, Guibert created most of his works of
fiction and his photographs in the 1980s with the awareness of the
impending approach of his own early death. Characters in some of his
novels and in his book Suzanne et Louise. Roman-Photo (1980; 2005),
the two sisters – they are in their eighties – appear to be an important
affective and visual site of prospective identification early in his work,
even before the onslaught of his disease. A strange foreshadowing.
Guibert’s photographs are radically different in tone and
intent from those of either Wall or Hayden. Different too is his highly
charged emotional involvement with his photographic subjects, one
from which he gains distance through mise-en-scène. In both his
fiction and in his essays, Guibert repeatedly refers to his love and
affection for the people he photographed. Like beauty or the aesthetic,
these categories resist definition. For Guibert this vaguely defined
form of love exists in a larger realm of creativity shared between
aesthetics (as in love of beauty) and ethics (as in care for the other).
Combining affectivity with sensuality, this form of love saturates the
artist’s entire visual field, extending from people to objects and to
habitats. Paradoxically, it is this very attachment that enables the
photographer to take distance from his subjects (most of them close
friends). For in turning them into objects of vision, Guibert is aware
that the photographer always betrays them. His passion for
photography originates, therefore, in his very resistance to it. What he
documents then is not a material reality but an affect. And bearing
witness to his love for his subjects has been, as he notes in the
introduction to his collection of photographs Le Seul visage (1984),
the aim of his entire activity. However diffuse or effusive this may
seem theoretically, it is an aesthetically powerful argument.

“shows the female body removed from time and place”, notes Katja Blomberg, and
she monumentalizes age “with modesty and distance”, “shattering the boundaries of
shame and taboo”. Blomberg in Manchot 1998 (n. pag.).
The Visible 33

4. Hervé Guibert, “Suzanne”, 1979. Courtesy Christine Guibert.

34 Touching Surfaces

In his photographs, Guibert does not intend to efface the

signs of old age, but, on the contrary, to make them visible, even to
enlarge them. In one of these photographs, for instance, Suzanne is
pictured holding a huge magnifying glass in front of one of her eyes
(4). A daring project: to see both behind and beyond the signs of old
age! One a widowed pharmacist, the other a former nun, Suzanne and
Louise are Guibert’s protagonists in his scenarios of aging. He has
them pose in their domestic environment, one in which he stages, with
affection and humor, an intermediary phantasmatic space where his
own anxieties and fantasies liberate the two women’s world of
subdued desire. This is also a touching story of mutual love, one that
unfurls the imaginations of the two sisters and engages them in the
creation of the poses. Like the active participation of Hayden’s models
in the composition of the poses, this collaborative project documents
the powerful creative potential of old age, one that still awaits further

In indirectly reflecting on his own aging by projecting it

onto the two older women, Guibert also transcends sexual difference:
the two women pose as objects of his own inquiry into the textures of
older age. But the two women are also mirror images to each other, a
detail that brings up questions of difference along with those of
resemblance. As sisters, they are naturally likenesses of each other.
Yet one is more pensive, while the other more inquisitive, as in the
photograph that shows them contemplating their own images in their
bathroom mirror. Like Guibert’s prose fiction, these photographs are a
mixture of authenticity and reconstruction. They have a ceremonial
aspect. They also have an ironic and a playful dimension and so hover
wonderfully between reverence and daring. At the same time and in
spite of their theatrical character, these photographs are also marked
by a nakedness of style similar to Guibert’s writing – a directness in
the treatment of the image, a desire to spend it all, a passion for
looking at the world as if the intensity of the gaze itself might coat the
real in a thin film, one scarcely visible yet indelible.8
In contrast with the portraits of Suzanne and Louise,
Guibert’s photographs of young people – in Le Seul visage, for

8 Guibert has developed this motif in his short fiction “Roman posthume”,
published posthumously in La Piqûre d'amour et d'autres textes suivi de La Chair
fraîche (1994).
The Visible 35

instance – are often idealized; some of them adopt romanticized poses.

Between his self-portraits or the portraits of friends and those of the
two old women there is a gap.9 In his work, as in his own life, Guibert
skips middle age. Yet, in following the two old women he loves into
imaginary death, Guibert traces his own destiny as a human being and
as an artist. A series of images actually stage Suzanne’s death, casting
her as the main actor. Unlike Hippolyte Bayard’s famous 1840
photograph, “Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man”, or, closer to him, his
friend Duane Michals, Guibert does not perform his own death in
front of the camera. Instead, he displaces anxieties related to it onto an
other while frustrating the plot of photography as a conveyor of
factual truth, as Bayard did in the early years of the medium. In the
texts accompanying the picture, we learn that Suzanne wants him to
photograph what happens to her body at the medical school after her
death, and he gives a long account of what he imagines will happen.
For Suzanne, accepting to pose for her nephew is to come to terms
with death as possible reality. Yet, in having Suzanne perform her
own death, Guibert posits it as possible fiction. In the way she poses,
she seems to dream herself out of life. She enacts her death with a
playful sense of complicity. It is turned into a joke, a wink behind
death’s back. This is Guibert’s signature of shamelessness and
modesty, the same mix with which he boldly recorded the last months
of his own life in the video piece, entitled significantly, La Pudeur ou
l’impudeur (1991).
Modesty, or decency, or delicacy (“la pudeur”) is not
dictated by social norms but rather by a respect for privacy. It suggests
an attitude imposed by intuition rather than rule. One of the most
stunning images in the series is the unbraiding of Louise’s long, long
hair (5). Liberated in 1945 from the Carmelite convent where she had
spent eight years, Louise (not to be confused with French women
whose heads were shaven for being suspected to have “sinned” with
the enemy) had let her hair grow, decently coiled and pinned atop her
head. By convention an erotic symbol, long hair is not part of the
public visual idiom of the older woman, if not as a caricature. It is
seen as obscene because erotic, hence inappropriate to old age.

9 With the exception, perhaps, of two photographs of his parents, where

the portrait of the middle-aged mother holding a picture of herself when young is an
overt and parodic commentary on aging. Cf. Guibert 1984: 18.
36 Touching Surfaces

Casually entitled “Une transformation”, this sequence of

elegantly unbridled portraits results in an actual transfiguration of
Louise’s gloomy face, one from which emerges the hypostasis of a
new self. A self which to the protagonist’s eyes is also old (that is,
reminiscent of a younger self). As in a fairy-tale, she suddenly turns
into a resplendent woman. When she looks at these pictures of herself,
Louise experiences a moment of derealization. Divested of her
habitual image of herself, she thinks she sees the other, that is, her
sister (and this is an interesting dramatization of what is a common
reaction to one’s own aged image in the mirror – a fear of what
Pearsall (1997) calls “the other within us”). As Guibert writes:

Isn’t what happens on Louise’s face at the moment of the picture taking,
an actual transfiguration? When I showed her the latest photographs of
herself where she appeared with her hair undone, her face relaxed;
exceptionally beautiful, and having suddenly lost her age, Louise does not
recognize herself, she first thinks she sees her sister: “it is not I”. (Guibert
1980: n. pag. emphasis added; all translations from Guibert mine).

Once “transfigured”, once transformed into a photograph, an

art object, Louise is estranged from her own image of herself. Whom
she sees instead is somebody familiar (her sister), not a stranger but
not exactly her, either. Loss of age (of the conventional masks of age)
can mean liberation. However, this is a form of freedom that can also
be experienced as confusion, as loss of identity – hence a form of
death. (Not long after these photographs were taken, Louise actually
did cut her hair short, “as if photography were a sacrificial practice”,
glosses Guibert.)
Louise had, in fact, been deprived in another way from her
own image – “separated from my image”, as she puts it – during her
years in the Carmel convent: “There was no mirror at Carmel, not
even the right to suspend one’s reflection in a window, or in the wash
basin, in the morning. For eight years, I had not seen myself” (Guibert
1980: n. pag.; emphasis added). And she comments strangely: “But I
don’t regret anything. When I think of it, these eight years were the
most wonderful of my life ...”. There is yet an even larger gap in the
two old women’s images of themselves that comes from the common
idea that, in Guibert’s words, “as we grow old we become ugly, old
age is not showable” (1980: n. pag.). The two women had no
photographs of themselves taken after the age of thirty. It is no
The Visible 37

surprise, then, as Guibert reports, that “they were surprised by this

image of themselves that I was giving back to them, after a gap of
forty, fifty years”.

5. Hervé Guibert, “Louise”, 1979. Courtesy Christine Guibert.

Guibert’s aesthetic reconstruction of the two women’s

femininity transforms the obscene (what is offensive to accepted
standards of decency and modesty) into the erotic, his erotic, that is,
his love and desire for life, which, paradoxically, he documents not far
from the threshold of death. A logic in which Eros and Thanatos are
not in struggle with each other (as in Freud’s scenario), but strangely
intertwined and ultimately both absorbed into Guibert’s aesthetics of
love. By undoing an artifice – the braided crown of hair – that had
frozen the eighty-years-old woman into a portrait of a schoolgirl,
Guibert restores Louise’s chaste figure her sensuality. At the same
time, he grants himself something very important: an image of old
age, one that in his later photographs he seems to anticipate the
mourning of. In the posthumously published volume, La Piqûre
d’amour (1994), several of Guibert’s texts contain that possibility of
anticipated mourning through which he paradoxically extended his
own life by “stealing some years, some months to write against death
not only the books of his anticipated maturity but also, sending them
38 Touching Surfaces

out like arrows into the future, the very slowly ripened books of his old
age” (Bianciotti: 1994).
While Guibert looked gently and patiently both at and after
the two sisters, while he thought of them as photographic images of
another life, the very slowly ripened books of his old age were in the
making. Suzanne et Louise was published in 1980. Hervé Guibert died
at age thirty-six in December, 1991.
In more than one way photography has always been linked
to death or to mourning. Related to our perception of aging,
photography can also trick time by effacing traces of aging through
technical cosmetics. Yet the superb way in which Guibert associates
affection and erotic signs with old age here makes of these
photographs not only compelling aesthetic objects but creative
elements in the self’s long combat for preservation and reinvention.

3. Images That Matter.

Terry Pollack; Cindy Sherman

She is looking at something visible, distant,

but perhaps coming slowly closer.

Susan Griffin

There was age in her hand.

Dawn Raffel

The photographs that I have discussed in the previous

sections share a concern with the phantasmatic realm of aging. The
artists create settings, stagings, photographic fictions that make the
changing body visible while emphasizing its relation to dream,
knowledge, experience, art, death. Instead of faking or effacing signs
of aging, they explore the expressivity and creativity of old age. The
gaze of the photographers is gentle without being sentimental. Instead
of idealizations, we are faced with alternatives to both artificial and
The Visible 39

negative portrayals of aging. Other art photographers have addressed

aging as matter and enhanced artifice to incorporate contrasting
images of the self over time that resist representations of the body as
the exclusive locus of cultural and discursive practices related to
We have seen with Guibert that rendering old age in
photographic works can place one in imaginary spaces in future time.
To accommodate the passing of time the subject tends to project itself
as a whole. Yet, to the extent to which that sense of wholeness borders
finitude, it is fixity of form that we might actually fear and not
deviation from form or shapelessness. That very fear of fix images of
old age entails a necessary disruption. Disjunctive images of the body
are, then, not only enactments of the phantasms of fragmentation that
accompany old age.10 Created by younger artists on the mode of
meditation, these images also map out a matrix of freedom, ways of
creating metaphors of temporality.
In photography and film it is harder to fake old age than
youth (although digital photography makes now possible any shift in
time and space). In her series entitled Homage to Käthe Kollwitz
(1992), Terry Pollack experiments with such reversible traveling from
old to young age. In Pollack’s remakes of some of the German artist’s
self-portraits (a process of introspection and representation that spans
Kollwitz’s life in her drawings and prints), it is highly significant that
she uses younger models to play out a wide range of contradictory
emotions related to aging. In this series about our tenuous relation to
time, aging is used both referentially and metaphorically. It constitutes
the very matter of these images, all kallitypes11 printed on rice paper.
Pollack uses alternative processes to integrate elements of
time (of another time) into her work – the aging of the paper, of the
pigment. The images are evocative, nostalgic. Enacted by a younger
model, a phantom self (companion in our journey in time), the aging
figure in Kollwitz’s originals is sublimated in Pollack’s photographs
into a diffuse yet dominant presence.

10 For an analysis of literary representations of the relationship between

the fragmentation and the wholeness of the body in old age, cf. the chapter
“Phantasms of the Aging Body”, in Woodward 1991:167-91.
11 A kallitype is a photograph resulting from an iron and silver printing
process used in the nineteenth century. Contemporary photographers use it owing to
the richness of tones that this contact printing-out photographic process provides.
40 Touching Surfaces

6. Terry Pollack, Homage to Käthe Kollwitz, 1992.

Sepia; kallitype print on rice paper, 6 1/2 x 4 1/2 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
The Visible 41

In one of them (6), significantly, the face takes refuge from

the spectator’s gaze. The viewer’s attention is displaced from the body
to the background. We are projected into the future by going back in
time. Individual aging is placed here in the perspective of a larger time
framework. We are invited to step out of our bodies, into a costume,
into a pose. Photographer and model collaborated closely in creating
this sense of temporality through the plastic conception of space.
During the preparation of the setting and the discussion of the poses,
Pollack declares to have literally witnessed the model’s “taking on
age” in order to convey what to her was crucial for the work, “going
into another space.” (2006)

At the opposite pole are Cindy Sherman’s photographic

images of old age in her History Portraits (1988-1990), her Sex
Pictures (1992), or the Horror and Surrealist Pictures (1994-1996).
Her reconstruction of well-known Renaissance portraits (1988-1990)
– some of which suggest caricature by exaggerating the aging of the
originals – addresses idealizations of beauty and the authority of
canons in an approach which differs from Hayden’s observant gaze at
her subjects. Like in the other impersonations Sherman has created, to
fake old age she uses makeup, postiches or false body parts. Attached
to these representations is also a desire to go beyond layers of paint
and time in search of human forms transfigured by the artists. Like
Guibert, Sherman unbraids her models, yet not gently, but rather with
a kind of childhood cruelty that undoes the toy to see what it is made
of. She cunningly explores the creative potential within that
destructive impulse through pictorial devices by using enhanced color
effects, contrast, texture. As in her sex series (which allude to Hans
Bellmer’s dolls), in the portraits Sherman attacks taboos or clichés of
representation frontally and stages wild fantasies by expanding the
limits of what photography can show. While deconstructing the
Western canon of beauty, Sherman’s grotesque depictions of aging,
which are actual character compositions performed in front of the
camera, ironically refer to clichés about visual representations of the
elderly (the crone, the witch).12 Yet by making use of these clichés,
she also addresses some of our visceral fears related to the

12 For a historical and sociological analysis of the origin of these

representations, cf. Herbert C. Covey’s book Images of Older People in Western Art
and Society.
42 Touching Surfaces

visualization (that is, the materialization) of old age or of the body in


In her 1993 Fashion Series,13 Sherman has wonderfully

incorporated the very materiality of age into her photographs by
creating a subtle optical illusion, one at the limit of visibility
(“Untitled # 276”; “Untitled # 282”). This is what I would call a grain
effect, one that she had used in some of her early Untitled Film Stills
series in order to veil the image, to enhance its suspense, to delay the
decoding of the figure. In two of the fashion photographs, the hands of
Sherman-the model are foregrounded, touched by age spots*. Given
the large format of her photographs, the grain of the paper is
extremely magnified and especially visible on the close-up of the
hands. The age spots read as paper grain. Transposed on paper, a
surface as fragile and resilient as skin, the age spots are not only
preserved, but also in a visually provocative way, celebrated. Here,
age provides the texture of Sherman’s work as it provides the rich
textures of our lives. Exploring the becoming of the body is in fact
only natural within the logic of Sherman’s entire work, since over the
years she has always used only her own body as a model. However, or
precisely because of this travesty of the corporeal, her reconstructions
of aging extend beyond the body. The only time when Sherman uses
non-Sherman and non-human models for her photographs (before she
turned away entirely from her own body to use mannequins from
medical supply catalogues for the Sex Pictures) is in a series of
relatively abstract compositions evoking decay and death (1985-
1987). Very pictorial, shot with dramatic lights and intense color
filters, these images that seem to dodge the body represent, in fact,
diverse rotting matter that Sherman had collected in her studio and
studied as it changed, metamorphosing over time. What becomes of
the material stuff of our lives? How is matter affected by the passage
of time? How can we integrate such stuff into the psychic and material
economy of our lives as we do with the residue of everyday life that
pass into our dreams only to unravel deeper, hidden patterns? Referred

13 More recently, Sherman has worked for fashion designers, in the style
of her more recent typological studies, by deconstructing the fashion canons of beauty
through the caricatural overemphasis of all markers deviating from those canons.
The Visible 43

to as the “bulimic” (or the “disgust” series, Krauss 1993; 200614),

these images come close to the unstable balance between lack and
excess, between fascination and rejection relative to what eludes the
form of our bodies. The force with which they play on that ambiguity
strikes at a threshold of sensibility. The pictorial distribution of these
elements in the photographs does not coat the real with a cosmetic
layer. It shifts our perspective on a common reality, since by placing
the actual organic degradation of matter into an aesthetic environment,
Sherman reveals the transformative possibilities inherent in that
process – a cycle instead of a dead end. The fact that the shapeless
portions of matter in her photographs are aestheticized does not
necessarily make them more agreeable to the eye. Some viewers
might still consider them ... disgusting, others (to the great surprise of
the former) ... engaging. It is a matter of taste, one could say. But it is
mostly a matter of point of view. To the realistic viewer (the one who
is tricked by the mimetic power of photography), these uncanny “still
lives” will appear as mere detritus. To the imaginative viewer, they
will appeal as possibilities of life. In them time is incorporated, not
denied. So is the possibility of form.

The very popularity of her work and the counter-canon that

the Sherman pictures came to represent is itself a manifestation of the
culture’s need of representations deviating from both role models and
canons of beauty. Sherman enjoyed great popularity in academia in
the 1980s and 1990s particularly because of her ironic impersonations
of conventional roles of women. What explains, however, Sherman’s
success as an artist is her personal and daring use of the art of
photography in ways that unsettle mimetic photographic conventions
and thereby unsettle readings of the real. In her analysis of Sherman’s
History Portraits series, Rosalind Krauss argues that Sherman’s
approach to images works precisely against “the sublimatory energy
of Art” (1993: 174). In this sense, given the degree of entropy they
entail, both the “bulimic” series and the art history portraits have a
definite anti-aesthetic character. Yet, Sherman creates disorder by
forcing the limits of her craft. In both subject and form, her series call
on a wide range of modes of representation – cinema, painting,

14 For a recent selection of articles on Sherman in which the essays in the

1993 volume are reprinted, cf. Krauss 2006; and, in French, Durand et al. 2006.
44 Touching Surfaces

fashion, fairy tale, history, and, more recently, a gallery of

contemporary typologies which she impersonates. She destabilizes the
mimetic function of photography by staging entropy through a
sophisticated system of aesthetic strategies borrowed from other
modes of representation. In elaborating what Krauss calls “the field of
a desublimatory”, Sherman’s subversion of the geometry of beauty
bears witness to the fact “that behind the façade there lies not the
transparency of Truth, of meaning, but the opacity of the body’s
matter, which is to say, the formless” (1993: 174).
It is, however, arguable that the strategies Sherman uses
represent what Krauss calls a “transgression against the form” (109)
since Sherman’s understanding of form is, I would hold, rather
generative. Form as mutable, dynamic, perishable: a perfect analog to
the art of photography itself. Yet her images also explore the potential
of form in disorder. Although her work presents figures, both the
historical series and the sex series (the images of old age included)
have a non-figurative dimension. Fragmentation and shapelessness are
not the exclusive avatars of old age.
Sherman refers indeed to idealizations of the body and to
stereotypes of feminine mystique. At the same time, through the
aesthetic codes that she disrupts and then reconfigures, her work also
questions materialistic reductions of the body. Laura Mulvey sees in
what I would call Sherman’s “matter” series (what other critics call
either the “disgust” or “bulimic” series), “a monstrous otherness
behind the cosmetic façade” (1991: 148; Krauss 1993: 192-93). Yet, I
would suggest that what we find there is, in fact, a part of the human
that eludes discourse, but not significance. Few commentators of
Sherman’s work address its tactile sensibility, its aesthetic qualities.
While illuminating an important aspect of Sherman’s complex project,
most of the ideologically oriented readings of her work support, even
if in an unconscious way, our culture’s fear and anxiety related to
matter, to some of the stuff we accumulate, to detritus, to a part of our
humanity that is not framable by social discourse. Similarly, the image
of decaying flesh, one recurrent in the discourse of aging, is an
example of the poverty of metaphors our culture has for representing
the transformations of the body.
The Visible 45

4. A Space to Hold the Gaze.

Terry Pollack; Geneviève Cadieux

I realized that, while I was writing about my childhood,

about a certain year of my childhood, I was writing from
everywhere, writing about my whole life, all years
confounded, of this life, as I had never done before.

Marguerite Duras

In a composition entitled “Death Mask” (7), Terry Pollack

superimposed a slide representing a portrait of her grandmother on a
photographic self-portrait. Part of an installation piece that included a
taped narrative where the grandmother tells the story of the loss of her
first baby, this photograph creates an intricate pattern of
identifications and projections that are made visible in simultaneity.
The grandmother’s wrinkles show on the young artist’s face from
another space, a sense of depth conveyed by the different qualities of
the superimposed images: the transparency of the slide, the
opaqueness of the initial self-portrait, and the fluidity of the Polaroid
print. The uncanny character of this combined portrait shows precisely
in the textures enhanced by the lighting Pollack has used and by the
contrast between the figure and the ground. All add to the density of
the photographic matter, and also to the extent of the photograph’s
temporality. This double portrait can be read as a memorial to the
grandmother, a search for identifications, and also, as a projection in
time. Unlike the journey backwards that we see in the Kollwitz series,
here past, present, and future are framed together. It must be added
that Pollack’s work has developed in directions that are often at a
distance from the body and rather deep into the habitations of the soul
or the archeology of emotions (“The Archaeology of Fear” is, for
instance, the title of a series of photographic meditations on violence
that she created in 2003). Throughout her varied projects, her
exploration of actual spaces or recreations of imaginary ones revolve
indeed around questions of temporality, like a melancholic echo that
her use of the camera and her thinking of images places in a lucid
46 Touching Surfaces

7. Terry Pollack, “Death Mask”, 1987.

Color; large format Polaroid print, 20 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

As in Pollack’s visualization of a generational simultaneity,

we can experience the physicality of overlapping generational
features, just as our old and new selves intersect, or various places we
have inhabited or traversed are superimposed in our mind to
The Visible 47

compensate for disruptions in space and time. As Bollas remarks,

redefining D.W. Winnicott’s notion of a true self (the vague site of a
wholeness of being as opposed to various fragmentary false selves), it
is hard to conceive of the self as phenomenologically unified. The
difficulty resides in the fact that “the true self is not an integrated
phenomenon but only dynamic sets of idiomatic dispositions that
come into being through problematic encounters with the object
world” (Bollas 1992: 30). Similarly, I would say that there is no true
old self but a permanently fluctuating relationship between a younger
and an older self, perceived now as bracketing (in time: hence the
sense of closure, even of claustrophobia or of estrangement from
one’s chronological age), or as suspension (out of time: hence the
sense of insecurity). These different forms of being or of experiencing
being, also associated with different ages, can at times be perceived as
glimpses of a posture, a feature, or a tone of the voice. In a short
conversation with a friend my mother’s age, for instance, I can see
through her to others, as in sequences of different photographs
projected rapidly on an imaginary screen. In her gestures and words I
read visitations of my mother; in the impatient zigzagging of her
hands, I see her daughter’s; in the undertones of her voice, her own
mother’s idiom. In such ways we are able to grasp our lives as a
continuum, ways so different from the sense of hierarchy presupposed
of old age.
As in the case of the cubist unfolding of the different sides
and facets of an object or figure not visible to the eye, the
photographer’s conundrum is how to represent as a plausible (that is,
visible) form of reality the different forms of being and the different
states of consciousness that inform our sense of identity. Our desire to
see our selves as a whole, to see the histories of our bodies as an
unfolded scroll meets what Jean-Pierre Nouhaud has called “the
photographer’s renewal of the panoramic desire” (1987: 26), namely
his idea that the part of the real shown in a photograph is not a
fragment; that what it shows equally contains what it conceals thus
enlarging the photographic perspective from the visible to the
invisible.15 In making visible those “dynamic sets of idiomatic
dispositions”, in Bollas’ phrase, speculative photographs present us

15 The fragmentation and reconstruction of a linear perspective in David

Hockney’s photocollages also expresses such panoramic desire. Besides his
landscapes, one might think in particular here to his mother’s portrait in photocollage.
48 Touching Surfaces

with new modes of visibility, with new ways of relating to the real, to
time passing.

Double or multiple exposure is a common photographic

error. It is a visual reverse of a slip of the tongue, one that makes
latent images surface, instead of vanishing, unexpectedly. The same
effect can be obtained by superimpositions that visualize a physical
impossibility: that of being in two or several places at once.
Metaphorically, these double or multiple images visualize in fact the
many places we travel within ourselves, or phantasmatic selves who
inhabit us. We all host within ourselves dormant images of aging,
invisible prints on a film that waits to be developed, one in which
various age-selves connect (or, as in Myrtle’s case, struggle to
In Pollack’s intriguing composition of superimposed images,
one form shows through another, as if by looking at a single image we
could have access to many images, the familiar as well as the unseen,
the conscious as well as the unconscious. This materialization of the
condensation and displacement processes of dreams produces an
uncanny effect: the recognition of patterns of thought that bring us to
remote or yet unknown facets of ourselves. It is owing to such images
that we keep in touch with different forms of the self, that we travel in
time back and forth. They give glimpses of the mind’s probing into
the chaos of mental images, attach them to material forms.

Double images can also give form to transient perceptions of

the self, to forms of double consciousness that we experience in the
dream, and sometimes in actual life, often in relation to perceptions
the aging self, when one takes distance to observe, to look closer into
the emerging self. Such divide shows in the photographic composition
entitled “Blue Fear” (1990) by Canadian photographer Geneviève
Cadieux (8). Here, the superimposure is not between images of two
generations, as in Pollack’s mask, nor is it between two age-selves.
This is an altogether uncommon mirror image of old age. In this large
format photograph printed on masonite, the torso of an elderly man
seen from the back is superimposed on a frontal close-up of his eyes.
The enlarged image produces a contradictory effect of both attraction
and repulsion, a pair of affects not unlike our ambivalent relationship
The Visible 49

to our own aging or, sometimes, to old people themselves. The

spectral portrait is, as the title suggests, deeply disquieting. Blue fear
– to be scared to death – is the fear of death.

8. Geneviève Cadieux, “Blue Fear”, 1990.

Color cybachrome print, 73 x 116 inches. Photo: Louis Lussier.
Copyright Geneviève Cadieux. Courtesy Galerie René Blouin, Montréal.

Immersed in blue (the color of the man’s eyes, perhaps the

only physical attribute that does not change over time), the whole
composition appears as an emanation of his vision, of his emotions in
relation to his old age, to death. In the transparency of superimposure,
consciousness dissolves, vacillates in the instability of forms and
50 Touching Surfaces

colors. This exorbitant surface of skin-cum-gaze disturbs the

boundaries between the physical and the psychic body. The
photograph itself seems to dissolve under the beholder’s gaze, like
time that passes, like light eating into the paper, into the skin. The
work expresses a fear stronger than that of the precarious image of our
changing bodies: it is the fear of our very vanishing to which the
photograph alludes. Recreated in this transparent photographic reality,
however, fear is transformed into an indefinite and diffuse feeling. It
becomes almost fear tamed, something soothing. This effect results
from the paradoxical spectral area created within the image by the
superimposure of two photographs. It is an analog to that inner space
Rilke describes, that of a blind angel looking into itself. (The project
was initially entitled “Blind Faith”, and blindness is the intriguing
subject of other works by Cadieux.) Here, the image includes inner
space. The photographed subject’s gaze, one that uncannily mirrors
that of the viewer, creates an interstice, an area filled up with air, as it
were, between the two simultaneous images of the same person, a
buffer space to hold that metonymic body, to abide the crisis of aging.
Such photographs can be considered as transformative holding
objects. They go further into the perception of aging than
documentary photographs precisely owing to their aesthetic effects
and create, I would argue, an illusion of vision as a modification of the
sense of touch in a more enhanced way than painting can do, and
thereby, an uncanny closeness to the photographed subject. Larger
than life, “Blue Fear” participates in this exacerbation of touch to
create a powerful holding environment. The disturbance in outlines
and conventions in this composition helps us imagine spaces in which
one can experience concomitant forms of consciousness of the self.
Like Hayden’s pictorial fields in which naked bodies are displaced
from the usual habitat of images of the elderly, the puzzling
perspective of this work not only expresses but also sublimates the
fears and anxieties related to aging by placing them in an appropriate
aesthetic environment. For as they question classical or current public
images of the elderly, such photographic works pose the problem of
the representation of the body by using the metaphoric potential of
optic deviations.
In his essay on Cindy Sherman, Norman Bryson (1993: 219)
reminds us that the constructionist understanding of the body as a
social and historical representation faces its limit with the problem of
The Visible 51

pain. Perhaps even more so, an understanding of the aging body

confronts that same limit, what Bryson calls “the boundary of the
discoursive empire”. This raises fundamental questions about
representability and knowledge. If as psychic images, ages – like time
– do not exist in isolation but rather simultaneously (so that we can
read the younger woman through the older woman, the mother
through the daughter) is it at all possible to isolate aging as a sign?
How is it visually possible to symbolize the contradictory experiences
of the changing body? Bryson’s articulation of the conflict between
discourse and the reality of the body is suggestive in this respect: “the
body is exactly the place where something falls out of the signifying
order – or cannot get inside it. At once residue and resistance, it
becomes that which cannot be symbolized: the site, in fact, of the real”
The very de-figurations of the reality of the body that the
images I have discussed here present – be they grotesque (Sherman),
lyrical (Cadieux) or, both lyrical and ironic (Hayden) – address the
limits of representation. They do so by placing the focus not on limits
imposed by convention but on limits that evolve naturally from the
relationship the photographers establish with their models. In the
photographic works I have discussed here, the artists do not figure the
human body overtly mapped by social discourses with assigned
meanings. Nor do they isolate their models from social contexts in any
essentialist way. Instead, these artists capitalize on the metaphorical
potential of a body on which inscriptions of varied natures coexist in
different degrees of visibility (hence, for instance, the focus Cadieux
places on “concepts of vision, both ocular and extra-perceptible”)
(Pontbriand 1990: 82).16 The images that we see bring evidence about
both physicality and its sublimation.
Consider this important detail in “Blue Fear”. We see the
body of the man from above the shoulders. Part of his body has been
left out of the frame. The viewer has to “restore a body to the vision”,
as Régis Durand has pointed out in connection with one of Cadieux’s
16 Cadieux makes an important statement in contrast with the
marginalization of the aesthetic in the cultural discourse of the 1980s and 1990s:
“When an artist (particularly a woman artist) works with images of women, questions
of sexuality, politics, voyeurism are discussed. However, as far as I am concerned, the
most important aspect of this installation [“The Shoe at Right Seems Much Too
Large”] deals with concepts of vision, both ocular and extraperceptible” (Pontbriand
1990: 82).
52 Touching Surfaces

other works (1990: 124). The space that holds the blue gaze is
symbolic for a gaze that holds the whole body. The poetic body.
Inspired by these photographic works, I have come to think of the
poetic body as a form that ensures the connection between the
physical and the psychic self, one that eludes rationalizations of
discourse or hierarchies of narrative. In a single vision, it brings
together imaginary age-selves, not with the constancy of the phantasm
but as fleeting images, like photographs themselves. The poetic body
as a mental (and here) photographic construction helps keeping in
touch with one’s different ages or different age-selves. As an unstable
form that represents the subject’s all-embracing consciousness, it
structures multi-layered experience, and creates a generational
continuum within the self. Yet the poetic body is elliptical. It contains
and is comforted by loss. Volatile, it nonetheless has a particular
inconsistent persistence. The consciousness of the poetic body is not a
mental image, but rather a diffuse retinal memory, now intense, then
evanescent. It participates in a fiction necessary to the slow and often
painful process of internalizing aging, a fiction that brings us from one
age space to another to see our life as from everywhere in both space
and time. It is both a displacement and a condensation of ages. From
that privileged perspective that bridges past, present, and future, ages
do not exist in isolation. We are not stuck in time. We ourselves create
such metaphors of continuity, metaphors that provide a link between a
larger past and a more extended (yet, with time, vanishing) future, as
if these metaphors were, literally, vehicles that transport us from one
age destination to another, now backward, then forward.

As I approach the end of this chapter, an after-image persists

in my visual field. It comes from E. J. Bellocq’s “Storyville Portraits”
dating from ca. 1912, found by accident and restored to paper form by
Lee Friedlander from the original glass plates in 1970. The image is
that of a young woman from a brothel in the Red District of New
Orleans (9). Posing unsophisticatedly in front of a big wooden bed,
she is nude except for her black stockings. On some of Bellocq’s
plates, the faces of the women have been covered by mysterious
scratches, as if to conceal their identity or to erase some vital part of it.
But in this particular re-photographed image, there is also an intricate
network of accidents on the surface of the glass plate that looks, on the
smooth surface of the paper print, like a piece of unweaving lace
The Visible 53

partly covering the naked woman. Shapes emerge from these

accidents. A constellation of dark spots frames the woman’s body
placing it further in space. And where once the scratches were, the
plate is now also cracked, broken. A dark cavity opens in place of the
face. The image of the woman has come to us fragmented,
deteriorated, touched by time. Attractive yet phantomatic. In its
fragility, the aged photograph restored to new form evokes what is
most moving and also most disturbing in our difficulty to envisage the
shapes of our own aging. Enigmatically enclosed in it lie the
unpredictable configurations that it may take, along with its
paradoxical aesthetics.
54 Touching Surfaces

9. E. J. Bellocq, “Storyville Portrait”, Plate 41, ca. 1912.

Copyright Lee Friedlander. Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.
10. Jim Dine, “Heart’s Door”, 1999.
Digital pigment print, edition of three, 68.3/4 x 48.1/4 inches. JD52D.
Courtesy of the artist.

Photographs that Make a Change

Argument: the Photographic Unconscious

The camera sees even beyond the visual


Ralph Eugene Meatyard

In the previous chapter, I have addressed the problem of the

invisibility of the aging body from two different viewpoints. First, as
an absence of the aging body in current cultural representations up to
the 1990s. Then, in relation to perceptions and representations of
aging in the work of art photographers of the 1980s and 1990s in
whose engaging, often provocative visions I have read an articulation
of physical and psychic aspects. From those photographic images that
challenge the cultural notion of visible signs of aging, I will now turn
to artists who explore and extend our understanding of visibility by
showing perceptions and mental processes that are invisible to the eye.
How can photography render mental images and processes visible?
How can such “visibility” redefine our understanding memory, or of
the unconscious, and bring into consciousness various age-selves?

Since its early days, photography has indeed been associated

with psychic processes. Photographic operations, the mechanisms of
the camera, and the dark room itself have, over time, supplied
suggestive metaphors for the functioning of the mind precisely where
the language of rationality was facing its enigmas. Modern theories of
memory and of the psyche emerged at the turn of the twentieth
58 Touching Surfaces

century in parallel with the development of photography and other

optical devices, though, as Frances A. Yates has shown in her seminal
history of representations of memory (1966), mnemonic devices have
since ancient times been associated with visual methods of organizing
material to be remembered. More recently, in Metaphors of Memory.
A History of Ideas About the Mind (2000), Douwe Draaisma1 brings
into focus the metaphors provided by technologies of all times to
facilitate the understanding of mental processes. These include
technologies of image-making (from wax-impressions and the camera
obscura, to photography, cinema, and holograms) and, more recently,
computer hard disks, all of them devices that serve memory systems.
The very difficulty to define elusive memory processes
philosophically, he argues, has called for these metaphorical models
that try to grasp the processing of experience in the mind’s dark room
and are inspired by devices used to preserve it. Similarly, in an essay
comparing photography with other recording supports (tape, or the
film used in cinema), Max Kozloff holds photographs for “a class of
objects that comprise a sophisticated and rather mysterious memory
system” (1984: 19; emphasis added).
Such models – photography and cinema among them – have
also been used in order to make consciousness and the unconscious
graspable. In his Creative Evolution (1908), Henri Bergson associated
the mechanism of thought with the emerging form of cinema (“The
Cinematographic Mechanism of Thought and the Mechanism of
Illusion”). In his book Matter and Memory, he describes the body as a
“conductor” in order to highlight the solidarity between memory
images and movement and that between mental and body memory. In
discussing the question of corporeal memory “in the form of motor
contrivances”, Bergson notes that the body “can store up actions of the
past”, the body itself being “never more than one among these
images” (1896; 1910: 77). “The faculty of mental photography”
belongs for him to subconsciousness rather than to consciousness,2 a
1 In his recent book, Why Life Speeds Up as You Get Older (2004),
Draaisma explores the nature of autobiographical memory and its relation to the
passing of time.
2 For his study on matter and memory, Bergson makes extensive allusions
to the photographic device, in particular in the chapters: “Of the Survival of Images.
Memory and the Mind” and “The Delimiting and Fixing of Images. Perception and
Matter. Soul and Body” ( [1896] 1991: 133-178; 179-224).
(In)Visibility 59

space in which actions of the past are being retained much like light
impressions on a sensitive plate. In his “Interpretation of Dreams”,
Freud employed the metaphor of the photographic device to illustrate
the functioning of the psychic apparatus. Other theories of memory (as
corollary of the unconscious) and of dreams (as its expression) have
often used analogies with photographic processes,3 yet mostly by
considering photography a replicative rather than a creative medium.
It is to a large extent photography’s capacity to “fix” an image that has
called for the understanding of memories as precise and static, stored
in the mind like photographs in an archive. “Photography imitates
memory”, stated George Santayana around 1912 in his conference,
“The Photograph and the Mental Image”, “so that its product, the
photograph, carries out the function imperfectly fulfilled by the
mental image." (Goldberg 1981: 260; emphasis added). For
Santayana, the function of photography was definitely that of fixing
the image of things or beings in order preserve and potentially bring
back the memories we have of them. Although, in his view,
photography was to ensure a continuity between actual and internal
experiences, he was placing it among the mechanical and not the
creative activities, and the “irrevocable mental image” (260) was for
him rather a question of memory than one of imagination.

However, over the past decades we have learned to consider

memory as a dynamic, creative process in which imagination
recategorizes stored images. Cutting-edge medical technology has
made it possible to see into the human body and brain. Advanced
research in neuropsychology and cognitive psychology has indeed
refined – and will, in the near future, considerably modify – our
understanding of the unconscious precisely by means of technologies
that visualize mental processes.4 Rather than elaborating on these
issues, which are the subject of current debates among philosophers of

3 In his strangely eclectic book Les Rêves et les moyens de les diriger,
Hervey de Saint Denis notes: “Our memory is, to use a comparison borrowed from
the discoveries of modern science, like a mirror covered by collodion, which
preserves instantaneously the impression of images projected onto it by the objective
of the dark room” (Saint Denis [1867]1977: 73; tr. mine), or “In the depth of memory,
cliché–memories are recorded infinitely” (74).
4 For an approach combining psychology, philosophy and science in the
interpretation of the unconscious in connection to figural operations of thought, see
Bert O. States, The Rhetoric of Dreams (1988).
60 Touching Surfaces

the mind, I will discuss in this chapter photography’s possibilities to

grasp, as American photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard puts it,
what is “beyond the visual consciousness”, in order to point out how
our awareness of mental processes of aging – such as processing
memories, connecting time levels, or associating registers of
perception – is being shaped by art photographs.

My exploration takes as a starting point a question suggested

by photography critic François Soulages in his article “Photographie
avant analyse” (Photography Before the Invention of
Psychoanalysis),5 in which he discusses the reciprocal relations
between photography (as an emerging technology in the mid-
nineteenth century) and the study of the unconscious (prior to the
invention of psychoanalysis). Soulages does not explore photography
for its capacity to document and to inform but rather for its formative
dimension. To what extent, he asks, did a new technology such as
photography enlighten, modify, or enrich the understanding of the
unconscious? And, conversely, how did what he calls “the hypothesis
of the unconscious” allow for a better understanding of a new
technology (1986: 31)? These questions, inherent in the beginnings of
photography and essentially linked to its role in the understanding of
the visible and the invisible body, have gained considerable
importance today in the context of an extensive use of image-making
In her book, The Optical Unconscious (1993), Rosalind
Krauss transforms the term in her title – one coined by Walter
Benjamin – into a concept which she uses in order to disrupt the
modernist understanding of human vision as “master of all it surveys”
in order to see it “in conflict as it is with what is internal to the
organism that houses it” (Krauss 1993:180). In his “Small History of
Photography” (1931), Benjamin had pointed to the “unknown” which
lies in wait for the photographic act. “We have no idea”, he writes,

5 Soulages’ article primarily deals with the beginnings of photography and

its paradoxical uses in psychiatry. The photographs done for psychiatric use by
Guillaume Duchenne de Boulogne, in France, and by Hugh Welch Diamond, in
England, are treated in the context of their institutional destiny. One can consider the
significant detail that once the theories they were meant to support became obsolete,
from testimonial, their value became aesthetic; Boulogne’s photographs, for instance,
are now housed by the Ecole de Beaux-Arts, in Paris.
(In)Visibility 61

“what happens during the fraction of a second when a person steps

out”, a phrase he uses precisely for sequences of movement which the
naked eye cannot perceive (Benjamin [1931] 1979: 240). Inspired by
the chronophotographs of Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules
Marey – which record, by successive shots, the physical logic of
movement – and also by montage and enlargement techniques
practiced in the 1920s and the 1930s, Benjamin notes that
photography can, in fact, reveal what remains secret to the eye. The
camera can visualize imperceptible physical elements, he argues, and
it can also introduce us to the unconscious: “It is through photography
that we first discover the existence of this optical unconscious just as
we discover the instinctual unconscious through psychoanalysis”(240;
emphasis added).
In his less known short prose pieces, Benjamin shows indeed
more concern with the optical rather than with the instinctual
unconscious. In these pieces, he often frames internal and external
spaces elliptically or articulates fragments of thought by juxtaposition,
as he does in his Arcades Project. In his short texts on childhood
memories collected in the volume Berlin Childhood ([1938] 2007), the
ways in which Benjamin edits material of the unconscious (memories
of actual things together with memories of dreams) recalls indeed the
photographic curiosities and the avant-garde cinema of the 1920s,
their extensive use of framing, enlargement, juxtaposition, or
superimposure. Like his dream memories, his childhood memories
emerge as a series of configurations in which internal and external
spaces are reversible, time levels versatile, and both respect the only
imperative of coherence of vision.
Krauss shows how in the works of surrealists the “optical
unconscious” was very much linked to the “instinctual unconscious”
and had to struggle its way out from a system based on the repressed
as embodied in the logic of modernism, so that the visual field
becomes, instead of a latency, “a field that is already filled, already –
to say the word – readymade” (1993: 54). If surrealists have turned the
conception of space, as Krauss puts it, “inside-out”, under the
dramatic technological changes of the second half of the twentieth
century, the refinement of optical techniques has contributed to an
extension of our field of vision, from the inside of the body (and
mind), to cosmic and virtual space. Relations between such notions as
the corporeal and the mental, or inner and outer space have been (and
62 Touching Surfaces

are being) considerably redefined. Many contemporary artists use

medical technology, for instance, in order to question notions of
identity or redefine conventions of representation.6 As a consequence
of these new possibilities of image-making, the juxtaposition of
various registers of reality (conscious or unconscious, physical or
mental, present or past) takes a variety of new forms which think of
human vision neither as a “master of all things” (as Krauss discusses it
in the logic of modernism), nor as the locus of conflicts between the
mental and the corporeal (as in the logic of surrealism). Whereas in
the surrealist collage, for instance, the seam between different spaces
is still visible, the computer collage is able to smooth it, if not to
completely efface it. As the use of digital manipulations7 in
photography shows, inner space can no longer be conceived of as a
discrete unit (a separate space, a dark room, as it were) but as a
reactivation and conjunction of zones that we inhabit mentally in
simultaneity. The visualization of such conjunctions of various
physical and/or mental spaces produces uncanny effects, as in Jeff
Wall’s “The Giant”, or in Jim Dine’s compositions that I will discuss
in this chapter. These effects do not (or not exclusively) represent the
emergence of something repressed. Instead, they reveal dimly known
shapes or emotions from the more or less distant past to insist on how
we experience the consciousness of these shapes and emotions. Such
works bear witness to the fact that changes in techniques of image-
making entail changes in the parameters of perception that compel us
to reconsider, if not to reinvent, theoretical frameworks. A more open,
less deterministic view of the unconscious evolves from these works,

6 Medical visualizations of the body have been a source of inspiration for

many avant-garde artists. In the late 1960s, for instance, Robert Rauschenberg had X-
rays taken of his entire body and included images of his skeleton in the lithographs he
made. However, besides the embodiment of a desire to go beyond the visible, medical
imagery seems to play now the role anatomy once played for painting even before it
became a legal practice, that is a cognitive role. X-rays, MRIs or DNA diagnosis have
modified our view of the body, a view that a large number of artists have been
integrating to their work during the past decade. Cf. Barbara Pollack, “The Genetic
Esthetic: DNA, MRIs, and X-Ray Visions” (2000: 136-37).
7 The distinction should be made, I would like to insist, between the
manipulations used in journalistic or any other form of utilitarian photographs and
those used in art photography. In the former case, which is not my subject here,
manipulation serves entirely different purposes (and, as the history of photography
shows, is by no means a new procedure).
(In)Visibility 63

one recalling Christopher Bollas’ extended notion of internal objects

as imprints that shape individual idiom throughout life, and not only in
early childhood. In his book, The Shadow of the Object (1987)
(incidentally, a wonderful metaphor for photography), Bollas places
internal objects relating to remote memories in the mental area of
what he calls “the unthought known”, that is “the sense of being
reminded of something never cognitively apprehended but
existentially known” (emphasis added; 17). From a variety of
technological devices, Dine derives, as I will suggest, a photographic
method that enables him to redefine the scope of the consciously
known within the context of “the unthought”, namely, in the
spontaneity of the creative act.

From the perspective of a philosophy of representation,

Patrick Maynard has defined photography as “a technology which we
can see progressively thematized as meaning” (1997: 309; emphasis
added). In his book, significantly entitled The Engine of Visualization.
Thinking Through Photography, Maynard addresses the controversial
question of what kind of reality photography represents by
highlighting the complementary relation between the creative and the
epistemic functions of photographic technology, which amplifies, as
he puts it, “our powers to imagine things and our power to detect
things” (1997: x; emphasis added). Instead of providing equivalents
for mental processes from the domain of photography, Maynard is
concerned with the formative dimension of photographic modes of
representation. He looks at how photographs inform our thinking.
And, most importantly, he also looks at how they can shape our
thinking as well as at the impact photographic procedures might have
on our perceptions and thought patterns. Similarly, I read in the
photographic techniques and aesthetic strategies of speculative
photographs possibilities of reshaping our understanding of corporeal
and mental realities. Such imaginative projects participate, I would
argue, in what Richard Wollheim has called “the corporealization of
thought” (1993, x). In spite of photography’s being largely associated
with fixing the present fugitive moment, underlying our phantasmatic
rapport with photographs is the concern with reading interiority
through visible shapes. In the specific case of aging, exposing signs of
aging can be turned into a means of restructuring our perception of it
and, consequently, our relating to it.
64 Touching Surfaces

“Photography”, writes philosopher Mario Costa, “is not the

memory of an instant, but the memory of a shape” (1990: 17;
emphasis added). If the image perceived by the photographer in his
viewfinder is a promise of a photograph, the resulting photograph
stands out not only as a record of what the camera has caught but also
as a hypothesis of a mental image, or of an association of several such
images. In turn, how often doesn’t a photograph itself become a
memory – participating to more or less faithful restorations of
memory? Or how often isn’t it read – unconsciously – as a perception
of time formalized in a shape we can speak of, describe, relate to other
shapes, to other perceptions in which experience is stored, invisibly?
We can think of such perceptions, I will suggest, as forming patterns
that sustain the wholeness of the self in time.

The photographic works I will discuss in this section

participate in our understanding of memory, the unconscious, and our
consciousness of time passing in a paradoxical way since, like
Benjamin’s prose pieces, they do not imply disclosing unconscious
images specifically encoded into symbolic meaning in the
psychoanalytical sense. Instead, they present us with visual analogs of
inner life perceptions and experiencings in a variety of puzzling
formal patterns whose disclosure of meaning is cunningly deferred.
These images are neither transpositions nor narratives of inner life, but
forms of visual experience that inform our understanding of varied
forms of consciousness of the self. Unlike documentary, informative,
or testimonial pictures, speculative photographs require from the
viewers a form of “willing suspension of disbelief”, that is to say a
bracketing of their belief in the photographic reproduction of reality,
since these photographic images bring into visibility shapes which our
eyes cannot perceive but which we experience rather synaesthesically.
Photographic equivalents of such shapes or configurations of shapes –
that surface only dimly into consciousness – derive from elaborate
photographic technique. They can also derive, as I will show in the
following chapters, from what we normally consider to be accidents,
or technical errors, such as the blur. By turning the mirror inwards,8

8 On the occasion of photography’s 150th anniversary, Andy Grundberg

reviewed two major shows: “On the Art of Fixing a Shadow: 150 Years of
Photography”, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and “The Art of
(In)Visibility 65

art photographers create what elsewhere I have called “la cassure

photographique”, a chasm in our mimetic understanding of
photography, or, perhaps, in an understanding of photographic
mimesis limited to retinal impressions (Cristofovici 1996: 186). As
Dine’s photographs suggest, the visual model of the unconscious or of
mental life as photographic9 is linked to the common understanding of
photography as a mimetic form in a problematic way. To the extent to
which a photograph may disturb the contours of visible realities in
order to reconstruct a picture of a thought, of an emotion, of a dream,
or of a mental image, it can be indeed faithful to an invisible reality. It
can be, not or not only, a faithful image of a specific object, person,
place, but also an image whose referent is a synthesis of spaces, of
time moments, of fragmentary perceptions of an object, or of a person.
From this perspective, photographs appeal to our senses as fixed
images of fugitive perceptions or emotions. Like imaginary referents
in the rhetoric of literary texts, a photographic fiction can be the result
of a juxtaposition of different iconic objects and metonymies of
mental images.10 The computer editing or doctoring of images ensures
the seamless representation of mental space. Instead of discontinuity,
it highlights reconfigured continuity as an essential element in the
construction of subjectivity. Such formal aspects call our attention to
the formative character of aesthetic objects, an approach that has
somehow fallen into oblivion in much of the current visual culture

Photography, 1839-1989”, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas. His review
is significantly entitled “Now, the Camera’s Eye Turns Inward”, (1989: 18-19).
9 In his essay “Une technique de l’instant ou la machine à clicher”, Daniel
Sibony draws an analogy between photography and psychoanalysis based on the
hypothesis that: “Our dreams function on the photographic principle”, (1990: 69-73;
tr. mine).
10 Philippe Hamon studied this fascinating aspect of the interference
between photography and other visual systems of the nineteenth century on the one
hand, and literature on the other. He paid particular attention to the ways in which the
various aesthetic codes in the vernacular visual culture of the time forced literature to
redefine itself. Hamon analyzes the juxtaposition of various iconic objects in
nineteenth-century French literary texts and mentions a detail that supports my
hypothesis here, namely that the objects juxtaposed in the rhetoric of texts were the
result of mental images which had already operated a synthesis of various visual
codes (2001).
66 Touching Surfaces

In its artistic uses, photography relies extensively and

increasingly so on mental processes rather than on mental states.
These processes are sometimes imperceptible moves crystallized into
figurative or abstract forms. But are, in fact, the mimetic and the anti-
mimetic impulses opposite or rather complementary visions? For, yes,
speculative photography is indeed replicative, but in a different sense
than testimonial photography can be, since speculative photographs
visualize such minimal inner processes that Nathalie Sarraute called
“tropisms”: indefinable movements which penetrate consciousness
very rapidly and represent, as was her belief, the inner source of our
existence ([1939] 1957). And then, of course, this aspect does not
exclusively concern speculative photography, but also our affective
relation to family or documentary photographs. Don’t we carry
throughout our lives the memory of images – actual, imagined, or
dreamt of – together with reminiscences of art works? Mental images
which are actually rather unfaithful to the original, since we certainly
see the photographs that we have once taken or hold in view more
often in our minds than we actually look at them, so that they act on
the mental shape we have of them, unknowingly, as much as they act
on our imagination.

Significantly, the questions addressed in this chapter were

prompted by the work of Jim Dine, an artist who has come to
photography quite recently, and to a quite special use of it, one that
unsettles categories of mimesis as well as boundaries between art
media. “I feel in photography it’s part of the challenge, to bring that
which is dead to life” (1998: 7; emphasis added). This is how Dine
sums up his approach of photography in an interview, a statement that
openly privileges the creative dimension of photography over its
traditional reflective function. For Dine does not understand bringing
“that which is dead to life” in the sense of monumentalizing the
instant, the event, or in the sense of making images that represent life
stills. On the contrary, his creative efforts focus on reaching what
photography critic Andy Grundberg has called a “latent metaphoric
potency” (1999: n. pag.), a dimension which has, in fact, emerged
progressively in Dine’s work with other art media.
(In)Visibility 67

Dine’s photographic work 11 came to my attention in

connection to reading patterns of memory as sites of creativity in
speculative photographs. It struck me for its potential to bring mental
processes into the visual field as well as for its open and intentional
relation to the unconscious. In almost every interview, Dine associates
his use of photography as an artist with his exploration of what he
explicitly calls his unconscious, highlighting it as a major theme in his
photographic work. At the same time, he uses his own unconscious, as
I will try to show, as a source for his innovative technique and
aesthetics. Instead of relocating vision in the opacity of the body and
the invisibility of the unconscious, as Krauss does, my focus here will
be on the materiality of the body on which fleeting mental images are
projected, even as the body – Dine’s very first instrument of
expression, in the field of art – is only metonymically present in his
photographic compositions.

1. Jim Dine
Mirroring Marginal Thought:
an Aesthetics of Doctored Images
In inner life, time plays the role of space.

Simone Weil

Jim Dine is known as an artist who has experimented since

the 1960s with a wide range of materials and techniques, in a variety
of art media, from drawing with the body in space (in his happenings),

11 The Guggenheim Museum presented Dine’s early work in 1999, and a

retrospective of his drawings was shown at the National Gallery of Art in Washington
in 2004. His photographic work has been shown in Europe and the United States.
Dine has lived for many years in between Europe and the United States. Significantly,
he donated the entire set of his photographic work to the Maison Européenne de la
Photographie in Paris and made the same donation to the Davison Art Center at the
Wesleyan. His bent for layering and associating images in his recent photographic
work can be read as an echo of his living in various contexts, in different cultural and
visual landscapes.
68 Touching Surfaces

to pencil or ink drawing, printmaking and painting, sculpture, and

mix-media assemblages. His work in various art media has been
described as a glossary of recurring images that make up “an aesthetic
journey into a personal world” (Dine 1995: n. pag.). Dine started
working on his first series of photographs in 1995 precisely as a
means of investigating psychic material more in-depth, or, as he puts
it, as “a way to translate my unconscious into the medium” (Dine
1998: 6).12 That the theme of the unconscious comes up with
surprising persistence in his commentaries on his own work is perhaps
not so surprising since his photographs are not actual pictures that
record, in Henri Cartier-Bresson’s often quoted phrase, “the decisive
moment”. Instead of the term photographs, it is therefore more
appropriate to use that of photographic tableaux or compositions, for,
as I will show, his strategies of processing and printing photographic
images are varied and complex, from his first heliogravures to the
subsequent photogravures, and to the more recent digital ink prints.
Fields of memory, dream, and emotion are explored through the very
processing of these works that combine plastic and poetic images (in
many of them, words, lines, or sentences, written on blackboards or
paper, often smudged, add up to the visual layers). These
preoccupations can be traced as far back as his early work (the last
performance Dine held in 1965 was suggestively entitled “Natural
History (The Dreams)”). Evocatively, an exhibition of his early works
(1959-1969) hosted by the Guggenheim museum in 1999 was entitled
“Walking Memory”, a title suggestive of that solidarity Bergson
referred to between body and images in the dynamics of memory.
Why then has Dine chosen to turn to photography so late in
his life, around the age of sixty? What types of latent images do his
camera works bring into visibility?
In his essay on Dine’s photographic work, “Assaying the
Photographic”, Andy Grundberg suggests that he has not been
attracted to photography until recently “because it cannot break down
the surface of appearances as can the intervention of the hand”
(Grundberg 1999; n. pag.; emphasis added). Yet Grundberg points out
that it is precisely the wide range of technical possibilities he resorts to
that allows him to “refashion the consequences of the camera lens”, in
other words, to modify the impressions recorded by the camera.
12 Dine had in fact already “practiced” photography in a series of Polaroid
portraits and self-portraits he made in the 1970s, cf. Dine 2003, vol. IV.
(In)Visibility 69

Significantly, the resulting photographs are not always reproduced

from negatives, but either from printing plates (in the photogravures)
or from larger computer files of digital captures (more recently Dine
has largely explored the possibilities of the digital camera and printing
techniques). By using these possibilities to associate images of
different visible textures, Dine unsettles what Grundberg has called
the essential tension of his art: the one between rational space and “the
floating arena of the subconscious” (1999: n. pag.). The memory of
the camera is thus being articulated with the memory of the computer,
enhanced by it. Both the photogravures and the digital images are
carefully processed to infinitesimal detail, refined and redefined so as
to render approximations that may come closer to fleeting mental
images. Such photographic images suggest their sensory dimensions,
their transience, and the variety of patterns mental images can create.
As a result, the photographic tableau becomes a more accurate
representation of mental processes and of emotional experience. “All
my photographs”, declares Dine, “are as accurate descriptions of a
thought I’ve had, or a passion I’ve had, or a sorrow I’ve had, as
anything I’ve ever done” (1998: 10). There is however nothing static
about these “descriptions”, which, in being faithful to the dynamics of
mental life and to the ambiguities of perception, recall Benjamin’s
notion of “figures of thought”. Paradoxically, photography – the art of
the real – enables Dine to pursue a concern he has shown since his
earliest works with exploring the imaginative reaches of the real. A
new category of representation has emerged in his camera works, one
for which Grundberg – borrowing from an earlier text by Krauss
(1990) – uses the term the photographic. Grundberg defines it as “a
hybrid analog of photography per se”, a category that subverts the
mimetic association with photography to enlarge its understanding in
the sense suggested by Maynard: as a category of thought. Yet for
Dine, photography is also very much a medium among other art media
whose possibilities of expression he has been exploring over more
than four decades.
In his photographic works, Dine displaces the focus of the
viewers’ visual habits of reading photography from the real to the
mental by insisting on the potential of the camera to record thought
and emotion. In his commentaries, he parallels the speed of the
captures with the speed of dreams and with that of the eye blink. For
him, photography “mirrors the marginal thought – every frame – and
70 Touching Surfaces

it can be done so very quickly, not as quickly as the human mind can,
yet very quickly, so that one could have many, many thoughts on a
roll of film” (Dine: 1998: 8; emphasis added). However, his
photographic images are not snapshots of sudden associative flashes
(in the sense of the surrealist free association). They catch the
viewer’s attention as very exact compositions that combine
spontaneity with minuteness to create an intermediary space in which
the separations between the unconscious and consciousness are shaded
off, smudged. As James L. Enyeart notes: “the apparent incongruity of
meaning helps to induce a dream-like opportunity for conscious
exploration of what is an otherwise fleeting aspect of reality” (Dine
1999: 8; emphasis added). In light of his work in other art media, it is
important to note the material aspect of Dine’s approach which
reflects back on his understanding of the unconscious as part of reality
processed either in peripheral vision or in the margins of thought.
Consider an accurate technical note made by the Adamson
Editions, in Washington – where some of his pigment prints on canvas
have been produced – which presents us with a detailed description of
one of the procedures Dine has used for these prints:

The Dine pigment prints on canvas utilize several key

technologies. […] The images, although created entirely digitally, are not
in fact manipulated. Each capture can take up to seven minutes, a fact
that Dine uses to create a visual paradox.
The digital capture (photograph) is a carefully orchestrated
tableau. Dine uses layer upon layer of these captures that are subsequently
printed as large format images. The images are then placed into the
tableaux as new elements; these new elements are captured along with a
combination of actual objects, i.e. dolls, birds, skulls, etc.
This process is constantly massaged by Dine until a final digital
capture is created. This image is then proofed out at the studio by a high
resolution digital printer using a refined six color pigment process on
canvas. Finally, Dine may make minor adjustments in terms of color,
contrast, and overall tonality before the final large scale image is printed.
(Dine 1999: 35)

As in the case of Jeff Wall’s digital processing, which I have

discussed in the previous chapter, the use Dine makes of a specific
technical operation or of a technological device contributes to
enlarging the figural field of the image. The manipulation or doctoring
is not, in this case, a factor of misinformation (as it can be in the case
of photojournalism), but a device that turns psychic material into
(In)Visibility 71

visual effects, channels it in new patterns. Doctoring devices can

indeed intensify the metaphoric dimension of photography as well as
its formative dimension. Though different in their artistic purpose, as
well as in their actual use of digital technology (Dine’s is, in a
captivating way, closer to older techniques used in the visual arts,
more of a craftsman’s), both artists appeal to “forgery” in order to
recreate paradoxes of inner visions in which memories of actual
objects occur in a variety of patterns that define their respective
aesthetic idioms.
Dine combines photography, computer, and traditional art
techniques to doctor the images recorded by the camera in various
ways. The pictures of actual images (showing referential objects, or
figures) become elements of virtual spaces (by way of displacement,
condensation, and association, we might say, as many of them – the
raven, the self-portrait, the Pinocchio – appear in diverse
combinations suggestive of a variety of mental configurations). The
processing of the photographic captures enables Dine to objectify
inner life in a more direct way than in the other art media he has
worked with. It allows him to recreate inner space from a series of
objects of perception that can fit into many patterns. While the objects
are actual (a stuffed raven, a Pinocchio toy, a photograph, a shell, a
skull, an old mattress, a blackboard, a bunch of candles, a metal
ladder, tools), their assemblages present us with various hypotheses of
inner landscapes. Stabilizing the perception of inner landscapes relies
on leaving behind the logic of binaries to bring opposite categories –
such as the conscious and the unconscious, memory and forgetting –
together within the same space of representation, quite as they often
appear in the logic of life. Accordingly, the effects produced by such
images are ambivalent. In his photogravures, the positive
transparencies printed on a copper plate are then processed in a way
similar to printmaking techniques, which implies that the plate
undergoes the intervention of the hand. The resulting images retain
something of the roughness, of the apparently unfinished, sketchy
character of his other work. By contrast, the possibilities of visual
accuracy provided by the inkjet prints, which combine sharp with soft
tones, render a more evocative or approximate precision, one that
creates an uncanny illusion of depth and transparency.13 The elaborate
13 An interesting technical detail needs to be mentioned here for its
metaphorical connotations: the printing technology used by Dine “delivers a droplet
72 Touching Surfaces

processing of various captures, as well as the grain of paper they are

printed on produce an intense tactile effect that is enhanced in his
recent series of large-scale pigment photographs printed on canvas.
Paradoxically, such an effect alludes to the ungraspable character of
mental images, and also to the multiple sensory ways in which they
may touch us. Dine uses a specific program that allows him to “paint
in” elements coming from several captures, to vary the contrasts and
consistencies of the images, and to layer images coming from
different spaces and corresponding to as many degrees of
consciousness, to as many forms of memory. However, his intention is
not to create metaphors of mental life, but to highlight it as a process
and, I would say, as a presence, that is, as part of the reality of the
subject who constantly processes images situated on different levels of
The association of objects evocative of different spaces is
central to most of Dine’s photographic work. Only occasionally do
these spaces assembled in a composition directly refer to different
chronological levels, as in “North Crescent” (11), a digital pigment
print in which a photograph of Dine the child is actually the
background against which a raven projects its shadow. However, his
photographs relate to varied layers of time associated in one image, as
well as to the passage of time in many ways, and I would say,
increasingly so. First, thematically. Dine’s early large format black-
and-white photographs represent objects and human presences in
isolation or in various associations of recurring elements, some of
which can be connected to the pictorial genre of the vanities, a
reflection on the transience of life, on the passage of time, and on
death – all themes unavoidably relating to photography, to aging as
well. Some of the texts, usually written on blackboards, some partly
effaced, refer to the passage of time in a direct way. Then, time is also
present technically, unavoidably so, given the role of time-length in
the capture and processing of photographs. But also because of his
conjugating procedures of capture and impression drawn from a
history of artistic representations originating in printmaking, a history
that photography belongs to.

the size of 10 microns (the size of a human blood cell), the droplet size is variable and
therefore able to deliver an image of continuous tonality and richness with an
apparent resolution of 1.800 dots per inch” (Dine 1997: n. pag.; emphasis added).
(In)Visibility 73

11. Jim Dine, “North Crescent”, 1999.

Digital pigment print, edition of three, 48 x 68.1/2 inches. JD57D.
Courtesy of the artist.

Thematic and technical associations with temporality in

Dine’s photographs are as many ways of working with time. And then,
there is the constant reference to memory work, to bringing the inert
matter of inner life into the visual field, into the consciousness of a
shape, of a figure, or an object. These are as many ways of working
against time in a creative, formative way. For Dine, visualizing
territories of past and present experience involves exploring the past
as a set of fragmentary, transitory mental images. His photographs
challenge the viewer, as Grundberg puts it: “to comprehend camera
pictures not as ready-made frames but as images constituted by the
sum of their parts” (1999: n. pag.; emphasis added). By incorporating
74 Touching Surfaces

a stock of images from his own past work into his photographic
tableaux, Dine works with referents that have been already formalized
and function in the new work as landmarks of memory. Such
reminiscences from what he calls “my own dictionary of my own
works” (1999: n. pag.) pass from one medium to another, and are
often combined in various patterns in the photographic compositions.
When compared, the figures recurring in his photographs and in his
other works show how each of these elements contains an infinite
potential of association, and therefore of meaning construction. This
is, for instance, the case of a figurine representing a cat embracing an
ape. Dine has explored the expressive possibilities of this object
(which he found in an antique shop in 1992) in various media, with an
emphasis on the tension between object and medium: from the
smudged, elusive shapes in the drawings, to the rough ones in casts he
has made of the figurine and then incorporated into several
photographic compositions, such as “Ape and Cat in Focus”, “Love in
the Everglades”, “The Madonna of the Future”, or “Two of
Everything”, all digital inkjet prints dating from 1997. The serial
character of his entire work relates to the Pop Art tradition. Dine’s
interest is however not in the repetitive character itself but in the
transformative potential of serial work, in the changes or variations
that can occur by transposing a visual motif into another medium, or
into a different configuration, a process during which the origin of the
object is progressively lost, as it often is in the dynamics of memory.

If one considers the entire body of Dine’s work, his

permanent reshaping of recurring elements in various patterns bears
striking similitude to the memories of dreams or to the memories of
memories replayed on the mind’s screen. Metamorphosing a stock of
images prevents the artist precisely from veering into a repetitive or
obsessive use of unconscious motifs or patterns. Dine actually notes
that for him “photography seems a more accessible road to bring
down the unconscious and channel it: as grist for my mill” (1998: 8).
He seems to have chosen the photographic medium precisely on an
anti-mimetic impulse. Consequently, objects and figures in his
compositions are not illustrations of the unconscious but, like the
camera itself, instruments to access it. These elements, which can be
referred to as analogs of internal objects, of spaces of memory, and of
layers of time, structure the space of the composition to represent
(In)Visibility 75

memory not as replicative, but as constantly changing, growing even

from its own gaps.
The recurring objects in the photographs become themselves
residual memories of Dine’s past artwork. In the ironic vein of his first
Pop works, he integrates such archetypal icons as the raven, the owl,
the skull, into a personal vision that opens up the field of meaning
instead of freezing it. Serial work provides him with a means of
conjugating time (and even measuring it against an emotional
backdrop) without articulating a specific life narrative. On that
account, he uses elements coming from a personal vocabulary (and
from associative time patterns), yet he also casts new light, so to say,
on stereotypes that are part of our imaginative routine, or on elements
of commonly shared cultural codes. The irony in his titles often adds
to his demystifying icons and unsettling mental habits related to the
symbolic value of objects (the skull, the raven). For Dine cunningly
makes sure that even as we read through these associations imprinted
on our cultural unconscious we are, in fact, undoing them. In some of
the photographs the raven is, in fact, given a name, one that ironically
alludes to Dine’s first name: “Jimmy” (1997), or “This Guy, Jimmy”
(1996), a cute stuffed pet (one of the three Dine actually had in his
Berlin studio when he first engaged in photographic work). In other
compositions, this lighter register is sustained by the presence of a
Pinocchio toy simply and touchingly introduced as “Portrait of the
Boy” (1997). By varying the angle or the position and the visual
weight of these elements within the composition from one
photographic work to another, Dine also creates a displacement of
images in time and space, and thereby, a continuum of his own work.
The recurrence of images and his specific use of serial work relates to
the passing of time and, most importantly, to a way of conjugating
time levels that resist narrative closure. Significantly, the catalogue
raisonné of his photographic work, published in 2003, is entitled The
Photographs, So Far.
Bringing to consciousness images coming from varied forms
of experience creates an imaginary continuum of the self. Dine’s
actual treatment of photographic material, as well as the commentaries
he makes of his photographic experience are indeed suggestive of an
urgency of processing unconscious material as past experience and
also as a form self-scrutiny: a way of re-evaluating or redefining (or
rehearsing) one’s place in time and space. We can notice this search
76 Touching Surfaces

for more encompassing images of the self coming with the maturation
of the creative process in the work of many artists. In his essay on
memory and the imagination in later life, “The Makeup of Memory in
the Winter of Our Discontent”, Herbert Blau refers to the power of
such writers as Marcel Proust and Samuel Beckett not only to bring to
surface accumulated memories but also to transform what he calls
“reruns of repression” that are likely to accompany the habits if not
the anxieties of the aging self. He insists on the fact that these two
writers decondition habits of perceiving memories by relocating them
in the conscious experience of the present. “What we see in Proust as
in Beckett, who studied Proust and Freud”, writes Blau, “is a powerful
drive to bring into consciousness all of what belongs to it. So long as
it remains in a primary or inaccessible state it constitutes part of our
life which, in its essence, remains unlived” (1986: 26; emphasis
The vocabulary of elements reworked by Dine in various art
media can be considered instead as reruns of expression: a strategy in
the economy of time. In his work over the past four decades, visual
elements are not recycled by way of routine. They do not stem in an
exhausted imagination. Nor do they appear as obsessive reruns, but
rather as playful access to fresh perception carried out through
incremental repetition and variation. As a consequence of such
repetitions and formal variations, his scenarios of memory do not fall
into the category of linear life narrative. Even when technically
juxtaposed, they are figured as images on transparent mental screens
that symbolically meld time lines in the space of a photograph. The
serial character of Dine’s work enhances this effect of superimposed
reminiscences. The viewer’s own memory is then called to play an
active part in the processing of the perceived image as in the case of
the series of photogravures of the raven, or of the cat embracing the
monkey. Like the memory of the artist, the memory of the viewer has
been stimulated by the partial recognition of elements from past work,
rehearsed by their migration into different art media and by the variety
of their associations owing to computer doctoring.
(In)Visibility 77

12. Jim Dine, “Nuptials”, 1999.

Digital pigment print, edition of three, 66.3/4 x 48 inches. JD59D.
Courtesy of the artist.
78 Touching Surfaces

2. Editing, Composition,
and the Visual Reconstruction of Memory
As we grow older, our youth silently expands
in time, while old age conversely contracts
[...]. I and others like me live in a kind of
eternal middle age, and no wonder; for no
matter where we are in age, we are always in
the middle of time, and must weigh our future
equally with our past.

Robert Grudin

How are these elements coming from different time levels

organized and in what ways does composition participate in the visual
reconstruction of memory? We have seen that, in his first digital
works, Dine combined diverse digital captures in a seamless
composition in which images taken in different physical spaces
were brought together in a hybrid photographic composition, in a
synthesis recalling the ways in which memory networks function (or
what we know of them). In his subsequent work, he has used a
different procedure. For a series of photographs made in 1999, he
recreates mental scenes in actual compositions of objects, which he
arranges before the photo session, and then photographs with a digital
camera, as in “Nuptials” (12). Unlike his previous digital work, these
photographs are not doctored; they are not the result of several
juxtaposed or superimposed captures. In this case, Dine simply creates
the scene, builds it up like a still life, and then photographs “what’s
there”, as he puts it (2001), that is, already edited. In the first digital
works, the staging done by computer manipulation resulted into a
similar smoothing of different spatial planes. Editing enables Dine to
bring together the conscious and the unconscious, or the present and
the past, instead of placing them into a binary relation.
In his specific use of photography, Dine did actually find a
way of “breaking down the surface of appearances”, as Grundberg put
it (1999: n. pag). The compositions of these pictures of the mind are
rigorous yet – now more radically, now more subtly – de-centered,
abstracted from a well-balanced frame through his use of low angles,
contrastive lighting, or dramatic close-ups. Among his photogravures,
for instance, “The Ear” is a huge visual ellipsis of a portrait. It shows
(In)Visibility 79

just a crop of grayish hair and an ear cornered on the right side of the
composition, and then the immense shadow of the same head
projected on a wall. The composition is so extremely decentered, as if
the human presence were perceived only in peripheral vision (as an
expression of “a marginal thought”). Foregrounded here is not the
image itself but rather its double, the shadow: a light impression on a
white surface. However, like his other work, these images on the edge
of abstraction (in which the human figure seems to have “stepped
out”, as Benjamin put it) are still figurative, since they retain the
passage of objects, of human presences, or of their shadows not “like a
bug in amber”, in Eugenia Parry Janis’ metaphor for photography
(1989: 9-30), but rather like its trace only dimly recalled by the amber.
In some of his color photographs, Dine explores a new
dimension of the photographic blur produced by the computer in the
form of a geometric smear, a series of horizontal lines which deface
the figure slightly. This unsettling of the contours of the image records
physical movement and simultaneously represents minimal changes in
position, imperceptible to the eye, as in “Heart’s Door” (10). Like the
lines scribbled on the backgrounds of his compositions, the lines of
the digital blur are intermittent and roughly sketched. The lines in the
blur record as many instantaneous perceptions as the written lines. On
the significance of the latter as a form of poetry, Dine comments
dryly: “They are just lines!” (2001).

Because of its capacity to capture the fugitive instant,

photography is commonly read as an object that can preserve the past.
But the compelling question in Dine’s photographs is: how can
photography record time levels and modes of perception – verbal,
visual, sensory – that coexist in the fugitive instant of the mental
image? How do they formalize varied forms of consciousness, the
unconscious and memory among them? And what kind of knowledge
about inner life do his photographic compositions propose? For Dine,
it needs to be underlined, that knowledge is not of narrative nature.
While photography in general largely participates to the construction
of narratives of identity, Dine capitalizes on the non-narrative forms
of subject construction. The events that happen in his photographs are
purely visual, even when in the form of partially effaced words written
on a blackboard or on torn-up rolls of paper. As in his work in other
art media, the elements recurring in various combinations in the
80 Touching Surfaces

photographs do not present definitive scripts but only possibilities of

narrative. The forms that unconscious mental life can take are here
visual happenings recalling the spontaneity of Dine’s earliest work.
The free association of sets of objects in different patterns –
either in individual series (the raven, for instance), or in varied
combinations – allows for a wide range of possible configurations of
memory, an aspect which I consider fundamental for what we can
learn from Dine about the visualization of the unconscious. As in the
dream (or in the child’s global perception, for instance), there appears
to be a narrative, but it constantly escapes us. Time as a factor of
narrative development is thus deeply embedded in the image (it
represents, so to say, the very matter of the image) yet the passage of
time is cunningly bracketed in a skillful visual suspense that compacts
past, present, and future in one tableau and defers the exposure of
meaning. Doesn’t such suspension of time through narrative freeze
bring to consciousness, in fact, common ways in which we perceive
the passage of time, namely that it passes without notice?
By disrupting linearity and unsettling linear perspective,
Dine transposes photographically a visual journey from the present to
the past, from the real to the imaginary, and vice versa. The result is a
strange familiarity (the vague recognition of certain elements
recurring from one photograph to another, from one medium to
another). In a recent series (2004), mostly made of rephotographed
photographs, Dine has edited various images that refer more explicitly
to the past seen from the perspective of the present. Some are self-
portraits in which two images are brought together: the older Dine
with the younger, a photograph with a drawing. In others, his present-
day self-portrait appears against the background of family
photographs. The compositions highlight the fact that the camera does
not only record the past. It is also an instrument for reconstructing
memory by recategorizing elements that go in and out of the visual
field, in and out of the field of consciousness. As in the other series,
the oblique angle, the play with the contrasts between sharp and soft
focus, the subtle variations of light intensities create a visual dynamic
that enables him to deconstruct the very fantasy of the photographic
unconscious and of photographic memory understood as replicative
processes even as he makes use of this fantasy.
“Bringing that which is dead to life” is dramatized in Dine’s
photographic compositions as beating inert matter into life. He retains
(In)Visibility 81

on film the capacity of the mind to retain – in time – parts of life

faithfully, that is creatively, by permanently reworking and
recombining sets of elements. This particular approach makes it
possible to accumulate visual experience selectively, so that one
object, one figure, one impression can be used in several
combinations. By being alert and faithful to process – to the mind in
progress, to the eye in movement – Dine’s photographs integrate
fantasies and realities of time passing, of light changing, of texture
gaining in expressivity or becoming fragile on the verge of extinction.
Dine works and reworks certain elements, as Grundberg has
remarked: “to transform them, from one state to another, altering their
meaning in the process” (1999: n. pag.). By disturbing the conventions
of photographic time and space, Dine invites the spectator to look at
the images otherwise. Displacement, association, and condensation of
space and time levels help him access and use images emerging from
his unconscious as material and not as a reductive set of symbolic
signifiers. Significant detail expands the sense of the unexpected or
the uncanny to create new visual realities that reflect and structure
thought through vision, and also communicate with larger collective
cultural patterns of thought. The symbolic openness of the images
calls for further reading and contemplation. It seems to block
interpretation and to reveal forms of what Anton Ehrenzweig has
called “the hidden order” of the unconscious that we can read in art
forms (1967).
The apparent playful visual dynamic of Dine’s compositions
reveals indeed a highly organized perceptual field, one which,
however, resists symbolization. And it does so owing to elaborate
photographic processing that enhances the aesthetic configurations
inherent in mental images. Composition provides fleeting images with
frames within which meaning oscillates between one shape and
another before it builds up into a relatively stable configuration.

In Dine’s photographic compositions, we have seen how

figural expression can be obtained not by completely abandoning
mimesis but rather by baffling its temptations. Now, the question is to
what extent are, in fact, Dine’s photographs about aging? A question
that seems easy to answer if we consider the photographs at their
literal level, namely that some of them – more and more with time
passing – do represent aging figures together with a stock of objects
82 Touching Surfaces

associated with classical symbols of the passage of time, and of death

(the skull, the raven), in association with childhood’s transitional
objects (the Pinocchio toy). Yet Dine’s cutting answer to this question
clearly points to the fact that aging represents for him – like the
unconscious – material for his work, in other words, life in terms of
visual experience: “If I make photographs now that move anybody,
it’s because I’m 63 years old and I’ve had 63 years of looking” (1998:
11; emphasis added).
Approaching Dine’s photographic work in terms of
representations of aging brings us naturally to the role of photographs
in the construction of subjectivity. Yet, it also alludes to the very
question of the subject of photographs, of what a photograph is about.
As Philippe Le Roux has noted in his article significantly entitled
“L’irréel photographique”: “the image itself is the ‘matter’ of
photography” (1987: 71; tr. mine; emphasis added). What are, for
instance, Sally Mann’s photographs of her children but only images
and hypostases of childhood, visual interrogations on the universe of
early life? They are not about childhood, but instead seize a glance
into the puzzling world of childhood. Like Dine, in her photographs of
children she stages a silent dialogue between ages, between different
images over time, between various visual textures of the growing
body, which is – like the aging body – so revealing in its surprises and
unexpected associations of shapes and expressions. And isn’t it
saddening – if not dangerous – that they have been subject to
controversies that are so much outside the artist’s concern?
Following that line of argument, we understand that Dine’s
actual photographic subject is in fact vision itself and the mental
workshop seen from the perspective of the older artist, in which
growing old is an experience the artist digs into as into any other form
of reality. Dine’s staging of visibility by degrees structures
photographic space in a non-hierarchical perspective. It is, in fact,
precisely by combining perspectives that he can bring together diverse
visions (as he does, for instance, when he superimposes various
captures on the same print, or when he flips the positive into the
negative). It is certainly interesting that Dine has come to use
photography in his late career as a relatively new experience but also,
in a sense, as a synthesis of his own work and as an expression of a
panoramic desire to encompass life, a desire that photographs can give
the illusion of. Some of his work looks further into the paradox of
(In)Visibility 83

time passing and of the perception we have of it by using instead of

visual images of aging, verbal images, as in “The Veronica” (13),
(incidentally a title suggestive of photographic impression). When
images of aging do appear, the question of aging is placed the margins
of the composition in a way that does not suggest avoiding it but
rather as a consequence of his preoccupation with capturing marginal
thought, as in a more recent self-portrait in soft focus and decentered
composition identified as “Untitled (Old)” (2001). And also, in a
chromatically and emotionally galvanic series of three digital pigment
prints, bearing the mysterious title “Keeperess”, which refers to aging
by way of metonymy, showing a pair of relatively old legs hanging
over a pair of old shoes placed in a pool of cadmium red. In the third
image of the series, simply called “The Letter”, the legs have
disappeared; the empty worn out shoes have now become a studio still
life, a signature.

In his previous work, Dine has used various tones of color,

from somber to psychedelically vivid, in the Pop Art tradition.
However, in his photogravures and in some of the digital prints, he has
chosen black and white based on a rich play with light effects that
actually enable him to shade off the contours of the images, so that he
passes from chiaroscuro to very fine ranges of grays, and then to thick
and charcoal-like blacks, as a mark of truthfulness of perception.
“There is ... yes, there’s a lot of darkness in the photos”, comments
Dine, “So what? There’s a lot of darkness in the unconscious” (1998:
In a series of sculptures and mix-media assemblages dating
from the mid-1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, Dine displays an
apparently disconnected number of elements on platforms, shelves or
tables. Cast in bronze and some of them painted in intense colors,
others more somber, these pieces that seem to be disposed in space
casually stage the fantasy of peering into a mental factory of images.
Dine’s making use of assemblages prefigures his photographic editing
and juxtapositions. Among these assemblages, “Feral Air” (1992) is
particularly powerful, fascinating, unsettling. A series of objects –
ranging from the domestic universe to remainders of art history, from
the mineral to the vegetal – are displayed here in a seemingly chaotic
way, reminiscent of a hardware store (a significant childhood memory
often evoked by Dine). In the chromatic context of the muffled tones
84 Touching Surfaces

of this work (rusty browns, charcoal grays, grim whites), though

placed in an eccentric position, a parrot dominates the view. It is
painted in glaring red veering on the margins into bright yellow. Its
vivid colors catch the eye of the viewer while its head leaning towards
the right side engages the viewer’s gaze in a circular movement from
the heavy matter lying on the ground to that of the tools and ropes
placed on the table and the chairs, and then to wires and branches
raised like thin arms in the air. As an isolated element in such a visual
environment, the parrot actually participates to the paradoxical unity
of the random-dominated composition, since it links its heavy material
aspect with a more imaginary one. Like a red bulb suddenly turned on
in the dark room, the parrot (that we remember from Dine’s previous
work) throws momentary light on the workshop of the mind. The
scene it illuminates is messy, full of surprises, of unexpected
memories, of unbidden images: chipped, obliterated, yet abiding. Just
like the unconscious. In it share lodging tools, dismembered objects,
disjunctive mythologies: odds and ends with which one has to make

The works I have discussed in the previous chapter belong to

younger artists who use older models to explore old age in varied
ways. In Dine’s case the camera work focuses on the artist’s own
world, on its alphabet of objects and human presences transformed
into visible analogs of time passing. Even when decentered by
asymmetrical framing, as in his most recent work, the rephotographed
photographs do not appear like disintegrating memories but rather like
parts suggestive of a whole. As such, they are also reminiscent of the
metonymic patterns of our lives sustained by objects and metaphors,
by miniature or fragmentary histories of personal or cultural
representations. As they loom in chiaroscuro, these shapes recall
perceptually the immediacy of mental flashes. For with time, our sight
might diminish, but we are drawn deeper, further back into the past.
The various images brought together in these photographs seem to
meet the viewer’s eye in remote corners of early life memory, where
thought and vision are in the process of being structured, where the
unconscious is a way of editing our selves, and clear liquid thought is
what we see, unthinkingly (“Clear Liquid Talk” is the title of one of
Dine’s photographic compositions). While philosophers of the mind
wonder whether consciousness might bear resemblance to a series of
(In)Visibility 85

photographs, psychologists speculate about the baby’s perceiving its

environment between rapid eye blinks by which reality is integrated
into its consciousness very much like a series of photographic flashes
that contribute to the early construction of the self. Intuitively and
independently of models of the unconscious and of consciousness,
Dine’s photographic works create moments of “aesthetic bliss”
(Bollas 1987: 28-29), fugitive images of integrity, which are – in their
sometimes grotesque somber atmosphere and their playful aspects –
evocative of that exciting element of fear contained in fairy tales. The
images of remote memories superimposed in the space of one
photographic tableau do not belong then to the notion of the repressed
in the Freudian sense. Instead, they are suggestive not so much of
childhood traumas but rather of early childhood inarticulate bliss, or
of what Bollas calls “psychic genera” (1992: 66-100). Subliminally,
they function as connectors of different age-selves (a possibility
ironically suggested in Dine’s “Me Dangling”, representing a
Pinocchio toy placed upside down and superimposed on a self-portrait
of the adult artist). In Dine’s photographs, memory is reactivated not
through a narrative but via its gaps, not exactly within the frame of an
image, but in its margins. The viewer’s attention is bidden by the
unexpected associations in his photographic tableaux, and also – most
importantly for my point here – by the suggestive way in which they
bring inner life work into visual consciousness. Like the enlarged
shadow in the background of some of Dine’s compositions, memory
itself might be vague or diminishing in consistency with time, but the
sudden surfacing of mental images into consciousness and into the
structured vision of a photograph may contain – in privileged
moments – the possibility of making us see clear liquid thought.
86 Touching Surfaces

13. Jim Dine, “The Veronica”, 1999.

Digital pigment print, edition of three, 68.3/4 x 48.1/4 inches. JD77D.
Courtesy of the artist.

The In-visible:
Spectral Visions, Transformative Perceptions

Argument: Photography and Perception

Thierry Kuntzel; Janice Tanaka

My face froze with the vast world of time in a smile

That has never left me since my thirty-eighth year
When I skated like an out-of-shape bear to my Chevrolet
And spun my wheels on glass: that time when age was caught
In a thaw in a ravelling room when I conceived of my finger
Print as a shape of fire and of youth as a lifetime search
For the blind.

James Dickey 1

The question of the invisible is closely related, as I have tried to show,

to a variety of photographic formalizations of the consciousness of
subject construction over time, making of photography an instrument
of exploration that has structured, since its invention, private and
collective perceptions of identity. In Dine’s work, lost or hidden visual
configurations come into visibility as metonymies of the uncanny
coherence of the subject in the course of time. In this chapter, devoted
to the photographic work of Duane Michals, I will consider
1 Dickey’s poem “False Youth: Two Seasons (Winter)” refers to a blind
woman caressing the speaker’s face.
88 Touching Surfaces

photography as an instrument, a function, and a workshop of

perceptions helping us reconsider the notion of invisibility alongside
with that of reflexivity. In Michals’ approach of the invisible I read an
exploration of the limits of representation – of change, movement, and
disappearance – which he transcends by using techniques deviating
from mimetic photographic practices, techniques whose effect
highlights the dematerialization of images. Two works, which are
significantly not photographs but video pieces making use of them,
will be my guides in discussing the possibilities of speculative
photographs to represent paradoxical perceptions related to the
consciousness of time and identity.
In an installation piece created in 1995 for the Cartier
Foundation for Contemporary Art in Paris, French video artist Thierry
Kuntzel staged a disquieting aspect of our bond with photographic
images as repositories of memory and witnesses of our selfhood,
which is, like photographs themselves, simultaneously built up and
eroded by time. Nostos III is the third work in a triptych devoted to the
remembrance and forgetting of images as visual objects, but also as
mental traces of one’s past selves. The only piece exposed in a large
room, the installation is composed of three elements that enhance
perceptually our mental hold of photographs. Two large format
screens face each other at a considerable distance. On one of them a
family photograph recorded on video is projected: the classical three-
quarter pose of a child – the artist himself – between his parents, in
black-and-white slightly turned into sepia. The facing screen shows an
adolescent photograph of the author. As we watch the former, the
contours of the image are fading away at a pace perceived as
extremely slow. An essential element of photographic impressions,
light seems to be now, slowly, under the spectators’ gaze, eating up
the image. To its extreme vanishing point. In the physical interval of
this process – about ten minutes long, yet experienced as a much more
extended space of time – the screen has become blank: a white surface
invaded by light, now turned into a signifier of dis-remembering.
The retinal shock produced by this vanishing image evokes
the imperceptible nature of physical and psychic transformations for
which photographs serve as landmarks. In its fading away, the
photograph projected on the screen recalls the fleeting and yet
persistent character of mental images as signifiers of both the frailty
and the endurance of our physical and psychic selves. The
The In-visible 89

disintegration of the image has a powerful impact on the viewer. Yet,

after a short pause, the image suddenly looms up on the screen. A
cycle of moving into and out of visibility and consciousness seems to
be now underway, one which is unlimited in time, since the
installation is based on this rhythmic effacing and coming back into
sight of the image. The effect of dissolution of the photograph is
intensified by the material presence of three piles displayed on the
ground, in the space between the two screens, in three large trays.
Black, white, and blue pigments (charcoal dust, starch and cobalt
powder), these are material metaphors of the light and shadows
captured by the camera and of the sensitized paper photographs are
printed on (the complete title of the installation is, in fact, “Nostos III,
powder, gelatin”).
This work engages the viewer in a meditation on the
transience of material and mental images, on our changing perceptions
of them, an aspect that intersects my exploration of visualizing
temporality here in a striking way. The cyclical dissolution of the
image displaces the focus from the common fear of seeing
metamorphoses of the body to more disquieting anxieties related to
the disappearance of images as signifiers of identity. Kuntzel’s staging
of the articulation between photographs, memory, and temporality
brings us back to the question of the invisible in quite a literal way.
That a photograph can reveal the inner side of the visible to go
“beyond visual consciousness”, as Meatyard put it, was my
preoccupation in the previous chapter. Here, I would like to focus on
photography’s potential to enlarge our perceptual and imaginative
field by expanding the limits of the visible. At the core of the present
chapter are the modalities whereby photography fixes that which is
either leaving or escaping our field of perception in the present
moment. I will explore in particular the photographic representation of
processes of moving into or out of visibility, a zone of shifting
contours, which I call, following Merleau-Ponty’s suggestion, the in-
In a restricted sense, the invisible is the contrary of that
which we can perceive, as in its dictionary definition: “that which
cannot be seen by the eye, either by nature or because it is hidden”.
However, in the dynamics of perception, the unseen is not the
opposite but the very correlative of the visible, in the same way in
which the photographic positive printed on paper is the material
90 Touching Surfaces

correlative of the negative recorded on film. In his unfinished work,

Le Visible et l’invisible, Maurice Merleau-Ponty approached the
subject of the unseen from his phenomenology of perception opening
towards a phenomenology of the imaginary and the hidden (invisible
life forms, communities, other human beings, cultures) (1964: 282).
Referring to meaning as invisible (in the sense of its being placed at a
vanishing point in contextual and connotative fields), Merleau-Ponty
calls attention to the problematic separation between the seen and the
unseen. Significantly for my point here, he does not consider the two
categories as opposites, but rather as complementary elements of a
process of meaning construction:

Meaning is invisible, but the invisible is not the opposite of the visible; the
visible itself has a membrane of invisible, and the in-visible is the secret
part of the visible [...] we can see it therein, yet all efforts to see it make it
vanish. (Merleau-Ponty 1964: 269; tr. mine)

We infer from Merleau-Ponty’s suggestion that, in fact, like

meaning itself, objects or figures can come into the field of the visible
without however being at all times graspable. This implies that what
appears as immediately visible can also act as a screen, not in the
sense of something repressed, but literally, as a hindrance to sight or
to the perception of more latent patterns of memories or cultural
The disquieting effect in Kuntzel’s installation results from
the slow dissolution of the image perceived as a memento of loss of
memory and also of our own slow effacement from the world. Yet, in
the progressive vanishing of this effigy-like family portrait, only its
iconic dimension is effaced. There persists an after-image, a form of
energy, which, though strictly dependent on it, is no longer articulated
into a visual object (a photograph). As the screen turns blank, the
effacing image is being stored in the viewer’s mental space. It has
become a mental image. Within the dilated duration of perception, the
viewer has traveled sensorially, in fact, not only in the future –

2 In this respect, consider a remark made by Brassaï in the preface to the

catalogue of a series of cubist photographs he created between 1934 and 1935, and in
which he made graphic interventions on the negative: “My aim was to reveal the
latent figure existing in each image. The photograph was thus turned into raw
material, the point of departure for mutations and transmutations which had nothing to
do whatsoever with the initial image” (1967: n. pag. ; tr. mine; emphasis added).
The In-visible 91

towards the moment when the image will no longer be – but also in
the past, in search of some relation to the image or to the self therein
framed. When the family portrait re-emerges suddenly on the screen,
it strikes us as identical and yet different from the photograph whose
dissolution we have witnessed. In the process, the photograph appears
as both a visual object and as the remembrance of a visual object: it
has been turned into experience, into reruns of expression (the term
that I have used for Dine’s transformative resort to a specific set of
Indeed, the transient and repetitive time structure of this
work generates a new contact with the image with each rerun. The
same image thus embraces different values of the present and it is also
a reminder of persistency, of the fact that some transparent substance
of images still survives even when they have fallen out of the optical
field or into oblivion. Due to the cyclic recurrence of the photograph
(which had been recorded with a video camera and then projected on
the screen on the fading away mode), its perception is being
transformed and it is, in turn, transformative.3 Significantly, this
elaborate composition based on the affinities between memory-work
and photography cannot be fixed photographically precisely because it
is conceived as the representation of a process. It is, as many of
Kuntzel’s works, an ephemeral fiction.4
One of Janice Tanaka’s video pieces, suggestively entitled
Memories from the Department of Amnesia (1990), is based on a
similar reflection on images as a factor of identity processing, on their
paradoxical transience and persistence in the vacillating stock of
memory. Part of a diptych,5 this work is a reconstitution of family
history from gaps of individual and cultural memory. In this piece
devoted to her mother, American video artist Tanaka blends actual

3 One might think here of a similar visually arresting moment in Federico

Fellini’s movie Roma, where a film crew accompanies the team digging for the Rome
subway. At a certain point, they fall upon a wall behind which they discover a Roman
room with frescoes. As the air enters through a hole they are breaking in the wall, the
painted images enclosed for centuries dissolve under their gaze.
4 Shortly before Kuntzel’s death, in April 2007, a bi-lingual (French and
English) collection of his texts came out together with a DVR–ROM of his works,
Title TK (2006).
5 Tanaka’s second video piece, Who’s Gonna Pay for These Donuts Anyway
(1992) is devoted to her father and is more documentary oriented.
92 Touching Surfaces

photographs of her mother with reconstructions of mental images to

explore the role of visual memory work in the process of mourning.
Some of these sequences appear literally under the form of visual
blanks which precede the surfacing of visual associations
corresponding to forgotten events or to events beyond conscious
memory (such as her own birth). As in the case of Kuntzel’s
installation, the blank screen creates a powerful effect. Here too, the
absence of image dilates, in fact, the psychological time of perception,
since in actuality the lapse of time during which the screen remains
blank is not so extremely long (a few seconds). Images function in
both works as a time-measuring device, and also – by alternating
visibility with invisibility – as metonymies of the spatialization of
memory. Like Kuntzel, Tanaka explores the expressive power of the
white screen (not a non-image but an alternative visual field).
However, instead of operating on the disappearance of the image, she
works, on the contrary, on the slow surfacing of mental images. As
equivalents of blanks of memory, the vacant screen sequences are
progressively shaped into such figures as fog or snow, which
formalize a visual potential slowly transformed into an actual
environment. In this piece, Tanaka displaces the focus from
autobiographical narrative to an account – as accurate as it might
perceptually be rendered – of the role of various types of images in
memory-work and identity construction. However, it is important to
note that this displacement of the personal originates precisely in her
failing to reconstruct her family history in a linear way. This echoes
other displacements in the history of her family of Japanese
extraction, such as internment and relocation. The effaced images or
the blank screens are powerful visualizations of “the silence which
was the key of my own memories”, as she puts it in the voice off
commentary, suggesting that forgetting might link us to much larger
communities than memory itself.

In his preparation notes for Nostos I, Thierry Kuntzel refers

to the content of his work as to a void filled up with a potential
activated by the dynamics of the installation:

Almost nothing. Almost nothing in terms of representation, of narrative –

of naming objects, actions. [...] Almost nothing. It was only that almost
nothing that allowed me – and allowed the viewer – to access another
The In-visible 93

space: the one working under, or between the image. Another space: that
is to say, simply, time (Kuntzel 1988: 149; tr. mine; emphasis added).

In Nostos III, the alternation between the slow disappearance

of the image and its subsequent surfacing accommodates time with
movement by suggesting the varied layers of temporality that exist in
the memory of an image (the recording of the photograph on video
tape being itself a way of processing visual memory). “The time that
space takes to be shaped”, adds Kuntzel (1988: 149). And, it is
significant to note that the spatialization of time in Nostos III is also
sustained by his having the photograph migrate from one support to
another: from paper to the video tape, then to its projection on the
screen. By contrast with a film camera, which records space with
more fidelity, the video camera renders time with more accuracy.
Because of its capacity to record the temporal flux more minutely, the
video camera defers the perception of sequences. It slightly segments
the fluidity of movement. The two installations are suggestive of the
possibilities to visualize the relation between movement and
temporality in video works that use photographs to evoke the
processing of mental images and their role in the fabric of the subject.
But in what ways can still images be records of temporality
as a process? How can one temporal condition coexist with another
within the frame of a photograph? And how can reflections of
temporality and movement in speculative photographs participate in
the visualization of physical and psychic change?
In his essay introducing the artists presented in the
exhibition suggestively entitled “Vanishing Presence” (Walker Art
Center, 1989), Adam D. Weinberg points to what artists coming from
different traditions, such as the Americans Ralph Eugene Meatyard,
William Klein, Duane Michals, the Canadian Michael Snow, or the
Europeans Anna and Bernhard Blume, Dieter Appelt, or Thomas
Keith, have in common: their use of “time-bending techniques to
produce images that are seemingly caught between the past and the
present and imply the future as well” (1989: 74; emphasis added).
Weinberg employs the interesting term “evolutionary images” to
characterize these varied ways of representing movement and of
drawing the unseen into the visual field. Such images capture what
Merleau-Ponty had called “the invisible membrane” (1964: 269) of
imperceptible processes of change. Weinberg’s argument regarding
the tension between the fixed and the fluid dimension of photographs
94 Touching Surfaces

suggestively intersects with my discussion of speculative photographs

that represent aging as part of a continuum of transformative
processes. The extension of visibility and of temporality through a
variety of non-conventional photographic techniques plays an
important role in these images which, as Weinberg points out, “do not
describe parcels of time corralled in a frame and clearly denoting the
past”. Instead, he insists:

They are pictures suspended in the perpetual process of becoming and

concerned with change itself. They urge us to consider the experience of
time not as interchangeable, digital segments, but as a continuous,
disturbing, overwhelming, and wondrous whole. (1989: 74; emphasis

Duane Michals is part of that family of artists who seem to

work with but also mostly against conventional photographic images
to extend our field of perception as well habits of relating to time
aspects in photography. His aesthetics of change concerns discrete
moments that pass unnoticed to the eye and consequently escape our
field of consciousness. Michals’ is an aesthetics of the ephemeral that
places the question of aging in the perspective of an enhanced
awareness of the transitory. The following chapter is devoted to the
photographic paradox of producing a fixed image of a flowing
moment, that is, a passage, a transition. Something that we see and we
don’t: a visual event which emerges into visual awareness as an
interaction between different forms and levels of space and
temporality shown on the flat surface of a photograph (as Michals
does in his book of photographs and texts, The House I Once Called
Home (2003), where he superimposes on old family pictures recent
photographs he took of the house in which he grew up).
How then does the photographer bring these different time
levels into a coherent, plausible visual field? In what ways can such
deviations from conventional photographic perceptions as the blur or
the sequence represent perceptions of time? And how can the
photographer show what we normally perceive through senses other
than sight (or just within peripheral vision) with the accurate,
relentless eye of the photographic camera? How can a visual fallacy
such as the blur be turned into an optical argument?
The In-visible 95

1. Duane Michals
The Fixation of Unstable Fields:
Movement, Change, and Temporality

the fixation moves from left to right as time goes on it

becomes clockwork you will have your way and i will make
do in the end we can double back and play the field
i don’t want to deny you your own flesh and blood who
am i but a figure of speech free standing in advance of a
broken arm these things can happen when one gets
ahead of themselves

Garry Hill

A fixation that moves clockwise is a paradox which

epitomizes Duane Michals’ artistic adventure in the fields of
movement, change, and temporality. Since his early work, Michals
went against the grain of mainstream American photography of clear
and precise vision by exploring the capacity of the photographic
medium to enrich our understanding of reality through visual fictions.
His photographic work holds in balance fixation and change, and
thereby places the instant within a larger time-frame in trying to deal
with, as he puts it in his photo series Real Dreams, “one’s total
experience, emotionally as well as visually” (1976: 4; emphasis
added). And he does so mainly by using devices that run against the
common characteristics of photography: double-, multiple-, and over-
exposures, or series of pictures associated along potential narratives.
Instead of referring to a specific moment in time, these photographic
fictions lay out the question of change and that of the subject’s
evolving over time as a preoccupation with representing physical
movement and subliminal perceptions and emotions associated with
If, in the history of representations, photography is the
accomplishment of a desire for a faithful fixation of moments and
forms of life, it is only through change in the creation and perception
of an image that it can record movement, as it is also only through
change that we exist. That a device producing a fix image can record
96 Touching Surfaces
The In-visible 97

14. Duane Michals, “The True Identity of Man”, 1972.

Four gelatin silver prints each paper, 8 x 10 inches. DMI.S.243.
Copyright Duane Michals. Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York.
98 Touching Surfaces

movement is a paradox which I will explore in this chapter. One

whose visual effects enhance our consciousness of the passage of time
wittingly, lightly, instead of sentimentally.
In Michals’ world, to move is to create a space of time in
which the self crosses infinitely small areas, a passage perceived as a
disturbance in outlines producing – somehow like overstated facial
expressions in still movies – the suggestion of a visual noise, or of a
visual echo.6 To move is also to touch, and to be in touch with one’s
vulnerability in the face of change.7 The tactility of the ethereal
presences in his photographs functions as a rhetorical argument for
this ambiguity. For the visual impact Michals’ work has on the viewer
originates precisely in his attempt to catch images of impalpable,
imperceptible change. Rather than focusing on the results of change,
he explores its large figural spectrum and creates corresponding visual
metaphors. Instead of representing the rational and the emotional as
separate areas, his photographs show how we think, unknowingly,
with our bodies, echoing Merleau-Ponty’s belief that experiencings
can have as much consistency and expressivity as forms of positivist
or rational thinking. In revealing – or imaging – experiencings that are
less, or not at all, graspable to the eye, Michals’ reflections on the
multi-layered nature of reality are, visually, refractive. They run, that
is to say, against common perceptions of what photography can do
and, as a result, against how it relates to time patterns, to aging in
In order to render an awareness of “total experience” in a
moment, for instance, Michals creates photographic sequences –
moving pictures, as it were – assembled in a composition, or in a book
of photographs often accompanied by texts. Many of these images
combine various visual consistencies by bringing together figures in
sharp and blurred focus. His technical and rhetoric use of what is
conventionally considered as a photographic error supports his
concern with incorporating negative experiences within our staying
6 An echo is a signifier of extension in space; inevitably one might think
here of the mythological association between Echo and Narcissus.
7 The vulnerability of the photographic image is linked to the frailty of the
self, while at the same time Michals acknowledges the unavoidable need to go along
with it: “It is important”, he states in his handwritten introduction to Real Dreams, “to
stay vulnerable. To permit pain, to make mistakes, not to be intimidated by touching.
Mistakes are very important, if we’re alert” (1976: 7).
The In-visible 99

alive: a process of taming contradictions which enables the individual

to become, to grow through change. His serial compositions are
comparable to brief fictional forms: a representational continuum
within discontinuity. By disturbing the contours of images and by
overlaying other forms of discourse on the photographs (short texts,
and, in some cases, engravings), Michals diverts photography from its
reflective dimension (even as the texts are often reflections on its
nature and paradoxes).

Considering the body of work Michals has produced within

a span of more than forty years one is, indeed, struck by his
increasingly working against the photographic medium to visualize a
subtle spectrum of forms of change: transformations of the self, of his
own vision, of ways of looking at the world. Michals works at a
vulnerable junction point of several surfaces of visibility. His
objective is half “turned inwards”, in Grundberg’s phrase (1989: 9),
since his philosophy associates the notion of external appearance to
appearances in the sense of extrasensory perceptions: imaginary fields
emanating from the real.
The body evolves in time through movement. Yet Michals
does not look at the becoming of the body in terms of an accumulation
of shapes. Nor does he look at the becoming of the self as an
accumulation of mental images, as it was the case with other
photographers whose works I have approached in the previous
chapters. He does not see the body in motion as a precise addition of
photographic sequences that document motor processes, as, for
instance, in the nineteenth-century photographic analyses of
movement done by the American photographer Eadweard Muybridge
and in the chronophotographs of his contemporary, the French
physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey, or in those of the American painter
Thomas Eakins. Michals regards the moving body as a corporeal
structure fading away. Within one picture frame or within a sequence
of images, a figure represented in sharp contours often appears
together with a double which represents the moving self, the latter
being shown as a body made of variable degrees of transparency
instead of opaque corporeality, like a shadow either partially
superimposed on its solid counterpart, or detaching itself from it. As
manifestations of the tensions between the physical and the
phantasmatic body, these photographic couples have complementary
100 Touching Surfaces

visual functions resulting in an effect of double consciousness: that of

a solid figure and of its invisible counterparts, that of a stable identity
and its shifting hypostases, or that of perception and its delusions.
Jim Dine’s photographs relate to the unconscious, as we
have seen, precisely by accumulating varied captures in the same
composition, a strategy which enhances the consciousness of shapes
related to mental images and processes of memory. Conversely,
Michals dematerializes the physical body to express – and sublimate –
anxieties related to change over time. Neither Dine nor Michals
illustrate or document perceptions of older bodies. However, where
Dine reflects on the self’s journey in time as a collection of past
moments and objects, Michals addresses the diverse aspects of change
as a series of volatile moments in the present. His visual question does
not relate to what the body was, but to what it is and what it becomes
as it moves in the instant. The body he explores the limits and
potential of is situated neither totally in the realm of the physical nor
exclusively in that of the psychic. Both metaphorically and, through
its photographic deformations, quite literally, the changing body
shows as a plastic body. Equivocal imagery, visual ambiguities and
optic puns sustain the tension between the awareness of actual
transformations and the simultaneous difficulty to grasp them even as
they happen. Accordingly, his reflection on the becoming of the self,
on how discrete moments relate to larger time streams intersects the
technical aspect of the fixation of unstable fields of perception and
optic energy.
Michals’ photographic work destabilizes fix, fixed, or
fixated images to highlight what in his novel, Three Farmers on Their
Way to A Dance, Richard Powers calls “a shifting ambiguous place of
possible meaning” (1985: 212) in a reality dominated by the instability
of signs. The technical corollary of such an understanding of
photography implies stabilizing the singular sample in a mass of
factual and sensory experience. That sample will act as the signifier of
a field of consciousness informed by imperceptible variations in the
photographed figure which might suggest more considerable
variations in perceptions of the self. The photographic fixation of
unstable fields metaphorically opens up questions of subject position
to the extent to which the plastic body moves, changes, and by
extension, acts on its own symbolic position as well as on
conventional subject representations. Without falling back on any
The In-visible 101

form of social constructionism, by treating the issue of movement in

photographic terms, Michals’ images act on our habits of seeing, and,
through their meditative aspect, on our habits of thinking.

2. Optical Thresholds
Thresholds of change

Michals is known for his use of the blur and of overexposure

as technical means of converting the energy of the physical presence
into optical illusions that can convey imperceptible transitions.
Proceeding from the common observation that signs of change are
perceived a posteriori, he displaces the focus from the fix image (the
fix position of the figure in a photograph and, by extension, that of the
subject in space and time) to a field of unstable signs perceptible
beyond the limits of the eye. The photographed figure consequently
appears in two temporal perspectives from which Michals considers
perceptions of the self’s becoming: actual time and imaginative time.
From the perspective of the former, change is ungraspable. As he
suggests, visually and textually, in the photograph “Now Becoming
Then” (15), the moment is only an illusion of a present – “a long
‘now’,” as he calls it – which is imperceptibly “radiating and
expanding and changing and flowing to itself” (1971: n. pag.). In
“Now Becoming Then”, Michals embodies this fluent time experience
in a transparent silhouette of a man about to leave the present instant
to become – within the very moment of the photographic capture – a
form of time that has passed away, namely an image. Significantly,
the figure is advancing towards a fireplace on which a mirror in a
wooden frame was placed and then touches its own double going in
the opposite direction. A white wall shows in the mirror, that is a non-
image, a mise-en-abîme of a sensitized photographic support ready to
capture a unique and elusive moment that can only be revealed by way
of discrete elements, in sequences taken at different time stations. For,
as Michals puts it: “Change is invisible. It is linked to time and we can
only perceive it in the past. We never recognize the exact moment,
despite the fact that its signs are everywhere. But change cannot hide
itself from photography” (1981: n. pag.; emphasis added).
102 Touching Surfaces

15. Duane Michals, “Now Becoming Then”, 1978.

Gelatin silver print with hand applied text paper, 16 x 20 inches. DMI.104.
Copyright Duane Michals. Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York.

The double figure represented in “Now Becoming Then”

seems to be suspended in the inner, imaginative time of the optical
illusions created by the blur and by the apposition of the two identical
images. Instead of escaping the logic of temporality, the figure seems
to move along with the vanishing present moment, an “event”, as
Michals calls it, or a “construction, an invention of the mind”.
The In-visible 103

Looking at the present moment as a mental construction makes of the

photographic image a privileged intersection of temporal planes.
Michals disturbs the contours of shapes, ripples the surface of the
photographic space, gives us to see less sharpness and more depth. His
photographs are not remains of the past, or reliquaries of remote
experiences. At a time when the discourse on photography was
dominated by the testimonial value of photographs and by the
melancholic attachment to past states retained on film, Michals draws
from the possibilities of photography to enlarge our optical field an
empiric theory of mental life in which various time planes exist
synchronically. This is a way of looking at time in photography
which, in his novel prompted by a photograph by August Sander,
Richard Powers calls “synchroneity” (1985: 235; 257; 350). Rather
than objects hackneyed by mechanical reproduction, as Benjamin’s
devotees have too often regarded them, photographs can be looked at,
Michals seems to suggest, as instruments for traveling in time, back
and forth. They enclose past experience, but also what I would call
anticipative or expectative memory, potentially contained within the
image and, one should add, given his insistence on perception,
possibly reactivated by each viewer, with each viewing, reaching
across conventional temporal partitions.
If Michals places his focus on the instability of signs of
change by visualizing temporality through movement, in his book,
Changements, published in France (1981), he addresses the issue of
change and aging as temporal processes in a more direct way. The
sequences of photographs included in this book as well as the
accompanying texts (originating from an interview taken by his friend
Hervé Guibert, in 1978) document age transitions of various kinds in
an apparently anecdotic way. The first section of the book shows a
series of photographs that Michals had taken of a friend’s first and
then second child over a lapse of time of ten years: a choice of one
shot for each year span. In the following sections, he combines
photographs of himself (taken first by others, then by him) at different
ages with those of friends and family, including two pictures of his
grandparents on their deathbeds.
From the remote moments of his past life shown in the first
photographs in the book, up to this extreme vanishing point in the
future, the images in Changements do not relate an actual life story,
but, as the title suggests, a series of changes at various points in life,
104 Touching Surfaces

through images which account for physical presence and movement in

parcels of time. Rather than structuring his book on narrative
development, Michals seems to be concerned with what develops
perceptually and mentally when images taken at different moments in
time are brought together. He is “more interested”, as he puts it, “in
documenting the facts of the invisible” (Diamondstein 1981: 119) than
in documenting physical change. In Michals’ book on varied forms of
change, the awareness of different age-selves that photographs convey
addresses the family of visible facts only indirectly, namely as visibly
plausible facts. From such a perspective, we can consider that
Michals’ photographic fictions – like speculative photographs in
general – do not reject the referential function of photography but, on
the contrary, they enlarge its scope.
For his self-portrait taken on his 47th birthday (the occasion
on which he began the project for Changements), Michals adds the
following notation in which he isolates the self from the young versus
old binary to locate it in a transitional space of age consciousness: “I
am not young, but I am not old yet” (1981: n. pag.; emphasis added).
He thus places himself in an intermediary zone of age in time, one that
brings along the awareness of its passage even as time is bracketed
within the space of the image. In many photographs, the imperceptible
passage of time is made visible in a rather anecdotic way as part of a
continuum that extends the representation of the self beyond the
present moment in a future projection. This uncanny other sense of
time is explicitly visualized by the blur.
The actual and the imaginative time dimensions are
suggestively represented in two types of images Michals placed at the
two poles of the pseudo-autobiographical narrative he constructed in
the second part of Changements. At one pole, in the past, are the
typical childhood family photographs of Michals taken by different
people: they present remote images of the growing self. At the
opposite pole, in the future, are the photographs of projections into old
age and death: fictional representations of the self. In these sequences,
actual time is embedded in the imaginative time dimension through
short fictional episodes, or events, photographic happenings, as we
might call them. Two of these photographic episodes, which Michals
introduces as “two small sequences of my old age and my death”,
openly upset the association of photography with the past. As
The In-visible 105
106 Touching Surfaces
The In-visible 107

16. Duane Michals, “My Old Age”, [1980] 1997.

Five gelatin silver prints with hand applied text each paper, 5 x 7 inches.
DMI.S.431. Copyright Duane Michals. Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery,
New York.
108 Touching Surfaces

projections into a potential future, the staged photographs locate

referentiality in the mental domain.
Section six, referred to as “My Old Age”, is composed of six
sequences which show middle-aged Michals acting as an old man. In
an almost empty room, he is moving, sequence by sequence, towards a
chair placed by the window (16). A younger man accompanies him in
this brief journey into the immediate future. Though not a blurred
figure before the last image of the sequence (as the double of the self
appears in other images), this younger presence suggests the shadow
of a former, younger self that holds the older body. When he has
eventually sat “the old man” in the chair, the young man effaces
himself in the last sequence, fading away from the frame, like a dim
silhouette in the old man’s memory. The last section of the book
touches a limit of representability. Here Michals stages his own
fictional death in four sequences.8 In a Pieta-like pose, a naked young
man is placing the dead body impersonated by Michals on a plain
board. In the following sequence, the young man is covering the body
gently with white linen. The light coming from the window on the
right is slowly getting dim. In the last sequence, the viewer only
guesses the volume of the body under the now dark cloth.9
The childhood photographs as well as the fictional
photographs of old age and death embody Michals’ philosophy of
existence as ungraspable other than as a series of illusions, implying
that at a certain level of perception we might exist only as images. In
this respect, the childhood photographs suggest here a chasm in
identity experienced when we look at images of ourselves that escape
our memory. As a consequence of their being not outside but beyond
the field of consciousness we can have of our own past, such
photographs seem somehow separated from our adult identity (the
photograph opening section 5, shows Michals one year old).

8 Michals’ photographs undoubtedly had a powerful effect on Hervé

Guibert (who wrote on Michals and sometimes posed for him) and it is interesting to
note how the uncanny preoccupation with photographic fictions translates into
Guibert’s own work, particularly in the series which I have commented in the first
chapter, where he stages the fictional death of his aunt, Suzanne (cf. Chapter 1).
9 Although Michals has transposed these sequences in a one-minute-long
video piece, the paradox of having a fixed image of an immobile body is more intense
in the photograph.
The In-visible 109

This fabricated, pseudo-life narrative in Changements

ironically suggests an omniscient photographic narrator who could tell
the complete visual story of his own life: from its beginning to its end
… and further to its perpetuation under the form of an image. The
very fact of visualizing one’s own mortality incorporates the fact of
death into the facts of life as yet another form of change. “That’s all
there is, change”, comments Michals dryly in his book Real Dreams
(1976: 4). A sense of coherence, of duration spins out of the discrete
image-units in Changements that build up an awareness of change. In
the paradoxical continuum that develops from photograph to
photograph, change is fleshed out by the awareness that each image
contains the possibility of another. Cyclic growth (suggested, as we
will see, in other sequences as well) is epitomized in the photograph
that opens the book: a baby’s wrinkled face, which, like that of a fetus,
is an emblem of life and death potential. This image heralds the last
sequence in the book and also addresses the question of how far
photography can go beyond the self’s consciousness?

Thresholds of movement

Within the chronology of Michals’ work, the photograph of

his fictionalized death is not situated in the beginning. I have however
chosen to place it at the outset of my search into his creative process
precisely because it helps me look at the plot line of his work in terms
of the tensions between state and process. Moving away from a
particular state runs against common perceptions of the photographic
image. Technically, movement produces an effacement of the image,
it renders it literally transparent. From the beginning of its history, this
has been considered as a shortcoming of photography.10 Due to the
lengthy exposure time required to capture an image, anything that
moved was rendered invisible as a shape with well-defined outlines.
Michals’ photographs of moving figures recall the ambiguous effect

10 Upon the official recognition of photography, patented under the name

of Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre in January 1839, La Gazette de France reported
that “Nature in motion cannot reproduce herself, or at least can do so only with great
difficulty, by the technique in question” (Newhall 1980: 17).
110 Touching Surfaces

produced by nineteenth-century photographs in which moving bodies

appear as brush strokes even as we know that these are shapes wiped
out not by the intervention of the human hand, but by the time that has
passed over the duration of the capture. The effect is ambiguous.
While these images can be visually captivating, owing to their ethereal
character, their depth of field, and their enhanced tactile quality, the
fading bodies show a physical presence extended and diluted in space
and thereby suggest a sense of loss that resonates deeper, further into
our consciousness of identity.
We remember the progressive fading out of a portrait of the
artist as a young boy in the work of Thierry Kuntzel; its unsettling
effect and along with it the hypothesis that the loss of one’s own
image might be a signifier of the self’s passing away. This anxiety is
exorcised in Michals’ photographs narratively or through the comic
effect produced by many of his sequences, and also visually, through
the insistence on movement rather than on state. Movement is treated
by Michals as a condition of permanent becoming and also as a way
of looking at the self beyond the very limits of representation, as in the
impossible photographic image of his own death: yet another form of
change. Vanishing images, however, can be instead of reminders of
the disappearing self, reparatory objects of mourning, as in Tanaka’s
video piece, which inscribes transformed images of loss in the
continuum of life. To engage the viewer into imaginative, projective
mourning, Michals has to let the body go. And he does so not by
abandoning it, but by extending the movement of the photographed
figure in space, plastically and imaginatively. The physical body is
sustained in this process by a series of optical illusions evoking
private, imaginative rituals that may accompany the processing of loss
in mental space. Detached from its material existence as it moves, the
corporeal self re-emerges into visibility under the guise of a series of
immaterial presences. Unlike testimonial photographs, which focus on
the particular presence of a person, these photographs foreground the
body of the image as a unit of experience, with its variety of textures
and consistencies, with its visual weight turned into lightness by
degrees. Reaching out for space, the moving self becomes part of a
larger picture, it is absorbed by it.
The In-visible 111

In fact, at the outset of his creative photographic work 11

Michals had evacuated the human presence from the picture
altogether, if we think of his 1965 project, Empty New York, inspired
by the abandoned street scenes of the nineteenth-century French
photographer Eugène Atget. From that initial project of urban setting,
he then turned towards public and private interiors. First photographed
as empty spaces, the interiors soon became the setting for uncanny
happenings recorded in photographic sequences representative of the
casual ways in which more or less dramatic turns in situation may
occur. The interiors then slowly became signifiers of inner spaces.
These early works (Michals was thirty-four when he undertook the
New York project) show his concern with displacing the subject of
photography from external appearance to the inner world, to “anxiety,
childhood hurts, lust, nightmares” (Michals 1976: 10). This shift from
the present to the past, or rather to psychic spaces in which past,
present, and future interact will be a constant preoccupation in his
work that sublimates the dark side of the self into fictions of the self,
an operation which puts a doubt on the reality shown in a photograph
to place it, against the medium, beyond the domain of the visible.12
Considering the various types of visual displacement in his
photographs, or even some of the titles of his books – such as Real
Dreams. Photo Series (1976), Sleep and Dream (1984) – the influence
of Surrealism on Michals’ vision is significant as the series of
photographs he took at René Magritte’s home in Brussels also
suggests. Yet, rather than a free association of symbolic elements, the
unconscious is for him, as it is for Dine, a form of energy, a domain
made of light and darkness accompanying life, fuzzily.
Although death is the subtext of many of his photographs,
their temporal and spatial treatment suggests Michals’ concern with
other aspects of immobility. One particular photograph in
Changements, which precedes the two sequences explicitly related to
old age and death, indicates that for the creative self mental lethargy
and imaginative annihilation can be more menacing than physical

11 Michals started in commercial photography, which he subverts in his

own way, a significant detail for his attitude against visual and ideological clichés.
12 Significantly, in 1986 Michals took part in an exhibition entitled
“Apparitions and Allusions: Photographs of the Unseen” at The San Diego State
University Gallery of Art.
112 Touching Surfaces

demise.13 This photograph shows a double portrait: one figure lying

on a board as an inanimate body, the other standing by it and
contemplating the possibility of one’s ultimate state of immobility. In
Michals’ world, not to move imaginatively is not to be alive. In many
of his works Michals explores the passages of the body into various
phantasmatic states (visualized as phantomatic) by showing figures
which are, in Max Kozloff’s plastic description, “dissolved in light or
enveloped into darkness, which allows them to slip away under
external cover” (1989: 55).
In order to visualize the juxtaposition of actual and
imaginary experiencings as part of an enhanced sense of reality,
Michals borrows from a history of photographic representations that,
since the early days of photography, have attempted to bridge such
dualities as matter and spirit, consciousness and the unconscious, life
and death, presence and absence. I refer here in particular to the
tradition of spirit photographs, which emerged in the United States in
the 1860s and soon became extremely popular (in Europe as well). As
Tom Gunning has pointed out, spirit photographs appeared in a
context – similar to that of the turn of the twenty-first century – of
increasing emphasis on visual evidence (1995: 42-71). However,
whereas within the perceptible faith of the nineteenth century, spirit
photography was perceived by many as evidence of an afterlife, for
Michals it is an exploration of imaginary possibilities, a flight from
the body which connects the self to forms of experience that go
beyond corporeal limitations. What he has retained from this tradition
– which adds a supplementary time dimension to his photographs – is
the modern conception of the spirit as a correlative for the
imagination, one which, in his work, is embedded in the reality of a
photograph under the form of uncanny perceptions of the real.
Still, as in the tradition of spirit photographs, ghost images
can play in his work a particular function of mourning, namely the
mourning of former configurations of the self. In this sense, these
images relate to the past by giving visual shapes to the consciousness
of what one has been (a consciousness sustained, to a large extent, by

13 The photograph in question actually follows a commentary on what he

calls “loops of comfort” which maintain the self in a state of lethargy thus
representing a hindrance to experiment, that is, in Michals’ understanding, a
hindrance to experience.
The In-visible 113

our common perception of photographs). However, given his

melancholic approach tamed by humor in both images and texts, and
his insistence on movement and change, on not being stuck in one
position in time and space, for Michals the ghost figures seem to be
predominantly projective. They figure the becoming of the self. And it
is precisely in this respect that they refer to forms of anticipative or
expectative memory. Yet, instead of physical evidence of one’s
becoming over time, these photographic images tap on inner
resources. Michals eludes the traces of time from the physical body so
as to shift the focus (literally, through the double- or over-exposures)
on the psychic body. He smoothes the contours of the figure to catch
the gaze through visual surfaces and textures with which the viewers
can identify, mentally or perceptually. The nebulous corporeal selves,
taking off, so to say, from their material counterparts represent tropes
for invisible changes. They are fleeting effigies of the survival of the
self or of private and cultural icons that preserve it. Even sequences
such as “My Old Age and Death”, or “Death Comes to the Old Lady”
(1969) which openly refers to spirit photographs, do not insist on a
state but on a performative aspect. They anticipate a series of events,
physical and mental, that are part of an imaginary coherence of the
consciousness of the self.
Rather than intimations of another world, Michals’ modern
versions of spirit photographs are spatial and temporal extensions of
experience. These airy double or multiplied figures trigger off
alternative optical fields, synoptic perceptions placed at the
intersection between the material and the immaterial. Max Kozloff has
interpreted Michals’ spectral photographs in terms of change and
becoming “as a form of eventual extinction” (1989: 55). However, one
could argue that Michals’ vision takes into account the
transformations of the self as a whole, the spectral images playing in
this respect a significant role in the formal growth of the image, an
aspect that I will develop in relation to Francesca Woodman’s
photographic work. The evanescent doubles in Michals’ photographs
shed the shadow of a doubt not only on the common expectations that
photography mirrors reality but also, most importantly from a
cognitive perspective, on the very question of what type of
information we include within our understanding of the domain of
114 Touching Surfaces

The sequences entitled “The Spirit Leaves the Body” (1968),

“The True Identity of Man” (1972), or the photographs published in
his book The Journey of Spirit after Death (1971) dramatize Michals’
notion of change and motion as functions of thought and of emotional
energy. “The Spirit Leaves the Body” is a sequence of seven
photographs showing a double-exposed, airy figure detaching itself
from the body of a naked man lying on a bed. From one sequence to
another, the shadow sits up, stands, and then starts walking. The more
it is foregrounded, the larger, the more aerial, and the more impalpable
it becomes. The last of the seven sequences reduplicates the
photograph which initiates the series – that of a flesh-and-blood,
sharply outlined, solid figure – as if to suggest film stills from a
journey of a sleep-walking double who eventually returns to his own
body. Yet, as in Kuntzel’s Nostos III, from the perspective of the
viewer’s experience, the initial photograph re-presented in the seventh
sequence can no longer be perceived as identical to the first, since the
recurring photograph has itself become an ocular spectrum of the
former image. Time has passed between the contemplation of the first
and the last image. Time passes through the image under the form of
the specter.
“The True Identity of Man” (14) humorously displays
matter-and-spirit transformations by degrees in a different way. Four
hypostases of a naked young man are shown in this series, each
photograph being accompanied by an ironic caption. The figure in
sharp contours in the first sequence, “Man as animal”, dissolves
progressively in the subsequent sequences into three shadowy
presences figuring a series of transitions: “Man as spirit”, “Man as
energy”, “Man as God”. In the latter, the entire body is dressed up in
light. There is no “true identity” other than that of a becoming self, a
series of “sequential self states” in Christopher Bollas’s phrase (1992:
29–30). The very irony in the title undermines essentialist
understandings of subject construction.
Similarly, in his book The Journey of the Spirit after Death,
Michals presents the spirit as an incarnation of various phantasmatic
transitory states in keeping with his philosophy of change. Michals’
interest in eastern philosophy (like that of video artist, Bill Viola, for
instance) places him outside current critical views that oppose
technology to spirituality. However, unlike Viola’s more lyrical and
metaphysical vision, Michals’ photographs express and exorcise
The In-visible 115

anxieties related to physical change and death by means of humor and

derision. The narrative of an accident presented in the sequences of
The Journey of the Spirit after Death is, for instance, wittingly
transferred from the domain of the actual into the domain of the
immaterial. A man stumbles and slides down a steep flight of stairs as
if he were sliding along a dark tunnel. Progressively, the sharp
contours of the figure are also dissolved into blurred or superimposed
images. The subsequent sections visualize – in a mode reminiscent of
fairy tales but also of comic strips – the transformation of the body
into a source of energy projected into cosmic time, then its
reincarnation and its visitations of various sites from its previous life.
The journey is, in fact, circular. The spirit eventually returns to its
origins, a return represented by the photograph of a baby, which is the
last image in the book. Rather than expressing an attachment to
spiritualism, these hypostases of the figure are witty embodiments of
perceptions and of varied forms of consciousness. Michals’ work
engages the reader in a meditation on transience, permanence, and
appearance that sustains his view of subject identity as one which
unfolds over time and in relation to a variety of mental constructions.
It is important to underline this particular aspect of his creative work,
since his interest in visualizing mental constructs corresponds to a
subversion of social constructions that are likely to undermine the
individual’s identity. It is probably why, current studies of visual
culture focusing mostly on the social and historical constructions have
paid little attention to the work of Duane Michals, who addresses
directly the limitations of cultural critique as well as the recent
deviations in the market of photography in his book Foto Follies

Thresholds of the visible

In Michals’ spectral photographs, his technical allies are

precisely the accidents of photographic technique that allow him to
alter, namely to extend time, by having the figures step out of the
visual field, as Benjamin put it, and thus capturing something of the
fluid perception of time. These accidents (the blur, overexposure or
superimposure) make it possible for Michals to show the
116 Touching Surfaces

photographed figure as a figure attempting to escape its iconic status.

His rhetorical allies in this journey into the afterlife of the self as
image are irony and the repetition of the ghost trick itself. By the mere
fact of its recurrence from one piece to another, the dissolving figure
no longer produces – as was the case with Kuntzel’s installation – an
anxiety for the loss of the image. Instead, it can be looked upon as a
remedy against it, since the dematerialization of the figure is part of its
evolving in time. The repetition of the dissolving figure device fixes –
be it only vaguely – a series of transitory impressions which are thus
incorporated into duration, and, symbolically, into a process of
becoming. For viewers familiarized with Michals’ photographs, the
recognition of the ghost trick structures the perceptual field into a
game-like space in which the deviation from form – the blurring of
contours, the overlapping planes – opens up the speculative potential
field of the image. It also produces, owing to its recurrence, a comic
In contrast with other photographers whose work I have
approached in the first chapter, rather than incorporating signs of
aging into an aesthetics, Michals focuses on visualizing smaller scale
changes. He neither eludes physical transformations, nor does he take
on an aesthetics derived from the physical changes in the texture of
the body as metaphors of inner transformations. Instead, he explores
the release of the body from the fixation within a frame of time,
unbinding, as it were, from the laws of gravity. Max Kozloff has
suggestively described the link between time and the movement of the
body in Michals’ photographs as a kind of progressive extinction:
“Each time action is taken a bodily zone is visibly aerated, and since
the figures were originally discrete, their stock of substance is
exhaustible. To move, in Michals’ world, is to be depleted (1989: 55;
emphasis added)”.
Yet one could argue that there are, in fact, two visual fields
in Michals’ photographs that interact like communicating vessels of
perception: the field of what we see, and the field of what only the
camera can see. The full bodily area (the one with sharp contours)
seems to be vampirized by its transparent counterpart (with blurred
contours), one that overwhelms the gaze of the viewer with the
surprise of change. As a result of the representation of motion in the
physical space of the photograph, the physical body dissolves from its
present state to reach an indistinct future. For its memory to persist as
The In-visible 117

an after-image the physical body has to be visualized as a series of

unstable fields of optic energy.
“What I cannot see is infinitely more important that what I
can see”, writes Michals in Real Dreams (1976: 4). However, his
immaterial, dim, blurred figures appear, photographically, as
extensions of matter rather than as signs of absence. In the history of
the medium, the blur has made its way slowly into the photographic
vocabulary, from Julia Margaret Cameron’s soft focus portraits,
considered as a drawback according to the late nineteenth-century
aesthetic expectations of photographs, to an acceptable use in the
experimentations of the twentieth-century avant-gardes, to become
then quite a common practice among photographers of diverse
orientations in the 1970s and the 1980s. The blur is, as photography
critic Jean-Claude Lemagny has remarked in his article “Le Retour du
flou” (The Return of the Blur), not the mark of an absence, but “the
paradoxical sign of matter regained” (1985: 21). By justly considering
it within a history of pictorial and photographic representations,
Lemagny elaborates on the paradoxical materiality of the blur:

In photography, the blur leaves behind a permanent shape, which can be

examined at leisure. The blur has a body, a texture, a certain extent, and a
depth, and even (photographically, it is indeed very possible) a sharpness.
(1985: 21; tr. mine; emphasis added).

If, as Lemagny holds, “in photography the blur, which in

reality is an elision of matter, becomes objective and present matter”
(emphasis added), the fact that the blurred images rely on the
extension of the exposure time allows the photographer to record
movement and also, both technically and symbolically, to act on time.
By using what Kozloff has called “time-bending techniques” (1989:
74), Michals shifts, in fact, the focus of his photographs from the
actual changes of the body to the larger problem of temporality and its
visualization in photography. Time is thus incorporated in the
physical, photographically representable body as a substance that
passes through it, leaving behind unstable configurations of full
shapes that alternate with empty shapes. In them, one sees surfaces of
time made of infinitely small particles which add up in volume like
pyramids of sand. On a small scale, they mirror a condensation of
varied forms of temporality: physical, historical, and metaphysical.
118 Touching Surfaces

Egypt as a symbol of such condensation of time levels was

actually the object of a series of photographs Michals took in 1978,
published in France with accompanying texts in the volume
Merveilles d’Egypte (1978). “Like Egypt, we as well are time”, writes
Michals in this book in which he associates images of the Egyptian
monuments with snapshots showing inhabitants of the land that he met
on his journey. The microscopic dimension of instant encounters and
snapshots is placed on the backdrop of the monumental time signified
by the pyramids, themselves a memento of mortality (and of
immortality as well). Although Merveilles d’Egypte is not a book
devoted to change, the photographs are all about permanence and
transience, a couple epitomized in Michals’ text accompanying the
photographs, “The Sand Man”, which strikes the reader as a metaphor
reminiscent of Biblical dust, and also of Jorge Luis Borges’ Book of
Sand (1975). Like Borges, whose work had an important impact on
him, Michals believes that no matter how precarious images might be,
their imaginative use is an important function of survival. He also
shares with Borges the belief that fictional patterns can reveal
historical patterns. It is why questions related to the persistence of our
private and cultural memory through images in image-dominated
cultures underlie his preoccupation with the limits of visual
representation at a distance from speculations on the death of
photography or on the crisis of the visual.

3. Of Pictures & Words: Flashes of Consciousness

The apparitions are manifest,

their bodies weigh less than light
lasting as long as this phrase lasts.

Octavio Paz (tr. Elizabeth Bishop)

In addition to the nominal sense of blur, that of “dimness” or

“confusing effect”, the verb to blur means literally to smear with ink,
to sully, to disfigure, to efface. American photographers such as Ed
Ruscha in the 1960s, or Robert Frank in the 1970s, have associated
words and photographic images – words that frame the image or,
The In-visible 119

often, words written on the image – to reveal, perhaps, more than

photography can show. We have seen that in Dine’s late photographic
work, lines are placed on the background of photographs (frequently
written with chalk on a black board, and partly effaced, resulting in a
visual effect close to that of the blur, while most of his photographs
are sharp). It was in his book The Journey of the Spirit after Death,
published in 1971, that Michals first introduced captions to
accompany his images. However, in Michals’ work words do not
actually seem to reveal much more than images do. Within the logic
of his approach, the text – rather transparent, reflective, explanatory –
appears more like an echo of the image, a kind of verbal specter. The
text does not represent a closure of meaning, but rather – like the
photographic image itself – a search for more open formal
configurations. Like the image, it epitomizes what escapes rational
understanding in a simple gloss or a brief story whose intentional
naiveté mocks rationalization. The texts up-end the traditional role
that captions play: that of directing the viewer’s attention toward a
specific message conveyed by the photograph (speculative
photographs resist by definition the notion of message, limited to
advertisement or propaganda photographs). Yet, words, phrases, or
sentences accompanying photographs, may bring into consciousness
flashes of thought, doubts, or reflections on their making. In mixing
words and pictures, Michals highlights what might be the
simultaneous emergence of thoughts and mental images into
It was initially Michals’ distrust in the capacity of
photography to mirror reality that led him to use words in association
with photographs. Captions or brief texts accompany many of his
photographs often collected in photography books. Some of these
notes suggest the difficulty to capture and fix images
photographically, thus reinforcing his vision dominated by
appearances, that is by the instability of signs. Given their reflective
character, the texts also seem to be a way of extending the possibilities
of representation, of relating to photographic images discoursively. If
the photographic blur can be associated with poetic ambiguity and the
double exposures with certain forms of narrative juxtaposition, in the
texts adjoined to, superimposed on, or completely replacing the
photograph, Michals’ expression is quite direct, explicit (unlike
Dine’s, which is mostly elliptic, and, usually with no reference to the
120 Touching Surfaces

photograph, appearing mostly as yet another visual element). Some of

Michals’ texts read indeed like inner monologues, contemplative
complements of the photographic act understood as a momentary,
spontaneous gesture. In “A Failed Attempt to Photograph Reality”
(1975), for instance, he transgresses another threshold of visual
perception by abandoning the image altogether to substitute it with a
verbal reflection on the nature of reality. In this photographed text, he
denies photography’s capacity to retain any essence of reality, since
there is none for him if not in appearances. However, in this piece
Michals does not altogether abandon photography, since what the
spectator contemplates is, in fact, a silver gelatin print of the
photographed handwritten text, signed and indicating the number of
prints. The lack of image appears here as a sudden access to
consciousness: a realization of what the photographer can do, or a
brief argumentative development of a mental snapshot:
How foolish of me to have believed that it would be that easy. I had
confused the appearances of trees and automobiles and people with
reality itself and believed that a photograph of these appearances to be a
photograph of it. It is a melancholy truth that I will never be able to
photograph it; and can only fail. I am a reflection photographing other
reflections within a reflection. To photograph reality is to photograph

In rejecting photography as a replicative device, Michals has

created a visual universe in which actual perceptions together with
relics of dreams and phantasms of the moving body play against the
conventions of rationality. “To photograph nothing”, means to him to
photograph “one’s total experience” in an instant, or, as he does in the
sequences, in an accumulation of instants. It means working on the
possibilities of the camera to create a consciousness of infinitely small
displacements and transformations, which the human optical apparatus
cannot perceive.
Michals’ attitude shows a disbelief in the aesthetics
governing the photography of the 1970s and the 1980s, with its
emphasis on exploring the real rather than on the imagination, a
reason why he has been dissociated from the tradition of American
photography. His affinities go rather with a subsidiary – yet no less
noble – American tradition of speculative photographers of the mid-
twentieth century, such as Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Clarence John
Laughlin, or Thomas Merton, who were looking for alternative
The In-visible 121

photographic forms to document landscapes of the mind rather than

social scenes. Theirs are visual meditations on the dynamics of natural
forms, on how the camera may capture larger patterns of time and
configurations of natural forms (as, for instance, in Laughlin’s
“Massive Dance”, or “The Tree as Visual Movement”, 1953).
Significantly, Michals’ work – in which revolt against conventions of
various natures is sublimated in aesthetic transformations – emerged
in a context of important shifts in the post-World War II American
society. Michals belongs to a generation for which youth became an
important locus of social, political, and cultural change and, in spite of
his entire work being dominated by his reflection on temporality and
becoming, he has chosen to stay young in his vision and, as he puts it,
to be surprised – in his mid-seventies – every single day, every single
moment, by what it is to be alive (2006).

From projections into the immediate or more far-reaching

future, either by means of dissolving the figure or by placing it in
sequences to suggest movement, in the late 1980s and 1990s, Michals
moved towards a certain form of intentional and ironic regression. In a
series of picture books, in playful words and images, the older artist
addresses children, or the remote child-self in adults. His 1989 show
“Slow Upside Down Inside Out and Backwards” (a title otherwise
indicative of motion in words!) is presented as “Fairy Tunes for
Children”, and composed of even more hybrid material than his
previous work. The book that followed, Upside Down Inside Out or
Downside Up Outside In and Forwards (1993) develops the playful
approach of scales and ages. In this book, Michals superimposed on
the photographic images photographed texts reminiscent of Edward
Lear’s limericks together with engravings typical of Victorian children
books. Here, photography represents only a part of the work, the same
way in which it is only a part of our lives. Significantly, as he
advances into his life journey, his own work expresses – lightly – the
vulnerability of aging, as for instance in Sleep and Dream where the
ingenuous form of nursery rhymes captures an affective charge in
words, discretely yet with the immediacy that photographs can
convey. One of these points to old age wisdom touchingly and at the
same time mocking sentimentality:
122 Touching Surfaces

Some day, someone may

Touch you on the shoulder with affection
a timid indiscretion
And you may flee
Flustered and frightened by what you want
Be brave and touch and hold
For you may need these memories
When you are old.
(1984: n. pag.)

Haunted by the ghosts of time from the early period of his

creative work, Michals seems to retreat progressively from
photography, or at least, from a mainstream understanding of it.
Interestingly, while Dine has resorted to photography later in his life,
Michals has taken distance from it quite early in his work, but even
more so with time. Like Nicholas Nixon in the series of photographs
he had been taking of the Brown sisters year after year since 1975,
Michals has tried to cope with physical change photographically (as in
Changements, for instance, or later, in Eros and Thanatos, 1992). And
yet, there is a resistance in Michals’ work to reveal the textures of the
older body. His self-portrait as an old man evoked earlier is not a
close-up but only a silhouette bent by time. At the end of a video piece
he made on his own work, he is applying dark paint over his
photographic portrait, painting it out of the screen, as it were. Unlike
Nixon’s other project, in which he photographed old people in
hospitals and asylums (1988), or AIDS patients (1991), and unlike
John Coplans’ photographs of his own aging body (1987; 2003),
Michals prefers to maintain reserve, discretion over the realities of the
changing body. He can address them with humor, as in a recent
sequence titled “Who is Sidney Sherman” (2003), in which, wearing
the mask and wig of an older woman (as Cindy Sherman does in her
photographs), he mockingly addresses the hypervisualization of aging,
and, in the captions, the fetishization of photography and of academic
discourse. Or, for instance, in his book Questions Without Answers
(2003), in which the question of aging is – like that of consciousness –
part of a longer list of unanswerables: “what is beauty/the
universe/magic/trust, happiness, pleasure, consciousness, the mystery
of the sphinx, dreams, memory, youth and old age, time, humor, grief,
desire, love, music, god, life, death, nothing, who am I” (n. pag.). The
middle section of the book is significantly entitled “the seven ages of
man”, borrowing from Shakespeare’s legendary soliloquy, and it
The In-visible 123

catalogues the seven states in words and images with the same
oscillation between affect and irony.
Alongside this ironic approach of aging, the lyric tendency is
increasingly present in his more recent work. Like Robert
Mapplethorpe’s late work, or Hervé Guibert’s idealized photographs
of young friends, rather than documenting the frailties of the aging
self, Michals condenses a maze of conflicting feelings in fictional
images or in photographs of idealized beauty (as, for instance, in Eros
and Thanatos, 1992). With bold modesty, he catches the viewer’s
gaze and also protects it to suggest that the vanishing physical body
needs an aesthetic shape to abide by. For Michals to protect emotion
and privacy, the shutter seems to close slowly, silently.

Photographic Aesthetics
and the Fabric of the Subject

Argument: the Inner Statue

Jacqueline Hayden

The photographers I have chosen to discuss in this book

displace the focus from the physical body (which has been the center
of attention for the past decades in the critique of visual culture) to the
psychic body, whose photographic representations deviate from
technical conventions and habitual perceptions of photography (of
aging as well). Releasing the photographed subjects from detailed
identity markers or abstracting them from references to the quotidian
liberates space in the photographic representation for other dimensions
of the real. Hence, the camera is drawn to record unstable perceptions
of change, and also of conflict between images of the physical body
and internalized corporeal images, or between realities and memories
of the body. It is therefore important to note that optical distortions
and deviations from conventional representations and perceptions of
photography are not exclusive signifiers of interiority. They are also
markers for contacts and passages between external and internal
spaces. Like the figures represented in these works, the body of the
photograph itself is plastic in its pictorial treatment but also – and,
most significantly so – in its capacity to transform routines of seeing.
Rather than an instrument more or less adapted to the necessities of
life, the body is seen in terms that are close to what in his book, Le
Corps. Essai sur l’intériorité, philosopher Marc Richir refers to as “an
inner statue”. Considering the Western philosophical history of the
body, his phenomenological perspective (in the tradition of Husserl
126 Touching Surfaces

and Merleau-Ponty) transgresses the classical dualism between body

and soul by considering inner life (sensations, affects, emotions,
thoughts) as an excess of the physical body. Richir’s suggestion,
which supports my argument on the figural dimensions of the body in
speculative photographs, is to look at the physical body from the
inside, as it were, that is from the angle of what he calls “the inner
statue”, one which he describes, phenomenologically, rather than
immobile, “infinitely labile and moving, ephemeral and changing in
its manifestations” (1993: 11). From this paradoxical perspective
situated at a threshold between movement and immobility, between
fix and fluid identity markers, between perception and figuration, we
find in the art works considered here a different understanding of our
consciousness of aging to the extent to which, by unsettling
photographic conventions or unmediated mimetic expectations, the
artists create visual equivalents of subtle transformations that
participate in the elaboration of interiority.
Passages, intersections, or reciprocations between physical
and psychic body schemes in these photographs are therefore not
formulated in terms of referential bodies, but in terms of corporeal
figures, in the sense of tropes (the word figure, I am reminded, derives
from the Latin figura, meaning “form”, and was first used in the sense
of external shape mainly with reference to the body). Such stylization
– which has by no means essentialist undertones – extends the field of
interpretation of the image. The reconfigured corpo-realities evoke
imagined configurations, mental spaces in which the subject can take
momentary refuge from determinations of various natures – social,
historical, and cultural –, then adapt them to new situations to enter in
resonance with larger communities of thought and sensibility.
Representations of the figure as a mediator between the physical and
the psychic body therefore engage the question of difference in a
direction cultural studies might take in the future. We can think of this
area as one of complementary relations and exchanges between firm
group identity markers, on the one hand, and, on the other, shared
patterns of thought or experience among all the categories that aging
brings together.
The various forms of indeterminacy created by the liberation
of the body from the referential dimension – forms in which one reads
open cognitive spaces – leave room for the viewers to bring in their
own experience, their own perceptual spaces, and also their own
Photographic Aesthetics 127

mental representations of age consciousness. Relating to other

imagined configurations, to other forms of consciousness, being in
touch with images that call for the imagination as a factor of
processing ordinary experience participates indeed in the elaboration
of alternative (as opposed to informative) forms of cognition and may
create such new shared patterns. Though by far a new idea in art
history, the critique of visual culture has however very much
bracketed this aspect, as much as the question of the aesthetic. And
yet, if the historical and social grounding is indispensable in the study
of visual culture, how can the construction of the subject be separated
from the individual’s elaboration of interiority, or from the aesthetic
distillations that are part of this process? As we see in all aesthetic
idioms of the works discussed here, the issue of subject growth is
addressed metaphorically, an approach which, in fact, extends the
scope of questions concerning the social and cultural body that we
find in testimonial images of aging, since by eluding the referential
they speak to larger audiences, across differences of various natures.

In her series Ancient Statuary (1997-1998), Jacqueline

Hayden addresses some of these questions precisely from the vantage
point of the aesthetic. Here, Hayden brings together actual
photographs of elderly subjects (coming from her Figure Models
series discussed in Chapter 1) with pictures she took of Roman and
Greek statues in Rome, by grafting fragments of the former into the
latter (1; 17; 18). This perfectly computerized surgery enlivens the
ancient art figures that have been amputated by time with the
imperfections of live models. An ironic inversion is at work in this
series: the living grows into a prosthesis of the artistic while the
remain(der)s of Ancient art are given new life in a photographic form
that recalls nineteenth-century photographic travel diaries (the digital
composites are presented as small format platinum/palladium prints).
The aesthetic transformation seems to drape the body, protecting its
vulnerability and veiling its nudity even while it exposes it. “When
conceiving Ancient Statuary Series”, declares Hayden, “I was intent in
subverting the association of the aged body with decay and the
grotesque. […] Re-presenting the statuary fragment/torso blended
with an aging mortal being, my work questions the terms that define
culture and knowledge” (1999: n. pag.; emphasis added).
128 Touching Surfaces

17. Jacqueline Hayden, Ancient Statuary Series, “IV Torso of Boy”, 1997.
Platinum/palladium print, 7 x 4.5 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
Photographic Aesthetics 129

18. Jacqueline Hayden, Ancient Statuary Series, “V Aphrodite, Hellenistic”, 1998.

Platinum/palladium print, 8.5 x 6 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
130 Touching Surfaces

In this series, Hayden creates a new aesthetic idiom drawing

from the conjunction of the aesthetics of ancient statuary with that of
nineteenth-century photographs used to represent such works. Layers
of time are thus brought together, but also layers of perception, since
our knowledge of ancient statues has been based on fragmented,
color-bare representations, which rarely our imagination places in
their complete, colored, and contextual situation. If the much evoked
postmodern proposition that the simulacrum overruns the real has
been used in relation to contemporary photography perhaps more than
to any other art form, the paradoxical displacements that we find in
Hayden’s series suggest, however, that the reverse can also be true.
Fictions that inform the real are a form of the real.
Hayden’s photographs, which help me articulate the
argument of this chapter, hold two significant suggestions: one
concerning the aesthetic, the other, the construction of the subject. The
conjunction of two aesthetic modes in this series creates a new
physical body, one that challenges both stereotypes of perception (of
ancient statuary) and of representation (of elderly bodies). Yet, as in
Dine’s photographs discussed in the second chapter, in Hayden’s
moving statues there is no suture. Two representations, coming from
different cultural moments in this case, are blended. By bringing
together in one composition images coming from different individual
and collective zones of memory, the new work recategorizes forms of
consciousness or perceptions related to the past. In them, temporality
shows as shape. A shape turned into a figure, in the sense of trope, by
virtue of its relating to a variety of time moments as opposed to an
indicial reference. Hayden’s series appears to us as an archeology of
the persistence and fragility of the body in time, an archeology of its
perceptions as well. “The platinum prints”, she comments, “through
their scale and materials, lend an intimacy and timelessness to the
interpretation” (1999: n. pag.). Significantly for my point here,
Hayden relates intimacy (a question of subjectivity) to timelessness (a
question of persistence in time, which itself, as we see in the statuary,
is subject to time, hence, like aging, persistence falls into the category
of process rather than state). This association reinforces the ironic
reversal of the relationship between art forms and life forms: while the
intimacy of the elderly nude is made durable in its association with the
ancient statues, frozen perceptions of broken (or, in Hayden’s terms,
“amputated”) statues are enlivened by grafts coming from
Photographic Aesthetics 131

photographs of actual models. Paradoxically, the exploration of

subjectivity in larger temporal and cultural patterns calls for an
abstraction from time (and, implicitly, from other referential
elements). Although in the on-line version the photographs are
accompanied by placard buttons that give specific indications for each
historical or mythological figure and the period each statue belongs to,
these references only intensify the mimetic illusion. Hayden’s
“operations” are passed under silence in these captions. The pact
between the living model and the statue is thus reinforced, if it were
not for a more fluid wrinkle here, or a fold of skin there. And when
the graft has reached consciousness of form (more subtle in some
photographs, more visible in others), an echo of the real life models
comes to us through time, and with it, a projection of what we may
become over time. Hayden’s association of fragments from her
previous series (actual elderly art models) with already formalized
referents (the statues) relies precisely on archetypal echo. It looks at
forms of art as forms of life, and intimates, without idealization, a
potential reverse. The inner statue is given visible shape.

The body in question in the photographs I approach here

questions the dominance of the physical even as it counts on it as a
carrier of figurative propositions that redefine our understanding of
the corporeal.1 Deviating devices redefine in turn notions of
photographic aesthetics (along with the category of beauty) by rooting
it in subject experience and in personal ways of processing
determinations, instead of relating it to cultural convention. For the
photographs to foreground temporary configurations or arrangements
between external and internal realities, the authors rely on a
renunciation to “the bodily ego”, a term I am using here as a signifier
for non-referential modes of photographic representation (or rather,
not directly referential) that capture infinite variations of images of the

1 A recent exhibit from the collection of la Maison Européenne de la

Photographie, Le Corps aujourd’hui, histoire d’une métamorphose (The Body Today:
A History of Its Metamorphosis), was explicitly based on a transformative
understanding of corporeal realities in contemporary photography. Significantly, the
exhibit brought together testimonial and speculative photographs, and was structured
in three sections entitled: “Transparence”, “Transformance”, and “Transmutation”
(Lille, Hospice Comtesse, May 2004).
132 Touching Surfaces

self in one frame.2 As a result of the abandonment of conventional

indications of identity, the corporeal becomes a metonymic reference
of experiencings turned into skin textures, or of emotional
configurations that relate to body zones and shapes. The corporeal
involvement of the viewer is equally solicited in quite a literal sense in
the case of mix-media installations that include photographs. In many
of these, for instance, the circulation of the viewer within the space of
the installation, or the physical and perceptual accommodation of
distance in front of the photograph, participates in the construction of
meaning. As James Lingwood has shown in his essay “Different
Times”, the implication of the viewer as well as the layering of times
is not the exclusive prerogative of photographs that create fictional
images. In contemporary photographs which explore the real world,
objects, people we find the same “instantaneity of the image […]
superseded by the enduring experience of the art work”, an aspect
which affects perception literally and metaphorically. They “give to
the viewer, and ask back, a longer time” (1994: 20; emphasis added).
In speculative photography, however, those parameters are
considerably enhanced. Restructuring perceptions or ways of
understanding reality requires distanciation as a necessary step in
enlarging the perspective. Some photographers use art models or art
vestiges (Jacqueline Hayden), others use actors or performers to pose
in actual or reconstructed settings (Jeff Wall), or else, ordinary people
who pose as models (Geneviève Cadieux, Joyce Tenneson), and yet
others are their own model and performer (Cindy Sherman, Francesca
Woodman). The poses captured by these photographers recall either
classical figures in the history of painting or statuary (Hayden,
Tenneson), or more or less known images from the repertory of
photographic art forms (Woodman). Other artists stage narratives
(Duane Michals), or reshuffle images from a mental kaleidoscope (Jim
Dine). Even when the body is mostly absent or present only
metonymically (as in Dine’s photographs, or in those of Cadieux), the
emphasis of these works is still on its metaphoric potential. From
figurative the body becomes figural, in the process shifting the focus

2 Borrowed from Freud (The Ego and the Id), the term is used by Richard
Wollheim in his essay “The Bodily Ego”, in which he discusses the body-mind
question and the corporeality of representation. Wollheim reconsiders Freud’s striking
phrase “the bodily ego” to insist that a mental act is not only equated with a body
state, but – essential for my point here – with a process (Wollheim 1993: 64-78).
Photographic Aesthetics 133

from the indexical value of photography to its metaphoric dimensions

(and not to the symbolic ones, which would involve relating to a
unique term of reference). Accordingly, the human figure in the
photograph ceases to be the indexical signifier of a specific person, of
a fixed identity, or state in a specific moment in time, to become an
impersonation, an embodiment of variable patterns that foreground
external and internal realities and suggest a larger spectrum of
These photographers who use actors, models, settings, or sui
generis narratives, rely on a manifest performative character, one that
embodies the lability of the inner statue in varied degrees, without
however following the sense given to the body as language in the
performance art practices of the 1970s. The performing character of
these photographs consists in exposing the body as a zone of
resonance and articulation of wide-ranging forms of experience, subtle
degrees of consciousness formalized in constellations of shapes and
textures that only borrow naturalistic shapes. In addition to aesthetic
parameters (or to addressing the question of the aesthetic in specific
ways, as I will try to show in the work of Tenneson, and then in that of
Woodman), the performative character in such photographic works
has an equally important pragmatic consequence since it involves the
subject’s active participation in the construction and perception of the
image. I refer here in particular to a dimension which implies neither
acting as old (i.e. adopting a convention), nor acting as young (i.e.
effacing the markers of old age), but rather acting on perceptions,
changing habits of seeing, and hopefully, subtly, in the process, habits
of looking at aging, our own and that of older people of various ages.
Acting can signify an active form of contemplation (as in the extended
3 Jacqueline Hayden’s most recent work, Cuerpos Voluminosa y Vieja, a
series of flesh tone photographs that bring together voluminous bodies and older
bodies, relates to several aspects that I have highlighted here: the combination of two
hypostases of the body that deviate from canons; the emphasis on texture (in contrast
with her Figure Models and Ancient Statuary); the performative aspect; and,
significantly, the question of identity. With regard to the latter, the tightly cropped
frames of these photographs (in which the face of the models is left out) displace the
attention from the identity of the model to the perception of the viewer, “encouraging
the viewer”, as Hayden puts it, “to imagine living in that body or seeing large bodies
and older bodies in a different possibility, for example, as beautiful and desirous”
(Hayden: 2008).
134 Touching Surfaces

time of exposure or perception required by the works). It also calls for

forms of empathy that relate, instead of specific situations, to more
complex configurations of experience. This is not only the attribute of
speculative photography, if we consider how art works affect us when
consumer-, or simulacrum-oriented discourses have been consumed.
However, in the case of photography used as an art medium, this
pragmatic aspect is highlighted by its ambivalent position, crossing
borders between several types of referential categories: the literal and
the figural, the replicative and the creative, the reflective and the
refractive. Seen from such pragmatic aesthetic perspective, these
photographs relate to reality in other ways than testimonial
photographs do: instead of exposing its diverse aspects, they insist on
how we think of the varied natures of reality and how we relate to

Over thirty years of activity, American photographer Joyce

Tenneson has developed a body of work in which aesthetic
preoccupations meet important aspects of the position and
construction of the subject, since she works both in the field of art and
in that of commercial photography and, in her art photographs, she
combines models or stereotypes of beauty with bodies deviating from
all canons. Her work, I suggest in what follows, shows the shapes “the
inner statue” may take in the course of time. It also brings interesting
suggestions concerning the ways in which aesthetic preoccupations
can be related to larger cultural questions.
Photographic Aesthetics 135

1. Joyce Tenneson
Transformations of the Self: Motion, Emotion, Repose

Reality is ungraspable. [...] The

real reality is something else – only
the strangeness of it can be taken in
and that’s what interests me. ...
The real reality, the flickering of
seen and unseen actualities, the
moment under the moment, can’t be
put into words; the most that a writer
can do – and this is only rarely
achieved – is to write in such a way
that the reader finds himself in a
place where the unwordable happens
off the page.

Russell Hoban

Recall, reader, if ever in the

mountains a mist has caught you,
through which you could not see
except as moles do through skin ...

Dante Alighieri 4

Duane Michals’ photographs persistently perceive transformations of

the self through forms of visual energy in which the body dissolves
into a plastic shape. Blown out of the frame, as it were, the body is

4 Quoted by James Merrill in a commentary to Charles Singleton’s prose

version of Dante’s Inferno, these lines are wonderfully evocative of the misty visual
effect in Tenneson’s photographs. On the subject of moles, Merrill comments: “Those
moles, to resume, are just one filament in a web whose circumference is everywhere.
They presently mesh with an apostrophe to the imagination, which also sees without
using eyes”. And this is fragment’s original texture:

Ricorditi, lettor, se mai ne l’alpe

ti colse nebbia per la qual vedesti
non altrimenti che per pelle talpe [...] .

(Merrill 1986: 89-90).

136 Touching Surfaces

thus projected into the imaginary space of infinite variations of being.

At about the same time Michals was experimenting with the blur and
the photographic sequences – in the late 1970s and early 1980s –
Joyce Tenneson, a young photographer based in Washington, a
striving professional, wife, and mother, considered today among the
major contemporary photographers, was working out in her own dark
room possibilities of visualizing transformations of the self. Her
concerns focus on the possibilities to fix these transformations
photographically in ways quite opposite to those of Michals. It is, in
fact, the visual result that diverges from Michals’ preoccupation with
physical movement as a signifier of inner motion. Visually,
Tenneson’s photographs are static. The poses of her models mostly
suggest attitudes related to repose: stillness, tranquility, peacefulness.
They seem (at first sight) to have a soothing effect on the viewer. Yet,
behind their composure or ease of manners, behind the harmonious
combinations of forms, more disquieting patterns emerge, patterns that
relate to the ambiguities of the “inner statue” as a trope for
paradoxical corporeal and psychic realities.*
From her early reflections on images of the self, rituals of
passage, or motherhood, Tenneson has opened up in the late 1980s
and 1990s to a wider range of generative relations and transformative
processes, and then to her most recent direct exploration of aging in
her books of photographs Wise Women (2002) and Amazing Men
(2004). Over the years, her work has imposed itself as a personal inner
journey of self-discovery in which the forms of energy and
consciousness that sustain the self in time play an increasingly
important part. Though different in their formal propositions, the two
artists share an anticipation of visual research on perceptions of
change before aging became a significant issue in American culture.
Either by exploring the body’s operating on various time scales or
simultaneous consciousness of time levels (as Michals does) or by
visualizing states replete with complex emotions (as in Tenneson’s
photographs), these photographs transcend the focalization on the
physical precisely by appealing to a form of double consciousness
visualized in Michals’ work by means of superimposing images or
associating texts to images.

* I refer the reader to the gallery of Joyce Tenneson’s work:

Photographic Aesthetics 137

In discussing Michals’ work, I have used now the term

change, then transformation, in an indiscriminate way. Yet, on closer
scrutiny, there seems to be a slight variation in the two almost
synonymous notions, one that might point to the difference in the two
artists’ approaches. As I have read it in Michals’ photographs, change
implies movement in space, the emphasis being on the depletion of
contours that extends the reaches of the body in space (and time).
Transformation (which incorporates the word “form”) highlights
instead an integrative alteration of shapes. It relates more closely to
metaphoric displacements within a field of relatively stable
configurations. The title of one of Tenneson’s books is, in fact,
Transformations (1993), a volume of photographs showing both a
wide range of possibilities of recasting older pictorial or photographic
forms into new ones and a sense of growth over time in relation to her
own vision.
Tenneson’s work has been described as haunting, ethereal,
pensive, disturbing. Her photographs do not relate so much to what we
see directly as to forms of perception likely to trigger off inner
scrutiny. “To me”, she declares suggestively, “the larger reality has
always been internal reality, those emotions that are not visible to the
naked eye” (1986: n. pag.; emphasis added). Either caught in unusual
postures or outspokenly posing in front of the camera in classical
poses, her models partake of a pictorial iconic dimension that allows
her to suggest inner motions and emotions through physical
immobility. Although from one photograph to another gradual
transformations are quite noticeable, in each individual photograph
her focus seems to be not so much on the process of transformation
itself as on its startling result. Visualizing a state of being is a major
concern for Tenneson. In the baroque statuesque contortions of bodies
and in the folds of cloth, she seems to seek the bewildering surprise
that accompanies imperceptible transformations of the self (we need
to remember here that though usually associated with immobility, the
art of sculpture implies, in fact, a variety of kinetic factors, the
perception of the figure from different angles among them). While the
pose is still, the variety of pictorial devices she uses create an
impression of movement. Capturing process within a statuesque pose
is, as I will show, a striking paradox in Tenneson’s work, one that has
also caught my attention in Jacqueline Hayden’s Figure Model and
Ancient Statuary Series.
138 Touching Surfaces

Among all the photographic work I approach in this book,

Tenneson’s has been the most openly and most persistently devoted to
the various metamorphoses of the body over time, from childhood into
old age. In her essay “Unwritten Myths”, prefacing the photographs in
Transformations, Vicki Goldberg sums up Tenneson’s concern with
representing the emotions related to change by referring to her
portrayal of “pregnancy, the heavy flesh of middle age, and emaciated
old age with grace, acceptance, affection” (Tenneson 1993: 7). She
reads Tenneson’s use of the veil – a dominant formal element in this
series – as a significant thematic aspect of aging. “The varied shapes
and states of the human form”, Goldberg remarks, “are covered but
not hidden by thin veils”, accessories in which she sees “a kind of
reminder of the veils of custom, limit, and discretion that obscure so
many mysteries when we are young (and when we are not so young as
well)” (1993: 7; emphasis added). It could be added that, in
Tenneson’s photographic syntax, these mysteries become visual sites
in which aging appears as the source of a compelling interaction
between realities surfacing behind other realities, between images
hidden under the veil of other images.
The strangeness of her “real reality” (in Hoban’s phrase
evoked in the epigraph) relies precisely on the problematic question of
beauty, a question inherent in transformations of the body. Unlike the
models of photographers that I have discussed in the first chapter –
whose beauty seems to emanate mostly from the inside and in clear
opposition to the standards circulating in the media – Tenneson’s
models radiate an uncanny canonic beauty. Whereas Jeff Wall,
Geneviève Cadieux, or Cindy Sherman create an aesthetics that runs
outspokenly against the clichés in vogue, Tenneson works within the
limits of several kinds of stereotypes. An eclectic aesthetics emerges
from the association of these stereotypes, one that highlights the odd
character of common places when displaced from their context and
looked at from a different perspective.
The intriguing aspect of Tenneson’s work, especially of her
color photographs since the late 1980s, lies in her combining images
inspired from different sources – ranging from religious and secular
art history models, to current clichés of the beauty industry – which
appeal to a variety of visual registers and ways of relating to an image.
Her reflection on the psychological or historical constructions of the
varied notions of beauty (many of which are indeed conflicting)
Photographic Aesthetics 139

interacts with other dimensions that have generally been repressed or

eluded both in contemporary photography and in the current critical
discourse, and I have to name them: myth, transcendence, spirituality.
Tenneson’s work engages the intriguing question of how photography
can show these dimensions. Far from representing a form of nostalgia
for past paradigms, her visual treatment of these categories
incorporates the past into a personal search, one that is symptomatic of
the twentieth century in which, as Ann Roiphe points out in her
introductory essay to Tenneson’s collection Illuminations, the
relationship to the sacred has been “no longer easy and communal but
rather private and uncertain” (Tenneson 1997: 5; emphasis added).
The first two sections of this chapter are devoted to an
analysis of formal patterns in Tenneson’s photographic work by
means of which she reconsiders the question of beauty in the history
of pictorial representation in a context of a culture dominated by
heterogeneous imagery. Her association of aging with aesthetics, I
will suggest, can be instrumental in exploring our thinking of time
structures and of the notion of beauty in time. In the last section, I will
refer to her commercial work. Underlying my argument in this chapter
is the question of the aesthetic modes her photographs propose not by
way of deconstructing the category of beauty but rather by bringing its
scope and contradictions into focus.

The composed expression of Tenneson’s models that comes

forth almost as a retreat from expression is part of these significant
contradictions. Their statuesque poses render the photographed figures
rather unreal yet intriguingly palpable. In fact, on closer examination,
the expressions of the figures oscillate between peace, tranquility, and
a certain unease, as if the models were uncomfortable in their pose,
enshrined in it. The women and the men, the children, the young, and
the elderly she photographs have in common an immobility relating to
forms of endurance. The calm, apparently flat expressions of the
models seem to intimate misty disquieting inner climates dissimulated
in the folds of the drapes that cover the bodies or beyond the veils that
catch the slow pace of light, like tropes in a coherent rhetoric of
wrinkles. What at first contact appears as smooth surface or tranquil
demeanor turns out to be the expression of something disturbing, as if
the figures were actually caught in the trap of their own beauty, which
is shown as something they have to suffer and expiate, to surpass and
140 Touching Surfaces

perpetually reproduce. I am intentionally using a vocabulary

suggestive of the various areas of beauty Tenneson combines in her
work: the clinical domain and death, along with a mythic dimension
that transcends actuality only to expand, photographically, our
experience of the real. Rather than mourning the loss of the spiritual
dimension, her photographic rhetoric engages it provocatively in the
creative process in the form of a dialogue with personal and cultural
The varied visual references combined in Tenneson’s
photographs appear as revelations of cultural or private latent images
articulated into a new aesthetic syntax whose uncanny effect invites us
to reconsider our relationship to forms of representation belonging to
different time periods, to different areas of experience that engage
layers of personal and collective consciousness. Both in her early
black-and-white photographs (1983) and in her subsequent color
work, the body is shown as a solid, persistent presence, yet seen
through a kind of screen materialized under different forms. What we
see is nude figures partially covered by thin, transparent cloths,
representing men and women of different ages set up in individual or
group compositions. They are placed on painterly backgrounds mostly
devoid of concrete references. The body is both exposed and
concealed by textures of various kinds: gauze, veils, drapes, and later,
as we will see, light. In the color photographs, the expressivity of
white cloth, which Tenneson had explored in her early work, appears
as an impression of mist (to obtain this result Tenneson uses various
devices such as netting or powdering in association with special
lighting). Monotonal, bleached, dusky, her color work plays down the
sharp tonal contrast and the glamour of vernacular photographs to
create an illusion of depth. The textures themselves participate in that
illusion of depth of field, which insures a certain distance from the
body, even as they capitalize on tactile effects.
In her first black-and-white photographs dating from 1977 –
self-portraits and group compositions – Tenneson had developed a
personal printing technique, whereby she would apply silver emulsion
into soft-textured rag printing stock which merged with the print
surfaces. This developing process was meant to enhance the tactile
qualities of the film as well as the tonal contrasts, and to reveal in the
printed image symbolic dimensions that can be located in an area of
religious representations neighboring a sanative sensibility (Tenneson
Photographic Aesthetics 141

spent her childhood next to a convent her parents were working for).
In her association of the religious and the clinical spheres, the former
is neutralized, desacralized by the latter. Reminders of the “fearful
symmetry” of the mythological characters in William Blake’s
etchings, Tenneson’s figures seem however to slightly step out of
canons. In the dissolving contours, in the purified setting of her
photographs we read a hesitation of form, as if the ambiguities of
beauty opened up the surface of the image like a wound. The soft
values she obtained in these prints smooth the body and invest the
figures with an ethereal, sensual quality. At the same time, the figures
seem to be placed in a visual purgatory, as it were, suspended between
suffering and healing, performing rituals of purification and
regeneration. As in Sylvia Plath’s metaphoric fields, for instance, the
ambiguity of the color white combines clinical with lethal tones even
as it plays a cathartic role.
Surprised in their intimacy (as in the classical genre of bath
scenes) and at the same time ceremonial, statuesque (reminiscent in
their postures of Greek statues), the figures in Tenneson’s
compositions reach however more down-to-earth shapes as they
deviate from the poses they recall, be it by showing pregnancy, aging
at different stages, heavy flesh, or skinny silhouettes. “Carol and
Mirror” (1987), for instance, shows the profile silhouette of a woman
of round, full shapes and long gray hair (all details differing from the
conventional aesthetics of the nude). She holds a small round mirror in
her left hand and is placed against a background of painted arches that
gives depth of field to the flat photographic image. Her nudity is
discretely protected by her extending arm, by her long hair covering
her back, and by a white cloth unfolding down her waist. Like Wall’s
“The Giant”, her posture reveals modest pride. The painted arches on
the background of this photograph convey a sense of harmony
between the actual image and the image the woman seems to behold
in the mirror. Because of its angle, we do not see the reflection in the
mirror other than as it mirrors back on the model’s face. The older
woman is not made beautiful, but is brought, through the visual
dynamic of the composition, within an optical field that highlights the
“grace, acceptance, affection” pointed out by Goldberg in relation to
Tenneson’s approach of variations of the physical body. With
discretion, the model evokes a layered body memory of private and
cultural reminiscences, of changing paradigms of beauty.
142 Touching Surfaces

In other photographs Tenneson breaks with stereotypes even

as she makes use of them, as for instance when she explores a
repertory of romantic or Pre-Raphaelite imagery (wings, wedding
dresses, angels, or dolls that look like painted saints) in order to
visualize the ambivalences in rites of passage and processes of inner
transformation that she shows as actual trans-figurations. The
emotions these photographs evoke are ambivalent, if not
contradictory: both pleasure and fear, expressing excitement and
anxiety in relation to the unknown. The future seems to lie out in front
of the models like a white page they have to deliver themselves to, a
white dress awaiting to be inhabited, a deserted nightgown hanging by
the blind window of a cathedral (all images from Tenneson’s early
black-and-white work). In many of the black-and-white photographs,
embroidered veils also allude to an indefinite past. The portions of
time contained in the stitch bring to mind fabrics of memory passed on
by such frail tokens of anonymous past lives. Time shows through
these modest aesthetic codes like a spider web in which generations of
women’s hands have been caught.
In the photographs I have discussed in the first chapter, a
sense of generational continuum was suggested by younger
photographers whose projection into older age suggested an
exploration of as yet invisible sides of the self (such was the case with
Hervé Guibert’s photographs of Suzanne and Louise). By contrast, in
some of her photographs, Tenneson brings together generations in the
same photograph, thereby highlighting visually both the likeness and
the difference of shapes and expressions, an association which results
in an uncanny effect. In “Man and Two Women” (1989), for instance,
a profile composition, the silhouette of an adolescent is placed
between that of an older woman – his right arm gently encompassing
her hip – and that of a younger woman leaning on his back. The
draperies covering their bodies, the rounded geometry of the leaning
figures (the older woman’s head reposes on the young man’s chest)
convey a sense of reciprocal physical and psychic holding.
In “Peter Holding William” (1989), a Pieta-like composition,
a young man tenderly holds the frail body of an old man, a photograph
in which Tenneson relied extensively, as she confesses, on the two
models’ spontaneous reaction and emotional input. “Old Man and
Deanna” (1986) recalls Geneviève Cadieux’s piece “Blue Fear”,
which I have analyzed in the first chapter. Tenneson’s photograph
Photographic Aesthetics 143

shows the silhouette of an older man, his back turned away from the
camera and apparently ignoring the girl shown in profile, who seems
to be whispering something into his ear. However, unlike Cadieux,
Tenneson’s photograph is not based on a metaphor of self-
examination but on an odd interaction between different age- and
gender-selves. The gaze projected on the body of the old man seen
from the back is not a reflection of his own (as was the case in
Cadieux’s “Blue Fear”) but that of the partly devilish, partly angelic
girl seen from profile, whose silhouette is covered by a thin veil, out
of which the wing of a bat surfaces: such mixture of innocence and
wickedness that childhood can sometimes project against old age. In
spite of the soft tones of the image, of its lyrical mode, this
combination of emotions dodges sentimentality, a feature which
emerges in Tenneson’s more recent work as a means of addressing the
issue of an aesthetics of aging to a larger audience.
Significantly, Tenneson considers this picture of contrastive
emotions as being very much about herself: an allegory of growth
(Deanna is actually a model that Tenneson has followed in her bodily
and emotional progress at different ages in several compositions and
portraits). The lyrical approach prevailing in most of her photographs
does not prevent Tenneson from looking into the conflicts between
generations or into the contradictions of subject construction. Some of
her black-and-white photographs from the 1970s and 1980s, for
instance, dramatize the taboo conflicts between the pleasures and the
anxieties of motherhood, as in “Mother Holding Her Child” (1983),
where the baby’s capped head obliterates the mother’s face. In this
photograph, strangely, the baby’s head looks like a mask on her
eyeless, mouthless face, a detail that conveys a powerful sense of

While in Tenneson’s black-and-white photographic work

different textures of cloth cover parts of the body, in her color
photographs the fabric becomes more transparent, it dissolves into thin
gauze, as in “Three Women” (1987), reminiscent of a shroud, organic
tissue, or placenta. The slight out-of-focus effect produced by these
materials does not result from the manipulation of the time of
exposure. Technically, it is not a blur and it does not relate, as in
Michals’ photographs, to movement in the physical space of the
photograph. While the body is mostly stationary, statuesque,
144 Touching Surfaces

movement unfolds from thin fabric or lighting effects. Bringing

together the sensuality with the immobility of the body produces a
disconcerting effect on the viewer. It confers a threatening connotation
to beauty when fixed in the photographic image (as, for instance, in
“Suzanne in Contortion”, 1990). Either statuesque, or placed in the
company of fragmented statues or monuments, Tenneson’s models
have something of the immobility of lasting relics.
We remember that Roland Barthes associated photography
to mourning while in the middle of writing Camera Lucida he was
experiencing the death of his own mother. Yet photography has been
linked to death in very specific ways since its early development and
sometimes, in fact, for mere technical reasons. Before double or
multiple exposure were intentionally used to create varied aesthetic
effects, with a few exceptions (such as the intention implicit in certain
spirit photographs to extend the boundaries of the visible into an
image of afterlife), in the early days of photography, unfocused
images were considered a flaw. Resulting from the model’s movement
during the process of the picture-taking (quite a long one at the time),
the mysterious auras surrounding the figures or their soft contours –
part of the aesthetic vocabulary of photography since at least the
1950s – provoked at the time great dissatisfaction, especially in the
case of portraiture.
Nineteenth-century photographers were faced with a
conundrum concerning the inverse proportion between the long speed
of the exposure and the natural air of the picture. In other words, the
less the model moved to allow for the time of exposure, the more
artificial the picture. As Geoffrey Batchen notes in his book, Burning
with Desire: The Conception of Photography, some critics objected
that the effort to maintain the pose “made the subject’s face look like
that of a corpse” (1997: 208). It seems indeed that the emaciated
features in the portraits done by Julia Margaret Cameron were partly
provoked by the actual exhaustion of the models due to the strain of
the pose, their melancholic attitude being therefore the result of the
extended duration of the exposure. However, Cameron turned this
technical drawback into an aesthetic device by using the sfumato-like
effect due to the long exposure time to convey a sense of
otherworldliness to her figures. In a letter to Sir John Hershel, dated
December 31, 1864, she expresses her anger against the critics who
Photographic Aesthetics 145

deplored her disrespect for conventions of photography understood as

a mechanical reproduction of nature:

I believe in other than mere conventional topographic photography –

map-making and skeleton rendering of feature and form without that
roundness and fullness of force and feature, that modelling of flesh and
limbs, which the focus I use only can give, tho’ called and condemned as
“out of focus.” What is focus – and who has the right to say what focus is
legitimate focus? (1989: n. pag.; emphasis added).5

In order to obtain the “roundness and fullness of force and

feature” that she associated to truthfulness of character, Cameron had
to go against “conventional topographic photography” by way of
using costume, mask, and deviating technique. Ironically, a prop had
been invented in order to help photographers to create more lifelike
effects in agreement with photographic standards, a device which, like
other technical developments of her time, Cameron refused to use.
This contraption was meant to support the heads of the models to
prevent them from moving in order to ensure the production of a
portrait without failure! Clearly, for a more natural effect of the
photograph, the figure had to be frozen and the photographer had to
avoid the most minimal movement over the duration of the picture
taking. As Batchen justly remarks: “This device transformed the lived
time of the body into the stasis of an embalmed effigy. In other words,
photography insisted that if one wanted to appear lifelike in a
photograph, one first had to act as if dead” (1997: 208; emphasis

5 Cameron’s statement is strikingly similar to another outspoken declaration

of freedom of form expressed by photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard in the 1960s.
In an unpublished lecture delivered around 1961 and entitled “No-Focus”, Meatyard
refers to his series of photographs with the same title in which he had deliberately
used the blur in order to explore new forms of vision: “As for what No-Focus had
done and can do – it is freedom [...]. It is an art of visual acrobatics which result in
acrobatic emotions and misgivings. No criticism has ever seemed as valid as the
reasons for the importance of the being of No-Focus” (Unpublished typed ms, c.
1961, n. pag.; quoted in Tannenbaum 1991: 35; emphasis added).
6 Actually, in spite of her revolt against the critics’ displeasure with her
focus, later in her life Cameron came to acknowledge that movement was indeed in
the way of a perfect picture. She writes to one of her models: “All the others are
prevented from being quite perfect by movement and if I could only get at you again I
would make you repeat it all till you were perfect in the still sitting and then the
pictures would be perfect” (Gernsheim 1975: n. pag.).
146 Touching Surfaces

It is a “melancholy truth”, in Michals’ ironic phrasing, that

in photography beauty cannot be fixed as an ideal iconic form but only
as a momentary state, as the impression of a shape. And that the
dazzling sight of beauty is reminiscent in its immobility of the
dazzling sight of death. Even as they show the frailty of beauty,
Tenneson’s photographs of younger women are unsettling in that a
pleasing sight of the human figure can be experienced as false, unreal,
or uncanny because of its excessive perfection. Tenneson’s skill
consists precisely in her displacing the viewer’s attention from
surfaces to interior spaces. Stripped of its everyday references,
covered with drapes or seen through a foggy screen, the nude body
itself becomes a signifier of interiority, enigmatic in its economy of
movement. The minimal indications given in the titles of the
photographs do not add much to what one can see at a first glance.
Instead, they invite the viewer to look for the image under the image,
to observe the movements of a visually reconstructed interiority. The
sfumato-like effect smudges the frontiers between physical
appearance and psychic experience, between actual and imaginary
spaces, between time dimensions and angles of vision. It creates the
illusion of a possible coherence of the subject in a visual world that
relates to reminiscences of heterogeneous imagery.

2. Photographic Diversions, Forms of Consciousness

Transformation (of bodies), transgression (of canons), and

transparence (of shapes) are articulated in Tenneson’s vision as terms
by means of which she questions our relationship to images that
formalize degrees of consciousness related to different states or age-
selves. Her own history as an artist highlights this very important fact:
there is no transformation without transgression of conventions. In
some of her photographs, she has indeed reached a threshold of
photographic representation which transforms the figure more
radically than in the works I have discussed previously, namely by
partially dematerializing the image of the body and then using light to
materialize forms of consciousness, to show them as an integral part
of the corporeal presence.
Photographic Aesthetics 147

Her book Transformations, for instance, includes a series

significantly entitled “Light Writings”, in which figures similar to
those in her previous photographs are surrounded by light materialized
as lightning, auras, or luminescent globes. Turned into bodies of light,
these shapes give the impression of emanating from the human figures
and, as a result, seem to liberate them from the forces of gravity. The
dematerialization supports the release from the bodily ego, from a
particular state of being. The photographed figure becomes the
metaphoric site of complex or subtle experiencings.
Literally invading the image, light also unifies diverse forms
of psychic energy to convey something about the creative alliance
between the photographer and her models.7 If in this series, Tenneson
still shows the bodies as protected by thin veils. Yet, given the
luminous quality of the photographs and their effect of transparence,
she seems to use nudity here even more explicitly than in her previous
work “as a kind of window on the psyche, the inner self” (1993: 91).

In Illuminations, a book that combines representations of

figures with photographs of architectural and sculptural details or
fragments of Neo-Gothic monuments, Tenneson explores the
emotional interaction between individual and historical time. The
relics of the past are contrasted here with the energy of the human
presence, a contrast enhanced by her using the same device as in the
previous series, namely light as an actual instrument, that is an optic
fiber laser wand which she manipulates very much like a flash light
during the process of capturing the image. This allows her to control
as well as to release energy in order to create new shapes, to literally
write with light (to create a photo-graph). As in Dine’s use of digital
camera and printing devices, for Tenneson’s aesthetic purposes the
laser wand combines the sharpness of vision provided by leading-edge
technologies with the intervention of the hand. At the same time,
although this specific technology she utilizes suggests the possibility
of control over a natural element, the laser wand – rather difficult to
manipulate because extremely quick – is as unpredictable as the blur
so that it leaves room for accident, namely, for the spontaneous

7 Like Jacqueline Hayden, Tenneson talks about her models’ input in the
compositions, about the inspiring exchange of emotional energy, and about their
creative participation in the choice of the postures.
148 Touching Surfaces

emergence of shapes in the making of the image. Instead of

consuming the body, light sublimates it into new configurations in
which figurative and abstract shapes are combined, as, for instance in
“Woman with Light Hat” (1997). By giving light actual shapes,
Tenneson illuminates graphically the imaginative extensions of our
lives. In her earlier photographs, light allowed her to explore varied
textures of the body. In these series, Tenneson transforms the
battlefield of the destructive effects of light on the skin – one that, in
fact, cosmetic industry is fiercely contending with – into a creative
field in which different textures generate intriguing optical illusions,
expressions of the self in other registers of visibility. Skin is a “raw
material” in Tenneson’s phrasing: “I love it when light passes onto
skin”, she notes, “transforming it. The play between, is it skin, is it
stone, is it fabric, is it light? – when they meld into each other,
fascinates me” (Dunas 1987: 102; emphasis added).
These effects of light recall Kuntzel’s installation, that
intense moment in which the photograph projected on a screen effaces
itself to materialize the imperceptible passage of time. Here however,
the various degrees of white produced by Tenneson’s use of light
dissolve the contours of the figure and create the optical illusion of the
figures moving slowly back and forth, in a space that seems to escape
the laws of perspective, and that in spite of the models’ frontal
position. The resulting images read like a metaphor for photography
itself, one of the instruments we have devised and developed in order
to fix a moment – and not only to escape the destructive effects of the
passage of time upon memory – but also to better understand the
formative value temporality may have in the becoming of the self.
“Woman Holding Cloth” (1988), for instance, is one of Tenneson’s
photographic images which can be regarded as an allegory of
photography: the torso of a young woman, her arms bent in square
angles holding a thin cloth in front of her face, the arms somehow
framing the cloth. Her face vaguely shows through this rather
unorthodox veronica, yet not one printed on the cloth – as in the
Biblical allegory – but emanating, as it were, from the inside (and in a
different vein than Dine’s evocation of the Veronica in his digital
“The search of transcendence with a camera” has become, as
Vicki Goldberg puts it, “unfashionable in a secular climate and
difficult in any event” (Tenneson 1993: 9). Goldberg also notes that:
Photographic Aesthetics 149

“transcendental ideas in the photography of the last 50 years tend to be

coached in terms of abstraction (Minor White) or allegory (Clarence
John Laughlin, Duane Michals) but seldom translated onto barely
disguised flesh” (1993: 9; emphasis added). In the materializations of
light accompanying the physical bodies in Illuminations, we can see a
source of psychic sustenance that transcends the physical. In other
photographs, this source is figured by an angel, a worn-out image to
which Tenneson gives new wings, so to say, a stereotype that she uses
in order to visualize, as she puts it, “just another form of
consciousness” (1993: 122; emphasis added). Many of her
photographs explore such different forms of consciousness that
synthesize a wide range of individual and cultural memories.
Where substance encounters consciousness and the fragile
surface of gauze the thick lens of the objective, an inner clarity
emerges, a personal vision keeping in touch with uncanny
configurations of time lodged in our memory. While matter is
dissolving into transparency or luminescence, the immaterial takes on
shapes that become visual metaphors. The emotion has the slippery
consistency of photographic emulsion. Ethereal as they may seem,
these photographs are a tactile compendium to ways of staying alive.
Instead of representing a retreat from the world, the otherworldly in
them is, on the contrary, a result of Tenneson’s keen observation of
human nature, of her reflection on matter, which, as physics sees it
today, is but another form of energy.8 Interestingly, with regard to
Tenneson’s paradoxical treatment of spiritual or transcendent
dimensions through bodily shapes, the photography critic Claude Nori
has associated her not, as one would expect, with a spiritualist
tradition but, on the contrary, with the great tradition of naturalist
photographers “who questioned matter in looking for an answer to
their interrogations” (1983: 78).
By way of displacement or stylization (as, for instance, in
some of the photographs in which she has used head caps to neutralize

8 About this aspect in relation to images, photographer Tom Drahors notes:

“The reading of an image cannot be exclusively conceptual, visual or aesthetic. It is a
much more complex question. An image reflects a reality. But that reality is matter,
and as we know in our time matter has become an extremely vague concept, since
from the point of view of physics, matter is above all energy”. (Drahors 1987: n. pag.;
tr. mine).
150 Touching Surfaces

the figure), Tenneson takes her models out of actuality – but not
completely out of time – to project them, inquisitively, into larger
dimensions of temporality. These misted, risk-laden images of
condensed time seem to question the possibility of adhering to myths
in an era when the abusive uses of imagery have rendered the very
mythology of image-making banal. Tenneson capitalizes on the
cognitive and affective qualities of photographs even while alerting us
– through her ambivalent view of beauty – to ways in which the
seduction of images can freeze perceptions of the self into stereotypes.
Her layering of images combines the concern for the individual’s
relation to images with an interest in how Western visual culture is
changing and growing, with the directions it takes.

The aesthetic idiom Tenneson has created over time can be

instrumental in addressing conflicting theoretical views in visual
culture precisely because of her attempt to surpass common
dichotomies in order to reach what William H. Gass has called “a true
community of ends”. Commenting on Catherine Wagram’s
photographic compositions inspired by laboratory instruments, Gass
notes that such a community implies:
giving each dimension of the medium its due, its full and fair share:
matter, mind, imagination – trope, thought, thing – function, form, feeling
– use, design, dream – percept, concept, precept – theory, fact, fiction; and
to allow the various elements of the composition [...] an uncoerced
allegiance to the whole (1996: 43).

That as a philosopher and a fiction writer, Gass uses ternary

groups in his commentary on the relationship between art and science
is a significant conceptual move away from patterns of thought based
on binaries, a move inherent in the creative work of many
photographers today. The lyrical undertones of Tenneson’s work
(which, in turn, have called here for a more evocative discourse) do
not preclude over the questions she addresses. Their theoretical scope
relates to current concerns about the role of heterogeneous images in
subject construction in a critical context mostly focused on the
destabilizing effect of images.
Photographic Aesthetics 151

3. Aesthetics and Cosmetics

My mother wore lipstick until the day she

died. […] Her hair thinned and grayed for all
the brushing, but as I look at her image now
it’s only the photographs that age.

Herbert Blau

The heterogeneous references in Tenneson’s photographs –

religious, artistic, or vernacular – are, I would like to point out, not
only domains of representation, or aesthetic versions of the subject.
They embody areas of the subject’s life experience, as many zones in
which the psychic body circulates. Similarly, the combination of two
photographic practices, the artistic and the commercial, allows her to
circulate conventions from one domain to another and explore the
category of beauty and that of the aesthetic from the glossy rhetoric of
magazines to art history canons back and forth. Despite its apparent
transparency, her way of understanding beauty unveils hidden twists.
If she conjures the aesthetic within the area of commonplace – “to
show that even lovely women have inner lives”, as Vicki Goldberg
puts it (Tenneson 1993: 8) – she also reveals what can be repulsive in
canonized forms, namely how, by being fixed into stereotypes, beauty
can become a dead form (or, a form of perceptual death).
Transgressing the boundaries between the two approaches of beauty
allows Tenneson to explore transformations of the individual body
along with its visual constructions in the history of representations.
Indeed, her commercial work does not, in fact, diverge very
much from her fine art work in that she uses sometimes the same
models, similar settings, atmosphere, and lighting. However, as she
remarks, her commercial work rarely reaches “the psychological
edge” of her personal work (1993: 109); it does not possess the same
haunting strangeness, which her clients unequivocally avoid.9
Ironically, however, her commercial work (commissioned portraiture,

9 “Clients want something pleasant and beautiful, a little bit unusual but
not too strange”, notes Tenneson (1993: 109), and she remembers by way of anecdote
the reaction of a client before taking his portrait: “Remember, no death or dying,
nothing disturbing [...]” (1993: 112).
152 Touching Surfaces

fashion, advertising) addresses the religion of beauty, which carries

the promise, as a Vogue advertisement informs us, “to erase time, alter
perception, create a new reality” (2000: n. pag.),10 an effect which
actually her art photographs produce.
Two modes of understanding the performing self (the
cosmetic and the aesthetic) are at work in the two fields. Where her
commercial photographs show idealized states in normalized bodies,
the pictorial performances in series such as Exposures (1986), or
Transformations (1993) incorporate varied realities of the body as
expressions of the becoming self. Instead of placing them in conflict,
Tenneson explores the tensions between the two fields creatively and
looks into the many ways in which they interfere with issues of
subject construction and cultural determinations.
A particular relation emerges from Tenneson’s photographs,
as discussed in the previous sections. While the allusions to art models
or the constructed poses convey a statuesque character to the figures,
the techniques that insist on dematerialization deconstruct it by
degrees. The effects she uses carry a wide range of affects that
integrate conventional and non-conventional forms of beauty into a
continuum of subject perception. Round, emaciated, wrinkled, or too
smooth bodies become touching precisely because of the inner logic
suggested in the composition, one which combines varied emotions
associated with the complicated, discrepant, conflicting perceptions of
the changing body and to the images we have or are making of it.
Where testimonial photographs of older people can generate particular
forms of affect, speculative photographs bring together complex,
sometimes contradictory forms of emotion that are part of conscious
or unconscious processes related to the construction (and expression)
of subjectivity and to that of the subject, in time.
Blinding, like the fact of figuring death, the embodied light
caught in these photographs also represents, perhaps, just the
transformation of ways of seeing. By effacing the contours of the

10 The photograph, an advertisement for the cosmetic product MAGIC by

Perspectives, represents a woman holding a bowl of light in her hands very similar to
the technique Tenneson used in “Light Writings”. MAGIC is presented as “an
extraordinary new concept that optically transforms the skin” (Vogue 2000: n. pag.).
Signifiers of the fierce battle with time in cosmetic industry, terms such as “time
stop”, “optic illusion”, or even “mimesis” [of natural processes] are frequent in the
recent rhetoric of cosmetic products.
Photographic Aesthetics 153

figures, Tenneson transgresses current canons of beauty in order to

direct the beholder’s gaze elsewhere, not – or, not only – inwards, in
the sense of deliberately visualizing particular psychological states,
but into areas of transition, of processing emotions, and of formalizing
them into aesthetic idioms. The uncanny formal similarities between
her commercial work and her art work suggest that the glowing shapes
and the glossy photographic surfaces that circulate in the current
commerce of images might also be turned into instruments which can
help us consider common place representations otherwise than mere
manipulative objects.
Tenneson’s ambivalent aesthetics shows the human being in
its frailty – as a momentary monument – and our consciousness of
human experience in its variety of forms or versions. The association
between personal relics of childhood and images of erotic seduction,
or that between myth and contingent reality, integrates conflicting
aspects of the self in a world dominated by paradox. By the very
special use of light she makes in Transformations and Illuminations –
light as metaphor and as technology – Tenneson explores the non-
human sources of human energies. In the depredations of time
(difficult to locate and to accept) and in the frail instruments we have
devised to escape them – photography among others – she finds
sources of energy. Her elegiac formal approach has such holding
effect that other photographers working with aging models insist on,
while the models bring in a transformative power that incorporates the
alterations of time into a larger, different understanding of beauty.
Hence the difference of intent between her commercial photographs,
in which she insists on the illusion that we can have some control over
time, and the creative, generative dimension of time patterns in her art
work, where gauze or mist covering the body are also tropes for skins
we shed, for debris of former selves that add up into perpetually
transforming patterns of the subject.
The two aesthetic modes come very close to converging in
her recent work collected in two volumes of photographs and
interviews, Wise Women: A Celebration of Their Insights, Courage,
and Beauty (2002), portraying women aged 65 to 100 from all walks
of life and parts of the United States, and the subsequent Amazing
Men: Courage, Insight, Endurance (2004), meant to give a new vision
of masculinity and aging today. The two books continue questions of
subject identity, difference, and aesthetics from her Light Warriors
154 Touching Surfaces

(2000), in which she had explored the lives of women of varied ethnic
appearances, aged between 20 and 55. More outspokenly rhetorical
than her previous work, these recent books crystallize aesthetic
preoccupations that intersect with questions present in a larger current
cultural landscape in the Western world. With these photographs
Tenneson hopes to provide new models of aging, alternative answers
to the fear of growing older, “a new vision, a revelation” (2002: n.
pag.), as she admits to have been herself transformed in the making of
Wise Women, a book that she considers as the logical development of
her thirty-years long career as a photographer. Many of these
photographs were a revelation for the subjects themselves, since many
of these women, like Guibert’s Louise, had not been photographed in
many years and were “startled to see their current image” (2002: n.
pag.). As in the photograph “Three Women” I have referred to in the
previous section, the women in her new book express, in Tenneson’s
words, “a new collective yearning for compassion and relatedness”. In
2003, Wise Women was the subject of a six-part Today show special,
serialized in The Oprah Magazine11 and in Modern Maturity. It has
quickly become a cultural phenomenon. In her introduction to the
book, Tenneson actually remarks that in was a 1990s phenomenon
that many artists do commercial work. These two books bring
Tenneson’s preoccupation with redefining the category of beauty from
the domain of art into that of actual life and express a significant turn
in more recent perspectives on aging, to the emergence of which
photography (both testimonial and, as I have tried to show,
speculative) has contributed in many ways.
In some respects, aestheticizing aging in these new books is
evocative of a larger American social and cultural history of defeats:
“aging is our final frontier”, says Tenneson in the preface to Wise
Women. However, because of her skill and her reflection on the
notions of beauty which intersect with notions of difference, her work
brings up seductive, inspiring, and provoking questions which leave
behind that very rhetoric. The critique of visual culture has, for
instance, focused on the influence of the media on the construction of
models of physical identity. Little has however been said about the

11 In an interview given on that occasion, Tenneson refers explicitly to

her concern with redefining the notion of beauty, not only in art, as she did with her
previous work, but in life as well: “One of the things I hope to do with this book is to
open a discussion about what real beauty means” (Raffel 2002: 264).
Photographic Aesthetics 155

intersections between these models and those coming from other

registers of visual culture; or about new notions of beauty that can
emerge from such intersections. Tenneson’s work in what are often
considered as opposite fields, art and commercial, invites us to
meditate on these questions. Her own idiom of combined aesthetic
approaches reflects back on the variety of factors that contribute to
fugitive revelations of “the inner statue”, to the diverse forms it can
take. That her visual research has, like that of Hayden, somehow
archetypal connotations is suggestive of a new stage in the study of
difference in cultural contexts that become more and more
heterogeneous, as a consequence of which identity markers common
to different groups are being sought for. At the same time, Tenneson’s
bridging artistic and commercial visual registers speaks of the fact
that, at the turn of the twenty-first century (and since the outset of my
research on the subject in the mid-1990s), the discrepancies between
the photographic treatment of aging in the two domains tend to be less
and less striking. It is not so much the technical and aesthetic
strategies that make a difference now, it seems. The difference lies
rather in the uses made of the images, in their intent, and their
emotional input. Tenneson’s aesthetics – even in its getting closer to a
certain sentimentality which her earlier work avoided – strikes a
balance between documenting and imagining, between sentiment and
distance, thereby drawing attention to the ways in which photographic
aesthetics can relate to issues of aging and becoming of the self in a
culture undergoing significant transformations.

Performing Corpo-Realities

Argument: the Spectrum of Aging

Francesca Woodman; Donigan Cumming

It is an irony of sorts to end a book on temporality, consciousness, and

aging with a chapter devoted to a young photographer, one who did
not take the time to age. Francesca Woodman was thirteen years old
when she started photography. Between 1972 and 1981, she produced
a huge amount of work: more than 500 photographs, mix-media
projects, and an artist book. Her life ended short in 1981, with her
suicide at age twenty-two. The undeveloped films she left behind
contain so many latent images, the contact sheets so many sequences
of potential enlargements, croppings, prints, which have not yet, or
might never become a photograph, and yet exist as “many, many
thoughts on a roll film”, in Jim Dine’s phrasing. With the exception of
a few minor shows, Woodman’s work enjoyed little recognition
during her lifetime. Her work and figure came to public attention
posthumously, in academic circles of feminist and psychoanalytical
orientation, as well as in art circles, and have also turned to be
inspirational for many young artists, largely owing to the strategies
she developed in her formative years. Her work has also been
seductive for the public, yet not so much for the precision and
distinction appreciated by artists, but probably rather for the non-finite
character of her destiny, for the mixture of spontaneity and
theatricality evocative of adolescence, for its intensity as well as for its
indeterminacy. As many spaces of thought that viewers can identify
with and whose gaps or missing links invite them to participate,
158 Touching Surfaces

respond to, develop … and, perhaps, project on the fantasy of growing

up without ever growing old.
It is only at the turn of the century that a few new readings
have brought into attention aspects of Woodman’s work related to the
innovative dimensions of her photographic thinking in the context of
the artistic preoccupations of her time, Minimalism and experimental
video in particular (Baker et al. 2003: 52-67).1 More recently, we have
also become aware of the highly edited character of her work, which
intersects obliquely with my concerns here with the role of creative
photographs in the construction of the subject (and of images
representing it, of their accessibility, or editing). Interestingly, it is not
theory that brought into attention critical aspects concerning the
circulation and reception of Woodman’s work, but a video piece, The
Fancy (2000), made by American experimental filmmaker Elizabeth
Subrin. The Fancy is presented as “a speculative, experimental work
that explores the life of Francesca Woodman evoked by the published
catalogues of and about her photographs”.2
Subrin’s introduction to the video piece mentions the fact
that all catalogues existing at that point draw from three sources (the
catalogues published in 1986, 1992, and 1998). She calls attention to
the fact that the public image of Woodman’s work has been highly
edited and limited to the circulation of 107 printed images from the
500 existing negatives, out of which only about 30 are repeatedly
1 A first version of this chapter was completed in 2001. The subsequent
discussion of Woodman’s work at a roundtable that brought together art historians
and artists concerning some of the points that are at the core of my argument in this
chapter – the question of performance and subjectivity in particular – confirmed the
intuition that prompted my approach of her work (Baker et al. 2003: 52-67). Peggy
Phelan also hints at this issue (Phelan 2002).
2 The catalogue of the Video Data Bank of the School of the Art Institute
in Chicago notes on this video piece that it “radically reorganizes information from
the catalogues in order to raise questions about biographical form, history and fantasy,
female subjectivity, and issues of authorship and intellectual property […] in an
attempt to uncover the traces of a seemingly suppressed history embedded behind the
photographer’s pictures”.
A new book devoted to Woodman’s photographs came out after the
completion of my manuscript. Two hundred-fifty images are printed in this book
together with unpublished extracts from her journal selected by her father (Townsend
2006). In his essay “Scattered in Space and Time”, Townsend also places Woodman’s
work in a larger context of art history as well as in that of the art practices of her time.
As for whether this new book reveals more of a “the seemingly suppressed history”,
as Subrin puts it, this is a question beyond of the scope of my study here.
Performing Corpo-Realities 159

reproduced.3 These catalogues mostly present Woodman’s

photographs in isolation, leaving behind the importance of serial work
in her approach to photography. Suggestively, Subrin isolates two of
the meanings of the word fancy that she uses as a title for her film,
namely “to visualize”, and “to suppose/ to guess”, hinting at the fact
that the body of Woodman’s photographic work – that carries so much
creative potential – has not been entirely developed.
Of small (and mostly square) format, Woodman’s black-
and-white photographs come into the viewer’s visual field with force,
not to say with violence. We are compelled to cast off preconceptions
and habits of seeing and adopt her angle, to shrink in age
imaginatively, to get in touch with that period of our lives when
creativity was within striking reach and the past appealing because not
ours, not yet the heavy stuff of our lives. Woodman restores a lost
innocence to the beholder’s gaze and, thereby, an all-sensory
perception that time accumulated in layers has the tendency to vitrify,
one recalling the freshness of perception Myrtle Gordon summons in
Opening Night: “When I was eighteen my emotions were so close to
the surface …”.
In adolescence, the awkward age of multiple physical and
psychic transitions in which we create our own potential spaces, our
personal idiom, we become aware not of aging but of age, an ever-
shifting notion that is to change over time. The visible is then a space
one traverses to grasp life lines, to reach out for new spaces, for new
areas of experience, and to find out how to deal with them. In the
process, a consciousness of the self develops as a physical and psychic
body opening up to new physical and mental environments. Hence, for
the adolescent – for as much as that age of contradictions holds
generalizations – the borders between the phantasmatic and the actual
world, between intuition and rationality, are more fluid, not yet stuck
into binary categories. The interiors in Woodman’s photographs are
devoid of the paraphernalia of everyday life and rather resemble
intimations of dreams, of imaginary spaces. They are unprotected,
open. The past is alluring because it is anonymous, perceived in the
eagerness of a future. Rather than a critical gaze projected onto the
real, we read in Woodman’s deflections of the photographic medium

3 A photographer’s work will always be the subject of editing (by the

author and/or by others, or, simply, by time itself, as in the case of E.J. Bellocq).
160 Touching Surfaces

questions related to how far photography can go to encompass

immediate realities as well as realities beyond visible reach. Her
photographs formalize the boundless potential of adolescence and the
concomitant need to find guide marks, to break ground in order to
experiment with various locations of the self, to create one’s own
inner space. Moving away from stereotypical images of the teenager,
Woodman does not show adolescence from a narcissistic perspective
(an aspect I will elaborate on farther), but as a way of addressing its
problems creatively. The stakes of her performing a wide range of
corporeal realities in front of a camera are related to the
transformations of the physical and psychic body and also to the
possibilities of the camera to capture them.

At the opposite spectrum of aging, we can find photographs

that are more closely related to performing realities of the changing
body (in old age), such as those of the Canadian photographer
Donigan Cumming collected in his book of photographs Pretty
Ribbons (1996). Cumming met Nettie Harris, a former journalist, then
artist, in 1982, when she was in her seventies. For nearly ten years,
week after week, he photographed her in her apartment, in poses that
very openly discard superficial standards of beauty. Working with his
model’s spirit of improvisation, dramatization, and humor, Cumming
places Harris either in her everyday environment or in compositions,
some of which show an old Nettie lying on a flowery carpet in a fetal
position, or enacting a moment of sleep (or perhaps death). In one of
them, she is surrounded by instantaneous portraits of herself
displaying a wide range of emotional impersonations. Other
photographs in this series are provokingly close to caricatural images
of old age. Although it addresses the relation between the
consciousness one can have of aging and the external perception of its
realities, Cumming’s series belongs to a different field of photography
than the one I have approached in this book, namely the social
documentary, a genre which “records and documents” to express an
outspoken attachment to external reality. Like Nicholas Nixon,
Richard Avedon, John Coplans, and more recently Nan Goldin, in a
series of photographs of her parents, Cumming “stares”, as he puts it,
into the realities of old age (1999: 2).
Adolescence and old age are critical moments of transition,
of dreaded thresholds, as we well know! It is not unusual (as medical
Performing Corpo-Realities 161

inquiries into patients’ perceptions of age confirm it) to perceive the

puzzling changes in the older body as a memory of the adolescent
body and thus relate to that identity in the shaping, or to that other
age-self, as I have called it at the outset of this study. Performing
different age-selves may be a reaction of defense, but also, or perhaps,
mainly, one of accommodation to new realities. One coming from the
need to explore the contrasts between external realities and their
perceptions. These contrasts can be either softened (as Tenneson does
with her models), or overacted (as Nettie does in Cumming’s
photographs). Adolescence and old age can be seen, as I have
suggested earlier in the book, as extensions of the transitional
processes theorized by D.W. Winnicott in his Playing and Reality, an
extension used by Christopher Bollas to refer to the transitional
objects of adulthood (Bollas 1987). Similarly, performing can help
recategorize aspects of the consciousness of the self in ways which are
comparable to the role that “playing” has in the maturational process
of the child: namely by facilitating the subject’s relating to the
environment via a network of illusions and enactments of mimetic
selves (equivalents of what Winnicott called “false selves”). Instead of
exposing physical appearance, photographers who explore the
spectrum of aging creatively integrate conflicting perceptions and
emotions into an elusive coherence of the physical and the psychic
If I have preferred to discuss in more detail Woodman’s
work in the context of aging, it is precisely because of the distance the
adolescent body provides to the understanding of the older body.
Cumming’s photographs of Nettie call for empathy in a direct,
immediate way. Their performative aspect is related to the phatic
dimension and to an unambiguous message, as Cumming points out:
“[Nettie’s] was about being an elderly woman. Nettie understood the
impact of what she was doing on other elderly women of her social
group and she was prepared to risk criticism” (1999: 4). On the other
hand, Nettie’s poses relate to phantasms of the body in relation to
different age-selves, but they also hint at their limited scope in
vernacular visual culture. Cumming has indeed called attention to his
use of theatrical metaphors in his social work, as well as to the
importance of the Performance Art of the late 1960s on his training as
a photographer.
162 Touching Surfaces

Instead of that direct approach, the ambiguities in

Woodman’s photographs relate to my point here as a different kind of
provocation, precisely because she works not so much the poses but
the distance we can take from them through optical illusions that can
provide subtle accommodations to imperceptible realities. Her
exploration of the consciousness of aging is rooted in possibilities
provided by the camera at once to expose, to screen, and to transform
the tropes or broken narratives of inner growth (very much like the
photographer in Opening Night who reads the wrinkles on a 90-year
old woman’s face as tropes for experience “every wrinkle [is] a joy
she has had, a sorrow”).

What can an aging perspective bring to a reevaluation of

Woodman’s work? How do the questions it raises help our
understanding of aging as an ongoing process of building up
configurations of a consciousness of the self in the ongoing
temporality of subject growth? By displacing such specific questions
as adolescent narcissism or the gaze projected on the female body
onto problems of visualizing internal spaces and positioning the
subject in physical space, I would argue that Woodman operates a
series of shifts in categories. Recently, Ann Daly has highlighted the
importance of taking distance with the limitations of feminist readings
of her work by suggesting the necessity to “open up the discourse
around her work, maybe by placing more emphasis on her interest in
categories of representation and the disruption of the categorical”
(Baker et al. 2003: 56; emphasis added). Within the context of my
argument, I understand this disruption of the categorical as a series of
visual recategorizations (mainly by means of “playing” with
photographic conventions and modes). Theoretically, the performative
effects of the corpo-realities in Woodman’s photographs come close
to the understanding of aging and consciousness that I have acquired
from other photographers discussed in the book. Some of them more
obliquely, others more directly, not only create an accrued awareness
of images of aging circulating in Western cultures, but also propose
imaginative expressions of realities of aging and their perceptions.
Cumming, whose work I situate at the opposite spectrum of
visualizing aging (and in a different photographic genre), also insists
on the necessity of working in between categories. “In my work”, he
notes, “I address issues of categorical confusion and transgression”
Performing Corpo-Realities 163

(1999: 3). Where Cumming addresses these issues in the domain of

social attitudes and individual response, in Woodman’s photographs
these aspects appear in the context of self-exploration and
development of a personal aesthetics.4
Suggestively, Cumming has accompanied his model beyond
the photographic project and to the end of her life, by making his first
video piece, entitled A Prayer For Nettie (1995), which he presents as
“a transitional work, originally conceived as part of an installation
with photographs and seven monitors”. An “Elegy to Nettie Harris”,
as he calls this piece about “mourning and memory” (1999: 4), this
tape was made the summer before Nettie died, as a continuation of
their collaborative project for Pretty Ribbons. I have earlier underlined
the quality of holding in Jacqueline Hayden’s work with elderly art
models, in Hervé Guibert’s photographs and texts about his eighty-
year old aunts, or in Geneviève Cadieux’s “Blue Fear”. In them, I
have read an opening up to the models’ creativity and a holding gaze
when the body becomes too frail to even be touched. At the other pole
in the spectrum of transitional processes, it is perhaps such holding
gaze that Francesca Woodman created for her own growing self in the
extended space of the photographic image.

4 The concern with recategorization in the fields of documentary and art

photographs that relate to aging is itself an engaging topic, yet one which does not
encompass the scope of this book, where the focus is on the affective, cognitive, and
formative role of the aesthetic.
164 Touching Surfaces
Performing Corpo-Realities 165
166 Touching Surfaces

19. Duane Michals, “The Woman is Frightened by the Door”, 1966.

Five gelatin silver prints each paper, 5 x 7 inches. DMI.S.027.
Copyright Duane Michals. Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York.
Performing Corpo-Realities 167

1. Francesca Woodman
Photographic Ambiguities and Formal Growth

Perception of an object costs

Precise the Object’s loss —
Perception in itself a Gain
Replying to its Price —

The Object Absolute — is nought —

Perception sets it fair
And then upbraids a Perfectness
That situates so far —

Emily Dickinson

What is more precise than precision? Illusion.

Marianne Moore

I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions

Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.

Sylvia Plath

In the sequence entitled “The Woman is Frightened by the

Door” (1966) (19) opening his book Real Dreams, Duane Michals sets
up a suspense story in five sequences with anxiety as a featured
character. Sequence 1: naked woman reading on a couch. Sequences
2, 3, and 4: door opens tentatively (a gust of wind?); woman turns her
head in the direction of the door. Sequence 5: her gaze fixed on the
door, her body, her face, and the book in her hands loosen their shape.
In the short interval between these sequences, nothing has happened.
Only the contours of her body have been disturbed. The woman has
been swept along by a fear unknown, an unseen visitor. Here, Michals
turns once more to the tradition of spirit photographs, yet, like in
“Death Comes to the Old Lady” (1969) (which is more literal), on a
visual tone that is half lyrical, half ironic. This distance allows him to
displace the focus (symbolically, and visually, by the use of the blur),
from the body-spirit question to that of the imperceptible, which for
him is the very substance of photography. Duane Michals was one of
168 Touching Surfaces

the photographers Woodman admired, although one could talk more

of elective affinities rather than direct influences, as it is the case with
other photographers that Woodman crossed paths with.
The hermeneutics of literary works is based on the
supposition that each text contains the inscription of the interpretative
moves to follow in partially decoding its enigma. Similarly, the formal
and energetic patterns of a photograph are carriers of patterns of
meaning as well as of a larger dimension that encompasses its
morphology and its visual syntax. From that vantage point, Francesca
Woodman’s work can be said to capture the unstable balance of
growth suggested in Richard Powers’ novel, The Gold Bug Variations,
through the metaphor of “the threshold effect” (a phrase inspired by
René Magritte’s painting “Threshold of Liberty”), a metaphor which
he places at the core of the logic of life and of systems of knowledge
and representation:

the accumulation of small variations that transform a change of degree

into a change of nature. Life stands on the threshold of some new twist it
will never be able to name but must live through all the same (Powers
1991: 616).

An untitled photograph by Francesca Woodman from the

series Boulder, Colorado (1972-1975)* functions within the range of
that same problematics. This particular photograph shows a blurred
silhouette crawling through the cross-shaped orifice of an old
headstone. The figure (a child? a teenager? a girl or a boy? or, most
likely a self-portrait) seems to dissolve into thin air as it is moving, yet
its blurred palms are firmly rooted in the grass on the one side, as are
its knees on the other. Caught between two zones of air separated by
solid stone, the figure has vacillated at the moment of the capture to
grow into a different body, one shown in a state of visual confusion, a
chaos of material particles (in a digital photograph, this is the actual
form that the fluid, transparent blur of the analogical image would
take). In spite of the location (a cemetery), the becoming body is not

* Unfortunately, I was not able to secure permission to reproduce

Woodman’s photographs here. I refer readers to the sites: “A Francesca Woodman
Gallery”,; Francesca Woodman, “http://www.”, and “’Cesca’ Francesca Woodman”,”,
the latter particularly highlighting the serial aspect of her work.
Performing Corpo-Realities 169

symbolically located between life and death, as it has been suggested,

but at the threshold of two stages of life, whose boundaries are
difficult to draw but emblematically. The date of the series itself does
not situate the photograph in a specific moment in time. Sometime
between 1972 and 1975, when Woodman was fourteen to seventeen
years old. Three years that count for so many more at a stage when, in
its groping for experience, the psychic body observes, dodges, and
often outgrows the physical body. The blur suggests here a galaxy of
changes, the confusion accompanying their apprehension even as the
subject has already developed into something else: a consciousness of
the self captured as vanishing presence shown in intermittent motion,
from outer shapes towards inner constellations of images developing
into visual patterns.
The distinction between the conscious and the unconscious
in such perceptions of the self is, like in the creative process itself, not
as clear-cut, as strict as we have the habit to think of it. Woodman’s
work raises two engaging questions in relation to my exploration of
photographic aesthetics. How much of the creative process (as a trope
for the construction of the subject) relies on the organizing powers of
inner life turned into consciousness by the controlling sense of form,
in the context of unconscious spontaneity? And, conversely, how does
her work – accomplished during her formative years – articulate inner
psychic structures into photographic forms as a way of accessing
consciousness (very much like Jim Dine does when he uses
photography to grasp inaccessible forms of memory as areas of dim,
dream-like consciousness of the self).
Critics have discussed varied influences on Woodman’s
imagination, ranging from Victorian novels to surrealist photography
(Posner 1998: 157-58; 167-171), and more recently, to Minimalist and
art video strategies developed by her contemporaries (Baker et al.
2003: 52-67; Townsend 2006). The photographic or pictorial
references in her work are numerous, and their intelligent weaving
into a personal idiom is striking. In a personal way, she combines
memories of Italian painting or sculpture, and other artistic references,
with a selective history of American photography ranging from her
contemporaries Duane Michals or Diane Arbus to the older generation
of visionary photographers still active in the 1960s and early 1970s,
Clarence John Laughlin and Ralph Eugene Meatyard, in particular.
Her references also include the turn of the century mysterious E.J.
170 Touching Surfaces

Bellocq, whose partly defaced glass plates of women from a brothel in

New Orleans, taken around 1912, were first brought into public
attention in 1970 by the book composed of Lee Friedlander’s
photographs of the plates. The book became very popular in the
photography world by the mid-1970s when Francesca Woodman was
being trained as a photographer at the Rhode Island School of Design,
in Providence.
If the identification of references is by no means essential
for the viewer’s response to Woodman’s aesthetics, it proves however
instrumental to our understanding of her photographic thinking in
relation to my I focus here. Consequently, such references do not call
our attention as a form of anxiety of influence (in passing, more of a
critic’s problem than that of an artist’s), but as a question of method.
Many of Woodman’s photographs are, indeed, what Rosalind Krauss
has called “problem sets” (1986),5 that is the result of various
assignments during her years at the Rhode Island School of Design.
These photographic versions of the academic studies in drawing
classes are responses either to a technical question or to varied
categories of representation. In Woodman’s creative use of
photographic models, the source work becomes part of her formative
dialogue with visual forms. “Two women, one in slip, one in robe,
New York, 1979”, for instance, reminiscent of Pompeii frescoes and
also of a photograph by Ralph Eugene Meatyard (“Untitled [Two
ghosts with a fireplace]”, ca.1969), is suggestive of her combining,
like Tenneson, visual codes of different art forms coming from
different historic moments. At once melancholically alert and
technically skilled, her photographs are all thought in process,
intuition, and meditation merging into one fugitive image. If
consciousness functions like the photographic device (which is, as we
have seen, but a theoretical supposition), we can say (metaphorically),
that the multitude of its forms unfolds here on the surface of the
photograph: witty, subtle, playful. A repertoire of states embodied in
puzzling configurations associated to the developing body.
Although speculations on Woodman’s suicide have been
avoided in the catalogue of her first posthumous exhibition (1986),
commentaries on intimations of death in her photographs come up

5 “Problem Sets” is the title of Rosalind Krauss’ essay in the 1986 catalogue.
The quotations here are from the version reprinted in Krauss’ collected essays
Bachelors (1999).
Performing Corpo-Realities 171

now and again, partly on account of her early departure, and partly
owing to the ghostly apparitions in many of her photographs.6
However, what strikes the viewer is rather their powerful creative
energy so skillfully balanced between expression and reflection,
between identifying the problem within the given image and trying to
find a new visual solution for it, between the constrictions of the
imposed form and the search for a liberating energy within these very
limitations.7 As Kathryn Hixson remarks in her essay “Essential
Magic: the Photographs of Francesca Woodman”: “The work has an
effective presence that is not dependent on death, but rather on a full
exploration of the possibilities of depicting through the photograph the
essence and vitality of life” (Woodman 1992: 28). The phantom
presences in her images, disembodied by light, hovering like white
fabric or smoke between patterns of matter and patterns of spirit might
indeed support associations with death. Yet, made between early
teenage and full-shape adolescence, Woodman’s photographs seem
more precisely related to life forms8 and life transitions: from one
space to another, from one area of time to another, from a state of
wonder to a state of dimly intuitive or suddenly sharp understanding.
The lens of her camera catches knots of contradictions whose
unresolvedness accounts for their truthfulness. In many photographs
she combines blurred with sharp focused zones to catch the
paradoxical association between confusion and clarity that

6 Peggy Phelan has a peculiar position with regard to that subject, considering
that Woodman “invites us to see her suicide, like her art, as a gift” (2002: 1002). I am
not discussing here this hypothesis that seems to me problematic. The article can be
consulted on-line and it contains illustrations of works that I discuss here: the
photograph from the Series Boulder, Colorado, 1972-1975 (986), “Then at one point,
[…]” (996), On Being an Angel (989), an image from Some Disordered Interior
Geometries (998), and “Study for Space 2” (1000).
7 A relatively comparable case is that of Abigail Cohen, who died in 2000 at
age 27, and recorded her experience in a series of photographs entitled One Cycle of
My Journey, published by Light Warriors Press, in 2003. In her statement about her
work, she also mentions being interested in freeing the photographic image from its
8 Incidentally, “Life Forms” is the title of a video dance piece created by
Merce Cunningham in the 1990s, in which he combines computer-designed
choreographies with actual improvisations. This fleeting association with performance
art relates to my discussion of the performative character of Woodman’s photographs
at the end of this chapter.
172 Touching Surfaces

accompanies the passage from one zone of time and space to another
with the precision epitomized in Dickinson’s lines evoked in the
Blurred and sharp outlines create a disturbance in geometries
(to paraphrase the title of Woodman’s artist book, Some Disturbed
Inner Geometries). Shapes appear in the visual field with outstanding
clarity, while others disappear. Requiring both optic accommodation
and restructuring the perception of photographic space, this dynamic
determines the progressive emergence of another visibility, of layers
of reality other than the immediately visible, which coexist or interfere
with it.
Woodman belongs to a family of photographers who
express, in Max Kozloff’s phrasing, “a pictorial protest against the
solidity of things” (1989: 45) to reveal something of the immediacy of
perception and of the textures of the psychic body. However
dematerialized or illusory the matter of her images may appear, it
reveals the potentialities that inner shapes hold, the possibilities of
doing and undoing them in the photographic process so as to match
perceptions of these inner shapes with changing corporeal realities or
with diffuse, not to say confuse, perceptions of them. Optic
accommodation triggers off psychic plasticity. In such photographs,
the dissolving figure creates, instead of the illusion that we are in front
of a body which has moved at the moment of the capture (in the past),
that of a displacement which seems to occur at the very moment of
perception (in the present). “Perception in itself a Gain”.
In his essay on the power of photographs to increase
emotional knowledge, entitled “The Etherealized Figure and the
Dream of Wisdom”, Kozloff has pointed out this contrast of “time
zones” (a notion which recalls the solidarity between metaphors of
time and space in photography). What he calls “the figural dissolve” –
resulting from various uses of the blur – signifies precisely an effect
which calls up the viewer’s emotional participation in a very specific
way, representing, as he puts it “a somehow live transit at the viewer’s
moment of contact with the image” (1989: 45). “As it simultaneously
dissolves and leaves some trace of itself”, concludes Kozloff, “the
figure comes to seem like an alter-ego of our condition” (1989: 61;
emphasis added). As a complementary volet to the chapter devoted to
Duane Michals’ use of spectral visions to create images of movement
and change in time, I would like to approach here the figural dissolve
Performing Corpo-Realities 173

in Woodman’s photographs with added emphasis to the spatial

Starting from the most striking feature of her work, namely
her treatment of bodily sensations in spatial terms, I will suggest that
her use of the dissolving figure (like that of photographic models) is,
in fact, a matter of formal growth, since it results in an extension of
the perceptible photographic space. Woodman works with the fluidity
of forms, with their plasticity, with the possibilities they hold to be
transformed and, in the process, to transform the subject and to
explore, as I will show in the following section, its positioning in
space. The principle of the figural dissolve however does not only
operate on the possibilities of the camera to represent change in the
physical and psychic body. It is also a principle of inner growth
according to which bodies of knowledge (art history models,
photography included) are distilled into the process of self-knowledge
and self-representation. These bodies of knowledge formalize states of
consciousness in her development as an artist.
Most of Woodman’s black-and-white photographs engage a
visual dialogue with the nature of shapes, of the body and the object
world surrounding it, with the environment in which it acts: small
variations of form. Accordingly, her own body, or that of the few
models she has used, becomes part of the environment. This fusional
relation with the environment is metaphorically suggested in the
images in which the body of a girl or that of a young woman merges
with or emerges from the peeling wallpaper of an abandoned house
like the sudden materialization of a figure in the carpet. In other
photographs, the body becomes a misty presence; it seems to pass
through a fireplace, through a wall, or through a window (as in
“House #3”, “House #4”, Providence, Rhode Island, 1975-1976).
Woodman catches the possibilities of a shape even as it is dissolving
under the gaze of the camera. The light silk dresses with small flower
patterns accord with the faded wallpapers in these anonymous houses.
In many photographs, however, the body is uncovered, in wait for its
own shaping, the skin is a sensitive plate capturing the variations of
light, a workshop of instantaneous pictures.
In his book, Marcel Proust sous l'emprise de la
photographie (Marcel Proust Under the Impact of Photography),
photographer Brassaï described Proust in terms close to those of
Bergson mentioned in the argument of Chapter 2. Brassaï imagines
174 Touching Surfaces

Proust as a kind of mental photographer, one who considered his own

body to be an oversensitive plate that captured and recorded in its
youth thousands of impressions which, as he set upon his journey to
recapture time, he developed and fixed in writing, thus rendering
visible the latent image of his entire life in that huge photographic
composition which is his Remembrance of Things Past (Brassaï 1997:
20).9 In Woodman’s photographs, the physical presence is actually
difficult to separate from a larger time and space dimension, as if it
were part of an intricate continuum that resists to be fixed in one
image. She places the body at the center of her observation, be it in the
portraits, in the compositions, or even in her still lives. In contact with
the environment, the body becomes a receptive, sensitive vehicle,
reminiscent of the turn-of-the-century tradition of “manifestations”, a
continuation of the trend of spirit photography (and, in some respects,
intersecting with ephemeral, process-oriented performance art
practices popular in the mid-70s). In some of these photographed sui
generis performances (as, for instance, those of the medium Florence
Cook impersonating the spirit of Katie King), a woman medium
would retire into a dark chamber to produce a double of herself
standing for a deceased person and emerging physically as sublimated
form, one which was actually produced by quite simple technical
In many of her photographs, Woodman takes herself as a
model, mainly by necessity or for commodity reasons, as is the case
with many photographers at the beginning of their career (Cindy
Sherman started her self portraits for similar reasons, and earlier on, in
the 1920s and 1930s, the French photographer Claude Cahun based
her work on impersonations of the self across gender boundaries).
However, as in the case of Cahun and Sherman, the emphasis is not on
self-consciousness but on the transformation of personal emotional
material, on the distance taken from mere autobiographical report to
reach larger patterns of consciousness of the self, some diffuse, others
emerging into view with stunning clarity. A concise working note for
one of Woodman’s compositions, for instance, highlights her
exigencies in terms of detachment: “For photographing Pilgrim Mills:

9 Woodman was reading Proust at the MacDowell colony in the summer of

Performing Corpo-Realities 175

1) Keep distance in photography. A) memorial to a place aspect”

(Woodman 1998: 38).
Commenting on her working out the requirements of the
problem sets, Krauss relates the question of self-consciousness in
Woodman’s approach to “a sense of self as a medium” (1999: 173),
one which, as she points out, does not stem from a narcissistic
impulse. As in her utilization of models, in her responses to technical
problems Woodman also works with another type of given elements,
stereotypes of representation (such as the mirror or the angel) in this
case, in order to explore ways in which, within the technical
constraints of the photographic device, a visual problem can turn
space inside out or vice-versa. The strategies she develops pertain
therefore to the broader question of how our ongoing experience of
the real (and our consciousness of it, in Michals’ terms) can be turned
into a visual approximation of perceptions situated on varied levels of
reality (and of visibility).
Photographers of the past decades belonging to a wide
spectrum of orientations, from the more documentary (such as Lee
Friedlander) to the more speculative ones (such as Geneviève
Cadieux), have used mirrors and other reflective materials not as
forms of narcissistic figuration, but simply to create more space, more
material surfaces, and, as I am suggesting throughout the book, as
matter to reflect on the possibilities of photography to bring together
different registers of reality.10 As Woodman puts it in one of the texts
accompanying the photographs made for her artist book, Some
Disordered Interior Geometries (a collage of photographs she placed
on the pages of a geometry primer): “This mirror is a sort of rectangle,
although they say mirrors are just water specified” (1981: n. pag.).
Significantly, in Woodman’s photographs there is no perfect
symmetry between the figure and its reflection in the mirror or its
image reflected on silver coated surfaces or placed under glass panels.
The latter (the double) is a version developing from the former (the
original). In most cases, the image in the mirror (usually a cropped
body, a torso) appears as a blurred shape. As a consequence of what in
Tenneson’s case I have called a release of the bodily ego, a different
double appears in the reflection, a new self emerges in the mirror, so

10 For a more extensive development of this aspect in relation to Geneviève

Cadieux’s work, cf. Cristofovici 1996.
176 Touching Surfaces

that we can see two versions of the self or two hypostases coexisting
in two spatial planes of the same picture (and in the extended time unit
of the capture). The otherness (or otherworldliness) of the reflected
figure is both fascinating and unsettling since it often appears more
naturalistic than the model. As a result of this reversal, the body in the
mirror seems to be not so much a reflection but rather another image,
a fiction, as in “Self-Deceit, Rome, 1978”, where it has sharper
outlines than the figure that looks into the mirror (and whose gaze, as
a result of the framing, is out of our visual field). One of the
photographs in the series Untitled, Providence, 1975-1976, for
instance, shows a blurred nude torso kneeling on a mirror, posed on
the floor, which reflects only the knees in sharp contours and,
strangely, a hand (too blurred to be perceived in the torso above the
mirror), as well as parts of the room not caught in the photograph. The
different visual consistency in the two figures suggests indeed two
different (yet related) levels of reality, an impression increased by the
fact that each space (that of the room and the one seen in the mirror)
has its own vanishing point. The torso, blurred in the former, is
drastically cropped in the latter to show more space than body (a towel
partially covers the mirror). In photographic vocabulary, “cropping”
actually implies trimming off the edges of an image to remove
unwanted areas so as to improve the composition. It eliminates
unwanted details caught by the camera that distract and helps focus on
what the photographer wants to frame. My slightly inappropriate use
of it for the reflected figure hints at Woodman’s use of the mirror both
as a framing device (to delimit a portion of space) and as an
enlargement device (to extend the area of visibility limited by the fix
position of the camera). Focusing is obtained here by subtracting from
the actual figure and adding to the mirror figure which appears, very
much as in Michals’ photographs, as a complementary side. In another
untitled photograph from the series Providence, Rhode Island, 1976-
1977, the mirror device is left behind altogether, the double being just
a negative impression left by a body on a floor covered with a white
powder-like matter (a detail which brings forth the relation between
visibility and tactility in the awareness of form, an outstanding feature
of most of the photographs discussed in this book).
For Woodman, the mirror is therefore not a device she uses
to duplicate an image but rather to extend the space of the photograph
and also to orient the gaze of the viewer in at least two directions in
Performing Corpo-Realities 177

space whose simultaneous existence (at the time of the capture and at
that of perception) creates a disturbance in the category of reflexivity.
And it does so, both in relation to the mirror as a trope, and to
photography as a reflective – and reproducible – form. Instead of
reproducing a woman looking in the mirror, the ambiguity resulting
from such illusions of bifocal vision grasps different spatial levels,
different visual textures, ranging from physical appearance to
introspection. Metaphorically, they highlight the photographic image
as a multilayered surface (as opposed to a flat surface), one in which a
device meant to reflect or to record physical reality reveals instead its
flip-side, or both sides, in a simultaneity tending to get as close as
possible to actual perceptions of physical and psychic realities, or to
diffuse states of consciousness related to the location of the subject in
space. The impression that we witness the conscious and the
unconscious visually side by side (as we do, through different effects,
in Jim Dine’s photographs, or in those of Duane Michals), as well as
the bifocal perspective underscore the ambiguities of subject locations
in physical and mental spaces. Rather than unstable or tenuous, the
subject positions Woodman creates in her photographs are visibly
flexible, plastic, working within the interstices of the visible. It is
owing to these ambiguities that her work outgrows feminist readings
of the 1970s and the 1980s, which pose the female figure as unhinged
from conventional frames. The plasticity of the body and Woodman’s
visual reflection on notions of displacement can indeed be read as
indicative of a more flexible understanding of subject position, one in
which solutions are being worked out within given frames (very much
like the imposed assignments of the problem sets). These are solutions
that subvert systems of geometry, optics, and other, from the inside, as
it were. Or from an intermediary perspective imagined within a series
of given elements. Woodman uses ambiguity of perspective not only
as a challenging technical device for photography, but also as a
signifier for one’s positioning both in a known, confined space and in
space unknown. Instead of a flight from reality, this device suggests
ways of reaching it, imaginatively.

The associations between the blur as a photographic form

and the unconscious are multiple, as we have seen in the previous
chapters. A technical accident which can reveal latent potential
(visually, at least, if not symbolically), the blur has been used by
178 Touching Surfaces

Michals to record the body’s fading away over infinetisemal portions

of time. Instead, Woodman uses this form of dematerialization of the
image to underscore the progressive appearance of visible forms, to
give another visibility to the body, to test, reveal, and enlarge its
possibilities of expression.
Whereas Michals focuses, as we have seen, on time, on
“now becoming then”, Woodman’s photographs seem to be all about
space. Bodies or objects traversing spaces produce the visual effect of
time being compressed. But is that indeed possible: to trick time?
Technically, in photography (not unlike in actual life) the spectrum of
possibilities at hand is rather limited. Through a photographic
paradox, however, visually, they can be very diverse. Several time
units are in fact incorporated in the blurred image due to a simple
technical imperative: the longer the stretch of time the photograph
covers (the exposure time), the more dissolved the silhouette, and
consequently, the more extended the space the figure occupies in the
photograph. With Michals, we have seen to what extent the camera
can bringing movement into visibility. Woodman has drawn from
such uses of the blur the possibilities of the figural dissolve to figure
passages between external and internal realities, mingling metaphoric
and literal references to explore not only changes within the subject,
but also how the subject (the figure) can change in relation to space.
Instead of staring at a subject performing in a familiar space, as
Cumming does by photographing Nettie in her apartment, Woodman
combines several spatial planes in a photograph (mirror, glass case) to
engage the viewer into following a figure reaching out for space,
moving, drawing a repertory of possibilities. A puzzling perception of
time results from this combination of spaces, one in which future and
past are condensed in a fleeting image. Though unsettling,
somnambulistic, her way of dramatizing the space and time continuum
through discontinuity is perceptually close to actual time experiences
which simply do not emerge into awareness because of their speed. It
also recalls more or less common optical illusions requiring
accommodations in the perception of objects or sometimes figures by
means of progressive referential recategorizations.
Significantly, Woodman’s photographs are not doctored.
She photographs what is there. Consequently, the blur effect results
exclusively from the capture of the (often deliberately intensified)
speed of the moving presence (figure, clothes, tissue) and from the
Performing Corpo-Realities 179

prolonged time of exposure. However, the powerful fictional character

of these images comes from her inventive use of the possibilities of
the photographic device, often combined with a preliminary rough
staging of the elements to be photographed. Woodman therefore
intervenes not on the taken photograph but on the real. Although the
corporeal latitudes (the body released from gravity, or its metonymical
presence: a dress, a scarf floating within a door frame) seem to be
flattened as a result of the figural dissolve, a new sense of volume
obtains from this optical illusion. This sense of volume results
precisely from the inversion of foreground and background. It is a
consequence of the paradoxical visual relationship between depth and
surface produced by the juxtaposition of different portions of space, or
by the combination of different spaces and various tactile textures.
Regarded from this perspective, photographic ambiguity becomes a
tool for precision. The less consistent the body, the stronger the
illusion. As if to prevent the figure from complete dissolution,
Woodman uses a series of framing devices: door frames, window
panes, museum showcases, or geometrical figures drawn with the
marker on the discrete images of contact sheets, all of which bring
forth the contrast between solid and soft tactile surfaces. As Ann Daly
has pointed out, Woodman explores “the palpable and ruinous
properties of space – its potential to disrupt and dissolve gestalt or
form through an extravagant dissipation and annihilation” (Baker et al.
2003: 60). It is precisely the physical gestalts or forms she disrupts, I
would argue, that smooth the progress of inner forms or gestalts into
visibility. As Krauss notes, “she internalized the problem,
subjectivized it, rendered it as personal as possible” (1999: 162). The
particular technical question of the series On Being an Angel
(Providence, R.I.), being, as Krauss suggests, to photograph
something that does not exist. Drawing from Italian statuary
representations of angels, Woodman materializes in this series that
particular problem through various enactments and embodiments
(postures of her own body, but also tissues floating in the air). Instead
of re-presenting a canonic figure in art history which, we recall,
Tenneson referred to as “another form of consciousness”, Woodman
figures out optical and tactile possibilities of relating to it through a
variety of positions in actual space evocative of mental images
(memories of such representations as already formalized referents;
mental images associated, or not, to them; fictional constructs stirred
180 Touching Surfaces

by them or emerging spontaneously from the situation of the

photographic session).
The perceptual mode proposed by Woodman’s photographs
originating in visual ambiguities does not reproduce the logic of the
directly visible. Instead, it foregrounds the alliance of eye, body, and
brain cells at work in the optical sensory mechanics. This mode
equally animates the photographs in which she produces an optical
illusion of puzzling spatial planes by means other than the figural
dissolve. A photograph in the series New York, 1979-1980, evocative
of the enigmatic scratches on Bellocq’s glass plates, translates a
historical enigma into a visual interplay of figure and ground, volume
and flatness. The photograph shows a young woman placed off-center
in the composition in the corner of an empty room, at the angle of the
wall and the door. She is on her toes, arms uplifted and stretched
towards an upper plane (the ceiling is framed out of the picture). The
visual weight of the composition is carried by two dark parallel
irregular shapes hanging somehow loosely in the picture, one of which
seems to be cut into the nude body. At a closer look, the two abstract
dark shapes or accidents that catch the viewer’s gaze by way of
contrast with the soft lighting in the rest of the photograph turn out to
be two black fox furs hanging on a rope (they were red, we find out in
Subrin’s film, when she takes long shots of the collection of objects
Woodman was working with). Though placed on the foreground,
because of the light coming from a window on the left side (no
artificial lighting in this photograph) the two irregular elongated dark
shapes appear flattened and thus they create the illusion of two non-
figurative hollows, one of which seems to be cut into the nude, the
other into the wall. Through this optical reciprocation of full and
hollow shapes, Woodman interprets here the enigmatic layers of
cracks and scratches on Bellocq’s “Storyville portraits”11 that I have
evoked earlier (20). What in Bellocq’s photographs was the result of

11 Woodman reconsiders another Bellocq photograph in her “Polka Dots,

1975-1976”, where she displaces the visual enigma of the erasure on the woman’s
crop of hair in Bellocq’s photograph and refigures it as a non-figurative dark scratch
on the wall. The blurred figure in a flower dress suggestive of wallpaper recalls the
butterfly the woman in Bellocq’s photograph is scratching on the wall. Incidentally,
the same Bellocq photograph has been used by Geneviève Cadieux in a diptych
entitled “La Blessure d’une cicatrice ou les Anges” (The Wound of a Scar or the
Angels), 1991.
Performing Corpo-Realities 181

various accidents and of the much speculated on mysterious malefic

intervention of a hand on the glass plate, becomes here only the
illusion of a hollow which turns out to be just another form of
substance that adds volume to the photograph.
Here the subject writes its own presence in space as the two
dark shapes unfold like openings into an unfathomable interiority.
Metaphorically, this inversion between surface and depth alludes to
the photographic process itself, to its revealing latent images through
the inversion of the negative. The dark shapes come forth with
intensity not by virtue of their position in the foreground but rather
owing to the optical effect they produce, an effect which is intensified
by the possibility of decoding them as figurative referents. In order to
decode these shapes literally (as two fox furs hanging on a rope in
front of a nude placed eccentrically at a certain distance), the viewer
has to get closer to the photograph (the photographs, we remember,
being of small format, when exposed, they necessarily require the
viewer’s moving back and forth in space, accommodating various
perceptions of the image). An entire remote fabric of unseen,
imperceptible or diffusely identified shapes zooms into view engaging
the corporeal subjectivity of the viewer who has to follow the
displacement and restructuring of elements operated by Woodman in
this photograph, which, like her other work, turns out to be more than
a simple formal academic exercise.
“The problem set”, notes Krauss, “has become a medium in
which to think” (1999: 177). Thinking through photography gives
Woodman the possibility to create images of the becoming self at a
distance from the clichés of adolescence as split or divided, to the
same extent to which Joyce Tenneson’s photographs diverge from the
tropes of fragmentation commonly used with reference to perceptions
of the older body. The space of the photograph extended by way of
visual ambiguity is also a metonymy of larger spaces in which the
subject develops, grows up. How do such disruptions of photographic
conventions and categories as those operated by Woodman inform us
about the role images may have in locating the subject’s own idiom,
and also in outlining the subject’s place in more extended
182 Touching Surfaces

20. E.J. Bellocq, “Storyville Portrait”, Plate 41, ca. 1912.

Copyright Lee Friedlander. Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.
Performing Corpo-Realities 183

2. Photography, Time, and the Body in Space

Pretend you are made of air.

Joanna Scott

It is essential to underline that in Woodman’s work the

exploration of the self is concomitant with her investigation of the
photographic medium, of its representative and imaginative
possibilities. Cultural studies oriented readings of her photographs
have underlined the unsettling quality of her viewing positions in
terms of gender roles (Solomon-Godeau in Woodman 1992 and
Chadwick 1998). Art critics have however highlighted a more subtle
dimension of her treatment of the photographic medium. Adam D.
Weinberg, for instance, notes that “Woodman’s photographs also
undermine traditional temporal assumptions”, along with the fact that
she uses “the transparent, transitional, and transformational qualities
of time exposures, together with a host of symbolic and thematic
elements, to free the viewer from a single transcriptive understanding
of photography” (1989: 147; emphasis added). (Significantly,
Weinberg also points out that the blurring of time levels in
Woodman’s photographs affects the perception of time in the sense
that the viewer is “neither firmly rooted in the past, nor the present,
nor the future”).12
In working out solutions for mental questions, Woodman
does not simply reflect on time and space in photography, or in the
subject’s maturation. The constraints of the camera also compel her to
try out new patterns of the subject’s being in time and space by
combining technical skill with improvisation. The resulting
photographs bring in touch several surfaces of reality in which the
figure acquires varied forms of visibility. They relate to sharp or
diffuse perceptions of being or moving in time and space. I have
pointed out before the role of spontaneity which Woodman
12 Kathryn Hixson has also highlighted the fact that Woodman’s concerns are
not political and that “she unapologetically and unabashedly uses the female nude to
explore her own identity” – and I would add here, her identity as an artist. (1992: 29).
184 Touching Surfaces

incorporates in a method that allows her to visualize fugitive

perceptions in spaces that are either in “dissipation and ruin”, as Daly
points out (Baker et al. 2003: 57) or in staged, reconstituted,
improvised spaces. If we consider Woodman’s trust in spontaneity and
a certain lightness that gives such visual weight to her figures, her
photographs are not, as Kathryn Hixson has pointed out, “physical
portraits that reveal the psyche” (1992: 29). Instead of translating or
illustrating psychic realities through physical forms, Woodman
approaches time and space through body metaphors. Revealed in the
developed photographs are visual possibilities of crossing lines
between external and mental spaces, between emotional bodies and
bodies of knowledge. In acting in and on the actual scenes that she
photographs, Woodman suggests, phantasmatically, the possibilities
the subject may have to reach new spaces of experience and
knowledge, to act across boundaries.

The counterpart of exposing the body as a surface on which

social and cultural texts are symbolically inscribed is the possibility of
writing one’s own physical and symbolic presence in space. This
seems to me by far the most outstanding statement in Woodman’s
work. It is also a perspective worth developing in relation to
speculative photographs and to perception and knowledge patterns
that we can draw from them. In its journey of self-discovery that
Woodman depicts photographically, the body reaches out for space, as
in the contact sheets for her composition entitled Space2, suggestive of
the revelation of another dimension of space, or of another dimension
of the subject acting in it. In its groping for space the photographed
figure occupies extended surfaces in the frame of the photograph.
Consequently, the visual equivocations on how much space the body
can cover carry the question of how far photography can follow it.
Extent becomes a matter of speed of movement in front of the camera
(the speed of the figure’s performance), which reduces the physical
body to a thin, milky envelope, a membrane more suggestive of
internal textures (a membrane of meaning or of the invisible, in
Merleau-Ponty’s terms evoked in the argument to Chapter 3). As we
have seen in the case of Woodman’s taking a base in Bellocq’s
photograph, the perceptually extended limits of the corporeal expand
photography’s bidimensional character and thereby create a symbolic
third dimension. By a paradox of pictorial thought, the depth of the
Performing Corpo-Realities 185

photograph is thrust into surface, due to the contrast between the

extended time of the exposure and the speed of the moving body.
Double or multiple vanishing points upset mono-ocular perspective to
suggest multiple viewpoints within one capture, that is in one
sequence of perception (and not through montage, manipulation, or
doctoring). Symbolically, this photographic deviation reflects on fix
subject positions.
In his discussion of images formed by means of the old
device of camera obscura, Geoffrey Batchen considers the
relationship between the inscription of the visible into the physiology
and the temporality of the human body at the beginning of the
nineteenth century. In that context, he emphasizes the part played by
the new form of vision that photography has produced in the
configuration of the modern epistemic paradigm. “Scholars were
forced to address a newly uncertain relationship between observer and
observed”, remarks Batchen, “and to incorporate within their work
both the unpredictability of the flesh and the exigencies of time”
(1997: 84; emphasis added). We seem to stand now at an interestingly
symmetric moment in the history of photography, a turning point in
which extreme experiments with the photographic image reenact a
similar change in perception to reflect an understanding of knowledge
adapted to new realities and technologies informing and reforming
them. Paradoxically, a certain release from the corporeal accompanies
this change in the epistemic paradigm of the turn of the twenty-first
century in the case of speculative visual work (photography or video),
such as the release of the bodily ego in Tenneson’s photographs, or
Michals’ dematerializations. I would like to point out that these visual
forms working against the image, or incorporating its effacement (as
in Kuntzel’s video piece) appeal not so much to a deconstructionist
view of the subject as image but rather to photography’s possibilities
to re-figure and synthesize experience and our consciousness of it.
In her re-figurations of the body’s positions in space,
Woodman reflects the “unpredictability of flesh and the exigencies of
time” Batchen refers to on a mode that surpasses the exclusive domain
of adolescent growth or narcissistic musing. One of her unfinished
works, The Temple Project, New York, Spring, 1980, epitomizes the
inseparable connection between visuality, temporality, and the
positioning of the body in space. Printed on blue and sepia sensitive
paper used by architects for their drafts, the photographs in this series
186 Touching Surfaces

depict living caryatids, young women wearing around their waist silk
analogs of drapery in ancient Greek sculpture. Here, Woodman’s
metaphoric and structural approach of a historical model allows us to
visualize time as a physical and psychic dimension. Plastic qualities of
temporality are worked out in this sequence of images. While the body
is metaphorically incorporated into a larger time frame through the
historical reference and the panoramic set-up of the project, space –
metonymically suggested by the bodies cropped in the photographs –
becomes part of an architecture: a structured spatial form. As Kathryn
Hixson has pointed out, “the body is an architecture, the supports that
literally constitute space” (Woodman 1992: 31).
Most of the series of Woodman’s photographs have, instead
of titles, names of places attached to them and a time period
indication, starting with the earliest photographs, Boulder, Colorado,
1972-1975, to her last series MacDowell Colony, Peterborough, New
Hampshire, Summer, 1980. These references locate the present time
dimension of the capture into a potential narrative of life experience in
a certain space of time and place which is both specific and vague
(functioning much as a frame or a series of frames). Yet, in many of
her photographs, the body is placed, as we have seen, at the
intersection between actual and imaginary spaces. In these
photographs, Woodman explores both the transience of life and
existence in transition, as if, in order to be creative, life itself had to be
conceived as an extended series of transitional spaces. The
intermediate states captured in the contact sheets or in the
compositions made up of several sequences situate the moment of the
capture within an imaginary and imaged temporal continuum. In the
printed contact sheet for Space , for instance, are displayed the stages
that precede the choice of the one sequence to be enlarged, an image
resulting – as the contact sheet shows – from a complex protocol of
juxtaposed postures, movements, displacements by which the body
inscribes itself in space and occupies several temporal moments and
physical modalities. In her earlier photographs, we remember, peeling
wallpaper, mildewed walls, derelict interiors, forsaken homes were the
locus of fluid imaginary tapestries allowing Woodman to probe into
various textures of time and the ways in which it is experienced in the
interstices between the physical and the psychic body.
Technically focused on an extension of the present,
Woodman’s photographs generate a spatial development of the instant
Performing Corpo-Realities 187

in various ways. Either by leafing through layers of time – as in her

allusions to past models –, or by representing time embedded in
extensions of the photographed figure (through the blur or the series).
Her unsettling the fix character of the photographic image highlights
the relative character of permanence, and that of impermanence as
well. Along with the sensuality of her photographs that brings to
surface close-ups of skin-depth emotions, Woodman has also a keen
eye for rendering abstractions visible. Paradoxically, this allows her to
enhance the tactility of the dissolving body. Similarly, time is
visualized as something slippery: a whitish matter, a geometry of
smoke caught in its passage (in a door or a window frame, in a mirror,
or in dust). Yet, these moving images also reveal permanence (as an
impression) and consistency (as remodeled possibilities of shape), as
if each movement we performed added up in a fluid continuum,
visible by degrees.
In Woodman’s photographs, the present is conjugated in the
progressive mode: a process unfolding under the beholder’s gaze.
“Then at one point I did not need to translate the notes; they went
directly to my hands,” reads the title of one of her compositions (done
in Providence, Rhode Island, around 1976), the comma at the end of
the title suggesting a virtual continuation equally alluded to in the
picture (the title comes, in fact, from a note in her diary).

Performative aspects in Woodman’s work relate to

developments in art history based on crossing boundaries between art
forms, between art and other modes of representation (in Some
Disordered Interior Geometries, referring to memory objects included
in the photograph, she notes: “These things arrived from my
grandmothers. They make me think about where I fit in the odd
geometry of time” (1981: n. pag.; emphasis added)). Like other
photographers of the 1970s and 1980s who have used the blur and the
sequence, Woodman anticipates current video techniques of
condensing time and space, the real and the virtual. Such works show
that, contrary to Paul Virilio’s prediction in his Aesthetics of
Disappearance and to other similar positions on visual culture, the
speed factor does not destroy the image. Incorporated by artists in
modes of imaging temporality and the mutability of signs, the figural
dissolve breaks ground for a refiguration of the subject. In such works,
technology acts as an ally and not as an enemy of creativity. The
188 Touching Surfaces

apparently disruptive conception of time in the work of such artists as

Francesca Woodman or Duane Michals, as Adam Weinberg concludes
in his essay “Vanishing Presence”, attempts to reintegrate past,
present, and future and thereby create an aesthetic confrontation with
the present, an attempt to enlarge it. Dissociated from the present
versus past binary, speculative photographs fixate the mutability of
existence, the instability of signs (images and art forms included) in a
cross-section of representations of individual and collective time
zones that capture simultaneous and heterogeneous perceptions. They
articulate different time-levels into a “temporal polyphony”, a term
employed by Stan Douglas, an artist who works with both still
photographs and video versions of the same subjects. In the
photographs discussed here, this “temporal polyphony” becomes a
technical modality allowing for the representation of multiple aspects
of experience and perception that challenge notions related to a single,
stable identity, or of a fixed position in physical as well as in symbolic
Although Woodman’s photographs show a condensation of
several spatial planes through the extension of the figural dimension,
they seem however not to be so much about escaping or surpassing the
limits of one’s condition (as feminist readings have insisted), but
rather about exploring and defining one’s own scope within a given
space. In the contact sheets for Space2 (Study for Space2), for instance,
a blurred silhouette ruffles the air with vivid, graphic gestures. In
many of the miniature photographs associated kinetically on the
contact sheet, the silhouette is inscribed within a geometric figure
drawn on the photograph with a marker. The contact sheet is used as a
form of serial work. Significantly, in some of the sequences that are
less dense, the overlit parts of the body merge with the white surface
of the wall. In other sequences, the line of the marker, which interferes
with the contours of the human figure, has stopped short. The
geometrical figure drawn on the figure does not hem in the body; it

13 In an interview, Douglas comments on the possibility of representing

different temporal conditions in one image by “flipping the signs of the screen over
time” to show “the splitness of the image”. He also very suggestively describes the
technique he used in his video piece The Sandman: “I guess I was trying to establish
some kind of temporal polyphony, where you’re able to have two things happening
and you’re able to perceive those things simultaneously [...] just as one is able to look
at the present and understand how the past lived the way it did” (Douglas 2000: 27;
emphasis added).
Performing Corpo-Realities 189

appears instead as an obstacle to go beyond, or a threshold. The

human figure performs the role of an acrobat trying to keep its balance
(and consistency) as it moves. The sequences of this particular piece
highlight a quality present in all of Woodman’s work: a simultaneous
sense of continuity and contiguity. The irregular geometries drawn
around the figure on the contact sheet suggest an awareness –
subsequent to the act – of larger patterns we are creating or interfering
with as we move. A tentative form in itself, the contact sheet displays
sequences of momentary states that lead to one configuration, one
image chosen to be enlarged, an often difficult choice. In Space2, what
appears as the somehow conclusive image of the series is the one in
which the moving figure has almost regained its contours, only the
head (slightly inclined forwards) and the palms are blurred. In the
empty room, the acrobat has turned into an actress bowing in front of
an imaginary audience at the end of a performance. Matter has

The performative aspect of Woodman’s photographs, which

has been only recently highlighted, is significant in a larger context
since it situates her work at the crossroads between two important
moments in the history of the visual arts from the second half of the
twentieth century.14 And I am on purpose insisting on this aspect in
this final chapter since it allows me to underline the relationship
between photography and other art forms in connection to the
visualization of temporality and of the consciousness of the self over
time. Performance emerged as a new art form in the 1960s and the
1970s, a form difficult to situate within the established genres of art
history. Generally considered within the larger trend of
Conceptualism, performance art has reintroduced in fact the real
within the fine arts under the form of a physical experience of the real
through the figurative body that had been evacuated by the various
abstract trends of the first half of the twentieth-century.
Performance art as an established alternative artistic practice
had a relatively short existence, among other reasons because of its
intentional ephemeral character. One of its major premises – the
impossibility to grasp time as an abstraction – became the very
obstacle to its preservation. The then emerging art of the video
14 Cf. Notes 1 and 2, p. 160.
190 Touching Surfaces

provided for a while the possibility to record it. Performance artists of

the 1970s, such as Vito Acconci or Marina Abramovic, found in video
not only the possibility to record the ephemeral performance but also a
continuation of their research into the possibility of exhibiting
physical time through the body, or of exposing time as a material. The
following generations of video artists continued this exploration of the
visuality of time, which implies, as Dominique Païni has pointed out,
erasing and transforming feelings and conditions (2000: 33-40).
The performative, tentative, transient aspect of Woodman’s
photographs marks a moment in which speculative photography was
redefining its place within the dynamic of art forms, between
providing the passing of time with a fixed image and exhibiting the
fluidity of time as remodeled by the second generation of video artists
who, in the 1980s and 1990s, use the medium for its plastic purposes
(Gary Hill, or Bill Viola, in the United States, Stan Douglas, in
Canada, or Thierry Kuntzel, in France).
It is no accident that Woodman’s work has inspired video
artists (and that, ironically, her own photographic work based on a
history of representations have now become a model for art students).
Woodman herself used video camera either to create short pieces or to
test visual possibilities for her photographs. In her video piece, Subrin
actually has art students enact Woodman’s strategies of creating the
figural dissolve, by moving (that is, performing) in front of the camera
in some, or in others, by waiving rapidly a hand placed close to the
objective. The main question in Woodman’s approach to photography
is a question of perception: how does one feel to be in a certain space,
to move in it, not to move, to accommodate one’s body to spatial
constraints. The resulting images do not reflect the passage of time,
but rather its fluidity, that is to say, the varied shapes time perceptions
may take. This concern in her work relates to forms of consciousness
we have of time, forms that relate to positions of the body in space, to
its ability to upset or relocate frames or boundaries as it moves, “to
transform a change of degree into a change of nature” (memento,
It is perhaps because of this formative aspect of time
experienced by imperceptible degrees that we become aware of the
change of nature only in retrospect. I see in this aspect, one which
Woodman’s photographs so poignantly draw attention to, the
expression of a new paradigm in the perception of photographs as
Performing Corpo-Realities 191

instruments of identity construction. Instead of nostalgia coming from

an attachment to a fixed moment in the past, for Woodman, as for the
other artists discussed in this book, photographic thinking is used
creatively in the subject’s vital performances to bring psychic patterns
to surface, often by way improvisation (that is by relating to
perception instead of convention). This notion brings to mind Myrtle
Gordon’s solution, at the end of Opening Night, when she has come to
terms with the ghost of the adolescent and has integrated the girl’s
image into her own generational idiom. This move from conventions
to a new perception of the self helps Myrtle surpass her aging and
acting block and find the necessary energy to play the part of “the
second woman” by improvising, reinventing, adapting the given
script. Woodman also rewrites visual photographic scripts by
appealing to inner patterns and relying on spontaneity, improvisation,
or performance (physical and technical). She recategorizes the chance
factor inherent in the photographic process so that it becomes
instrumental in the subject’s playing against or with determinations.
At a time when the visual critique was focused on social
constructionism, Woodman was proposing a more “subtle model of
subjectivity”, as Margaret Sundell has suggested (Baker et al. 2003:
59), one that foregrounds, as I have tried to suggest, subject agency.
Woodman’s radical approach to corporeal realities helped
me articulate photographic representations of the body with an
understanding of the subject as an active agent in the creation of its
own history, instead of a passive surface on which historical
determinations are inscribed. The weight of subject agency that I read
in Woodman’s photographs builds up from aesthetic effects emerging
in the context of the spontaneity of the creative act subsequently
developed into aesthetic strategies. Like the creative efforts of the
other photographers, Woodman’s are, as it has been pointed out “not
deconstructive, but constructive” (Hixson 1992: 29). In my approach
of her work, I have placed the constructive creative dimension in
relation to her reflecting on temporality and subject agency with the
means provided by photography. Yet, when all has been said and
done, in the margins of thought persists the development of her own
life that faces us with the question of the end, and, along with it, with
the very limits of interpretation.

The compensation of growing old, Peter

Walsh thought […] was simply this: that the
passions remain as strong as ever, but one has
gained – at last! – the power which adds the
supreme flavour to existence – the power of
taking hold of experience, of turning it round,
slowly, in the light.

Virginia Woolf

In between the introduction and the conclusion of a book, there are

sequences of an initial intuition, what develops from glimpses and
flashes of thought. In between these two conventions, there is time.
The time the reader takes to read the book, and – multiplied by many
– the time it took to be written. In the interim, there is the process of
thought and, when the corpus is contemporary with the writing, the
concomitant development of new work. By necessity, research on
recent material is open-ended. Since the outset of this project in the
mid-1990s, new developments in the work of many of the
photographers I had chosen to discuss, as well as changes in
commercial imagery or in the critical discourse, have prompted me to
reconsider the works and to adjust my arguments to changing realities.
In the course of writing the book, the issue of aging came
inevitably to be subordinated to the wider question of the role of
images in the elaboration of subjectivity. We have the habit of looking
at photographs as parts of individual or collective narratives. Yet,
from its early days, photography has contributed to the deconstruction
of the binary opposing subjectivity to objectivity. In my exploration of
ways in which speculative photographs and aging illuminate each
other, I have therefore considered subjectivity as a factor of
consciousness of the self and as such, both an object of exploration
and an instrument of access to the photographic object. Consequently,
194 Touching Surfaces

the aesthetic angle dominating the book is placed under the sign of the
cognitive dimension. At the same time, the prominence I have given
to the relationship between age-selves (and more extensively, my
emphasis on connectedness) raises the question of the problematic
isolation of aging in the study of art works. The spectrum of that
question extends upon the methodological problem of isolating a
discrete unity from a heterogeneous field of signifiers without verging
on ghettoization. In studying difference and representation at this
point in time, how we create categories that are both rigorous and
open, and how we think of the relationships between categories –
cultural, social, psychological, or aesthetic – seems to me an important
path to take, one that cannot ignore the area of consciousness as a
many-faceted reality and as a complex concept. In that respect, the
history of photography – with its dynamic of genres, questions of
representation, editing, or archiving – can help us reconsider current
problems of categorization in the approach of art works.
By way of conclusion, I would therefore like to insist on the
importance of considering photography as an element of individual
and not only of social construction. What I have called the fabric of
the subject results precisely from essential tensions between technical
and symbolic practices, between determinations of various natures and
creativity. Many of the photographs discussed here show, for instance,
subjects as relating entities in reciprocal autonomy. Instead of subjects
whose bodies wear inscriptions of social texts, or time inscriptions, the
artists insist on agency. This challenging position, distinct from
ideologically oriented studies on photography and grounded in my
exploration of the aesthetics and philosophy of art photography, is one
of the arguments of the book that I would like to highlight. For the
aesthetic, as I have seen it in the photographic works that came to my
attention, integrates realities that are often difficult to categorize –
such as movement, change, and temporality – into a more
comprehensive, more alert consciousness of the self. The aesthetic
also brings into public attention creative ways of approaching such
complex psychic, physical, and cultural realities such as those related
to aging.
As these works show, the body does not only carry time
along. It is also an active factor in structuring our consciousness of
time patterns. By considering the visual problem of positioning the
body in reconstructed photographic spaces and temporal frameworks,
Coda 195

the artists discussed here insist on the impossibility of the subject to be

fixed within rigid frames of convention, of roles, or canons. Within an
aesthetics of the corporeal understood as a larger metaphor for
experience, the physical presence “caught” in the photographic image
is thereby endowed with the possibility of being an agent instead of a
passive medium. Photography too is being transformed in the process.
So is our attachment to photographs, when we take the time to look at
them. Released from the bodily ego, the figures represented in the
works that I have discussed create the illusion of moving through
different space levels but also through layers of time. The present
captured in the photograph becomes then not the trace of a moment in
time (and, implicitly, of a state associated with it) that will no longer
be – according to Roland Barthes’ “that-has-been” aspect, or to Susan
Sontag’s understanding of photographs as “melancholy objects” –, but
an accumulation of instants situated on different temporal planes,
which can show in the photograph as a progression of states. In a
speculative photograph, the moment that was (a unique moment in the
past) is no longer a unique reference point. Like the multiple
vanishing points in the multi-ocular perspective that structures space
in many photographs, it has outgrown its horizon. And this is a fact
difficult to dissociate from our mental habits so ingrained in the
understanding of photography as a mimetic medium. In such
photographic works, the present is always refigured through the
choice of models and of the poses, through the setting and the
processing of the image (by the artist, technically, and by the viewer,
perceptually). The stress falls on the presence. Similarly, the past is
refigured, not as a reminiscence of something that was at a certain
point in time, but as a dynamic of varied forms of memory, as a
conjunction of patterns of consciousness that interact with actual
modes of experience. The distortion of conventions entails, as we have
seen, modifications in the perception of photographs, and, more
extensively, in our understanding of subject position. Our reading of
speculative photographs, I have argued, may restructure our thinking
of the real in different ways than documentary photography does, that
is, formatively, rather than informatively. This important fact also
implies the mental possibility of acting on the reality of the subject,
the possibility of changing its representations, a notion which I have
highlighted in the last chapters but which is inherent to all the
photographic work considered in the book.
196 Touching Surfaces

Over the past decades, photographers have explored the

transience of time not discoursively but technically, making of
temporality an essential component of their photographic work. In
order to materialize the effects of time, Alain Fleisher, for instance,
has placed photographs taken from funerary monuments in developing
trays filled with a very concentrated developing substance. In contact
with light, the effect of the developing process in the dark room is
reversed. The images are progressively fading away throughout the
duration of the exhibition so that, with each view, one sees the image
in a different state of visibility, to its eventual complete effacement.
Conversely, Heather Ackroyd and Daniel Harvey have produced
photographic images that emerge on unexpected surfaces by using a
special ephemeral photographic process which alludes to the “the
pencil of nature”, the metaphor employed by William Henry Fox
Talbot in the nineteenth century to describe his attempts to fix images
imprinted on paper durably. The photographs of Ackroyd and Harvey
are printed on grass grown from seed, a living, developing surface that
records as it grows the shadings of a projected negative.
Photosynthesis replaces here chemical pigments in a literal expression
of an aesthetics of the ephemeral that many art forms have privileged
in the second half of the twentieth century.

In photographic works made by artists, we see how aspects

of subject position and consciousness of the self can be illuminated by
photographic technique, particularly by deviating from conventions of
photographic representation within the constraints imposed by the
medium. What all the works discussed in the book have in common is
that they are engaged in exploring both the possibilities and the limits
of the body, and I have taken this phenomenological engagement with
the bodily experience as a signifier of subject growth. The
performative aspect evolving from such explorations of technical and
physical constraints, which became predominant particularly towards
the end of the book, is by no means a manifestation of masquerade
practices or of purely deconstructive projects. Performing with the
camera or in front of the camera enables the artists to bring into the
visual field more subtle textures that are suggestive of the subject’s
exchanges with its own cultural, physical, or psychological
Coda 197

Consequently, I have considered consciousness not

exclusively as a mental process, but also as a way of exploring,
surpassing, or containing the limitations of the material body. In other
words, consciousness is understood as a phenomenological presence
represented in the physical body, a processual presence that connects
the physical and the psychic body. With Dine, we have seen the
coming into consciousness of images of different age-selves, and ways
of connecting them. Central to Michals’ work is the exploration of
consciousness of movement, that is, of infinitesimal changes of the
subject in imperceptible time. Tenneson calls our attention to an
enhanced consciousness of emotions out of which she has built her
aesthetic idiom. Like Michals, she reminds us that resorting to
conflicting emotional zones and formalizing them even by sometimes
intensifying the sentimental aspect can be a way of touching sensitive
surfaces of contact between the physical and the psychic, as well as a
means of touching a larger audience. The evocation of the video
pieces by Kuntzel and Tanaka reflects on the alternative apparition
and disappearance of images as signifiers of a consciousness of the
self beyond memory, while Dine and Woodman seem to attempt to
stabilize it from a flux of images. Explicitly or intuitively, in all the
works considered here, consciousness relates to bringing perceptions
of the self – some conflicting, others of variable consistencies – into
visibility by deviating from photographic conventions in order to
provide varied visual understandings of the aging body. They concern
ultimately, as it has been said about Woodman’s work “what one feels
as a body as opposed to how one looks” (Baker 2003: 59). At the
same time, the exploration of photographic works from the
perspective of the category of aging also speaks of visualization as a
practice whose dimensions are aesthetic, ethic as well as social, even
as the notion of invisible does not have here the predominant cultural
meaning of absence of representation, but rather a more diffuse sense
denoting areas which are not easily perceptible and, hence,
representable. The aesthetic visualizations of aging, I have tried to
suggest, can rebound on its ethic and social dimensions even as they
do not relate to them in a literal way.
At the end of the first chapter I have referred to this form of
consciousness metaphorically through the notion of “the poetic body”,
and I have turned this notion emanating from fictional visualizations
of the subject into a mental construct that enabled me to relate the
198 Touching Surfaces

physical to the psychic body. The performative dimension of the

photographs discussed in the subsequent chapters has revealed the
importance of “the plastic body”: a metaphoric concept for
representations of the subject that foreground the flexibility, namely,
the adaptability of the body. More recently, the aging body has
become visible in commercial photography as an acceptable body, as
a form of new normality. The strategies of representation in the two
fields are no longer, as we have seen, so different. However, through
deviating techniques, speculative photographs propose forms that
reach beyond acceptability, to accompany the subject in its
synaesthesic accommodation with varied versions of the physical
body. The underlying assumption of this argument is that, by
producing changes in perception through the technically and
plastically extended possibilities of the photographic medium,
speculative photographs carry the possibility of transforming our
vision, in the optical sense as well as in its larger sense of world view.

As I approach the end of this book, Bellocq’s photograph

evoked in the first chapter comes back to mind. And with it, Robert
Grudin’s remark in his Time and the Art of Living, that “the real crux
of aging [is] that the pain of growing old lies specifically in the fact
that part of us does not grow old” (1982: 113). Some twelve years
ago, at the outset of my research on speculative photographs and
aging, I was asked at a conference about precisely which part I
thought that could be. My reply was hesitant since it seemed difficult
to determine whether such location was physical, psychic, or both. In
the process of writing the book, the answer emerged progressively:
each of us locates the part of us that does not grow old differently,
physically or phantasmatically, not as a reminder of the past, but
rather as a detail, or a punctum as Barthes would have it, which
reorganizes our perception of the self. Year after year, in the summer,
I have spent many hours by the sea contemplating bodies in the
variety of their expressions, shapes, and ages. Young ones – often
stereotyped, or not yet wearing their own signature. And older ones,
sometimes very old women and men exposing themselves to the sun
and the sea air without restraint yet with modesty. I have tried to focus
on what, in old age, each body had preserved from former age-selves:
some a youthful gaze, or an inclination of the head, others slender,
elegant legs; some well-stretched shoulders, or a firm design of the
Coda 199

back, others a bony ankle or wrist echoing adolescent anatomies. In its

dissymmetry of signifiers of age, the syntax of the older body seems
to retain the memory of a shape that I read not so much as a token of
the past, but rather as a presence, a persistence. In a photograph, such
presences can represent metaphoric sites of a congruous consciousness
of the self. From looking at the photographs that have accompanied
me in the process of writing (… and aging) I have drawn an
understanding of the variety of such locations based on photographic
processes and procedures that change our notions of beauty or the
aesthetic, and, perhaps, our very perception of temporality. From that
perspective, the part of us that does not grow old can be, rather than a
source of pain, a triggering factor in the process of recreating
ourselves, even as we struggle against the limitations of aging and
learn how to come to terms with them.
200 Touching Surfaces

21. Jacqueline Hayden, Figure Model Series (3B), 1993.

Unique silver gelatin print, 84 x 52 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
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Ackroyd, Heather, 196 representations of, 3-5, 82; as

aesthetic, circuit, 12, 26, 30; codes, 2 sign, 51; signs of, 2, 20, 29, 31,
n.*, 44, 65 n. 10, 142; idioms, 71, 34, 38, 57, 63, 116; as state, 5-6,
127, 153; modes, 130, 140, 153; 11, 20; as theme, 4; tropes of, 3;
qualities, 9, 44; reconstruction, visualization of, 5, 9, 197;
30, 37; strategies, 4, 9, 44, 63, vulnerability of, 121, 123, 163
153, 191; transformation, 121, Appelt, Dieter, 93
127 Arbus, Diane, 169
aesthetic (the), as a category, 1, 9, 12, Arnheim, Rudolf, 8
32, 51 n. 16, 127, 130, 133, 151, Atget, Eugène, 111
163 n. 4, 194; and the cognitive, Avedon, Richard, 5 n. 3, 30 n. 4, 160
194 Baker, George et. al., 158, 162, 169,
aesthetics, of aging, 19, 143; of 179, 184, 191, 197
change, 9-10, 94; of the Barthes, Roland, 4, 11, 144, 195, 198
corporeal, 195; of effacement, 31; Basting, Anne, 3 n. 2
of the ephemeral, 94, 196; of Batchen, Geoffrey, 8, 144-145, 185
expressivity, 31; photographic beauty, 19, 29, 32, 41-44, 122, 123,
aesthetics, 9, 127-155, 169 131, 134, 138-139, 140-144, 146,
affect(s), 32, 48, 123, 126, 152 150-155, 160, 199; as a category,
affection, 32, 34, 38, 122, 138, 140; 29, 32, 131, 139, 151, 154;
affective charge, 121; qualities, 150; canons of, 29, 43, 153;
relation, 8, 66 stereotypes of, 134, 138, 142, 151
affectivity, 32 Beckett, Samuel, 76
age-selves, 18, 21, 48, 52, 57, 85, Bellocq, E. J., 52, 159 n. 3, 170, 180,
104, 146, 161, 194, 197, 198 184, 198
aging, and aesthetics, 11, 19, 50, 139, Benjamin, Walter, 60-61, 64, 69, 79,
141, 143; and the body, 4 n. 2, 25, 103, 115
29-30, 31 n. 7, 39 n. 10, 42, 51, Bergson, Henri, 58, 68, 174
57, 82, 122, 197-198; as change, Bianciotti, Hector, 38
11, 12, 18, 136; consciousness of, Bishop, Elizabeth, 118
7, 9, 20, 60, 121, 126, 157, 160, Blau, Herbert, 76, 151
162; creative potential of, 10, 34, Blume, Anna and Bernhard, 93
41; and creativity, 5, 12, 13, 38, body, the aging, 4 n. 1, 25, 29-30, 31
161; hypervisualization of, 19, n. 7, 39 n.10, 42, 51, 57, 82, 122,
122; as matter, 39, 79; and 197-198; body memory, 58, 141;
photography, 9, 11, 13, 72, 125, the old(er), 30 n. 4, 32, 108, 122,
193; as process, 1, 6, 9, 18-20, 141, 161, 181, 199; the physical,
93-94, 130; recategorization of, 5; 6, 12, 100, 110, 113, 116-117,
210 Touching Surfaces

123, 125-126, 130, 141, 149, 159- Coulthard, Edmund, 3 n. 2

160, 169, 184, 197-199; the corporeal (the), 5, 9, 12, 22, 42, 61-
plastic, 100, 135, 177, 198; the 63, 110, 131-132, 184-185, 195;
poetic, 52, 197; the psychic, 27, corporeal, images, 125; memory 58;
50, 113, 120, 123, 125, 153, 159- realities, 160, 172, 191
161, 169, 172-173, 186, 197-198; corporealization, of thought, 63
textures, 15, 34, 148, 172; the creative, act, 7, 63, 191; potential, 10,
youg(er), 13-14, 198 34, 41, 159; process, 59, 76, 109,
Bollas, Christopher, 18, 21, 31, 47, 140, 169; thinking of aging, 9
63, 85, 114, 161 creativity, 5, 12-13, 32, 67, 159, 163,
Borges, Jorge Luis, 118 187, 194; and aging, 12-13, 38,
Brassaï [Gyula], 90 n. 2, 173-174 163
Brunet, François, 8 Cristofovici, Anca, 65, 175 n. 10
Bryson, Norman, 50-51 Cumming, Donigan, 5 n. 3, 160-163,
Cadieux, Geneviève, 4, 10, 48-51, 52 178
n. 16, 132, 138, 142, 163, 175, Cunningham, Merce, 30 n. 4, 171 n. 8
180 n. 11 Daguerre, Louis-Jacques-Mandé, 109
Cahun, Claude, 174 n. 10
Cameron, Julia Margaret, 117, 144- Daly, Ann, 162, 179, 184
145 Dante Alighieri, 135
Cartier-Bresson, Henri, 68 Diamond, Hugh Welch, 60, n. 5
Cassavettes, John, 12 Dickey, James, 87
Chadwick, Whitney, 183 Dickinson, Emily, 167
Chevrier, Jean-François, 26 difference, 3-4, 13, 30, 34, 126-127,
cognitive, perspective, 113, 194; 153-154, 194; corporeal, 3 n. 2;
qualities, 8, 150; role, 62 n. 6, 163 images of, 4; and likeness, 142;
n. 4; sciences, 7, 59; spaces, 126 and resemblance, 30, 34
Cohen, Abigail, 171 n. 7 Dine, Jim, 7, 10-11, 66-85, 91, 100,
consciousness, 1-2, 7-8, 11; 17-18, 111, 119, 122, 132, 147, 148, 157,
20-21, 47, 50, 52, 58, 62, 64, 66, 169, 177, 197
70-73, 75-77, 79-80, 85, 87, 89, Douglas, Stan, 188, 190
94, 98, 100, 104, 108-109, 113, Draaisma, Douwe, 58
118-120, 122, 130, 140, 153, 157, Drahors, Tom, 149 n. 8
169-170, 194, 197; of aging, 1, 9- Duchenne de Boulogne, Guillaume,
10, 126, 162; degrees of 7, 72, 60 n. 5
133, 146; double consciousness, Dunas, Jeff, 148
48, 100, 136; form(s) of, 20, 79, Durand, Régis, 8 n. 5, 51
115, 127, 130, 146-150, 179, 190, Duras, Marguerite, 45
197; of form, 7, 131; formalized,
10, 133; and photography, 84, Eakins, Thomas, 99
170; of the self, 7, 12, 14, 18, 50, Edelman, Hope, 14
64, 113, 159, 161-162, 169, 174, editing, 65, 78-84, 158, 159 n. 3, 194
189, 193, 197-199; states of, 18, Ehrenzweig, Anton, 81
47, 173, 177; of time, 64, 88, 136; emotions, 10, 13-14, 39, 45, 49, 62,
visual, 57, 60, 85, 89 65, 95, 126, 136-138, 142-143,
Coplans, John, 5 n. 3, 122, 160, 145 n. 5, 152-153, 159, 161, 187,
Costa, Mario, 64 197
Covey, Herbert, 3, 41 n. 12
Index 211

Featherstone, Mike, 3 n. 2 Keith, Thomas, 93

Fellini, Federico, 91 n. 3 Klein, William, 93
Flynn, Ann-Gerard, 31 Kollwitz, Käthe, 39-40, 45
Frank, Robert, 118 Kozloff, Max, 8, 58, 112, 113, 116,
Freud, Sigmund, 7, 21, 25, 28 n. 3, 117, 172
37, 59, 76, 84 Krauss, Rosalind, 8, 43-44, 60-62, 67,
Friedlander, Lee, 52, 170, 175 69, 170, 175, 179, 181
Frueh, Joanna, 28, 31 Kuntzel, Thierry, 88-93, 114, 116,
148, 185, 190, 197
Gass, William H., 150 Ladd, George T., 8
Gazzara, Ben, 12 Lapierre, Nicole, 20
Gernsheim, Helmut, 145 n. 6 Laughlin, Clarence John, 120-121,
Giacomelli, Mario, 5 n. 3 149, 169
Goldberg, Vicki, 25, 26, 59, 138, 141, Lemagny, Jean-Claude, 8 n. 5, 117
148-151 Lingwood, James, 132
Goldin, Nan, 5 n. 3, 160
Griffin, Susan, 17, 38 Magritte, René, 111, 168
Grudin, Robert, 78, 198 Manchot, Melanie, 31 n. 7
Grundberg, Andy, 64 n. 8, 66, 68, 69, Mann, Sally, 82
73, 78, 81, 99 Mapplethorpe, Robert, 4, 123
Guibert, Hervé, 12, 28, 31 n.7, 32-38, Marey, Etienne-Jules, 61, 99
39, 41, 103, 108 n. 8, 122, 142, Martin, Rosy, 4 n. 2
154, 163 Maynard, Patrick, 8, 63, 69
Gunning, Tom, 112 Meatyard, Ralph Eugene, 57, 60, 89,
93, 120, 145 n. 5, 169, 170
Hamon, Philippe, 65 n. 10 memory, 10, 57-58, 68, 71-75, 84-85,
Harvey, Daniel, 196 91-93, 100, 108, 116, 118, 122,
Hayden, Jacqueline, 4, 10, 15, 27-31, 130, 142, 148-149, 197;
32, 34, 41, 50-51, 127-132, 137, anticipative (expectative), 103,
133 n. 3, 140, 147 n. 7, 155, 163 113; and creativiy, 67; and
Hill, Gary, 95, 190 forgetting, 71, 88, 92; forms of,
Hinsey, Ellen, 17 72, 169, 195; gaps of, 20, 91; of
Hixson, Kathryn, 171, 184, 186, 191 images, 66; and the imagination,
Hoban, Russel, 135, 138 75-76; loss of, 90; and mourning,
Hockney, David, 47 n. 15 92, 163; patterns of, 67; and
holding, 13, 30, 142-143, 163; effect, photography, 57-60, 64, 66-74,
153; environment, 50; gaze, 163; 80, 85, 89-91, 93; retinal, 52, 65;
objects, 50 system(s) of, 58; theories of, 57-
59; visual, 91- 93
ìnner space(s), 25, 50, 62, 71, 111, Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, 8, 89-90,
160 93, 98, 126, 184
invisible (the), 8, 10, 21, 47, 60, 87-
94, 104, 184, 197; Merrill, James, 135 n. 4
invisible, body, 60; change, 113; Merton, Thomas, ix, 120
meaning, 90, 184; processes, 57, Michals, Duane, 1, 7, 11-12, 35, 87-
93, 101; reality, 65 88, 93-94, 97-123, 132, 135-137,
invisibility, 88, 92; of aging, 3, 9, 20, 143, 146, 149, 166, 167, 169, 172,
48, 57; and movement, 111 175, 176, 178, 185, 188, 197
212 Touching Surfaces

Moore, Marianne, 167 Sarraute, Nathalie, 66

mourning, 14, 92, 110, 112, 163; and Scott, Joanna, 183
aging, 14, 18-19, 38, 112; and Sherman, Cindy, 4, 41-44, 50-51,
photography, 20, 37-38, 144; 122, 132, 138, 174
projective (anticipated), 37, 110; Sibony, Daniel, 65 n. 9
Muybridge, Eadweard, 61, 99 Snow, Michael, 93
Newhall, Beaumont, 109 n. 10 Solomon-Godeau, Abigail, 183
Nixon, Nicholas, 5 n. 3, 122, 160 Sontag, Susan, 4, 195
Nori, Claude, 149 Soulages, François, 60
States, Bert O., 59 n. 4
Païni, Dominique, 190 subject, agency, 191, 194; as agent,
Parry Janis, Eugenia, 79 191, 195; construction, 1, 6-7, 9,
Paz, Octavio, 118 11, 79, 87, 114, 143, 150, 152;
Pearsall, Marilyn, 3, 31, 36 position, 100, 177, 185, 195, 196
perception, 2 n. *, 3, 6-7, 11, 21-22, subjectivity, 9, 12, 65, 82, 130, 131,
25-27, 48, 60-65, 69, 71, 76, 79, 152, 181, 191, 193
83, 87-95, 96-105, 115, 116, 120, Subrin, Elizabeth, 158-159, 180, 190
125-126, 130, 137, 150, 152, 165- Sundell, Margaret, 191
169, 171, 175, 177, 181, 183, 185,
188, 191, 195, 197, 198-199; of Talbot Fox, William Henry, 196
aging, 5, 11-12, 18-20, 25, 38, 50, Tanaka, Janice, 91-92, 110, 197
57, 125, 136, 152, 161, 181; Tannenbaum, Barbara, 145 n. 5
habits of, 27; phenomenology of, temporality, 1, 5, 9, 11, 21, 39, 41,
8; of photographs, 8-10, 113, 191, 45, 73, 93-95, 102-103, 117, 121,
195; psychology of, 8; 130, 148, 150, 157, 162, 185,
temporality of, 5, 199; of time, 6, 186-187, 191; and aging, 1, 10;
64, 83, 92, 94, 115, 178, 183, 190 and change, 11, 95-101, 120, 194;
Phelan, Peggy, 158 n. 2, 171 n. 6 metaphors of, 39; and movement,
Plath, Sylvia, 141, 167 5, 11, 93, 95-101, 116, 172, 194;
Pollack, Barbara, 62 n. 6 of perception, 5, 199; and
Pollack, Terry, 4, 39-41, 45-48 photography, 4 n. 2, 41, 73, 89,
Pontbriand, Chantal, 51 93-94, 117, 196; and subject
Powers, Richard, 100, 103, 168, 190 construction, 1, 9, 162, 194;
Proust, Marcel, 76, 173-174 visualization of, 89, 117, 189
psychic space(s), 6, 18, 23, 111 Tenneson, Joyce, 5, 11, 132, 135-155,
161, 170, 175, 179, 181, 185, 197
Raffel, Dawn, 38, 154 n. 11 Townsend, Chris, 3 n. 2, 158 n. 2
Rauschenberg, Robert, 62 n. 6 transitional, objects, 31, 82, 161;
Richir, Marc, 125-126 phases, 13; processes, 161, 163;
Rilke, Rainer Maria, 25, 50 space, 21, 104, 186
Roiphe, Ann, 139
Rossen, Janice, 3 unconscious (the), 7, 10, 21, 24, 48,
Rowlands, Gena, 12 57-67, 68-71, 75-75, 78-85, 100,
Ruscha, Ed, 118 111-112, 152, 169, 177; optical,
60-61; photographic, 57-63, 80
Saint Denis, Hervey de, 59 n. 3
Sander, August, 103 Vine, Richard, 26
Santayana, George, 59 Viola, Bill, ix, 114, 190
Index 213

Virilio, Paul, 18, 187

visible (the), 8-11, 18-52, 60, 89-90,
111, 115-117, 144, 159, 177, 185
visibility, 9-10, 42, 48, 51, 57, 64, 68,
82, 87, 89, 92, 94, 99, 110, 148,
172, 175-176, 178-179, 183, 196-
visualization(s), 2 n.*, 5, 9, 10, 13,
42, 46, 62-63, 80, 92-93, 117,
189, 197

Wagram, Catherine, 150

Wall, Jeff, 4, 23-27, 30, 32, 62, 70,
132, 138, 141
Weinberg, Adam D., 93-94, 183, 198
White, Minor, 149
Winnicott, D.W., 21, 23, 47, 161
Wollheim, Richard, 63, 134 n. 49
Woodman, Francesca, 7, 11-12, 113,
132, 133, 157-160, 162-191, 198
Woodward, Kathleen, 2, 3, 18, 25 n.
1, 29, 30, 39 n. 10
Woolf, Virginia, 193
Wyatt-Brown, Anne, 3

Yates, Frances A., 58