Left: Cover of Photography Degree Zero (2009). Right: A view of Geoffrey Batchen teaching from Camera Lucida. (Photo: Vlad da Cunha)
A professor of the history of photography and contemporary art at the CUNY Graduate Center, Geoffrey Batchen’s previous books include Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography (1997) and Each Wild Idea: Writing, Photography, History (2001). This October, MIT Press will publish Photography Degree Zero, an anthology that Batchen has edited of writings about Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (1980).
I’VE READ CAMERA LUCIDA MANY, MANY TIMES, and I’ve taught it for many years. Yet, it is one of those books you can read over and over and still find new things that you don’t remember the last few times you read it. There are not many books you can say that about. This is partly because Camera Lucida is so poetically and philosophically written, making it easy for the eye to skate across some lines and go on to others. But it’s also because each line is so loaded with implication and possibility that you can’t possibly take it all in during one reading.
Photography Degree Zero had a long gestation period, and it was a bit of a struggle to bring it all together. It was actually initiated by a feeling, which I sensed throughout my discipline, that everyone was sick to death of Camera Lucida. Indeed, I recently went to a conference in Madrid where at the beginning of the first day, one of the organizers stood up and said that anyone who quoted from the book would be fined. So, in part, this anthology comes out of conversations that I had with colleagues, in which we all felt similarly beset by Camera Lucida. We thought that perhaps if we wrote essays on the book, we’d get it out of our systems and find a way to declare––at last, and nearly thirty years after its initial publication––that it is now history. I don’t know whether this book will actually have that effect. Probably (and hopefully) it will generate even more dialogues about Camera Lucida, but at least it enabled all of us who contributed to dig into our own neurosis and work it out a little bit.
This is a lesson to be taken by every young writer: If you write a book whose meaning is not immediately apparent, and if it’s beautifully written, people are much more likely to continue returning to and worrying about it. The meanings of Camera Lucida are sufficiently open-ended to generate thirteen essays in this particular volume, from scholars as significant as Michael Fried, Rosalind Krauss, Victor Burgin, Jane Gallop, Eduardo Cadava, and so on, and many more that I list in the endnotes of my introductory chapter.
I’d like to think that my introduction will be a useful teaching tool because I go to quite a bit of effort to lay out the story of the production of Camera Lucida and the initial responses to it, which were not all positive by any means. Some critics at the time wrote that it was one of the worst books ever written about photography and that it would have the worst effects possible. But for whatever reasons (and perhaps more study needs to be made of this), it is a book that still seems very current. There are, however, two critical essays in this volume that discuss the ways in which Barthes handles race in his book, and I would say on that issue it feels a little dated. But many other aspects of Camera Lucida do feel incredibly fresh now, whereas most books about photography usually don’t.
For example, in twenty years of teaching I’ve never assigned Susan Sontag’s On Photography . There is a real question as to why that’s so. I’m aware that photographers tend to gravitate toward On Photography even though they dislike the way Sontag equates photography with violence. I suspect that some of them find Camera Lucida more impenetrable and esoteric. Art historians find Sontag’s book to be somewhat journalistic and her essays not very substantial, whereas for them Barthes’s book is an endlessly fascinating and pleasurable text. There is something to be written about the perspectives they each offer. The publication of Photography Degree Zero brings up these and a range of other issues and presses us to consider Camera Lucida anew.
Rebecca Solnit is the author of ten previous books, including Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the American West (1994), Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2000), and River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (2003), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Mark Lynton History Prize. Her latest book is A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster.
THE 1989 LOMA PRIETA EARTHQUAKE IN CALIFORNIA was an extraordinary event for me: I remember noticing that people appeared to be having a relatively positive experience. I also observed that my own emotional tenor shifted radically; even my sense of time and place shifted. After 9/11, I found that people were having what I couldn’t possibly describe as a good time, but what you might call a “deep” time. If one of the problems besetting American internal life is shallowness, suddenly people found some satisfaction, purposefulness, and unity, and for a couple of weeks an openness to rethinking everything about our role in the world.
I was invited to give the Raymond Williams Memorial Lecture at Jesus College of Cambridge University in 2004, and I thought––in honor of Williams––that I should start something new, so I decided to do a lecture on the subject of disaster. This was not long after the publication of my book Hope in the Dark , but for at least a decade before, I had been writing about the personal and emotional sides of public and historic events.
I didn’t necessarily expect the subversive positivity of disasters to play such a large role in my research, but I became interested in the ways that such events have been misrepresented by the media and the film industry, as well as the studies of disaster sociologists––who for the past sixty years have done extraordinary work documenting the constructive and imaginative responses to catastrophes. It’s as though I thought I was opening a door to a room, and the door opened to a huge landscape that I then felt compelled to explore.
After the talk, I published a piece in Harper’s, which went to press the day Katrina hit. This immediately involved me in trying to interpret Katrina and provide a counter to all the (untrue) narratives of marauding barbarians and savagery that the media, pundits, and a lot of elected officials were creating. I hesitated a bit after Katrina, as I wasn’t sure if this was the material that I wanted to commit myself to for the next few years, but it felt so important and so divergent from the ways that people are given to imagine what happens during disaster that I felt I had to do it.
One crucial discovery during my research was the writing of Charles Fritz. Disaster scholars seem to revere him, though they would also say he is a little too perfectly sunny. He writes, with inspired clarity and precision, that everyday life can itself be a kind of a disaster in which we’re alienated and suffering from a sense of purposelessness. He argues that disaster can amend all those things, which is why it can be a tremendously positive experience. He also points out that illness, suffering, and death go on all the time—that it’s not as though these things only happen during disasters. It’s similar to what William James says about the 1906 earthquake in what may be an ur-essay for disaster studies: that we’re not alone. James says it so beautifully: “Surely the cutting edge of all our usual misfortunes comes from the character of their loneliness.”
I also drew on the research of J. K. Gibson-Graham, two women economists who write as one voice and who discuss existing counters to capitalism. Their work made me see more clearly what I had talked about in other ways in Hope in the Dark: that our society is purportedly capitalist but sustained by a host of unaccounted-for gestures of altruism, generosity, barter sharing, and other forces that keep the official system from entirely destroying us. And even though the rhetoric is always, How can we start from scratch to find something good?, while writing the book, my rhetoric instead became: How can we work with the good that is already there to make it more pervasive, more available, and, most important, more visible?
I wanted to incorporate that last question into another: What are the altruistic, improvisational, and sociable responses that disasters provide us with? For one, they give us a sense of the depth and intensity of our desire to be members of civil society, to belong and connect and do meaningful work. The task is not simply to respond better to disasters (which are intermittent) but to rethink who we are and what is possible every day. It’s very much a prescriptive and a utopian book in that sense.
Andrei Molotiu is an artist and art historian who teaches at Indiana University, Bloomington, and who recently edited Abstract Comics: The Anthology, the first collection devoted to the genre. Offering experiments by established cartoonists as well as new pieces by emerging artists, the book is available from Fantagraphics and will serve as the exhibition catalogue for “Silent Pictures,” which opens on September 1 at the CUNY Graduate Center’s James Gallery. Nautilus, a collection of Molotiu’s own abstract comics, has just been published by Fahrenheit Editions.
ABSTRACT COMICS ARE COMICS that have abstract forms instead of representational images in their panels—when they even have panels, that is. Now, comics are an art of reduction anyway, so it’s easy to conceive of a story in which squares and triangles function as traditional characters. In abstract comics, however, the “story” being told is primarily one of formal transformations and visual energy, not the depiction of a narrative that can be otherwise conveyed verbally. Words may play a part in abstract comics, but primarily as graphic elements, not to communicate or to further the plot. Some imagery can be there,too, as long as it does not form into a story and as long as it does not cohere into a unified space.
I first discovered the possibility of abstract sequential art in the work of the Belgian artist Pierre Alechinsky, who was closely associated with the Cobra group, as I discuss in the introduction to the book. Many of his paintings from the 1960s on have subdivisions and abstract panels that are clearly derived from comics. Some of them, to me, looked like comic-book pages, and they inspired me to make my own abstract comics, as well as to seek out more examples of such work from other artists—which led, down the road, to this volume.
My first idea, in trying to survey abstract comics, was to create a wide-ranging anthology. I knew I wanted to include an important early work by R. Crumb––a piece from 1967 titled Abstract Expressionistic Ultra Super Modernistic Comics––and it opens the book. I also included a piece I commissioned a few years ago from Gary Panter. He has an ongoing project where you can commission drawings cheaply from him. It began at $100, and after every one hundred drawings, he bumps up the price by $25 (it’s currently at $225, so you can calculate how many he’s drawn so far). In terms of the commission, you give him three words and he draws whatever he chooses based on those words. The words I gave him were abstract, comic, and strip. As he had made only one other such piece previously (also included in the anthology), I suppose that I effectively helped double the quantity of Gary Panter abstract comics in the world.
One of my favorite aspects of working on this project was discovering the work of Benoit Joly, a lesser-known cartoonist from Quebec. In 1987, he drew an amazing abstract piece, a one-off that he did not really follow up on until I e-mailed him about the anthology. He drew another one for the anthology and has done a few more since. Another story like that comes from Mark Badger, who used to work primarily as an artist at DC and Marvel. When he was in art school in the early ’80s, he sketched out a two-page abstract comic, which he left unfinished. After he saw my own work on the Internet, he dug up the comic and put it on his website. I persuaded him to finish it and we ended up printing both versions, from 1980 and 2008, in the anthology.
Besides such hidden histories that I was able to unearth (another example is Patrick McDonnell, creator of the syndicated strip Mutts, who also drew abstract comics in art school but never published them), I also wanted to include several younger cartoonists whose work either had been going in that direction, even if it had not gone fully abstract yet, or had made use of graphic elements that I could see successfully working abstractly. I’m thinking here of artists such as Richard Hahn, James Kochalka, and Warren Craghead. So I invited them to try their hands at abstract comics.
Also included are people like J. R. Williams, who had largely given up comics and taken up abstract painting but had not thought of using his abstract style in a comic until I suggested he give it a try for the anthology. Conversely, there are artists such as Anders Pearson and Janusz Jaworski, who, independently of each other, began experimenting with abstract comics in the past few years. Coming out at this specific juncture, the anthology is fortunately able to capture all the recent creative ferment in the genre.
Views of “Not New Work: Vincent Fecteau Selects from the Collection,” 2009. Left (from left to right): Eric Rudd, Night Fairy, 1974; Max Ernst, Bauta, 1964; Ron Nagle, Untitled, 1982; Peter Young, Untitled, 1968; Wayne Thiebaud, Untitled (Two Ice Cream Scoops on Plate), ca. 1985. Right: Robert Overby, Hall painting, first floor; H. C. Westermann, Secrets, 1964; Charles Howard, Banner, 1934; Christopher Wilmarth, New, 1968; Ralph Humphrey, Untitled, 1972. (Photos: Ian Reeves)
Vincent Fecteau was perhaps an ideal choice for an “artist selects” exhibition: His own sculptures are potent, peculiarly honed works that take months to produce, and the twenty-three objects he culled from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s storage facilities reveal as much about the quirks of a collection as they do about the vision of an artist set free within it. Pieces by the likes of Judy Chicago, Ron Nagle, and Tom of Finland will be on view through November 8 at the museum under the fitting title “Not New Work.” Fecteau will also have a solo show at Matthew Marks Gallery this fall.
ARTISTS ARE A MAJOR—AND OFTEN OVERLOOKED—CONSTITUENCY OF ART MUSEUMS. In my experience, inspiration comes not just from spending time with so-called masterpieces but also from seeing the way other, less brand-name artists have dealt with the problems and challenges of making art.
History strives to identify “greatness,” but it often does so at the expense of a more accurate and messy story about the past. I like the idea of museums using their collections to expand and challenge notions of art and art history, since it’s often the things that have been edited out of the canon that inspire me to keep working. The most transformative experiences I’ve had in museums have almost always been the result of seeing something that I had never seen before and didn’t know existed.
When Apsara DiQuinzio, assistant curator of painting and sculpture at SF MoMA, asked me to participate in their “New Work” exhibition series, I proposed drawing a show from the museum’s permanent collection rather than showing my own work. It’s something I’ve wanted to do since collaborating with the painter Tomma Abts on a similar exhibition at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven in 2004. For that show, we combined our own works with pieces that we selected from the Vanabbe’s collection. It was an incredible opportunity to explore the depths––and limitations––of a particular museum’s collection and to witness the conversations that occur among artworks when they are brought together.
I thought that the most authentic way for me to approach the SF MoMA exhibition would be to try and apply my studio methods to the curatorial task at hand. I wondered whether it would be possible to construct a show as I did a sculpture: intuitively adding and subtracting, allowing meaning to be generated by the objects rather than using them in service of an argument or idea. Priority was given to the object over the concept, the poetic over the narrative, complexity over clarity. For this reason, I decided to select work for the show that had rarely, if ever, been exhibited: Some of the pieces are by well-known artists (Max Ernst and Jess), but others are by much less familiar names (Richard Feralla and Dorothy Reid).
The exhibition came together organically, and I hope it will unfold in a similar way for viewers as they spend time looking and walking around the objects. Because I wanted to avoid constructing an overarching narrative, there is no official catalogue or brochure for the show. Instead, the museum will produce a set of postcards, each of which depicts a different view of a 1968 Christopher Wilmarth sculpture titled New. Sculpture is difficult if not impossible to accurately document—it resists photography. For this reason, the “overdocumentation” of a piece, particularly one that has been unseen for several decades, struck me as the perfect poetic gesture.