How do you visualise a woman in the 21st century?
New Writing

How do you visualise a woman in the 21st century?

Image: Linder. Pretty Girls (detail), 1977. Courtesy of the artist and Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London

Inspired by our Autumn 2016 exhibition, Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s: Works from the Verbund Collection, we have asked a diverse range of artists, writers, performers and feminist thinkers to respond to the subject of feminism – both historical and contemporary – and collected them together in the new issue of our quarterly publication Loose Associations. We wanted to consider what impact (conscious or otherwise) such ideology and actions have had on artistic practice today, and to explore the current face(s) of feminism within this framework. It feels both signicant and essential to be addressing such a subject now, at a point where feminism as a term and movement feels so fractured, and so subsumed, for better or worse, by popular culture.

Birgit Jürgenssen, Nest, 1979 © Estate Birgit Jürgenssen. Courtesy of Galerie Hubert Winter, Vienna / VG Bildkunst, Bonn 2015 / SAMMLUNG VERBUND, Vienna

In an exclusive short story by acclaimed Scottish writer Ali Smith, she visualises, and fictionalises, her female character thus:

“ I’d been browsing in a bookshop to get out of the rain and someone had left a book open on top of a pile of books on a table next to the stationery section. The picture, of a woman’s lower body in which, instead of a genital area, the woman had a nest with a couple of eggs in it, was what it was open at. I glanced at it and something about it made me look again. A woman sitting on a fur sort of rug was balancing a nest with eggs in it at her crotch. I smiled. Then I laughed. Then I wandered round the bookshop for a bit and went back out into the wet afternoon. I didn’t think any more of it, until a couple of days later at home when I began to feel scratchy and irritated below the waist and found, when I went to the bathroom to have a look, why.”

Relatedly, one key concern of this project, central to the new issue of Loose Associations, is the question: How do you visualise a woman in the 21st century? We have posed this question directly to a number of contributors in the book, who include ANOHNI, Juno Calypso, Helen Cammock, Emma Dabiri, Eva Dawoud, Reni Eddo-Lodge, Paloma Faith, Juliet Jacques, Linder, Nina Power, Aura Satz, Tomoko Sawada, Sebastian Scheming, Tai Shani and Linda Stupart. In various ways, some have responded with writing, others with images and some with both.

In her response, Nina Power states:

“ If the photograph changed the way we see, the internet has changed the way we read. ‘Visualisation’ is another language game, and ‘woman’ a particularly contested term, yet subject to exactly the same kinds of fort-da promotion and erasure as women’s bodies always have been.”

Lorraine O’Grady, Mlle Bourgeoise Noire (Miss Black Middle-Class), 1980–1983/2009. Untitled (Mlle Bourgeoise Noire shouts out her poem) © Alexander Gray Ass., New York / The SAMMLUNG VERBUND Collection, Vienna

Lorraine O’Grady, Mlle Bourgeoise Noire (Miss Black Middle-Class), 1980–1983/2009. Untitled (Mlle Bourgeoise Noire shouts out her poem) © Alexander Gray Ass., New York / The SAMMLUNG VERBUND Collection, Vienna

Reni Eddo-Lodge, in her essay Black is a Feminist Issue, writes:

“ Black feminism drags the movement back to its revolutionary roots. It is first and foremost a movement to dismantle all oppression. To fundamentally transform the world we live in so that it works for all, and marginalises none, and to trace the links that lock women out of prosperity, power, and autonomy.”

In another essay, artist Linda Stupart responds to the question in part by recalling something they wrote on Facebook, which combines image and text and considers the role of the artist with respect to gender and the body today:

“ Two days ago I posted a request on my Facebook ‘wall’. It reads:

‘Hi friends could people please use they/them pronouns for me and ask other people to do the same also I really don’t want to talk about it tbh thx’.

The text is accompanied by a low res. 3D modeled blob GIF – one of my own. It spins slowly in space.”

Image courtesy Linda Stupart, 2016.

The many passionate and multifarious voices that inform the debate today are necessarily and rightfully seeking to broaden any singular definition of femimism and feminists; to address wider and interrelated cultural patterns of oppression that are bound together by intersectional systems of society which include race, gender, class, sexuality, ethnicity and religious belief. We encourage you to have your say in the comments feed below. How do you visualise a woman in the 21st century?

Where is fashion photography now? Bambi and bodies in the background
New Writing

Where is fashion photography now? Bambi and bodies in the background

Image: Jamie Hawkesworth, “ Boarding”, Hot & Cool 7, 2015

Writer Dean Kissick begins with a photograph by Terence Donovan and quickly realises that since the 1960s fashion photography has taken some unusual turns. Reading the medium at an oblique angle, it appears to have more in common with Walt Disney’s Bambi than one might think. Autumn has arrived, our acclaimed retrospective exhibition of Donovan’s work is coming to a close, and bodies have blurred into the background…

Terence Donovan, Twiggy, Woman’s Mirror, 27 August 1966.

Terence Donovan, Twiggy, Woman’s Mirror, 27 August 1966.

When Terence Donovan made this image of Twiggy for Woman’s Mirror, published on 27th August 1966, she was sixteen and about to become incredibly famous. Once, when I spoke to his friend and fellow East Ender David Bailey – who was born in 1938 in Leytonstone – Donovan was born in 1936 in Stepney – and together they changed fashion photography – he told me how he remembered watching Bambi (1942) as a child during the Blitz, and how that particular cinema was later blown up by a German V2 rocket in 1944. In many ways Twiggy was a living, teenage Bambi – massive doe eyes, thin and awkward limbs that bent the wrong way – photographed over and over by Bailey and Donovan, and that made me wonder how much of modern fashion’s fetishisation of youthful innocence might be connected to that movie, and in turn Walt Disney’s conception of beauty.

Anyway, Twiggy soon became the icon of Swinging Sixties London, but in many ways that decade really began with the Profumo Affair of 1961: the brief dalliance between John Profumo, a married man and Secretary of State for War in the Conservative government, and Christine Keeler, a 19-year-old would-be model and exotic dancer in Soho, which quickly escalated into an intoxicating thriller involving sinister society osteopaths and Russian spies, knife fights in nightclubs, shots fired at Marylebone mews houses, newspaper hysteria and the fall of the government in 1964. A long-repressed sexuality was suddenly evident in political scandal, the world of modelling, rock’n’roll and fashion photography, and that’s what this picture represents to me. It visualises the unleashing of a city’s – a nation’s – psyche; a wave of desire, lust and consumerism, and the beginning of “ modern Britain”.

Although a rather conventional image, fashion photography hasn’t moved that far since, and the fantasy lifestyle we’re still sold on our high streets (on the huge billboards that fill the windows of Regent’s Street as the latest flagship store is installed behind, often having just relocated from slightly smaller premises hundreds of metres away) is not only impossible to achieve, but also just increasingly tired and boring, emptied of imagination. However, there are exceptions – sometimes in the most unusual places.

Jamie Hawkesworth, Loewe accessories lookbook, spring/summer 2015.

Jamie Hawkesworth, Loewe accessories lookbook, spring/summer 2015.

This – photographed by Jamie Hawkesworth, styled by Benjamin Bruno, art directed by M/M Paris for the spring/summer 2015 accessories lookbook of Loewe – the luxury fashion house now directed by J.W. Anderson – is something different. Two boys, just kids really, are wrapped in landscapes made in collaboration with textile designer John Allen (the “ Falling Leaves” beach towel and silk shawl and “ Cornish Harbour” beach towel and silk shawl, respectively) and styled, strangely, rather like Camila Batmanghelidjh, the disgraced former executive of the charity Kids Company. This image is composed precisely: young bodies obscured and figurative sceneries twisted beyond recognition, everything made abstract and sculptural. People and fabrics melded into one, colours and forms instead of personalities. As a designer J.W. Anderson rose (and rose and rose) to prominence on a platform of weirdness – and this is a very weird image.

Jamie Hawkesworth, “ Boarding”, Hot & Cool 7, 2015

In another photo by Hawkesworth, a study in light that has stuck pleasurably inside of me since I first saw it in Hot & Cool 7 (it reminds me of my own time at a private school, in Oxford, with its own visually jarring twentieth century stained glass) a student sat in chapel has sun shining through a stained glass window onto his back, as though his black blazer was itself a photographic paper catching the colours. As such Hawkesworth’s picture represents another image outside of its frame, and this made me wonder what exactly is this other image? His story in the magazine, “ Boarding”, documents boarders at Oundle School and Christ’s Hospital, and from this boy’s uniform this is certainly Oundle School not Christ’s Hospital (I know the latter uniform because that school had a ring of weed dealers who supplied all of the intercollegiate student halls in Bloomsbury when I first moved to London to study history of art), and so the image outside of the frame might be one of three sets of twentieth century windows: the Seven Ages of Man windows by Hugh Easton completed in 1950; the Piper windows by Patrick Reyntiens completed in 1956 or the Mark Angus windows completed in 2005. From the arrangement of colours that fall warmly upon his back, I think they are coming from one of Angus’s windows. Another of his windows, of patriotic Saint George slaying the dragon, appears on the cover of the magazine.

Terence Donovan, “Les Manteaux Arts Modernes”, French Elle, September 1965.

Terence Donovan, “ Les Manteaux Arts Modernes”, French Elle, September 1965.

Where is fashion photography now? In our opening image Twiggy is flattened against the Union Jack, following its form – a living abstraction of Britishness and angular geometry. In our second image, by Jamie Hawkesworth, two boys are wrapped in Cornish landscapes with the same kinds of colours and shapes that appear in the third photograph, beaming onto a schoolboy through some stained Northamptonshire glass. Above is another Terence Donovan image, from French Elle in September 1965, in which a model disappears into her surroundings. Her face is cast in shadow and she appears like a mannequin hung from the ceiling on strings (actually holding the lamps) amongst bold geometric forms of light and darkness. Behind her the room is flattened into a Vorticist abstraction, and she becomes part of the interior architecture of the Maison de l’O.R.T.F, a 500-metre circumference donut-shaped building opened in 1964 on the banks of the river Seine, as a headquarters for Radio France. She blends into and embodies the dream of modernism; a hard-edged, luxurious future “ for all”.

Much later, in 1984, Terence Donovan would direct the video for Malcolm McLaren’s soaring “ Madame Butterfly”, an extended bathhouse scene of bodies again disappearing into backgrounds – hard to make out in all the steam – that captures the soft romanticism of the Eighties and once again symbolises the decade in which it was made. A voice sings: “ He thinks I’m just still sweet sixteen, I guess I’ll tease him gently”…

Malcolm McLaren, Madame Butterfly, Dir. Terence Donovan, 1984.
– Dean Kissick

Made You Look
Loose AssociationsNew Writing

Made You Look

Image: Hassan Hajjaj Afrikan Boy, 2012 © Hassan Hajjaj Courtesy of the artist

One afternoon some years ago my dad and I were sitting parked outside the Express Dairy not far from our house chatting in the front seats of our car. We’d been there for about ten minutes when there was a knock on the window. It was a policeman.  Someone in the dairy had called his station to report the presence of two suspicious men in a vehicle. The policeman was very polite. He just wanted to know who we were and what we were up to. As we drove off, my dad chuckled at the idea that anyone could think of us, a middle aged man and his son in a Volvo estate, as any kind of threat.

I laughed too although I wouldn’t have, if I’d realised such incidents were soon to become commonplace. I had just turned 16 and with no prompting on my part, the idea of me as a threat seemed abruptly widespread. When I sat beside them on the tube, women clutched their handbags a little closer. Shopkeepers trailed me through their stores. If I happened to be walking down the street behind someone at night, they crossed the street before I got too close.

Each of these events was minor enough to shrug off, but taken together they formed a pattern. And looking back now, I see that what they marked was an unbidden coming of age. Here was an end to boyhood and the start of my journey into adulthood; into becoming a black man.

What this meant in practice was that my body was no longer my own. Being a black man means being subject to the white gaze, which is to say the accreted history of fear and fantasy that frames how white society regards black people. It means becoming an object of prejudice and fascination and psychological projection. The tropes are familiar ones: black men as preternaturally gifted at sports and entertainment; as creatures of overdeveloped musculature and ungovernable sexuality, liable to lapse into violence and lawlessness.

Well worn as these caricatures are, they still carry the power to sting. In a pivotal passage in Black Skin, White Masks, his masterful exploration of race and identity from 1952, Frantz Fanon describes a white boy’s startled reaction to him on the streets of France. Pointing at Fanon’s approaching figure, the boy cries, “ Look, a Negro!… Mama, see the Negro! I’m frightened.” [1]

For Fanon the moment is one of psychic assault. He is forced to see himself through the eyes of the child, as brute and threatening, and then dumped back into his own skin, objectified and humiliated. “ My body,” he writes, “ was given back to me sprawled out, distorted, recoloured, clad in mourning in that white winter day.” [2]

A similar sense of trauma runs through Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. As the novel’s hero recounts, blackness has rendered him beneath sight to most white people, even as it lends him a heightened visibility across society as a stereotypical object of fear and loathing and fascination. “ I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fibre and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me… When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination – indeed, everything and anything except me.” [3]

Fanon’s response, and that of Ellison’s hero, are a vivid example of what W.E.B. Du Bois, the great African-American philosopher of race, termed ‘double consciousness’ a century ago. Du Bois spoke of the “ peculiar sensation” experienced by black people of “ always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” [4]

His words still ring true, yet a hundred years later, they no longer articulate the full range of black responses to the white gaze.

The Russian-Ghanaian photographer Liz Johnson Artur often captures black men poised between private contemplation and public display. Her subjects seem acutely aware of their uncomfortable position as Ellison-like figures, simultaneously hypervisible and invisible to wider society.

Yet where double consciousness, in DuBois’s original conception, was only ever a burden, Johnson Artur’s subjects carry racialised awareness with defiant confidence. None more so than the young man that she shoots seated on an upturned crate, wearing glorious red trousers and an expression of fierce insouciance, carrying himself like a king despite the humbleness of his surroundings.

Johnson Artur’s photographs, along with the other works in Made You Look, explore how black men shape their self-image in front of the camera and how they sit between the twin poles of visibility and vulnerability.

On one hand, this is a period of unprecedented prominence for black people, from Obama in the White House to the striking success of artists and performers like Beyoncé, Steve McQueen, Marlon James, Kanye West, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Kendrick Lamar. On the other, blacks remain victim to the consequences of entrenched racism. Over five hundred black and minority ethnic people in Britain have died in suspicious circumstances while in state detention over the past 25 years, without a single official being successfully prosecuted. In America, one in three black men can expect to go to jail in their lifetime. And the list of African American men killed in recent years solely because of their skin colour only continues to grow.

Against this fragile backdrop, Made You Look focuses on the figure of the black dandy. Dandyism – and with it issues of style and deportment – might seem like trivial concerns in the era of Black Lives Matter. But as the killing of Trayvon Martin, shot by George Zimmerman for looking “ suspicious” in a hoodie attests, how you dress can sometimes be the difference between life and death.

The dictionary definition of a dandy is a man “ unduly concerned with looking stylish and fashionable.” But dandyism, as practised by the likes of Lord Byron, Oscar Wilde and Charles Baudelaire, is also about using dress to deliberately flout conventional notions of class, taste, gender and sexuality.

Kristin-Lee Moolman, Wayne Swart (from the OATH lookbook), 2015 © Kristin-Lee Moolman. Courtesy of the artist

Kristin-Lee Moolman, Wayne Swart (from the OATH lookbook), 2015 © Kristin-Lee Moolman. Courtesy of the artist

This is certainly the case with the majestically louche Soweto youths decked out in flared sleeveless suits and pearls, shot by Kristin-Lee Moolman. And the strikingly beautiful young man photographed in New York by Jeffrey Henson Scales. Titled Young Man in Plaid, NYC, Scales’ portrait epitomises the scholar Monica Miller’s definition of a black dandy as a figure who is “ masculine and feminine, aggressively heterosexual yet not quite a real man, a vision of an upstanding citizen and an outsider broadcasting his alien status by clothing his dark body in a good suit.” [5]

Such images point to the subversive power of dandyism to reveal maleness itself as a performance, as something provisional and open to reinterpretation, rather than a set of inherited characteristics fixed in the skin.

And they also highlight how, for black people, the donning of stylish clothes acts as a form of radical personal politics; a deliberate transgression of a social order that would otherwise render blacks unseen, invisible, beneath regard. This tactic of style as rebellion has deep historical roots, as can be witnessed by looking back to America’s antebellum South.

When enslaved Africans disembarked in America in the 18th century, they were fitted with drab, crudely stitched clothes made from the coarsest cottons. Along with the chains round their ankles, the stripping away of their names and banning of their native languages, this was another attempt to deny them choice over their own destiny.

South Carolina’s Negro Act of 1735 even went so far as to stipulate the kinds of materials allowable for ‘Negro dress’, typically only the cheapest “ course callicoes, checked cottons or scotch plaids.” [6]

Yet in resistance to such rulings, slaves repeatedly fashioned their own distinctive clothes. They scrounged and pilfered scraps of material to make jackets and dresses in vivid patchworks of clashing colours, decorated with ribbons and gold and silver buttons.

One way to appreciate the subversive value of style for black people in bondage is to examine newspaper adverts for runaway slaves posted during the 18th century. A striking number of these placed an emphasis on the variety and distinctiveness with which slaves styled themselves, describing them as “ addicted to dress”, “ remarkably fond of dress”, “ generally dressy” and “ very fond of showy dress”. [7]

A particular notice, posted in Augusta, Virginia in 1774, attracts the eye. A plantation owner seeks the return of a runaway named Bacchus, described as “ cunning, artful, sensible” and “ very capable of forging a Tale to impose on the Unwary.” [8] As well as noting his intelligence and resourcefulness, the advert also identifies Bacchus as a protean dandy, one who has made his escape with a considerable wardrobe, including “ two white Russia Drill Coats… blue Plush Breeches, a fine Cloth Pompadour waistcoat, two or three thin or Summer jackets… five or six white Shirts… neat Shoes, a fine Hat cut and cocked in the Macaroni Figure, a double-milled Drab Great Coat and sundry other Wearing Apparel.” [9]

For a runaway like Bacchus, adopting fine dress was a means to metaphorically and literally upend the order of things. Dressed in his finery, he would have been performing a parody of the white men who’d put him in chains. And, in doing so, he was also remaking himself, in very real terms, into a free man, by attempting to walk out of the South with all the confidence and panache of a man apparently born into liberty.

Even after the end of slavery the assertion of an individual style by African Americans remained a charged issue. There are legion accounts of black men being beaten, sometimes to death, for dressing or acting above their station. Edward Clay’s Life in Philadelphia, a popular series of prints produced in 1828, pictured the city’s emergent black middle class with cruelly exaggerated facial features and preposterously flamboyant clothes.

In 1841, a notorious gang of black men stood trial in Mississippi for bank robbery and murder. The charges against them ran long; the gang was also accused of burglary, smuggling and the passing of counterfeit bills. But they attended their trial dressed with conspicuous extravagance. In the dock, the gang’s leader, who donned a range of expensive hats throughout the proceedings, described their actions as “ fashionable rascality”. As Thomas Buchanan has noted, they employed flamboyant style to “ transform subservient identities” into a defiant sense of “ resilience and independence”.[10] Despite – or more likely because of – that attitude, the gang was found guilty of murder and all its members were hanged and beheaded.

In men like Bacchus and the Mississippi gang, we glimpse the origins of style as a mode of resistance. The lineage that stretches from them is a long one, populated by men who’ve dressed with knowing flamboyance and a very clear delight at the consternation that their appearance triggers in white society. It’s a line that includes the poet Langston Hughes and the boxer Jack Johnson, idiosyncratic performers such as Sun Ra and George Clinton and stars like Prince and Andre 3000.

In each case, what comes to mind are Fanon’s words on the transgressive potential of style: “ I grasp my narcissism with both hands and I turn my back on the degradation of those who would make me a mere mechanism.”[11]

As a teenager having to grapple for the first time with the force of the white gaze, I’d ask myself this question: how do you live without fear or debilitating anger in a world where you’re reminded always that your body doesn’t belong to you?

The answer, as proposed by the works in Made You Look, is to demand to be seen on your own terms, via the style and attitude that announces your ambitions and desires, your sense of pride and inner belief.

For the most part the men featured in the show aren’t wearing the finest of clothes. They seem less concerned with what they wear than with how they wear it. Their style is by turns flamboyant, provocative, arresting, camp, playful and gloriously assertive. And they share a fierce self-possession that makes it clear that black dandyism is about more than dress alone. It is about confounding expectations about how black men should look or carry themselves in order to establish a place of personal freedom; a place beyond the white gaze, where the black body is a site of liberation not oppression.

Ekow Eshun

Ekow Eshun is a writer and broadcaster and curator of Made You Look: Dandysim and Black Masculinity, which runs at The Photographers’ Gallery through 25 September.

This essay features in volume 2, issue 3 of Loose Associations, a new quarterly publication on photography and image culture, available from our online bookstore for £5.


1. Fanon, F (2008) Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto Press

2. Ibid

3. Ellison, R (1965) Invisible Man. London: Penguin Books

4. DuBois, W.E.B. (1996) The Souls of Black Folk. London: Penguin Books

5. Miller, M (2009) Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity. North Carolina: Duke University Press

6. White, S and White, G (1998) Stylin’: African American Expressive Culture from its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit. New York: Cornell University

7. Ibid

8. Ibid

9. Ibid

10. Buchanan, T (2001) “ Rascals on the Antebellum Mississippi: African American Steamboat Workers and The St. Louis Hanging of 1841”. In: Journal of Social History, Vol. 34, No. 4, pp. 797–816

11. Fanon, F (2008) Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto Press

How to See an Image in Data: Uncovering Representation in Digital Images
New WritingThe Digital Image

How to See an Image in Data: Uncovering Representation in Digital Images

Image: Meggan Gould, iPads: Mine, September 17, 2012. Courtesy Meggan Gould.

Following our recent exhibition programme on the historical relationship between drawing and photography, Nicole Sansone considers the contemporary digital image and its relationship to drawing, in respect to changes in our theoretical understanding of representation.


What is it about drawing and photography that seems to make them such a natural fit for each other? They work in very different ways: drawing erupts from the mechanical energy of the drawing body, while photography reveals itself in the contours of light and shade, over time. So, is the difference between these two mediums one in kindor in degree?

One similarity between drawing and photography is that they are two mediums that have lead the participation of the arts in the sciences. Sixteenth century anatomists and botanists often worked with artists and printers to produce images that would support their written work.[1] The mid-19th century text The Pencil of Natureoutlined all the ways in which photography could be useful to collectors for documenting their collections. These museological benefits proved doubly useful in the documenting of maladies. “ Photography became the paradigm of the scientist’s true retina” and a mantra for, among others, Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot, whose pioneering work in neurology was heavily reliant on his photographic practice.[2]

This shared point of reference supports two ideas about the relationship between photography and drawing. First, that they share some quality, by virtue of the technical properties of their medium, that allows humans to see things for what they ‘really’ are. The second point, which follows from the first, is that photography and drawing can both be used as supplements and/or complements to the naked human senses. This is an idea that actually has much deeper historical roots that go back to Galileo’s use of the telescope to describe the surface of the moon. In the Siderius Nuncius, Galileo not only used drawings to enhance his textual arguments (which historians often credit as the first example of drawing entering into astronomy) but he spends a great deal of time in his writing elaborating how a telescope works, and what it might be used for. This three-pronged approach at laying out a scientific exegesis introduced the idea that the human senses alone were not sufficient in grasping all that the natural world has on display, and by extension, that human vision was in itself incomplete and perhaps not to be trusted.[3]

Today we continue this legacy of questioning the relationship between optics and representation but with an added emphasis on technology. The proliferation of digital images and the media that support them, and their move into mainstream politics and culture, all beg the question of where representation happens, and who — or what — controls it. Scholarship on issues of gender and sexuality, coloniality, and identity are useful here in thinking about the non-optic or extra-optic ways that an image can come into being. Through shared interest in vision as a mode of objectification, race and gender-critical scholars have posed effective challenges to the regimes of vision, representation, and reality.

Luciana Parisi and Tiziana Terranova have taken this perspective as the foundation from which to argue for an expanded engagement with digital images and aesthetics. [4]  They credit these critical canons with opening up the field of image study to questions beyond representation and reality, and note that this line of inquiry also has a historical legacy in the philosophical investigation of the materiality of images themselves.[5] Freed from the dialectical questions of representation and reality we can begin to engage with digital images not as “ deceptive, unreal simulations, threatening embodied experience” but instead for the ways in which images more fully speak to the experiences and potentials of bodies — emotional, fleshy, gendered, etc. — in space.[6]

Parisi and Terranova believe that in place of questions of representation and reality what digital aesthetics can more productively address itself to are questions of affect and how affect as a digital aesthetic situates itself in sociocultural contexts. Central to the idea of affect is what Brian Massumi has noted as the gap between content and effect; that “ the strength or duration of an image’s effect is not logically connected to the content in any straightforward way.” [7] The break between content and effect (or our inability to reconcile the two) becomes more acutely linked to materiality in the digital image. In the digital image layers of abstracted code and logic become the viewable image, and the means by which that image appears on phones or screens is always hidden, out of view. This makes asking the question of where affective relations take place, or are organised, particularly tricky.

It’s also a question that becomes more important as we come to rely on larger data sets to make digital images. The 2009 unveiling of the Google Earth Engine revealed that Google had recently been successful in downloading and cataloguing over forty years of satellite data, elevation data and atmospheric data — petabytes of information. This information, they explained, “ had been difficult to get access to … and there’s so much data that even if you could access it, it’s very difficult to analyse.” [8] The tools that made this possible also power Google Earth and are key to Google’s philanthropic projects, tracking environmental risk factors such as malaria and deforestation, many times in conjunction with policy makers.

Hito Steyerl has written of the problematic use of big data at the levels of government and bureaucracy. She calls it apophenia, or the phenomenon of perceiving patterns in random data sets. Steyerl notes that in today’s society the picture that we create of ourselves and that is visible to policymakers and modes of governance is one that is taken as definitive, despite being admittedly “ probabilistic projections.” [9] “ In practice you become coextensive with the data-constellation you project,” Steyerl writes; “ Social scores of all different kinds — credit scores, academic scores, threat scores — as well as commercial and military pattern-of-life observations impact the real lives of real people, both reformatting and radicalising social hierarchies by ranking, filtering, and classifying.” [10]

Works by Nicholas O’Brien, Jesse Maclean, and the Scandinavian Institute for Computational Vandalism (S.I.C.V.)— which all featured in the exhibition Contours at The Photographers’ Gallery in spring this year — can elicit a number of different productive readings from the relationship between drawing and photography. I think where they are most usefully considered is in how they might be seen to take aim at precisely the gap between content and effect, material and meaning. Nicholas O’Brien makes use of a free version of a popular CAD modeling software often used by professionals engaged in spatial design. His movements and on-screen creations are perverted, unimaginable, un-realisable; their images, art. Jesse McLean assembles and dissembles images of Iraq to pull at the seams of the sociolinguistic qualifications that are supposed to give images in circulation meaning and potency. And yet arguably the effect of some images remain — harrowing and uncanny in their hollow incompletion. S.I.C.V.’s algorithm knocks down the mysticism that’s attributed to realistic capture and representation by playing on what Matthew Fuller has described as computers’ stupidity; stupid in the sense that “ Computers … do exactly as they are told. Their capacity for memory, like this function of stupefied perfect recall, is what makes them so effective for archiving, and indeed so disturbing as an agent of social control.” [11]

Seen in this way, the works in the exhibition adopt a variety of approaches and materials to challenge ideas of meaning: of what meaning is, how it is created, and how it functions materially. Drawing and photography has historically emphasised the importance of the image as the site for meaning. We look at a photograph to verify that something has happened. Police sketches are compiled from oral statements to help track down perpetrators. New media artists like those exhibiting in Contours add a healthy dose of skepticism to this practice, not by investigating the images they create but by searching out the logical boundaries of the image as it is being created. At what point can we say a digital process congeals into the image? As technology allows for images increasingly outside of the human sensible range — from satellites in space, from uninhabitable parts of the earth, from deep inside our bodies — keeping an eye towards the site of representation becomes our most important critical task.[12]

Nicole Sansone

Nicole Sansone is a PhD student in the Digital Culture Unit at the Centre for Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths. Her PhD research explores the aesthetics and epistemology of sky imagery in landscape art and technoculture. Previously Nicole was a curator at IMT Gallery in London and the Assistant Curator of General Electric’s corporate art collection in New York. She has written for The Creator’s Project, Full-Stop, Furtherfield, V Magazine Blog, and Sluice__, among others. She is currently co-organising a symposium on simulation aesthetics, technology, and ecology to take place in London, Spring 2017.


[1] Mary G. Winkler and Van Helden Albert, “ Representing the Heavens: Galileo and Visual Astronomy,” Isis, n.d. The authors also note that this practice already in development in the late 15thcentury; see Schultz, Art and Anatomy in Renaissance Italy.

[2] For more on this, see: Georges Didi-Huberman and J. M. Charcot, Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtrière(Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2003).

[3] For more on this, see: Joseph Vogl, “ Becoming-Media: Galileo’s Telescope, ” trans. Brian Hanrahan, Grey Room, Inc., New German Media Theory, No. 29, no. Fall, 2007 (n.d.): 14–25.

[4] For an excellent overview of this argument see: Luciana Parisi and Tiziana Terranova, “ A Matter of Affect: Digital Images and the Cybernetic Re-Wiring of Vision,” Parallax 7, no. 4 (October 2001): 122–27, doi:10.1080/13534640110089294.

[5] “ … it would be misleading to think of the material qualities of the image as a new phenomenon exclusively associated with the emergence of digital media, as if digitisation constituted a mere technical innovation in the homogenous negative tradition of vision and its relation to the body. … It is possible to refer to another history of images, vision and their relation to the body which is less concerned with central or subjective perspectives. Lucretius’s simulacra, for example, affirm the sensible qualities of images, sounds, and smells. Baruch Spinoza refers to images as compositions of ‘anonymous particles’ endowed with the power to affect. Bergson’s matter is defined as an ‘aggregate of images’, where a body is ‘an image which acts like other images, receiving and giving back movement’, and therefore a centre of action that cannot give birth to a representation. Walter Benjamin’s work also expresses a preoccupation with the tactile qualities of photography and its capacity to capture images which escape natural vision; and Luce Irigaray’s asserts that the shadows on the Platonic cave are no reflections of a higher reality but the essence of matter itself.” Quoted from ibid., 124–125.

[6] Ibid., 125.

[7] Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, Post-Contemporary Interventions (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 218.

[8] Google Developers, Introduction to Planetary-Scale Geospatial Analysis with Google Earth Engine, accessed April 13, 2016,

[9] “ A Sea of Data: Apophenia and Pattern (Mis-)Recognition | E-Flux,” accessed May 20, 2016,

[10] Ibid.

[11] “ Vandalist Iconophilia,” accessed June 14, 2016,

[12] This is a lesson, in part, already explored in the dismanting of photography’s truth claim, and it is worth revisiting again with the rise of the digital image. For more on this, see and Susan Sontag’s On Photography; Tom Gunning’s What’s the point of an index? or, Faking Photographs; Lev Manovich’s What is Digital Cinema?, for e.g.

Tracing the Absent Body: Jolana Havelkova’s “First Time Skating”
New WritingOne Image

Tracing the Absent Body: Jolana Havelkova’s “First Time Skating”

A writer selects one image from our current exhibitions and responds to it. For our Spring 2016 programme, we have invited students from the Department of English at the University of Westminster, London. Here, Isabelle Coy-Dibley selects an image by Jolana Havelkova, which features in our current exhibition Double Take: Drawing and Photography.

Like a fingerprint trapped in ice, the unique contours of a body inscribed in a transitory moment, imprinting what will be lost once the ice thaws, fleetingly capturing a temporal and spatial pattern drawn by an absent body refusing to be forgotten.

The motif of fragmentation, shattering the coherency of a unified body, became the visual rhetoric of modernist art, rupturing the sense of totality within the individual subject. Havelkova’s First Time Skating extends and surpasses this rupture through the disembodiment of the body in its entirety. This displacement leads to a complete absence of the human subject that arguably literalises how Western society ‘is typified by a certain “ disembodied” style of life,’[1] where the onset of machines and technology transcends the need to feel as connected and embodied within the material body. The traces left by the ice-skater’s blades, with the skater nowhere to be found, exemplifies the state of our current culture, calling attention to our “ decorporealised” existence; to how we have lost our sense of the body.

Someone has felt the making of these markings. Markings that signify a process of becoming-a-body, cutting a body out of movement, feeling the wind flit across the skin, breath visible as it escapes the lips, muscles contracting, possibly unsure, unsteady, unbalanced; threatening to fall as the body gathers grace and learns to glide, never staying static.  

Yet strangely, the absent body, through this very corporeal absence, becomes a defining subject of the work, materializing as the photograph’s frame. Reference to the human subject is constructed through the absence of the body. The spectator grapples to find meaning through questioning the existence of the absent skater – what type of lived experience leaves such traces? How did they move, perceive this world, “ be” within this scene? Their essence, whoever the skater may be, is encapsulated within the traces, whilst their absence heavily borders the photograph, creating an enigmatic absent-present body that cannot be forgotten at the same time as it cannot be remembered. Similarly, the elusive subject questionably articulates a dual position of inhabiting both past and present within the photographic medium, whereby photography always operates within the past tense by capturing a moment for future observation, whilst simultaneously being discussed within present terms when the captured moment is exhibited. The absent body, similarly ever-present as the unforgettable bordering of the gestural marks, highlights the temporal displacement of all photographic subjects; the simultaneous presence and absence of the subject matter in which the static subject is at once frozen in time, always in a present moment that happened in the past. And what of the cuts and gashes, the beautifully violent marks left behind to signify the absent body, which are similarly caught before their approaching death as they face the melting away of their traces?

The image of two dancers etched in ice, brutally carved and split in two by the slash of the ice-skater’s blades. The spectator, drawn to their inscription, their meaning; their embodiments, creates the traces of subjectivities in their own rights, in the absence of a body. Even now the eye desires a form, to make bodies out of lines – the traces materialising like the outline of a ballerina, stretching for the other’s touch.

Since there are no visual cues to hint at the ice-skater’s identity, preventing the spectator from constructing a specific subject, the weight of subjectivity falls upon their residual markings. The gaze has been subverted from the body and its preferred objectification by the spectator, and yet, by displacing the body’s position in front of the lens, the gestural marks become the epitome of the absent subject – the remaining meaningful essence of the absent body.

Cuts, gashes, lacerations that literalise the split in self through the fragmentation of traces never entirely connected to one another, but violently sliced into imperfect contours, refuting the circular, never-ending connectivity of subjectivity.

Denied access to the body, the traces take on the body’s subjectivity, usurping and relegating it to the sidelines. Yet, through this displacement, the absent body exceeds the confines of the grid, the rigid placement of the photograph’s frame, since it cannot be restricted or forced to adhere to the photograph’s aesthetics. The body is no longer constricted but present in its absence, surrounding the photograph and exuding meaning through the breaks in the traces; the gaps in signification. The body becomes excess, exceeding the borders, exceeding the boundaries, exceeding the gaze.

The body cuts itself into the ice, etching the lines of its existence. In its absence, you will remember its being – the remaining marks will always lead you to the body’s disappearance and the fissure this creates. Until the ice thaws, the elusive presence of the absent body is omnipresent.

– Isabelle Coy-Dibley

[1] Leder, D (1990) The Absent Body. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, p. 3.

Isabelle Coy-Dibley is a PhD student at the University of Westminster. In 2012, she gained a First class honours in her BA English Literature degree from the University of Westminster. Following this, she completed an MA in English: 1850-Present at King’s College London in 2013 and an MA in Gender, Sexuality and Culture at Birkbeck, University of London in 2014. Her research interests are predominantly within contemporary women’s experimental literature with an interdisciplinary theoretical approach, presently exploring concepts of female corporeal memory and bodily semantics and methods of inscription upon the female body. She has presented at multiple conferences both in the UK and internationally.

The Image and the Letter: Nancy Hellebrand’s “Y”
New WritingOne Image

The Image and the Letter: Nancy Hellebrand’s “Y”

A writer selects one image from our current exhibitions and responds to it. For our Spring 2016 programme, we have invited students from the Department of English at the University of Westminster, London. Here, Sally Willow selects an image by Nancy Hellebrand, which features in our current exhibition Double Take: Drawing and Photography.

Take One: Writing by Nancy Hellebrand

The line has been traced: starting top-left, looping down into a heavy curve that rises, doubling-up lightly on the right to begin a swift and certain downward stroke with slight faltering hesitation at its stem. It is underlined for clarity at the base.

Yes, it is the base. The base of a handwritten letter Y – the underscore confirms it. But without it, without that delineation, might I be looking at an “ h” if I turned the image the other way up? A letter out of the context of a word, a sentence, is nothing more than an inscribed shape. A pattern of lines and spaces that I’ve been taught to understand as Y. Or “ h”, from a different perspective.

Presented in portrait, the camera marks it as Y. A lone and single Y. Is this a question:  “ Why”? The blank and empty space around it suggests the weight of that question and the innumerable events, objects, ideas to which it could be applied – the unspeakable silence that both echoes within the question and haunts its lack of answers. Although it looks more like a Y of certainty and hope with its bold strokes and positive positioning in the space.  A “ Yes” then, perhaps.

Take Two: Nancy Hellebrand, 4

I double back. In my certainty that I am being presented with the letter Y – oriented by the underscore; defined by the collection’s title: Writing – I have overlooked the title of the photograph, 4. Are these lines, marks, strokes intended to signify a number not a letter?  It doesn’t look like a 4. Not in the typographical sense that I’ve come to recognise instinctively and unconsciously: the sharp angles and enclosed triangular shape. Yet I’ve caught myself, in my own handwriting on several occasions since my first encounter with this image, drawing out a curved and open number 4, just like this one.

Double Take: ‘She continues to be driven to see beyond that which is seen’ (Nancy Hellebrand)

The letter is double: it is the visual representation of a sound that we interpret within a series of images and sounds to signify as language. In ancient alphabets across the world letters, or their pictorial representations, carried symbolic meanings alongside and prior to their identification with particular sounds. One such alphabetic system is the Celtic Ogham: its symbol Ioho has been identified with the letters I, J and Y.  Ioho is the final letter/symbol in the ancient Ogham alphabet and is named after the Yew tree, with which it shares symbolic resonances. Both Ioho and Yew occupy the position between the beginning and the end in their respective sequences, Ioho in the cycle of the Ogham and Yew in the cycle of the seasons – symbolising death and rebirth within the cycle of life. Again we are doubling, slipping, generating an excess of meaning and signification. Ioho, the Y and the Yew: aurally, the “ I” and the “ you”; death in life and life in death endlessly entwined.

Doubling: the image and the letter. The image of the letter – its isolation giving rise not to a dearth of meaning and significance, but engendering an abundance, a proliferation and multiplication of meanings and possibilities. Its isolation requires the viewer to shift the focus from a visual representation of a sound designed to be read as part of a signifying sequence, to a pictorial image with multiple layers of meaning and significance of its own.

The camera lens removes the image from its context, reducing it to a series of lines, a dark shape on a lighter space with nothing but silence all around.  Taken out of sequence its meaning is redoubled, made mysterious and uncertain. A polyvalence is suggested which requires double-looking to interpret, yet it can never be brought fully into the sharpness of focus that would determine a singularity of meaning. It remains open to ambiguity and an excess that cannot be resolved or reduced.

you are


i am


Who writes? Who is the reader? Who makes the meaning, on [off] the page?

I catch you. Your eye and your attention with a word written: in your voice. Who is speaking.  It is your voice. The words transformed in your mouth in your memory. From what they were. You speak the sound.  You speak the silence. From what they were you transform: them.  Make new.  Begin again from here.  Hear.  You see

Nancy Hellebrand’s Writing series, particularly this image 4, asks us to look again at the symbols and structures we encounter every day and perhaps fail to really see. By isolating the component parts of language and placing them in the position of an image for the camera she foregrounds the pictorial qualities of the hand-drawn letter.  By removing the letter from a sequence she encourages us to see it anew and explore unexpected layers of meaning to produce alternative readings: to “ see beyond that which is seen”.

– Sally Willow

Co-creating in the Networks: A Reply to “What is 21st Century Photography?”
New WritingPhotography Science and Technology

Co-creating in the Networks: A Reply to “What is 21st Century Photography?”

n this new essay, writer and researcher Andrew Dewdney responds to Daniel Rubinstein’s essay What is 21st Century Photography? published by The Photographers’ Gallery in July 2015. 


Daniel Rubinstein has initiated a timely debate on the future of 21st century photography, which needs to be continued and I hope this critical rejoinder is read with this in mind. The essay conjures a complex and convincing vision of how photography now serves a new ‘unknown and invisible puppet master’ and I am with Daniel one hundred percent in the idea that we need to think very, very differently about what we now take to be the photographic image. But (there always is one), in time honoured critical fashion, agreeing with the point of an essay doesn’t mean agreeing fully with its argument.

In summary the essay says that the knowledge paradigm of the European Enlightenment and its representational logic in photography is unravelling. This, it is argued, is a consequence of the new conditions of global neo-liberal production allied to the new technological apparatuses of computing. Analogue photography is seen as a product of Industrial Capitalism and its mechanical technology, expressed as representation. Algorithmic photography is an outcome of the post-industrial, global mode of production, expressed by computational networks.  The essay’s conclusion to this state of affairs is twofold. Firstly that 21st century photography is freed from the burden of representation, which can no longer contain the conditions of the real. Secondly, that 21st century photography names a new immersive economy of the human subject in which the real world is to be understood as nothing more than ‘randomised information in a chaotic conflation of bodies and machines’.

This is a decidedly pessimistic, yet intoxicating position to land us all in and is the inevitable outcome of treating photography in equal measure as technology and as philosophy. Such a theoretical approach creates a strong impression but makes light of historical specificity and the complexity of human agency.

Photographic histories

Photography never has been a single technical entity nor a unified philosophic vision. What we have taken as photography thus far is a hybrid of related technical apparatuses, social values, cultural codes, media forms and contexts of reception. Yes, 20th century photography as it came to be organised played a central part in industrial capitalism’s dominant and ideological modes of reproduction. But, equally, 20th century photography was an ascending art medium taken up by the modernist artist and given exchange value in the art market. It is crucial to take account of the interrelationships and contradictions of art and reproduction if photography in the 21st century is to be better understood. Art is no more an autonomous realm of freedom than photography is a slave to representation.

Historically photography functioned to technically register the visible in the photographic index (one of the much derided horsemen of the apocalypse in Rubinstein’s essay) and control the ways in which the visible could be recognised through the cultural codes of visuality (the other three damned semiotic horseman). Photography in the 19th and 20th century was tied to representation as part of the preeminent field of vision, but it was also entailed in countervailing visual strategies, expressed by a modernist avant-garde as well as sporadically in political agitprop. On the one hand photography was made to function as part of industrial capitalism’s necessary mode of reproduction of the relations of production and on the other, it was regarded by a liberal artistic elite as a formal aesthetic medium.

In effect photography was divided into scientific, political and aesthetic knowledge domains and further separated across the practices of private, public and professional life. This set of divisions of knowledge, labour and the human self, formed the structure of modernist culture, in which the newly emancipated individual was at the centre. It is this order of modernism which is now unravelling in the face of global computational networks and which demands new understandings.

The politics of photography

The problem with this modern settlement, in which the individual became the centre of cultural meaning, was that it involved a deceit of epic historical proportions being played out upon the labouring classes and social reality. The emancipation of the individual and the creation of modern class society, that the engine of capitalism demanded, came at the cost of the collective human condition. The exploitation of the industrial working classes by the system of private ownership of the means of production, the profit principle and wage labour, institutionalised inequality. Yet in a rising democracy that structural inequality had to be made to appear natural and inevitable. Less than fifty yeas after Niépce, Talbot and Daguerre fixed the photographic image, photography was shackled to the worldview of capital rather than to the cause of the emancipation of labour. As Benjamin pointed out the revolutionary aspect of photography and later film was to bring the masses closer to reality, whereas for capital it was crucial to keep the organised working class ignorant of its own reality and photography was enlisted to play its part. In photography this political slight of hand was performed paradoxically by aligning photography with representation and objective truth, whilst at the same time giving to photography the status of an aesthetic medium of subjective expression. In late 19th century photography the working classes were surveyed, documented and classified by an objectifying camera. Conversely an aesthetic lens explored individual subjectivity in the space and time made possible by the exploitation of labour. Only with rising wages and relative affluence of the mid twentieth century did workers en-masse get to photograph themselves through the industrialised and semi-automated snapshot.

Yes, photography in the 19th and 20th centuries was structured by the new institutions of social reform and made to serve as the official mode of democratic and scientific representation. But, to make the point again, the necessary corollary to this was that the technical apparatus necessary to photography’s objectifying role as representation, was simultaneously the medium of interior and individualist subjectivity in formalist photography.

What we now call fine art photography was inaugurated, practised and consumed by an educated class fraction and their photographic output has been accepted selectively as the historical canon of photography. The photographic canon was fashioned in the image of modernity and its formalist rhetoric. In essence the European/North American photographic canon was shaped by and expresses a historical aesthetic and consciousness defined by modernism.

The standard history of photography does not examine this contradiction, in which photography is flipped back and forth appearing here as an apparatus of transparent and mechanical reproduction and there as an aesthetic mode for the exploration of interiority. Really we should see photography, then as now as the paradoxical sum of its technological apparatuses and cultural organisation, rather than simply the ascendency of representation.

Aesthetic Modernism and the Avant-Garde

Aesthetic modernism was founded upon a rejection of the language of neo-classicism, rooted in the academies and based upon universal notions of beauty. Aesthetic modernism rewrote the rules of representation in order to explore an authenticity aligned to subjective intuition and unique vision. Aesthetic modernism promoted the artist rather than artisan, art rather than craft as the means to explore modern individual consciousness, whether in painting, sculpture, literature or photography. The exploration of the psychology of social life was left to the dynamic of the time based-mediums of film and video and their public forms in cinema and television.

“ Currently there is a deep chasm between the computational code of software and the cultural codes of visuality in which very little is known.”

Rubinstein’s essay, What is 21st Century Photography, which so clearly identifies the current moment of radical rupture, formulates its response to this situation in terms of an earlier moment of modernist infatuation with machines and technologies. The idea that 21st century photography names ‘an immersive economy that offers an entirely new way to inhabit materiality and its relationship to bodies, machines and brains’ is strongly echoed in the Futurist manifesto of 1909. Here Marinetti asserted, ‘We stand on the last promontory of the centuries! Why should we look back, when what we want is to break down the mysterious doors of the Impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed’.

The comparison between the essay and the Futurist manifesto goes further when considering what the immersive economy of the algorithm will reveal. In the essay we are told  ‘we come to understand that the “ real world” is nothing more than so much information plucked out of chaos: the randomised and chaotic conflation of bits of matters, strands of DNA sub-atomic particles and computer code.’ In the Futurist manifesto there was a similar recognition of giving oneself up to the absurd: ‘Let’s break out of the horrible shell of wisdom and throw ourselves like pride-ripened fruit into the wide, contorted mouth of the wind! Let’s give ourselves utterly to the Unknown, not in desperation but only to replenish the deep wells of the Absurd!’

How does this avant-garde embrace of chaos in a photography, defined as a new form of consciousness, stand up alongside the more analytical and political idea that this same photography is  ‘the exploration of the labor practices that shape this world through mass-production, computation, self-replication and pattern recognition’. What kind of exploration is this and what form might it take? Currently there is a deep chasm between the computational code of software and the cultural codes of visuality in which very little is known.  Clearly the aim of practical criticism is to develop new understandings of precisely how computation is constitutive of meaning and moreover how the power of the new ‘puppet master’ of the algorithmic image is wielded. Essentially the task of unmasking power focuses upon the new means of reproduction involving the modes of production, the movement of capital, organised labour, military and political institutions. There is an organised, hierarchical social world out there in which art and photography are politically and ideologically entailed and yes, whilst the world is chaotic it is also structured and inequality stalks the world like never before. The investigation of Google, Facebook, Youtube and Instagram, for starters, would seem to be a good point of departure for a progressive investigative practice of photography.

Network cultures

Modernism as the aesthetic and historical logic of progressive time is now confronted by the Internet as the default of knowledge and communication. Modernism as a rationale of contemporary art has reached its critical limit because it has no means of engaging with the decentred nature of networks and data.  Hollowed out by commodification, modernism is recycled as heritage in the global art market, property development, designer interiors, new art museums and affordable art fairs. Knowledge and agency, however, now travel along hybrid network lines, challenging the received authority of the cultural institutions of contemporary art and photography.

The “ networked image” gives us a new historic opportunity to grasp photography as part of capital and labour’s system of reproduction, which is to say part of a system of power. The politics of the historic analogue photographic mode of production were contradictory and opaque enough and those of the algorithmic image are doubly so. Not only is the field of representation still operative and in crisis, but in addition networked computers now have agency to read, sort and circulate images. In the simulation of the photographic image in computational systems the representational image still disciplines and excludes meaning, but in more complex ways than its mechanical predecessor. We are indeed stuck in a general intellectual crisis of representational systems, which the essay What is 21st Century Photography tries to move us beyond. However, this global condition of the algorithmic image continues to function within the field of representation, precisely because it remains as yet the humanly understandable surface of communication operating within common sense.

It is not the stark choice between the past and the future we are presented with but a new complex moment of recycling the past and inventing possible futures. In a time where the future horizon has shrunk to that of the present and the past is endlessly memorialised, it is not a choice between a photographic past of representation and a future of immersive subjectivities. In the paradoxical present representations, data and code all multiply equally and exponentially.

The new conditions of accelerated capitalism and its computational logic does demand that we un-think photography as it has been known. This requires new research strategies, which go beyond enquiries by single academic knowledge disciplines or the individual practices of photography and art. A transdisciplinary approach to understanding the interface between mathematical and cultural coding is needed in order to engage productively with the flat topology of the computer screen. A complete rethink of the boundaries between art, media, society and technology is needed. Art as photography and photography as art is a busted flush trumped by the Internet and its networks. The job now is for the cultural institutions of modernism, galleries, museums and universities to seriously plug into the network and its users. Artists, photographers, curators, students and academics have a great opportunity before then to collaborate and co-create with network users and groups, in order not only to make the networks of power visible but to create new publics based upon equality of knowledge, access and experience.

Notes on Photography and Death: Mourning, Spectacle, Evidence
New WritingThe Death DetectivesThe Digital Image

Notes on Photography and Death: Mourning, Spectacle, Evidence

Image: Marfa Ilinitchna Riazantseva, 1937 © Archives centrales FSB et Archives nationales de la Fédération de Russie GARF, Moscou, copies publiées à partir des archives de l’Association internationale Memorial, Moscou.

To coincide with The Death Detectives, a recent event at The Photographers’ Gallery, we have invited each speaker to contribute their thoughts to our blog. Here, Anthony Luvera shares his.


The inevitability and unpredictability of death is a fundamental part of what it means to be human. With much of the project of living spent seeking security and attempting to obtain and sustain control, it is the unknowingness of the timing and experience of death that makes it so confronting. Yet, attitudes to death are culturally constructed and coping mechanisms are formed through the meaning systems of social institutions.

The social theorist Chris Shilling has argued that ‘conditions of high modernity have made the modern individual’s confrontation with death especially difficult… Death has become a particular existential problem for people as a result of modern forms of embodiment, rather than being a universal problem for human beings which assumes the same form irrespective of time or place’ (2003: 153). When once the occasion of death was highly social, with public displays of mourning and events commonly taking place with the body of the deceased laid out to mark the occasion, now it is sequestered and privatised within institutions, and understood to be a problem for specialist knowledge and medical science. As the sociologist Norbert Elias observed, ‘never before have people died as noiselessly and hygienically as today… and never in social conditions fostering so much solitude’ (1985: 85). Where once religion provided a ‘sacred canopy… a shared vision of the world, the body and self-identity’ (Shilling 2003: 154) the increasingly secularised formation of Western societies has marginalised the communal spaces for death that once anaesthetised dread about the meaningless of living in the face of the unknowable event of death.

The photographic medium is underwritten by death, in both the production and consumption of images across the contexts of art, science, commerce and personal photography, and in analysis of the histories and ontology of the photograph. Deathly analogies and characterisations have riven considerations of the photograph since its inception in the mid-nineteenth century to today. From as early as 1840 when Hippolyte Bayard posed as a corpse in protest at the lack of recognition by the French government for his photogenic inventions, through to Andre Bazin who described photography as form of embalming life in his influential essay, ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’ (1960). Susan Sontag likened to the indexicality of the photograph to a death mask, writing ‘all photographs are memento mori that enable participation in another’s mortality’ (1977: 154). And more recently, historians such as Geoffrey Batchen (1999; 2004; 2009), Christian Metz (1985), Margaret Iversen (1994) and Audrey Linkman (2011) – to name a just a few – have all spoken of how the deathly qualities of photographs pose an uncanniness that might be seen as a return of the dead.

The strongest influence on the talk of death that circulates in ontological discussions about photography reverberates out of Roland Barthes’s, Camera Lucida (1980). In this text – arguably one of the cornerstones of contemporary photographic theory – Barthes has this to say:

All those young photographers who are at work in the world, determined upon the capture of actuality, do not know they are agents of Death. This is the way in which our time assumes Death… For Death must be somewhere in society; if it is no longer (or less intently) in religion, it must be elsewhere; perhaps in this image which produces Death while trying to preserve life. Contemporary with the withdrawal of rites, Photography may correspond to the intrusion, in our modern society, of an asymbolic Death, outside of religion, outside of ritual, a kind of abrupt dive into literal Death. Life / Death: the paradigm is reduced to a simple click, the one separating the initial pose from the final print. (Barthes 1980: 92)

Barthes stretches this death analogy throughout his meditation on the qualities of the photograph – written while in mourning for the death of his mother – leading a number of critics to attest it has produced an overbearing melancholic tone in much subsequent consideration of the photographic medium. He argues that the temporality peculiar to the photograph is best thought of as an expression of the tautology of the French grammatical term future anterior, which loosely translates as ‘That has been’. Photography is a past tense medium. As they can only ever be seen after the actual moment depicted, photographs will always intimate death.

Barthes’s comments about the marginalisation of space for death are just as relevant to our conversation here. As society has become increasingly secularised since the mid-nineteenth century – corresponding to the arrival of the photographic medium – space for Death is now primarily carved out in various forms of production and consumption of photographic representation. Communal responses and collective rites and rituals for death, dying and mourning have been tidied away while the hunger to view representations of death and dying has grown: reality programmes set in accident and emergency departments, documentaries about war, websites set up as spaces for memorialisation, and exhibitions in art and photography galleries – not to mention the deluge of violent films and television series that has arisen in recent decades. The forces of consumption that drive the production of the spectacle of death in contemporary culture might be likened to a fissure that forges its way around a blockage, as public audiences continue to seek out systems and spaces to try to obtain knowledge of death.

So, how are we meant to view photographs of death when they are displayed in public? Burden of Proof: The Construction of Visual Evidence is an exhibition of images produced for very different contexts to the one in which they are now on show. The curator Diane Dufour contends this is an exhibition about the visual systems that gave rise to the production and articulation of the images – the product of professional practices of “ evidence” as constructed for the various quantitative purposes of judiciary systems. The crux of this is the interplay of a reliance on the image as documentation and the image as persuasion when tied to specific narratives, measurements, calculations, diagrams, testimonies or the architecture of a courtroom. While all photographs provide evidence of a sort – this happened then – the truth claims of the images in this exhibition are especially vulnerable when seen out of their original contexts. For as much as these images purport to show or reveal something about the act or effect of violent crime, it is what they lack that reveals both the ability and the ineptitude of images to harbour notions of truth.

As a consideration of the role of images in the construction of evidence, Burden of Proof – by stealth or design – appears to me to do just as much to provide space for death as it satiates a public desire to see and to try to know death. To view images of or about death may not necessarily get us any closer to the truth of death, but the sting of their temporality is acute as they evoke the deathly riddles of the ontology of the photograph.

Anthony Luvera

Anthony Luvera is an Australian artist, writer and educator based in London. He is Course Director of BA (Hons) Photography at Coventry University. His photographic work has been exhibited widely in galleries, public spaces and festivals, including the British Museum, London Underground’s Art on the Underground, National Portrait Gallery London, Belfast Exposed Photography, Australian Centre for Photography, Malmö Fotobiennal, Brighton Photo Fringe, PhotoIreland and Les Rencontres D’Arles Photographie. His writing appears regularly in a wide range of publications, including Photoworks, Source and Photographies. Anthony also facilitates workshops and gives lectures for the public education programmes of the National Portrait Gallery, The Photographers’ Gallery, and Barbican Art Gallery.


Bazin, A. (1960) ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’. Film Quarterly 13 (4), 4-9

Barthes, R. (1980) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. London: Jonathan Cape

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This is the Life I Got Left
New WritingThe Death Detectives

This is the Life I Got Left

To coincide with The Death Detectives, a recent event at The Photographers’ Gallery, we have invited each speaker to contribute their thoughts to our blog. Here, Matt Gieve introduces the acronym YOLO, its historial precedents and the urgency that death places on life.

In the cult 1979 film The Warriors, Swan – the leader of the gang – and Mercy, his soon-to-be-girl, walk along a New York subway track having just escaped the police. After a series of jibes about her promiscuity Mercy confronts him:

“ Look, what do you got against me? You’ve been picking on me all night.”

“ I don’t like the way you live’ he says, “ I don’t think you can remember who you get on Friday and Saturday nights. I don’t think you can remember what they look like.”

“ Sometimes I can and sometimes I can’t.” She replies “ Who gives a damn? I see what’s happening next door and down the block. Belly hanging down, five kids, cockroaches in the cupboard. I’ll tell you what I want. I want something now. This is the life I got left. You know what I mean? You get it Warrior, huh? Get it?”

There are many limits on life but the most binding of these is time. Death gives life urgency. A sentiment encapsulated succinctly by the latter-day philosopher of excess, Drake in his 2011 single The Motto, where the motto is ‘YOLO: You Only Live Once’. Such is the urgency he uses and acronym to save time.

While YOLO has since become a hackneyed internet meme, an ironic hashtag: ‘just drank a full-fat Coke, YOLO’, it also captures a particular cultural attitude toward death. If we can assume Drake’s major preoccupation is not with the biological fact of mortality so much as the imperative this gives to the living, then it can be read a rap version of the aphorism “ you might be run over by a bus tomorrow.”

Death says: “ Don’t leave it till later, do it now. This is the life I got left. You know what I mean?”

I was reassured, for the purposes of this seeming a sufficiently high-brow piece, to find that YOLO is originally attributed to Goethe, appearing in his 1774 play Clavigo, as, Man lebt nur einmal in der Welt.” – One lives but once in the world (or to give it the Drake treatment, OLBOITW). It then made its way through various iterations, such as Mae West’s longhand version, “ You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough” (YOLOBIYDIROIE), to Drake, to whom it finally fell to bring some much needed simplicity (YOLO). It appears that this imperative to haste is something that people have felt in different historical times, that despite great differences in the way we live, some features of life may be shared: a reassuring communion over the ages?

Phillipe Aries, the great French social historian of death, argues not. Death, like life, is different now. And in fact it is one thing we’ve been getting worse at. Contrary to the prevailing direction of change over the last millennium, death has been getting wilder over time: transforming from the comparative comfort of the tame death in the early Middle Ages, through various configurations to the forbidden or denied death of today (or of the 1970s).

Aries points to a range of factors to explain this shift: To our waning familiarity with death, both forestalled by medicine and ever more private when it does occur; and to sweeping secularisation eroding a once impeccable confidence in life beyond death. Bound up with this, the consequences of scientific revolution, and in particular the insights of Darwin repositioning human kind within nature itself. The human is now so much more animal, a biological organism with no soul to outlive its flesh. If it were not true before, nowadays we REALLY do only live once.

While this might address the question of Only Living Once, it does not fully speak to the question of who it is that is doing so. The final and crucial factor in our shifting experience of death is the emergence of the individual: the self in its modern form. This change has dual effects. First, the process of greater individualisation starts to undermine a once assumed position in a greater shared continuity, though either family or clan, increasingly isolating the individual within the bounds of their own lifetime. Second, the emphasis on the individual-as-agent leads to what psychoanalyst Adam Phillips describes as the impossible Liberal ideal of self-authorship, the idea that our lives and our actions are or should be entirely of our own choosing. Adding pressure upon the individual to make the most of this most limited resource. The greatest sin now is to have not experienced, to have gone without. A duty that each person bears to themselves. Charging YOLO with ever greater urgency. The effect of this as Aries suggests, is the very modern possibility of one’s life being felt to be a failure:

“ Today the adult experiences sooner or later, and increasingly it is sooner, the feeling that he has failed, that his adult life has failed to achieve any of the promises of his adolescence”.

And this for Aries is why death has become so unspeakably frightening, as he puts it: “ When people started fearing death in earnest, they stopped talking about it.”

The obvious irony of this circumstance is that, notwithstanding misfortune, we live longer now than ever before. We have, in Mercy’s words, “ more life left”. Yet we find ourselves in the peculiar position whereby death is at once further off and at the same time more imminent.

The risk is that urgency of too great an order may sabotage the full life it appears to recommend. YOLO and the attitudes that underlie it are in some ways self-defeating; by further stoking feelings of haste they provoke either a paralysis of choice or a frantic attempt to fulfil multiple possibilities to the detriment of all.

This paradox is foreshadowed in de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America:

“ It is strange to see with what feverish ardour the Americans pursue their own welfare, and to watch the vague dread that constantly torments them lest they should not have chosen the shortest path which may lead to it.”

Like these Americans, of whom I believe we are inheritors, it increasingly falls to us as individuals to trouble the question of what makes a good death, and in answering this, what makes a good life? In the face of fewer certainties and greater choice, where failure is felt to be a real risk, a better question may be what makes a good enough life?

– Matthew Gieve

Matthew Gieve is a researcher and consultant at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations. He graduated in politics and philosophy and holds a Masters in psychoanalytic theory from University College London. He works in applied social research across a wide range of fields, centering on issues of social exclusion with a particular focus on children and families and on mental health.

Requiem For London: Lewis Bush’s Metropole
Artist ProfileNew WritingThe Photobook

Requiem For London: Lewis Bush’s Metropole

Metropole, Self published photobook by Lewis Bush, 2015

Metropole, Self published photobook by Lewis Bush, 2015

In this short essay, Lewis Bush contextualises his recent photobook Metropole. By photographing double exposures of luxury corporate and residential buildings in London, Bush reflects feelings of loss and dispossession, in a once accessible and familiar city, now gentrified and privatised. Originally published in March 2015, Metropole quickly sold out, garnering critical acclaim. This month, the Sir John Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design, London Metropolitan University, present a solo exhibition of the work in London. Full details follow the essay.

• • •

At the start of the last century film makers heralded the life and energy of urbanisation with the city symphony, cinematic celebrations of the benefits of urban living. Today it is sometimes easy to feel that this energy and life has given way to a form of canker or rot. Metropole is about London, and the way the city has been transformed in recent years by a massive increase in the value of property. This has made the city an extremely attractive location for investors, leading to a glut of construction across the city, often only for these buildings to sit largely empty afterwards, their value accruing profit even in the absence of paying tenants. Metropole responds to this issue by taking the viewer on an imaginary walk through the city, visualised through a series of photographs which document these new corporate and luxury buildings.

Lewis Bush, Untitled from Metropole, 2015

Lewis Bush, Untitled from Metropole, 2015

While the structures in these photographs initially appear to be relatively normal, as the series progresses they begin to shimmer and merge into each other, creating impossible arrangements and disorientating scenes where all sense of scale and perspective is lost. In doing this these images intend to emulate the feeling of disorientation that I, a born and raised Londoner, increasingly feel when I traverse the city. Where once I knew swathes of the city intimately, now I often experience a sense of total confusion on emerging from underground stations to find the layout of an area has been changed utterly since my last visit. Long known buildings or even entire streets are found to be missing, as if some great and unknown devastation had been wrought on the city while I was below ground.

Lewis Bush, Untitled from Metropole, 2015

Lewis Bush, Untitled from Metropole, 2015

Metropole is not about criticising change per se. This is in the nature of cities, and it is a large part of what makes them attractive places to live. But it is about resisting a particular malign form of change, a transformation of London into a place where profit comes above other principles, and where as a result the city is becoming an increasingly unequal, unaffordable and sterile place. While the city’s huge wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small minority who often do not even reside in the city, a growing number of people exist on a rent treadmill, spending a disproportionate amount of their earnings simply on a space to lay their head between shifts. Meanwhile a generation of young Londoners remain living with their parents well into adulthood, and for an entire generation the only possibility of ever owning a home in the city will be if they inherit one. Many others have no hope even of that. If the film makers of a century ago made city symphonies, then Metropole is a city requiem, a memorial tune to a city which outwardly still appears sound, but which inwardly is suffering an almost terminal decline.

– Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush, Untitled from Metropole, 2015

Lewis Bush, Untitled from Metropole, 2015

Lewis Bush (London, 1988) studied history and worked at the United Nations before working as a documentary photographer. He has since developed a well regarded personal photography practice, is lecturer in documentary photography at the London College of Communication, edits the Disphotic blog and writes about photography.

The exhibition at Central House is the first installation of the entire Metropole series as well as being the first event of INSIDE / OUT [LONDON], a program of exhibitions of photobooks examining the contemporary city, curated by Andy Lawson. A new print of the Metropole book will also be available during the exhibition.