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EVIDENCE OF WHAT?
Joan Fontcuberta
translated by Jennifer Flores Sternad '04/'05

Et quid amabo nisi quo aenigma est
Giorgio de Chirico

In 1978 I visited New York for the first time. Avid to visit the museums and galleries, during one week I soaked myself in everything there that smelled of the culture of photography, with the intention of returning with the largest possible quantity of stimulating memories possible. But in case memory were to fail, books and catalogues made up the most precious loot of my trip, most of all for someone like myself who came from a Spain that was still Third-World in that its photographic publications were nil. This lead me to sniff around carefully in the specialty bookstores and the result was the discovery of various treasures. The most surprising was the book Evidence, published in the previous year by the Californian artists Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan.

A laconic cover, without illustration, appeared to announce some type of treatise about documentary photography. Completely lacking any type of explanatory introduction, upon turning the pages the reader only found in it “documentary” photographs of distressing triviality (although to call them “documentary” still is painful). It treated images that were aseptic and obedient to the conventions of documentation pure and simple, that is, without greater aspiration than to transmit visual information in the most clear and concise form, and lacking any type of imprint of an “author.” Probably the type of graphic material servile to the needs of the world of industry or science.

Nevertheless, upon scrutinizing the meaning of these photographs, the most profound surrealism emerged from their radical banality. Someone injected a serum (?) into the shaggy extremity (?) of an ape (?); an astronaut crawled (?) over the carpet (?); a dense cloud of smoke (?) indicated the controlled detonation of a new explosive (?). There are some interpretations that can be given and so many years after having acquired the book I continue to be fascinated by the sense of unease they produce in me: the book continues today to be one of my photographic bibles.

Mandel and Sultan had obtained the images from very diverse sources, like research laboratories, veterinary and criminology departments, archives of firefighters and of various hospitals, aeronautic institutes and from agricultural studies, etc. Only the detailed list of the government institutions and agencies where the artists carried out their investigations preceded the unconnected succession of images. It is easy to deduce that in the environment of those respective sites of provenance these photographs were so boringly comprehensible just being perfectly useful; they were limited to completing the characteristic mandate of transmitting precise information, and noone would have had difficulty in deciphering them. And they achieved this for a simple reason: the cultural and functional space in with they were inserted anchored the eventual dissemination of their meanings. That which designated this meaning, to say it in other terms, was the tie between the frame (cuadro) of the image and the context (extracuadro) that surrounded (envolvía) it, that which we saw and that which were able to suppose, that which was shown versus that which was hidden. In fact, to transgress this tie and in so doing verify the fragility of sense, the pair of artists had limited themselves to putting in practice the dadaist technique of the estrangement of the object: from the filing cabinet in the research laboratory to the couché of the art book; from the descriptive finality to the aesthetic speculaton; the same thing saw its content fundamentally disrupted, and consequentially its relation with the user. The decontextaulization not only modified the use vaule, but above all, it pulverized the very notion that photography was the proof of something, the support of some evidence. Because we should have asked ourselves: Evidence of what? Perhaps evidence only of its own ambiguity. What remains, then, of the document?

The book, then, can be understood as a critical and ironic manifesto about the naturalness of the documentary mode as above all the conditions that govern information and knowledge. In this sense, Evidence appears as a magnificent epistemological essay. But also, beyond demonstrating the inevitable polysemy of all the images, the act of detaching them and freeing them from their environment in which they reside, we are confronted with the dislocating action of the object-trouvé. The fascination the surrealists felt for all of those humble and anonymous photographs doesn’t seem strange to us, for under the placid cloak of reality were hiding inexhuastable secrets. At bottom, those photographs become the screens where we project our fantasy and where underneath familiar appearances the Freudian Umheimliche reveals itself. In a composition titled “The enigma of Isidore Ducasse” Man Ray shows a piece of fabric covering some unknown thing, and precisely this occultation produces in us a disturbing and unquieting effect. The pages of Evidence can be understood as a metaphor of this same enigma.

Another question that the book arouses provokes is the unresolved conflict between the simple realist practice of photography and documentary photography as it is understood as a style. That is to say, between applied photography (for editorial illustration, most of all) and the consciousness of the author. When Baudelaire wrote, “Now is the time, then, in which [photography] returns to its true duty, which is to serve the sciences and the arts, but being a very humble servant,” perhaps he had taken the pleasure of verifying that the photographs Mandel and Sultan found in those archives were pure servants of industry or of science, and as a result, had renounced a style. But immediately afterwards Baudelaire himself would have been startled by the new life that those same resuscitated images were able to acquire. Although a photographer may put an image at the service of a cause, the same atavistic instinct of photography will push it to evade all of the constrictions of orders, categories and tasks, and in fact, the lives of many historical photographs can be measured by the duration of their transit from the order of the archive to the order of the museum.

And it is possible that this reflection may open another line of debate: appropriation as a strategy to construct a discourse, in this case a discourse about misunderstanding (misinterpretation). In the hands of Mandel and Sultan those photographs have been transubstantiated, have suffered a mutation in the depth of their essence: now they are not documents but rather pieces of a puzzle. Pieces whose articulation takes us to a new ontology of photography’s certainty. The fossilized “documentality” has parted with its surface and the photographs now present themselves not as artefacts that aspire to describe the world but rather to help us think about it.

For all of these reasons Evidence has become a worshipped book that continues to be one of the jewels of my library. Thanks to its recent re-edition, it will be that for many other libraries as well.