Safety in Numbness


Campany, David. ‘Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on problems of ‘Late Photography’’ Where is the Photograph? ed. by David Green (Brighton; Kent: Photoforum; Photoworks, 2003) 123-132


[In the news report of Joel Meyerowitz’s large format photographing of the aftermath of 9/11] There was a suggestion that photography, rather than television might be the better medium for official history.

The programme contained video images at least as informative and descriptive as the photographs, yet television was presenting itself as unable to perform a task given over to photography.


What may mark them [his series of images] out in posterity is the very act of sanctioning itself, the idea that there was a need, a desire, to nominate an official body of images, and that these should be photographs.

Meyerowitz’ imagery is not so much the trace of an event as the trace of the trace of an event. His ‘late’ photography is a particularly clear instance of an approach that is becoming a commonplace use of the medium.

What are we to make of the highly visible turn toward photographing the aftermath of events – traces, fragments, empty buildings, empty streets, damage to the body and damage to the world?

One might easily surmise that photography has of late inherited a major role as undertaker, summariser or accountant. It turns up late, it wanders through the places where things have happened totting up the effects of the world’s activity.

This is the kind of photograph that foregoes the representation of events in progress and so cedes them to other media. As a result it is quite different from the spontaneous snapshot and has a different relation to memory and to history.

The North Wall, Joel MeyerowitzThe theoretical framework connecting the photograph to collective memory is as well established as it is complex. The photograph can be an aid to memory, but it can also become an obstacle that blocks access to the understanding of the past. It can paralyse the personal and political ability to think beyond the image in the always fraught project of remembrance.

However, in the popular culture of mass media, the frozen image is often used as a simple signifier of the memorable, as if there were a straight connection between the functions of memory and the ‘freezing’ capabilities of the still camera.


Television and cinema make regular use of phtographic snapshots and freeze-frames as a kind of instant history or memory that they, as moving images, are not. Indeed it seems plausible that it is this kind of use of the still photograph that has cemented the popular connection of photography and memory, rather than their being some intrinsic relationship. [sic]

Yet to presume that the still image or the freeze-frame is  inherently more memorable or closer to the nature of memory, is to overlook the fact that the very operation of our memory is changing.

The structure of memory is, in large measure, culturally determined by the the means of representation at our disposal. As our image world shifts in character, so do our conditions of remembrance.

It may well be that the special status granted the still photograph in the era of television and newer technologies is not so much a recognition of its mnemonic superiority, as a nostalgic wish that it still might have such ‘power’.

This is to say there is an investment in the idea that the relative primitivism of photography will somehow rescue the processes of memory that have been made so complicated by the sheer amount of information we assimilate from diverse of technologies.

Yet if the frozen photograph seems memorable in the contemporary media-sphere it is probably because it says so little. It relies for support upon the surfeit of audio-visual information in the culture at large. Its very muteness allows it to appear somehow uncontaminated by the noise of the televisual.

While its privileged status may be imagined to stem from a natural capacity to condense and simplify things, the effects of the still image derive much more from its capacity to remain radically open, radically laconic. It is not that a photograph naturally says a thousand words, rather that a thousand words can be said about it.


[discussion of ‘three phases of the social history of photography’]

Only from the 1920s, with the rapid expansion of the mass media, the growing dominance of print journalism, and technical developments within photographic technology itself, did photography become the definitive medium and modulator of the event as a moment, an instant, something that could be frozen and examined.

Over the last few decades, it has become clear that the conception of events was supplanted by video and then dispersed in recent years across a variety of media technologies.

The still cameras are loaded just as the video cameras are packed away. The photographs taken come not just in the aftermath of the event but also in the aftermath of video.

Photojournalists used to be at the centre of the event because photography was at the centre of culture. Today they are as linkely to be at the scene of the aftermath because photography is, in relative terms, at the aftermath of culture.

Video gives us things as they happen. They may be manipulated, they may be misrepresented and undigested but they happen in the present tense. Today it is very rare for photographs to break the news.


Stillness in photographs only became apparent and definitive in the presence of the moving image. The whole drive toward precision, the stopping of time and freezing of action takes place in the era of cinema.

[…] in the era of video, photography loses this monopoly on stillness and immediacy. This is a material circumstance and a social one: as a technology the video image is stoppable, repeatable, cheap and quick; and institutionally it has come to be used in many of the roles formerly held by photography.

If it [photojournalism] faced its demise in the 1970s it was only insofar as it was mistakenly assumed that its only possible significance could derive from a monopoly over stillness and over our comprehension of events.


[dicusses Vietnam and Gulf War photojournalism]


[After the Gulf War, where photographers weren’t allowed in] Photojournalism became elegiac, poetic and muted. It communicated the feeling of being outside the time of history, of events and of politics.

Today, almost a third of all news ‘photographs’ are frame grabs from video and digital sources. […] This has two related consequences. Firstly there is a partial blurring of the distinction between different image technologies (resulting in a radical shift in the understanding of what photography is, what it is good at and what it is for). Secondly photogrpahy is finding other roles or, more accurately, visual culture at large is leaving photography with certain tasks and subject matters, such as the aftermath.

The definition of a medium, particularly photography, is not autonomous or self-governing heteronymous, dependent  on other media. It derives less from what it is technologically than what is culturally. Photography is what we do with it. And what we do with it depends on other image technologies.

It seems clear that contemporary art has a predilection for the ‘late photograph’. [See Willie Doherty, Paul Seawright, Sophie Ristelhueber, Richard Misrach]

There is a reticent muteness in these images that leaves them open to interpretation. Moreover, their status as traces of traces fulfils for art a certain modernist reflection on the indexicality of the medium.


In forfeiting any immediate relation to the event and taking up a slower relation to time, ‘late’ photographs appear to separate themselves out from the constant visual bit stream emitted by the convergence of modern electronic image technologies.

They look like a very photogrpahic kind of photography and seem to do something no other medium does, (although as I have said, what strikes us as particularly photographic is very much subject to change).

[…] writer and photography Allan Sekula warned of the political pitfalls of decontextualising a document to make it more enigmatic or melancholic or merely beautiful:


‘[…] Documentary has amassed mountains of evidence. And yet, in this pictorial presentation of scientific and legalistic “fact”, the genre has simultaneously contributed much to spectacle, to retinal excitation, to voyeurism, to terror, envy and nostalgia, and only a little to the critical understanding of the social world … A truly social documentary will frame the crime, the trial, the system of justice and its official myths … Social truth is something other than a matter of convincing style. [Allan Sekula, ‘Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary (Notes of the Politics of Representation)’ in terry Dennet and Jo Spence, eds., Photogrpahy/Politics: One, Photography Workshop, London, 1980.]

[…] it is worth considering why it is that the ‘late photograph’ has become a ‘convincing style’ in contemporary culture. Its retreat from the event is no guarantee of an enlightened position or a critical stance. Its formality and visual sobriety secure nothing in and of themselves. Yet it is easy to see how it is that in an image world dispersed across screens and reconfigured in pieces, a detailed, static and resolutely perspectival rectangle can appear to be some kind of superior image.

The danger is that it can […] foster an indifference and political withdrawal that masquerades as concern. Mourning by association becomes merely an aestheticized response. There is a sense in which the late photograph in all its silence, can easily flatter the ideological paralysis of those who gaze at it with a lack of social or political will to make sense of its circumstance.

There is a fine line between the banal and the sublime, and it is political. If the experience of the contemporary sublime derives from our being in a world beyond our comprehension, then it is a politically reified, as much as an aesthetically rarified response.

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