Introduction to « Jouer contre les Appareils »
Originally, almost all the historians and critics of this medium, and the philosophers who have written about it, have contented themselves with a very limited definition of photography, implying that it should necessarily represent the photographic object and be obtained exclusively by means of a negative/positive technique, yet without clarifying or analyzing the reasons for their restrictive choices. But this definition, which has framed all photographic theory, has prevented the emergence of a reflection on a form of photography that would stand out from it—an experimental photography.
Admittedly, some authors [including Jean-Claude Lemagny, Michel Poivert and James Elkins] turn their attention beyond representation: they refer to photography in search of internal coherence, photography anxious about itself, the pleasure of trial and test, the taste for uncertainty of form. They note the existence of images that do not necessarily represent something, that can be considered abstract, that are, in a sense, useless within the logic of representation. Their chief concern is the photographic object itself, its materiality rather than its representativeness. In their view, some photographs that are no longer representations according to the established norms, that “go beyond the operation of shooting to work on substance, space, object or action” (Poivert 2015: 103-104), may appear to be enigmas or visual oddities but are photographs nonetheless because of the action of light on a photosensitive surface. However, few photographers attempt to explore these new fields, to approach the possibilities of experimental photography.
This book was inspired by my frustration with this lack: I could find no explanation of the concept of experimental photography. It was missing from dictionaries and from the indexes of books on the history of photography, and research in specialist databases was almost fruitless. Any vague mention of it usually referred to technical explanations, to the trial and error of early photography or the oddities of such and such a method. As there is a wealth of literature on other experimental arts, this conceptual void and historical gap were rather surprising. There is clearly an experimental dimension to the work of many contemporary photographers, with original research or methods that do not fully comply with a certain photographic orthodoxy. But no existing explanation, definition or conceptualization allows us to group these various practices together to provide a coherent, if not unified, view.
Nor can such a definition be found in the theoretical literature on photography, which tends to focus on photography as representation; very few authors are interested in photography as a system, a set of rules, an ontology. The essay Towards a Philosophy of Photography by Vilém Flusser—an author as unacknowledged [in France] as experimental photography—introduces the possibility of a common framework for the work of all these supposedly experimental photographers […].
The goal of my research, therefore, was to propose a definition of contemporary experimental photography and to illustrate this trend, situating it historically and analyzing the work produced since 1970 by about a hundred mostly European and American photographers (I was unfortunately unable to include photographers living in Japan). It led to a dissertation, supervised by Michel Poivert and defended in June 2016 at the Université Paris-1-Panthéon-Sorbonne. It also led to this book, which features a theoretical reflection on photography, a study of the work of photographers who play against the apparatus—playing with it, disregarding it, doing away with it, foiling it—and reproductions of over fifty works.
The context of my research was a questioning of the basic premises of photography. In recent years, museums and teaching institutions have begun to question the very definition of photography […]. Their approaches tend to be confined within the boundaries of a rather classical theory of photography, with no overly radical questioning; nonetheless, they reflect a keen interest in a more ontological definition of photography. Where does this interest come from? Why are French and American—but also Italian, Spanish, British, and Czech—curators and authors exploring photography in a concomitant, but not necessarily coordinated, way?
The fact that contemporary experimental photography coincides with the decline of the analog medium poses the broader question of how and why the obsolescence of a medium can prompt transgression of its historic rules. The meaning and influence of the rules concerning the programs of the former (analog) medium are diminished by the success of the new (digital) medium, exposing them to subversive modifications. I see an analogy here with the evolution of painting in the late nineteenth century, when [the French painter] Maurice Denis suggested his daring aphorism, “It should be remembered that a painting—before being a war horse, a nude woman or an anecdote—is essentially a flat surface covered with colors arranged in a certain order.”
At the same time, photography was becoming available to a wider audience and more accessible as a tool: technical progress made it possible to reduce exposure time and produce instantaneous photographs; inexpensive, easy-to-use cameras came on the market; and Kodak invented the slogan “You press the button, we do the rest.” In a sense, painting was relieved of its traditional task of faithfully representing reality; rather than devoting itself exclusively to the subject, it was now free to explore pictorial material, form and color with no concern for representation, and could thereby evolve toward impressionism, pointillism, cubism and abstraction: “Freed by photography from the drudgery of faithful representation, painting could pursue a higher task: abstraction.” (Sontag 2008: 200)
Similarly, the development of digital photography in the late twentieth century freed analog photography from its role of representing the real, allowing it to refocus on the photographic material, and thus on its essence. Admittedly, just as figurative paintings continued to be produced after the advent of abstraction, there are still analog photographs that represent subjects in the traditional way; in both cases, there was a fundamental evolution rather than an absolute, radical break.”
Poivert Michel (2015): Petite Histoire de la Photographie, Paris, Hazan.
Sontag Susan (2008): Sur la photographie, Paris, Christian Bourgois [édition originale en 1977, trad. Philippe Blanchard]
Translated by Sally Laruelle