Photographic Alterity

I am invariably guilty of collecting other people’s photographs. Indeed, this is a hobby enjoyed by many photographers I know. There’s something quite beautiful about it, I think. I’ve seen whole walls and staircases and corridors in homes decorated with photographs of people unknown.

A wedding photograph bought from a market in France back in 2011,
a few hundred metres from the church door pictured.

Simon Reynolds has written on this briefly today via an article by Amelia Tait in the Observer. In particular, Reynolds and Tait are thinking about the hobbyists who buy and develop found rolls of film that have lain dormant in drawers and storage facilities for however long. (Tait speaks, for instance, to Levi Bettwieser of The Rescued Film Project.)

It’s not a surprising thing to find on Reynolds’ blog. How much more retromanic can you get than gambling $10,000 on old photographs in an “archive fever”?

Bettwieser explains his drive to collect the unknown as follows: “Part of the reason I’m doing it is because I like the idea of being the first person to ever see these images; even the photographer has never seen them.”

But there’s something else at work here for me — an aesthetic attraction to alterity.

The satisfaction of being the first to see something is a strange desire to me. I’d rather be the last — and I’ll even settle for just being the latest. This subjective emphasis on the photographic encounter is otherwise wholly unimportant to me. The main thrill comes from seeing something radically out of context. The anxiety of the unanswerable question that haunted Roland Barthes instead becomes a perverse thrill — indeed, as it was for Barthes though he seemed reluctant to admit it.

Like an object found on the beach in a ghost story, the energy trapped in a photograph like a fly in amber is a special thing that is highly susceptible to romantic flights of the nostalgic subject and, as such, to find such things in the world of the vernacular image is far past the pale of cliche.

A photograph of a platypus which fell out of a book
I bought in a charity shop in Newport, Wales, in 2012.

I’m reminded instead of the best photobook I’ve had the pleasure of handling — and I’d love to own a copy one day though doubt I’ll ever be able to afford it: Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s 1977 work Evidence.

From Sultan’s website:

From 1975-1977, Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel selected photographs from a multitude of images that previously existed solely within the boundaries of the industrial, scientific, governmental and other institutional sources from which they were mined.  The project, “Evidence”, was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and was one of the first conceptual photographic works of the 1970’s to demonstrate that the meaning of a photograph is conditioned by the context and sequence in which it is seen.

The resulting collection exhibits a brilliant sensibility for the absurd and a keen awareness of the complexity that the single image possesses when viewed outside its original context. Some of the photographs are hilarious, others are perplexing, but it’s in their isolation from their original context that these images take on meanings that address the confluence of industry and corporate mischief, ingenuity and pseudo-science.  The book has been recognized as a precursor to subsequent postmodern strategies of photo practice.

Sultan and Mandel’s curatorial work of institutionalised photography finds itself adrift in a lack of qualified meaning that we more readily associate with the paranormal — and we should note that vernacular photographs have been a staple of kitsch horror movies for decades. (I’ve written on this before.)

In Evidence, every decontextualised photograph of a mundane experiment takes on the aura of a UFO crash site.

It’s an outsideness that resonates with Justin Barton’s recent blogpost on Exteriority: “A primacy of the faculty of perception — that is, of sustained attention in relation to the spheroambient outside that arrives continually into the world of a perceiving being.”; “In relation to modalities of expression, a primary focus on the world, as opposed to concepts and established forms of writing [or any other artform for that matter] (new concepts and new forms of writing will emerge, but precisely through the issues involved in creating them being secondary).”

Lenticular bin print that used to live in our kitchen…

I’d buy photographs like this if I could. Instead, I’ve just allowed such photographs to fall into my lap — some of which are embedded here. They’ve decorated many walls over the years but many of them have not been acquired for their agedness. (My girlfriend once brought home two large lenticular landscapes she found in a dumpster outside prestigious / pretentious art fair Paris Photo back in 2014. Those were much loved — for the story of finding them as much as their bizarre presence on our bathroom wall.)

But this kind of photograph is also easily produced. You can find them everywhere. One of the best places to do this — which is somewhat relevant to Reynolds’ other interests, if not exclusively retromanic — is on record covers.

Fred Frith’s Guitar Solos is the first to come to my mind (and I’ve been wanting to write an essay on it for years now). It was bought for its cover — perhaps my favourite record cover of all time — and further enchanted by the sounds that emanate from its grooves.

This sort of image that sidesteps documentation and instead finds itself immersed, whether by chance or on purpose, with an untimeliness. But I suppose that’s a harder and more abstract thing to write about… And less interesting to your average Observer reader, I suppose…

I’ll depart with a section from an old conversation between my old friend and mentor Jason Evans and Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet).

The pair have produced many a record over the last two decades that could quite easily fit into this category of aesthetic alterity.

Evans himself is a master producer of such images and an incredible connoisseur of visual weirdry.

Jason Evans: We are both so passionate about music artwork. You mentioned ECM and I get really excited by Hipgnosis. Why do you think that the history of music-industry artwork has been neglected? So many great pieces of music from great albums have an extraordinary visual-physical presence . . .

Kieran Hebden: I think it has been seen as solely a functional part of music culture. Some of the best sleeves that I own are for library records, and the person doing the sleeve would never have heard the music. They simply would have been commissioned. You know, “We need something! This record is called Industry 4, we need something that goes with that.” And they would make some bonkers painting, then put some crazy text on it and say, “Here you go!” And the record wasn’t even being made for commercial release. We look back at it now and think, “This is the best record sleeve I’ve ever seen. This is amazing music.” But it’s very, well, functional.

JE: The kind of photography I like was never intended as art. The kind of music and artwork you’re describing were never intended as art.

KH: But maybe in four hundred years someone will look at a Cornflakes box and think, “Oh my God, these people were mad!” [laughs] “This crazy, crazy thing. How beautiful is that?”

JE: That should be the case! I collect Japanese chewing-gum packaging because it’s a really bizarre visual manifestation of late capitalism and it has driven people to insane heights of aesthetic discourse in the same way that LSD did in the late 1960s.

KH: Record sleeves must be getting made for so many people in that purely functional way and I’m an enthusiastic record collector, so it appeals to me. I’m a big believer in the concept that time will tell. After ten years or so you can get some sense of whether something was any good or not, be it the music or the sleeve. We find these records from the 1960s and ’70s and think the sleeves are fantastic, but maybe at the time we would have thought absolutely nothing of them. At some point in time someone is going to find these things and they are going to be relevant and exciting and inspiring. One of the best things about having your NYLPT book out is seeing people getting excited by it. But the part that is even more exciting is the idea of some kid finding it on her grandmother’s shelf, you know—

JE: Yes, I do—

KH: —Seventy-five years from now, and it’s sitting next to an A-to-Z and a copy of Reader’s Digest. They’ll think, “Well, I’m going to sit on the toilet and read this one today. . . .” And then realize, “Whoa, this is amazing!”

Jason and I in Brighton in 2014, taken (and kept) by a stranger…
No idea where this polaroid is now…

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