Symposium on Photographic Theory (1983)

“Symposium on Photographic Theory,” Vanguard, 12:10 (December 1983 – January 1984), p. 49.

Symposium on Photographic Theory
Ryerson Polytechnic, Toronto
September 30 to October 1

According to one of the organizers, this first Symposium on Photographic Theory was an attempt by a polytechnical institute to ground its teaching in theory. To this end, four accredited “theorists” were invited, all of whom are photographers as well, and all appropriately teach in post-secondary institutions. Victor Burgin, Hollis Framptom, Allan Sekula and Joel Snyder were well-placed to argue theory, practice and institutional techniques. With the seeming advatage of so narrow a practice for theory and the potential of such a new object for description, photographic theory was not advanced. The sessions were not practical enough for the questioning, testing or developing of theoretical positions; and consensus was lacking for this pursuit in the staging of an opposition by the organizers. Victor Burgin and Allan Sekula stood for theory. Joel Snyder opposed it. And Hollis Frampton was somewhat to the side as a philosophic muse and formalist trickster. The staged opposition did not serve to test the authority of theory, since it was theory’s day, or to clarify its assertions as much as degenerate into the assignation of political labels derived from art critical positions.

Theory with a capital T was represented by Victor Burgin. Allan Sekula’s criticism, according to him, was theoretically informed”. Together their Anglo-American, materialist project has been inflected by “French theory”, borrowing from Barthes to Lacan and Foucault to varying degrees. Under this influence, both Sekula and Burgin have directed photographic theory to the textual the text that lies “behind” or to the side of the photograph, or that interweaves it into other texts or institutional practices. For them, the photograph is not a formal object; it has no photographic facticity in-itself. Its meaning is not intrinsic but culturally determined.

Thus photography is the object of theory; but no photographic object was in sight. Given the nature of the symposium, photography was spoken in word only. Historian Sekula alone used slides merely for illustrative value. The photograph takes on a specialized role here” it is not the object of a photographic practice. This particular object is not an image, but an archive for history and an “object” for theory. It is never constituted as a single thing, let alone a framed scene, but a set of relations. At most as an image, it belongs to a politics of image making. More than determined by its apparatus, it is historically constructed at any one moment. Moreover, it is not simply an object which theory comes to and describes; theory constitutes its object as well, Burgin tells us.

Through the archive of photographic reference, history reconstructs something outside the photograph, but not divorced from its institutional practices. Theory constructs from other theories a general theory of representation” it remains within a theoretical field. This general theory of “pictures” is what Joel Snyder opposed in his talk and on the ensuing panel. He questioned the need for constant referral to theory such as Marxism and psychoanalysis which are inherently outside the photograph’s frame. He asked to see how theory comes out in practice by in-forming practice. Theory should serve critical practice, which is writing about photographs, not forestall it from its object. Methods are available (he did not name them); there is no need for a theory of photography.

This tonic serves to measure theory against its own practice. But it is not a replacement for it. Theory has a tendency to allegoricize and formalize itself through referential play within theory alone. We look for its specific applications and are given a declaration of its theoretical effectivity (in Burgin, for instance). For the theorist, this general theory remains general, as a theory of ideology, or is applied broadly to various photographic practices such as newspapers, advertisements and film. For the historian, it is specific. Both Burgin and Sekula, however, point out that there is an outside of the photograph that does not belong to history or theory but must be uncovered by them. According to Burgin, photographs contribute to the production, reproduction and dissemination of meaning; that is, they contribute to the reproduction of ideology. So theory’s objects must include institutional practices and power relations that constitute photography’s use: who or what is represented and how? And here, relying now on Foucault, Burgin implies that photography is an “object” constituted variously in different discursive regimes.

As the historian, Sekula actually attempts what Burgin states in theory only. His is the application of Foucault’s project to photography” photography is a technique of power. According to Sekula, photography had a double function in the constitution of the individual subject, driving deep into the subject, reflecting it, determining it. On the one hand, there was the 19th century honorific bourgeois portrait (reflecting individuation and property rights, with its obverse, the later creativity and copyrightable sensibility of the modernist camera artist). On the other hand, there was the repressive apparatus of the police archive, instituting, more than documenting, the criminal type. Photography was split in the capitalist division of labour between the intellectual and the technical. Scientific and artistic, objective and subjective, photography was the tool for the recuperation of technology as a humanist project.

What fascinates us here is not the fetish object of theory which is theory itself. What fascinates is the historical image, the representation of an historical referent. For someone like me, interested in photography and theory, but with no stake in either, that is the potential of photography and its analysis” that it is an index of the real. Why come to a symposium on photography if we know the theory from elsewhere? Is it simply a pedagogic exercise to acquaint students with what is already known, the always already there of theory? How does theory renovate itself to promote itself as a new product? Is photography a crisis for it? Obviously not. On the model of science, Hollis Framptom described this “decadence” of theory. When the photograph turns in on itself in theory, it describes itself. What is its object, its ontological relation to a site and an intention? Thus Framptom made an experiment, a fictional performance of sorts. A narrator situated himself as the photographer of a series of historical photographs, confusing description of the photograph with “actual” facing the photographic subjects. These formal tricks on the ontological split in the photograph are interesting only for so long, however. “Realists”, we want something tangible, as problematic as we are told what real is by theory (theory” there is no reality outside representation). We know history and photography to exceed the idealism of theory and we want theory to find its tools in that excess.