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Below are the 6 most recent journal entries recorded in a place for works in progress' LiveJournal:

Thursday, July 14th, 2005
2:23 pm
something i should remember
i want to stop feeling guilty and stressed out about my dissertation. i am going to make an effort to not try to "brûler les étapes." that is to say i am going to try to be present in the process. i cannot be any further along than i am at any moment. i am where i am and i get to the next place by going there. slowly and carefully if need be.

what ends up happening to me is that i am so unhappy that i am not there (in the process) that i end up mired in depression here (in the process), which causes me to make no efforts to get there.
Tuesday, June 28th, 2005
5:55 pm
photographs tell lies
This is a short section on why we should resist the temptation to see photographs as a truth telling medium.

If trust what the linguistic message and contextual situation tell us about Brassaï's photographs, we fall into the trap of mistaking photography for pure perception and textual intervention for transparent explanation. Even as a photographer, Brassai often fell into this trap, expressing conviction that photography held a special role as a representational medium and idealizing the capacity for the camera to be a truth recording mechanism. “L’œil photographique enregistre tout ce qui est vrai,” [The photographic eye records all that is true] begins his Images de Camera, a hefty book about all kinds of photography, from portraiture to under-water photography. In the introduction to Images, Brassaï brings up the place of photography and older forms of visual reproduction, such as painting and drawing. From its inception photography was relegated to the level of an inferior substitution for these arts. The photographer, always covered with the black cloth, had renounced his agency (son "je") in the process, serving as a mere intermediary for reproduction (7). So although photography may be, as Bourdieu has called it, "un art moyen," it is at least faithful to its subjects.

From the inception of photographic practice, the medium has been granted authority objective, truth-telling, and realist(ic). The camera has been called the "pencil" and the "eye" of nature, as if it cannot help but show exactly what it "sees." The rising popularity of "photo-journalism" in the early twentieth century is evidence of the way in which society trusted photography to represent the truth, just as it trusted words in print as reporting the truth. As illustrations to news stories, photographs were not seen as being redundant, but as adding veracity to the "truth" already asserted in the text. They were seen as transparently truthful--realistic representations of the reported event or the players involved. Although Brassaï did not identify his main line of work as photo-journalism, he did contribute to many such publications, from the true-crime rag Détective, to the less sensational Harper's Bazaar.

In Paris Secret, photographs illustrate and serve as proof of Brassaï's "penetration" of secret places. Indeed without the photographs there would be no story, as he primarily focuses his narrative upon the act of gaining access and taking the photographs. This tautological substantiation (photograph justifies text which justifies photograph) problematizes photography's status as truth-telling.

Michael Shapiro says that a photograph is often thought to be an "unmediated simulacrum," so transparent that even the grammatical structures we use to talk about photographs tends to confound the subject and the photograph. (It would make perfect sense, he says, to hand a photograph to someone and say, "This is John" without explaining that it is, in fact only a photographic representation of "John" and not the man himself.)

Earlier I pointed out that context is key to understanding the creation of meaning in and around an image. Context, however, is not created in a vaccuum. I also pointed out that our ability to interpret photographs hinges upon the cultural codes we bring with us to the image. As John Berger reminds us quite simply, "the way we see a things is affected by what we know or what we believe" (8). He is right, but does not go further to question exactly where what we know or believe comes from. Shapiro, on the other hand, adamantly asserts that ideology is behind every step of image creation, use, and interpretation:

"What is 'real' in the case of an image is not invented from moment to moment by viewers. The 'real' is forged over a period of time by the social, administrative, political, and other processes through which various interpretive practices become canonical, customary, and so thoroughly entangled with the very act of viewing that they cease to be recognized as practices." (135)

Shapiro's breakdown of what Barthes more simply calls call the "naturalization of the cultural" highlights the way photography can be seen as discourse.

This is why, according to Shapiro, it is not only important to look at not only the photograph and its context and what they "purport to merely describe and analyse" but also to search for "rhetorical motions" of the photograph and its contexts. John Tagg, too, points out that photography is "never phenomenological, always discursive" (123, but also all throughout his book--it's like his refrain). It is not, therefore useful to ask what Brassaï's photographs articulate. Instead, we must ask whose argument is articulated by these photos and to whom and why. In other words, not what do these pictures show, but what do they do?

[[non paragraph, really]] Why is it important to answer these questions? If I can, I will be able to understand the social, administrative, and political processes that have been naturalized. I will understand who was wielding power to contextualize and use the images. And I will understand a little more about the place of the lesbian in that society and the way that the figure of the lesbian was deployed as an enforcement of norms, while at the same time this very deployment, in a way, created her as a social category. Hi, Foucault. Nice to see you again.

Current Mood: accomplished, sort of
Thursday, June 9th, 2005
11:43 am
my resistance to describing images
Back in the day, Jan used to accuse me of not having a real job. In those days, I was taking a full class load as well as teaching courses and she couldn't understand why picking up her dry cleaning during my "free time" when I didn't have classes wasn't super high on my list of priorities.

Now that I am neither teaching nor taking classes (nor with Jan) I guess I feel like I have no job, but really my job is to tell you people, my advisor, and eventually the world (ha!) about some images.

fanny_fatale pointed out to me yesterday (privately, but she should feel free to put such criticism out in the open) that all of this stuff about barthes was fine and good, but i should really move on and get to the meat of it. even before she noted this, i was feeling a real resistance to even describing that image for you. on one hand, i feel like it is impossible to do so without thrusting my own personal bias upon it and then again, that is my job, after all.

what follows is my encounter with my own resistance:

I would like to pretend that I just happened upon these photographs, that they are free of context and authorship. If I could do this, in a false innocence, I could describe these pictures as if I were seeing them for the first time and I was on the phone, attempting to describe what lay before me. In the first image there is a person wearing a tuxedo. That is where I have to stop, as pronouns fail me. If I, a random viewer, were seeing this photograph for the first time, would I really think that the subject is a young man? Let's pretend that I do. So, this young man is wearing a tuxedo and is in a bar. I should point out to you there on the other end of the telephone that the photo is black and white, "old-fashioned." Maybe 1920s, 30s? The young man is gazing out of frame. He is smoking a cigarette. He looks too young to be dressed like that, especially at a bar. He is in his teens, maybe, beardless with slicked back hair. His left hand is in his pocket. The more I go on like this the more I begin to believe that the subject is a man. But wait, why does this even matter? What if you, my interlocutor said hey, I know that photograph! That's a photograph of a woman in a man's suit! Snap, things would begin to fall into place. I would begin to see this photograph "for what it really was." The full lips would make sense, the fine hands, the youthfulness.

In what Victor Burgin calls "puzzle photography," an ostensibly familiar object is photographed from an unfamiliar angle and thus appears to be something else or is completely unrecognizable. Either through a textual clue or a shift of perspective, the viewer eventually solves the puzzle, and "once we have discovered what the depicted object is, however, the photograph is instantaneously transformed for us [. . .] it now shows a 'thing' which we invest with a full identity, a being. With most photographs we see, this decoding and investiture takes place instantaneously, unselfconsciously, 'naturally'; but it does take place--the wholeness, coherence, identity, which we attribute to the depicted scene is a projection, a refusal of impoverished reality in favor of imaginary plenitude" ("Looking at Photographs 146-7).

Gender interpretation and investiture doesn't just happen in photographs. You've read all of my funny gender mistake stories that I have written here. Just yesterday I was called "jeune homme" by the man who sold me my morning croissant. When I try to answer the question of why we prefer "imaginary plenitude," that is a coherent understanding of someone'e gender, I think of the time a woman approached me and called me "monsieur" and after having a whole conversation with me said "merci, monsieur." Was she genuinely mistaken as to my gender, or was it important for her to maintain her original investment?

What is the meaning of investiture? Burgin uses the term metaphorically. Investiture is the formal installation of someone or something into a role. For example, the investiture of a bishop in to the seat of bishop. It isn't far from the word investment, and in a way, each investiture is an investment. If there is a failure in filling the position, there is a loss for the person doing the investing. In-vest. In clothes. Literally it is the putting of someone into the clothes of the role he is supposed to fill. What if there is a mistake? What if I cannot fill the clothes? What if there is a failure in the investiture.

Why do we prefer "imaginary plenitude"?
Tuesday, June 7th, 2005
5:51 pm
understanding brassai's images, pt.II
So, last week we left off with me asking where a "formal" reading Brassai's portrait would get us. I guess that was a somewhat leading question, as from my perspective, a formal analysis gets us nowhere, for a formal analysis requires that we imagine that this photograph has no context. Actually, a formal analysis can get us somewhere, in that it leads us back tot he question of context.

{{{I'm not sure if I need to actually do a formal analysis or if I just need to go straight to Barthes. If I were to do a formal analysis, my reading of the photograph would always already be determined by (my access) cultural codes, and access which is determined by the fact that I am a) queer and b) live many years after the photographs were taken and c) am american and d) have been studying these photographs for over a year now. I can pretend to take them out of context, but for me, describing the photograph is very difficult. (See below.) Also, there is a way that the "formal" becomes contextual, in that it is part of the intertextuality of photographs. The pose, the fact that fig. 3 is a portrait, the kind of pose the subject effects (it makes me think of that brewer's son photograph by august sander and what m. shapiro wrote about it in the politics of representation)}}}

In "The Rhetoric of the Image", Roland Barthes posits that the image has two levels of meaning: the denoted (or literal) the connoted (symbolic). For Barthes, these cannot be removed from a third layer of meaning, the linguistic message. The denoted is the "real" thing that the image represents. It is a syntagm, close to speech, and therefore aligned with nature and thus outside of cultural determination. It is the essential, unchangeable meaning of a photograph. Barthes posits the connoted meaning as that which is determined by culture. The connoted is paradigmatic, systematic, and discontinuous. The symbolic meaning of a photograph is, as he says, "polysemic," but not infinite. Rather, potential symbolic meaning is limited by access to cultural code (i.e., a nationally, sub-culturally, or regionally informed knowledge base). For Barthes, it is less important to attempt to catalogue all of the possible connotated meanings of an image than it is to recognize that "they constitute discontinuous or better still scattered traits. (Barthes 118-123)

Like Allan Sekula, I disagree that such a separation between the connoted and the denoted can exist "in the real world" ("On the Invention of Photographic Meaning" 87). That is to say that within its discursive system, a photograph cannot be separated from its use, or as Sekula says, "representational task" (87). Barthes approaches a theory of contextual meaning in his inclusion of the "linguistic message" in his rubric for the reading of photographs and his insistence that interpretation depends upon the viewer's access to certain cultural codes. The linguistic message is the text found on, near, or around the image. In an advertisement it could be the slogan or the name of the product. In a museum it is the placard containing the title, artist's name, and any information about the image. In a book or album of photographs it is the legend, the caption, and the accompanying text. In a newspaper article it is the text that the photograph supposedly illustrates. Barthes postulates that the linguistic message anchors the denoted to the connoted, guiding the viewer's interpretation of the image. The linguistic message "holds the connoted meanings from proliferating" (118). It is in the linguistic message that ideological investment may be located: "the text directs the reader through the signifieds of the image, causing him to avoid some and receive others; by means of an often subtle dispatching, it remote-controls him towards a meaning chosen in advance" (118).

But Sekula extends the meaning of textual to really mean contextual. Alone, out of context, the image is but the possibility of meaning. Embedded in a "concrete discourse situation" a photograph renders a "clear semantic outcome." This formulation works if we can actually locate a stable (concrete) discourse situation for a photograph, but this hardly seems possible. Sure, I could look at this photograph as it appears, say, in the 1976 collection of photographs and see what it is doing there, but that would be to ignore other discourse situations. This leads me to conclude that there is no "clear semantic outcome" for a photograph, and that meaning is always both contextual in the immediate sense (publication, caption, etc.) but also in the intertexuality of past and simultaneous contexts.

The most stability we can hope for, is to, as Sekula attempts in the case of Steiglitz and Hine, to search for the "original rhetorical sense" of a photograph, or to imagine that such a thing exists. In the case of Brassai, there are several representational tasks that are being performed by the images in question, and taking my cue from both Barthes and Sekula, I begin my analysis with the "linguistic message" of the images in an attempt to develop a notion of context.


In the next installment, I will attempt to describe the photo as well as document my resistance to providing a description. Then I will try to move toward my original stated goal of linking this back to queer exoticism by showing how the various contexts (and thus various meanings of this photograph) are part of a larger way of seeing lesbians. Stay tuned.
5:49 pm
[cross posted from my journal)

Well, that last little writing assignment worked so well that I think I might just continue here. I am going to create a dissertation group on here so that only the willing few will get to read (or not read, really) musings on the work in progress. This week I have had a very hard time working because lk broke my heart. Okay, so I broke hers first, but who's counting? The only thing I seem to be able to get excited about is Judith Butler, because I saw her last week and she is a great mind, a great mind.

Everyone I know wants to be the next Judith Butler. I just want to understand Judith Butler, and i know I have a whole lot of work to do to get close to reaching that goal.

Elana pointed out to me this morning that some of Butlers new stuff might be a good point of departure for my methodology. I don't know. Sometimes when Elana talks about my project it sounds like a much better project than I actually think I have.

What is my project, you might ask? Well, I think it helps to break things down into small tasks. For now, I'll tell you that my purpose is to understand Brassaî's images of lesbians.

Brassaî was a photographer who began working in the 1930s and is best known for his images taken in that period. He ran with the surrealists and some modernists and other artist types. He also was famous for his pictures of Parisian graffiti, as well as for his participation in Minotaure, the surrealist journal. He died just a few years ago and his wife died this year.

The photographs I am interested in are from 1932 and make up part of a series of photographs taken in the "secret" places in Paris, from gay bars to the bars where blacks and whites mixed, from brothels to the secret world of manual laborers. Specifically, I am looking at six "lesbian" images, five from the lesbian bar "The Monocle" and one from the Bal Saint-Montaigne Genevieve, a dance hall for lesbians and gay men. In addition, I will refer to two photographs from the Bal Negre (a Montparnasse dance hall with African and Caribbean music and a mixed crowd, black and white) and one photograph by Robert Doisneau of a street festival dance from a slightly later period.

My goal in putting these photographs together is to understand a couple of things. First, I want to examine the importance of context when it comes to reading images. I don't want to get into an overly detailed discussion of the history of semiotics, but I certainly want to figure out why it is even important to look at these images. My guiding question for this section is: What are the systems of signs relied upon by Brassai in the creation of these images, and what are the systems of signs relied upon by those who subsequently use the image? Put more simply: How was/is meaning produced around these images?

It is my opinion that one of the major codes or system of signs that helps decode these images is exoticism. Because of this I want figure out how Brassai saw lesbians. It is possible to say that in photographing lesbians in their natural habitat, so to speak, Brassai was somehow being politically progressive. II argue that while on some levels this is so, Brassai's way of seeing lesbians has its roots in exoticsm, and more specifically the kind of exoticism that was manifest in the rise of anthropology and ethnography in 1930s Paris. Put in dialogue with the surrealist notion of exoticism, this approach goes a long way toward providing a cultural context for Brassai's photography.

After examining Brassai's way of seeing and the cultural context of the production and subsequent use of these images, I will return to my original question of queer exoticism. In the introduction to the dissertation and in subsequent chapters, I proposed queer exoticism as a specific way of seeing and representing lesbians that relies on a the contradictory construction of "same but different" to make the lesbian body legible. In the introduction, for example, I have shown how in the 19th century Balzac wrote the lesbian into the canon of French literature by surrounding her with Oriental trappings and mystery. In the first chapter I examined the photographic representations of Colette and her relationship to her photographic self as one of exoticism of self (rather than exoticism of other). Now, I will attempt to show how Brassai's photographs are part of this discourse, and are used by him and others as a way of normalizing but at the same time exoticizing the figure of the lesbian. [To explain queer exoticism more, I will just say that it is not simply the fact that it is the lesbian body that is being represented that makes this construction queer. It is a) the contradictory nature of same but different (thereby queering the referent) and b) the fact that at the same time as this tactic tries to place the observer in the position of "normal" or within the norms, often its deployment not only calls the paradigm of normal into question but also the position of observer as normal.]


Why is it so important to look at these images? In order to answer this question it must be made clear that an image is made to be used, and it is the conditions of its use and not its formal elements that interest me the most. That is not to say that the formal elements of the photograph do not influence the potential uses of a photograph. I could begin with a formal analysis of the following Brassai photograph:

But what can a formal analysis really tell us about this photo?
3:24 pm
brassai expo, 1963
today i looked at a catalogue from the 1963 brassai exhibit from the bibliotheque nationale. it's funny to think that this was at the *old* library, where i have never felt comfortable working. well, the "catalogue" is far removed from what we think of as far as ex. cats. go. First of all, it is typewritten (sort of badly...there are errors) and I guess mimeographed or something, but I don't know about printingsecond, there are drips of ink and best of all...NO PICTURES! Except for a really bad one kind of glued on the front cover.

Technology wasn't standing in the way in 1963...my guess would be money.

Four interesting things from the catalogue:

1 One section of the ex. was called Plaisirs and had the following intro, in part:

Brassai a voulu ici faire une étude de moeurs nocturnes...
Voluptés de Paris was supposed to be published with a text by Mac-Orlan, but the publisher hijacked the pictures in order to put out what this introducer calls "un ouvrage à tendence licencieuse" (9). Also, Polllack (Jackson??) said that VDP was Brassai's best book but Brassai didn't agree...

2 the couple at the monocle (i am guessing this is what it was) appears as "Couple de Femmes, 1932," with no accompanying information. # 24 in the catalogue, page 9.

3 there was one photo from magic city, no. 30, described as follows:

Le bal de Magic City, 1932.
Grand bal d'homosexuels autorisé. De nombreux hommes étaient habillés par de grands courturiers, et "parfois d'une beauté incroyable". (B.). Brassaï y prit une vingtaine de photos, avant de s'en voir interdire l'accès. (10)

4 a photograph of colette taken in 1954 with her hair in her face, apparently, was included in the exhibit, no. 91. According to this text, the two met in 1932 when Brassai was approached by her about the possibility of illustrating "un livre sur les invertis qu'elle préparait," which i assume to be Ces plasirs.

(He didn't, by the way...)
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