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Photography Theory is the second in a projected seven volume series called The Art Seminar, edited by James Elkins and sponsored by University College Cork and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, among other institutions. I have only read this volume, but all evidently have, or will have, the same basic format:
(1) Introduction - an overview survey article commissioned for the book
(2) Starting Points - a small collection of papers on specific topics intended to stimulate discussion.
(3) The Art Seminar proper - the transcript of an extended panel discussion on the subject of the book involving 8-12 participants and gently moderated by Elkins.
(4) Assessments - twenty-five to thirty mostly one-page responses to the panel discussion by qualified people, primarily (exclusively?) academics, including a luminary or two. In this volume those who contributed responses were all different(with one special exception I'll return to below) from those who participated in the panel discussion, but it doesn't seem to be a requirement of the series.
(5) Afterwards - a small number of papers commissioned for the book that discuss the subject with reference (but not necessarily very much reference) to the papers, the panel discussion and the responses.
While not necessarily the most valuable part of the book, the panel discussion is clearly the heart of it. And in the case of Photography Theory it is a faltering one. The participants themselves seem unhappy with the results they achieve, or rather fail to achieve, and acknowledge more or less directly the following shortfalls, among others.
(a) They cannot agree on "the index", a specific theoretical conception, derived from the philosophical work of C.S. Peirce, of the special "non-coded" (i.e. direct, inherent) relationship of a photograph to what it is a photograph of.
(b) They cannot agree on what to make of Roland Barthes' writings on photography, particularly his late work Camera Lucida (1980), including the famous distinction between studium and punctum.
(c) They cannot agree on the issue of the medium-specificity of photography as an art form and its relationship to painting and other art forms.
(d) Their home territory is art history and criticism, and they are not sure what to think about forms of photography that fall outside this domain.
(e) They are all academics and spend most of their time discussing photography with other academics and very little with practicing photographers.
(f) They spend much more time talking about the theory of photography than about actual photographs.
To their credit and especially to Elkins', there is no evidence that they improved the discussion after the fact by adding material to the transcript, or for that matter by taking material out (not counting grammatical discontinuities and easily imaginable ephemera like who ordered the chicken salad or which pub shall we go to after we're done).
Similarly, and credit for this must go to Elkins, there is no evidence of the responses being limited in any way, whether in length or in content or in tone. The fact is that some of them are unapologetically negative, hammering on the weak points acknowledged by the panelists themselves, and others as well. They occasionally grind their own axes, but mostly ones relating to the topics at hand.
So too for the afterwards, though these are less tied to the panel discussion and consequently less critical. (In fact, if anything they are too disconnected and take on the quality of, this is an interesting subject, here's what I think about it.)
Still, there is one genuine sour note in the book that deserves mention. If you look carefully at the contents you will see that two people made contributions to two different sections. One is Rosalind Krauss, who has both a brief piece "Introductory Note" at the end of the Starting Points and another "Note on the obtuse" in the Assessments. The other is Joel Snyder, who participates in the panel discussion and also has an item entitled "Pointless" at the end of the Assessments. The two are related.
Krauss says in "Notes on the obtuse" that she and Snyder "have been arguing about matters connected to the index for at least ten years now" (p. 341). They are clearly still doing so in the book, each trying to get the last word, and not in a friendly way. Snyder for his part, after noting the civility, if not the fruitfulness, of the debate about indexicality in the panel discussion, goes on to say: "Regrettably, some of the statements in this volume are not presented in the spirit of the talks at Cork, and so I will be blunt in my response", adding parenthetically "(obtusus in Latin means, among other things, blunt)", a clear reference to the title of Krauss's second piece. Then he goes on for more than twenty pages (one of the longest contributions in the Assessments sections; Krauss's two items are only a few pages each) restating his positions and addressing Krauss's statements point by point.
For me all the weaknesses of the panel discussion listed above come together in this unpleasant after the fact debate. The discussion has become too academic, the positions too entrenched, and the scope too narrow. There is clearly something real in the notion of indexicality, but the Peircean foundation is too abstract and too aprioristic to truly explain it, and those whose who are trying to apply the concept to the problems of photography and art lack either the inclination or the ability or both to evolve it into a theory of photography that really works. The last essay in the book, the second of the two afterwards, by Walter Benn Michaels, is called "Photography and Fossils". It seems to me that the biggest fossil in photography is the index, as conceived by those who believe in it. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)
If people really want a proper theory of photography, it should be one that covers all photography - or maybe even all of what we are now more likely to call imaging - both art and non-art (vernacular and utilitarian), both visual and non-visual (in the sense of showing something significantly different from what can be seen with the unaided eye). The theory should explain both the nature of how images are made and how they are perceived and understood by human beings.
Elkins himself says something like this in the course of the panel discussion, and at one point brings up the example of side-scan sonar images. This was one of the times when people "stopped talking", but he himself says something very interesting: "It looks like a lunar landscape, but it can't be "read" like an image: you think you're seeing hills and valleys, but actually the value scale denotes hardness, softness and other properties. ..." (p. 181). I would add that you don't have to go this far afield to find images that raise interesting questions of "reading". Why do black and white photos seem realistic and HDR photos do not? Why do we trust an image made with a shift-and-tilt lens but not one that has had its perspective fixed in Photoshop? Where is the photographer in an automatic surveillance photo, or in a Gregory Crewdson shot?
To conclude, if you are interested in photography theory that sees indexicality as the central overriding issue, you will probably find a lot that's worthwhile in this book, especially in the panel discussion and the responses. If on the other hand you are mainly interested in other things, for example the history of photography or the social function of photography or contemporary art photography, or simply how to take good pictures, then you will probably not find much of anything.
With that caveat I give it four stars.