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Shoot! Existential Photography. The Photographer’s Gallery, London, 1210, 2012– 601, 2013.
Shoot! Existential Photography. Clement Cheroux. Berlin: Revolver Publishing, 2010. Pp. 119. $29.24 (cloth).

Two years after its first appearance at the French photography festival Les Rencontres d’Arles, Clement Cheroux’s Shoot! Existential Photographyhas been reconfigured for The Photographer’s Gallery in London for 2012–13. The exhibition is based on a core premise: there is a fertile connection between the shared language and practices of the camera and the gun (e.g. “shooting,” “aiming,” and “loading”). In the book and the exhibition, this metaphorical connection is initially elaborated via a particular, once-popular European photographic novelty, the fairground shooting gallery, that allowed winning participants to trigger a photograph of themselves by hitting a bull’s-eye with an air rifle. This side show, now nearly obsolete, first appeared in the years after the First World War and remained a popular attraction until the 1970s. Cheroux’s fascination with it lies in the symbolic nature of self-destruction inherent to the form. To trigger the camera’s mechanism and win the self-portrait prize, the participant must symbolically take aim at him- or herself. The resulting image suggests self-annihilation, as the participant appears to hold a gun to him- or herself in a mirror. As Cheroux puts it in the accompanying publication, “The whole attraction plays with the temptation to fight a duel with oneself, with the thrill of being one’s own executioner—for the sake of a quick peep into the vertigo of self-destruction” (9–10). Cheroux’s faith in the particular existential nature of the technology is affirmed by the impressive roster of European avant-garde “celebrities” who participated in these shooting galleries. Through images of some of the most famous of mid-century photographers, film makers, and intellectual figures (among whom are Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï, Man Ray, Fellini, Truffaut, Deleuze, and most notably Sartre and de Beauvoir), Cheroux establishes visual connections [End Page 123]between photographic shooting galleries and, variously, the cultural violence of dadaism, sur-realist interest in automatism, and philosophical ideas about being and nothingness. The latter part of the show features a range of more recent work by artists who have brought visual imagery and violence together even more explicitly. Steven Pippin, Rudolf Steiner, and Jean-Francois Lecourt use firearms to trigger their photographs (they shoot at the camera), Niki de Saint Phalle adopted a rifle as a paintbrush in her projectile paintings, and Christian Marclay assembles a montage of film footage of shoot-outs to expose the false glamour of Hollywood gun culture.

Both the exhibition and the accompanying publication suggest a powerful relationship between photography and destruction. Almost every image takes direct aim at the viewer as well as the sitter. Cheroux describes these confrontational acts as “photographic suicide” (89) and as reflections on “the mortal nature of the photographic gesture” (67). Cheroux’s approach, for all of its novel subject matter, is indebted to a long-standing strand of cultural criticism that envisages photography as closely linked with death. From Susan Sontag’s influential but nihilistic On Photography(1977) to Roland Barthes’s famous Camera Lucida(1980)—the latter composed while the author was grieving the death of his mother—photographs are frequently described as memento mori, and photography itself is characterized as a medium of bereavement that is concerned with absence, loss, and death. More recent accounts have sought to critique this dominant, even intractable view. David Green, for example, is one of a number of writers who has expressed considerable exhaustion with what he describes as the “cloying melancholia of the post-Barthian era of photographic theory”. 1 In addition to replaying some tired ideas about photography and death here, Cheroux oversimplifies the apparent symbiosis between cameras and weaponry. Sontag’s influence is evident. In her characteristically aphoristic writing style—a style that has no doubt contributed to her dominance over decades of photographic criticism despite the fact that she apparently did not like photography very much—she describes the camera as “the sublimation of the gun” and suggests that “to photograph someone is a sublimated murder.” Yet...

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