- Camera Works: Photography and the Twentieth-Century Word
Fox Talbot, the inventor of the calotype, entitled a study on his mid-nineteenth-century photographic endeavors The Pencil of Nature to underscore the lack of mediation in the medium, to suggest that nature transcribes herself. In contrast, it is now a commonplace to understand photography as a kind of writing, literally writing with light, as revealed by the meaning of the word. Photography's connection to writing inheres in its symbolism, its indexicality, and we largely accept that far from being transparent, photography mediates the world. But as Michael North notes in Camera Works, photography's true importance, at least for modernists, was "what it implied about the ignored and unexpected within ordinary perception," what, as Walter Benjamin noted over seventy-five years ago, it revealed about the "optical unconscious" (qtd. in North 10).
In his introduction, North argues that "modernism itself, as a pan-artistic movement, begins with the critical interrogation of the relationship between text and image," and he identifies photography as a "kind of modern writing" that offers "new hopes of representation, neither linguistic nor pictorial but hovering in a kind of utopian space between" (12, 3, 4). Given what we have learned about visual culture and technologies in the past century and what North chronicles in his study, the utopian notion of a "new universal language [that is] wholly transparent" seems naive (6). Moreover, as North notes, photography's alleged "clarity, timeliness, and neutrality" engendered the notion that reality could be accessed directly, "not only collaps[ing] the distinction between perception and representation but also suggest[ing] that the perceptible world was itself a ceaseless [End Page 596] fund of representations" (19, 21). Citing Man Ray, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and even Ezra Pound, North argues convincingly against the notion that when the modernists came to reject realism, they also rejected photography. "Camera vision . . . was essentially mimetic, because it opened up to human perception possibilities unnoticed by the eye and displayed the 'social fantastic' . . . that had lived unnoticed inside the restrictions of everyday reality" (30). North argues that writers "have often appealed to the visual arts as if to a more transparent and immediate method of inscription and communication, the new visual media that arrived with and followed the camera actually complicated the process of representation, and with it all the older arts, both visual and literary" (31).
In his second chapter, North effectively chronicles the relationship between art and visual technology, particularly through Alfred Steiglitz's very influential Camera Work. While we generally assume Steiglitz's devotion to "straight" photography, which espoused an aesthetic of minimal interference by the photographer, North argues that much of the photography published in Camera Work, even the work of Paul Strand, relied on pictorialism, which deliberately rejected the mimetic talents of an instrument that presented everything within its frame with equal clarity and importance, instead electing to elide certain details, blur the hard outlines. "The effect of photography . . . is not, as is so often argued, to produce a new way of seeing but rather to inspire a new self-consciousness about eyesight and its relation to phenomena" (53). North follows up with a discussion of other magazines that integrated images and text, including The Soil and transition, an international magazine incorporating French, German, and English that described itself as a "logocinema." Jolas, transition's editor, called for "the twentieth-century word . . . the word of movement, the word expressive of the great new forces around us," a plea that was answered, according to North, by Robert Carlton Brown's Readies, "a new genre, a sort of modernist movie constructed of type" in which movement made pictures out of words and "reading into a visual activity as immediate and direct as watching a film" (72, 76, 77). North's final chapter in his first section deals with the critical reception of sound in film, especially in the international magazine Close-Up, which viewed the visual purity of film, the universality of images as undermined by the introduction of sound. Examining the...