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South Central Review 21.1 (2004) 94-129

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Photographs and Memories

Lutz Koepnick
Washington University in St. Louis

Close-Up 1: Alan Schechner, "It's the Real Thing (Self Portrait at Buchenwald)"

We see a man who stares straight into the lenses of the camera. His eyes express untroubled resolve and self-confidence. His is a look we know all too well from the advertising pages of picture magazines: a look that is meant to testify to the charisma and intensity certain kinds of commodities bestow on our ordinary lives. And indeed, what the man holds in his hand—as if toasting to the spectator and thereby directly acknowledging our presence in front of the camera—is a can of Diet Coke. Even though the rest of the image is black and white, this soda can glistens in spectacular red and pink. Its flare attracts, arrests, and implicates our own look like a light house radiating signals from a dull beachfront setting. But what we see around and behind this man of confidence and determination is not monotonous nature. What we see instead are the bunks at a Nazi concentration camp, filled with emaciated men who seem to use their last energy in order to enter the photographic frame and gaze at the camera. Like the man with the soda can, the camp inmates pull the viewer into the space of representation (see fig. 1). They know they are being photographed, and their look urges the viewer to return their gaze. Yet our knowledge about their fate situates us in agonizing viewing positions. Forced to cast a cold and detached gaze at these men, a gaze that cannot but fail to establish reciprocity, we do not know how to keep our eyes open without experiencing our own selves under unbearable pressure.

In the early 1980s, the first wave of postmodernist photography—think of photographers such as Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince—explored the world of advertising and mass cultural spectacle in order to reveal the codes, conventions, norms, and ideological underpinnings of commercialized image circulation. By reproducing, recropping, and recontextualizing extant art and advertising photographs, artists such as Sherman tried to make visible the seductive logic of commodity culture and its blurring of any boundaries between serious and light art, politics and entertainment. Alan Schechner's "It's the Real Thing (Self Portrait [End Page 94]

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Figure 1
Alan Schechner, "Self Portrait at Buchenwald: It's the Real Thing" (1991-1993).

at Buchenwald)" is indebted to this early postmodernist impulse. It works with and recontextualizes well-known imagery in order to destabilize the viewer's ordinary perception. At the same time, his photograph engages digital technology in order to recall the legacy of surrealism: Diet Coke here seems to meet Buchenwald in the same way Surrealist art established unlikely conjunctions of sewing machines and umbrellas. Whether or not he succeeds with his work, Schechner's ambitions are considerable. On the one hand, he wants to direct our attention at the fact that photographic images—including those depicting the Holocaust—require contexts in order to assume meaning and carry messages. His is not a photograph aspiring to witness, mourn, or work through the traumas of the Holocaust. It does not aim at finding a new way of representing the unrepresentable. Rather, it wants to render problematic the way in which contemporary media culture makes use of the Shoah, the way in which images of the Nazi period and the Holocaust have become some of the most enduring commodities of postwar visual culture. On the other hand, Schechner seeks to lay bare that Surrealist techniques [End Page 95] have lost their ability to shock perception and explore the disruptive energies of the subconscious. "Today's photography," writes Andy Grundberg,
is a response to living in a world in which what challenges reality is simulated reality, not surreality. Ours is quite a different situation from that of the surrealists, who saw reality as a screen or blockade that masked the irrational, chaotic, childlike, and presumably genuine arena of the subconscious.1