I enjoy taking photos, but I only find satisfaction from printed photographs on occasion. I find the idea of presenting my own photos fraught with pitfalls. So I’ve turned to books for help.

Roland BarthesCamera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (translated by Richard Howard {Hill and Wang, 1981}) is a primer in the study of photographs and semiotics. It’s also a good starting point because it’s Barthes’ personal investigation of the photograph, written in the first-person and in the present-tense. He begins with his understanding of the photograph and concludes with an examination of the role of photographs in his grieving process for his late mother.

James Elkins, though, has criticized Barthes for taking too sentimental an approach to photographic theory. Elkins’ books include:

Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction
Master Narratives and Their Discontents
What Happened to Art Criticism?
Why Art Cannot be Taught
On Pictures and the Words That Fail Them

These polemical titles may seem off-putting, but I admire Elkins’ rigor and multi-disciplinary scholarship. I’ve taken a crack at his latest book, “Six Stories from the End of Representation: Images in Painting, Photography, Astronomy, Microscopy, Particle Physics, and Quantum Mechanics, 1980-2000” (Stanford University Press, 2008) and it’s quite good. He reviews principles in modernism and postmodernism, such as a historical and Kantian definition of the sublime, in contrast to the “overused” Romantic notion. He also identifies artistic strategies in modernism and postmodernism, including “The Ladder,” with which an artist descends into darkness, leaving behind the clarity of illusionistic representation. Lower rungs of the ladder include the strategies of the blur and darkness.

Elkins’ writing is methodical and exact, so one can understand why he is so critical of vagaries in art. He writes about some art that uses darkness and blurring:

The problem is that as it stands, much of the work is mediocre. The critical literature follows this lead, providing impressionistic commentaries on belatedness, the loss of memory, the affection for clumsiness, faint melancholy, the embrace of meaninglessness, obsolescence, the departure of the aura, sophisticated evasions, missing objects, ineffective repressions, loss of space, loss of language, hopelessness.

He’s right. The “loss of memory” is overused to justify decrepitude as a visual style. And so much of the stylized, narrative drawing around the Bay Area (you know what I’m talkin’ ’bout–those screenprints of telephone poles!) is romanticism masked as cultivated urbanity, and touches on similar vagaries — melancholy, obsolescence, the affection for clumsiness.

Most compelling, though, is Elkins’ methodological approach of trying to bridge the humanities with the sciences. Far from the other vague art cliché, “nature versus technology,” Elkins has the chops to execute a rigorous study of astronomy, miscroscopy, particle physics and quantum mechanics. Having recently studied astronomy for the Binary Pair project, I’m looking forward to delving into this chapter.


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