December 2, 2011
The staggering rate at which we now make and consume photographic images is liable to induce a sense of vertigo in anyone who thinks about it for too long. Of course, given that photography is essentially a technological medium, the easy multiplication of images must be understood as a key value of its nature. But this incredible proliferation is in itself something mostly unforeseen, because the shift in the process of actually making a picture is basically very little, a matter of degree only. The implications of this jump from a chemical process to a digital one are significant, however, and still imperfectly understood. That being said, there are artists who have been dealing with the issue of photographic consumption for a number of years, even before the recent explosion in technology, and perhaps chief among them is Joachim Schmid, who is a prescient observer of media culture in general. Granted he began his investigations – and that’s fundamentally what they are – into the social effect of lens-based images long before the internet and digital technology attained their current ubiquity, but there is none the less something about his work that cements an understanding of just what the whole mass of photographic imagery would eventually become, consuming reality one frame at a time.
His central aim has been the remarkably consistent questioning of what is it that we do with photographs and how they shape the way in which we see the world around us, that profound conceptual disparity between representation and experience so often obscured by the multiple roles filled by the photographic image. It is – no doubt rightly – an article of faith in any contemporary discussion about the medium that we cannot in any sense trust what we see in a photograph, that some essential sense of its being in reference to a real event has long since been abandoned. Yet we know that although this has in a fundamental way to do with a new volatility of the photograph and the ease with which it can be manipulated, the other dimensions of this supposed shift in thinking are much harder to quantify, given the fact that images have always been subject to some sleight of hand, or at least an inherent willingness to deceive. The most remarkable insight of Schmid’s practice has been to articulate in a systematic way the far more complex social iterations of photographic meaning and how those values are tied into the imposition of a particular view of the world that is, in fact, only made possible by photography – its “manipulation” belongs to a far more embedded process than the simple detail of changing appearances, then. It is, in fact, the ordering of our collective reality.
As a result of this particular insight, Schmid is explicitly concerned with those wider structures of meaning, the contexts in which pictures occur and are read. He does not specifically “appropriate” the images that form the basis of his work, but uses their presence in a reflexive fashion to describe the ways in which meaning is derived as the function of a particular image in a particular context – and by altering this context, he alters the meaning of the images. It is somewhat ironic that this facility for “ordering” our sense of the world through photography depends on the ordering of the photographic material itself, in so far as the subtext of this action is to reinforce that first connection between the image and its nominal subject. This has to be taken as more than just a tangential reference – the image has to be (or is understood as) the analogue of its subject. In changing the context of the images Schmid is revealing this “double-bind” of photographic reference, the way in which it is definitively anchored to a subject – where the picture is inescapably about something – and yet the meaning of that reference is unstable, given to abrupt changes in implication depending on where we find it. The same “reference” can have an untold number of meanings. What is at stake, then, is the containment of those possibilities, because it is the limit of any discourse (like attaching a particular reading to a photograph) that establishes meaning. But at the same time we cannot think of these “limits” as being in any way neutral or without an agenda. There is often some pre-existing order packaged with the photograph that demands a certain understanding of its subject (and the photograph itself, in turn). Schmid’s work depends, therefore, on the articulation of a singular, if paradoxically ubiquitous, trope – that of the archive.
This is not just a system of ordering information according to certain rules, the particular strategies of an archive, or its incidental style, as much as it is the assumed privilege of controlling the meaning within it, setting the terms of that meaning. It is, in fact, the effect of a super-structure that determines how that content is read, the deeper intent of which is to shape larger narratives – telling us this is how it was, a kind of proof. The archive is not just order then, but the appropriation of meaning beyond the “factual” as a projected image of authority. All of which is not to suggest, of course, that there is some clear intentionality behind such a process, a will to control meaning in itself – and Schmid is not so naive as to imply that in his work. Rather “the archive” is shaped by a gravitational pull between images; the logic imposed on them is subject to a certain kind of irrationality, even in those particular cases where the aim of a collection is to reinforce a specific viewpoint. For example, his series Other People’s Photographs, which involved the process of classifying amateur pictures into thematic groupings is exemplary in that regard; the mass of visual material with which we now live is clearly another sort of archival practice – it has, for want of a better word, gone viral, and Schmid deals with the change in a particularly acute way.
He also has a comprehensive website. (This piece also appeared in Issue 13 of SMBH magazine).