Prosthetic eye, performative camera

Mireille Juchau

Anne Marsh, The Darkroom: Photography and the Theatre of Desire, Pan Macmillan, Melbourne, 2003 ISBN 1 876832 78 9.

Those 19th century photographs in which the dearly departed seem to hover translucent and spectral beside the living are wonderful examples of the link between photography, desire and performance. While the living sought to souvenir one final glimpse of their dead, the spirit photographers who ‘staged’ such portraits profited from the huge popularity of an industry featuring “death and its accoutrements.” The popularity of Victorian funeral and spirit photography was part of a widespread “reaction against a rational modernity,” writes Anne Marsh in her new book The Darkroom.

Photography, Marsh writes, “is a performative representational practice that has aspects in common with theatre.” This approach is at the centre of her discussion of a range of historical and contemporary photographs and re-readings of some key critiques of photography. A senior lecturer in Visual Culture at Monash University, Melbourne, Marsh’s approach is heavily theoretical and most engaging and lively when specific photographs are used to bear out the critical concepts with which she is concerned. In a chapter on spirit photography, she describes how theatrical techniques, ritual and artifice are used in particular images which often mobilised dramatic swathes of light and darkness to symbolise the movement from one world to the next. While it’s not hard to detect the theatrical in the ethereal poses and framing of Julia Margaret Cameron’s otherworldly portraits, in the composite spirit shots of William Mumler or the dramatic snaps of mediums oozing white ectoplasmic emissions mid-séance, Marsh is also interested in teasing out the complex operations of desire in “the operator, the subject being photographed and the viewer looking on.”

While Muybridge and Marey’s movement studies were perhaps the first form of performance documentation, Marsh traces the performative aspects of photography back to the camera obscura and other 18th century optical devices which staged an experience like a private theatre. She writes:

One imagines the eighteenth century viewer, alone or in a small party, standing about in his or her darkened room trying to see the picture from nature in much the same way as people gathered at shop windows displaying the latest three dimensional computer enhanced puzzle picture in the late twentieth century. People move back and forth, trying to adjust their eyes, trying to get the best optical location…Then, as now, the body is the flexible seeing apparatus, the thing that moves about and alters the image, enhancing the body’s experience.

Theatrical effects are also evident in the supposedly factual realm of early documentary photography. Marsh details how American photographer Jacob Riis manufactured dramas to intensify the action in his 19th century New York slum photographs. In establishing photography’s essentially performative nature, Marsh writes, we can “acknowledge that the subject/object of the photograph can perform as a way of un-forming or de-forming the would be truth and objectivity of the photographic process.”

The Darkroom is primarily concerned with this issue of ‘staging’ in both contemporary and historical photographs and in the key critical discourses produced around photography from Benjamin and Barthes to Foucault and Lacan. Marsh argues against a reductive reading of Foucault’s theory of the panopticon that has at times produced a “paranoid discourse” on power relations and ignores the complex interrelationship between desire, seduction, fantasy and performance involved in the taking, posing for and viewing of a photograph. Arguing against a structuralist approach to photography, she maintains that the practice is not “exclusively the tool of any given dominant ideology” but ultimately democratic.

This mode of inquiry allows for a greater scope, depth and breadth in interpreting the photograph, and effectively avoids the kind of limiting moral positioning that occurred for example in Susan Sontag’s famous critique of Diane Arbus’ ‘freaks’ series. Instead of reading photography as an act of violence on its unwitting subjects, Marsh suggests we “focus on the subject or the photograph, rather than the violent action”; thus photography could also be considered a fetishistic activity. Her readings of a range of photographs (by Cindy Sherman, Joel-Peter Witkin and Australians Linda Sproul, Anne Ferran, Deborah Pauwe, Pat Brassington and others) offer multiple positions and interpretations that do not privilege one perspective over another, yet Marsh also avoids an eternal relativism by commenting on the vicissitudes of certain photographers’ approaches. When looking at Australian Polixeni Papapetrou’s restaging of Lewis Carroll’s famous child portraits using her young daughter as subject (Olympia from the Lewis Carroll Series, 2002) Marsh notes the series’ liberating possibilities in providing both the photographer and her subject “opportunities for…childish play acting.” Yet, while Papapetrou is not unaware of the criticisms of Carroll’s work and debates about representing the child in photography, there remains a potentially problematic imbalance in power relations between mother and daughter in her work. Olympia “is still a child and her knowledge of the way in which her own image fits into the history of photography would be limited,” Marsh writes.

Perhaps of particular interest to RealTime readers, The Darkroom includes a substantial section on “Body art and Performative Photography” focusing on the role of masochism, narcissism and fetishism in performance work. In this section Marsh describes Mike Parr’s “obsessive and compulsive investigations of pain and endurance” and the role of autobiography and self therapy in his performances. Like Parr, performer Jill Orr “sustained a relationship with her self-image through photographic and video representations” and both artists mobilised the camera as a “critical or conceptual tool” within their performances, thus consolidating “the relationship between performative art and photography.”

In the final section Marsh examines the photographs of postcolonial Australian artists which engage with “the text of the racial body.” She explores the crucial role of photography in identity politics, where the camera is used to document the fragmentation of identities and “embraced by artists as a critical weapon that could foreclose on authenticity and essentialist representations”; thus the camera is used “as part of an assault on humanism.” Included here are Tracey Moffatt, Leah King-Smith and Gordon Bennett whose Mirrorama (1993), a “psychoanalytic interpretation of aboriginality seen in the context of Australian history” stages a fractured subjectivity. For these artists “[t]he camera becomes a weapon in [the] scheme of misrecognition and dis-identity…[a] tool that can fracture and deconstruct subjecthood…creating a multi-dimensional view.”

By becoming a “performative machine” and an “instrument of destabilisation”, the camera, Marsh shows us, has operated as a “virus within modernism”, a tool for deconstructing those master narratives that privilege certain ways of seeing the world, while simultaneously negating others. Marsh’s work deftly shows how the camera can function as a “prosthesis for the operator”, as well as an instrument of fantasy, enabling the artist to extend the limits of his or her work in real space and in psychological terms. The Darkroom provides a rich history of how photography’s theatrical roots have remained evident in international and Australian work and how considering the complex functions of desire might broaden the ways we have previously read such work.

Anne Marsh is the author of Body and Self: Performance Art in Australia, 1969-1992.

RealTime issue #60 April-May 2004 pg. 32

© Mireille Juchau; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2004