Holes: colonialism and negative space in modernist photography

Henning, Michelle ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0003-3798-7227 (2017) Holes: colonialism and negative space in modernist photography. In: The Left Conference - Photography and Film Criticism, 16-18 Nov 2017, Lisbon, Portugal. (Unpublished)

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This paper addresses ideas about documentary which have emerged in response to the recent documentary turn in contemporary art. In particular I address claims made in in the writings of Okwui Enwezor (2008) and T.J Demos (2013) regarding the use of holes and absences, or blindspots, as a way of articulating a distance from documentary's false social consciousness or as a means to articulate absence or invisibility, states of dislocation, insecurity and exclusion. I bring these readings into dialogue with older ideas regarding absence and blindspots: namely, Malek Alloula's 1981 critique of colonial photographers who were working in Algeria in the early decades of the twentieth century, and ideas regarding negative space that circulated in modernist art education.

Alloula wrote that, for the photographer excluded from the world of Algerian women, "The whiteness of the veil becomes the symbolic equivalent of blindness: a leukoma, a white speck on the eye of the photographer and on his viewfinder." (Alloula 1981, 7) In other words, the veiled woman was, for the colonial gaze, a hole in vision, intolerable because she forced an acknowledgement of the limits of colonial knowledge and of the photographic gaze. However, this association of seeing and knowing was characteristic of a positivist understanding of photography that was being challenged by modern physics and by modernism in art.

A conception of space as concrete, active and subjectively experienced was rooted in the late nineteenth-century and early twentieth century in physics. Physicists such as Poincaré, Mach and Einstein understood space as dependent on the observer (Kern 1983). Such ideas challenged ideas of an objective reality, "out there" and able to be captured: the version of positivism which has tended to be associated with the photograph as document and with early documentary. At the same time, modernist art education taught students to pay attention not to the subject but to the spaces in-between, to look through the holes and gaps made by buildings, a crooked elbow, or objects on a table, and to represent, not objects but this negative space. A concern with the voids between volumes came to the fore in the work of Cézanne, in Cubism, in Futurist sculpture, and in constructivist design and typography during the early 1920s. In modernism, there was no such thing as an empty void, or volume. Once the handheld camera was available, the photographer too was able to express this new sense of subjective, heterogenous and concrete space.

By the 1940s, "negative space" was a staple of the formalist vocabulary. High-modernist formalism is usually understood as a depoliticising tendency in art and art criticism, and as particularly problematic in documentary photography. Nevertheless, I want to argue that this modernist conception of negative space facilitated a new kind of attention: not to that which overtly foregrounded itself as subject, but to background, environment, to edges. Today in contemporary art, "holes" are understood as a means to negotiate the false objectivity of documentary and for registering "bare life" as part of a Left politics of this image. I trace this representational strategy to its unlikely origins in formalism. Negative space offered new means to represent invisibility, to show absence without forcing it into presence, to figure the withdrawal from representation.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Keywords: photography, documentary art, fashion photography, negatie space, colonial gaze
Subjects: Media > Photography
Arts > Art and design history
Depositing User: Michelle Henning
Date Deposited: 16 Dec 2017 17:17
Last Modified: 01 Jun 2024 08:02
URI: https://repository.uwl.ac.uk/id/eprint/4205

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