Monday, May 3, 2021

Crit: Photography and Belief by David Levi Strauss

MACK books has started publishing what amount to chapbooks with what passes for academic content these days. Jörg Colberg's book about Annie Leibowitz was one of those. It turns out that David Zwirner has also started doing this. It's like a trend for Art Companies to get credible, or something. Anyways, David Levi Strauss (art critic) wrote this book, published by Zwirner, and it got reviewed in "The Nation," some mook complained that the 2400 word review was "super long" and here we are.

In this thing Levi Strauss investigates, essentially, why it is that we believe photographs, and what the nature of that belief is. What is the character of the uniquely photographic belief that we (at least sometimes) develop in response to a photo? To say that this overlaps with my own interests might be a bit of an understatement.

The investigation in this volume begins with some material about the apostle Thomas and his doubts (and need to see to assuage them) and a section on the Shroud of Turin, which are fun to read and set the stage, mainly by bringing in a mystical/religious flavor we will see later.

The book proceeds by examining more or less the standard canon of writers: Walter Benjamin, John Berger, Roland Barthes, and a few others that I don't recognize as being particularly standard references, notably Vilém Flusser. I will slip over the other references, as they don't strike me as particularly important to the things I want to say. Levi Strauss' method is to quote bits and pieces from his preferred sources, and then squint a bit at those quotations until he discerns something in them about his topic, belief.

The result is something that feels rather like an argument, but in the end is maybe more of a survey. Levi Strauss holds his own remarks for a short chapter at the very end (about which more later) sticking to providing interpretations of his sources up to that point.

Whether survey or argument, though, he's mining what I consider to be fairly decent sources. Ok, Barthes is a bit of an idiot, but he's at least serving up a frothy set of more or less original ideas. Flusser, with whom I am completely unfamiliar, seems similarly loopy-yet-thoughtful.

What does Levi Strauss discover, or perhaps confirm, in his investigation?

That belief in photos arises from ourselves, rather than from the photograph itself. Levi Strauss describes this as a kind of "magic" which word he borrows from several of his sources and which, to my irritation, does not in any meaningful way mean "magic." It is a bit like talking to a Wiccan about "magick" — they desperately want it to be real, but the real world regrettably intervenes so they weave a web of vague words which, when unpacked, reveals either nothing or something fairly mundane. Levi Strauss and his sources mean something to do with imagination and something to do with human social machinery. Something vague and not really pinned down. But something certainly pretty mundane, and certainly not magic.

I think it would not be unfair to summarize Levi Strauss thus: our belief in photographs is an artifact of certain imaginative and social mechanisms in our psyches, in our natures as human beings and as such it has something of the character of an act of imagination, a social act.

Longer time readers might recognize this. I agree with this position entirely. Where Levi Strauss and I differ is on the mechanics that produce this result.

Fairly early on, the author does some spadework to dismiss the idea of "index" as outdated (which is a standard, if goofy, position these days) and then immediately smuggles it back in under the name acheiropoetic. Now, this terms means something like "an image made without the hand of man" and refers to a small handful of religious icons which allegedly appeared by mystical means. Translated to photography, it means "index" except that its etymology is from religious terminology rather than semiotics, which fits rather neatly with the use of the word "magic."

The author's goal here is to transfer some of the "magic" from the photograph (where it is called "index") to the viewer (where Levi Strauss identifies it as "acheiropoetic/mystical/magic") and that point is well taken, but made in a slightly peculiar way. These are the same ideas, but the emphasis moves from technical properties of the photo, to the viewer response to those technical properties.

There is a certain amount of more or less arbitrary insertion of the mystical going on here, to no particular purpose that I can discern. To an extent Levi Strauss is saying that these things are squishy, not rational, and that's a fair point. I rather wish he'd refer to religious and mystical ideas as a basis for comparison, for understanding, rather than insinuating them into his actual argument, though.

Anyways, the meat of Levi Strauss' argument is that the "indexical" property, renamed "acheiropoesy" or sometimes "trace" or sometimes "magic" is the thing that initiates (by undisclosed means) the imaginative/social response to the photograph, which manifests itself as "belief."

The text of the book itself is a bit more dubious than it might seem, given that he arrives at what I consider to be roughly the right answer. In order to make sense of his squinting at his sources, one must squint a fair bit at Photography and Belief. I am pretty sure that my squinting is on the mark but one can never really be sure, can one?

The following remarks will be a bit scatter-shot. You should treat it as a kind of highlight reel, critiques and complaining about this bit and that bit, that jumped out at me. The whole is rather more bland and well-made than these snippets might suggest, and yet I think also these are a little suggestive of the whole.

Levi Strauss, to my eye, mishandles his sources. The snippets he carves out are, because they are quotations, partaking heavily of whatever the source's private language is. You really have to spend a fair bit of time with Barthes to be able to make sense of any specific sentence. Less, with Berger, but a broader familiarity will still serve you.

I found myself hemming and hawing, but eventually nodding along with the sources I was familiar with, and had to hand. I don't know Benjamin firsthand, and I don't know Flusser at all, and quite frankly those snippets and quotations made them sound like idiots.

One example. Flusser, evidently, proposes that linear writing displaced an image-based culture, in some sense, with some sort of profound change thereby (shades of the never-cited Mcluhan here whose oft-cited but rarely understood aphorism "the medium is the message" means, among other things, that a culture which writes is different from one that does not.) Levi Strauss quotes Flusser:

Texts do not signify the world; they signify the images they tear up.

Now, I am willing to stipulate that in context this probably isn't as idiotic as it sounds. Given to us more or less alone, though, it's simply a stupid thing to say. Flusser sounds like a bloviating dolt, although we might assume I suppose that he is not.

Another example. Levi Strauss quotes Berger:

The denial of the innate ambiguity of the photograph is closely connected with the denial of the social function of subjectivity.

but on the next page appears to be asserting that Berger says the latter arises from rather than merely being closely connected with the former, which simply is not what Berger said. Berger does state, in a bit that Levi Strauss does not quote, that "The way photography is used today both derives from and confirms the suppression of the social function of subjectivity" which is not quite the same thing. So, the author is onto something, but has made something of a hash out of it.

While we're at it, it's worth noting that "the social function of subjectivity" itself is unclear. Is it the capacity of subjectivity to perform some social function, as in "the bending function of the elbow" or is it an active ongoing functioning of subjectivity in the service of the social? Is it the capacity that is suppressed, or the actual ongoing function? Is the engine rendered incapable of turning, or is it in fact stopped from the actual turning that it is doing right now?

Berger makes it clear that it is the latter, the ongoing function, and what he is decrying overall is the quantization of society. Where society used to be based on squishy things like faith, emotion, a sense of justice, or whatever, it is now more and more based on Verifiable Facts, and Measurable Quantities, among those things, photographs.

What this all has to do with Levi Strauss' thesis is a little vague in the book under discussion, but Berger is making the point that photographs as a means of communication, as media (as opposed to evidence, say) can and do function socially, subjectively, even imaginatively. By doing a not-very-good job of explaining Berger to us, Levi Strauss wound up taking something of a pointless detour that failed to explain Berger, and also mostly failed to make much headway toward Levi Strauss' thesis.

To my eye he does a better job with Barthes, although infuriatingly he focuses like everyone else on punctum when what he wants is "blind field," the latter being literally and precisely Barthes' take on what belief in photographs is.

And so on, and on. I daresay someone deeply familiar with Benjamin or Flusser would be able to similarly nitpick Levi Strauss' castle-erecting operations on those fronts as well.

But the central thesis is, I think, sound. You do not have to squint too excessively to discern Levi Strauss' idea about belief-in-photos in these sources. I think we could argue that these things are pretty well understood, and right up until we get to that last short chapter, the whole thing seems almost to collapse to a precis of Berger's essay "Appearances" which leaves one wondering, a little, what the point of this is. If it's just "Appearances," except murkier and mired in a bunch of other references, what exactly is Levi Strauss trying to accomplish here?

This brings us to the end, the last chapter, in which the author tries to add something new and substantive to the thing. To be honest, it's a bit of a mixed bag.

Levi Strauss makes a stab at criticizing social media photography, by asserting that we look at photos there in a "flow" rather than one-by-one, and suggests that this is new and different. How, exactly, "flow" affects the structure and character of our belief in photos he seems to leave unclear. It's not at all obvious to me that "flow" is in fact new. We have had magazines for a while now, and has he ever watched people in an art gallery? It's a hell of a lot like instagram where you use your feet instead of your thumb to scroll hurriedly past the pictures.

He talks about how images are being made purely to be consumed by the computer, by machines, which is a bit of a bugaboo, but again offers no opinion on why or how this matters except to hand-wave in the direction of "Capital" a bit. Around here he offers this doozy:

Capital has turned being into having, and having into appearances, and it has turned appearances into a commodity, leading to estrangement and alienation.

Grammatically, this begs the question "look, are we collapsing 'being,' 'having,' 'appearances,' and 'the commodity appearances have become' into a single thing, or have each of the things simply taken one step right?" This is one of those sentences for which I assume the answer is "doesn't matter, because the sentence doesn't really mean anything anyways, beyond 'capitalism is v. bad and alienating.'"

Ok, that's a little unfair, I guess. There is something in there about consumerism, and appearances being The Thing, and so forth. If we take it as a sort of poetic/metaphorical thing there's something there, I guess.

Then there's more sort of unfocused unpacking and stirring around of the ideas:

Belief in images has become the test case for the social. If we do not find a way to believe what we see in images we will lose the ability to act socially.

which strikes me as the sort of thing someone who needs to get outside more might say. It's not completely without point, you can argue that photographic media provides us in some critical way with the things we need in order to perform socially (politically?) in our current culture. I guess. I feel like the author ought maybe to show his work here a bit, at least, and it may be simply nonsense.

Later Levi Strauss wonders out loud about what will happen as our relationship with photographs changes from "the trace" (the index, smuggled in again under a different name) to "the flow" which causes one to wonder what the hell he's on about, since those don't even seem to be comparable concepts. What he means is probably "look, we used to react to the indexical nature of photos, we took it for showing us that-which-was, and now we're just kind of skimming them in a sort of trance" which, ok, maybe there's something to be said there? One rather wishes Levi Strauss had said something.

Again, this particular thing is built on the somewhat shaky idea that the way we consume photographic media, the nature of our belief in photos, somehow matters to something, and again the author has declined to show his work. This is pretty standard: scholars of photography take it more or less for granted that photos are Super Duper Important and assume they don't have to demonstrate that.

As with most authors, Levi Strauss insists that it's the index that matters, it is the fact that the photograph is a "trace" of the world, made "acheiropoetically" that matters and that this is the underlying reason for our reaction to it.

Having promoted this very idea fairly stridently on this very blog, and been corrected by my readers, I have to point out that this thesis as stated flies in the face of the very idea of perception. It is not how the damned thing was literally made. It's whether we think it was made that way.

Photorealistic paintings work on us in exactly the same way photographs do, despite being made by hand with paint. We perceive them the same way. At the same time, abstract photos, for instance, do not, because we do not perceive them as the trace-of-the-real.

Levi Strauss is almost right, I contend, but not quite. If we perceive it viscerally as real, then we react to it with a pseudo-presence inside the picture, and react to that attenuated sense of presence by deploying our imagination, our pre-existing beliefs, our social mechanisms, as well as integrating things like captions and accompanying text, to create an imaginative world to contain the photo. We believe that imaginative world, because in a sense we are there in it.

This is not quite what Berger says in "Appearances" nor is it quite what Barthes says in Camera Lucida but if you squint, you can see something like it in there. As far as I can tell, my original contribution here is confined to the idea of a pseudo-presence, felt viscerally, perhaps biologically, which is induced by the real-seemingness of the picture.

This book feels, to be honest, a little tossed off. It is as if Zwirner dropped him a note and said "hey, could you bang out something about 15,000 words for this series we have?" and Levi Strauss felt that he could probably do that, and did.

It is curious that the book, despite repeating the inversion of the aphorism: "Believing is Seeing" failed to cite Errol Morris' book of that title. To be fair, Morris is up to something at most tangentially related to the investigation Levi Strauss wants to make, but then so are all of Levi Strauss' other sources. Mcluhan probably should have been mentioned in passing as well.

Is it worth buying? Maybe! If you're remotely interested in the subject, if you're one of the three of us, then the endnotes alone are probably worth it. It's cheap. It's thoughtful. It's not wrong. It's not perfect.


  1. Three things, none of which have any import, really:

    1) I preordered this and it's sitting in a pile of books I may read one day, just below the Azoulay and intermixed with the other books in this Zwirner series and the 3/4 or 4/5 of the relevantly similar books from Mack. Maybe I'll have comments on it one day, probably not, and if I do it on my blog, I'll point readers here before I write something too stupid, I hope.

    2) I've actually read a book or two from Flusser... 'Towards a Philosophy of Photography' at least, though I don't remember anything of it, but then that's sorta the way it goes with me: despite the philosophy degree and advanced art history degree, or maybe because of, despite my ability to read rather deeply and somewhat thoughtfully, and probably because of, I sure never remember much. Snippets, maybe, sure, but eh.

    3) I've been working on a review of Levi Strauss's 'Co-Illusion,' which I can't recommend, except for maybe the pictures throughout, from Susan Meiselas and Peter van Agtmael. It's a strange book: half Levi Strauss talking about something as he followed the Clinton campaign around (I don't recall... and, dammit I'll have to skim it again to get something of an idea before I go back to the review), half him sort of channeling the 45th President, or a sort of caricature of the voice in his head or something, as he attended some of his events. I missed the switch in my first read of the book, and spent about 1000 words grumbling about it, then went and looked and, sure enough, he says something about it and his idea and project, sort of, and so I had to mostly remove those 1000 words and that's when I gave it up... The pictures are decent, though, as one might expect from Meiselas and Van Agtmael, who are more or less pros at that sort of thing.

  2. The state of photobook publishing today*: another babbling idiot sticks their oar in.

    *anything art-related, really

  3. To be a bit fair, Levi Strauss has been writing about art and photography for a couple of decades. "Between the Eyes" and "Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow," and it seems he's written on Susan Meiselas as well. His oar has been in the water for quite awhile, for better or worse.

    1. Yeah. Writing on photography is a Tower of Babel, with most beating a proverbial dead horse. Nothing new to say, in word salad prose (Our Host does a pretty good job of wrestling something resembling meaning out of it, so thanks for that).

      It seems to have escaped too many of these erstwhile scriveners that photography is a visual medium.

      That's what it is, that's what it does.

    2. Or, in the immortal words of Tony Fouhse: "I don't need no explanations. Just show me the result."

  4. Are your photos weird-pervy abominations cooked up in your mom's basement? Can't write worth shit? Get yerself a poet!

    1. Aww c'mon, Roger Ballen's ok. Weird, but fun!

    2. Clearly he is "is one of the most important photographers of his generation." At least, that's what it says on the box. Or, you could check out Joel-Peter Witkin?