Photography is Not Magic: Photographic Images and their Digital Spirit
Asha Schechter, Picture 049 (Cardboard Box, Autumn Leaf Red, Funky Monkeys), 2013. C-print
Taisuke Koyama, Untitled (Seventh Depth 013), 2014. Archival pigment print
Annie MacDonell, Untitled, from the series Flatness, Light, Black & White, 2013. Inkjet print
I have come to see or to imagine, in men and women, in houses, in handicrafts, in nearly all sights and sounds, a certain evil, a certain ugliness, that comes from the slow perishing through the centuries of a quality of mind that made this belief and its evidences common over the world.
—W. B. Yeats, Magic, 1901
To practice magic is to be a quack; to know magic is to be a sage.
—Eliphas Levi, Histoire de la magie, 1860
I’ll do here what Photography Is Magic (Aperture, 2015) fails to do of its own accord: take its subject seriously. It might come as a surprise, considering the seemingly casual nature of this book in its coffee-table form, that it should be approached with such serious questions. It should come as little surprise however, considering the manner in which its author lazily wraps its title around its contents, that it now be questioned in its proper context: photography’s enduring and complicated relationship to magic. Or put correctly, “spirit”, and its various esoteric traditions since the invention of photography in the nineteenth century. One might consider replacing the idea of photographic magic with what could be called a digital spirit, which finds its ghostly traces in the software algorithms of the present day. As John Bramble has it in his Modernism and the Occult (2015): ‘Whatever secular rationalists say, magic and the occult, like their big-brother religion, refuse to go away’. Like a bad omen hanging around, the same might be said of this book, which offers photography-as-“magic” up as an empty, unreasoned superlative, floating around in some dreamlike ether between the analogue and the digital, refusing to come back down again.
The book primarily deals with a kind of contemporary photographic practice that borrows from various modernist formalisms, abstraction and appropriation art, alongside images that find their partial originality in the tools they utilise, within the wide context of network culture and the digital image. Some of the artists featured are clearly very interesting, but due to the sheer amount of work the publication brings together, whatever quality it does possess ends up overshadowed by derivative work unable to stand up to much scrutiny, made palpable by the sometimes baffling collection of artists’ statements at the back of the book. Preferring to posture about like magoi—the plural form of the name given to priest-magicians in Ancient Babylonia and the etymological root for the word magic in Ancient Greek—we find a collection of ideas on contemporary photography reduced to vague incantation and conjecture.
Instead of defining magic as the “control of supernatural forces”, this book represents it as something rather more dull: photography’s new primitivism as found in the idea of ‘close-up magic’. Doing little for the work itself, this sees magic describe contemporary photographic art the same way it was itself described by Western culture in the Enlightenment, as primitive. Or as Charlotte Cotton, the book’s author states, with ‘wonder’, ‘delight’ and ‘imagination’. Far from addressing the complex nature of the sort of metaphorical spells photography might conjure now in more diverse ways, here we have “magic artists” represented the way Sophocles referred to the magoi in the 4th Century BCE: ‘crafty priests’. This book undiversely selects work based on trend, and then canonises it, while offering the paradoxical and anxious disclaimer: ‘the artists in Photography Is Magic are not approached as the contemporary end to a linear, canonical history of art photography’. Is this not precisely what a book of this nature attempts to do, by default? Here, trend hits a kind of desperation point: bundled together in this form the artists involved lose their individual potencies; the things that made some of them fascinating in the first place.
Historically, magic has been used as accusation to reinforce cultural legitimacy. In early Christianity, making the sign of the cross—or perhaps in the context of the book’s illustrations, the sign of the colour-field abstraction—was considered deviant by the Roman authorities, who portrayed it as decadent and corrupt. One might draw humorous parallels with a certain brand of artist (or those that follow them) in New York or London now, which use Photoshop to conjure pixels into cool swathes of pink or bright green.
Historically, magic begins in the East, which stands in contrast to the aesthetic preoccupations of the individuals selected for this publication, which take their influences from a very Western kind of modernism (we will see later what happened to magic when it connected with photography during the period of Modernism, at the end of the first Industrial Revolution). The other way in which the book’s cultural framework for contemporary photographic practice fails is in its obsession with “art” as the pinnacle of the photographic image. Its failure to interweave the aesthetic, political and technological facets of contemporary photography—both within and without “the art world”—is a sorely missed opportunity.
Let’s take the thing on its own terms: a book about trendy photographic art, swaddled in equivocal definitions of magic. I’ll focus on a few examples from the book’s introductory essay—both in terms of what is problematic and what might then be saved by way of a digital spirit—and then I’ll conclude with taking the question as seriously as it can be: what is photography’s actual relationship to magic?
Cotton begins by outlining her chosen analogy for photography as magic, as the sort of trivialities performed with ‘poker-size playing cards, coins, cups and balls.’ This is what we might call post-industrial magic: along with the accelerated development of camera technology in the second part of the nineteenth century, the rise of spiritualism in the American and European middle classes gave way to popular forms of party tricks using commonplace, familiar objects such as playing cards. Despite their long history dating back to Imperial China, the development of playing cards during the late nineteenth century and the way in which they adopted numbers and monarchical figures from court, such as a king or queen, was peculiar. They stood in whimsical contrast to their origins in the signs and characters of various types of Tarot card from earlier the same century. The spiritual figures of Tarot, which include pagan characters representing things like reason and labour, were replaced with the elite, “magical” hereditary line of Christian kings and queens.
Magic in material culture, especially its relationship to spiritualism and photography, imbeds its politics in its objects. The rise of spiritualism had a strange relationship to industrial capitalism, whereby the objects of popular magic and the circus, such as those Cotton mentions above, bandwagoned the aesthetics of more culturally specific spiritual objects, creating a sort of general, accessible sense of magic for an often paying public. This is the magic this book elicits. One has only to look at the contemporary circus, a place where magicians undertake sleights of hand—another of Cotton’s metaphors for the making of new art photography—to see the contemporary relationship between magic and consumerism come to life.
‘A magic trick, like all performative art forms played well, creates the conditions for us to explore imaginative possibilities, while sharing in a slice of the real.’ Cotton here moves magic into the realm of the real - but what “real”? Without entrenching this argument too much in nuances that describe various definitions of the real—from Lacan, through Baudrillard, to Zizek—we might simply ask in what way Cotton’s above point locates “photographic magic” in the clear distinctions within photography theory between reality, representation and the real? Spirit photography has done something to look at the relationship between truth and these concepts, but here we find this history passed over and replaced with another vague gesture, perhaps made to create a sense of intellectual gravitas via the weight of theoretical phrasing. The same can be said of Cotton’s citing of Nicolas Bourriad, a theorist of the culturally bombastic.
We might also beg questions of photography’s current relationship to non-representational theory here, a space in which we attempt to do away with the linguistic connotations of “reading photographs”. For as Piere Taminiaux notes in his The Paradox of Photography (2009) ‘Photography thus signifies both an end and a beginning to representation.’ Whichever theory of representation one might support, let’s remember John Harvey’s lines in his Photography and Spirit (2007), as both a criticism and a warning against such inconsistencies, which seem to forget that in the context of photography (and pertinently in the case of the algorithm), magic might not be made by the makers of photographs at all: ‘Pseudo-photographic relics and spirit photographs share not only the mystery and miracle of their manufacture but also the status of being representations of the spirit by the spirit’ [my italics].
And so to what could be called digital spirit. If the spirit in Spirit Photography has taken new form today, it should not be called magic. Magic has a particular identity in art history, which is for the most part incompatible with the new shifts in context and audience that accompany the digital in contemporary photography. Harvey’s lines remind us that it is the role of the artist as a maker of photographs that is becoming redundant: as the spirit makes yet more spirit in its own representation, so too does the algorithm make its own image, beyond the framework of representation Cotton pins to photographic practice here. Perhaps art is her fetish, but as Owen Davies reminds us, in his Magic (2012), of the way magical idols worshipped in West African cultures were first described when encountered by Westerners: ‘The term derives from the Latin facticius meaning ‘artificial, made by art.’’ A fetish for art in the context of magic is an artificial fetish indeed. The implication being, artists do not make magical objects, they fake them (crafty priests).
The history of magic in art and literature from the nineteenth century onwards, shares its beginnings with connections to spiritualism in science and technology. This was a period that saw ‘the educated embrace of magic’, as Davies puts it, from individuals such as Cromwell Varley—who part-invented the trans-Atlantic telegraph system—to the poet W.B. Yeats and the surrealist Max Ernst. Varley came to accept that his invention contained an electromagnetic spirit; a form of presence in the copper wires drawn out across the Atlantic, much like the way we might consider the spirit of wireless technology nowadays, or indeed the computer program that activates its own pre-written algorithms to make images. In technology and science, Varley would have it that magic lies within, but with art, as one surrealist would come to understand, magic lies beyond artistic invention. Photography is not magic itself, but rather has the potential to connect to it, as long as it asks bigger questions than that of the “artificialities” of its own medium (the canon, the market, trend - as demonstrated in Photography Is Magic).
The surrealist André Breton came to see photography through the lens of fiction. It was in the opening lines of his novel Nadja (1928) that he connected the photographic image to spirit: ‘Who am I? Whom do I haunt?’ says Breton’s narrator, asking if a ghost, a thing with no material presence, could create any image at all? Breton’s photographic haunting exists within the material of writing, mediated by his fictional narrator. His ghost does not have an image literally, or photographically. As Taminiaux says of Breton: ‘writing always remained superior to vision.’ Does the magic of the photographic then lie not in its images, but in its writing?
The digital spirit is the writing of algorithms in consumer capitalism. Photographic art is not magic because its spirit is predominantly tied to an obsession with craft, form and aesthetics - philosophical considerations all too familiar to the Romantic period. It refuses to let them go, even when it might acknowledge their conceptual problems, as several of the artists do in this book. The digital spirit is, conversely, to borrow Daniel Palmer’s phrase, a phenomenon that exists in the tension between ‘craft and automation’, or perhaps in the end of this tension. When this tension is complete, which exampled by Eyal Weizman in his essay The Image Complex (2015) is now the case, due to the fact that satellites are making and transmitting images of earth all of their own accord, we give photography partly over to automation. The prohibitions of thinking “craft” are given over to technological automation. The distinctions between the way magic has appeared in art and the way it appears in science or technology, is crucial, and speaks to a myriad of analogies and associations that might be drawn between the three contexts and various esoteric practices since the end of the first Industrial Revolution.
Any balanced reflection of “photography as magic” must take the Varleyan “spirit in the wires” into account: photography’s magic exists not in its contextualisation within art, but contrarily with its free flow as information within network culture; of the writing of algorithms in ‘residual cultural form’, to pay homage to Martin Lister’s introduction to The Photographic Image in Digital Culture (2013). Cotton knows part of this, and goes as far to reference the various ways in which the artists in her book engage and exploit network culture, but the point missed is the cultural meaning of the “magic of trivialities” she chooses to draw on. Contemporary photographic art has cultural value, but this value forms such a small part of the general sense of photography’s “magic” in the 21st century.
The self-taught American conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner knew it well when he said, the last time art needed to be freed from its obsession with a homogenous aesthetic of colourful abstractions: ‘1. Consider each part of the art object equal and abandon technical skill. 2. Detract from the material qualities of the artwork by equalising it with its context. 3. Disregard notions of beauty and aesthetics and instead produce art as “information”. 4. Fuse the work with its site of display and consider the public nature and possibility of its distribution (photographic reproductions).’ Perhaps we can take his mantra to heart now and agree that photography’s magic lies not in its aesthetic preoccupations, but in its digital spirit as algorithmic information, with, or ideally without, an image.
This essay was published by American Suburb X in 2015.