A. D. Coleman
Seems / to Be. On the Photography of Andreas Müller-Pohle
Photography has evoked from its practitioners not only praxis – that is, the production of photographs – and credo (the explanations of why they made the photographs they did), but, from the medium’s very beginning, theory.
Certain theoretical ideas emerge from the writings of its discoverer-inventors, notably William Henry Fox Talbot. The debates between Henry Peach Robinson and Peter Henry Emerson in the 1880s, between Ansel Adams and William Mortensen in the 1940s; Alfred Stieglitz’s concept of the “equivalent”; the Neue Sachlichkeit and Futurist photography manifestos; the pedagogical schema of László Moholy-Nagy for the Bauhaus photography program; Minor White’s inquiries into issues of the spiritual and intuitive; Wynn Bullock’s Hegel-inspired space-time considerations; Henry Holmes Smith’s Kuhn-derived investigations; Robert Heinecken’s critique of media culture; Nathan Lyons’s and Carl Chiarenza’s ruminations on the history of visual consciousness and photography’s role in that evolution . . . these constitute an ongoing hermeneutic exploration grounded in the performer’s experience of craft. Those who treat photographers as thoughtless generators of mindless imagery define themselves, always, as profoundly ignorant of the medium’s intellectual history.
That ongoing, long-term questioning from within the medium itself blossomed in the mid-1970s, when the formal structures of photography education became at long last established in the academic world and intersected the emergence of new approaches to philosophy, psychology, linguistics and media studies. At that time, the first generation of photographers who had studied their medium formally in either the interdisciplinary context of the university or the intermedia environment of the art institute emerged, to begin their working lives as professional artists. They were joined by others whose studies, in the same or parallel institutions, had emphasized other subjects – such as sociology, political science, perceptual psychology, communications theory – but who were drawn to photography as an ideal vehicle for inquiry into key problematic concerns and speculations. One can describe the members of this cohort as theory-informed, theory-oriented and even, in not a few cases, theory-driven. Some identify themselves as photographers, while others, for motives varying from the social to the financial, do not. Yet they all practice the same craft, share many reference points, and explore, from their diverse standpoints, approximately the same broad field of ideas.
Coming to photography from a background in economics and communications, deeply influenced in his thinking and methodology by the work of the late philosopher and media theorist Vilém Flusser, Andreas Müller-Pohle has emerged as one of the most rigorously intellectual photographer-theorists of his generation. His activities as a theorist have ranged from his editorial sponsorship and publication of Flusser’s writings on imagery and media, and his publishing and editing of a major, long-lived journal of imagery and ideas, European Photography, to the organization of theory-based conferences and the presentation in lectures and texts of his own theories about the medium. Alongside all that, he has produced and presented publicly a steady stream of tightly redacted photographic work of his own making.
Which came first in this case, theory or praxis? Hard to say. From the very beginning, as demonstrated in his first monograph, Transformance (1983), Müller-Pohle was exploring visual ideas in a systematic fashion – and then, as has proven to be his habit, carefully editing the results into concise monographic and/or exhibition summaries of the results of his experiments. With his close attention to the operations of what Walter Chappell called “camera vision,” and his capacity for interpretive print-making, he made clear from the outset his awareness of the photographic tradition. At the same time, by working against certain tendencies of common photographic practice, he positioned himself as one of his medium’s active interrogators-from-within, even aligning himself with one of his predecessors in that tendency, Man Ray.
The latter was in fact a professional photographer who for years earned his living with commissioned formal portraiture and fashion work. Yet he often took on the role of anti-photographer, proclaiming once, famously, that “Photography is not art,” and again, “I paint what I cannot photograph. I photograph what I cannot paint.” Building on that precedent, Müller-Pohle paraphrased him, prefacing Transformance with his own first credo and position paper: “What I can’t see, I photograph. What I don’t wish to photograph, I see.” (A true scientist, he has tested that hypothesis in practice and consequently revised it; his present formulation goes, “What I don’t see, I photograph. What I don’t photograph, I see.”)
A conundrum resides within either version of that brief but complex utterance. For, from the outset, one of Müller-Pohle’s primary concerns appears to have been time as a phenomenon, and the application of chance operations inherent to photography as a means for exposing time itself. Photography is widely understood as having something to do with representing time; but employing a cryogenic strategy – freezing time in seemingly crisp, cleanly cut slices, as do most photographers and photographs – does not offer the only viable visual representation of time in still photography. Instead, it merely yields supportive evidence for what we might define as the particle theory of time in visual form: an imagery that treats time as a series of discrete, fragmentable instants, emphasizing the medium’s capacity for arrest and particularization. One can equally well posit a contrary attitude, what one might call the wave theory of time in visual form, that sees it as uninterrupted flux – and extrapolate from that a photographic praxis to match, one that evokes that continuum by decompressing the passage registered on the film and departicularizing the image’s literal subject matter, rendering the lens’s regard as at least symbolically gestural (as is the human eye’s in nature, the restless fovea always in motion, never at rest) rather than interruptive and dissecting.
And there’s the conundrum: Our actual perceptual experience, visually speaking, is that “blooming, buzzing confusion” of which the pragmatist William James wrote; it remains always contingent, positioning whatever it receives in relation to what it last received and whatever next crosses the visual field. What any of us, including Müller-Pohle, actually sees are not sharply defined extracts but rather smears of time. Hence his images in fact do approximate what he sees – but not what he (or we) hold in memory. What we remember, at least consciously, comes to mind as isolated vignettes, stills from the continuous film of our optical input. But we might best understand this as a metaphysical tendency of the minds of creatures of habit, not the program of our perceptual system.
Nor, despite the fact that most people use cameras to reinforce that metaphysical tendency, should this be thought of as (pace Flusser) the “program” of the camera. Neither the camera itself nor those who manufacture it and its corollary materials require you to look through the viewfinder while making your exposures, nor to hold the camera still, nor (at least in most cases) to make those exposures at predetermined shutter speeds that appear to stop time. Not only don’t they care whether you use the camera other ways for other purposes, but – with some exceptions – they deliberately offer you the option of doing exactly the opposite, allowing you to operate the camera in as aleatory a manner as you please and to encode on the film as much light, time and space as you care to and the materials can absorb. Nothing built in to most cameras prohibits you from doing so – just as nothing inherent in the average automobile prevents you from driving it exclusively in reverse.
So what Flusser saw in Müller-Pohle’s work as oppositional to what the philosopher called the “apparatus,” the camera itself, I would propose as indeed oppositional – but a resistance instead to the metaphysical tendencies of the human mind. How, Müller-Pohle seems to ask in all his work, can we keep ourselves and our usage of this paradigmatic tool from falling into the essentialist tendencies of metaphysics? In the face of its predominant application as a generator of ostensibly separate and isolatable moments, its reinforcement of a seemingly insistent visual was, can we imagine and propose a contrarily dialectical praxis, posit a countervailing visual becoming that encodes and manifests flux, use the camera as an anti-static device?
This strikes me as the item always first on the agenda of Müller-Pohle’s photographic method. Within the history of photography, it has its roots in the theory and praxis of Emerson, Antonio Bragaglia, Bullock, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Dieter Appelt and others. Yet the consequent imagery looks like none of theirs, but is, “stylistically” speaking, distinctly his own. In this case, however, what appears as style – a sensuous, layered, seamless montage-like segment that appears to reveal time folding over onto itself oneirically – manifests itself not as the end-goal of a search but as the by-product of a distinctive process, a methodological consequence. And the shifts in his work over the years have resulted not from efforts to refine the style, always a superficial activity at best, but from modifications of the method or variations in the issues to which it’s applied.
For all its conceptual formality, this approach has proven itself flexible enough to embrace not only an extended, multifaceted address to the matter of time but, in one of the photographer’s most recent series, Perlasca Pictures, an inquiry into the issue of history. Generated to serve as components of a film – not “film stills,” but integral elements of the visual discourse – about the anti-Nazi hero Giorgio Perlasca, one of the “rescuers” of the Holocaust, this sequence in full comprises 230 images. They take as their function the evocation of perceptual and psychological experience at an historical moment of traumatic social disintegration, a passage of moral and ethical paradigm shift during which huge multitudes were uprooted and shunted around the globe, the physical structure of vast territories was transformed rapidly and often violently, and the very definition of what it meant to be human was in flux. In these images Müller-Pohle seeks and finds analogues for how the eye of the hunted might have scanned the social and intimate landscape, searching the surround for signs of danger and sanctuary, visual signposts guiding the beholder through that dreadful no-man’s land of history and back into the calmer stream of time.
Müller-Pohle has titled this combination of extracts from those two projects “Synopsis,” knowing that, in the last analysis, neither of its two subjects – time and history – can truly be synopsized, reduced to schematic outlines or essences; and knowing also that the two combined are, if possible, even less available to distillation. The attempt is doomed to failure. That, I think, is the photographer’s point. If anything, time and history, when paired, expand and resonate even further, and can be considered fruitfully only in relation to each other – that is to say, dialectically. Thus these pictures, as a group, turn us back to their true subject – not what they are of, which is almost incidental, but what they are about: ourselves as perceiving consciousnesses enmeshed in history and afloat in time.
Andreas Müller-Pohle: Synopsis. Catalog Goethe Institute Atlanta/Goethe Institute Houston. Göttingen: European Photography, 1997. ISBN 3-923283-46-6