Repetition and Difference: The Dissemination of Photography (1)

  • Update:2013-05-02
  • Geoffrey Batchen

 For some time now I’ve been interested in the question of how to represent the history of photography in a way that can do justice to the complexity and diversity of actual photographic experience. [1] My first book along these lines, Burning with Desire (1991), was about the “conception” of photography. [2] I took this as an excuse to examine the question of origins as it pertains to photography and to interrogate the way that both its inventors and more recent scholars have used accounts of that origin to posit various interested notions of photography’s identity. Now I am about to begin writing a companion to that first book, but this time I want to explore the effects and implications of photography’s relationship to reproduction. To be titled something like Repetition and Difference: The Dissemination of Photography, this book will, I hope, again give me an excuse to exploit a metaphor that is of both pragmatic and philosophical import.
But I’m also hoping that a pursuit of the issue of reproduction will give me a way to address various problems that continue to plague the published history of photography: for example, the progressive Hegelian teleology implied by chronological survey narratives; the infinity of photography’s products, making any selection of individual examples seem inadequate and partial; an art historical bias that wants to privilege origins and originality, innovation and invention, over ordinary and vernacular practices; the banality and repetitious nature of those same practices, making it difficult to find anything interesting to say about them; the global spread of the photographic phenomenon, and the dynamic of sameness and difference this spread has generated.
I could go on. Every ambitious historian who has tried to deal with photography is aware of these problems. And I’m certainly not going to solve them all in one essay. What I would like to do is take this opportunity to explore the territory of reproduction as it pertains to photography, offering a map of the different kinds of issues a meditation on this topic might be able to address.
Many of them are obvious, so obvious that you may have thought they weren’t worth mentioning. And maybe you’ll be proved right. But it’s often the case that the obvious is precisely what does need to be mentioned, because it otherwise remains invisible and therefore beneath the radar of critical scholarship. In fact, when I look back, I find that much of my recent work has been about the effects of photography’s processes of reproduction, even when I didn’t say as much at the time. As a consequence, I am going to repeat myself a little in this essay, revisiting some previous work in order to trace its relationship to this wider question. I’m mentioning this now as a way of apologizing to those who will have read some of what I have to say before. I’d like to think that, in this context, repetition really does make a difference.
Given its centrality to photography’s mode of being in the world, it’s surprising that no one has thought to write a sustained critical study about photography and reproduction in the past. Perhaps that’s because photography’s reproducibility generates all sorts of problems for the rigorous photo-historian. Among other effects, it allows photographic images to be widely circulated, but it also gives the same image the capacity to come in many different looks, sizes and formats.
It also makes it possible for an image to appear in many places at once and to exist simultaneously at many different points of time. Equally complicated is the way its capacity for reproducibility ties photography to the processes and social implications of capitalist mass production, making any study of its effects an unavoidably political issue. For all these reasons, scholars have avoided having to talk about it as much as they can.

But, as I aim to show here, there’s another reason why photography’s reproductive capacities are difficult to deal with. That difficulty is signaled by my choice of the term ‘dissemination’ in my subtitle. The word is by now indissolubly associated with the work of French philosopher Jacques Derrida and thus with the complexities of deconstruction. [3] Even the Oxford English Dictionary concedes that the word means both ‘the action of scattering or spreading abroad seed’ and ‘the fact or condition of being thus diffused,’ thereby declaring this word to be simultaneously a verb and a noun, both a mark and the act of marking.
One particular photogenic drawing by William Henry Fox Talbot, made in 1839, the year of photography’s announcement, and titled A Cascade of Spruce Needles, is the perfect embodiment of this simultaneity. Not only does it show a fertile scattering of seeds but it also demonstrates the dividing of identity that constitutes dissemination in general. The image looks, for example, as though the needles are cascading through space in front of the camera, falling from top to bottom of the picture plane, as if caught in an instant of light-sensitive exposure.
But in fact this is a contact print, produced when Talbot scattered some needles across his horizontal sheet of prepared paper, so that they lay there statically in the sun long enough to leave an impression.
Having given the play of chance full rein, Talbot then fixed whatever image happened to result, thereby reproducing the unpredictable operations of nature’s own mode of reproduction. What we see now as the presence of needles are those places where there was an absence of light on the paper, resulting in a reversal of tones such that the black needles are represented here by white paper. Both nature and photography, Talbot seems to be saying, are generated through an economy of repetition and difference.
For a photogram to be made, object and image, reality and representation, must first come face to face, literally touching each other. [4] The photogram’s persuasive power depends on a lingering specter of the total entity, a continual re-presentation of this coming together and separation of image and object on the photographic paper. This is the prior moment, that something other than itself, to which the photogram must always defer in order to be itself. This photograph therefore marks the spacing, the temporal and spatial movement, of these needles and their imprint. The photograph represents both them and its own convoluted conditions of production. What we are witnessing, then, is a surprisingly complicated maneuver that simultaneously circumscribes and divides the identity of the things being represented, whether that be nature and its processes of reproduction, or photography and its.
Talbot obviously found the dissemination of seeds to be an effective metaphor for his conception of photography, as he repeated it fifteen years later (see Seeds, c. 1853) while demonstrating his new system for turning the photographic image into a printing plate from which multiple ink copies could be generated, a system he called photoglyphic engraving. With this invention, permanent photographic images could finally be printed in potentially infinite numbers and distributed with newsprint or in books, turning photography into a truly global, which is to say placeless, enterprise. Having invented the dominant visual medium of the nineteenth century, Talbot now introduced the image system——photomechanical printing—— that would go on to dominate the twentieth. [5] In the process he also dealt photography one of its many deathblows.

Photomechanical printing, by releasing the photographic image from photography itself, introduces the post-medium condition that digital technologies have since only exacerbated and prolonged. In introducing such pictures, Talbot turned photography into a ghost of itself. All this accords with Derrida’s description of dissemination as both a fertile dispersal of meanings and a dissipation or loss of meaning. A tracing of photography’s various modes of dissemination therefore cannot help but destabilize the identity of the photographic image, undermining al l f ixed cer taint ies and declar ing‘photography’ to be the name of a problem rather than a thing. In other words, if we are to write a history of photography’s dissemination, then we have our work cut out for us.
It’s always difficult to know where to begin, but the darkroom, site of photography’s primal scene, seems as good a place as any. This is where negative and positive are brought together to consummate the photographic act, recreating in a careful orchestration of light and dark an inverted version of the relationship that has already taken place outside.
Now the photographer himself is inside another such camera, anxious to discover how faithful a repetition of his subject his exposure has achieved, to see what differences between world and picture, negative and positive, photography has wrought. Already then, our guiding theme of repetition and difference is very much in evidence.
You would think, in fact, that one of the distinctive characteristics of photography is that most photographic images are positive prints that have been printed from a negative, allowing the possibility of multiple reproductions to be made from a single matrix. Talbot described photography in terms of a relationship of negative and positive images as early as 1835, making it central to his conception of the medium and to his own practice. However reproduction is an aspect of photographic life that is seldom, if ever, made visible in published histories of photography. For example, the 776 pages of Michel Frizot’s otherwise impressive A New History of Photography never reproduce the same image more than once. [6] In similar fashion, negatives are rarely exhibited or discussed by scholars at any length. [7] They are, it seems, truly the repressed, dark side of photography.
Indeed, it’s only when artists draw our attention to this dark side that we historians stop to think about these things. In Horizon Rib, from his Cancellations series of 1974, American artist Tom Barrow scored an X through his negative with an ice-axe in order to visibly desecrate the fine print tradition imposed on American landscape photography by Ansel Adams.[8] His action means that you are forced, when looking at Horizon Rib, to think of the negative as part of the photograph, almost as if you could look through the fissured edges of this scar in its glossy gelatin surface to catch a glimpse of the reversed-tone negative that has made this positive print possible.
That raises a troubling but crucial question: what exactly is a “photograph”? Is it the negative? Or a single positive print? Or does a complete photograph necessarily comprise the two of them together, symbiotically joined in eternal union? Or is ‘a photograph’ best conceived as the collective presence of all the prints ever made from a particular negative? Perhaps the photograph is in fact a more virtual entity again, the “image” created by an individual photographer in the back of a camera (or in the back of his or her mind’s eye) at the moment before, at, or even sometime after, exposure?
Let’s keep these questions in mind while we quickly trace the making of one particular photographic image, Ronald Fischer, beekeeper, Davis, CA, which was shot on May 9, 1981 by Richard Avedon as part of his In the American West series.[9]
Avedon actually initiated this image with an advertisement in a beekeepers’ journal, asking for a volunteer to be photographed covered in bees. While waiting for the response to his ad the photographer drew a quick sketch of what he ideally wanted to shoot. He eventually received about 40 snapshots of beekeepers in the mail and from them chose Ronald Fischer’s mugshot as the one coming closest to the sketch he had already drawn. Fischer was a Chicago banker and part-time beekeeper who was willing to come to California to pose for Avedon’s picture, thus making him legally “in the West” for the purposes of this project.
Enlisting the aid of an entomologist from the University of California, who brought 120,000 bees and a bottle of queen bee pheromone fluid to the site of the shoot, Avedon worked on Fischer for two days--May 9 and 10, 1981--painting his body with the fluid and using 121 sheets of film to record various configurations of bees, with both men suffering numerous stings in the process. After the shoot, the exposed film was sent back to New York, where negatives were processed and preliminary prints made. Nine days after the initial shoot Avedon was able to receive by express mail some 16 x 20 inch test prints taken from some of these negatives by his studio assistants in New York, giving the photographer an opportunity to make decisions about the best result while still on the road. After considering various options, Avedon came to prefer one exposure in particular, where Fischer seems oblivious to the stinging of the bees.
As Avedon put it, “it speaks more directly to my understanding of how to endure, of how to prevail.” [10] This, then, is the one he decided to have printed for exhibition.
So what is the “photograph” here? Is it the negative, a positive print from that negative, all the positive prints ever taken from this negative, or should it be all the 121 exposures made during this shoot from which this one negative was ultimately chosen? Or is the ‘photograph’, in this particular case, the drawing Avedon produced before any exposures were made, representing in its purest form his idea of the photographic image that he went on to create?
And what about the reception of this image that results from all this? How do you factor that in? Surely the way viewers respond to, or derive meaning from, an image is also part of its identity? Could it be that something’s photographicness is in fact determined by the beholder? If so, photography might be best thought of, not as a static thing, but rather as a dynamic set of photographic meanings and expectations-a ‘mode of apprehension’ if you like-brought by viewers to an image, irrespective of the exact technology of its making. In this schema, ‘photography’ becomes an experience constituted by an evolving relationship involving all of these various elements and is therefore impossible to define in singular terms.
This momentary focus on the work of Avedon is a salutary reminder of something else that often goes unmentioned in histories of photography——that photography is indeed a form of work.[11]
It’s a fact that I skipped over in my account of the making of this image. So let’s tell the story of its reproduction again, but from a slightly different angle.
Ronald Fisher was photographed as part of a series to be titled In the American West. Between 1979 and 1984, Avedon and his team of two assistants traveled around the American southwest looking for suitable subjects to photograph. During that period the Avedon team photographed no less than 752 people in seventeen Western states, in a project underwritten by the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. Already then, we are made aware that a major project like this is a collective effort, involving Avedon but also a number of unnamed subsidiary workers. Those workers included Avedon’s two studio assistants back in New York, Ruedi Hofmann and David Liittschwager. Remember that Avedon and his camera team have made about 100 exposures during each shoot while out on the road. These negatives were then sent back to New York for development and processing. Hofmann and Littschwager printed a series of 16 x 20 inch test prints of all the 123 negatives chosen by Avedon from the hundreds exposed. These were then presented to Avedon for his approval.
Unfortunately for them, he rejected all of them, asking his assistants to, in each case, “make the person more gentle” or to “give the face more tension.” These qualities were apparently available within the range of decisions made during the printing process itself——work, you'll remember, being done by people other than the photographer. After a few more tries by his assistants, Avedon finally approved a set of 16 x 20 inch model test prints. Avedon's long-suffering assistants then hired a studio with a mobile enlarger and made a number of 56 x 45 inch exhibition prints, dodging and burning each in an effort to induce those elusive emotional qualities described by their boss in his earlier review.
We seldom think about the art or labor of printing, except of course when it goes badly wrong——as in the famous example of Robert Capa's 1944 negatives from the beaches of Normandy being overheated and almost destroyed by a darkroom technician.[12] Printers are usually given no credit by historians and the act, or even the art, of printing is almost never discussed. I’ll suggest why in a moment.
Back to our story. Avedon closely examined each of the preliminary prints made by his assistants, notating them in detail with further printing instructions. In some cases Avedon even cut out details from different test prints and created a collage of the final print that he wanted his studio assistants to achieve. As a consequence of all this, it often took from three to five days to make one perfect print. This perfect print then had to be reproduced a number of times as a limited edition of exhibition photographs. As you can imagine, all this requires a lot of skilful and painstaking work. Only after all this was a print considered good enough to be signed by the photographer; good enough, that is, for Avedon to re-claim their authorship from all this collective labor with the unique trace of his own individual hand.
In many ways, the approach taken by Avedon to the making of photographs seems entirely natural to us. And why not? After all, this model of artistic practice—— featuring a master supervising the labor of uncredited apprentices or assistants— goes back to at least the Renaissance.
Perhaps that’s why in our histories of photography we so automatically ascribe photographic authorship entirely to the camera operator or director and almost never acknowledge the labor of printing that I've just described, or any of the other work or workers involved in the production of such photographs.
This story begins to explain why negatives are repressed in our histories of photography. They are, after all, an unwelcome reminder of the act of reproduction. They speak of photography’s lack of singularity, of its capacity for multiple copies and therefore for multiple authorships and divided ownership.
Negatives and the multiple prints made from them are the unwelcome evidence, in other words, of photography’s existence as a form of work. In most exhibitions of photographs, each image is presented as a singular act of personal expression, and therefore as artistic rather than capitalist in aspiration. Beholden to a masterpiecedriven form of narrative long since discredited in the academy, these kinds of exhibitions consistently suppress evidence of the economics of photographic practice (such as the collective labor of multiple reproduction), seeking to foster the illusion that art transcends such brute realities. The end result is a deeply conservative view of both past and present, denying viewers the possibility of an informed engagement with their own cultural history as well as with the actual practice of photography.[13]
The assignment to a single positive print of a single proper name--‘Richard Avedon,’ for example--serves to displace all these complications from our attention and condenses the collective work that made any particular photographic print possible into the name of an auteur, much as does the name ‘Frank Gehry’ on a building or ‘Alfred Hitchcock’ on a film. We repeat that obfuscation whenever we allow a proper name of this sort to rest undisturbed in our own historical accounts. To paraphrase Michel Foucault, the privileging of a singular author “marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning,” because it limits the ways in which we are allowed to think about the production of hotographs as things in the world.[14]
It’s no accident that Walter Benjamin conjures the metaphor of photographic reproduction when speaking about the contradictory impulses that drive the processes of mass production within capitalism.[15] For Benjamin, photography——by which he meant the automated reproduction of photographic images——is simultaneously capitalism's poison and its cure. It is, in other words, a dangerous quality that must be strictly controlled. This is perhaps why it suits the interests of the art world if the complexities of authorship are repressed, including in photography's history.
Favoring the individual author, or claiming that there is in fact a single author rather than a collective mode of production, makes it possible to divide our historical focus between the look of the image (pictorial concerns) and the life of the artist/ photographer (biographical concerns), and to ignore any of the wider social implications of photographic practice. This privileging also allows the history of photography, always an insecure discipline, to obediently emulate the histories of nonreproducible mediums, such as painting.
But if we're ever going to write a history that engages with the complex realities of photography, we need to acknowledge the actual means of production as part of an image's authorship. By this means, it might be possible to put photography’s history back into a language that is politically navigable. Far from making the biographies of artists unimportant, it contextualizes them in a way that makes visible the larger political stakes at play in every individual photographic practice. It turns authorship into an economy that embodies the entire political and cultural context that produced the work.[16]
For all these reasons, questions of production ——and by that I mean the production and reproduction of material objects as well as the production of meaning, in both the past and the present——must become a central part of our historical engagement with photography.[17]
Having said all that, there are several further lines of flight that one might trace in terms of the relations of negative and positive within photography. Ansel Adams, to take but one example I’ve discussed before, made at least 1300 positive prints from his most famous negative, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico (a negative first exposed on November 1, 1941, and then redeveloped by Adams in 1948).[18]
Dodging and burning selected areas of the print allowed Adams to continually reinterpret his new negative over the forty years during which he used it, dramatically changing its emphases and mood. Which of these hundreds of prints should we reproduce in our histories to represent Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico?
And how about the two images titled Mount McKinley and Wonder Lake, Alaska, printed by Adams from the same negative in 1949 and 1975 respectively? John Szarkowski, long-time curator at the Museum of Modern Art, wrote that Adams’ later revisions “seem often to replace lyrical intensity with melodrama, and precision of feeling with extravagance...these late prints [are] the last testament of an artist whose view of the world and the future had darkened.”[19] An art history of photography has a tendency to go back like this to the moment of origin, in this case to the “vintage” print of 1949, and privilege it as the “true” meaning of the picture. But this emphasis on origins and a single exemplary print is precisely the political economy disrupted by the introduction of the medium of photography into modern culture. Surely any history that wants to tell us something about photography—— as opposed to those histories content to simply be a compendium of “great” photographs——will have to trace the journey of the images that it includes, showing how their meanings as well as their physical attributes have constantly changed over time.
Interestingly, in recent times we have begun to see contact sheets——close cousins to the negative——being published in exhibition catalogues, or even being shown in exhibitions. These give us a chance to see the photographer at work and recognize one small aspect of the journey that I have been describing. When, for example, we look at the contact sheet that includes Child with a Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, NYC, 1962, by Diane Arbus, we can see that the image we know so well turns out to be the tip of a pyramid of rejected images rather than a single decisive moment.[20] We watch as Arbus repeats the shot over and over again, waiting for something untoward to happen, something different from the norm.
The contact sheet is an interesting object in itself, being both a single continuous photograph and a collection of smaller photographic images, printed in sequence according to their place in a strip of negative film. Printing those negatives in this fashion turns them into a small movie, a movie about the act of photographing this particular scene. Contact sheets suggest that every photograph is in fact an Untitled Film Still. By running our eye along these strips, we bring these still photographs back into motion, so that they are no longer still at all. By this means we also begin to see the method by which Arbus induced an ordinary child into acting out the theatre of rage (we see how this artist helps to produce what she seemed to merely document).
Or we see that, in her Untitled Film Still #7, shot in 1978, Cindy Sherman decided to crop the image offered by her original negative, deleting a male figure that she had once imagined might be included in this shot, remembering of course that she set up everything in it to be photographed.[21] This decision to crop ensures that she is the only person seen in full in her own picture (adding to the sense that we are unwelcome voyeurs when we look at them and her).
Or we are reminded that Robert Frank made no less than 27,000 exposures (amounting to 760 rolls of film) during his three cross-country trips to shoot pictures for what eventually became The Americans.[22] Indeed, a scrutiny of Frank’s contact sheets soon reveals that many of the images that appear in the various editions of The Americans, such as the one of the Miami elevator girl who so took the fancy of Jack Kerouac in his Introduction to the book, have been cropped down from the scene framed by the original negative.[23] Surely, then, the art of this project was in the editing, in the thousands and thousands of acts of omission and deletion that resulted in the 83 prints that ended up in the book. Any one of these images represents this displacement in microcosm, a summation of the process of repetition and difference by which most photographs are produced.
So far I’ve been talking as if the relationship between negative and positive print is one to one, as if a photograph is merely a contact print of a negative.
But of course the images we’ve seen by Avedon, Arbus, Sherman and Frank are all enlargements from the negative. Indeed, the capacity to appear in a variety of sizes, whether enlarged or reduced, is another of photography’s distinctive characteristics (distinguishing it from printmaking, despite both having a matrix from which prints are taken). Nevertheless there has again been little written about it. Indeed, it’s a little dismaying to find that the most sustained meditation yet produced on the effects of photographic enlargement has come to us in a work of cinema, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up of 1966.[24] (To be continued)

[1] See, for example, Geoffrey Batchen , ‘Dividing History ,’ Source , 52 , Belfast, S e p t e m b e r 2 0 0 7 ,pp.22-25.
[2] Geoffrey Batchen, Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1997.
[ 3 ] See Barbara Johnson,‘ Translator’s Introduction,’in Jacques Derrida,Dissemination, University of Chicago Press, 1972, 1981, viixvii.
[ 4 ] See Geoffrey Batchen,‘ Dibujos de encaje’ (Patterns of Lace ) , in Catherine Coleman ed., Huellas de Luz:El Arteylos Experimentosde William Henry Fox Talbot ( Traces of Light: The Art and Experiments of William Henry Fox Talbot) exhibition catalogue,Madrid: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia/ Aldeasa, 2001, pp.53- 59, pp.354-357.
[5] See Larry Schaaf, Sun Pictures: Catalogue T w e l v e : T a l b o t a n d P h o t o g r a v u r e , N e w York: Hans Kraus Jr., 2003.
[ 6 ] M i c h e l F r i z o t e d . , A N e w H i s t o r y o f P h o t o g r a p h y , Koneman, 1998.
[7] Exceptions include J o h n L o e n g a r d , C e l e b r a t i n g t h e Negative ,New York: A r c a d e P u b l i s h i n g ,
1 9 9 4 , a n d L a r r y Schaaf, Sun Pictures: Catalogue Ten: British paper Negatives 1839- 1864 ,New York: Hans P. Kraus Jr., 2001.
[ 8 ] See Geoffrey Batchen, 'Cancellation,' in Dougl as Fogleed., The Last Picture Show: Artists Using Photography 1960- 1 9 8 2 , exhibition catalogue, Minneapolis: Walker Art Center , 2004, pp.62-67.
[9] Richard Avedon , In the American West 1979-1984:Photographs,New York:Abrams , 1985. Much of the information that follows comes from Laura Wilson, Avedonat Work: In the American West,Austin:Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, 2003.
[10] Avedon, in Wilson, Avedon at Work , p.47.
[11] On this theme , seeal so Geoffrey Batchen, 'The Labor o f Photography, ' Victorian Literature and Culture 37:1 (2009) , pp.292-296, and Steve Edwards, The Making of English Photography: Allegories,Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006.
[ 1 2 ] S e e R i c h a r d Whelan, Robert Capa P h o t o g r a p h s , N e w York: Aperture, 1996, p.101.
[13] See, for example, Geoffrey Batchen,'Latent History,' Art in America No.2,New York February 2008,pp.54-57.
[14] Michel Foucault, 'What is an Author?' ( 1969 ), inDonaldF. Boucharded., Language, Counter-Memory,Practice [trans. trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon],Ithaca,New York: Cornell University ress, 1977, p.159.
[15] Walter Benjamin, ' T h e W o r k o f A r t i n the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' (1936), Illuminations [trans. Harry Zohn] ,New York: Schoken Books, 1969, pp.219-253.
[16] I have borrowed these thoughts from the MA thesis of Sarah R. Caylor, Marginalia: The Treatment of the Photography of Lily E. White, Sarah Hall Ladd and Maud Ainsworth , Art History, University of California, Riverside, 2003.
[17] See, for example, Geoffrey Batchen,'The Dissemination of Photography,'in Anne Tucker ed., The Collections Book,Houston:Museum of Fine Arts , 2011, forthcoming.
[18] For the full story on the making of this image, see Mary Street Alinder, Ansel Adams: A B i o g r a p h y , New York: Holt, 1996, 185.
[21] See a portion of this contact sheetin Amada Cruzand Elizabeth A.T. Smith eds., Cindy Sherman Retrospective, New York:Thames & Hudson, 1997, p.58.
[22]See Anthony Lane,‘Road Show.The journey of Robert Frank's The Americans,’ The New Yorker,September14,2009:http://www. /2009/ 09/14/090914fa_fact_ lane.

[23]See Sarah Greenoughed.,Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans , Washington: National Gallery of Art, 2009, Contact Sheet #44 and 473.
[24] See Michelangelo Antonioni,Blow-Up ,London: Lorrimer Publishing, 1971.


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