– Autumn/Winter 2005

Toward an Empathic Resistance: Boris Mikhailov's Embodied Documents

Walead Beshty

Tags: Roland Barthes, Walead Beshty

A sort of umbilical cord links the body of the photographed thing to my gaze: light, though impalpable, is here a carnal medium, a skin I share with anyone who has been photographed.
- Roland Barthes1

The beauty of looking into these places without actually being present there is that the excursionist is spared the vulgar sounds and odious scents and repulsive exhibitions attendant up such a personal examination.
- Jacob Riis2

The inherent contradiction exemplified in the above quotations has been the ethical conundrum that has plagued photography since its inception, both in Barthes's claim for empathic visceral connectivity, and in Riis's celebration of discrete voyeuristic verisimilitude. To this end, it is difficult to imagine that any practice could have received a more complete dismantling and demotion by the 1970s' art-world discourse than the tradition of documentary photography. Ceremoniously stripped of its currency, the social-documentary project found itself under siege from both aesthetic formalist and structuralist / post-structuralist positions that vied for dominance over the nature and history of photography. The former - whose clearest voice was that of John Szarkowski, the highly influential curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art - cited its woeful insistence on narration which was 'generally achieved at the expense of photographic discovery', and its claim for a transparency that distanced it from the validity of authorship and personal expression (a strategy that fought to deliver photography a more auspicious painterly pedigree) as justification for its demise.3 A perhaps even more damning critique emanated from the latter, which took specific issue with documentary photography's positivist claims for objectivity, and ironically dismissed it

  1. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, New York: Hill and Wang, 1981, p.81

  2. Jacob Riis, quoted in Maren Stange, Symbols of Ideal Life: Social Documentary Photography in America, 1890-1950, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989, p.16

  3. John Szarkowski, The Photographer's Eye, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1980, p.6

  4. Numerous examples are called to mind, such as the emptied vistas of the 'New Topographics' photographers, including Robert Adams, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Joe Deal and Stephen Shore, as well as post-pop conceptual investigations such as the work of Jan Dibbets, Dan Graham, Ed Ruscha, Michael Schmidt and Robert Smithson.

  5. Sigfried Kracauer, 'Photography' (1938), in The Mass Ornament: The Weimar Essays, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995, p.58

  6. Boris Mikhailov, Case History, Zürich, Berlin, New York: Scalo, 1999, p.5

  7. Judith Butler, 'Restaging the Universal: Hegemony and the limits of Formalism', in Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Zizek (eds.), Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left, London: Verso, 2000, p.28

  8. Allan Sekula, 'On the Invention of Photographic Meaning', in Photography Against the Grain: Essays and Photo Works, 1973-1983, Halifax: NSCAD, 1984, p.1

  9. Martha Rosler, 'In, around and afterthoughts (on documentary photography)' (1981), in Michael Bolton (ed.), The Context of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1984, pp.305-8

  10. B. Mikhailov, op. cit., p.4

  11. Ibid., p.10

  12. See R. Barthes, op. cit., pp.26-27

  13. Boris Groys, 'The Eroticism of Imperfection', in The Hasselblad Award 2002: Boris Mikhailov, Göteborg: Hasselblad Centre, 2002, p.77

  14. B. Mikhailov, op. cit., p.8