Photography and the Uninhabited World

A trend has been emerging in photography: show the world as it is, without narrative, without ceremony, without history, without culture. Photography has always done this, and the resurgence of interest in the first photographs—which don’t show people, because of the long exposure times—is part of the same phenomenon. For some photographers, the world without people is a utopian place, either a future unpopulated Eden, or a distant primeval past before animal life. For others, the world without people is a desolate reminder of what we’re doing to the Earth. There are photographs of people in this exhibition, but they are on their own, out against empty landscapes. There is little of the indebtedness to painting that has marked photography from its inception through Jeff Wall, or of the decisive moment that has driven vernacular photography since Cartier-Bresson, or of the politics that has interested photography since the 1960s, or of the serialism or display that energized photography in the wake of the Bechers, or of the issues of gender and identity that have underwritten postmodern photography for the last several decades. This is a new cultural emptiness, enriched with intensive, immersive encounters with what is left of the world.

These photographers find meaning in ordinary objects, but this is not the “aesthetics of the everyday” proposed by du Certeau and exposited, for example, by Anna Dezeuze. It is more the numinous, affect-laden, nearly supernatural postmodern sublime that is compatible with anthologies like Marie-Louise Angerer’s Timing of Affect, or Jill Bennett’s Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma, and Contemporary Art. In Hiko Uemura’s photographs of landscapes, lichens, rocks, and trees glow with supernatural force, and a person’s body, in a state of strange suspension, is like another natural object, infused with a candent light. Régis Feugère’s forest photographs have traces of meaning: a contrail, a perspective of receding trees à la Watteau, a row of birches glowing like tally marks. According to the logical of the epistemologically disappointed postmodern sublime, nothing quite adds up to meaning. As Jeffrey Librett’s Of the Sublime: Presence in Question made clear, the postmodern sublime exhibits the disappointment of not knowing Kant’s “suprarational” sense, which recuperates his sense of the sublime. All we have now are failed signs: what matters is how they fail. Ellie Davies goes further, adding smoke as a sign of the unknown transcendent. In other photographs she puts spotlights on unremarkable patches of forest floor, or hangs colored strings from trees, like the illegible red signs in M. Night Shmalyan’s film The Village. Davies’s work is related, in this regard, to Paolo Patrizi’s photographs of starlings, which have become famous as apparently significant, but actually meaningless, signs shown to us by the collective mind of birds.

As Max Weber first realized, the disenchantment of the world is painful, and we search for re-enchantment wherever it can be found. Sachiko Kawanabe softens the blow of meaninglessness by giving things a veneer of beauty. Some photographers are stringent about not permitting themselves even these hints of meaning. Alex Catt chooses lonely, indifferent landscapes, in the tradition of the postmodern sublime. His literary progenitor is Thomas Weiskel’s classic The Romantic Sublime, with its discussion of wastelands in painting and poetry. Paul Gaffney’s landscapes do not even have the luminous details of Feugère’s: Gaffney will not even permit himself an enigma, a sighting, a puzzling symmetry, a portentous arrangement of sticks. The most he’ll show is a pathway leading nowhere, or two roads diverging: utterly commonplace emblems of futility or aporia.

In the end few people want photography to show us the world without meaning. For several contemporary photographers, the best way forward is not to erase heavenly signs entirely, leaving us with a blank world, but to acknowledge the ordinary people who live in this nearly perfectly impersonal world. Ingvild Melberg Eikeland’s worlds are populated, but sparsely, and the people in her worlds attend more to birds, canals, and skies than to one another. For me, Jiehao Su and Yvette Monahan are related voices: she is also attracted to emptiness and the ends of things, but she recognizes the people who live in those desolate landscapes, and shows them sympathetically.


James Elkins
E.C. Chadbourne Chair of art, history, theory and criticism
at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago