Muted Witness

Originally published here by cafebabel. The version below is a longer version than that originally published.

To many, the twentieth century was a lesson in the horror of abstraction. Stalinism and Nazism, increasing bureaucratisation and alienation, taught us of the dangers of thinking too grandly, of making people into numbers and hoping, perhaps, that the breaking of the egg is justified by the omelet to come. In Le Siècle, Alain Badiou proposes that the last century was characterised by a passion for the real. Not for grand plans or transcendent hopes, but for visceral contact with existence. Such a tendency can be found in Marinetti’s futurist manifesto, eulogising the spirit of industry, but also in modernism and surrealism; both these movements promised a new relationship between thought and life, where thought would no longer stand apart from life, but enter into and change it.

Photography offered the promise of such direct contact with experience. In the photographs of Witkiewicz you can see his pessimistic view of the future; a life alienated from itself by technology and the revolutions it caused. In his photographs, faces are split into a thousand fragments – a self split up by modernity. Yet in his work there is also a messianic hope that someone, somewhere, can bear witness to his experience. Janina’s eyes stare out at youthrough the photograph, through the product of the very technology that Witkiewicz decried.

It is perhaps hard today to imagine the power photography must have had in an age where images did not dominate the world. Hard to imagine how Dauthendey, one of the first users of daguerreotypes, could have said: “We didn’t trust ourselves at first, to look long at the pictures we developed. We were abashed by the distinctness of these human images, and believed that the little tiny faces in the picture could see us, so powerfully was everyone affected by the unaccustomed clarity and the unaccustomed truth to nature of the first daguerreotypes.”

Today we are surrounded by images; images that can make anything look appealing but cannot grasp even one of the human connections in which an object exists.

Photography is a record of the history of the twentieth century. In the Barbican exhibition under review we can see clearly the human face of some of the great upheavals of our time. André Kértesz shows troops on the move to the ¨Polish front in 1915, long snakes of men caught up in a destiny of which they know little.

 But photography is also the history itself. Our passion for the real has culminated in the spectacle – in advertising and images offering us unmediated contact with a reality that has no risk. As we have moved to becoming a society of voyeurs, so photography has moved with us. For so long thought of as the truth of an experience, today it offers us a mirror of our own emptiness.

With the advent of digital photography, the debate today centres on whether we can trust photography any longer, now it is capable of being manipulated. This debate stands testament to our distance from what made photography genuinely powerful. Long before Riefenstahl, photography could be manipulated. What makes photography powerful is a testimony to experience no deception can change.


The exhibition starts with Eugène Atget, the actor who threw off his mask to start taking pictures of Paris at the turn of the century. Rue l’Abbaye. At the centre of the picture stands a policeman astride his bicycle. Behind him an abandoned shop, on either side apartment buildings rush towards the sky – there is not a soul on the street. Or are there? As you peer, you can see a man in a white Sunday hat hiding behind a wall on the left, and, as you gaze more closely, two ethereal figures appear on a street corner – marking how long was needed to take a photograph in that period. They came, they vanished, and the photograph remains. As you gaze at the street, you realise the human connections that go into making it. 

His photographs are strictly about nothing. There is no object to sell, no ideology with which you must be convinced. Instead, they ask that you let them enter you. 

In Atget’s work you can see the promise of the new. They function as a psychoanalysis of space. A thousand elements that our wearied eyes are trained not to see are suddenly brought to our attention; imagine the shock the first man photographed must have had – so that is how I sit? It is not surprising that Walter Benjamin can write: “Photography, with its devices of slow motion and enlargement, reveals the secret. It is through photography that we first discover the existence of this optical unconsciousness.” The surrealists cherished Atget as the cartographer of the dreams hidden on dark Parisian backstreets – a visual Freud. But he was also cherished by the modernists, who saw in him a scientific operation – the camera laying plain the reality of the everyday as surely as Marxism was to lay plain the reality of the economic. Both these thoughts, and Atget’s photographs, are part of the passion for the real – understanding experience directly, experiencing it without illusions.

The image of itself 

In the photograph, a bowl is fighting for space, jostling among worthless banknotes and the crumpled newspapers of yesterday’s forgotten wars. During Stalinism Josef Sudek started to produce photographs like this one, internal documents. Among all the planning and certainty, his photographs contain only the contingent. Accidental scraps of the everyday jostled together in new and strange formations. Several contradictions. The fact that his still life photographs are arranged does nothing to dent the feeling of contingency. The essential truth of the bowl and the newspaper is not changed by its artifice. Then, Stalinism emerges from the passion for the real – from a meeting of thought and action. Yet it produces a semblance of itself, and this semblance coincides with the rigid order of Czech society under communism. In this ghostly world, Sudek’s images are not simply the chaos of the internal space – they are testament to the same passion that underlies Stalinism. 

The contingent, whether inner or outer, orders all the photographs in the exhibition. Photography is a long homage to the missed, to the absent. Thus, in an exhibition about European photographers in the twentieth century, there are no gulags, no concentration camps, and no glorious wars. Instead, there is a photograph of boys feet. The image, by Emmy Andriesse, shows the legs and feet of two boys, perched on a wall above the rubble. We are in Amsterdam, 1944, and in the last months of the Nazi occupation – the city is suffering its ‘Hunger Winter.’ Yet, like Atget, the photograph does not speak of it openly. As I look at the feet of these two boys, I am drawn to the battered shoes teetering on the edge of falling off, and the impudent toe of one foot, poking through in the shadow. The contingent. The small moments of accidental hazard inside a photograph which give it life. Again, the photograph is silent – it does not mean anything, it simply asks us to look.

Good documentary photography, as it is on show in this exhibition, is a passion for the real that does not culminate in a spectacle, nor in a need for ultimate experiences. It is in the spirit of Goethe’s remark when he says: “there is a delicate empiricism which so intimately involves itself with the object that it becomes true theory.” Through this delicate empiricism, the human connections involved in the object of the photograph become apparent, and the humanism that can only come through empathy, through entering into an object, becomes possible. The type of photography that is a mirror image of the image today, and perhaps, the last vestige of what the hopefuls at the beginning of the twentieth century were to call praxis.

In the Face of History: European Photographers in the 20th Century.

Barbican Art Gallery, 12 October 2006 – 28 January 2007.