Michel Campeau, The Donkey that Became a Zebra : histoires de chambre noire – Joan Fontcuberta, Fire, Prayers and the Place of Photography

[Fall 2017]

Michel Campeau, Le trompe-l’oeil des yeux rouges, 1998-2005, impression au jet d’encre / inkjet print, 69 x 107 cm

Michel Campeau, Le trompe-l’oeil des yeux rouges, 1998-2005, impression au jet d’encre / inkjet print, 69 x 107 cm

By Joan Fontcuberta

What remains of photography in the era of post-truth and the selfie, of Facebook’s indiscreet rear windows and the Sirens of consumerism, emojis, and spam? Who will intone the elegy for the art of light? Just when we thought we had all the answers to the enigma of our memory fixed in silver salts, life – without so much as a by-your-leave – changed the questions. Perhaps because life is not a problem to be solved, as Søren Kierkegaard said, but a reality to be experienced. It is in these intellectual realms that the work of Michel Campeau, a photographer intent on squeezing the last drops from those silver salts rather than surrender to the overwhelming invasion of the pixels, defiantly runs its course.

Kierkegaardian existentialisms aside, photography was and is one of the pillars of the industrial revolution and the techno-scientific culture of the nineteenth century, and its invention is one of the cluster of innovations that fostered and boosted the dramatic expansion of modern transportation and communications systems: the railway, the steamship, and the telegraph. From an economic and political perspective, photography contributed, by means of its symbolic appropriation, to the control of the world and the visual formatting of its new spatiotemporal models. From a social and cultural perspective, the camera acted as an instrument of veridiction and of the archive, facilitating the mapping and encyclopedifying of knowledge. And from a spiritual or religious perspective, photography transcended finitude and death and aspired to magically supplant reality. The photographic image was destined to reveal the irreplaceable particularity of a life. Thus, in Giorgio Agamben’s view, the angel of the end of time – the angel of the Apocalypse of John – was one with the angel of photography.1

It is ridiculous to pretend that such values can remain intact in the twenty-first century. Today we are confronted by savage globalization and the virtual economy. Commodity capitalism has been swallowed up by a capitalism of images or, as Iván de la Nuez proposes, an iconocracy: the tyranny that the image exercises on us, which has demoted us from sovereigns to subjects. We inhabit a hypermodern society marked by consumption, quantification, excess, and urgency – a society in which the emphasis is no longer on the break with but on exacerbation of the values of modernity. We discover the world by way of digital screens that give access to a fluid, complex, and monitored reality. Internet, social networks, mobile phones, surveillance cameras, and myriad forms of graphic recording devices generate an oversaturation in which images are no longer submissive mediations between the world and us but have become active and furious.

1 Commenting on one of the first daguerreotypes in history, Boulevard du Temple (1838), taken by Daguerre himself from the window of his studio and showing the bustling Paris thoroughfare as a desolate and spectral landscape because the exposure time was too long to fix any of the passers-by except for a bootblack and his client, Agamben wrote, “I could never have invented a more adequate image of the Last Judgment. The crowd of humans – indeed, all of humanity – is present, but it cannot be seen, because the judgment concerns a single person, a single life: precisely this one and no other. And when has that life, that person, been picked out, captured, and immortalized by the angel of the Last Judgment – who is also the angel of photography?” Giorgio Agamben, Profanations, trans. Jeff Fort (New York: Zone Books, 2007), 24.

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