How many sides are there to a thing? A photograph suggests that there are many sides to it, as many as we assume a thing to have when we look at it and it is present to the eye. And yet a photograph, even if it has been used as part of a sculpture, is a flat surface that achieves this effect only by way of illusion. For the illusion of the thing to work, we must see more than its traces on paper, more than forms created by a film’s sensitivity to light and shadow, or by digital manipulation. We must see the thing. We must not focus on the fact that the photograph has another side which we do not see, and which normally is imageless, or that it is itself a thing with more than one side. The photograph of a white swan that sticks its neck mutely into a greyish and rippled surface both liquid and impenetrable is emblematic of photography. On the one hand, we know that there is nothing on the other side, or that the swan’s beak will not re-emerge if we place the print on its back, as if we could turn the image inside out like a glove. We know that this is not a swan but only the photographic image of a bird. A closer inspection is barely needed for the image to reveal the distorted sight of the bird’s submerged body parts. On the other hand, if we manage to overlook the spot where the missing neck, head and beak show themselves to be underwater, as we expect them to be, the photograph creates the illusion of the swan sticking to an impermeable surface or even piercing through it. What does this swan image, the mythological emblem of divine disguise and sacred purity, suggest to us if we regard it as emblematic of photography? It suggests the fantastic notion of a thing that has only one side. Such a thing may convey a coldness to the touch and scintillate fleetingly in the beholder’s eye but it must remain invisible. It follows that, in truth, a photograph does not make things visible. Nor does it simply dissolve things and render them invisible. Rather, a photographic image achieves a seeing blindness, the seeing of a mask that is a watering can stuck in the leaves of a proliferating bush. It does so by capturing the thing as it detaches itself from the image’s support only to collapse back into its own flatness. The thing is folded into the surface as the surface turns into a thing, literally or as the result of an optical illusion. Scissors cut the surface open, make it curl up at the edges produced by the incision. The photograph lets the thing appear and retains it at the same time, just like arms that protrude from a wall on which an invisible body seems to have left its imprints from behind, or like a finger that dips into the darkness of the machine, so that it remains undecidable whether the machine is the prolongation of the limb or the limb a prolongation of the machine. The photographed arm of a beautiful girl does not have a hand at its extremity but instead a prosthesis, the apparatus of photography. The photographed hand owns the lens and grabs the machine with such assurance and authority that the machine appears as an integral part of it, inseparable from the gesture that holds it firmly and almost lovingly. What becomes of the thing once it merges with a machine that engenders its illusion? It presents itself as a one-sided thing that cannot present itself. The invention of photography is the invention of one-sidedness, an initiation into the world in which Odin once reigned supreme, as Borges tells us in a short story, and which was destroyed by the ones who disregard illusion in the name of reality, or reality in the name of illusion. Photography mobilises the one-sidedness of the illusionary thing against the double and yet identical one-sidedness of the thing bereft of illusion and of the illusion bereft of the thing. In this sense, photography gives art one last chance. No artist can afford not being partial to it.
Alexander García Düttmann, London, 2013