Yet Present - Guilherme Ghisoni

The materiality of the photographic image

One of Wittgenstein's important insight around 1931 was that memories are not material images - unlike paintings, drawings, and photographs. The criteria of correctness that we can apply to material images do not apply to memories. In front of a photograph of a starry sky we can ask how many stars were photographed. But from the memory of a starry sky, according to Wittgenstein, the only correct answer to the question about the number of stars would be "I saw innumerable stars."

The study of this theme in Wittgenstein led me to seek ways to make evident the materiality of the photographic image. Although memories and photographs are modes of representation or perception of the past, photographs, in its printed or negative form, unlike memories, are material objects. This also led me to consider the temporal status of photographs as objects that interact causally with other objects and bear the marks of the passage of time.

In Yet Present, I perform interventions on the photographic negative, in order to make evident the materiality of the photographic image. In these interventions, I burn parts of the negatives, make scratches and holes in it, and drip paint and other substances (such as coffee and tea) over it. Through those interventions I tried to show that the image is in the negative in the same sense that the stains, scratches and substances are over it.

When I saw the results of these interventions, I comprehended the possibility of an important reversal in the relationship between photography and the past. There are theories of photography that conceive it as modes of perception of the past. For some authors, we would see past objects themselves through photographs. In articles and book chapters, I tried to show that this concept would require a very burdensome metaphysics, which would presuppose the existence of entities in the past – or at least temporal parts of entities in the past. Objects would have to exist in the past in other for us to see the objects themselves through the photographs. An opposing concept would be to maintain that only the current existing objects are part of what exists. I believe that this philosophical position would be much more economical – although it would make logic more complicated. What ceases to be present, ceases to exist. What is not yet present does not yet exist. From this perspective, we would not be able to see the past objects themselves through photographs, if these objects no longer existed in the present.

The materiality of the photographic image is connected to these considerations as follows. By showing that the photographic image has the same ontological status as the scratches, stains, and substances deposited over the negative, I realized that when looking at a photograph we do not see something that exists in the past. We see the residue in the present of something that, when ceased to be present, ceased to exist. Photography is not, therefore, a window into the past, but it is Yet Present. It is a residue of the past in the present.

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