Recoding American History
by Reinhold Misselbeck
published in American History Reinvented (New York: Aperture, 1989), pp. 10-23.
The reinvention of history is a topic tailor-made for photography, yet it is dealt with photographically for the first time by Warren Neidich. This photographic series, despite its riddlelike quality, is not a jokey or emotional treatment of the methodology of photohistorical evolution. It is a systematic, rationally contrived treatment of the problem.
The historical element has played a dominant role in photography since the medium’s invention. One might say it provided the motive for that invention, since no preceding period was as conscious of history, as interested in and involved in handed-down traditions and past cultures and arts, as the 19th century. The era was characterized by historicism, realism, neo-classisism, neoromanticism, and the neo-Gothic; innovative styles arrived only toward the century’s end. In addition, both national and personal myths of power reinforced the tendency to document achievement, to create some record that would preserve its memory from decay. Previously, such efforts had been served by historical painting and graphic techniques. With the increased demand for them in the 19th century, the time was ripe for the invention of photography.
With that invention, a technique was developed whose objectivity seemed beyond doubt. Finally, by means of the daguerreotype and the Talbotype, the subject could portray itself; yet in this process the human being provided only the chemical catalyst. The ‘pencil of nature’ did the work. The 19th century did much to improve the technical processes of the camera, but it was not until the early 20th century, with the Neue Sachlichkeit and Constructivism, that photographers illustrated the extent to which the medium is manipulable, how unsuitable it is as an ‘objective’ document. Their work brought about no more change in the general attitude toward photography, however, than did the personal photography that became common later, in the 1950s. Millions of vacation photos and travel momenti prove daily how extensively the photograph is used in a documentary role. The contradiction inherent in photography is an essential characteristic of the medium; it is precisely because its technique reproduces so perfectly that it can conceal how much it influences its subjects, how its optics distort reality.
“American History Reinvented” is primarily an arrangement, a reconstruction, of historical events, or, more accurately, a reconstruction of historical situations that we imagine as we do simply because they were handed down to us in a particular way in such testimonies as photographs, or through museum-like installations like the village reconstructions in which Neidich has photographed. His main interest is our historical understanding, the question of whether we are capable of having an accurate conception of past time, or whether any ideas we have of it are more or less projections. Even in earlier series on the topics of woman and doll, reality and television, he used photography to tackle the question of illusion and reality, original and reproduction. But with his “American History Reinvented” cycle he attains an almost scientific exactitude in his examination and treatment of these problems.
Neidich’s photographs are technically as well as conceptually accomplished. He first explored the issue of whether, by using the same means as the 19th century photographer, it was possible today to achieve the same effects, and he knew that his question could be answered only by applying these methods not to the present time but to the past, by carrying out the deception all the way through. Since he even develops his prints on albumen paper in the old way, the illusion becomes perfect. An expert coming across one of these pictures might be astonished by its excellent state of preservation. Yet disillusionment is already programmed into these photographs, which unmask themselves as reconstructions based on those museum-like spaces where relics are assembled to convey an idea of a certain historical situation. The objects in such spaces rarely actually belong together; rounded up from a variety of sources, they at best have in common their era and social environment. When the photographs were made in these museum-like spaces, they set themselves the task of exploring what is not true there.
“Like a spy from another era, I crept through the past in order to expose its flaws, to peer through its cracks at a more real light. Many times the flaw was already there waiting to be found.” But Neidich will also place in the picture an insignificant object, as in Self-Portrait with Lighter, One Dollar Bill, or Tractor, to unmask the image’s “lie.” The main purpose of this questioning of the truth of the picture is to case doubt on the authenticity of our conception of history. “Once the flaw has been uncovered,” Neidich has written, “we begin to question other aspects of it. Is the clothing worn really antique? Are the objects true to that period? The entire photograph and its validity as true document are thrown into question.”
Indeed, having questioned the authenticity of the history that the photograph shows, we question the truth of the whole medium. Now the photograph undoubtedly has truth; its material existence as a thing itself assures this claim. As Roland Barthes has said, even its petrification of the moment in which it is taken must be regarded as a moment of truth. The questioning of the medium’s claim to truth has less to do with the photograph in itself than with the claims that are made on its behalf. The photographic moment is expected to capture some historical validity, so that the truth of photography “for itself” becomes a truth “for us.”
In his essay “Pictures and Fantasy Pictures,” Robert Castel wrote of the photograph as the “discontinuous” expression obtained timelessly from the continuum. According to Castel, “the fixed temporality is a discontinuity, which regains continuity only in the spiritual activity that imprints the marks of memory on it. Photography literally organizes a ‘temporality divested of time’ that preserves only its fixed, material traces of becoming.” Against this background, even Theodor Adorno’s puzzling-sounding statement that art has truth “only as semblance of the lack of semblance” becomes understandable. The truth of photography “for itself,” which denies itself to our projections and so is available neither for our understanding of time nor for our concept of truth, is absolute.
In this sense, Neidich’s albumen prints of 1987 are no less true than “originals” from the 1870s and 1880s. Like the vintage images, his works do not mutually call each other into question. They do, however, aim far more directly at what the observer generally expects of photography and of historical reports. It is the juxtaposition of older photographs with Neidich’s that brings this into consciousness. Whether or not the historical pictures too were the results of setup arrangements is irrelevant in this process. “In order truly to be a realist, one must invent everything,” said Alex Colville; and the photograph, whether found or invented, is an invention of the mind.
In this manner, the “American History Reinvented” cycle ends up proving precisely what it initially pretended to disprove. If at the outset one comes to terms with the fact that the series calls into question the truths of photography and history, one soon realized that what is primarily questioned is our picture of photography and history, and that, to the contrary, photography does possess truth for itself, and in an absolute way. This understanding helps to reveal Neidich’s interest in determining what a photograph is and what it is not. In addition, however, these images are a mordant contribution to the efforts of many photographers today to establish recognition of their field as art. The present, very widespread idea that the photographed need only manipulate his or her photograph to achieve for it the higher blessings of art has its roots as far back as the 19th century, in pictorialism. For Neidich, manipulation is not a function of purely aesthetic or formal categories or criteria. It is a means for the introduction of content, of questions. To put our present restorational concept of historicity into doubt, only minimal intervention is needed; one star too many in the American flag will suffice.
Neidich shoes that artistic concepts are realizable in photography not only within an “antiaesthetic” framework but also, and more profoundly, in pretty pictures and through perfect techniques. Aesthetic pictorial solutions, technical expertise, historical knowledge, and thought-out concepts all come together in these photographs. This comprises their quality. Neidich thus makes good for himself the claim that, in conjunction with his criticisms of present tendencies, he makes art. “Photographers today, fed on Wheaties and Cheerios, are too ready to adapt their TV mentality to art in order to transform themselves from photographers to photo-artists. In subverting distinctions, they breed lazy thinking and worse mediocrity. We cannot be flippant in our decisions on what constitutes a mass aesthetic. We must hearken to the call of beauty, perfection and truth.
Reinhold Misselbeck is curator for photography and new media at Ludwig Museum, Cologne.