Photography, In and Of Itself

Daniel Tierney

‘Photography is and is not a language;
language also is and is not a “photography.”’ 

W.J.T. Mitchell


‘Photos should suggest a word(s) and vice versa. They should be equal and interchangeable.’ 

John Baldessari 



The choreography between art and the academy can at times seem a divided and singular arrangement. While there are those agile enough to cross seamlessly between the two – a pas de deux that reveals the ebbs and flows of an interchanging lead and follow – for some the dance feels forced or uncertain, like two ill-fitting outfits worn in the hope that one, or both, will over time fit more readily. For others, it is necessary to reject one for, or at the expense of, the other. This route affords an opportunity to move with familiar rhythm and a common language, allowing freedom of expression with the words or images that move together freely without the risk of alienating or being lost in translation. This, however, can result in work out of step with the broader disciplinary field and the cadence of a wider cognoscenti. In this sense, the Journal of International Photography intends to cross the floor – to build new communities by uniting textual and visual partners, and create new routines that appreciate the interplay between these distinct, but concomitant cultural forms.


In a similar way, the camera relies on its operator to function as apparatus. So too the photograph, which only exists within a wider cultural and textual milieu to manifest and realise its potential. The reverse is therefore also true, writing practice necessarily draws on a visual cultural field to create meaning and forge new pathways and possibilities. The task here is to navigate this seemingly disproportionate separation, to reach out across the divide and support each other along the way. For while the image searches for language to give itself form, language requires the image to articulate new meaning.


The evolution of photographic theory and practice gives rise to change, adaptation, and eventually obsolescence as new ideas are proposed, tested, and rejected. Although recent arguments point to a photography beyond itself – an after, post, and more recently, after post-photography – there remains a persistence to both the photographic and its incumbent genres in both name and deed. Despite the insistence, by Jacques Derrida1 amongst others, of the implausible substance of taxonomy, he first acknowledged its immutability, its operation as law. Photography, international or otherwise, will always be subject to classification and contradiction by those who interact within or around its nebulous and contested borders. The process which establishes photography, and its constituents, as a genre, must allow for critical responses that utilise existing categories, visual and literary framings, which are open, varied and plural. While the desire to label and classify might be human, and therefore necessarily subjective, there exists an intimacy between interrelation and distinction, a requirement to interpret and elucidate between disparate and discrete communities.


The notion of internationality wrestles with a further contradiction. Proclaiming the true nature of a place from the vantage point of another inevitably reveals more about the observer than the observed. This distance, between vista and viewpoint, presents an even greater, if not insurmountable challenge. The lens, so inherently skewed, arguably symptomatic of the alterity of all images, must acknowledge its focal point and the relative inconsistencies that lie therein. Here, the proposition is to encourage an internationalist approach, while being aware and wary of the dangers of the single story and the structural deficits which perceive the world from a particular perspective. The intention is to focus on diverse and marginal discourses to reveal multiple fields of view, while realising the potential for provocation, all the while forging meaningful and constructive debate between the multi-facets of creativity and critique. As the writer Henry Miller put it, ‘one’s destination is never a place, but rather a new way of looking at things. Which is to say that there are no limits on vision’.


While the pictorial turn espoused by W.J.T Mitchell2 may have staked the polemical claim to the representational power of the image, the dichotomy between word and image highlights the continued struggle by each for cultural and critical hegemony. Though a reconsideration of the binary of the visual/verbal may reinforce Mitchell’s pronouncement that ‘all media are mixed media’, it is arguably the combination of those heterogeneous pieces of picture, text and culture which constitute the semiotic whole. Accordingly, the broader field of visual culture expands alongside both the application and our perceptual widening of both the image and its imaginaries. Largely attributable to the pervasiveness of the digital realm, this extended visuality incorporates a spectrum of disciplines which seek to evaluate the implications of the image across the now pre-eminent distribution network, simultaneously counterbalancing the erstwhile primacy of the word and its corollary, literary critique. But while our understanding of the ‘photographic’ might be lost among the abundance of emergent digital technologies, the terms of ‘photography’ resist being subsumed by the saturation and simulation of image culture and its associated spectacle. Following on from Mitchell, in this sense, all media are new media, and all viewing regimes are subject to the demands and articulations of identity, ontology, and the varying processes of signification, distribution and reception.


Photographic study certainly has a place within this all-encompassing arena. But it is the singular notion of photography which represents a distinct, interpellative category that maintains its interdisciplinary function beyond the medium. Thus, photography elicits a remarkable ability to elude legibility. As David Campany has cautioned, ‘it may well be that the compulsion to fix the identity of photography is directly proportional to the difficulty of doing so.’3 As such, framing photography as specific to its eponymous medium overlooks the ontological and psychological relationship between the social, the visual and the verbal. This connection is evidenced in the continued relevance of key texts, from Barthes to Benjamin, predating both the digital age and subsequent assimilation of the photograph into the sphere of the visual, which gives us reason to suspect this longevity is characteristic of photography’s cross-curricular capability. That so many fundamental texts originate from writers working predominately outside photography – history, geography, sociology, as well as film, cultural, literary and performance studies, and so forth – is testimony to the subject’s intractable, far-reaching appeal within and without a literary and visual cultural framework.


While the photograph remains, as Allan Sekula noted, a ‘fragmentary and incomplete utterance’4, photography itself draws upon a broad textual and discursive reticulum to establish its continued relevance and future potentialities. This inaugural issue of the Journal of International Photography endeavours to employ a range of critical processes as a means to (re)examine and (re)configure the discipline of photography and its cognate communities, to uncover and reveal marginal places and practices via the mutually supportive amalgam of image and text. By acknowledging and addressing the contestations occupying the field, the publication seeks to extricate itself from the physical and psychic boundaries occluded by both genre and discipline, and disclose new territories to inhabit, explore and interpret.






1 Jacques Derrida The Law of Genre; Critical Inquiry, 1 October 1980, Vol.7(1), pp.55-81

2 Mitchell, W. J. T. Picture theory : essays on verbal and visual representation. University of Chicago Press. London. 1994. – Mitchell points to  an ‘imagetext’ composite uniting the traditional dualism of word and image.

3 David Campany, ‘On Thinking and not Thinking Photography’, Engage no. 14, 2004.

4 Allan Sekula, ‘Reading an archive: Photography between labour and capital’. In Wells, L. (Ed.), The photography reader. London: Routledge. 2003