David Bergé: Practicing Photography, without taking pictures

Advisor/tutor: Rachel O'Reilly

Arnhem, June 2017


This thesis sets up a possible approach to a contemporary photographic practice that is informed by peripheral a nd multiple modernisms, and for which the operation of optics and chemics in the photographic apparatus comes secondary to photography’s medium in - specific, perceptual and navigatory relations to urban environments. The thesis begins with the question: What does it mean to make an image of urban space after the invention of photography, if we consider urban space - through trade, capital, commodities, migrant labour, etc – to be always- already a relation between Europe and its global peripheries? Modernist photographic aesthetics are set up in the thesis vis- à -vis the English- born and trained Eadweard Muybridge’s emigration from Europe to America. Muybridge’s experiments from 1839 help us to understand photographic modernism as inextricable from its backdrop in colonial expansion and industrialization.
This situatedness of photographic modernism at and beyond the conceptual and geographical edge of the European project is taken, in Chapters 1 - 3, as key to photography's complex entanglement with peripheral a nd decentred ways of seeing modernity. From this point we move to 1911 to meet with two Swiss art students, travelling through the last years of the Ottoman Empire, whose approach to the embodied capture of images in localities problematizes later conventional theories and uses of the photographic apparatus. The thesis then moves to the centre of European urbanism in Paris, to deconstruct modernist spatial considerations through Walter Benjamins’ surreal walks of city streets and commercial arcades (chapter 4). In addition to Benjamin, I consider Svetlana Boyms’ theory of Off- modernity with examples from Moscow, Cape Cod and Bahia. In each of these examples, a form or concept migrates to another continent/geography. Elaborating on Boyms’ alternative concept of modernity, Chapter 6 proposes a contemporary and spatial challenge to Benjamins’ Arcades Project through Lina Bo Bardis’ concept of the “Ice - Cream City”. Once these urban and spatial considerations have been outlined, chapters 7, 8 and 9 pave the path for a photographic practice beyond optical concerns, which I call ‘practic ing photography without taking pictures’: spatially, performatively and indexically. The optical unconsciousness as articulated by Benjamin and Rosalind Krauss in the final analysis makes a case for a contemporary photographic practice that is postmodernist in being always already entangled with peripheries, and involving no less than a re -materialization of the dark room process into the world.