Photography Between Poetry and Politics: The Critical Position of the Photographic Medium in Contemporary Art Edited by Hilde Van Gelder and Helen Westgeest

Photography Between Poetry and Politics: The Critical Position of the Photographic Medium in Contemporary Art
Edited by Hilde Van Gelder and Helen Westgeest
Leuven University Press Belgium, 2008.
Australian distribution: Footprint Books
192pp, RRP $66

How can political photography distinguish itself from the merely political statement or pamphlet? And at the other extreme, can the poetic in photography be more than a useful tool to make a renewed kind of 'tableau'. Often marked by a rather noncommittal and ‘poetic’ visual imagery?

These are the rather tantalising questions raised, first at a one-day conference in Belfast, and now published in book form by Leuven University Press in Belgium. It is the 7th in a series of innovative books on photography produced by the Lieven Gevaert Research Centre for Photography. Contributors include: T.J. Demos, Simon Faulkner, Cliff Lauson, Susan Laxton, Anne Marsh, Alexandra Moschovi, Alexander Streitberger, Helen Westgeest, and Mechtild Widrich.

In the gaps between poetry and politics several other issues are interrogated including the important one of the photographic documentation of performances by, amongst others, Marina Abramovic and Belfast-based Alastair MacLennan. Different forms of ‘constructed photography’ are used to illustrate other burgeoning areas of photography in the works of Thomas Demand, Vic Munoz, and Jeff Wall. Humour and tragedy both inform new and old technologies as paradigms tumble like skittles.

This book is a heady and satisfying meal at a shared banquet of photography and ideas and I cannot recommend it highly enough. At the end of the eight major papers there is a thorough bibliography that will lead the serious reader off on countless other critical journeys.

The text is well-illustrated throughout with mostly small black and white images. However the final thirty-two pages comprise a selection of full-colour plates that shadow the main historical arguments. Not surprisingly, and quite fittingly, the first of these images is Marcel Broodthaers’ Carte du monde poétique (1968).

Anne Marsh, of Monash University, succeeds in straddling both extremes under discussion in her paper ‘The Medium As Ghost: Politics and Poetics in Peter Kennedy’s Work’. Reflecting on his work At the End of the Twentieth Century - Comedy and Tragedy Step Out she describes it as a work which reflects on the catastrophe of September 11 when terrorists attacked the centre of economic power in New York. There is a redemptive aspect to this work as ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy’ which are usually separated, interact in the installation. Running horizontally above the jokes eight pairs of women’s legs, rendered in blue neon light, represent the two muses; beneath the jokes four press photographs, which have been enhanced through digital processing, show pools of blood spilt in conflict and war.

Given that this one-day conference, or ‘discussion between all of its authors’ on the occasion of the 33rd Annual Conference of the Association of Art Historians was held at the University of Ulster, Belfast, Northern Ireland, such reflections on the poetics of terrorism would not have been lost on those present. ?

Dr Peter Hill is Head of Painting and Associate Professor, College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales.

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