MFA Art Criticism and Writing Chair David Levi Strauss’s Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow: Essays on the Present and Future of Photography presents 25 pieces exploring the social, cultural and political roles of photography today. The essays, some published for the first time in this compilation, examine artists who work with photographic images such as Jenny Holzer, Carolee Schneemann and Larry Clark, and address the way photography affects the reception of socio-political phenomena like Abu Ghraib, 9/11 and the Occupy movement. SVA Close Up caught up with Levi Strauss to discuss the book, which was released this past May.
The essays in this book are diverse, addressing both theories of photography and photography in the realm of fine art, journalism and politics. How did you decide which essays to include in this collection?
For the past 20 years or so, every essay I write is written as a chapter in a book. Writing essays is like writing short stories. Putting them together in a book takes a long time, because the book has to become more than a collection of disparate things. It has to have a logic of its own.
You cite John Berger’s statement that photography “bear[s] witness to a human choice being exercised in a given situation” and state that “this is what makes the consideration of photographic images important to any discussion of human freedom.” One of the main threads throughout the book, and in your previous writings, is the significance of photography as documentation that can aid collective understanding of the thing captured. What, if anything, is in the photograph that goes beyond the thing it depicts? Or is in a lived moment that a photograph misses?
I don’t think we actually know very much about how photographic images work, especially concerning their relation to the real. We think we know, and operate as if we do, but most of our reception of images is based on mistaken assumptions and driven by unconscious desires. This makes the politics of image reception very complicated.
Has the popularity of social media, especially photo sharing apps like Instagram and image aggregators like Tumblr, changed the role of photographic images in society? If so, how?
Our communications environment has changed a lot in the last 20 years, and this has changed the way we look at and receive images. But most of these changes are quantitative and not qualitative.
Can you discuss the concept of photography as a “medium of mourning,” especially in light of photography’s role in documenting crises like 9/11?
As Barthes said, every photograph is about death. He meant that every photograph is about “what has been.” 9/11 was the most photographed event in history. It reminded us how much we need photographic images to remember what has been lost.
Do you think we are in a post-photographic era?
No. I think we are in an amnesic era, but we still remember to die.
What, in your opinion, is the most important photograph taken in the last five years?
For me, it’s the photograph of my grandson’s face.