On the Surface
Robert Hariman/Northwestern University and John Louis Lucaites/Indiana University

An Artist Is Not Merely the Slavish Announcer

John Baldessari, An Artist Is Not Merely the Slavish Announcer . . .

In an age when “all media are mixed media,” the modernist emphasis on media specificity seems antique.1 Yet the idea never goes out of style among those who wish to devalue or otherwise restrict photography. Following Susan Sontag, the medium is said to be inherently fragmentary (lacking narrative or even episodic coherence), devoid of context (needing verbal captions to be semantically grounded), and superficial.2 This last failing is particularly damning, as it rules out both the rich interiority of subjective experience and the philosophical depth of verbal representation, analysis, and reflection. Look as much as you like, but don’t pretend that you are really thinking, much less plumbing the depths of human experience.

Sontag’s continuing value to media theory comes in part from her maddening knack for being just about exactly half right. Thus, rather than to refute her claims outright, a better approach can come from filling in the missing piece. Let’s assume the same for the conventional wisdom whenever the term “superficial” is applied to a medium tout court, be it photography, television, film, or digital media. Instead of declaring that hidden depths really are waiting to be found by those who care enough, why not explore the terrain of superficiality? A similar attitude animated cultural studies’ assault on the high-low hierarchy in the arts and popular culture, but we have in mind something a bit more specific. What might be key features of a hermeneutic for the critical study of surfaces?

This interest surely is one part of the great deal of recent work across the disciplines on the materiality of culture. Surfaces are material things (at least most of the time) , and the turn to the artifacts themselves, to the built environment, and to practices of embodiment typically involve reduced emphasis on deep structures, fixed category systems, or hidden logics. Even so, there is an understandable caution against the lure of the fetish, while embodiment often becomes the vehicle for a new depth model for articulating subjectivity. The value of such projects is not in question here, and one still can ask whether something might have been missed precisely because a great deal of thought was put into understanding (literally) how things are social and cultural objects.

So it is that photography is particularly interesting as an example of an inherently superficial medium. The camera records the surface of things: that is exactly what it does. That is not all that it does, of course, for it also isolates, frames, and relays some view of some person, place, or event, and is used to do much more as well. But let’s not get ahead of things.

One of the important virtues of photography is that the camera is necessarily not intentional while still capable of automatically comprehensible representation. This combination separates it from the paintbrush, for example, and from Photoshop or other editing software. Photographic artistry will involve more than the camera itself, but not less. Nor can this simple binary relationship be easily parsed, as has been demonstrated by the conceptual artist John Baldessari.3

What appears to be an inherent limitation of photography—a negative feature of medium specificity—need not be. A (seemingly) poorly organized, ill proportioned, messy, featureless, banal photograph reveals—what? That most photographs are already crafted according to conventions of visual salience and order; that a carefully organized and beautified environment can appear ugly when seen from another angle; that perspective, imagination, and insight rather than facts are the keys to art; that ordinary life depends on not seeing as much as on seeing? Yes, all of the above, but also perhaps this: that there is, if not art, at least value in the slavish announcement of facts. The artist now is not there merely to enhance how one sees, but rather to bring to one’s attention how much is visible but still not being seen. Ironically, of course, this is what the camera alone can do.

Photography becomes a medium for social thought in part by prompting the viewer to take surfaces seriously. There are a number of directions in which one might develop this perspective, and we’ll mention three here: First, surfaces can reveal the texture of actions and events; second, they can reveal the inevitable gap between social categories and enactment; third, by reading laterally instead of in terms of surface and depth, one can become more attuned to affective connections, surges, paths, and networks.4

Surfaces are the place, and the only place, where one can observe the texture of political action. Texture in this sense refers to how the social context of an event is evident on the surface of things. More to the point, texture reveals how the context for action is often richly overdetermined by social discriminations such as class, status, fashion, subculture, and so forth, and how these many motives articulate variously in patterns, partial patterns, frayed patterns, and gaps, each of which can influence how events develop. (The point here should be familiar to students of discourse analysis and rhetoric: images, like texts, are forms of action whose meaning is determined by their relationship to social contexts and strategic situations.) Everyone is more or less attentive to social texture, but the genius of the camera is that it captures everything that is there on the surface, whether anyone intended to see it or not. Thus, photography provides a particularly powerful medium for recording, framing, observing, and thinking about how action is motivated. Other visual media can do the same, with obvious differences (greater intentionality of depiction, use of staging, temporal modulation, etc.) but photography can serve as a representative case because it usually works with less, leaving the focus clearly on what might have been visible but overlooked in everyday life.

So it is that surfaces can tell the story even when underground, and perhaps especially when seemingly little is happening and people are more acted upon than acting.

Las Vegas flood channel

Residents of a Las Vegas flood channel

The homeless are social outcasts, typically depicted as crazed, drunken or lazy vagabonds living a nomadic lifestyle signified by the trash bags and stolen grocery carts in which they keep their worldly goods. Whether they choose the lifestyle or are forced into it by economic hardships, the clear assumption is that they have rejected the conventions of “normal” domesticity. The couple above lives in an underground flood channel beneath the Las Vegas strip, a dark and dank cellar-like space marked by low “ceilings” and random graffiti. The smear of tags across the concrete surfaces accentuates their vulnerability: instead of privacy, they lie exposed in a degraded public space. Help is not to be expected, however, for although in public view they remain “appropriately” out of sight.

It is notable, however, that for all of their abject poverty they nevertheless have reproduced the conventions of domestic life that would seem to be precluded by their economic circumstances. And what is notable is the texture of that domesticity as it is marked by, among other things, the dog sitting on the bed, the apparently clean sheets, and the shirts neatly arrayed on a rack in the background. Most of us, of course, would take all of these items for granted, part of the texture of a simple and normal life that would warrant no attention at all if the photograph were of a scene in a middle class home, but as captured by the camera here they offer modest surface reminders of unexpected continuities across a system of economic segregation.

Textures remain superficial, however, and the play of surfaces can be highly contingent and ephemeral. Rather than locking those involved into the category systems defining a social space, attention to the surface as such can serve a different analytical objective than merely identifying social ascriptions. By seeing how things are worn and wearing, attention to the surface can expose the gap between the social code and its enactment: between the job seeker’s smile and the frayed hem, or the real estate developer’s scale model and the tired strip mall, or the labor organizer’s Southern drawl and his progressive politics. The social fabric is riven with such gaps, for performance is always falling into that space between social logic and situated adaptation.

For example, consider this portrait and ask yourself who or what you see?

Daniel Fore

Daniel Fore of Oak Park Village

The photograph is altogether commonplace. A simple head shot of an altogether ordinary, middle class white guy. He looks healthy. His face is washed, his hair and mustache nearly trimmed. He is what used to be called “clean cut.” If you passed him on a street corner you would not give him a second glance. His name is Daniel Fore and he is a resident of Oak Park Village, a quite and moderately affluent suburb on Chicago’s west side. He has regularly attended Village Board meetings for the past twelve years but his petition to run for office on that council was peremptorily refused. Why? You might ask. And the answer is simple, he is homeless. He lacks an official residence. One might expect the homeless to wear their countenance differently, of course, more in accord with conventional stereotypes described above, but here attention to the surface challenges such simple assumptions posing important questions about the ordinary enactment of prevailing social codes. There but for the grace of God …

One important corollary is that by revealing how people are not quite in role or on cue, the photograph carries enormous potential for emotional connection. The affective spark can leap across a gap—whether between two people (subject and spectator, for example), or between what one assumed and what one encounters, or between the real and the ideal. The key point here is that one doesn’t have to cycle one’s emotional response through interior circuits, between the social surface and a self defined by its hidden depth, but rather from point to point, laterally, following or arcing across the surface of things. Thus, photographs are emotional precisely because they are superficial, which says more about the nature of human connectivity than it does about the limitations of the visual image.

And so we end with this photograph of a homeless man drawing warmth from a steam grate in Denver.

Homeless man in Denver

Homeless man in Denver

Once again we have a scene that most of us would probably not notice if we were to encounter it while walking down the street—or perhaps more to the point, we would avert our gaze so as to avoid any encounter that might challenge our safety or comfort. And yet the image invites us to attend to the relationship between the man “nesting” by himself in a blanket on a public thoroughfare and the flock of pigeons huddled together as a “community.” Humans and animals have seemingly reversed roles and in a way that underscores not just how we tend to anthropomorphize animals by accenting their human qualities (usually by focusing on their eyes, but here on their impulse to collective organization), but how also we tend to animalize (or dehumanize) individuals who don’t fit within normative and prescribed social roles. And it is precisely this surface relationship that gives the photograph its emotional charge, for just as ordinary pedestrians might treat the homeless person with a certain degree of caution, so too do the birds choose not to see him, even as they keep their distance.

As with our earlier posts on banality, we do not want to pretend that our emphasis on one pole of a binary distinction should be comprehensive. Terms such as surface and depth are necessarily linked, and the pairing obviously has considerable utility. We note, however, that critical interpretations praised for their “depth” often pay more than usual attention to the surface of the artifact. Perhaps the end result of admitting to the superficiality of a medium could be something like profundity.

Image Credits:

1. John Baldessari, An Artist Is Not Merely the Slavish Announcer . . .
2. Residents of a Las Vegas flood channel
3. Daniel Fore of Oak Park Village
4. Homeless man in Denver

Please feel free to comment.

  1. W.J.T. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 5. []
  2. Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977). []
  3. John Baldessari, “An Artist Is Not Merely the Slavish Announcer . . .,” 1966–68. Photoemulsion, varnish, and gesso on canvas, 59 1/8 × 45 1/8 in. (150.2 × 114.6 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Painting and Sculpture Committee and gift of an anonymous donor 92.21. []
  4. See Kathleen Stewart, Ordinary Affects (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007). []


  • I’m fascinated by the ways a limited set of conventions in short-form representation can be used to achieve richness and (figurative) depth. In the examples you discuss, social perceptions, including stereotypes, become formal elements at the photographer’s disposal. As you point out, the photograph of the couple living in a Las Vegas flood channel is striking not only because it calls attention to something normally visible but unseen, but because it brings to this setting familiar signs of domestic life. The photograph of the homeless man in Denver likewise depends on a familiar situation seen from an unfamiliar point of view. In both cases, the tension between expectation and reality accounts for much of the power of the image.

    One illuminating component of a recent David Smith exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York was a wall featuring photographs Smith took of his later sculptures alongside urban landscape photographs he had taken earlier in his career. The juxtaposition suggested Smith’s interest in an increasingly basic set of visual elements and at the same time revealed his astonishing success at isolating those elements in chaotic found settings, like ship docks.

    Thanks for the interesting article!

  • I very much enjoyed this thoughtful discussion of the true value of photography. I found the arguments to be exceptionally well-constructed and the use of examples (as well as the dissection thereof) to provide a very interesting political counterpoint to Sontag’s claims. However, I am inclined to agree with (the paraphrasing of) Susan Sontag’s thoughts that “the medium is said to be inherently fragmentary (lacking narrative or even episodic coherence), devoid of context (needing verbal captions to be semantically grounded), and superficial,” and yet not for the reasons that may be immediately assumed. Furthermore, even as I agree with the notion that photography is “fragmentary,” “devoid of context,” and “superficial,” I would argue that it is these very features that lend photography a singular value, unrealizable by the mediums of film and television (these too have unique values, to be discussed later).

    While the political value of photography cannot (and should not) be understated, and while I believe that this post has done an amazing job of demonstrating that value, I believe that that which is of most significant with regard to photography lies in the epistemological realm. In this way, we must attempt to understand photography at its most elemental and we must also interrogate the matter of what this conception of photography truly means.

    As I said before, I agree that photography is inherently fragmentary, devoid of context, and superficial, for it is the very nature of photography to remove a particular moment from the narrative that “contains” it. Isolation is photography’s specialty, for it extracts and renders the moment of being in such a way that said moment may be rightly understood as ahistorical. Rather than “coming from” a particular past or “going toward” a particular future, photography depicts the present of a moment, nothing more and nothing less. The past of the photograph is unknown, for each of the specific details that permitted the existence of this precise moment cannot be known in full; the future is, as of the moment of the photograph, unrealized, existing only in the ether of potential. The problem with trying to argue that photography is not fragmentary and not devoid of context is that such an argument misses the value of photography in itself, for rather than taking the time to examine photography qua photography, such a practice merely reorients photography and tries to interpret it in terms of the “cinematic” or the “televisual.” By trying to ascribe narrative to the photo, we misunderstand what the photo has done, which is precisely to extract a moment from narrative, to divorce the moment from its seeming story. In doing so, we are assuming that the narrative is of greater significance than the moment, that the moment merely helps to comprise the narrative. However, this misses the point of the power of the moment, for no individual behaves within his/ her narrative, but rather acts in and of the moment. The narrative, the accumulated moments of the individual’s being, may be looked back upon (though only by virtue of memory, which is also engaged in the moment), and the understanding of one’s being as having created a coherent narrative, informs the behavioral decisions that the individual may make. And still, this behavior occurs in the moment. The narrative, then, is constructed of moments, of, essentially, photographs; and the narrative itself is the thread strung through these moments post facto.

    This, of course, is not to say that individuals behave without an understanding of their own histories, for, as already mentioned, memory allows the individual to realize his/ her narrative and to contribute to the construction thereof. What may be readily inferred from this idea of contributing to the construction thereof is that, in the moment, the narrative is not complete; rather, it is open-ended. The moment itself, on the other hand, is complete, for simply by virtue of being, the potential of the moment qua moment has been realized. While this may all be fairly obvious, what is imperative to our understanding of the value of the photograph is that Sontag’s dismissal thereof seems to lie in the fact that the photograph does not allow us to understand the context from which it has been extracted. I agree that this is the case, but I disagree that this is a problem. Rather, the problem arises when we cease to appreciate the photograph, the moment, as just that. Rather than simply thinking of the photograph as deficient, we should be inclined to think of our understanding of the photographic, and of being itself, as deficient, for, perhaps resultant of film and television (though the structure thereof may be symptomatic rather than causal), we have a tendency to understand moments as occurring “for the sake of something.” The photograph, however, on its own, disallows an understanding of “for the sake of something,” for any efforts to assign a narrative to the moment are little more than educated guesses (as demonstrated by the examples provided in this post). Moreover, the attempt to assign a narrative obscures the chaos of the photograph, the moment, for it assumes a particular past from which the moment came and a particular future to which the moment will inevitably lead. The photograph, in this sense, may be thought of as a controlled chaos. At its most elemental, the photograph captures the act of enacting. Whereas film is, at its core, a fulfilled narrative, a series of events and moments (the momentary aspect of which is almost completely lost, for the focus is not on the act of enacting but on enacting itself) that arise from a particular circumstance and lead to a specific outcome, the photograph makes no effort to “make sense” of the moment, but rather displays it as just that. Television, perhaps, is best understood as a hybrid of these two (though the particulars require more examination than can be given over to this post response); however, rather than isolating the moment, it isolates the episode which may or may not show to contribute to an overall outcome. If the photograph is the moment and film is the narrative, then television is a glimpse, an effort to make sense and provide a narrative to the moments of being.

    I would like to reiterate that I agree with your analysis of photography’s political value, but also that I think that a focus on the overtly political misses the epistemological worth of the photograph, its singular contribution to the way that we may (and likely should) understand being. I think that it is a grave error to try to understand any one form of media as a fall from any other form of media, for each permits us to analyze the “how” and “why” of our being and to access these concerns from different points. Perhaps of greatest importance is that, upon examining each of these individually and then reflecting on them collectively, we may begin to come to terms with the shortcomings of our ways of knowing, the necessary limitations placed upon us in our ongoing quest to determine what it is that constitutes truth.

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