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  1. David Komary

    Scriptures Without Words

     

    This “object” is not simply “the way the world is,” “the way the world looks,” nor even “the ways we use our vision”; it is rather a standardized, or characterized, or defined notion of vision itself.

    Joel Snyder

     

    In her series of images Tatiana Lecomte investigates the limits of photographically constructed visibility. She calls into question the evidentness of the photographic image and its significance in constructing the past and history. In the series Der Teich and Oradour, the artist visits the locations where the Nazi regime committed crimes and investigates these photographically for traces of the crime and any legible references. On the surface, Lecomte links her own seeing to the location and its mediatization—in a manner entirely consistent with an appropriation strategy. In terms of aesthetic reception, however, this documentary strategy is interrupted: through the deformation of the reference by blurring it (Oradour), through pictorial omissions (Der Teich), and through the disintegration of the local reference (Einfaches Motiv). Lecomte constructs images of the failure of representation. In each series hardly any or no visible references to the past exist. Instead, the viewer is confronted with desolate areas that often seem quite idyllic at first glance. On the one hand, Lecomte alludes to the ability of the photographic image to emanate the past [1], on the other, she undermines photography’s documentary strategy. Through pictorial indeterminacy, blurring, and voids, the artist evokes in the viewer an imaginative, reconstructive reading. Lecomte’s images do not function as documents, but allude to how history is constructed and how the individual viewer envisions this through reading.

    Consistently inherent to Lecomte’s images is the questioning of photographic objectivity, of the indexical trace as legitimization of Barthes’ “That-has-been” [2]. Pictures do not simply reflect reality, they are also invariably a product of the construction and, in turn, play a fundamental role in the construction of reality. The visibility of things is not a given quality that goes unquestioned; instead it is produced. Photography can be described as a dispositif: a configuration of observing that regulates visibility. An analysis of the photographic dispositif neither understands images as closed semantic units, nor does it call into question their representation or authenticity, but rather calls into question the photographic dispositif as a meaning-producing interface of social practices and discourses. Such an analysis understands “visual regimes as relationships of media, representation, and power.” [3]

    The photographic image is less an instance of representation, a reflection of reality, than it is an iconic sign in the semiotic process that constitutes reality. The viewing of a photographic image is more akin to reading; the image is not sensed, it is read. Thus, the image’s meaning has less to do with what is portrayed or depicted than with the linkages—the inter-pictorial and inter-textual references—to other images and texts. It is this very interdependency of iconic and textual structures that Lecomte investigates in her work.

    In the series Der Teich the viewer is confronted with a forest image obstructed in iconoclastic fashion by a black band. The artist’s documentary search for historical traces at Auschwitz-Birkenau serves as the work’s starting point. Lecomte took photographs of the site, surveying the location for visible indices and traces of the past, of the crimes. Before the photographs were enlarged, the artist cut a substantial section out of the negative around the image horizon, and, by removing the concrete pillars of the former concentration camp’s fence and watchtowers, erased any signifiers that would make the place legible as Auschwitz-Birkenau. The black band—concealment, vacant space, or effacement?—forms a point around which various interpretations and potential meanings revolve. The indeterminacy of the image requires the viewer’s active participation, a semiotic process that goes beyond the visibility of photographic factuality. Employing a strategy of photographic appropriation, Lecomte seeks to visualize events and occurrences that evade visibility and the imagination to the greatest possible extent. The black band, however, “signifies” what evades visibility, what is inherent to the location. This omission alludes not only to the inability of pictorial strategies to visualize or depict reality, but also to the politics of images, to that which does not appear in the image, but which determines its organization.

    In the photo series Oradour, the viewer is presented with the blurry, rural-area-as-motif-based images of a—at first glance—seemingly pleasing visual rhetoric. But the photographic idyll is only ostensibly blurry. In actuality it is the result of a multi-part mediatization: Lecomte photographed an initially clear image of the location with a Polaroid camera and then used this photo of the photo as the template for yet another shot and so on. She repeats this procedure until a degree of blur is achieved that makes recognizing the location and its specificities impossible. The barely recognizable location is actually Oradour-sur-Glane, a French village, which the SS burned to the ground in 1944 and whose inhabitants it murdered. After the fact, the village was left in its destroyed state as a place of remembrance.

    Applying an appropriation and visualization strategy, Lecomte seeks to establish a connection between her own image and the location’s media coding. However, the variances on a visual level are insignificant. Since the destroyed village can only ever be photographed from the same angles, Lecomte’s images do not differ significantly from the images of other photographers. Lecomte incorporates the visual indistinguishability of other images into the series, inserting black & white images of the location taken immediately after the event into her series of color photographs. When she draws on archive material, on reproductions from books on Oradour, she juxtaposes two temporal layers. In the interplay of temporal de- and re-contextualization, Lecomte explores the relationship between her own images and those of others. Images have long since preceded all subjects; images are seen before “reality” is. Thus, one’s own subjective view seems devalued, even negated, the search for evidentiary traces at the location of the crime absurd. But with this juxtaposition and intertwining of other images and her own, earlier, and current images, Lecomte alludes less to the impossibility of seeing, to the failure of the gaze as an epistemological instrument, than to the problem of representing history visually in the context of a plethora of media codings. The subject of the work is not the impossibility or failure of the gaze, but the question of the ever new and varying constitutive contexts and differences of prior examples, portrayals, and perceived images.

    The question regarding the photographic evidentness of the postmodern or, as Marc Ries terms it, the “post-conditional” image, which seems to have lost its unambiguousness, coalesces in the image series Einfaches Motiv into an analysis of photographic codings and inter-media interdependencies. In this image series, Lecomte is not examining the crime locations but rather the general photographic encoding of the locations where the crime occurred: documentary photographs of leaves and undergrowth in a typical newspaper halftone, making the image read like crime scene photography even when text or captions are missing. Lecomte’s focus here is not the location, but the hegemonic choreography of the image, where the locations of the crime are depicted in an orchestrated, documentary fashion. Similar to the series Oradour, Lecomte uses both her own images as well as the images of other photographers who remain unnamed. Thus, the location itself loses its very meaning in this series; it becomes a variable. In Einfaches Motiv, however, it is not just the photographic codes—with the suggestion of an indexical reference to reality—but also journalistic images that inform the decoding process of the photographic imagery. The photo appears as part of a media composite, an image system co-constituted by the viewers’ readings. The referentiality of the photographic image is of less importance than the question of which reality-effects the photography is capable of evoking in conjunction with other media.

    In this sense, Lecomte’s photographic practice seeks to be a concept of photography that is not based on photographic factuality, but which understands photography “as a media system through which certain image constellations can be generated in order to make a (visual) statement about certain phenomena of the real.” [4] Questioning the implicit grammar of the photographic gaze in an inter-medial context—and the question can only still be posed in this way—ultimately always means questioning the politics of visibility and their impact on the “modes of reality production.” [5]

     

    1  Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill & Wang, 1989), p. 80.

    2  Ibid., p. 77.

    3  Reinhard Braun, Radikale Bilder – Spekulative Theoreme, in Reinhard Braun, Werner Fenz eds., Radikale Bilder, 2.Österreichische Triennale zur Fotografie (Graz: Edition Camera, 1996), http://braun.mur.at/texte/radikal_1996.shtml.

    4  Ibid.

    5  Nelson Goodman, Weisen der Welterzeugung (Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1984).

     

    Translation: Erik Smith