Issue 17, Past Issues, Reviews
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Touching Photographs

Reviewed by River J. Bullock, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Olin, Margaret. Touching Photographs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. 288 pages.

Moving beyond visual analysis and materiality of photographic objects, Margaret Olin crafts a series of essays that traverse the intersubjectivities and interactivity of the tactile looking they spur.  Composed in six chapters, Touching Photographs contributes to theory of photography, visual studies, and art historical understandings of canonical projects, including Walker Evans and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James VanDerZee’s Harlem funeral portraits, Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, and W. G. Sebald’s texts. She also constructs fresh analysis of recent 9/11 memorialization practices, the collective historicization efforts of Susan Meiselas’ akaKurdistan interactive web project, and Abu Ghraib prison photographs. Olin situates this provocative collection of material amidst concerns of the agential relationship to the photographers, subjects, collectors, and institutions through which they circulate, and is persistently reflexive on the possibility of empowerment, imaginative community, and poignant identification they can inspire.

Touching Photographs insistently rejects a “systematic understanding of photographic or photo-historical methodology” that might shape a characteristic photo history or theory text (17). Instead, Olin characterizes her chapters as wanderings that grapple with the core question of how photographs perform in interpersonal and communal relationships. Using photo theory, art historical scholarship and literary criticism in combination with her experiences as a United States citizen Olin engages with the visual politics of the past decade. This self-declared non-method carries us through the material easily; both Olin’s prose and narrative organization allow the chapters to talk to one another, rather than resting as separate arguments.

Olin productively redirects ongoing dialogue concerning the photographic index first formalized in Charles Sanders Peirce’s “Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs” and carried out by contemporary scholars such as Geoffrey Batchen, by evoking the “performative index:” that which allows the photograph to act, to move, and to be felt via the interpersonal relationships that it stimulates.1   This move away from the technicalities of photographic production, to a discourse of photographic interrelations and intersubjectivities builds on David Green and Joanna Lowry’s work in, “From Presence to the performative: Rethinking photographic indexicality” where the making of a photograph acts as an indexical but outward gesture.2

Olin’s performative index further extends this formulation by allowing the photograph to shimmer in its infixity, performing a relation that no longer depends on resemblance or verisimilitude, but rather upon the viewer’s interaction and identification of the photograph. This attitude enables readers to interact with the generously illustrated text, while paying self-conscious attention to our own methods of identification and interaction with the photographic economy Olin provides. Building off discussions of the indexical relationship between the photograph and its subject, Olin constructively puts the performative index into action throughout Touching Photographs by supplying rich analysis of the relation between the photograph and its beholder.

In Olin’s second chapter,  “Roland Barthes’ ‘Mistaken’ Identification,” the performative index is enacted but also troubled. Here, Olin importantly affirms that the punctum of the photograph (Barthes’ concept of the “prick” or the photograph’s affective nexus) may exist in multiple places, or lay beyond the photograph, or may even not exist on a visible plane. In order to credit the defining force of the punctum, as that which pulls one in, Olin’s term misidentification deserves more attention and thought. Olin’s account of Barthes “misidentification” with, or in, the Winter Garden Photograph could be rethought using the consequential work of performance theorist and queer studies scholar José Esteban Muñoz’s Disidentifications in which he looks to transformative identifications practiced by minority subjects to navigate majority culture.3 In the liminal spaces of imaginative and machinic power derived from Barthes unended grieving for his mother, multiple identifications appear in the active search for her. Can we discern this as mistaken identification? Could it perhaps be conceived of as a transidentification––identification occurring across multiple objects or subjects? Or perhaps as Muñoz’s disidentification––a survival strategy practiced by Barthes to mediate his loss? Turning away from what Olin sees as mistaken identification can allow instead an imaginative reformulation of where and when we might identify meaningful punctum. Reconceived and reimagined, an interaction could occur in which Barthes’ multiple identifications assemble and generate a new mother-body and new and whole self in the studio portraits of James Van Der Zee, and in Barthes’ own family photographs. The work of performance studies and queer studies scholarship on Barthes and mourning could further push Olin’s articulation of the performative index that Touching Photographsseeks to instill by allowing generative forces of interaction between the photograph and the beholder to manifest vibrant and reconstituitive identifications.4

This blockage between a missed identification and a transformative identification carries into later chapters that address the politics of contemporary image economies of the War on Terror. If a multi (rather than mistaken or missed) vocality awakens images via the performative index, Olin’s prompt for photographs spanning the twentieth century to do work in the now, could call out to the reader more fervently, and could perhaps be received more unanimously.  Olin productively excites and works her formulation of relational dynamics in the book’s epilogue “Bad Pictures,” which examines Abu Ghraib photographs of torture while insisting on the righteous responsibility of the viewer and reader of images to meet the gaze of both the victim and the perpetrator.

In concert with discourse on the gaze in cultural histories of photography and visual culture studies, Touching Photographs works alongside recent scholarship such as Nicholas Mierzoff’s The Right to Look: A Counter History of Visuality (Duke, 2011) to critically engage the pressing issues of the real, the political, and the now. Olin’s attention to the social practices of photographic consumption creates continuity throughout the text, but for her “touching really begins when the photograph has been put away, the newspaper recycled, and the book closed” (234). Olin thus delivers a stimulating call to action–and interaction–that invites readers to consider the lasting work that images do on us, and that we do with them.

  1. Charles Sanders Peirce, “Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs” (1897-1910) in Philosophical Writings of Peirce, Justus Buchler, ed. (New York: Dover, 1955), 98-115. Geoffrey Batchen, Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1999).
  2. David Green and Joanna Lowry, “From Presence to the Performative: Rethinking Photographic Indexicality” in Where is the Photograph? David Green, ed. (Brighton, UK: Photoforum and Maidstone, UK: Photoworks, 2003), 47-60.
  3. José Esteban Muñoz, “Photographies of Mourning: Melancholia and Ambivalence in Van Der Zee, Mapplethorpe, and Looking for Langston” in Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).
  4. For example: Judith Butler, “Melancholy Gender/Refused Identification” in The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection (Stanford: Standford Press, 1997), 132-50.

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