How Does Photography Appear to Appear?

How Does Photography Appear to Appear?

Laura Chen, from the series Finders Keepers, 2019. Courtesy of the author.

Photography shares little with the logic of simulation and simulacrum, instead it facilitates a dimension within which people and objects we photograph emerge from an impossible frame. Its intrigue resides in the palpable sense of impossibility that photographs render visible to us. This sleight of hand obfuscates the question of how appearance appears. In Finders Keepers, Dutch photographer Laura Chen works with imagery sourced from undeveloped films purchased from eBay and car-boot sales. When Chen develops the films, the real of someone else’s reality is transformed into art. Left undeveloped, these images occupy nowhere in particular, but Chen makes appearances fill in a void and poses a question which is not one of “why” but of “where” are images? Furthermore, in seeking out meanings, the magic of photography is understood through the misdirection of illusion and appearance. What is more useful is to ask how photography appears to appear?

There is something magical in how photography, seemingly, creates likenesses of things in the world: the camera is a machine magically making replicas. But in this respect, photography shares very little with the basic logic of simulation or simulacrum (Baudrillard, 1983). The goal of simulation is to emulate the experience of a thing as closely as possible, but it is only in the realm of the visual where photography even comes close to imitation. Even in the visual domain, we can be fooled by appearances alone. At its heart, simulation is imitation through a different mechanism. It is an attempt to be indistinguishable from phenomena, not only in terms of appearances but as something that directly replaces experience. Simulation is therefore firmly situated within the realm of illusion and illusion is one of the basic constituents of magic. 

Today, it would seem we occupy a world saturated by simulations, a world where our direct and indirect experiences are configured in many different ways. It is a world replete with magical illusions, where spaces are virtual, where products are rented not owned, and where we document our lives as we want them to appear to others. The consequence of this is that we have only minimal contact with what might be described as a lived, real, reality. Instead, reality is mediated, deferred through a series of simulated experiences. The evolution of this process has resulted in the screen moving from being a simulation to becoming a thing in itself. Screens are no longer an interface between our physical self and technology, they are now a physical site of interaction providing a direct experience of a simulated real. They are, in effect, a reflective plane of illusion and magic.

Where does photography fit within a world of simulation? Photography facilitates a dimension within which what we photograph emerges from what seems to be an impossible frame. The entire process of photography operates as a kind of magical illusion. Like all magic, the intrigue residing in photography comes from a palpable sense of impossibility that photographs manage to render visible to us. While we can accept that we are looking at a photograph, we also readily accept a disconnected relationship between it and the thing it shows us. In acknowledging a perceived gap between a photograph and that which has been photographed, we tend not to link our perception of reality as being intrinsically formulated through the non-reality photographs present to us. This sleight of hand obfuscates the question of how appearance appears. 

When looking at photographs, we try to understand them by what they show us and trying to work out what they mean. But in seeking out meanings, photography is understood in the same way an audience understands a magic trick: what we know comes through the misdirection of illusion and appearance. What we see is only a part of what is happening in front of us. Perhaps, a more useful question might be to ask how photography appears to appear? How is it that appearances formulate themselves in the way that they do?

In her project Finders Keepers (2019), Dutch photographer Laura Chen works with imagery she sources from undeveloped films purchased from eBay and car-boot sales. This is essentially a process of appropriation, one which has intrinsically uncertain outcomes. Chen never knows what, if anything, is on the films she acquires. When Chen develops the films, someone else’s reality becomes transformed into her practice. Unexpected outcomes, intrinsically a part of her process, are not directly evident in the work itself but they are an important component of how her work evolves and develops. Through its revealing of hidden images, we can interpret Chen’s work as unlocking the unconscious of the film. Chen discloses the latent content of films she acquires and up until the films are processed and printed, they hold within them a certain potential. Were they to remain undeveloped, then these images would be in a state of endlessly postponing their contact with lived reality. 

Chen admits she will never know what the original photographs were about or understand the details of what they show or why they were originally taken. But this is not important to what she is creating; she makes appearances fill in a void, forcing a wider question as to “where” are images? Finders Keepers is constructed from many different photographs. The work is an act of restaging: transposing new memories onto previously unknown or forgotten ones. This is precisely how we usually access the unconscious, where the unconscious is understood in its Lacanian sense of being an alternative scene, an accompaniment to our direct experience. In their forgotten, unpurchased, and undeveloped state, Chen’s films were still images of sorts. They remained in a potential or, today we might say virtual, state until the point at which they were used within her project. But at the point of realisation, they became something entirely different. Meaning, quite literally, emanated from where it wasn’t before. What seems magical is how we can now see what we should not have been able to see. This work performs a trick on us, expressing what is almost impossible: lost images that are recovered into something new. Although nothing is perfectly realised, what we see is an impossible reality that also still depicts fragments of what was once hidden. It seems all photographs retain this delicate coexistence with the hidden, unprocessed, and un-looked at. 

What makes photographs so complex is how they render visible that which should not be possible to see. Therefore, in some way, all photographs teach us how to see and set out the co-ordinates for our visual understanding. Which is to say, they provide the basic schema for how we encounter a visual world. It is not that photographs replace our sense of the real world, rather we can understand photographs as organising the real world into something we can then recognise. This means they do not represent the world to us, instead the world is seen as being the setting for the infinite numbers of photographs we encounter every day. The point, here, is that photography should not be understood through the relationship it supposedly has with the subjects it depicts. There can be no relationship between the photograph and the object it depicts. As I outlined in the introduction, we can understand photography as existing in a gap that forever separates a photograph from what it shows. Inherently lacking the objects they depict, photographs are part of the antinomy of perception that is directly structured through photography. Articulating the gap between seen object and seen photograph, photography informs much of how we now see. From this perspective, photographs do not directly show us the world or things in the world, instead, they stage the world in a particular way so that we can see it. As looking is always, in some way, constructed, then photography provides the terms by which we look. Developing this line, we can dismiss the idea that meaning is something that resides behind photographs. The opposite is true, since photographs exist everywhere, all around us, they have become meaning in itself. In other words, the meaning and purpose of our lived, real, reality is simply to be photographed. This is not because of vanity or self-promotion. It is because perception operates through appearance and, today, appearances are largely photographic. Thus, everything that is happening is somehow an image waiting to be photographically seen and this produces a kind of negative force. Photographs are, quite literally, obstacles that prevent us from seeing the real of reality. 

Meaning is not directly mapped onto or translated from what photographs depict. Instead, meaning is asserted through the form of photographs themselves. So, we do not discover meanings because we are shown precisely how things look when they are in a photograph. Meaning emerges as a part of the inscription of photography into everyday perception. An example of the latent power of images is expressed in an episode of Showtime’s fictional drama TV series Homeland (2020) when senior advisors have to prevent the dead body of the President of the United States of America being captured by terrorist and photographed. Their concern is the “image [of the president’s dead body], whatever they do to it, will go all over the world.” Their priority was to stop such a photograph from inflicting political damage on their country. Of course, they could only imagine what the photograph would show but they already, quite clearly, anticipate the effect it would have. In this case, the detail in itself is unimportant, no one knew exactly what photographs of the President would be made. But what this shows is the underlying conviction we have about photographs that then sustains appearance as something we all connect with. What is shown in photographs is less important to us than the implicit power we believe them to have, regardless of having seen them or not. This is also the formula of the magic trick, in which “seeing is not believing”, because whenever we see magic, we knowingly accept we are being deceived.

Today, photography continues to appear to be a kind of magical process, even as it is fully embedded into the digital domain. Looking at a photograph necessarily involves some self-censoring in order not to see exactly what we are being confronted with. This magical effect of photography is curious, at some level, because we know how the trick of photography happens and yet its mystery remains. Which may also explain why, even though almost everything has already been photographed, we continue to take more photographs. 

A possible answer to “why we take photographs?” is that through them we try to resolve the basic antagonism of our perception. An antagonism which relies heavily on the relationship between what we see in reality and what appearances present to us. Perhaps then, we take photographs to seek out the expression of some form of visual unity in the face of how chaotic things really appear to be. But photographs sustain a false choice: we believe we are free to choose what photographs to take. Asserting a kind of freedom through photographing anything and everything, our choice is always significantly constrained by the idea of photography itself. An idea made from three positions: the actual act of photographing, the symbolic nature of images, and an imaginary interpretation of the photograph. These three positions also articulate the Real: the real that confronts us, the object that jolts us into being; the symbolic real, the rich texture of images and signifiers that overlay our everyday experiences; and the real of our imaginary world, which accounts for moments we cannot clearly or adequately define. The Real is not any one of these in isolation but all three simultaneously. Magic also operates on three similar levels: the visceral experience of the trick; the symbolic performance of the trick; and the imaginary worlds in which the trick is understandable through its disruption of logic. No matter how many times we see the same trick, if it is performed correctly, we will never know its truth because what we see is a layer of appearances obscuring what happens.

In his book The Parallax View, Slavoj Žižek describes how in December 2001 in Buenos Aires, Argentinian protestors, angry at their government, surrounded its buildings. Many of the protestors wore face masks that depicted and mocked their politicians. In a moment of tautological farce, Cavallo, the minister for the economy, escaped from the building by wearing a disguise mask of himself (2006, 30). In the repeating of the same, nothing fundamentally changes, yet clearly, everything is substantially different. The key point here is how appearance works to alter the ontological status of a situation. The appearance of the mask changes who we see even when we are seeing the very same person. There was no need to look behind the mask since Cavallo appeared as himself. Reality, if it is located behind a mask, is changed simply because of appearances. Cavallo was not seen by the protestors directly, he was seen through the appearance of the mask he wore that depicted himself. 

There is a further point to consider: things change once we view them as being appearances rather than as some substantial lived-in reality. Once things become enframed or, as is usually the case in our contemporary cultural condition, once we photograph things, we no longer feel we have such direct access to them. Today, this defines the very act of seeing to the extent that all we see is potential things to photograph and post to Instagram or Facebook. Unfortunately, any understanding of this does not then help explain it. If what we see appears as though it is a photograph, then we must already be seeing it as if it were a photograph. In this way, reality is not some lived through experience outside of appearance but is, in fact, a series of appearances that appear to us. To return to Cavallo, once he becomes the mask of his own appearance, he is no longer simply Cavallo, the minister for the economy. Cavallo becomes the illusion that stands in for himself but he is also the very appearance of that same illusion. 

As our reality continues to take on the structure of the appearances we produce from it, our reality becomes nothing more than the appearance of appearance. To conclude, the motif of how things appear frames many of our notions of photography. But photographs are always deferred; in Chen’s work, the timeframe of deferral is extensive. Deferral or disappearance is a feature of all photography, be it digital or film-based. It manifests itself when we transform what we photograph. Momentarily, what we see disappears before it then appears to us as an image. In the digital world, disappearance is fleeting, as the processor in the camera reformulates the light on the sensor. In the analogue world of film, the extended chemical processes of developing and printing account for the image’s temporary disappearance. Like all good magic tricks, in the end, what we expected to happen happens unexpectedly and this remains true of photography.

  • Baudrillard, Jean. 1983. Simulacrum and Simulation. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).
  • “Chalk Two Down.” 2020. Homeland. Directed by Alex Graves. New York: Showtime.
  • Pfaller, Robert. 2017. Interpassivity. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • Žižek, Slavoj. 2006. Parallax View. Cambridge: MIT Press.
What makes photographs so complex is how they render visible that which should not be possible to see. Therefore, in some way, all photographs teach us how to see and set out the co-ordinates for our visual understanding.
Reading time: 13 min.


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