Geoffrey Batchen

Geoffrey Batchen’s (born 1956) work as a teacher, writer and curator focuses on the history of photography. He is particularly interested in the way that photography mediates every other aspect of modern life, whether we’re talking about sex or war, atoms or planets, commerce or art. Besides being an expert in the general theory and historiography of photography, Geoff has helped to pioneer the study of vernacular photography (photographs not intended as art, such as snapshots, commercial photos, and objects like photographic jewellery). He has published extensively, in eighteen languages to date. He is the author of Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography (1997, with subsequent translations into Spanish, Korean, Japanese, and Slovenian), Each Wild Idea: Writing, Photography, History(2001), Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance (2004), William Henry Fox Talbot (2008), What of Shoes: Van Gogh and Art History (2009, in German and English), and Suspending Time: Life, Photography, Death (2010, in Japanese and English). He has also edited an anthology of essays titled Photography Degree Zero: Reflections on Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida (2009) and co-edited another titled Picturing Atrocity: Photography in Crisis (2012). Over the past twenty-five years, Geoff has also been involved in the international art world as a curator and editor.

Scholars and museums tend to avoid the evidence of photography’s reproducibility. It is an unwelcome reminder of commerce and labour, of promiscuity and dissemination, of transformation and transgression.

Olena Chervonik talks with Geoffrey Batchen about his two most recent publications: Apparitions: Photography and Dissemination, that reached bookshelves in 2018, and Negative/Positive: A History of Photography, slated for release later in 2020. The conversation revolves around the photographic condition of reproducibility, repetition and difference, embedded in the medium from the time of its inception. While Apparitions explores photography’s relation to various newsprint outlets of the nineteenth century, Negative/Positive traces a comprehensive history of the medium’s propensity for multiplication, predicated on the dependence of photographs on the function of a negative, which, according to Batchen, seems to be a repressed Other in photographic history. A vehicle that enables reproducibility, a photographic negative is rarely discussed in critical literature and even more rarely reproduced or featured in the exhibition space. Batchen ponders this occlusion of a medium’s critical component, suggesting that a negative is linked to photography’s operation as capitalist mode of production. By omitting to profile a negative, we naturalize capitalism’s operational logic – a condition that clearly needs to be upset by directing a critical, revelatory, and thus politically engaged spotlight on photography’s predilection for image massification.

We have to be careful not to project a nostalgic glow onto the past, as if magic can only be found there and not in our own moment.

His long-standing interest in the history of early photography makes Geoffrey Batchen the appropriate speaker to discuss the question of photographic magic. Therefore, our conversation oscillates between magic and realism, but also other antonyms within the medium: negative and positive, analogue and digital. Taking in consideration all these oppositional notions, Batchen suggests that theoreticians “need to acknowledge and embrace photography’s abstractions and contradictions”. Different contradictions within photography’s theory and history became pivotal in our conversation. We also discussed the indexicality of digital images. According to Batchen, the negative/positive system of traditional photography can be compared with the binary code of digital images, which “is therefore based on the same oppositional logic, the same interplay of one and its other, that generated the analogue photograph.” Moreover, digitality does not eliminate the magic character of the contemporary photographs; in this context, Batchen mentions the capacity of instant transmission of snapshots from one place of Earth to another. In conclusion, Batchen reveals some details of his upcoming book Negative/Positive: A History of Photography.

I love the capacity of photography to exist in the in-between spaces of thoughtful imagining, and rational dreaming.

In the conversation, two of the most prominent New Zealand authors in the field of photography talk about the body of work of Anne Noble’s Antarctica photography projects. Had we lived is a re-photographic project reflecting on the tragedies of heroic age exploration (commemorating the centenary of the deaths of Robert Falcon Scott and his men on their return from the South Pole – Terra Nova Expedition or British Antarctic Expedition to the South Pole, 1912) and on the memory of Erebus tragedy of 1975, when a tourist plane flying over Antarctica crashed into Mt Erebus, killing all 257 people on board. Anne Noble re-photographed image taken by Herbert Bowers at the South Pole – the photograph of Scott and his men taken after they arrived at the South Pole to find Amundsen had already been and gone. Phantasms and Nieves Penitentes projects hint at the triumph of Antarctica over human endeavour and as a non-explorer type herself photographer Anne Noble states: “I rather liked this perverse reversal”. Both tragic events have a notable relationship to photography – Erebus in particular, as those who died were likely looking out of the aeroplane windows taking photographs at the time of impact. This relationship is addressed throughout the conversation between the two, providing an insightful commentary on the questions of authenticity, documentary value and the capacity of photography to exist in the in-between spaces of thoughtful imagining, and rational dreaming.


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