Appropriated Photographs in French Surrealist Periodicals, 1924-1939
London/New York: Routledge (Ashgate), 2017
180 pp. 23 b/w illus.
$165 USD (Hardback) ISBN 9781409437307
The seed of Linda Steer’s Appropriated Photographs in French Surrealist Periodicals, 1924-1939 can be found in two of her 2008 published articles: “Photographic Appropriation, Ethnography, and the Surrealist Other” in The Comparatist and “Surreal Encounters: Science, Surrealism and the Re-Circulation of a Crime-Scene Photographs” in History of Photography. Certainly, discussions about surrealism and photography are not new: in the first half of the twentieth-century Walter Benjamin and André Bazin come to mind, followed by critics and scholars such as Rosalind Krauss and John Roberts in the second half of the century. While Steer’s book grapples with photography’s ontology, it does so without entirely leaving behind the social and political reality in which photographs are made and exist. Steer’s book is a contribution worth noting: it examines how photographs are appropriated as art and put to work in different discursive contexts. Yet it addresses not how photography influenced surrealism, but what surrealism and its use of photographs in various periodicals might tell us about photography itself. Ultimately, Steer’s study demonstrates how two competing theories about photography are both true: that a photograph has a special connection to the real and that a photograph’s meaning is instituted through discourse (131).
In the book’s introduction, Steer explains how she plans to combine four main sets of ideas that shape her discussion. First and foremost are French linguist Roland Barthes ideas pertaining to the relationship between text and image as elucidated in his infamous 1964 essay, “The Rhetoric of the Image.” Here, she emphasizes how the meaning of a photograph is not inherent but created through the interplay between words and pictures. Second is French philosopher Jaques Derrida’s linguistic concept of excess, remainder or différance. In her brief introduction of how surrealists reframe photographs, Steer explains that, like language in translation, meaning always remains or is left over—something from the first language that does not fit into the new one always gets left behind. Third is German cultural critic Walter Benjamin’s concept of “the optical unconscious.” Benjamin, who was writing about photography in Paris at the height of surrealist activity, claimed, as Steer emphasizes, that photography reveals our “optical unconscious” just as psychoanalysis reveals our “instinctual unconscious” (5). Finally, she presents John Tagg’s concept of discursive framing and the “disciplinary frame” that draws not only on Michel Foucault’s concept of discursive orders, but also on Derrida’s analysis of the frame. According to Steer’s understanding of Derrida, the frame is the invisible boundary that defines and limits the meaning of a work of art (8). Therefore, for Steer, surrealist reframing of photographs as art is always already radical because it makes the invisible frame visible, “destabilizing both the notion that the photograph’s meaning is intrinsic and the idea that it is an effect of extrinsic social, political, or cultural forces” (8). Reading photographs through these concepts, Steer attempts to demonstrate that while surrealists rejected the positivist, empirical, evidentiary and indexical nature of photographs in their critique of bourgeois culture, the movement in fact depended upon these attributes to achieve its ends. Accordingly, the reframing and redeployment of photographs as proof of surrealist concepts constitutes what Steer calls “surrealism’s unconscious”: “a gesture that is unaware of itself yet manages to de-sublimate a number of the movement’s underlying social and political tendencies.” Surrealism’s unconscious was unconscious, Steer claims, because the movement never articulated its complex use of photographs (6).
There are four main sections of the book that attempt to compensate for this lack of articulation. In Chapter 2, “Picturing hysteria in La Révolution surréaliste: from pathology to ecstasy,” Steer analyzes photographs of hysteria created in Jean-Martin Charcot’s clinic at the Salpêtrière Hospital during the 1870s as they are reframed in the surrealist periodical. In this section, she considers the process by which journal authors Louis Aragon and André Breton embedded Paul Régnard’s scientific photographs of a young female patient having an hysteric episode in their manifesto. Published in surrealism’s official mouthpiece on the occasion of the illness’ fiftieth anniversary in 1929, hysteria was conceptualized as something free of rationality by both authors. The photographs of “Augustine,” as she was called, were mobilized as evidence that the illness was the “greatest poetic discovery of the nineteenth century” (10). To be sure, Steer emphasizes that images of Augustine published in the periodical were meant to represent an attack on rationalism and its institutions; for surrealists, the female hysteric “was a mysterious figure who, in her madness and denial of the real world, was a symbol of freedom from logic and rationalism, a symbol that captured the imagination” (15-16). Yet as Steer continues, the “remainder” in this surrealist reframing foregrounds a certain attitude towards women: “‘troubled’ women, belligerent women, women who attempt to refuse the limits of nineteenth-century social norms and, by extension, twentieth-century restrictions on their gender.” And that “despite the early movement’s claims to cultural revolution, attitudes about women as muses, as art objects, or in the day-to-day workings of the group continued to mirror the social and cultural norms of early twentieth-century France rather than challenge them” (19). For Steer, the operation of surrealism’s unconscious is two-fold: first, it depends on photography’s positivist and evidentiary qualities—attributes surrealism sought to overturn in society in general—and second, its platform of freedom and liberation clearly did not extend to women.
In Chapter 3, “Ethnography’s photographic unconscious in Documents: savagery in civilization/civilization in savagery,” Steer makes a similar case with regards to colonialism and race. In this instance, she analyzes two photographs that together become an ironic juxtaposition when embedded in an article written by George Bataille for the periodical Documents. Here the comparison is between a nineteenth-century ethnographic photograph depicting a group of Melanesian schoolboys set against a Hollywood film still showing a group of chorus girls. A periodical with roots in fine art and architecture, Steer explains that Documents’ editors and audience were mainly comprised of dissident surrealists; surrealists engaged less in ideas of the unconscious and dreamscapes, and more involved in politics of refusal (74). It was common, Steer states, for both official and dissident surrealists to look to ethnography to assist in their project of cultural criticism; what ethnography and surrealism apparently shared was a vision of “the other” as an object of modern research (11). Published in Documents in 1929, the ethnographic photograph in Bataille’s article was taken in New Caledonia in the 1870s by Ernest Robin. It was originally housed in an album in the collection at the Musée d’ethnographie du Tracadéro. Documents, Steer emphasizes, had as its mission the denaturalization of modern Western culture: “Indeed, for many of Documents’ contributors, modern culture itself was to be studied as an ethnographic document” (53). By juxtaposing the two photographs in his article—an article that like most in Documents was an attack on traditional French culture—an equivalence between the schoolboys and the chorus girls disrupted and problematized a reading of the latter as “normal.” For Steer however, the “remainder” in the comparison—surrealism’s unconscious—is most significant, for it bears the trace of colonialism left behind in the photograph of the Melanesian schoolboys: “The way the boys are carefully lined up to mimic the pose of the French official serves as ‘evidence’ that the boys were willing, or able, to conform and therefore that French government had some success in training its colonial subjects.” What is paramount for Steer is that, although embedding the photograph of the Melanesian schoolboys within the broader text of Documents was meant as cultural critique, its effect was to reproduce colonial power (59).
In Chapter 4, “Aesthetics and horror: forensic photography in Minotaure,” Steer analyzes forensic photographs from the infamous 1888 “Jack the Ripper” murders and subsequent investigation as they transform from evidence to art in the periodical Minotaure. As Steer states, Minotaure was a lavish, large format fine art publication (88). Yet in this instance, photographs of Ripper victim Mary Kelly’s mutilated body come to operate as illustrations in a fictionalized play written by Maurice Heine published in the magazine. Unlike chapter two and three, in which photographs were appropriated from discourses of medicine and ethnography, the photographs of Mary Kelly’s body were never released to the public or published in newspapers of the day. Instead, over ten years later, one appeared in a study of serial murderers called Vacher l’Eventreur et les Crimes Sadiques by Alexandre Lacassagne, a professor of legal medicine from Lyon where they were subsequently discovered by Heine. As Steer explains, the photographs function as records of a crime in the play in a discussion between the ghost of Jack the Ripper, Marquis de Sade, and one of Sade’s characters, the Comte de Mesanges (12). In the play, Jack the Ripper uses the photographs as evidence for the “artistry” in his method of killing (99). What is significant for Steer is that Heine did not use the photographs to support extant critiques but instead used them as inspiration for his fictional work (88)
While the previous chapters closely analyze photographs used in different surrealist domains, in chapter five, “From the marvellous to the monstrous: photography and the past,” Steer compares how photographs used as documents of France’s recent past in Documents and La Révolution surréaliste signal contested ideas of politics, history and identity within the movement itself. First, Steer discusses French photographer Eugene Atget’s photographs published in La Révolution surréaliste in 1926. Although we know that photography was Atget’s trade and not his art—his calling card simply read “Documents for Artists” – (118)— La Revolution surréaliste reframes them as such (118). What remains, however, is nostalgia, or what photographs by Atget were originally valued for: depictions of Old Paris prioir to the Haussmannization of the city. This Derridian “‘remainder”’ for Steer, however, cannot be erased and allows us to see surrealism’s’ unconscious surface as a link to a French past that once (or never) was. The “‘remainder,”’ Steer states, “works with what the surrealists intended and supports their interpretation of the past as a dream” (118-120). Second, Steer elucidates elaborates on a number of photographs published in Documents whose effects function as critique and negation of French heritage. An essay by Bataille titled “Figure Humaine” was published in 1929. A photograph of an anonymous wedding party and a series of portraits by French nineteenth-century photographer Nadar accompanied it. What is significant for Steer is that Bataille’s essay reads as abhorrence for the figures of France’s recent past with the photographs serving as illustrations. Those of Bataille’s generation, Steer states, spent all their time trying to erase their cultural lineage: “The erasure amounts to a negation of ideas about human nature and progress because it reveals the figures of the past for what they are: horrific, absent, monstrous others” [emphasis in the original] (139). According to Steer, the figure of the bride and groom specifically became the symbols of historical discontinuity that, as Bataille sees it, “stands as the negation of the idea of human nature. Humanity, rather than following a teleology dictated by the eternal truths of the natural or metaphysical worlds, generates instead incompatible offspring—future generations that see their predecessors as monsters” (141). Photographs in both these instances are used as tools to make differing arguments about the past: as a dream on the one hand, and as monstrous on the other.
Indeed, Steer’s study of surrealist appropriation demonstrates how photographic meaning is created discursively and ontologically; according to the author, it is not so easily bifurcated between the two competing theories. Like language, photographic meaning, Steer argues, “signifies in stutters, echoes, and gaps. Some of this meaning comes through discursive framing and is not carried in the image. . .[as]. . .there is always more than can be contained within the frame. . .There are latent, sublimated meanings that are less obviously seen” (154-155). Scholars working in the field of visual culture and the history and theory of photography will find Steer’s book a significant contribution, as debates in photography have almost always been dominated by these two competing schools of thought. Instead, Steer’s book demonstrates that how photographs come to mean anything at all is done by reading them across both.
Charlene Heath is a PhD candidate in Communication and Culture at Ryerson/York University and works in the photography collection at the Peter Higdon Research Centre, Ryerson Image Centre, Toronto.