There is no such thing as photography, there are numerous things that involve photography, that follow very different rules, and that we treat very differently (while calling them all “photography”).
“In preparing the work,” writes Mikhael Subotzky at the beginning of Retinal Shift1, “I went through every photograph I had ever taken, and chose those where the process of looking, or being looked back at, was resonant.” Added to those were then scanned portraits from Who’s Who of Southern Africa, stills (plus text) from various videos, plus images taken from the photographer’s home, shot through the window with the camera’s shutter button depressed as long as the machine would take photographs. The resulting collection of images makes for a compelling, yet maybe slightly lengthy experience. (more)
Photography would be nothing without looking (and without taking the power to look back out of the hands of those photographed). But it would also be nothing if it were mere looking. Photography can be more, even infinitely more. As a matter of fact, photography usually is a lot more, because it is being used under all kinds of different circumstances, and for all kinds of different purposes, quite a few of which are being shown here.
When you take a photograph of your breakfast, to share it on the internet, the act of photography is not about photography itself, it is about sharing (you could argue that the photograph essentially is irrelevant). In surveillance photographs, the act of photography serves a very different purpose, and the same can be said for photographs used in yearbooks or in Who’s Who books. There is no such thing as photography, there are numerous things that involve photography, that follow very different rules, and that we treat very differently (while calling them all “photography”).
Retinal Shift brings many of these different approaches to photography together, to pull away the curtain. The book makes for a very interesting study of the medium, of what it says, of how it’s being used, of what we expect from it. It is an ambitious, albeit slightly lengthy, investigation of the medium, with the work (and vision) of just one photographer as the focal point. Even just to study our contemporary ideas of photographs as documents, the book contains more than enough material. Recommended.
Retinal Shift, photography by Mikhael Subotzky, essays by Anthea Buys and Sean O’Toole, 300 pages, Steidl, 2012
1 It is one of those odd coincidences that I’m reviewing this book on the same day that I had scheduled for an eye exam. One of the staff asked whether I wanted photographs of my retinas made (for medical purposes). I decided against that, given I felt having my own copies (surely the only reason I would have been interested) wasn’t so interesting any longer, given Subotzky’s are on the front and back cover of his book.