Let the World In Again: On Photography, Trace and Trauma by Margaret Iverson

exposure magazine
Sep 29, 2017 · 9 min read

by: Colin Edgington

The information age, and its digital flow, has turned us all into users. Users required to sift through and manage libraries of data and image banks. These tasks have perhaps forced an amnesiac quality on many of us, forgetting that images mark us in ways that are not always visible, and not always conscious. We are too busy or too overwhelmed to suture the piercing that each image may cause. But it is necessary that we take note of these marks, these hyper-fast wounds, no matter how fleeting those glittering images are under the glass of our devices. It is such the case that Margaret Iversen’s recent book Photography, Trace, and Trauma brings back into the conversation this notion of indexicality and of trace, to reveal photography as an “analogue of trauma” and, perhaps, to wake us from our somnambulant routines.

Trauma has been associated with photography since the medium’s inception. Perhaps, in a way, its inception itself was a form of trauma: a wound to the traditions of image-making. Hippolyte Bayard’s Autoportrait en Noyé, a humorous photographic political statement made the year following Daguerre’s announcement, shows the civil servant dead from drowning, a purported suicide in response to a lack of recognition by the French Government for his invention of a direct positive photographic process. “Oh the vagaries of human life…!” he wrote in the letter attached to the photograph. This was, of course, a ruse and the first staging of a scene specifically to be photographed. Its underlying connotation, that of a traumatic event, the loss of recognition, the pain of rejection.

© Public Domain, Hippolyte Bayard, Self Portrait as a Drowned Man, Direct Positive Print, 1840.

In the first line of Photography, Trace, and Trauma, Iversen writes that “photography as a medium is often associated with the psychic effects of trauma. The automaticity of the process, the wide-open camera lens, and the light sensitivity of film all lend themselves to this association.”¹ Honoré de Balzac knew this when he conjured his theory of ghostly layers to get out of having his picture taken. As Nadar wrote:

According to Balzac’s theory, all physical bodies are made up entirely of layers of ghost-like images, an infinite number of leaf-like skins laid one on top of the other. Since Balzac believed man was incapable of making something material from an apparition, from something impalpable — that is, creating something from nothing — he concluded that every time someone had his photograph taken, one of the spectral layers was removed from the body and transferred to the photograph. Repeated exposures entailed the unavoidable loss of subsequent ghostly layers, that is, the very essence of life. Was each precious layer lost forever or was the damage repaired through some more or less instantaneous process of rebirth?²

Mary Kelly, “The Ballad of Kastriot Rexhepi,” 2001
Compressed Lint, 49 framed panels: 12" H x 48" W 2" D; overall length 206'
Courtesy of the artist, Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York, and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects

The loss of these ghostly layers would go unseen except as photographs, the final material product an index of the exposed trauma. This anecdote perhaps suggests the way that we deal in images today: as spectral layers transferring from gaze to gaze, screen to screen. This process of signification, the transference of units of experience to the unconscious, is what Iversen calls the “analogue of trauma” that runs through the medium of photography. To define it, she traces two strands of thought, the semiotic theories of the index and the psychoanalytic theories of individual and collective trauma. These strands are threaded together by her own concept of exposure, which examines the dichotomy of receptivity (consciousness) and retention (unconscious) that is intrinsic to the act of photographing and looking at photographs. Iversen writes, “at work in both trace and trauma is the notion of some kind of impact that leaves behind an indelible mark, although not necessarily an immediately accessible or vulnerable one.”³

That is, that when one sees an image, there is a conscious recognition as well as an imprint on our unconscious, that ultimately effects the way we navigate the world.

Mary Kelly, “The Ballad of Kastriot Rexhepi,” 2001
Compressed Lint, 49 framed panels: 12" H x 48" W 2" D; overall length 206'
Courtesy of the artist, Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York, and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects

With the surge of photographic materialism in recent years, it is clear that there is a desire for the essences lost in the shift to the digital sphere. Galleries are exhibiting, with renewed interest, artists whose practices are steeped in camera-less chemical processes and the effects of chemical-based paper. Students who grew up as digital natives are buying up old rangefinders, shooting film, and entering the darkroom for the first time. Instant film, cyanotypes, salt prints, tintypes, daguerreotypes, are flooding their way back into the world of photography. At this stage, with Kodak — a company that filed for bankruptcy only five years ago, after being left behind in the digital revolution — now⁴ posting quarterly profits, and set to bring back iconic film stocks, the revival of the analogue process is in full swing. At its base is a kind of nostalgia⁵, in returning to the origin of the wound that is still not yet been sutured.

Photography, Trace, and Trauma weaves many strands of thought and art-making together in order to pinpoint, and establish firmly, the notion of the index and its traumatic character in the medium of photography. This is significant in the age of the image flow — one that younger generations may not see with ease — and as such, makes this book a necessary supplement to a digital photography education. Although it may be overwhelming to some, the book excels in its ability to weave over a hundred years of linguistic and photographic theory and writing with artists’ work in a way that is accessible and readable. It is also notable that a book clearly about photography and one of its longest running theories, incorporates the work of non-photographers such as Robert Rauschenberg, Gerhard Richter, Rachel Whiteread and others in a non-contrarian way. It opens up — much in the same way that photographic practice has over the past fifty years — to media beyond the technical. With that said, this book is not an aggregation of these things. Iversen’s voice is clear throughout the text and the reader will certainly come away understanding her theories of the index, exposure, and photography as the analogue of trauma.

Mary Kelly, “The Ballad of Kastriot Rexhepi,” 2001
Compressed Lint, 49 framed panels: 12" H x 48" W 2" D; overall length 206'
Courtesy of the artist, Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York, and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects

It is important to note that Iversen’s focus is on the material of analogue photography (as opposed to the electronically produced digital image) as used by artists and written about by theorists and critics. However, the postscript on the work of Thomas Demand, titled Invisible Traces, shows a willingness to expand the work into the problems of the 21st century. As she writes, “The gist of my argument is that Demand’s work appropriates hyper mediated but personally affecting images and transforms them into the object of experience proper.”⁶ All pictures give form to some kind of experience, however small or insignificant. Yet pictures have, to the general image-consumer, also limited what it means to experience something. Do the countless images we have of sunsets tell us of our human drive towards light and beauty or in our learned ability to collect what others have collected? What does it mean to make a redundant image and in doing so, ignore both trace and trauma?

Today, we have effectively corralled the potential impressions, an algorithm of trace streams, that we consciously and unconsciously consume in rapid succession. The potential for photo-based traumas has increased exponentially⁷ and so has the ability for us to overlook them. In the spring of 2016 images began to trickle in of protesters defending Standing Rock from the encroachment of the Dakota Access Pipeline in Sioux-held reservation land. By summer’s time, the public was seeing images of these protesters, many of whom are members of the Sioux and other indigenous tribes, assaulted for trespassing by members of a private security group. Amongst these images were photographs of a security guard and her attack dog with a bloody mouth lunging at a protester. For many of us, these images looked strikingly like Bill Hudson’s 1963 photograph depicting Walter Gadsden, a high school student in Alabama, as he was attacked by police and their dogs. Now we have those images coming from Charlottesville, VA and Houston, TX. In between these, there have been countless images of suffering and non-suffering. Images build exponentially but how can we take note of their deep impact? This is perhaps why an accounting and semiotics of the digital flow is necessary, and what makes Iverson’s book so important. In our pursuit of immediacy, the gloss of the digital image flow has increased our 21st century consumptive compulsion of them. And genuine experience, as well as the uncovering of its effects, has become tougher to pinpoint. To understand the history of trauma as rendered by and communicated by the photograph, particularly in today’s communications environment, is thus a necessary component of education. Her accounting of the history of trace and trauma become relevant to anyone interested in the image. As she writes, “photography has the potential to restore the link, severed by the shock effects of modern life, between voluntary and involuntary memory, between the individual and the collective.”⁸ Iversen’s text elucidates on the semiotic and photographic conditions that layer acts of trauma one on top of the other. It is educators, and their students (whom I believe to be every student learning in the global village), that must take needle and thread to hand, so that we may begin to suture these hyper-wounds before we bleed out.

Colin Edgington is a visual artist and writer originally from New Mexico. He holds an MFA from the Mason Gross School of Arts, Rutgers University and an MFA from the School of Visual Arts, NYC. Edgington writes for The Brooklyn Rail and Degree Critical in addition to Exposure. He currently teaches photography at the College of Staten Island, CUNY.

[1] Iversen, Margaret. Photography, Trace, and Trauma (U of Chicago, 2017), 1.

[2] Nadar. “My Life as a Photographer.” Photography in Print: Writings from 1816 to the Present. Ed. Vicki Goldberg (Albuquerque: U of New Mexico, 1988), 127–28.

[3] Iversen, Margaret. Photography, Trace, and Trauma (U of Chicago, 2017), 16.

[4] “Kodak Brings Back a Classic with EKTACHROME Film.” CES 2017 Press Release | Kodak. Kodak, 17 Jan. 2017. Web. 15 Apr. 2017.

[5] Nostalgia from the Greek nostos or “return home” and algos “pain” — the pain of returning home or to return to pain.

[6] Iversen, Margaret. Photography, Trace, and Trauma pg. 108

[7] Levi Strauss, David. “Click Here to Disappear: Thoughts on Images and Democracy.”OpenDemocracy. OpenDemocracy, 13 Apr. 2007. Web. 15 Apr. 2017.

“The images from Abu Ghraib suddenly appear and are everywhere, and then just as suddenly they vanish, leaving barely a trace. Photographic images used to be about the trace. Digital images are about the flow.”

[8] Iversen, Margaret. Photography, Trace, and Trauma pg. 108

The above essay has been brought to you by the Society for Photographic Education, as an article published within Exposure, its flagship publication. SPE is a nonprofit membership-based organization that seeks to promote a broader understanding of the medium in all of its forms through teaching and learning, scholarship, conversation and criticism. SPE has Affiliated Chapters with events and conferences in every part of the continental US, with Chapters developing internationally, and has been instrumental in fostering community and career growth among photographers, lens-based artists, educators, students, and the broader community of image makers.

Interested in submitting to Exposure? Read our submission guidelines here.

Find out more about SPE here, or learn about the many benefits of membership here. Join with other thought leaders in the field and add your voice to the direction of the organization. Find out more about the 2018 Annual Conference “Uncertain Times,” to be held in Philadelphia, PA here.

exposure magazine

society for photographic education | understanding how…