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Photography and the icon (masters proposal Re.~1).

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Photography and the icon.

April 2011.


A photograph is a strange bird in that it documents a situation – yet this situation which is documented or re-presented ceases to exist, or perhaps simply diverges in existence from the time the photograph is created. As the photograph is made, an archive is created, yet as the original event or situation which is documented ceases to exist in the manner re/presented, the relationship becomes gradually less clear and the photographic document develops an aura of singularity. Thus the photograph becomes both re-presentation and original simultaneously.

A non-photographic document of an situation has a flavour of attribution which denotes and focuses it’s role as the child of the original it documents, and yet in the photographic re-production the aura of singularity problematises this relationship between referent and descendent – they might share a history, but they do not share a present, nor a future. This absence of a fixed referent is something which makes the photograph different from other re-productive strategies in that the photograph can re-order a formerly linear archive in a manner which questions the role of re-presentation.

In traditional forms of art the closest simile to this paradoxical relationship which I can find, is that of the christian icon. A painting which is intended as a reflective depiction of the ineffable seems somehow semantically close to a photograph being an image with a functionally obscured referent. It is also somewhat axiomatic in as much as people speaking of photography often refer to images as ‘icons’, or as ‘iconic’, yet these words are seldom used in more traditional plastic arts (with the noted exception of christian iconography).

I am interested, in my art practice, in investigating the concept of the photograph as a means of creating icons of things which would, or could not otherwise achieve this status.

My research question is essentially as follows;

Is there something inherent in the medium of photography which is particularly given to the making of icons from things which would not otherwise achieve this status, and does this work differently to other mediums on this level”

Proposed methodology.

As far as method and methodology goes, I have several modes of investigation which I will utilise in this study, the first of which are research strategies;

The first research strategy will be to research examples where a photo has achieved a status which could be considered iconic, Some examples of this could be Alberto Gutiérrez’s ‘Guerrillero Heroico’, better known these days simply as “Che”, Edward Westons photographs of peppers, or any of a range of other great works from photographic artists.

A second investigation will be into Photographs where the referent is consiously obscured, yet the resultant photographs don’t reach iconic status, examples being Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled film stills”, and Thomas Demand’s work with photographed constructions.

Parallel to this will be a research into traditional icons in the religious sense along with any particular secular works which also seem appropriate in order to compare them to the aforementioned photographic works, and to study the parallels and differences between them – this research will be done in a fairly organic .

In concert with these historical and academic researches I will also work with physical media in a manner to investigate and make sense of what I discover, this will be in line with my usual kinaesthetic methodology which I use to investigate concepts in my practice, this is very much an experimentation and play based strategy which I use to translate academic concepts into physical strategies.

So in essence, my research will lead, but will be translated into physical work so that this can be returned to the theoretical in such a manner that each may feed or edit the other reflexively – thus making the aspects of my practice work in concert and hopefully in a self sustaining manner.

Proposed output.

At this point I cannot be sure as I intend to be working in a range of technologies during the process of producing the works, thus intending one output over another at this point would unnecessarily limit my reflexivity whilst working through the proposed processes.


For the first three months approximately of the school year I will gather information fairly rapidly and to do a fair amount of experimentation

in order to build up a largish body of work and an archive which I could analyse.

At that point I would intend to spend time analysing what I have, and working out the boundaries of my proposed research for the remaining time. This would be a point of consolidation and reflexive analysis which I would use to define my path of study, and to possibly redefine my research question.

I cannot be a great deal more expansive than that with regards to a proposed timeline as the research that I am proposing to undertake would be variably referential rather than based on a rigid proposal and thus timeline.

I do also have several outside exhibitions which I can use to test work in the public arena over this time as well, this is an integral part of my working practice.

Contribution to the field.

I intend to elucidate on the relationship between the photograph and the icon.

Ethical standards.

At this point I do not see any major ethical or legal hurdles which will cause undue problems, there are some potential (mainly moral) issues around using images of people, but I am not intending to do this, so essentially I’ll negotiate any decisions as they arise.

Preliminary References.

I’m referencing people rather than books as most of these people have written multiple essays in their respective fields, this is a start point.

J. Derrida I am Interested in his concepts around the referent, his thoughts on photography, but also iterability as well as his thoughts around resistance and hauntology – Particularly relevant is the text “Copy, Archive, Signature”.

R. Barthes I am particularly in his text “Camera Lucida” and his writing on existential phenomenology with regards to photography.

H. G. Gadamer I am interested especially in this thoughts around hermenuetics and the assignation of meaning to objects. His writings around the concept of ‘historically effected consciousness’ in particular are of interest to me, as well as ‘Wirkungsgeschichte‘ or ‘history of effects’.

M. Heidegger I am interested in Heidegger’s writings about the relationship between metaphysics and aesthetics, as well as concealment and the referent. His text “The Origin of the Artwork” is of especial interest to me.

J. Kristeva I am interested in what she has written especially about intertextuality, as well as semiotic systems and assignation of value to signs.

M. Foucault I’m interested in his discussions around ‘truth’ and ‘meaning’, rather than the historical digging that Gadamer does, he seems more interested in the logic that lies behind ‘claims’ to truth then in the actual truthfulness of the claim itself, this structure of the claim is interesting to me. His writings on societal norms and paradigms is also peripherally interesting.

W. Benjamin Although I don’t agree with some of what Benjamin says with regards to the separation of art and literature – his analysis of technological

reproduction and his thoughts around translation and the philosophy of history overlap in ways that are interesting and helpful to me.

U. Eco Eco has written quite a lot about the problems inherent in translation between systems of signs, his focus is essentially intralinguistic for the most part, but it is useful when it comes to the framing of questions around intersemiotic translation.

As for works of art: They would be works such as Alberto Gutiérrez’s ‘Guerrillero Heroico’ , much of the most famous work of the photo succession and the f64 group. There is a very broad scope for seeking out materials which are appropriate to the task at hand, this as well as traditional eastern orthodox icons as well.



I think this needs a bit more clarification, but this is how it’s being handed in for a first draft – I’ll rework it further, especially with regards to the idea that an icon can be personal, and does not have to be cultural or ‘group based’ – an example of a personal icon could be mortuary photography in the 19th century – which could well be only for one or a couple of people – also that an icon can be secular and still invoke a personal response. This is fruitful ground, and many people have written their tracks across this territory as they’ve attempted to chart it’s geography, but there’s an interesting lack of agreement even in basic terms… Fun no?

Written by secretivesquirrel

April 6, 2011 at 8:24 am