Stefano Velotti: The present of photography and the dialectic of control

Thomas Demand, Kontrollraum, 2011

08 Oct Stefano Velotti: The present of photography and the dialectic of control


Photography speaks of the present in many ways. Since its very origins in the early nineteenth century, photography has either fascinated or repelled public and practitioners alike due to one peculiarity that distinguishes it from other forms available for recording reality, depicting the world and producing images: its mechanical, automatic and rather ‘dry’ nature, which removes the reality to be (re)produced through the intentions formulated by an intelligent and wilful organism, through the filter of the sense, of ‘final causes’. Hence why it is often categorised in the mineral kingdom: the impassive world of fossils, limestone and ‘efficient causes’. To the detriment, perhaps, of its organic and ‘liquid’ qualities, which emerges in the seals, shrouds, watermarks and stains casually left on this weak, sensitive, receptive, mnestic device by things. In both cases, photography is set apart from artistic production subjected to the intention of the auteur. It exists in a world of ‘indicators’, rather than ‘icons’.

There are those who consider this peculiarity to be an original sin to be redeemed or concealed and it has been suggested that photography be assimilated into the ‘fine arts’ by attempting to use the lens like a brush or comparing it not to a reality ‘based on fact’ but with precise and regulated sets (sometimes passed off as adventitious). But then quite the opposite has also occurred: the traditional arts (painting, sculpture, music, dance and architecture) have become ‘photographic’ and ‘indexed’, opening up to traces of reality that are unmediated by perceptive or intentional development and inviting chance, contingence and anything else within the control of an aware agent. This is where the fascination for the deviance between the eye and the lens stems from, the discovery of an ‘optical unconscious’ or a ‘technological unconscious’: the plate, the film and the print will reveal details that the eye has not even seen or registered, but which were there, present in that space and time, concentrated in that punctum. A fly on a face, a watch marking the time, a clue to a crime, a ‘lapsus visivus’ or a sign. The presence recorded outside of any ideological gaze, outside what humans think of themselves, of how they display, represent and describe themselves. Or better, the present seized in the very absorption of itself, indifferent to the gaze or empathy of an observer, hostile to any theatricality that invokes participation.

All this has been stated more or less convincingly by photographers themselves as well as artists, critics, historians and philosophers.



However, matters become more complicated upon more thorough reflection. We are well aware that any fulfilled intention produces unforeseen effects (philosophers call this the ‘heterogenesis of ends’), but also that, specularly speaking, something unintentional cannot be achieved intentionally (the heterogenesis of ends is not at our disposal and so we talk of ‘states that are essentially secondary effects’). For example, while it may be somewhat tricky to create order from disorder, it is contradictory to create disorder from order: the end result will always be ‘disorderly order’, the achievement of a ‘planned contingence’, ‘affected spontaneity’ and therefore not true disorder, contingence or spontaneity. Not everything we wish to obtain can be obtained by our own efforts, especially when it is our very efforts that prevent us from obtaining it. This is not only valid for the production of ‘chance’, but also for any product that, willing or not, will eventually be recognised and valued as a ‘work of art’, even those that are more controlled or purposefully ‘anti-artistic’, if something that transcends the intentions of the creator from the inside is recognised or appreciated therein. And vice versa, every product that presents itself as a work or art and fails to draw on its own necessity, its own reality irreducible from the creator, will remain the mere illustration, usually mediocre or superfluous, of an idea (which frequently happens in so much of ‘political’ or protest art).

But it is not enough to merely invoke chance in order to identify or activate this decisive, and not entirely controllable, factor. With one of his striking statements that requires unravelling and verifying in our current present, Adorno reassessed the role of chance in artistic production, from the historic avant-garde of the Sixties, as follows:

Aesthetic necessity be­comes aware of its fictive element through the experience of contingency. But art does not seek to do justice to contingency by its intentional, fictive incorporation in order thus to depotentiate its subjective mediations. Rather, art does justice to the contingent by probing in the darkness of the trajectory of its own necessity. [1]

But what might this necessity be? The problem is not, in fact, just that chance, by definition, cannot be evoked or produced thanks to our free will (hence it belonging to the reign of necessity) but also that not every causality reveals something or is relevant or even ‘necessary’. Every age, each circumstance, attributes a different value and significance to casual events, in relation to the context (social and political, scientific and technological). And what is more, what do we consider to be casual? And where should we place chance within photography? In an element of reality that the photographer missed when shooting? In an unseen special-temporal event? In an accidental shot? In the spontaneity of the photographer or the subject? In the unintentional nature of the ‘creative’ action, or the effects (or ‘defects’) that occur in the materials despite our best efforts? Or perhaps, in the subjective acceptance of each of us in the face of a ‘reality’ that we assume is ‘unbiased’?

Every work of art is a two-sided coin. Yet where, on the one side, we relentlessly pursue our objective (our ‘necessity’) with strength and determination; on the other we hope something important will be revealed, something produced through our control but not thanks to it. But while this stands for every object and event that we consider a piece of art, photography seems, more so than any other medium, to be that exemplary area where – with a concentration and density worthy of a ‘model’ laboratory – a ‘dialectics’ emerges that seems to characterise our present society, and which may be defined the ‘dialectics of control’. And the takeover of digital photography – which many believe destroys the causal link of photography to reality (interruption of the contingent), thanks to the chance for total control over the image, – only makes photographic material even more loaded with tension and revealing of the current dynamics of the norms of life. What is it all about?



Looking at our society – from the individual scale to the collective scale, which we now know correspond on many profiles – it is easy to sketch a growing deviance between forms of control and loss of control, which, as they separate, grow more extreme. When, over 20 years ago, Deleuze suggested updating Foucault’s ‘disciplinary societies’ to ‘societies of control’ (widely supported by blooming surveillance studies), there was one simultaneous implication within the many forms of control that was not fully grasped: the equal number of manifestations of loss of control. While I feel it is legitimate to affirm that every form of human life at all levels, needs balance and co-operation between control and non-control, today we are witnessing, on the one hand, extreme forms of (self)control, both individual (monitoring of the self in any way when it comes to food, physical exercise, health, performance at work, sexuality, finances, etc.) and collective (explicit or hidden social control, surveillance of various natures, biometric measurements, digital traces, a plethora of examinations and assessments, expressive censorship, etc.), and simultaneously on the other a loss of control. Again, this is both individual (anorexia is a form of control that loses control of itself; the different forms of bulimia, both literal and metaphorical – are in dialogue, as well as panic attacks and perception of increasing alienation, of living lives that are not your own; ever-increasing addiction even to a sort of surrender in the face of the unsustainable ‘weariness of the self’) and collective (from the financial ‘tsunami’ to the use, both advantageous and risky, of algorithmic automatisms even when reasoned judgement should be used, to data inserted or ‘gleaned’ from the Web that has a life of its own, or the powerlessness of politics in the face of global ‘mechanisms’ that are thought to be natural, etc.). And here we must add the increasing discrepancy between ethical and ‘politically correct’ inclusion in terms of description, image, vision, words to describe people who are ‘different’, the deprived and excluded (over whom certain control can be maintained when it comes to image and opinion, even when not legal) and the total impotence, or loss of control in terms of the reality of exclusion, exploitation, slavery, misery from the interested parties (99%? A minority would be the same). The ‘correct’ perception of equality does not equate to true equality. As Günther Anders said half a century ago: “we all had a great time, but only as consumers.” We might also say that it is true that pecunia non olet, but the lack of smell stinks and the smell is still not under our control despite there being further checks on representation.



While these singular phenomena have been widely described, I do not believe that the close correlation between the two trends, their ‘dialectic’ implication and the relevant paradoxes have been fully comprehended, not that there are any suitable models of alternative integration.

Why would photography today be – even in individual approaches that clearly cannot be assimilated into a single model – a privileged ‘laboratory’ for examining our present? I do not think it promising to consider this question thematically (from the point of view of documentation, condemnation and photojournalism), and not because these practices are not useful and sometimes even crucial and courageous, but because it is from the internal mechanisms of the practice of photography, especially in ‘artistic’ photography, in its tension and paradox, that its most significant political importance emerges. Naturally this is not intended to insinuate the absurd or imply that photography will change the world but solely that photography offers a chance to better understand the present. (And perhaps here lie some good reasons – whether we are aware of it or not – for the growing attention that photography, almost two centuries since its birth, is now receiving across all levels, even the most pop).

In conclusion, and to best explain myself, I will give two examples of the best-known living photographers – Thomas Demand and Jeff Wall – in order to demonstrate how recourse to formal opposition between control and non-control would be a shortcut and undue simplification of the problem that I have briefly tried to outline. I believe these artists show different ways of implementing that ‘dialectic of control’ which seems to so greatly mark our lives.

Demand’s Kontrollraum (2011) depicts the ‘Control Room’ at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power station, devastated by the effects of the earthquake and tsunami. If we are to go no farther than a thematic analysis, it is a rather boring photograph, which seems to wish to use facile irony to show our illusion of being able to control at the very least everything we produce: the very place destined to control something that we have no control over is invested with a power that automatically removes it from our control. But this is only the controlled and intentional illustration of a concept. Alongside this element, Demand associates not chance or the contingency of the shot, but rather an attempt to render “justice to the contingent by probing in the darkness of the trajectory of its own necessity”, as Adorno said. Demand, as usual, used a photograph of the actual room taken from a newspaper to build a meticulous 1:1 model, photograph it and then destroy it. Why? Would it not have been enough to work on the original photograph? Of course, had his intentions only been to remove the odd detail or piece of information; something that Demand did in any case, going ambiguously against the casual or contingent element of the depicted scene. I believe there is another reason for the complex operation however: the meticulous attention to every detail in constructing the model only appears to be a means of controlling the artefact and the final work. In reality, it is a necessarily indirect and tortuous strategy so as not to end up with a piece that is the mere illustration of an idea. Using a long but irremediably linear and simplistic phrase, it might be described as follows: a real place, designated to control nuclear energy, devastated by an uncontrolled natural event, is rebuilt but subject to all the contingent links of a photographic image that documented it in a newspaper (the framing) and the real dimensions of the real, therefore leaving the terrain of photography and tackling the ‘risks’ of manual activity (before becoming a photographer, Demand trained as a sculptor), but removing the contingent traces so as almost to create a ‘contingency’ offered sub specie aeternitatis to the camera lens, which ‘immortalises’ it in its transience (the card model photographed by Demand was destroyed and can never be photographed again, as if it had been surprised in an unrepeatable moment in its existence).


Thomas Demand, Kontrollraum, 2011


Demand explains the need for this concrete development process – which in its procedural rigidity removes the contradiction of the permanent paradox – and the difference between ‘consideration’ and ‘control’.

‘Control’ implies that I know what I am doing. When people eventually view the work, they assume that control was involved, but it is more about understanding what is right or not. […] I like the convincing details. […] . It is similar to a painter knowing every detail of his painting: it is not a question of control but consideration. [2]

As for Jeff Wall, I will only mention one comment written about one of his most famous light boxes, Milk (1884), in 1989. This photograph depicted the sudden ‘explosion’ of a carton of milk and generated torrents of different interpretations But what interests me is that Wall compares ‘liquid intelligence’, which is the incalculability of nature along with the ‘drier’ aspects of photography (optics and mechanics) or the “substratum of instaneity which persists in all photography” as a movement that is “the concrete opposite kind of movement from, for example, the flow of a liquid”. Milk, therefore, which was an entirely controlled image, the result of long work on pre- and post-production, is set up as “a very precise metaphor for, among many other things, the interrelation between liquid intelligence and the optical intelligence in photography, or in technology as a whole. In photography, the liquids study us, even from a great distance.” We might dwell extensively on liquids and their metaphoric field. And if liquids study us ‘in photography’, this further corroborates the idea of photography as a laboratory of the present, because it highlights the fact that liquids ‘study us’ even outside of photography. To return that photographed liquid under the axes of control, thanks to a meticulous control at the moment of the ‘uncontrolled explosion’, it suffices to remember the recent epidemic of a deadly virus, transmitted via the vast range of physiological liquids: the Ebola virus, perhaps already forgotten, but which killed in the poorer world and made the rich world quake in its boots for some months (leading them to extreme measures of control), and therefore shaking up the way in which they “study us, even from a great distance”.


Jeff Wall, Milk, 1984


To establish whether the uncontrolled element in Milk is only alluded to or whether there is more, requires longer analysis. Here it is enough to state that the ‘photographic laboratory’ does not offer an exit from the ‘dialectics of control’ but only a useful comparison to better diagnose the present. It might have however at least one negative result that is not entirely insignificant: showing dead ends (a regulated and voluntary cultural policy for example or, quite the opposite, trusting to a sort of spiritual ‘invisible hand’, that uses a spell to transform every casual occurrence into culture, reasonable life or art). You might plant some scarecrows to show the unstoppable spread of control or, vice versa, the loss of control in every vital sphere, perhaps invoking antidotes that are just as unsustainable (suspect and unrealistic spontaneous gestures, on the one hand, and new laws and authoritarianism on the other), promoted by a lack of comprehension of their antonymic complementarity that photography, on the other hand, develops and composes but certainly does not ‘resolve’. And it therefore invites us to distinguish between a ‘bipolar’ dialectic, condemned to repeatedly oscillate between control and loss of control, and a virtuous cooperation between the two poles. And, perhaps, seek non-contradictory strategies to give them space.


[1] T. W. Adorno, Noten zur Literatur I, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt a. M. 1958, tr. it. di E. De Angelis, Einaudi, Torino 1979, p. 155.
[2] Interview with T. Demand di M. De Leonardis, in “”, 11/11/2013.


Essential reading:

There is a great quantity of available literature on the themes discussed. Here, in alphabetical order, I have listed some of the essays to which I have directly referred herein or to which I have explicitly alluded.

Barthes, R., Camera Lucida. Reflections on Photography (1980), translated by Richard Howard, Hill & Wang, 1981.
Carboni, M., La mosca di Dreyer, Jaca Book, Milan 2007.
Deleuze, G., Postscriptum sur les sociétés du contrôle, “L’autre jounal”, n. 1, mai 1990.
Ehrenberg, A., Weariness of the Self (1998), Mcgill-Queens University Press, 2009.
Elster, J., Sour Grapes (1983), Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Fried, M., Why Photopgraphy Matters as Art as never before, Yale U.P., New Haven and London 2008.
Jaeggi, R., Alienazion (2005), translated by Frederick Neuhouser and Alan E. Smith (edited by), Columbia University Press, 2014.
Kelsey, R., Photography and the Art of Chance, Harvard U.P., Cambridge, Mass., and London 2015.
Lyon, D., (edited by), Theorizing Surveillance. The Panopticon and Beyond, Willan, Cullompton 2006.
Michaels, W.B., Neoliberal Aesthetics: Fried, Rancière and the Reform of the Photograph, in “”, 1, pp. 1-33.
Recalcati, M., L’uomo senza inconscio. Figure della nuova clinica, Cortina, Milan 2010.
Velotti, S., Storia filosofica dell’ignoranza, Laterza, Roma-Bari 2003.
Wall, J., “Photography and Liquid Intelligence” (1989), in Jeff Wall: Selected Essays and Interviews, MoMA, 2007.