History Brushed Against the Grain PDF
Written by Juan Antonio Molina   



There isn’t a single document of culture that is not also a document of savagery.

As it is not itself free of savagery, the process of conveying it

from one to the other isn’t either. That is why the materialistic

historian distances from it as much as possible.

They consider a duty to brush history against the hair.

Walter Benjamín



Raquel TibolWhen Raquel Tibol wrote the foreword of the catalog of the First Latin American Photography Colloquium, she proposed not a characterization of the photographic production in question, but rather a model of what Latin American photography should be, both to be photography and to be Latin American. This brief text (and the exhibition featured in the Colloquium) has been an obligated reference since, mainly for understanding which were the ideological schemes that would be used to evaluate Latin American photography in the decades to come. Raquel Tibol’s participation in this project was significant, because it meant that the art historians and critics were legitimating photography. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the authority of the critics discourse is mostly based upon an ethical proposal and not on proposing a photographic theory in Latin America.



The effort to build an ethical model for Latin American photography has a precedent that is not quoted that often, yet it is much more meaningful, in the work of Edmundo Desnoes. Mainly in a truly ambitious essay published in the book Para verte mejor Latinoamérica (To see you better Latin America), which featured photos by Paolo Gasparini (México, Siglo XXI Editores, 1st edition 1972, 2nd edition 1983). This essay (which has all the characteristics of a manifesto and a “vaguely apocalyptic tone” as Berman would say) and also La imagen fotográfica del subdesarrollo (The photographic image of underdevelopment) criticize the uses of the image in Latin American societies (with the exception of the Cuban society, which was, at the time, deemed a viable social and cultural model).


These discourses present photography as embedded in a mechanism of collective alienation. A mechanism for creating a mass of consumers, placed outside reality. To be outside reality in this case, would mean several things, to be outside the image (since the image ratifies reality as being real) means to be outside representation; to have access to representation only as consumers and not as proprietors (in this level, terms such as “creator” or even “maker” would not suffice). To be outside reality also implies to have access to reality only in an indirect, illusory and ultimately misleading manner. But chiefly, to be outside reality must be understood as being outside History.


DesnoesIn his essay, Desnoes talks about subjects that have no possibilities of constructing, narrating or representing their own vision of History, thus, incapacitated to understand themselves as historical subjects. He overlooks that the efficiency of photography within this alienation apparatus, comes from the persuasion capacity of realism. Nonetheless, he proposes using this persuasion capacity to undermine the system, to denounce its perversions. Realistic photography (ultimately propagandistic) should serve as a vehicle to get inside History, to reverse (at least symbolically) the relations of power.



Neither Raquel Tibol nor Edmundo Desnoes discussed the possibility of subverting the persuasive qualities of photography, of taking its credibility away or of playing with the boundaries between credibility and fiction. This would have taken the discussion into the field of aesthetics (which Desnoes refers to as the “ridicule mansion of art”), when as a matter of fact -as I’ve mentioned- they were interested to keep the discussion within the field of ethics.


Any sufficiently unbiased analysis of contemporary Latin American photography would demonstrate that, through non-realistic photography, alternative doorways are being opened for a new relationship between subjects and History. As I’ve suggested before, these alternative relationships basically come into being through the construction of alternative histories, but also though legitimating alternative subjects, which are not necessarily collective and are defined (or rather undefined) as weak subjects.


Gianni VattimoIf Gianni Vattimo, in his study of the death of art –which inevitably leads to the conclusion that the concept of photography is a weak object- introduces the term of the explosion of the aesthetic; from his analysis of the end of modernity, we could deduct a sort of explosion of history, which also is an explosion of reality and an explosion of identities. From this explosion, the “dialect” would emerge as the paradigm of diversity and marginality of language; but also as evidence of a new project of emancipation, that Vattimo explains as “…the summarizing effect of rootlessness that comes along with the first effect of identification”.


The panorama of contemporary photography in Latin America is a very good example of the behavior of this system of dialects in the artistic space. It’s an expansion of the linguistics field; skepticism and irreverence towards History; acceptance –and sometimes an almost festive multiplication- of plurality and the briefness of reality; an amplification of all things local that has an effect of de-localization; a precarious construction of identities that go between self affirmation and self negation; but mainly, a renunciation to be exhibited as a homogeneous, solid and stable body.


In those conditions, if photography could open doors for the participation in history, it would do so by renouncing to the messianic vocation appointed to the image in the past. There is no longer the feeling of a need to redeem the subject from a historicity that surpasses him (like Lefevre’s sea), but rather a need to take this historicity to a scale that equals the subject’s, even if this effort means to be working with fragments, residues or even waste.


At any rate, this could be another way o brush history against the hair. In fact, all this reversal of History brought about by postmodernism, responds to that essentially modern claim, a claim inherited by photography from its very beginning. Perhaps if a new possibility can be attributed to photography, it is not about reflecting with fidelity (which is suspicious) the external reality, but to evidence in a critical manner, the hidden structures of reality, its weak, unstable, discontinuous spots. The contemporary photographer can make Lefebvre’s doubt his own:


Am I in a dream, in the imagination or in the harshest part of reality? I no longer know.




Juan Antonio Molina

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*CREDITS: La historia a contrapelo. Modelos visuales y teóricos para el análisis de la fotografía contemporánea en América Latina. Situaciones artísticas Latinoamericanas. San José de Costa Rica. TEOR/éTICA/The Getty Foundation, 2005

This text is published by the kind permission of TEOR/éTICA








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