Andrew Lacon

The Body Allotropic: Photography and Sculpture, Jonathan P Watts

Photoworks Publication (ISBN 978-1-903796-50-4)
October 2014

I will begin with drowning. Two water-logged bodies, pulled in 171 years apart, affirm photography’s identity as both document and art. The many relays and returns between these two drowned men, martyrs for the cause, dramatise the complex relations between photography and sculpture. The first stinking body is that of Hippolyte Bayard, re-presented in his direct positive photographic print titled La Noyé (Self-portrait as a Drowned Man), taken on 18 October 1840; the second is Jeremy Millar’s Self-portrait as a Drowned Man (The Willows), a mimetic silicon and fibreglass model of the artist, adorned in his hair and clothes, as a drowned man, produced in 2011.

Bayard produced three points of view of himself as a man driven to suicide by despair after the French Académie des Sciences vetoed his contribution to the invention of photography. These posed, serial photographs depict ‘H.B.’ propped stiffly upright, wrapped in drapery, surrounded by a ceramic vase, large straw hat and a small plaster statuette of a crouching nymph. Bayard owned around 40 such statuettes, and made numerous photographs of them in careful arrangements, frequently including himself in the frame.1 In one of these, he communes with miniature putti and Roman scholars set in relief; another shows a Sophoclean head, curlicued hair and beard, levitating, disembodied, at his shoulder.

Within the photographic frame, Bayard and his statuettes co-mingle, reduced to two-dimensionality; the result is a general equivalence in which we witness fantastical exchanges between animate and inanimate things (if it were not such a long exposure I would say they ‘cavort’). Should we not already be convinced of Bayard’s statuesquery, we learn from a text on the reverse of La Noyé that he is pictured having already occupied the mortuary for three days—more than adequate time for his rigor mortis limbs to ossify into stone-like columns.

Unlike the ontologically flat photographic print, Millar’s mimetic, volumetric body occupies human dimensions. It takes seriously Bayard’s photo-generated fantasy of becoming an object. It is, I would argue, a photograph by other means, an extension into three dimensions that confounds the flat, rectangular expectations of photography. It bodies forth what Steve Edwards has called, borrowing a term from chemistry, the ‘allotropic’ nature of photography: like carbon, it can be useful but ugly coal and useless yet beautiful diamond—both document (a mechanical copy of nature) and picture (an artistic representation).

 In 1851, Bayard, along with Édouard Baldus, was the first photographer employed by the Mission Héliographique, a photographic survey established by order of the Commission des monuments, to travel through the French regions documenting historical monuments. Several years later, in 1855, the Reverend F.A.S. Marshall lectured to an audience on the necessity of a similar photographic survey of major sculptural and architectural works in England. Marshall presented a photograph taken at Notre Dame, Paris: ‘Look’, he implored, ‘at the rich mass of Sculpture over the West Door… What more could you desire to bring before you than the work and genius of the Sculptor? What could be more truthful than this, the very impress of the object?’2

Beginning with Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature (1844–46)—the first photobook—the reproduction of works of art was regarded as one of photography’s primary spheres of activity: besides architectural details, it contained two photographic illustrations of a bust of Patroclus. ‘Statues, busts, and other specimens of sculpture’, Fox Talbot wrote, ‘are generally well represented by the Photographic Art; and also very rapidly, in consequence of their whiteness.’3 And, unlike living men and women, for whom there were contraptions to arrest their bodies for long exposures, statues and plaster casts were patient, ever-willing subjects for the photographer. Elsewhere in The Pencil of Nature, Fox Talbot also observes that ‘a very great number of different effects may be obtained from [photographing] a single specimen of sculpture’.

Around the infancy of photography then, between Bayard, Fox Talbot and the lesser-known Marshall, we can deduce judgements on how sculpture should be photographed. Is it expressive, with the propensity for a ‘very great number of effects’? Or does it guarantee, immutably, the ‘very impress of the object’? Can it not be both? A further question is posed about the location of value: is it with the assumed-present object or the artfulness of the photograph that mediates?

Throughout the 19th century, and into the 20th, numerous photographic surveys of sculpture were carried out. Key among them are Arthur Kingsley Porter’s Romanesque Sculpture of the Pilgrimage Roads (1923), Adolph Braun’s museological photography, Clarence Kennedy’s multi-volume Studies in the History and Criticism of Sculpture (1928–32), and the archaeologist Esther B. van Deman’s photographs of Rome. In 1881, Albrecht Meydenbauer, Director of the Royal Prussian Photogrammetric Institution, initiated his survey to establish an archive of monuments. Meydenbauer’s intention was to include photographs on the basis of which a building could be reconstructed photogrammetrically—utilising the mathematical quantifiable measure of central perspective—in all the details of its ground and vertical plans 100 years after it had disappeared from earth.4

Anticipating, willing even, the disappearance of the object, Sir Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in his 1859 essay ‘The Stereoscope and the stereograph’:

Form is henceforth divorced from matter. In fact, matter as a visible object is of no great use any longer, except as the mould on which form is shaped. Give us a few negatives of a thing worth seeing, taken from different points of view, and that is all we want of it. Pull it down or burn it up, if you please.5

This enthused orphaning of artefacts—a strange blend of idolatry and iconoloclasm—anticipates the recuperative guardianship of André Malraux’s ‘Musée imaginaire’, first described by the French Minister of Cultural Affairs in 1947. Like Walter Benjamin in his ‘Work of art’ essay, Malraux identified the initial decontextualisation of artefacts in the 19th century with the invention of the museum—a storehouse for amassing and viewing things ripped from their sites of origin, ‘cut loose from all referentiality to the use, representational or ritual, for which they might have been created’. Reproduced in art books, postcards and posters, these works were doubly decontextualised: unmoored, circulating far beyond their original context, tradition shattered, aura liquidated.

For Malraux, this liquidated aura, engendered by mechanical reproduction, is what ‘allows all of the fragments to course together in the River of History, of what he calls “the persisting life of certain forms, emerging ever and again like spectres from the past”’.6 Malraux envisioned a global, universalised art history, not so dissimilar to the ethic of Edward Steichen’s Family of Man exhibition (1955), an archive that could redistribute attention to the previously overlooked. The history of art, Malraux asserted, had become ‘the history of that which can be photographed’. (Isn’t our age of digital museums without walls mirrored by the digital archive without museums?)

To what extent was this redistribution of attention keyed into visual pleasure? ‘If the work of sculpture’, Mary Bergstein writes, ‘is to be considered the primary referent, then the intervening photographic process, with its inevitable subjectivity, propels the representational image away from the referent, if psychologically closer to the beholder.’7 Bergstein has insisted that the documentary field of sculpture warrants its own special area of art historiography; it is a history unto itself. In fact, at the turn of the 19th century, the German art historian Heinrich Wölfflin did advocate formulaic approaches to the reproduction of art works for scholarly purposes. In How One Should Photograph Sculpture he suggests that lighting could be determined by looking at paintings and drawings from the same period of the statue or relief being photographed. Similarly, the point of view should correspond to the original intention of the sculptor.8

 Unless taken serially (as in La Noyé), photography assumes a mono-focal point of view in relation to a static thing. A moving image shot with a mobile camera seems to deliver movement to stillness, approximating our own movement of bodies in space, and poly-focal points of view. Consider, for example, Rossellini’s Journey to Italy (1954), Henri Alekan’s L’Enfer de Rodin (1957), Straub- Huillet’s A Visit to the Louvre (2004) or, more recently, Lucy Skaer and Rosalind Nashashibi’s Flash in the Metropolitan (2006). Each constructs complex identifications, captured by narrative, with the camera. But in each are we not still locked into a monocular point of view?

In the late 1960s, Jan Dibbets’s Perspective Correction photographs (1968) and David Hall’s moving image work VERTICAL (1969) signalled a permanent shift in the experience of space and sculpture. Both demonstrate how point of view, mediated by the camera, can actually be constitutive of sculpture, while commenting on the radical dislocation of the actual experience of space and its representation on a two-dimensional surface. To parrot the critic Craig Owens on Robert Smithson, here the notion of point of view is no longer a function of physical position but of the mode (photographic, cinematic, textual) of confrontation with the work of art.

Into the 1960s it was recognised that photographers could identify and represent the sculptural quality of configurations in the world: think, for example, of Man Ray’s photographs of objects such as a typewriter, Walker Evans’s clapboard shacks or the Bechers’ water towers. Absent here is the production of ‘work’ as such existing before and outside the photographic—‘the absence of anything with the status of sculpture beyond its existence in and as a photograph’.9 There is a relation to Duchamp’s ready-mades—he referred to them as his instantanés (snapshots)—which translate into the third dimension the same photographic principle of selection and representation. Duchamp intended the ready-made to exist independently of the artist as a negation of the expressive, authorial gesture of the painter. These were largely reasons why in the 1960s the impersonal photograph became a prime tool for the documentation of expanded concepts of sculpture. Here, we can think about John Stezaker’s Works 1969-1971, Sigmar Polke’s Bamboo Pole Loves Folding Ruler Star (1968–69) or Smithson’s A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey (1967). The only thing guaranteeing the event’s endurance is the photograph itself.

As early as 1969, Peter Bunnell, who would go on to organise the seminal exhibition Photography into Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1970, called attention to the ‘photographic artefact’ considered as sculpture in itself. The following year, 23 artists showed in Photography into Sculpture, each exploring the photograph as a physical object, many bleeding the medium into other media that had traditionally been kept separate. Robert Heinecken’s Multiple

 Solution Puzzle (1965), for example, collected sixteen black and white tile-like photographs on a wooden base; Robert Watts’s BLT (1965) embeds cut-ups of black-and-white photo transparency into a transparent acylic block; and Jerry McMillan’s Torn Bag (1968) displays a lunch sack ripped open to reveal a landscape view.

In Roland Barthes’ beguiling narrative of photography, Camera Lucida, the flatness of the photograph is a surface he can only sweep over: ‘I cannot penetrate, cannot reach into the Photograph. I can only sweep it with my glance, like a smooth surface. The Photograph is flat, platitudinous in the true sense of the word.’ Yet, the volumetric expansion of photography in space forces us to look at photography rather than through it—it grates our vision, becomes haptic. Two years ago, the Los Angeles-based gallery Cherry & Martin restaged a version of Bunnell’s exhibition, receiving critical praise from the art press at a moment when many shows of that period seemed to be dumbly restaged. The exhibition of photography in three-dimensional space looked remarkably prescient, particularly today when many contemporary photographers are using expanded notions of photography to re-examine the medium and its relationship to sculpture.

Sara VanDerBeek’s photographs of blue-painted busts of Roman women return a look that long pre- dates the age of mechanical reproduction; Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs’s whimsical turtle and armadillo cameras transform the architecture of the photographic apparatus into sculptural artefacts; Giuseppe Gabellone constructs a chaotic roller-coaster structure in miniature, takes the photograph, then disassembles it; Andrew Lacon makes the historiography of photography of Roman sculpture a subject of photographic scrutiny; Oliver Laric (like Wendell Holmes before him) collaborates experimentally with the Lincoln Collection to produce three-dimensional scans of their artefacts; in Lorenzo Vitturi’s Dalston Anatomy (2013), the rich texture of his photographic surfaces dissolve into the texture of his sculptural assemblage; motifs migrate from Becky Beasley’s photographic images into ceramic matter, and back again; Cornford and Cross have, among other things, painted out framed photographs; and Mark Leckey, Liz Deschene and Hito Steyerl each, in their own way, use chromakey green screens as backdrops with the propensity to make sculpture or context disappear.

The relations between photography and sculpture is richly multifaceted, dating back to the former’s earliest days when a man drowned to make a monument to its ‘allotropic’ status as both document and picture. The second drowned man is a monument to photography by other means, not narrowly defined.


1.  Geoffrey Batchen, Burning With Desire (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), p. 162.
2.  Geraldine A. Johnson, ‘The very impress of the object: photographing sculpture from Fox Talbot to the present day’, in Geraldine A. Johnson (ed.), Sculpture and Photography: Envisioning the Third Dimension (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 1.
3.  William H. Fox Talbot, The Pencil of Nature, part 1 (London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1844), plate V.
4.  Jens Schröter, ‘Archive—post/photographic’, photo_byte/archive_post_photographic (17 June 2014).
5.  Sir Oliver Wendell Holmes, ‘The stereoscope and the stereograph’, in Alan Trachtenberg (ed.), Classic Essays on Photography (New York: Leete’s Island Books, 1980), p. 80.
6.  Hal Foster, ‘Archives of modern art’, in Design and Crime (And Other Diatribes) (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011), p. 79.
7.  Mary Bergstein, ‘Lonely Aphrodites: on the documentary photography of sculpture’, Art Bulletin (1992), vol. 74, No. 3, p. 475.
8.  Geraldine A. Johnson, op. cit., p. 9.
9.  Tobia Bezzola, ‘From sculpture in photography to photography as plastic art’, in Geoffrey Batchen, Tobia Bezzola and Roxana Marcoci (eds), The Original Copy: Photography of Sculpture, 1839 to Today (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2010), p. 30.

©  Jonathan P Watts  / Photoworks