Scissors, Paper, Stone

Scissors, Paper, Stone: Expressions of Memory in Contemporary Photographic Art

Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 368
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  • Book Info
    Scissors, Paper, Stone
    Book Description:

    Langford organizes the book around the conceit of the child's game scissors, paper, stone, using it to ground her discussion of the tensions between remembering and forgetting, the intersection of memory and imagination, and the relationship between memory and history. Scissors, Paper, Stone explores the great variety of photographic art produced by Canadian artists as expressions of memory. Their work, including images by Carl Beam, Carole Condé and Karl Beveridge, Donigan Cumming, Stan Denniston, Robert Houle, Robert Minden, Michael Snow, Diana Thorneycroft, Jeff Wall, and Jin-me Yoon, is presented as part of a rich interdisciplinary study of contemporary photography and how it has shaped modern memory.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-7686-5
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-2)
    (pp. 3-10)

    Photographs bring visions of the past into the present. In that respect, they are felt to be like memories, though no sane person would think they were the same. Memories are neither recorded nor preserved by photographic technology. They are, however, expressed and activated by photographic works of art.

    Scissors, Paper, Stoneis an interdisciplinary study of the expression of memory in contemporary photographic art. The inquiry complements, and greatly extends, the correlation of photography and orality which was the task of my previous book,Suspended Conversations: The Afterlife of Memory in Photographic Albums.The wellspring of both studies is...

  4. Colour plates
    (pp. None)

      (pp. 13-21)

      In the brute logic ofScissors, Paper, Stone, scissors beatpaper because they cut. The cut – the extraction of an imagefrom the spatio-temporal flow – is also one of photogra-phy’s decisive moves, and possibly the first conscious sensation of picturing.² “Ma mémoire arrêtée,” memory’s arrest,with all the startling clarity and arbitrary violence that sucha phrase entails, is Philippe Dubois’s point of departure foran essay on the nature of the photographic act.³

      Taking, or otherwise making, a photograph, is cutting an image out of the mental pack, and so is collecting. Collecting breaks down the differences between hunting and gathering, between the photographs...

      (pp. 22-40)

      The death of the author notwithstanding, a significant number of artists continue to generate work in which personal photographs are used to construct a public image. These autobiographical or pseudo-autobiographical works present as photographic expressions of memory – visual reconstructions of interior states of being and becoming. The photographic album has become a notional vessel for such explorations – I say “notional” because it is really an “idea of album” that survives the voyage from private to public work of art; certain qualities will be modified or sacrificed along the way.⁴ Intimacy, for one, becomes a generic term, generative of this condition...

      (pp. 41-56)

      What a loss to civilization. Had Freud just shot the intruder with his trusty Brownie, his aesthetic project on the uncanny would have been illustrated perfectly: a portrait of the psychoanalyst-as-other, a photographic reflection on the nature of the photographic act. His decisive moment missed, Freud’s memoir of his confrontation wants for evidence – it hardly qualifies as an ekphrasis – though scores of artists have filled the gap by making photographic images that include their own image in reflection.

      These are mirrored self-portraits, and a great deal more. Here is one visually complex example:Bertrand Carrière’s Sur le train entre Paris...

      (pp. 57-74)

      Remembering is both revelatory and affirming, or so Proust’s story of the tea-soaked madeleine would suggest. Themémoire involontaireis awakened by one or more of the five senses, and it comes like a gentle tap on the shoulder from a friend whose touch you could never forget. But Proust’s memories are not all of this happy kind. In the “Overture” toSwann’s Way, the character Marcel describes the body and space memories that overtake a man who lies awake in a strange dark room, too refreshed after a short sleep. He tosses and turns; he cannotplacehis body:...

      (pp. 75-94)

      Memory-work is a lifelong project, but its translation into art must begin somewhere and end somewhere else, whether linear narrative or thick description comes in between. When Diana Thorneycroft asks herself, the artist, Who the hell did this photograph? she is simultaneously disavowing knowledge of her work’s psychic origins and hinting that they might be revealed if this line of questioning is pursued. She asks: Who did this? She asks this of a floating image. There is no reply.

      As a nascent photographer in her early thirties, Thorneycroft came to national attention with a series of photographs based on mental...


      (pp. 97-105)

      The work of Geneviève Cadieux speaks to the notion that the body remembers; she gives architectonic stature to these memories. Photographing close to a telling detail — a scar, a healed incision, a bruise — Cadieux enters what Laurence Louppe calls “body sites.”² These anonymous body parts are then grafted to architectural wholes, whether the skin of a building, a partition, or a gallery wall. The symbolic function of these hypertrophic images dominates description; the reference is imprecise, yet somehow indelible.

      Blues(1992) is an expansive photographic surface, divided vertically between flesh—coloured and bruised skin on the left, and almost total...

      (pp. 106-124)

      Photographs help us to remember by prompting thoughts of the invisible. Going through a box of snapshots that correspond to my childhood, I see a snapshot of my mother, broadly smiling, standing under a Broadway marquee.Where was I when you and Daddy went to New York? You stayed with your grandmother.There are no pictures of my grandmother and me, sitting in her tiled sunroom (her winter garden), listening to the Saturday evening radio broadcast of the recitation of the Rosary, but I remember.

      The photographic works examined underScissors, and especially the last, express the co-presence of remembering...

      (pp. 125-142)

      Michael Snow emerged as a painter, sculptor, and musician in the 1950s. He made his first film in 1956. To these interests he has since added photography, installation, holography, “foldages,” mixed-media, “found sound” recordings, two-sided projection, video installation, performance of improvised music (spontaneous composition), and critical text. Unifying this immense body of work is Snow’s interest in process and its precise description. To paraphrase Merleau-Ponty, Snow’s work initiates the experience of “phenomenology for ourselves,” an impression of recognizing what we have been waiting for.² When Snow explains what he is about, his analogies are appeals to memory and imagination that...

      (pp. 143-163)

      It is a commonplace of English landscape studies that young John Constable was inspired by contemplating Claude’sLandscape with Hagar and the Angeland that he projected this vision on England for the rest of his productive life. This is the same Constable whose spontaneous oil sketches of clouds seem to have anticipated Impressionism. That one artist could be fascinated with transient, atmospheric effects, obsessed with topographical detail, and also in the grip of a Picturesque formula should surprise no one; the human mind is a mill of contradictions. Constable has been held to account for perpetuating an image of...

    • 11 MIMICS
      (pp. 164-186)

      Photography’s impersonation of memory depends on the spectator’s imagination: I must be willing and able to participate psychologically in a picture, whether consciously or unconsciously. The works discussed to this point underPapertend to the latter: they are constructed with devices that turn my eyes inward, that make me aware of my habits of attention; they represent those processes, rather than submerging them in representations of reality.

      In this chapter, the tide begins to turn. We are moving toward the interface of memory and history — towardStonebut we are not there yet. Certain aspects of memory and imagination...


      (pp. 189-199)

      Scissors cut paper; paper covers stone; stone blunts scissors. In this metonymic game, stone seems almost overpowering in its unity and symbolic lode. “The hardness and durability of stone have always impressed men, suggesting to them the antithesis to biological things subject to the laws of change, decay and death.”⁴ Stone is the antithesis of the human body. Once dead, we sleep with the enemy. Our stones endure while we turn to dust; our histories become the markers of our memories. Or so we might stupidly hope, as Pierre Nora counters: “Museums, archives, cemeteries, festivals, anniversaries, treaties, depositions, monuments, sanctuaries,...

      (pp. 200-216)

      Agitprop is cultural material produced for incitement and propaganda. The English word derives from a Russian abbreviation for early twentieth-century Communist efforts to win the hearts and minds of the people for revolution. Involving artists, writers, musicians, and theatre people in Weimar Germany and elsewhere, agitprop’s interests are stated in the title of a workers’ theatre production of 1926,Yesterday and Tomorrow.³ The artists to be considered in this chapter evince the same interests, with the essential difference that theiryesterdayis history seen through the optic of memory.

      Carole Condé and Karl Beveridge have been working collaboratively on the...

      (pp. 217-231)

      Another kind of agit-prompting occurs when First Nations artists Carl Beam and Robert Houle repossess photographic images of their people from the colonialist archive and insert them in multi-media works — painting, printmaking, sculpture, or installation. Individual photographs play lesser roles in these productions, often restrained to what Roland Barthes called thepunctum— a small detail of a visual scheme which somehow wounds us.¹ But however small, this type of wound runs deep and tends to fester because the colonial history that these photographs represent is so shameful and so imbricated with excuses. The images themselves — the ancestral portraits appropriated by...

      (pp. 232-249)

      In the 1970s, social documentary photography as practiced in the West comprised a number of sub-categories, one of which might accurately be labelled “the art of photographing others.” Within this frame, we would find numerous collective portraits of North American communities — populations, small and large, distinguishable by economic, ethnic, racial, generational, confessional, and/or political affiliation. Many of the communities visited by Canadian and American photographers would generally be defined as traditional, that is, still living off the land or sea, in lean, though viable economies, maintaining their language, religion, and social values, and, therefore,to all appearances, stable and independent....

      (pp. 250-266)

      Everyday life is flat and colourless, or so our memories would suggest. I have a great store of childhood memories, some pleasant, some not, but a forensic report of my experiences at École St-Pierre on Friel Street in Ottawa is fortunately beyond my recall. There are only two stories to which I can attach dates and approximate times, both by coincidence Fridays. The first is a classic case of social intersection and one of my earliest memories of an ethical dilemma. I had entered St-Pierre in grade three. I could read, write, and do long division; more significantly, I had...

    • 17 MARKERS
      (pp. 267-285)

      In Macfarlane’sThe Danger Tree, two charred landscapes become one: the Newfoundland interior, its carpet of spruce needles and birch leaves set alight by the sparks from the coal-fired engines; the fire line outside Ypres, the so-called Railway Wood, a grove of blasted stumps and bodies held in the fall of 1916 by the men and boys of the Newfoundland Regiment. These distant places are fused in the memory of Macfarlane’s great-aunt. Her grief at the loss of three brothers smoulders in memory, bursting into flame at a view, even though there is nothing to see,becausethere is nothing...

      (pp. 286-290)

      An art of memory is a system for encoding knowledge in signs that make it retrievable. Can that concept be translated to photography, or to put the question more honestly, have I done so in this book? I’ll rehearse my assumptions and arguments, and let you decide for yourself.

      Scissors, Paper, Stoneis a composite of stated and unstated assumptions. I’ll start with one from the latter category: photography is an art form. This simple statement unleashes a myriad of images and theories about the way art should look and how it should function. Since photography was invented in the...

    (pp. 291-292)
  9. NOTES
    (pp. 293-312)
    (pp. 313-334)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 335-342)