A Minute

A Minute for an Image

Rosalind Krauss’s 1984 article “A Note on Photography and the Simulacral” restates the problem of image critique in an interesting way. She starts by describing a film series by Agnes Varda, Une minute pour une image, where a photograph is projected on the screen and a lay observer offers commentary on that image. She moves to Bourdieu’s critique of photography as a “middlebrow” art and Barthes’ response, and then discusses Cindy Sherman’s self-deconstructing work. She finishes with Arthur Penn’s aesthetic response to advertising photography, as a type of “reading” which uses the genre conventions of advertising to promote critical method. Ignoring the center, her close refers mainly to these extremes.

These two examples, we could say, operate at the two opposite poles of
Photography’s relation to aesthetic discourse. But transecting the line that connects
these two practices is the socio-discourse of the Varda experiment with
which I began. Une minute pour une image, with its system of presenting the isolated
photograph as an invitation for the viewer to project a fantasy narrative,
and its abandonment of the notion of critical competence in favor of a kind of
survey of popular opinion, occupies a position as far as possible from the rigors
of serious criticism. But in taking that position it raises the possibility of the
utter irrelevance of such criticism to the field of photography.

The specter of this possibility hangs over every writer who now wishes to
consider the field of photographic production, photographic history, photographic
meaning. And it casts its shadow most deeply over the critical project
that has been engaged by a growing number of writers on photography as they
try to find a language with which to analyze the photograph in isolation, whether
on the wall of a museum, a gallery, or a lecture hall. For, they must ask themselves,
in what sense can this discourse be properly sustained, in what sense can
it, as critical reflection, be prolonged beyond the simple inanity of “a minute for
an image”?

I wonder about that every time I read yet another inane critical piece about the underlying (hidden) cultural conditions of examples of visual rhetoric.