Raoul Eshelman

Notes on Performatist Photography: Experiencing Beauty and Transcendence after Postmodernism, Metamodernism, Historicity, Affect And Depth After Postmodernism. 2018

Mike Perry’s pictures of landscapes appear at first glance cool and documental. They are however governed by a visual imperative that draws us into rough, almost physically palpable spaces and then elevates us aesthetically. In Rockface 2010 we are led relentlessly upwards into the craggy, misty heights of a rock quarry, in Loch Cluanie 2009 we are drawn across soggy, rough moorland into a foggy, light horizon. Although these are clearly ravaged, inhospitable landscapes, they are nonetheless not depicted as the mere victims of human depredation. In a certain sense, the fact that they can still draw us inward and upward with what is left of their natural beauty suggests a kind of root belief in the world itself without which ecological activism would not be possible.

Silver Birch 3 transforms natural depth relations (the thicket of birch trees) into an ambivalent image with an abstract, Jackson-Pollock-like quality: nature and culture converge here in spite of themselves. Silver Birch 3 is interesting to compare with Ansel Adams’s modernist and Lee Friedlander’s postmodernist renditions of the same or similar trees. Thanks to Adams’s exacting photographic method his famous trees stand out crisply and cleanly before a black background and exemplify a strikingly beautiful, overpowering quality that one might call birchness—an essential, formally compelling trait revealed through the skill of the photographer. Friedlander’s tree pictures are basically parodies of Adams’s style: he photographs trees in broad daylight in a way that effectively flattens the depth of field and makes their branches into a tangled mess constantly competing with the backgrounds behind them. Perry’s birches are neither one nor the other. They are not clearly delineated enough to convey modernist “thingness” and, although forming a tangled thicket, they are too aesthetically pleasing to block our identification with the order they create. Once more, I would ascribe this peculiar aesthetic positioning of the birches to what I have called double framing. The photographer in this case creates a secondary, rather than a primary, identification with the trees. Rather than being struck by their essence we search for aesthetic order in the tangle of branches (this order can in fact be established in the circle of branches in the lower middle of the picture, which coincides with an area of high contrast allowing a small group of saplings to stand out more than the rest).

Flip Flop 13, 2013 from the series Môr Plastig (“Sea of Plastic”), shows one of the many flip-flops Perry has collected and photographed after beachcombing. This image effectively reverses the “ravaged nature” motif of the landscapes. We are now confronted by plastic that itself has been corroded by the ocean and been rendered hauntingly beautiful because of it. Here, too, there is a subtle message suggesting the workings of a kind of opaquely operating natural religion: if the ocean can thusly beautify the plastic junk we throw into it, then there is some hope somewhere. This attitude is not uncritical, but it reverses completely the postmodern attitude that recognizes only one-sided perpetrator-victim relations and that sees its ethical purpose in preventing evil rather than in participating in positive truth processes. The numinous beauty captured here has an ethical impetus to it that is derived from its ambivalent, oceanic origin. Only by addressing this ambivalent origin—the performative interaction of nature and culture—in a positive way can we arrive at constructive solutions to environmental problems.

Arco Refinery 2002, from the series Astral America is not a flat, inert industrial object like that depicted in the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, whose serial photos of drab industrial buildings had a great influence on both postmodern landscape and portrait photography. Instead, the factory seems to reach upward before a bright stripe on the horizon that gives it a three-dimensional, cathedral-like quality. The crane, the central smokestack and the red street markers direct our gaze first towards the center, then onwards and upwards. This photo, as do the landscape pictures, strives to transcend the rough materiality of its visual givens and presents a robust, spiritualized, but ultimately non-heroic vision of American industry (for this the factory is too drab, the sky too gray). Here, postmodernists will no doubt miss a scathing representation of industrial capitalism as a menacing, destructive force. Perry’s picture obviously does not do this, but at the same time it is not uncritical: it renders very effectively the quasi-religious character of American industrial capitalism without turning it into a hypercritical caricature.  (This attitude is comparable to Andreas Gursky’s large-scale photos of scenes resulting from globalization, which capture the enormous scale and the aesthetic lure of globalization without crudely vilifying it.) By contrast, the scathing postmodern critiques of capitalism can offer no positive alternative (communism? back to nature?); their endless criticism is made possible by the endless irony that they do not have to supply any kind of positive answer themselves. 

  1. Cf. the numerous tree pictures in Friedlander (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2005), 390–432.
  2. Alain Badiou formulates this position programmatically in his Ethics. An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (London: Verso, 2001).  For a discussion of performatist ethics see my “Performatism, Dexter, and the Ethics of Perpetration” in Anthropoetics 1 (Fall 2011), http://www.anthropoetics.ucla.edu/ap1701/1701Eshelman.htm
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