Photography, Water and Fluctuating Thinking

Even if I did not expect to find much, the project raised an important question: How can we materialize and photograph an event that is not visible — that perhaps never was visible? My work was informed by the double role of photography that became evident in the 19th century, when photography was regarded both as a scientific tool and a ‘spiritual’ medium. In both instances, its presumed objectivity was essential. In the 1800s, photography had already been involved in attempting to establishing contact with the paranormal and was frequently used in spiritualist séances.[1] The belief that photography was endowed with some kind of mystical or spiritual capacity (either as a document or as pure magic) was also evident in the discussions of the legitimization of photography as art in the 20th century. Whether the magic was connected to the medium (understood as an objective device that communicates with natural phenomena) or to the mind of the photographer was often unclear in the discussions of the era.[2] Despite the vast literature on the medium’s essence or non-essence, specificity or non-specificity, photography still has an aura of, if not magic, something undecided and ambiguous that interests me greatly. 

I decided to make cyanotypes of what was there as some sort of immediate response to the place. I had applied an emulsion to watercolor paper and brought it to the lake in a lightproof bag. The process is not as light-sensitive as other photographic processes, which makes it ideal for outside work. Because of long exposure times, it is possible to change the arrangement of the subject matter on the paper during the exposure itself. This introduces a temporal and bodily aspect to the process. I used water lilies, stones, and my own equipment (cameras and an iPhone) as subject matter. I contemplated that water was an important element in the story and possibly in my work. I was surrounded by water, and I thought about the diver who descended into Swan Lake, the bubbles, and the muddy water. In “Photography and Liquid Intelligence”, Jeff Wall stated that “Water plays an essential part in the making of (analogue) photographs, but it has to be controlled exactly.”[3] There are parts of the photographic process in which absolutely no water is desired: in the camera, for example, or on the finished print. Water and liquid chemicals, Wall contended, connect photography to the past. They connect photography to processes such as washing, bleaching, and dissolving. They connect the photographic process to the natural world. The other dry parts of photography, such as optics, mechanics, modern computers, and printers, are normally connected with what Wall called “the technological intelligence of making pictures.” Here, Wall created perhaps too much of a dichotomy between mind and body, culture and nature, simultaneously dividing photography into what can be understood as gendered realms (connecting the aspects of washing an bleaching to what can historically be interpreted as a woman’s work). I found his thoughts interesting, though. They resonated with my project in different ways. I thought about water again; the water that had dissolved the stardust of the potential meteorite in 1979. My idea about working with the cyanotype process suddenly made a lot of sense. It was connected to water, to time, to history, and to the natural world and chemistry. However, although this old technique somehow brought me closer to the place and to the natural elements there, it elicited thoughts about digital technology and “the technological intelligence of making pictures” (as described by Wall). Is this technology emancipated from the natural? Are these floating images not in fact connected with water and space, since their transportation happens through sea cables and satellite technology? This thought brought me back to the coast of Western Norway. The media event about the meteorite would have left innumerable traces in digital memory today, I thought. In the late `70s, when our cyber networks did not exist yet, a sensation could simply disappear without a trace in the depths of Swan Lake.


Even if my pictures were not successful in technical terms, this was what I liked about the prints in the end. The lack of white in them, their muddy look, crystallization on the paper, and the fingerprints on the copies all underscored the uniqueness of the prints, but more than that, these qualities connected the pictures to the process of making them in a literal way. They transformed the images into objects that were touchable and living. The investigation was based on my own persistent interest in photography as a material and conceptual medium. The postmodern view on photography was strongly influenced by Walter Benjamin and the notion that photography was first and foremost an industrial mass-medium.[4] Photography has reached a peak in speed and distribution in our time, which still makes this view extremely relevant. However, postmodernism describes photography as a phenomenon in a relatively short span of history (from the 1930s to today). Recently, Benjamin’s view has seen nuanced discussion by historians and theoreticians who have emphasized photography’s interconnectedness with nature.[5] During a solar eclipse, Aristotle described a half-moon-shaped image of the sun on the ground projected through a small opening between the leaves of a tree. This phenomenon, which occurred by chance, was a pinhole camera image created by nature. Aristotle’s description is important because it opens up a possibility to see photography as something that can exist outside of a camera and modern technology. In fact, it can occur without human assistance. Working with obsolete techniques such as cyanotypes can be a reminder of the transformation photography has always been subjected to. It can be a reductionist medium, but also an emancipating one. 

This part of my research was driven by what I will describe as fluctuating thinking. The meandering of one’s thoughts from the story, to the sense of place, to the artistic means is, I believe, very typical in the process of making art (and in creative thinking, generally). It is an associative process of reflection of sorts, that strives to connect elements that do not really belong together — blending them all together in an attempt to derive meaning from them. As mentioned earlier, there are similarities between the historian and the artist who works with history. The historian attempts to create new connections, perhaps linking entities that had never been studied together before. The historian’s thoughts can run wild upon encountering archival materials. However, whether historians can use what they have imagined is guided by much stricter rules in historical research. Their analysis has to make sense in a more logical way, often by building up chains of argumentation that attempt to validate a claim. Importantly, historians cannot leave significant gaps in their work and expect the reader to fill them in. Although communication in such texts can fail, the aim is to be as clear and convincing as possible. In art, the creator’s motivation can be ambivalent and unclear; indeed, the search for this motivation is often part of the process of making art. 


[1] For a thorough discussion on these matters, see Clément Chéroux et al.,  The Perfect Medium. Photography and the Occult(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).

[2] Here I am thinking particularly about discussions on the legitimation of photography as an art. For example, in Ansel Adams’s work, this spiritualism was deeply connected with nature and the artist functioned as a mediator between the landscape and the photograph. Minor White, aided by Zen Buddhism and astrology, took this idea further, in an almost mystical direction. See also Christine Hansen, A Trip through the Ordinary Norwegian Landscape. Perspectives on Photography in Contemporary Art, PhD thesis, (University of Bergen, 2012), p. 226.

[3] Jeff Wall, "Photography and Liquid Intelligence" in Another Objectivity, pp. 231–32, on the 14th May, 2018.

[4] For a discussion on this, see Hansen (2012), pp. 51–56. Two examples of the usage of Benjamin’s ‘photo-philosophy’ are in Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s 1991 article, “Art After Art Photography”, and in Douglas Crimp’s 1980 article, “The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism”. For further discussions on the influence of Walter Benjamin (and the Frankfurt School) on twentieth-century photography critics, see Susie Linfield, The Cruel Radiance. Photography and Political Violence (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2012), pp. 16–25.

[5] See Christine Hansen, “Slow Pictures” in Slow Pictures. Contemporary Photography (Lillehammer and Oslo: Uten Tittel and Lillehammer Art Museum, 2016), pp. 18–22. A book that quite early on sets a question mark against this limited (and historically defined) viewpoint about photography is Carol Armstrong and Catherine De Zegher (eds.), Ocean Flowers: Impressions from Nature (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004). It is also worth noting that greater attention is now being paid to cameraless photography. See for example Geoffrey Batchen, Emanations: The Art of the Cameraless Photograph (London and New York: Prestel, 2016).