Haunting Legacies: Photography and the Invisible

The rise of social media, combined with the cellular phone’s retooling as a camera, has given photography a new political role. From the dehumanization of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq to the images of police brutality in Ferguson and Staten Island, photographs have mobilized grass root movements of resistance against violence and oppression. But what is it that these photographs convey and that no text can possibly tell us? Does their moral imperative stem solely from what they explicitly denounce, or does it also implicitly engage the normal flow of life that the photograph interrupts and that remains outside the frame?

"Haunting Legacies" catalogue.     Click image to browse.

Haunting Legacies is one class’s exploration of photography’s unique ability to point to that invisible flow, which silently regulates what is represented. The six pairs of photographs that constitute the exhibition, entitled Being, Human, Justice, Animal, Beauty, and Machine, seek to unearth the norms that establish the sexual and racial differential in the allocation of visibility: what makes up the recognizably human, who is and is not publicly grievable, and finally, which lives are worth being recorded in collective memory. 

While firmly rooted in the past, the photographic frame is the fugitive testimony of a moment that never existed as it presented to us, in isolation. The experience of taking photographs, viewing photographs, and even being photographed opens a splintered temporality, because the click of each shot belongs simultaneously to yesterday, today, and tomorrow, placing it within and without time.  In their role as curators, this group of students has taken upon itself to offer hospitality to some of the specters that haunt our campus today.

We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds. My stories are a way of shutting my eyes.

Franz Kafka

This exhibition was curated by Professor Giovanna Borradori and the class Philosophy 240: Philosophy of Art and Aesthetics in spring 2015. The texts were written by Professor Borradori and students. 

The course studies the philosophical debate on art both historically and thematically. We will contrast ancient and medieval conceptions of art with our contemporary intuitions about what constitutes originality and creativity. We will discover that the roots of such intuitions are in the 18th century, when aesthetics is born as the study of the reasons that make some sensory experiences distinctly artistic, beautiful or sublime. However, the idea that art may be an autonomous field of human expression is soon called into question by thinkers such as Hegel and Schopenhauer. We shall follow the legacy of their attempt to de-aestheticize art into the 20th century, in the context of both philosophy’s debate on the nature of metropolis and the modernist revolution in all the arts, but especially in architecture. In the last portion of the course, we shall explore the most radical dismantling of the aesthetic edifice in the work of artists and theorists, including Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Zaha Hadid, and Peter Eisenman.


How should we understand the question of Being? We imagined these photographs as provocations to think of Being as the shadows from which entities emerge, becoming recognizable and nameable.  

Bellmer’s work explores the many unresolvable ambiguities of these shadows.  It is unclear whether what is being photographed is one or two, alive or dead, real or unreal. Even the femininity of the legs raises the question: do they belong to a girl, a woman, or a mannequin? The darkness at the center could be both a womb and grave—is the emergence of beings from nothingness a matter of birth, or of death?

Kertész’s work distends photographic exposure signaling the ongoing nature of our becoming through time. The subject’s endpoints blend together and trail out of the frame, outlines disappearing into the background. Is this a merging or a separation? Is it one woman whose movement is captured over time, or two connected bodies?

We are unsure how to read these photographs because their grounding characteristics are obscured; the identity of the subjects, the gender implications, and the temporality of their processes remain impossible to pin down. The duplicity of these images both complicates and liberates Being in representation.

— Logan Pitts, Tom Wolfe, Maranda Barry


These two photos explore the spectacles of achievement and bereavement in their capacity to interrogate the humanity of the human. The body in each photograph is central, but their facelessness reminds the viewer that the historical and political imbrications of these two dimensions of spectacle may not fully efface the universally human. 

Gutmann’s Twist Dive portrays a female athlete plunging along an almost impossible diagonal. The spectacle of diving is an icon of human achievement: the individual has the ultimate power to defy anything, including gravity.

Nederlander’s photograph focuses on the spectator’s position and taps into a moment suspended between the ordinary and the sublime: an anonymous woman talks on the phone recounting the spectacle before her. We are left with the fleeting impression of this act: our becoming witnesses of her witnessing, both to the spectacle and the spectator’s own anguished response.

The parameters of the spectacle shift as we travel between these two images, between the seer and the seen, the past and the present, power and powerlessness, to a place where the human exceeds the frame of both photographs.

—Arshy Azizi, Jeremy Burke, Katherine Durr, Erin Leahy, Korina Tolbert 


The click—can justice be done with a click?

A photograph of a sign that warns against photography expresses caution against our tendency to aestheticize trauma and loss. A photograph of flowers that lie atop an open grave soberly memorializes lives that have been effaced. Photography and mourning go together. We click to do justice and to not forget. But what we enshrine are only shadows. The neat handwritten note, so loud and explicit, and the messy heap of flowers, so silent and withdrawing, interrupt one another by interrogating, but also negating what they represent. This is the construction and deconstruction of the work of mourning, in New York and in Mexico.

The click is a translation but is also annihilation—a spectralization of the real and an abstraction of loss. With each click, the uniqueness of the traumatic happening is both affirmed and effaced. It becomes something other that remains locked outside the frame of the photograph.

Switching between these two photographs, we wonder whether to mourn with photography is to partake in a public grammar. The fragmentation of temporal flux at once renders photographic mourning possible and impossible. In the end, photographic justice is itself an act of mourning.

—Louis Cheng, Maura Toomey, Ian Yusem, Will Tseng


Only questions. 

Why do we group millions of species under the single title of Animal? Who is the Animal if not that which allows us to hold onto the Human, but also to dehumanize other humans? Is the Animal therefore another name for the phantasy of a primitive Human, used as justification for enslaving and colonizing others? Can we formulate a definition of humanity that does not seek to suppress the specter of the Animal and of the dehumanized Human?

Do Kara Walker’s shadow-hands engage this concept of the Animal? Do the prominent hands we see belong to the artist or to the oppressor? Can we definitively distinguish between the two? As Walker said, “The artist is like an abuser of everything—picture-playing, history, other people.”

What if we imagined placing Kara Walker’s looming shadow hands “behind” the two Sami herders who appear, in this nineteenth-century ethnographic study, as a background to their reindeer? Would they suddenly become figures with their animals as background? Would this reversal awaken us to the possibility that, in gazing proudly at the camera, this couple looks at us too, and toward their future assimilation by civilizing forces and the appropriation of their culture by the tourism industry under the guise of education? 

—Tilhenn Klapper, Jake Ellis, Mary Huber, Victoria Jahns, Shira Tagliavento


Beauty is as omnipresent as it is transient, a fleeting perceptual and affective experience. The ephemeral encounter with beauty commands our desires but our private atractions may conflict with its idealized forms. These dominant constructions of beauty, particularly corporeal beauty, have historically been made into standards of humanity. Sensibility to beautiful forms has become what humans admire in other humans, a means of selection between those who are and are not educated, civilized, and in the end, those who are and are not human.

As we shift our gaze between these photographs we are reminded of the spectral nature of beauty. While we focus on one, we involuntarily superimpose its shape onto the contours of the other, unsure of what exactly we recognize in each.

Cramer’s “Female Nude” drifts within a frame of undefined space, scarcely held together by the skin of her own form. Her ghostly shape has no identity, no tactility, and no substance, and yet we believe it is a human. Conversely, Weston’s ‘Pepper’ is an extreme close up that should reveal itself to us unmistakably: a solid three-dimensional object immortalized in two-dimensional space. And yet it doesn’t. We struggle to believe it is a pepper.

—Sophie Koeller, Max Goldstein, Ethan Hofmayer, Destin McMurry


This pairing illustrates a shift in the means of photographic representation that transformed the relation between memorialization and photography. Looking from left to right, we see an evolution from the intention to preserve a subject to the desire to extract a singular instant. 

Given the low sensitivity of film stock in early photography, the long exposure of the albumen portrait made it technologically impossible to record an instant. Consequently, the photographic event was carefully constructed. The albumen process fictionalized the moment by staging the composition before the click of the shutter and through post-production hand coloring. This mechanical and social method creates a subject abstracted from physical space such that this portrait is suspended without a background. As a result, the photographic object becomes a stand-in for her atemporal being, rather than for the moment she sat in front of the lens. 

Unlike the albumen print, the Polaroid promises to capture a moment in its immediacy. Therefore, there is no opportunity for Linda Cossey, holding a camera, to prepare herself to be photographed. The rapid shutter speed captures Cossey mid-blink and partially out of focus. Ultimately, the Polaroid conditions us to see every moment as photographable.

—Jonah Bleckner, Sasha Zweibel, Sam Schwamm, Spencer Davis