Conceptualizing Photography


Jake Walters, O Stravinsky Project Part I, 2011

Alluding to a mock dictionary that the French surrealist Georges Bataille edited for the journal Documents, David Evans’ book Critical Dictionary is an eclectic, enlightening and at times humorous collection of images, essays, interviews and puns largely concerned with the way photography and photographs can be conceptualized. Rather than editing information in the order of artists’ or authors’ names however, in the Critical Dictionary images and texts are ordered under a wide variety of umbrella terms ranging from ‘Algeria’ to ‘ZG’ (an independent journal which went into ‘hibernation’ in 1986). Like in Bataille’s project, Evans does not claim that the Critical Dictionary is in any way complete. Rather, by presenting the reader with an extremely subjective selection of about fifty words in total, Evans alludes to the fact that no dictionary is, or can be, complete. A dictionary is always a culturally specific and ideologically charged selection of information.


Penelope Umbrico, Suns (From Sunsets) from Flickr, 2006-ongoing

The artists and writers selected for the book, ranging from historic figures such as Ernst Jünger to contemporary artists such as Mark Bolland, tend to use photography as a means to articulate and express ideas. As a result, the majority of images presented in the book are politically charged, or, at the very least, evocative of a critical engagement with forms of representation. This should not suggest however that the selected photographs are somehow embedded in codes of representation that are too complex to decipher. In fact, the most simple concepts at times produce the most surprising results. Penelope Umbrico’s collection of photographs depicting sunsets she found on the image-sharing website Flickr reflects the universal desire to capture a natural phenomenon in all its glory. Umbrico’s collection of anonymously taken photographs is extremely homogenous, with the setting sun always in the centre of the photograph. At the same time differences in weather conditions, colour, and pixelation suggest that man’s ritualistic relationship with photography produces subtle variations beyond the homogeneity of the subject.


Paola Di Bello, La disparition, 1994, Photographs, 400 x 450 cm

Another project that appears to comment on our complex relationship with the image is Paola Di Bello’s La Disparition. Here, the artist photographed maps of the Paris Metro displayed in or near Metro stations. Indicative of people trying to locate themselves on the maps with their index fingers, Di Bello’s photographic montage ingeniously reveals that the maps are unusually worn precisely at the spot where people believe they are located. The more frequently the Metro station is used, the more the location of the station on the map is worn. This rather tactile way of encountering an image (both the map and the photograph of the map) is noticeable in the Critical Dictionary as a whole: a number of photographs were scanned in such a way that the reproduction almost appears to hover on the page. An image accompanying the dictionary entry ‘Ghost Image’ purposefully appears three dimensional on the page.

Evans’ witty and often unsuspecting humour is best displayed in a number of interviews accompanying the book. For instance, Evans appears to take the contemporary artist Candice Breitz completely off guard with a peculiar discussion of whether she produces ‘films’ or ‘art’. Equally, contributions by the anonymous group Al Gebra hint at the fact that Evans’ nod to the surrealists inevitably also includes a good dosage of play. As such, the book covers a wide and diverse range of ‘dictionary’ terms, which also evoke a wide range of emotional responses with photography, the way it is produced, consumed and conceptualized, always at its centre.

Critical Dictionary edited by David Evans is available as a book. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.

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