Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 11, 2019
Joanna Zylinska Nonhuman Photography Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017. 272 pp.; 70 b/w ills. Cloth $35.00 (9780262037020)

24 HRS in Photos (2011), an art installation by Dutch photographer, curator, and designer Erik Kessels, gives us a means of looking at the contemporary state of photography. To create it, Kessels printed out every picture uploaded to Flickr, the image-sharing website, on a single day. The resulting mountains of photos reached to the ceiling in one location, poured through doorways in another, and avalanched over furniture in a third. The flood of images makes material the constant production and circulation of digital photographs in our current moment, and it is easy to respond with a sense of fatigue, a sense of the wastefulness of this excess of images. Who needs to see so many pictures? Who is even looking? And as one looks closer, one also notices the similarity of the shots. Although taken by individuals as records of personal experiences and memories, certain subjects recur—birthday parties, vacation photos, selfies—and seen as a collection, the sameness of the poses and exposures stands out: the orange glow of so many candlelit faces smiling behind so many cakes; the vivid, saturated blue of every sky above every white sandy beach. A person chose when and how to take each picture, but broader influences—human and nonhuman—shape the way we represent, see, and live in the world.

Joanna Zylinska does not write of Kessels’s piece in Nonhuman Photography, but she might well have. The work illustrates several of the questions she takes up in this profoundly ambitious volume: What is the place of photography in the twenty-first century, a period during which predictions of the medium’s obsolescence and demise—at least the chemically based kind—are frequent, yet photographic images are more ubiquitous than ever? How does the nonhuman function within the image economy, not only in the circulation and appearance of photographs but also in their production? What insights might arise from using photography to think through human-nonhuman relationships? And in particular, how might photography help humanity grapple with the looming global crisis of the Anthropocene and the ways human actions now threaten life on earth? Zylinska responds with a kind of manifesto for the continued relevance, even necessity, of photography in confronting the precarity of existence, a position that she centers around the slogan “photography is a technology of life.”

In the face of repeated claims of the death of photography, of its irrelevance in an age of image-overload, of its condemnation as perpetuator of the imperial gaze, and of its too-narrow focus on the past and memory, Zylinska endeavors to recuperate the value of photography and develop a post-humanist philosophy of photography that positions the medium as fundamental to our perception and experience of life and even as an expression of the forces that sustain life. She does so by focusing on photography as a set of processes and relationships, involving the human and nonhuman, rather than as a mode of artistic expression or social practice. More radically, she also expands the concept of photography far beyond the chemical method developed in the mid-nineteenth century and followed by the digital in the late twentieth century. In doing so, Zylinska engages writers from a range of disciplines—media studies, philosophy, and photography theory—as well as links photography’s past and present through numerous artists’ works and several exhibitions. Zylinska ultimately proposes that revived and broadened understandings of photography may help humanity to reorient itself to the world, a necessary intervention if—and it is a big if for Zylinska—life will continue.

Zylinska begins by considering nonhuman vision and the many examples of autonomous photographs: images not made by human actors, of human subjects, or for human viewers. Although recognizing that such systems can serve as agents of control, Zylinska argues that the ontology of photography does not inevitably lead to this application. Instead, she proposes that the strangeness of how such systems view and represent the world can upend established power structures and enable new modes of seeing and understanding. She points to the difficulty of reconciling the views returned by automated devices with the view of a human subject, and when put on display in Veronique Ducharme’s Encounters (2012–13), Juliet Ferguson’s Stolen Images (2011), or Zylinska’s Active Perceptual Systems (2014–16), this nonhuman perception can destabilize the narcissistic idea of a human-centered world and open up space to consider more ambiguous and shifting positions. As these examples suggest, Zylinska focuses on contemporary art, but she also effectively reminds the reader that nonhuman vision has always been intrinsic to photography, from Nicéphore Niepce’s first photographic image, an eight-hour exposure, to William Henry Fox Talbot’s description of photography as “the pencil of nature.” In sum, because of its undeniably technological attributes, photography offers the possibility of considering humanity’s position within a framework of relationships that include the technological and of “try[ing] to envisage some more ethical and more politically enabling ways of seeing the world and thus also of living with/in it” (18).

For a book that repeatedly equates photography with life, Zylinska writes frequently of the relationship between photography and death. She does not attend to intimate and immediate deaths as one finds in other theories of photography, mostly notably Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, but death on a much greater scale: extinction, fossilization, and obsolescence. She extends the concept of nonhuman photography to pictures that depict a future world in which humans no longer exist, and she argues that such “ruin porn” similarly destabilizes humanity’s position. Instead of a privileged species, humanity becomes one in a series of life forms. Picturing extinction and ecological catastrophes of the Anthropocene—Zylinska points to the work of Edward Burtysky, Tong Lam, and Trevor Paglen as examples of this—can guide us toward a perception of nonhuman time scales and long-term processes and perhaps make it possible to imagine more ecologically responsible ways of living in the present. She writes that photographs—whether chemical or digital—“scale down the ‘deep time’ of nonhuman history to the human measure of duration and perception, while also reconnecting us to a temporal flow of matter and energy” (95).

The notion that pictures of disaster might raise awareness of a problem and generate solutions is not novel. But Zylinska opens up new ground when she shifts attention from what photographs represent to the ontological status of the medium and how it might invite a reassessment of humanity’s position. First, she describes photography as the act of taking a cut from the flow of time, duration, and movement. Drawing on Henri Bergson, Gilles Deleuze, James Gibson, Lynn Margulis, and others, she argues this ability to take an image, as well as reassemble multiple images, is fundamental to the perception and experience of all life, for humans and nonhumans alike. Without that perceptual snapshot, no being can make sense of the overwhelming flow of their surroundings. As such “photographic practice as we conventionally know it, with all the automatism is entails, is just one instantiation of this creative process of life” (75).

From this, Zylinska likens photography to other methods of taking a cut from the flow of time, and she develops this most fully in a discussion of fossils. She suggests that these too might be considered a form of nonhuman photography, not only because they preserve a moment in time but also because they depend on the interaction between light and minerals to make an impression. For Zylinska, fossils exemplify what she calls the photographic condition of the universe. It’s a sweeping claim, one that positions photography as a cosmic action beyond the human, beyond human history, and ultimately linked to fundamental processes of life, light, and chemistry. Even as photography might call attention to endings, Zylinska issues a call to recognize and appreciate within it the forces that sustain and enable life.

Our contemporary deluge of photographs might well inspire a person to simply turn away, to conclude photographs no longer have meaning and no longer merit the appreciation or making of them. This is where in all the dense and learned prose one might speculate that this sweeping book is, in fact, deeply personal and intimate. The call for the continued relevance of photography comes from a person who has a multifaceted and deep engagement with the medium. Zylinska writes as a theorist of photography; she uses her work as a photographer to forward her arguments; and she describes her love of cameras and their attendant equipment. She is not ready to give up on the historical experience of photography, to relegate it to obsolescence or meaninglessness or banality. And perhaps this is the ultimate message of her provocative book. Whether it is the immediate concerns around photography or the long-term concerns around humanity’s survival, we have a choice. We can wring our hands, mourn the impending loss, and decry the failings. Or we can find a life-giving way forward. 

Elizabeth A. Kessler
Lecturer, Program in American Studies, Stanford University