Depth of Field, volume 4, no 1 (September 2014)Sarah Jane Pinkerton: Mieke Bleyen (ed.), Minor Photography: Connecting Deleuze and Guattari to Photography Theory, Leuven University Press, 2012
What is minor photography, and how might it be useful for understanding photography in new and dynamic ways? These questions are central to a new volume of essays, Minor Photography: Connecting Deleuze and Guattari to Photography Theory, edited by Mieke Bleyen.
The concept of 'the minor' was originally elaborated by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in Kafka, Towards a Minor Literature (1975). They developed the term to describe a strategy of writing that a minority author constructs in a major, or established, language in order to subvert it from within. 'The minor' has since been extended to theatre and cinema in order to address how various forms of artistic experimentation attempt to undo systems of representation and language (Stivale, 2005: 110-111). Bleyen's edited volume, the outcome of a two-day conference 'Minor Photography: The Case of (Post)Surrealism' (Leuven, November 2009), marks the first time that the idea of 'the minor' has been connected to photography theory. This is partially due to the fact that the translation of the concept from written language to photographic images requires performing some rhetorical acrobatics. Consequently, rather than attempting to pin down a specific definition of minor photography, the contributors in this volume open up and approach 'the minor' as a methodological lens. The resulting essays reframe and mutate the concept differently, depending on individual case studies, which include a broad spectrum ranging from the practices of marginal artists to more canonical photographic works.
The volume is divided into three parts, comprising an introduction and nine chapters written by photography scholars in the fields of art history and visual culture. The essays in the first part, 'Towards a Theory of the Minor', elaborate and map out a territory from where the concept of minor photography can be further explored. The first chapter serves as the theoretical backbone for all of the other essays that follow, by relating Deleuze and Guattari's notion of minor literature to their other writings on art and linking these to contemporary art practices.
More generally, all of the authors in this volume view photography as a medium that inhibits both major and minor positions, similar to that of major and minor literature. On the one hand, major photography would be what Deleuze and Guattari call the photographic 'cliché', in which photography is reduced to an immobile slice of time, an objective representation. On the other hand, minor usages would make us aware of the 'cliché' by deterritorializing, or decoding, dominant codes of photographic representation and documentation by shifting standardized methods of producing and practicing photography. The distinction between minor and major photography is clearly exemplified in Gilles Rouffineau's essay on the contemporary Czech photographer Miroslav Tichy. Tichy constructed homemade cameras, which he used to make images that were blurry, poorly centered, covered with dust and scratches, sometimes overexposed, or conversely, very dark. By defying the canons of elementary photographic techniques and practices, Rouffineau demonstrates how the deliberate inaccuracies in Tichy's work can be seen as a 'minor technique' that challenges the viewer to identify the image, as opposed to 'major photography', which facilitates the recognition of the image.
Bleyen's own contribution to the volume excavates the concept of 'the minor' in relation to the work of Belgian Surrealist Marcel Mariën. In her essay, Bleyen asserts that traditional and feminist art historical interpretational strategies impoverish and fail to accurately label and describe Mariën's work. One salient example is her analysis of Mariën's photographic images of naked women. Bleyen points out that many feminist art critics in the 1980s denounced much of Surrealism's male work as being deeply misogynistic. While Bleyen acknowledges that these feminist critiques are applicable to the work of many Surrealist artists, she also claims that these arguments tend to frame artworks in an either/or gendered binary. Bleyen employs the lens of 'the minor' to argue that Mariën's work as a second generation periphery Surrealist artist is to be understood in terms of moving in between these gendered terms. Bleyen analyses several of Mariën's photographs that employ the major iconography, or language, of the Surrealist female figures, but which also highlight the tensions that exist between the dual logics of subject/object, active/passive, public/private, and art/porn by means of various techniques. In short, Bleyen uses 'the minor' as a lens to redefine Mariën's photographs in a way that is not in agreement with either art historical or feminist discourses of Surrealist art.
Moving from Bleyen's essay to the second part of the volume, 'Major Artists - Minor Practices?' examines how minor photography practices can be present in the work of major or canonical artists. The attention shifts to specific approaches and strategies that tend to go unnoticed in classical readings. In her essay, Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes stresses the importance of the relationship of photography and text in the work of Tacita Dean and Rodney Graham. Hayes argues that, for some visual artists, writing a book about visual matters creates a confrontation between image and word. Hayes argues that these books are hybrids of visual artworks and literary scholarship that combine image, word, semi-fictional and historically motivated prose. Essentially, Hayes concludes that Dean and Graham's books fall in between word and image as a 'minor practice' that functions differently than a traditional literary work.
The third, and final, part of the volume, 'Surrealism in Variation', focuses on a remapping of the history of Surrealist photography that moves away from dominant art historical discourses of lineal progress and dichotomous categorizations such as center (French Surrealism) and periphery (Japanese and Belgian Surrealism). Jelena Stojkovic argues that 1930s Japanese Surrealist photography – due to its socio-political circumstances, problematic compatibility to the priorities of Japanese cultural politics, and unique scope – can best be approached when read through the notion of 'the minor' rather than the universal language of French Surrealism. This shift in the interpretational tool allows for a completely new interpretation of Japanese Surrealist photography that is not based on hierarchies between center and periphery.
Even though there is a general coherence in the various contributions, the notion of minor photography is especially convincing in the last three essays. While in some of the earlier essays the application of 'the minor' seemed at times forced or too broadly defined, the last section seamlessly incorporates Deleuze and Guattari's criterion for 'the minor' in view of the unique circumstances and genre of Belgian and Japanese (post-) Surrealist photography. This unconventional application of 'the minor' tends to be most useful when revisiting previously analyzed photographic works that do not fit precisely in traditional art historical categorizations. This shift in the interpretational lens makes this volume an interesting addition to the field of photography theory.