Zeiss Ikon and Other Stories

Zeiss Ikon and Other Stories (2007-2011) is a collection of photo-text narratives, all based on true stories that reflect in some way on American Jewish life.  The seven stories in the collection are titled, “Zeiss Ikon,” “Shabbes Goy,” “Strawberry Mansion,” “A Free Man,” “Tsores,” “The Garden” and “A Second Chance.”  Below is an introduction to the work, included in the exhibition “World Documents” at Mt. Holyoke College, 2011.

Zeiss Ikon and Other Stories

A Introductory Note on Documentary Practices

It would be easier if showing and telling were easily distinguished—if showing were the work of pictures and telling were the work of words, if depicting were the province of images and describing  were the province of language, this for this and that for that…except, er, no.  Images prompt stories and stories yield (mental) images constantly, and indeed constitutively, each begetting the other in flashes and cascades, streams and gusts, precisely as a matter of being fully itself.  Or to put it differently, each addresses a semiotic lack in the other.  For language the issue is reference to what exists outside language’s own structures:  images demonstrate what words designate.  For images the issue is narrative:  from images alone we cannot distinguish causes from effects, or behold change, or confirm the purposes behind what we are shown.  “A picture of a man walking forward up a hill,” Wittgenstein writes, “is equally a picture of a man walking backward down a hill.”  Neither images nor words are self-sufficient or self-contained in the production of meaning:  words depend on images to signify differentially, and images depend on words to signify unequivocally.

If the interdependence of language and images is profound, it is acute in the case of photography, whose realism and whose integration with everyday life prompt storytelling like no other medium, attended by special problems.  With photographs, pictorial realism has historically enjoyed a collusive relationship with the real, which is generally imagined as the visible world undistorted by perception, endowing photographs with the awkward power to testify to the existence of things without being able to explain them any better than any other kind of image.  Likewise, it’s not at all clear how a photographic illusion can amount to a proof, or how a past actuality can be said to persist as present in an image, or what it means for a photograph to “capture” what it displays—as if to contain and hold it captive, to cite the dominant metaphor for the photographic act.  Photographs do not resolve these problems; on the contrary, photographs are these problems.  The word “photography” does not just name pictures made using lenses and cameras and light-sensitive materials, but is a shorthand term for the volatile situation in which there are multiple agencies claiming shares in the meaning of an image:  the world external to our perceptual consciousness, the world of the image-maker’s intentions, choices and imagination, the technologies of photography themselves, and various discourses of use and reception of photographs.  Each agency is a hive of ideological quarrels and philosophical predicaments.  Welcoming all comers in the production of meaning, photographs are fractious and garrulous things.

Photography’s complicated reliance on language is not just an item for specialists, but extends into popular speech, which offers a jumble of curious suggestions for understanding the photographic image.  Most people “take” pictures—as if the images somehow existed already formed outside of us, there to be grabbed with a camera.  Sometimes though, particularly among older Americans, the phrase “she takes a good picture” refers not to the photographer but to the sitter, as if in the act of being photographed the subject retrieved the image and passed it by way of the camera to the photographer and to us.  Other photographers—a good many of them romantic by disposition—“make” pictures, as if seeing were an artisanal labor and photographs were handmade objects through and through, not products of the industrial and postindustrial age.  Each locution gets at a truth about the complex ontology of the photograph.  It seems no accident that popular speech likewise turns to metaphors to make sense of photographs.  The very word “photography” is a portmanteau of the Greek words  “photo” and “graphÄ“,” meaning “lightwriting” or “writings with light,” as elaborated in the title of the first ever book of photographs, The Pencil of Nature (1844), by photography’s British inventor, William Henry Fox Talbot.  In France, photography was simultaneously invented by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre as an image not on paper but on a mirror, leading to the common nineteenth century characterization of a photograph as a “mirror with a memory.”  All early processes drew on the metaphor of inscription in their names, indicated by the suffix “-type” (Daguerreotype, calotype, Woodburytype, ambrotype, tintype, etc.)—from the Greek “tuptein,” meaning to strike.  The same idea lies behind our imagination of photographs on paper as “prints,” as if light were a force pushing against light-sensitive materials, rather than the catalyst for a change in the color of chemical compounds.  Today we speak of photographs variously as copies, traces, documents, records, reflections, windows, frames, views and viewpoints, perspectives, each of these words a figure of speech that we use to fathom the photographic image.  

Strictly speaking, photographs by themselves are incapable of narrative, but are closely and I would argue inexorably linked to language both in denotative and associative forms, and so solicit narrative unrelentingly.  The few forms of photography that aspire to avoid narrative, as for example modernist abstraction, struggle greatly to achieve their end.  (I dare say that for art photographers of this kind, maintaining the interpretively hermetic conditions of reception necessary to banish narrative is a greater artistic challenge than composing the images themselves.)  For the documentary arts—my primary area of work—the opposite is the case.  The complications of narrative are the very heart of the tradition, which is to say overtly grappling with narrative as a hybrid phenomenon comprised equally of pictures and words in many forms of dependence.  I would define documentary, to put the point differently, as a charged field of difference between information, aesthetic venture and narrative construct, whose dynamism owes to the tensions between its predicating terms:  contemplation of things as they are, commentary on things as they come to be, and advocacy for things as they might be.  Documentary’s survival doesn’t owe to its conceptual foundations being especially well fastened, but the contrary:  documentary’s conceptual instability forms an active ground of irresolution on which to approach social experience.

For these reasons, the term “documentary arts” is admittedly enigmatic—invitingly so—and my projects over the past two decades have attempted larger answers to what documentary practices might become.  While I have worked in many communities in the U.S. and around the world and am cosmopolitanist by disposition, I have been preoccupied with Jewish history, memory and experience above all, in an ongoing and unfinished recognition of my ancestry.  My book Far from Zion:  Jews, Diaspora, Memory (Stanford University Press, 2006) uses the ancient concept of diaspora—dispersedness, scatteredness, lack—to reckon with the contradictory inheritances of Ashkenazic Jewish history in Europe and North America in the last century, namely migration, assimilation and genocidal destruction.  The book also wrestles with the possibility of documentary witness as a matter of visualizing absence rather than presence, as against documentary’s traditional approach to knowledge as an expository aspect of the observable.  Following Far from Zion, my ongoing project Alive and Destroyed (2010-2011) contends with the problem of finding suitably incomplete images to represent the Jewish genocide, predominately at small and comparatively forgotten locations in Poland and Ukraine.  As against the urge to remember loss through images understood as stable memory-objects, this work attempts to remember loss through an ever fuller and more urgent unsettledness, inconclusiveness, lack of closure.

The works included in “World Documents,” collectively called Zeiss Ikon and Other Stories, address American-Jewish experience specifically.  In each book, I retell a story I’ve heard from a friend, a family member, an acquaintance or a stranger.  The books are equally non-fictional and fictional:  non-fictional in the sense that the stories are all true and I actually did hear them, and fictional in the sense that both the teller and the listener/author, “jason,” are characters, literary constructs.  Each story unfolds as a series of diptychs in which textual episodes are carefully paired with photographs that themselves form a discrete sequence.  The relationship between word and picture is dialectical, so that the texts work to illustrate the images as much as the images illustrate the text.  In both cases the nature of the illustration is oblique rather than didactic, with image and text by turns prodding and quieting one another.  Though all the stories turn on some aspect of American-Jewish life, not all the protagonists are Jews, and the interdependence of the Jewish and the non-Jewish is a consistent theme across the books.  Each of the books in one way or another represents the search for solace in a world of pain, that of the people I’ve met and also my own search, which paradoxically seems clearest and most distinct to me precisely when bound up with words and memories of others.  I suppose that this relational understanding of the self is somehow connected to why I am a photographer in the first place—why as an artist I’m drawn to beginning with an image that a lens gives, a something, rather than with a blank canvas, a nothing.  I suppose that a pendant conception of the self also owes somehow to my Jewishness, inasmuch as the compassionate  fellowship of self and other is the most ardent injunction of Torah, and inasmuch as I can detect myself as made in the image of a god whose very name is becoming.

Without giving much away about the stories in the collection, Zeiss Ikon relates a chance encounter on a Manhattan street with the son of a Holocaust survivor, whose family history is improbably linked with an antique camera.  Shabbes Goy is the capsule autobiography of a Philadelphia longshoreman, a non-Jew who unwittingly has become the last member of a now-defunct Jewish community.  Strawberry Mansion (presented as a wall piece in the exhibition) tells the story of a Philadelphia prison psychologist’s encounter with urban violence and the unconsummated ideals of his parents.  A Free Man chronicles the path of an aging Philadelphia ex-con from rage to inner calm.  Tsores recounts the last years of one of my great aunts in San Francisco, and the deep friendship I formed with her in my early adulthood.  The Garden tells the story of a woman’s demons—my mother’s—and of her inconclusive battle with her abusive childhood.  Most of the texts were first written in 2007, and the photographs were completed in 2009. 

If I say that I am a photographer in the mode of a writer and vice-versa, this is only to say that the relay between pictures and words is my true medium, neither pictures nor words alone.  It is to affirm that the imagistic dimension of words and the lexical dimension of pictures are for me twinned phenomena.  (And the importance of a synthetic approach extends to the material level of the work in “World Documents:”  the wall pieces present both pictures and texts as gelatin silver photographic prints, while the books present both as ink on paper.)  If I were to offer my own metaphors for documentary photography, at least as my own books seem to me to suggest them, peculiar thoughts come to mind.  Documentary is a foil, a story held beneath an image to lend it brilliance, and a picture held beneath a story.  Documentary is a prism that alternately splits and fuses images and words, depending on how we look into it.  Documentary is a double helix in which words and pictures twist and coil around one another in a generative spiral.  Documentary is language suspended in the condition of images and images stranded in the condition of language.  Documentary is what happens not when we honor but when we rupture the metaphor of capture:  images release words and words release images, each circulating the other within us in an open invitation that we follow their mysteries and their warnings.  Writing with light is a difficult marvel.

Jason Francisco

San Francisco

June 2011