How Pictures Work: Down the Rabbit Hole with David Campany

June 25, 2019
David Campany

Courtesy of David Campany


David Campany is among the most prolific and well-respected photography writers and curators working today. He has contributed historical and critical analysis of photographs in over two-hundred published essays for high-profile monographs and museum exhibitions. He curates exhibitions for major museums and festivals, and has produced a number of his own books including A Handful of Dust (MACK, 2015), The Open Road: photography and the American road trip (Aperture, 2014), and Jeff Wall: Picture for Women (Afterall Books, 2010).  Currently, David is curating The Biennale für aktuelle Fotografie, 2020.

I had the opportunity to have coffee with David at the recent Photo London fair and followed up with an email asking if he’d like to have a formal conversation about whatever came to mind. What follows is the exchange that took place via email through May and June 2019.


Gregory Eddi Jones. So, David, what have you been thinking about lately?

David Campany. I tend to juggle a few projects at once. Currently, it’s curating a six-museum Biennale of photography in Germany, which opens at the end of February 2020; writing a sort of philosophical history of photography; and editing a book of the work of a photographer. Curating, writing, editing. That’s the kind of balance I like to work with. They are different enough but related enough.

GJ. I’ve always admired the breadth of your curiosities and how you explore and dig so nimbly through the photographic landscape. I’m curious to learn more about the philosophical history of photography project you mention. Does it stem from a singular point of inspiration as A Handful of Dust did?

CD. Thank you. That’s nice to hear. I think what looks nimble is really the result of following the connections, associations, and resonances that are always there between different aspects, contexts and moments of photography. A Handful of Dust was an attempt to do that, taking one image as a starting point (Man Ray’s Dust Breeding), and fanning out from there in various associative directions. The book I’m writing now attempts it too, if in different ways. It’s constructed as one hundred and twenty-five short texts about one hundred and twenty-five images. Some famous, some known only to me. There are several anonymous images, books, and magazine spreads, art, documentary, science, snapshots. I spent a year or so selecting and sequencing the images before I began to write. I like books that make an interesting and compelling visual sense before one even begins to read. I’m surprised more writers on photography don’t work this way. Pretty much everything I write is structured visually.

GJ. It sounds like this new project is positioned as a sort of curated history driven more by personal impulse and curiosity. Is that accurate to say? It’s interesting to think of how photography and its technological offspring have become a central bearer of historical narrative over the past 180 or so years. And that has me thinking about how our relationships to history will change in 50, 100, 500 years as we leave such massive tombs of contemporaneous records archived on servers, on YouTube, etc… I generally wonder if the future of history will see greater displacement in notions of a dominant narrative in favor of more fragmented and hyper-subjective constructions of the past, and that seems quite like the exercise you are engaging in now.

DC. I’ll have to take that as two questions.  I’m Freudian enough to trust curiosity and impulse, and Freudian enough not to. Which means that, yes, I do cover a lot of ground fairly intuitively at first. Then there’s the process of stepping back, reflecting, trying to figure out what was governing the image choices, and the writing starts from there. If an image sticks in the mind and you keep returning to it, something is going on.  It might not be what you first thought…the returning is usually not for the initial reason that drew me to it. This is perhaps why I don’t really write about what images mean (I don’t really know what they mean), although I’m very interested in the processes by which meaning is made, unmade, remade. I think my other reason for making the image selections before doing any writing comes from accepting that images work on us in ways we don’t really understand. We’re still barely aware of exactly what is going on when we look at images. That’s disarming, but humbling, and as a writer I feel freed by that.

Your point about photographic images and history is complex. It reminds me of Walter Benjamin’s assertion that every epoch of history has its own distinctive way of representing itself to itself. It also reminds me of Roland Barthes’ observation that the modern conception of history actually takes hold at the same time that photography comes into being.  Combining those two ideas, I’m inclined to think that ‘history’ itself, as a category, is not a constant like a container to be filled with different ‘content’. The container itself is mutable and malleable. Beyond that, speculation is really not my forte. I’ve never been very capable of prediction. It’s a failing that I’m learning to live with. That’s not to say I’m uninterested in the future, or the future of history, or the future of photography. I am, very. And I’m fascinated by the way certain past thinkers about photography got our present pretty much right. Fox Talbot did, right at the beginning. McLuhan did too and to a startling extent. Yes, I agree there is fragmentation in the understanding of the past and its bearing on the present, but this seems to be in tension with a far less fragmented picture of future planetary ecological demise, of shared fate beyond rivalries and wars (military, economic, ethnic). To proffer anything more I’d be out of my depth.


“…I don’t really write about what images mean (I don’t really know what they mean), although I’m very interested in the processes by which meaning is made, unmade, remade.” — David Campany


GJ. I quite like that insight about not knowing what images mean. And I remember you’ve stated before somewhere that a picture doesn’t carry meaning as a truck carries coal. It gets me thinking about the notion of meaning as perhaps being a misguided responsibility that is placed on the image itself, and that we can sometimes expect too much from an image as an owner of its own voice. The symbolism of a picture is far more reliant on the viewer’s memory and associations. And those interpretations, in turn, are often deeply influenced by the matrix of contextualization that grounds an image in specific threads of conversation. I wonder if the notion of “meaning” really holds any water at all. Perhaps “interpretation” is more suited for talking about what pictures do? Meaning is so often discussed as a thing that must be found, or a conquest to achieve. But I think as you seem to suggest, pictures or any works of art are far too slippery for that, and maybe we ought to resist the urge to search for a grail in a cave filled with so many other treasures.

DC. I think we can talk about meaning, as in some kind of collective response, or doxa. Meaning in this sense is established through visual conventions and their repetition, and through text as something that is directive.  This is how most visual culture functions. Stray beyond those formulae and the image soon becomes less predictable. It reverts to wildness.

GJ. It’s interesting to tumble down this rabbit hole on how pictures work, how they work upon us, and how we upon them. I’ve been thinking lately about how photography’s relationships to truth and language seem really quite irresolvable. And what you mention about conventions and repetition as a requisite to establish meaning in a photograph applies to how spoken and written language evolves and manifests itself into shared meanings, doesn’t it?  Words themselves are slippery as well. New ones can be invented, others can fall into disuse and become forgotten, and changes in culture and technology come to require new words and phrases to rationalize new conditions. Pictures seem to operate largely in similar ways. Do you think it’s possible for a photograph to ever have a fixed, immutable meaning? Or rather than meaning, maybe there are types of pictures that will continually evoke the same emotional or physiological reaction despite the culture and context in which is seen?

DC. I can’t imagine what that would be. The closer an image comes to universality, the closer it comes to hollow banality. It is clichés and only clichés that are common in an increasingly fragmentary world, argued the philosopher Gilles Deleuze. What there is of a ‘global language of photography’ is made up of images of hamburgers, carbonated drinks, cars, celebrities, cute animals, conventionally ‘attractive’ people, and sunsets. And even in these cases, where there may be agreement on the recognized signifier (what’s ‘there’ in the picture) this does not guarantee a shared signified (what it means). We can all recognize an image of Ronald McDonald but that’s no guarantee of shared response.  Of course, this doesn’t save us from the dumb weight of those repetitive images that are so key to upholding the status quo.

It’s the inherent instability of the photographic image that puts it into such a close relationship with language. Photographs show, but they don’t tell; they don’t explain. They are good at the what but not the why. I’m rather attracted to photography for that instability because it makes me think about the possibility and conditions of my own response. It’s what the composer John Cage called ‘response ability’, and it actually involves work on our part, a confrontation with our own presumptions and uncertainties.  But we live in a culture that expects photography to deliver ‘messages’. This is happening even in the context of art, which is a domain where one would expect nuance, ambiguity, open meaning, and ‘response ability’ to flourish. Let me offer an only slightly hypothetical example. Let’s say you come across of series of photographs, in an exhibition or art catalog that are essentially clichés of feminine beauty – the familiar poses and lighting, the typical mise-en-scène of heterosexual desire. The artist’s/curator’s/gallery’s/critic’s words accompanying the work tells you the artist is a ‘woman exploring and reclaiming these clichés in pursuit of empowerment’ (I’m actually quoting something in front of me).  Now, the ‘male gaze’, if there is such a thing, doesn’t give a fig who made the pictures or why. The artist may well feel empowered by the process of making the images. (Indeed, as image makers we should all explore the clichés so we know how they work. It’s an important exercise. I ask my students to make an image in the manner of the visual cliché they most detest.) But what are viewers doing prior to reading the text?  Different things depending on ‘where they are coming from’, and that is the meaning of the work. Are they looking at the clichés for themselves, or are they unsure how to respond and are waiting to hear where the artist is coming from? If a written statement is the script for responding what does that tell us about our relation to the images? Recently I heard it described as ‘looking with your ears’: waiting to hear what someone else has said about the images. In another scenario, text need not be the stabilizing script. It could be used to ‘open up’ the image.

There is actually a deep fear of ambiguity, even in art. Artists, galleries, and curators don’t want to be accused of having bad intentions or even don’t want to confront their own inevitably mixed intentions. Viewers feel uneasy, too, when they don’t know how to respond but are not minded to deal for themselves with that not-knowing. The dominant mode in art culture today is that work should be ‘coming from a good place’ and that viewers need to be reassured that it is. This misses the point quite drastically because meaning is made in the destination of the work, not its origin. The destination is the viewer, but it’s a culture in which viewers are not encouraged to trust themselves, trust their ‘response ability’. They are encouraged to accept the given narrative of where the image is coming from. And of course, images themselves cannot guarantee their good intentions, cannot guarantee where they are coming from. It is language that steps in to do that on their behalf. Should we be worried about this? I leave the reader to decide.


“Photographs show, but they don’t tell; they don’t explain. They are good at the what but not the why.” — David Campany


GJ. I understand what you mean about the uneasiness of ambiguity. It’s funny that I very recently saw a comment made by a photographer on a popular Facebook photography group explaining that “going to a show where the images are all over the place risks too much confusion.” But I think that this desire for rationalized information can be found on the photographer/production side as well, where it’s often the case that a new photograph is deeply rooted in at least one category of convention. I can’t help but feel that most serious photography exists in a threshold of cliché, an almost cliché. Simple enough to communicate easily, but just novel enough to not provoke eye-rolls by most audiences. In these ways, it seems that familiarness is a requisite for viewers to enter into a picture beyond a cursory glance.

If we’re talking about cliché, I feel like I’ve come to a point in the last three years where I see formally composed pictures themselves as a sort of cliché idea. And maybe it’s been world events that have hardened my cynicism. In the image world, there is a repetitive gesture of idealism that confronts us endlessly, in the sense that most pictures have an aim to make the world look cleaner, more orderly, and more romantic than what lived experience will dictate to us. Idealism is a promise of commercialism largely, but even with amateur photographers the desire to “make better pictures” is a way of saying they want their pictures to be better at idealizing their subjects.

DC. I’m not sure I agree with that last point. All images have form, and all images are composed. Anti-image is still image. I do agree that form and composition are often a source of anxiety for photographers and audiences. I suspect this has its roots in the essential tension in any photograph between its status as artwork and its status as document. At moments of crisis – artistic, political – the ‘well-formed’ image, or more accurately the judgment of an image as ‘well-formed’, is often seen as some kind of bourgeois capitulation to the salons of the establishment. You know the scenario – the viewer catches herself ‘appreciating’ the image and chastises herself for doing so. But this itself, as the last hundred years has taught us, is often a kind of bad faith. In art, there’s no escaping form.  Of course, ‘relying’ on pictorial conventions can be mere conformism, and there’s far too much of that around. Maybe there always was.

GJ. This conversation has been illuminating, David. At the start, you mentioned you are curating a six-museum biennale in Germany. Could you offer readers here an introduction to it and your curatorial approach to what sounds like a quite ambitious project?

DC. Yes, it’s the Biennale für aktuelle Fotografie 2020. Six museums shows in three cities: Mannheim, Ludwigshafen, and Heidelberg. Plus public commissions and, talks, workshops, and other things. The overall title is ‘The Lives and Loves of Images’ and in different ways, the six shows look at the question of the mobility of the image. Across time, across contexts, across media and platforms. The challenge of a very public and well attended Biennale is exciting, trying to produce exhibitions that work on many levels from specialists to a general public. I often find myself gearing my writing and curatorial projects for smart 19-year-olds. Or more exactly for me when I was 19. On the edge of something interesting but not yet certain.

GJ. Thanks for your time, David.



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