Wednesday, August 24, 2005

“blank traces” in photography

Scrablings and lights effects: “blank traces” in photography

The goal of this essay is to define the notion of “blank trace” in photography through various examples and theoretical statements. My aim will be to discuss how this notion can be a useful tool to understand our visual contemporary economy. Consequently, the purpose of this essay is to answer the question: in which ways are photographs allowing us to see beyond their visible reality?

This essay will be structured as follows:

Taking into account a statement by Susan Sontag, the introduction will present an ad that testifies of our actual frenetic images consumption. The first part will outline useful statements which will help understand the notion of blank trace. The second and third sections will focus on the photographers’ works in which we can perceive blank traces. In John Deakin’s photographs, they occur fortuitously whereas in Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Theaters, they are consciously projected. However different from one another, both examples provide arguments to Didi-Huberman’s views on the ideal stance to adopt while ‘confronting’ images.

Introduction: Don’t Think, Shoot!

Don’t think. Shoot. Don’t hang about. Shoot. With 5.1 million pixels everything stays sharp. Don’t fuss. Shoot. With 2.5 inch screen you’ll get the whole picture. Don’t stop. Do not say ‘cheese’. The processor will take better shots, fast. Don’t save it for weddings. It’s slim enough to go anywhere. So shoot. Review. Share. Enjoy. Just don’t think.
Advertising for Cyber-shot T3 (Time Out N° 1789, 1st-8 Dec.)

When researching for this essay, I was struck by this piece of advertising for the last Sony camera that I came across in Time Out magazine. This advert is clearly evocative of the famous slogan promoted by Kodak a few decades ago: 'you press the button, we do the rest', That last statement reflected the progress of automatic camera as a solution to previous complicated manual operations. However, the ad above goes further because it implies that nobody was really necessary in the process. The human being is reduced to being a simple finger or at most, an arm. The human being has disappeared from the operation. Cameras can do the work alone.

Around this focal point, we can make out the blurred outlines of a tube station. This localisation is almost surprising because it is not a common place to take pictures and this curious anonymous hand, ready to shoot looks as if there was a duel taking place: to shoot first or to be shot. Furthermore, the camera’s lens, which is situated right in the middle of the image, obstructs the vanishing point. We are directly face-to-face with the object that affirms its central and quasi autonomous status.

The text echoes a statement written by Susan Sontag in her canonical book On Photography published in 1973: “Like a car, a camera is sold as a predatory weapon – one that’s as automated as possible, ready to spring. Popular taste expects an easy, an invisible technology. Manufacturers reassure their customers that taking pictures demands no skill or expert knowledge, that the machine is all knowing, and responds to the slightest pressure of the will. It’s as simple as turning the ignition key or pulling the trigger.” (Sontag S. 1986 (1973):14). Nowadays, the camera seems to have reinforced its neutral and invisible status, despite becoming always more invasive in everyday life rituals. This frenetic consumption does not imply that people have gained more clues to reading photographic productions. Thirty years after Sontag’s observations, photography is more than ever an easy practice and the lack of consideration for thoughts ‘sticks’ to this medium as much as photographs ‘stick’ to reality. In a certain sense aesthetic consumerism of contemporary society is not far from turning “citizens into image-junkies”. According to Susan Sontag this visual addiction is “the most irresistible form of mental pollution” (Sontag S. 1986 (1973): 24).

This reflection starts from this radical warning in our inability to give meanings to our contemporary visual environment. However, rather than to draw up photophobic views regarding visual saturation of our society, the purpose of this essay is to present examples illustrating other ways of ‘seeing’ pictures: “Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept as the camera records it. But this it the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks.” (Sontag S. 1986 (1973): 22). This is why I have decided to look directly into photographs to seek any loopholes through which our glances could glide to look through the camera evident records of reality.

What is a Blank Trace?

The purpose of this essay is to provide an analytic framework in which to study photographs where traces, signs, crack or other details are ‘events’ allowing to see beyond evident visibility. Therefore, I have focused my attention on pictures singularised by what I will call “blank traces”. In that sense, the selected images are usually perplexing because their most significant feature is not really visible. For instance, they show empty signs like blank screens, printing errors, scrapings or other light effects that are normally considered accidental or communication failures in photographs. Indeed, intentional or not, these signs are generally worthless in common interpretations and in scholar analysis because they express a type of “missed encounters with the real” (Lacan J. cited in Foster H. 1996: 134). They often become a focus centre for our glances and their insistent presence disturbs our hunger to see visible signs.

Part 1: Floating Flashes: Junk photography and Opening

It is acute yet muffled, it cries out in silence. Odd contradiction: a floating flash
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

This photograph clearly illustrates what I understand a blank trace to be. At first glance, it looks like a typical over-exposed photograph. A spectator looking for tangible signs will be relegated to the margins of the picture where furniture, hair, clothes and the position of the people featured give enough information to classify it as a traditional family photo. Indeed, this type of mise-en-scène is a common routine in amateur photographic practices. According to Susan Sontag, this function of recognition is important because “through photograph, each family constructs a portrait-chronicle of itself – a portable kit of images that bears witness to its connectedness.” (Sontag S. 1986 (1973): 8). It also works as an essential tool to memorize and unify family life by supplying “the token presence of the dispersed relatives” (Sontag S. 1986 (1973): 9).

But this floating flash scrambles our ability to see the main informative features of the photograph: who are the people featured in this picture? What does this family look like?
Furthermore, this lighting zone flash is so strong that it is impossible to distinguish any traits on their faces. They become anonymous and almost invisible. This absence of the traditional signs of family happiness is so intense that it troubles our opinion about this family. We can even presume that something odd has happened or that they are not real. They seem to have disappeared, removed by a flashing blank trace.

According to popular taste, this photograph has no interest whatsoever. It is the typical missed photograph that provokes consternation when people receive their pictures from the photo-lab. Indeed, its single function for family life rituals is absent. It does not show the visible traits which testifies for the success of this union. It does not show the child or any signs of happiness. Consequently, without any faces there is no evidence of reality and this photograph would have no chance of finding a place on the fireplace besides weddings pictures. It would be rather relegate into the bin.

Blank Traces as Opening

In terms of scholar analysis, this family provides an excellent example of some recent theoretical positions about our contemporary visual culture. It is precisely because this photograph shows nothing, or hide everything, depending on the point of view, that it becomes an interesting topic for analysis. This subject is discussed by Georges Didi-Huberman in his book Confronting Images. His observations are to be taken as a critical interrogation on the contemporary approaches in the history of art. He points out that a long tradition of paintings’ analysis has generated conventional practices that do not fully reveal the complexity of images. According to Didi-Huberman, the history of art has been too attracted by the visible signs of works of art. Thus, images have been frozen in canonical categories that do not allow us to grasp the complex net of their meanings.The purpose of Didi-Huberman’s observations is also to reinforce that an image is always an uncertain event that opens up a wide range of meanings which depend on the conditions and the contexts of its appearance. His book’s aim is to reveal the “underside” functions that defy traditional understanding of paintings.

As a matter of fact, the introduction of his book expresses particular feelings that could arise when confronted to images that show less than they should be showing. As an example, Didi-Huberman takes a fresco of Fra Angelico painted on the wall of a church in San Marco (Italy) during the early Renaissance period. Taking into account previous analyses of this particular painting, he draws attention to the fact that nobody has commented on this clear area in the middle of the painting. The art historians who previously looked into this curious, ‘insignificant’, clear area concluded that it had to have occurred unintentionally. It is simply a detail.

As opposed to their real lack of consideration, Georges Didi-Huberman focuses on this very detail to get across another explanation of this artwork. According to him, this clear area is a crucial key to understand the main message and function of this fresco. Indeed, at the time this Annunciation was painted, it was imperative to clearly show the principles of geometrical perspective that had recently been discovered. Thus, this vacant area had a very precise function. It worked like a door allowing monk’s glances to go through the painting and embody their spirituality. Thanks to the fading of the vanishing point, gazes were not oriented by the rational way of seeing. They were rather disorientated by this mysterious area. Spectators looking at this Annunciation could also fill in the blank area with their own mental images and personal beliefs.

Going back to our family picture above, we can build a bridge between both examples. The family picture keeps a part of mystery and can play a contribution in rethinking actual common consumption of photographs. The floating flash does not represent strictly figurative signs. Indeed, through an interpretation that looks only at visible signs, there is nothing to see, and consequently to say, about this zone. It could be considered only through its negative dimension.

However this flash can also work as a symptom that could on the one hand force spectators to let their previous knowledge about image and as a result being captured by the image. On the other hand this enigma drives gazes beyond the sensible surface of the picture. This detail works also as a matrix that attracts glances and opens the sense of this painting to a cosmic range of meanings situated beyond visual signs. According to Didi-Huberman this intentional unawareness and this plurality of senses are two binding stages for a reading of pictures that opens original thoughts.

Part 2: John Deakin’s Scrapes

Certain details may “prick” me. If we do not, it is doubtless because the photographer has put them there intentionally
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

This part will outline that blank traces could be due to accidental treatment of photographs. This category of unintentional blanks resulting from scrapings will be exemplify through descriptions of the work of John Deakin. In complement to this analysis I will outline aspects of these blank traces and their relations with the notion of punctum proposed by Roland Barthes.

Photographs as Aides-mémoires

John Deakin started taking photographs in 1939 and “his most prolific years, and arguably his most creative, were those spend under contract to British Vogue in the mid-1950’s” (Muir R. 1997: 9). Besides his activity as a fashion photographer, he also worked as an urban photographer. Thus he produced a vast documentation of bohemian life in Soho, London, and in others European cities. He also frequently collaborated with Francis Bacon, who commissioned him to take portraits, and “though he never painted directly from Deakin’s photographs, they were undoubtedly important points of reference” (Muir R. 1997: 30). According to Francis Bacon, these photographs functioned as the aide-mémoire he consulted to achieve details in his paintings .

This subordinated relation with painting was crucial in Deakin’s trajectory. He wanted to be a painter and he rather underestimated his talent and the artistic status of photography. This opinion mirrored the transitory status of photography during this period and the doubts many photographers had at being called artists. It also somewhat explained his distant ways of dealing with photographs and the strange fate of his work. Indeed “at his death, his life’s work was retrieved from under his bed in Soho. Many of his vast prints were discovered frayed and dog-eared (if not torn or folded in half) together with their scattered negatives, many of which were unidentifiable (Muir R. 1997: 10). The work he had done for Vogue underwent the same misfortune because the sheer size of his enlargements made storage in the magazine’ archives difficult and painstakingly folded up into boxes too small ever to adequately hold them (Muir R. 1997: 10). Consequently, it resulted in damaged images that give a predominantly accidental dimension to his work.

Yet, “at least twelve of these surviving aides-mémoire are pictures of Lucian Freud, whom Bacon painted many times” (Muir R. 1997: 31). Looking at the above picture of Freud in the 60s for the first time, one’s glance is instantly drawn towards the scrapes resulting from the awkward folding. These scrapes and stains go against the essential function of photographic images which is to reveal and “print directly the luminous rays emitted by a various lighted object. The photography is literally an emanation of the referent.” (Barthes R. 1980: 80). In this picture, like in the majority of Deakin’s production, this indispensable umbilical cord (Sontag S.) is partially removed without a trace of reality. It is as if slices of reality were missing. It modifies with the way in which we would normally define and read this photograph.

These repeated slits get our attention. We cannot help but fill in these blank with our own imaginary interpretations. According to Roland Barthes, these marks operate as punctum for the spectator of this picture: “In this habitually unary space, occasionally (but alas all too rarely) a “detail” attracts me. I feel that its mere presence changes my reading, that I am looking at a new photograph, marked in my eyes with a higher value. This “detail” is the punctum. (Barthes R. 42). There is of course many ways in which to give subjective meanings to these pictures. Nevertheless if we consider above all Deakin’s bohemian life in Soho’s semi-monde, the white marks of these damaged pictures give just as much indication of his confused life-style as they do of their own contents.

Beyond the Punctum

These blanks are also traces expressing the spatial and temporal realities that happened after the shot. They show a kind of duplicated that-has-been. The first one is mechanical and physical and it expresses the photographic act because “I can never deny that the thing has been there” (Barthes Roland 1980: 4). That one day, in one specific location, Lucian Freud was in front of a camera. The other moment araised later and it would be that slices of tangible proof of this emanation have been erased from the picture. Nevertheless this absence also points to the real, and at this point the real ruptures the photograph (Foster H. 1996: 132).

This process expresses more of a long period of time, a long event, than a “decisive moment”. Consequently, these signs of emptiness tear the smooth unity of that-has-been. Because we are touched by these signs, they impose a new visibility and allow for interpretations outside of the photographs. In this sense, they provide adequate aides-mémoires of Deakin’s personal trajectory: meetings, removals, melancholy and other tourments seem to come to “light” from this blurred cover. These failures express his untidiness and fragile way of living much better than any fashion’s magazines’ productions. They show the scars that are a testament of the pain of a photographer who has never considered his work as an art expression.

There is clearly a communication failure but this accidental aesthetic provides a coherent dimension to these pictures. They provide exceptional details to this work and an astonishing timeless beauty. According to Bruce Bernard, who curated first Deakin’s exhibition, “he really was a member of photography’s unhappiest minority whose members, while doubting its status as art, sometimes prove better than anyone else that there is no doubt about it.” Bruce Bernard cite in Muir R. 1997: 10).

This example shows that blank traces are not necessarily intentional and they can express a fortuitous destiny. The next analyses will consider more specifically intentional projects that are driven by artistic aspirations. Nevertheless, the main function of these blank traces is still always the same. They open a breach through the harmonized space of a photograph and attract glances beyond the visible surface.

Part 3: Sugimotos’s Floating Screens

«One night I had an idea while I was at the movies: to photograph the film itself. I tried to imagine photographing an feature film with my camera. I could already picture the projection screen making itself visible as a white rectangle. In my imagination, this would appear as a glowing, white rectangle; it would come forward from the projection surface and illuminate the entire theater. This idea struck me as being very interesting, mysterious, and even religious.»
Hiroshi Sugimoto

Motionless temporalities

In this part of the essay, I will consider blank traces in their “purest” form. The 1970’s series Interior Theaters by Hiroshi Sugimoto is maybe the most significant example of blank traces in representations. Above all, because they result from an artistic stance which goal is to provide this quasi-magical procedure. Sugimoto “photographs auditoriums of American movie theaters, and drive-in movies, during showings. The exposure time used for the photograph corresponds with the projection time of the film. This allows him to save the duration of the entire film in a single shot” (Helfert H.). Because of the accumulation of images, the movie “is annihilated and burnt out” (Bryson N. 1996: 121) and the result is an enlightening white screen that irradiates the space, even though architectural elements around the screen are precious indications used to distinguish each photograph. Scanning the décor, “we are drawn into the effulgent whiteness of the movie screens, a photographically mythological space of absorbed light and action which is the culmination of the film’s exposure into the camera’s aperture” (Denson R. G. 1996 : 144). Even human’s traces disappeared in the process and we are the honoured witnesses of a face-to-face between two mechanical mediums of representation.

We can also draw a parallel with our previous considerations on Deakin regarding the way of dealing with the flow of time in photography. As we have seen, time for Deakin was not really taken as an intentional part of his work. Rather than being a partner, it is more of an endured consequence. Like wrinkles on a face, time betrays aspects that we would often rather keep hidden. It marks photographs through a slow process of deterioration that gives them a lived intensity. They are non-desired details that testify of a certain aspect of his Deakin’s breakable reality.

The flow of time in Sugimoto’s work acts differently because he precisely aspires to give an evidence of this predictable process of deterioration of the visible. Thus, the consequences of the course of time are totally controlled through long exposure shots and they evidently demonstrate how traces of reality can be faded into photographs. These blank traces do not work as punctums, they do not compose details that fortuitously influence our reading of photographs. They work rather like apparent symptoms that inevitably attract our glances, to the point that we cannot turn away from this central area. Thus, these blank screens also work like a matrix in our ways of seeing reality. Indeed Sugimoto “speaks of his fascination with how the blank screen functions as a metaphor for the projection of reality within a much broader system of meaning. By emphasizing blankness, he helps us refrain from, yet get beyond, our own underlying assumptions for what constitutes the world.” (Denson R. G. 1996: 144). However, this forced attraction of our glances towards this sign of emptiness can be precarious and we have to be watchful that this flashing light does not affect us.

The protective screen

Looking at this picture gives one the impression of being Tuché (Lacan J.) by these ever-increasing luminous rays and of this screen looking at us. In this sense, the spectator “is also under the regard of the object photographed by its light, pictured by its gaze” (Foster H. 1996: 139). Through a metaphor this real screen can be understood like the screen defines by Hal Foster following Lacan’s analysis. According to him the first function of a screen as “site of picture making and viewing” (Foster H. 1996: 141) is to put a distance between images and the spectator and also to moderate the gaze of the picture itself. Otherwise “to see without this screen would be to be blinded by the gaze or touched by the real” (Foster H. 1996: 140). The screen acts also like a protection against the gaze which emanes from the picture. For Lacan, this gaze can be violent and it can also “even kill, if it is not disarmed first” (cited in Foster H. 1996: 140). Consequently, these “vanished movies on the screen” allow spectators to “pacify the gaze” (Bryson N. 1996: 121) of images through negotiating “a laying down of the gaze as in a laying down of a weapon” (Foster H. 1996: 140).

The only way to operate this laying down is to learn to see beyond the visible signs of photographs. In this way, the screen becomes our contextualized and ever changing knowledge that spectators make active when they are confronted with images. This is why blank traces, while potentially disturbing our common ways of seeing, can set up a good opening for the attempt of pacification with our visual world.

Conclusion: Recently I have bought a cyber-shot…

The photograph then becomes a bizarre medium, a new form of hallucination: false on the level of perception, true on the level of time: a temporal hallucination, so to speak, a modest, shared hallucination
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

Some truth are sometimes difficult to divulge. A few month ago, I bought a cool pix. I thought it might be practical to have this docile assistant for my personal works. Recently, while I was in the Westminster area attempting to get some pictures on the subject of tourism, which was somewhat difficult at the times, I tried to concretely apply my presumptions about “blank traces” to my work. The result is this picture of Big Ben hidden by this sizeable billboard that denotes in some extent a do-it-yourself depiction of theaters’ pictures. In fact, I was absolutely amazed by the fact that my intention to produce blank traces did not work at all. It is simply an obstruction of our glances. Actually, this composition gives so much weight to the non-hidden portion of the image that it works almost like an accurate counter-example to my argumentation on the blank traces.

Apart from the fact that it confirms that I have not got Hiroshi Sugimoto’s skills, this attempt gave me some ways of redefining what I was expecting about blank traces. They do not work in full mode with every kind of scrablings, white panels, white screens and other signs of emptiness. To be considered as symptoms, and consequently to attract our glances beyond the visible surface, blank traces have to be imperceptibly marked by time process. They happen several times discretely, just like wrinkles on a face.

Consequently, both the accumulation of that-has-been captured by the camera and progressive scrapes on aides-mémoires are examples of how to touch this enigmatic depth. Thanks to this accumulation of temporalities, our glance can thread each time in a new way through the infinity of meanings that have these temporal hallucinations.

As opposed to the automatic instantaneity praised in advertising, sense in photography emerges from a gradual period of time. So shoot. Review. Share. Enjoy. Just think.


Barthes, Roland (1980) 2000 Camera Lucida, London: Vintage.

Bryson, Norman 1996 Sugimoto’s Metabolic Photography, in Parkett N°46, pp.120-124.

Denson Roger 1996 Satori Among the Still Stills in Parkett N°46, pp.143-146

Didi-Huberman Georges, Devant l’Image, Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit.

Didi-Huberman Georges 1989 The Art of not describing Vermeer: The Detail and the Patch: in History of the Human Sciences, v. II, n. 2, pp. 135-169.

Foster Hal 1996 The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde of the End of the Century, Massachussetts: MIT Press.

Muir Robin 1997 John Deakin: Photographs, Rizzoli Publication

Sontag, Susan (1973) 1986 On Photography, pp. 3-24, London: Penguin Books.

Internet sources

Helfert Heike :

Illustrations Credits

Figure 1 Maya Dickerhof, 2001, Family
Figure 2 Fra Angelico (1400-1455), The Annunciation, San Marco’s church, Italy.
Figure 3 John Deakin, Lucian Freud during the 60’s.
Figure 4 Hiroshi Sugimoto, 1993, Theaters, Cinerama Dome, Hollywood.
Figure 5 self-made


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good to see you there ;)

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