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"Beyond the Facts": Photography and Form

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Organizer: Tavid Mulder

Co-Organizer: Jaime Gonzalez

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When questioned on the simplicity of his photographs of a changing landscape in what he called the New West, Robert Adams answered that “photographs are only convincing if the photographer pays attention to the facts of life, but photographs have to point beyond the facts.” Photography’s dependence on the facts—that is, its indexicality—demands that we attend to the world in front of the camera in its historical concreteness and geographical specificity: natural settings, colonized spaces, or, in the case of Adams, man-altered landscapes. At the same time, photography asserts its aesthetic possibilities for making sense of that concrete world by pointing beyond the facts, making claims beyond what remains visible in the image. This seminar seeks to do justice to this duality and tension inherent to the medium, asking how photography’s form—composition, frame, seriality, stitching— transforms its indexicality and reframes critical discussions about art, interpretation, politics and capitalism.

From Bernd and Hilla Becher’s typologies of outdated industrial buildings to Andreas Gursky’s large-scale, digitally manipulated landscapes, the assertion of form renews claims about photography’s social ontology, political commitment and nominally democratic appeal. While theorists like Ariella Azoulay (The Civil Contract of Photography) and John Roberts (Photography and its Violations) hold that photography’s fundamentally empathic documentary practice pierces the realm of social abstraction and grounds its capacity for disclosure, Walter Benn Michaels (The Beauty of a Social Problem) and Nicholas Brown (Autonomy) argue precisely the inverse—that it is photography’s formal separation from the world, and refusal of affect, that affords the possibility of abstract representation.

This seminar invites papers that address the intersection of aesthetic form and photography across historical periods and geographical contexts. We ask: how does photography register the objective world and express artistically the attitude or point of view of the photographer? How does photography navigate the tension between the abstract and concrete, form and content, meaning and experience, universal and particular, art and documentary?

Paper topics might include, but are not limited to:

Photography, automatism and the philosophy of action

Photography’s relation to authorship and intention

Representation of uneven development and social spaces of capital

Digital photography and its relation to indexicality

Modernist conceptions of medium-specificity

Autonomy and form

Photography as money, circulation of images

Photography’s historical development and form (35mm, digital, black and white, color)

Genre: street photography, landscape, portraiture, journalism e.g. war photography

Contact info: Tavid Mulder ( or Jaime Acosta Gonzalez (jg272@duke).

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