At a time when changes in photography and associated technology and media are rapidly taking place, it is important that the theoretical framework surrounding photography adjusts to those changes. In this paper I examine the use of technology by the Social Reformer turned photographer Jacob Riis and propose what I have termed a ‘Parallelist theory’, (using both the Greek sense use of ‘Para’ meaning beside, beyond, past, as well as to one side), which blurs the distinction between theories of art history, technological/scientific theory and ontology, acknowledging each and identifying a fracture or separation between them. I acknowledge too that parallelist theory may suggest a temporal dimension and that each may be coiled and overlap with each other, however, this will be part of a longer discourse.
Embedded within Riis’ appropriation of photography and the assimilation of technological advances in lighting, was his belief in religion and a reformist agenda which not only used light in its technical form, to create an exposure, but in its ideological form to shed the light of salvation. His focus on the poor follows precedents set earlier in the century by Redemptionist artists such Gustave Doré whose use of light followed traditional Christian doctrines. His images, shown publicly in lantern shows, satisfied another desire, to satisfy the fetishistic tendencies of a middle class who were afraid to set foot in tenements, seen by Riis himself as a place “prolific of untold depravities,” (Riis, J (1890) How the Other Half Lives, P.10)
Jean Baudrillard in an essay in 1999 (translated by Francois Debrix in 2000) discusses the impact of technology and the endless succession of images, identifying that in each “…there is always one thing, and one thing only, that remains: the light.” Light is the one constant in photography; we acknowledge its importance only when it becomes obtrusive or announces itself in a dramatic way, only then do we begin to acknowledge its influence on the aesthetic and meaning associated with it. Photographers themselves have always known the power and influence of light and have been seduced by, however, little has been made of the relationship light has within a wider cultural and technically progressive society.
By using the work and practices of Riis I will demonstrate how ‘Parallelist theory’ can be used to show there exists a fractured coherence between the science and technologies of photography in particular his use of flash, the rhetoric of art history and the hegemonic ideologies of the twenty first century. Far from being a battleground of competing theories I will show that by examining the porous boundaries that exist between different theories, one can develop a greater sense of their interdependence.
Flash Photography, Jacob Riis, Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, Vilem Flusser.
©Mark Hall 2015