INTERVIEW / CORRESPONDENCE
with the artist and photography theoretician, Doctor of Philosophy and professor emeritus, Gottfried Jäger. Author of the current publication: Abstrakte, konkrete und generative Fotografie [Abstract, concrete and generative photography]
Dear Gottfried Jäger,
You are known as a photographer, photography theoretician and former university educator in Germany. Due to your special engagement in the field of experimental photography, you were also able to present your works in the context of conceptual photography exhibitions abroad. In that you introduced the term “generative photography” to the art discourse, you were able to establish photography at the same level adjacent to painting and sculpture.
When I sent you my first publication in 2016, you appeared pleased about our little similarity: our interest in the philosopher and photography theoretician Vilém Flusser. In the following I would urge you to consider him further, especially regarding a coming generation of photographers or photographic-graphic artists who primarily create their images with the help of computer-controlled programmes.
According to Vilém Flusser, the philosophy of photography has the task of “playing against the apparatus”1, meaning, to design a strategy that can submit itself to coincidence and the necessity of human intention. You once aptly referred to this mission, which Flusser assigns to us and future generations, as a “cultural struggle”: “The human being must deceive the apparatus in its obstinacy and play against its rules if he doesn’t wish to submit to them. […] The unity of truth and loyalty, referred to at the start, thereby no longer refers to the correlation between image (medium) and object, but instead to that between image and subject. From a historical perspective, this means an increase in human influence on the system as a whole […].”2 As you yourself continue at this point, this is a “lovely idea” that you still saw being realised in the 1990s through “the history of compositional dealings with the photographic process” on the basis of several examples.
Which photographic artists would you highlight today in the face of the cultural struggle of the human being in a world dominated by apparatuses?
2020 is in some way also the “experiment” of a cultural life without physical spaces for encounter and communication, as well as of national demarcation. The digital apparatuses should be the saviours in this situation of a pandemic. Can culture take place, even when we do not come together? On the other hand, worldwide social and political unrest demonstrate how vehemently and probably unsuccessfully many people are revolting against the system as a whole. On which resources and possibilities should the young generation of experimental artists concentrate in such a situation? Do you see a sensible movement in art that makes it possible for the artist to participate in a common effort?
Dear Birgit Wudtke,
Many thanks for your friendly, even endearing introduction to a complete bundle of relevant questions However, I will not be able to answer them either individually or exhaustively. I have tended to avoid commenting on such “big” questions to date and was of the opinion that my works should express such corresponding “attitudes”. “To assert and articulate oneself in the cultural struggle of the human being in a world ruled by apparatuses”, as you write – wow! That sounds like Flusser. And you also cite him. Because, you know, his thought and his language have impressed me, and I can confirm that my encounters with him and his wife Edith have had a decisive impact on my attitudes and my work. I experienced a highly creative time with them.
Flusser respected my work in the darkroom and at the margins of my discipline and interpreted these “politically” as the expression of a “struggle” being carried out implicitly against the mainstream of the photographic community (R. H. Krauss). However, I myself would never have dared to say this with his linguistic acerbity and diction. It was first the external gaze, his gaze, that lent my work, concerned with form, even formalistic, a “political” sense and mission.
This is because “formalism” was and remains a term with an initially negative connotation. A battle cry, when we look back at the ideological conflicts of the 1970s between documentarists and visualists – at that time always still quite far away from autonomous photo art as we understand it today. A “formalist” was practically subject to an occupational ban in the GDR (East Germany), while he or she committed sacrilege (Pawek) in the West and practised “illegitimate” art (Bourdieu). The “technical-mechanical nature” (Honnef) of the medium presented an obstacle to autonomous photo art. However, that it was and is precisely this nature that distinguishes our and other subjects in a particular way and lends it autonomy among the visual arts was first recognised and addressed by people like Flusser. I am also profoundly grateful that I was able to encounter one of the few of them and draw strength from their arguments.
In order to also not leave it unmentioned here, in the interests of completeness, I would like to name the book Die Sichtbarkeit des Bildes. Geschichte und Perspektiven der formalen Ästhetik [The visibility of the image. History and perspectives of formal aesthetics] of the philosopher Lambert Wiesing. Its title almost anticipates the “necessity” of autonomous forms. They have made a career among terms of abstraction, objectification and construction in the history of ideas and art of the 20th century and proven themselves to be important and necessary. This work and the encounter with its author also decisively advanced my self-conception and that of my discipline (Reinbek 1997: ISBN 3-499-55579-4).
It is a generative discipline. It engenders its own figures. It possesses not only iconic and symbolic, but also structural, self-referential forms that mean “nothing” except for themselves. It also possesses, this a gift of the 1970s, the power of self-criticism and self-analysis, even self-abandonment, if we think of the multifaceted and surprising conceptual photography of the 1970s, with its self-reflexive figures and strings of figures of an in turn entirely independent pictorial language. It can leap up again at any time! Its photogenic substance can rise, also and especially today, given its reputed downfall in the vast mass of digitality. My teacher, Siegfried Baumann in Bielefeld, had already warned me about the amateurs of our craft, who were stripping us of our domains. Seventy years ago!
No, our discipline still holds many latent images and can still offer many surprises in its genetic programme. They assure its future as a discipline of varied applications and uses. This not only due to its innovative, technical-mechanical character but rather also and especially thanks to its rich history of ideas, of mind and of images, a fund that has long since arisen and taken effect.
How does this relate to your question? “In order to [achieve] a sensible movement in art”, I would today say that you need the other, the others, you need the other argument; you need the interdisciplinary debate, the superstructure, the theory, the language, the cooperation, and the critique. Flusser, to stick to the example, was not only my patron, but also my most avid critic. Thus, he described both my camera and his typewriter as “long since obsolete”: “What are you doing about it?” – I would not have dared on my own to say that my works had ever been referred to as a kind of liberation struggle, and thus “playing against the apparatus” in this underground way.
However, that was my goal. The will to develop my discipline from an “illegitimate” art (Bourdieu) to a “legitimate” one. This appears to have taken place in the meantime! “Photography”, in the German Wikipedia version, is: “eine bildgebende Methode“ [an imaging method]. Sensational! And nobody noticed it. A paradigm shift in Chinese whispers! I was filled with deep satisfaction reading this sentence. Especially when one incorporates the footnote. It refers to my book title “Fotografie als generatives System” [Photography as a generative system]. The reversal of the gaze appears to have been successful: “You do not take a photograph. You make it.” (Alfredo Jaar, 2013) This special thing about it has become common knowledge. The language, the word from the other side, managed this!
In response to your question about names, I would mention Tillmans as someone who accomplished this artistically, namely redefining an ordinary discipline like photography as an unusual one with extraordinary means. He knew how to call upon and use the wealth of means of our process undogmatically and thus lend expression to his curiosity and his vital energy. He was good at his job, an eclectic, an all-rounder? Yes, in the best sense of the word; he acts with artistic independence, surprisingly, places the photocopy next to the texture image. He is good at everything he does. He also laid down a marker politically, not only photographically, if we think about the posters he initiated and designed revolving around the Brexit around 2017. Convincing aesthetically and in their message. Belated congratulations are in order here!
However, I also receive so many impressive examples of young photography, with new means and methods, whose authors are as yet unknown, and who nonetheless place entirely unusual and surprising signposts in the landscape of photographic images. And, so that we don’t stop at the claim and the one big name, I would like to mention a less well-known figure: Michael Järnecke from Buxtehude, who erected a convincing memorial to his city in 2015/2016 with an impressively beautiful and scientifically and stringently underpinned book with “animated photography”, as he calls it; a memorial both to his city and equally to the autonomous pictorial language of photography (ISBN 3-924265-10-0). Wonderful!
1 Flusser, Vilém: Für eine Philosophie der Fotografie [For a philosophy of photography], European Photography, ed.
Andreas Müller-Pohle, Edition Flusser, Volume 3, Göttingen 1983, p. 73
2 Jäger, Gottfried: Abstrakte, konkrete und generative Fotografie [Abstract, concrete and generative photography]. Gesammelte Schriften [Collected writings]; Edition photogramme, ed. Bernd Stiegler, Wilhelm Fink Verlag, Paderborn, 2016, p.176