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Jane Tormey, Photographic Realism. Late Twentieth-Century Aesthetics

Manchester, Manchester University Press, 212p. ISBN 978-0-7190-8156-9. £60 (hardback)
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Jane Tormey, Photographic Realism. Late Twentieth-Century Aesthetics. Manchester, Manchester University Press, 212p. ISBN 978-0-7190-8156-9. £60 (hardback).

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1Jane Tormey ". . . discusses uses of photography in the context of art practice, and relates them to wider cultural debates" to quote the back cover. The book is divided in two parts, part 1 acting as a sort of theoretical introduction, and the much longer part 2 developing six different modalities of realism in contemporary photographic practice (dialogic, poetic, fictional, phenomenal, political, discursive). Ms Tormey's program is very promising: "My context is the cultural exchange reframing practice and the development of photographic aesthetic following modernism, which is largely determined by American photography and its extension in Europe" (5) when "post-structural aesthetics" — a term she prefers over the contested "postmodern" — operated a massive renewal in photography, ending the modernist belief in the metaphorical power of images and the supremacy of the artist over his (passive) subject. This revolution eventually reconciled "the visual and sensational [here meaning relating to the senses] with the conceptual and ideological in the developing photographic aesthetic." (182) Ms Tormey brings an enormous amount of (contemporary) philosophical knowledge to the task, mainly drawing from what has come to be known as "French Theory" (Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva, with occasional forays into Lyotard) in the Anglo-American world.

2And this is where a good idea turns sour. What could have been an attempt at making sense of contemporary practices from the point of view of aesthetics — that is to say of their creators — turns into quite the opposite, i.e. trying to find Derrida, Kristeva, Foucault & alii in the photographs. And the repeated call to the "interdisciplinary" mantra — rather a hollow one here I must say — hardly helps. As very often with "theory", it is the tail wagging the dog. Tormey's extensive philosophical knowledge turns into impedimenta when she makes long developments on theoretical writings to reach rather commonplace conclusions as with portraits (44-45) when she calls in Kristeva and Lacan to define the engagement with the viewer in Nan Goldin's pictures as mere "staring back".

3But my main reservation towards the book is that it conceives contemporary (art) photography once again from the point of view of single viewer — the critic — totally ignoring the actual reception of the works in context. The result is that while making lavish use of theory, Ms Tormey falls into the too common trap of impressionistic criticism, or at best into a prescriptive — instead of exegetic — posture (eg : "What drives us fundamentally is the motivation to retrieve what we have lost . . . " 113). This posture is made even more questionable by the total absence of historical reference. The images under discussion are said to form a coherent entity in time ("contemporary photography") on the one hand, and at the same time to be completely self referential and to exist outside the historical mutation of the art scene and of societies. Similarly, the context of showing those images — something the very photographers under consideration pay so much attention to — seems totally absent (eg with Mapplethorpe, Calle, Serrano & Ruscha, 112-13).

4Those are very serious reservations on my part I realize, and they undermine much of the validity of the book's argument, if not its intrinsic qualities.

5For the book is not without quality. Ms Tormey knows her photographers, and she manages to touch some good points and even make her argument clearly and elegantly; not surprisingly, however, this occurs when theory moves away from the foreground. I for one liked when she launches into little sequences (rendered in italics) where she reads photographs assuming the voice of one of the philosophers she likes, but also assuming her own voice and really tackling the material directly. Discussion of the photograph as "eventful space" is illuminating, and that of "the abject," after Kristeva, is definitely cogent, but Ms Tormey stops short of a question she should have asked — even within the context of her philosophical references — that of the irrepresentable.

6For she never comes to question the existence of the image itself — why do we make images, and why do we "seek" representational forms even to question representation, why do we keep making portraits if simply to "say" that making a portrait is impossible (61), or of the street (Martha Rosler, The Bowery) if the descriptive systems are inadequate (171)? The last part — dealing with Chinese photography — is definitely interesting in that Ms Tormey defines Chinese practice as displaying "an absorption of conceptual practice without the complication of an interim legacy of straight photography" (183) and could be seen as an almost experimental case study (I suspect, however, that this view of a past-less/memory-less, Chinese photography is somewhat of a fantasy, despite the very real iconoclastic break of the Cultural Revolution).

7But those moments are far too rare in a book which I often found clumsily written. Which raises another question, that of the intended audience. The structure of chapters (with lists for further reading and rather clear conclusions), the long introductory first part hint at a student audience. In which case it misses the point as its style and more generally rhetoric are so very bloated that I would say it remains pretty much beyond the reach of most students and hardly figures as a model of clear writing. Sometimes I was also wondering whether the book had gone through any kind of serious editing: many passages would need heavy rewriting to make sense, or simply to say what they have to say in plain English (mind you, I do not believe that everything is simple, but I confidently say that the rather common ideas presented in this book could be laid out in much more common language, and that would not make them less interesting, rather the contrary). It would be easy to quote passages which taken out of context would sound absolutely foolish, but I will not. And yet, what can be said of the fact that when commenting on Bloody Merry by Russian photographer Arsen Savadov, the author fails to make out the figure of a torero riding a woman and speaks instead of "a young man wielding a sword" (33) in a "Russian uniform" (35)?

8But more fundamentally I find the book does not add anything to two earlier publications (which it does quote), Berger & Mohr, Another Way of Telling (1982) on the one hand and Victor Burgin (ed), Thinking Photography (1982) on the other. Three decades ago, all the ideas that Ms Tormey tries to convey had already been stated and in rather more accessible language. Yet the issue that still needs addressing today is not the transparency of the photograph — something that was dealt with long ago and that digital photography has paradoxically totally blown away — but the fact that the practice of representation/recording remains central to our culture and our sensuous experience.

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Référence électronique

Jean KEMPF, « Jane Tormey, Photographic Realism. Late Twentieth-Century Aesthetics », E-rea [En ligne], 11.2 | 2014, mis en ligne le 15 juillet 2014, consulté le 17 décembre 2017. URL :

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