In looking at both contemporary exhibitions as well as photographs as they are used in everyday aesthetic applications, one notices that imperfection plays a key role. Far removed from the ideals of the Group f/64, New Objectivity, or even the Bechers and their school, to name a few positions, photographs that consciously employ technical errors have become common sense in photography. There are photographers who use deficient cameras; Lomography aficionados sell their photographs along with this type of camera in stores in major cities; snapshots are in demand, and blurriness is the aesthetic rule. Imperfection is the new ideal of contemporary photography, even if celebrated, staged, and represented in a kind of perfection. My thesis is that imperfection serves as the contemporary modus of the real in photography. For this very reason photography has become enamored of and committed to inaccuracy, because it enables a form of representation that aims to conceptualize reality in a unique aesthetic manner. This is a strange vestige of the photographic, which, far removed from the epistemic contexts of the 19th and early 20th century, conveys an aesthetization of the ordinary. Imperfection transforms every object into a photographic reality, which emphasizes a different regime of images precisely by eschewing and renouncing the perfection of technology.
A look to history may help make this more comprehensible. In examining the history of photography, one notices that towards the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century a new type of manual suddenly appears, which is primarily concerned with preventing mistakes. Sometimes conceived as veritable primers spelling out the ABCs of the successful photograph, these books ascribe to a normative program in regard to both technical as well as aesthetic errors. They are intended for amateurs who do not yet know what has long been common knowledge to professionals. The books formulate the rules of an “orthographic” practice. Soon, however, in the second half of the 1920s there emerge alternative projects, which attempt, in contrast, to translate such supposed mistakes into a modernist photographic practice. The most famous is Werner Gräff’s Es kommt der neue Fotograf! (Here comes the new photographer!) from 1929.
The conflict between a normative orthophotography, on the one hand, and an experimental deviation, on the other, is merely a brief chapter in an alternative history of photography that is based on productive mistakes. This kind of history has yet to be written. It would begin already in the early age of photography, in which “epistemic mistakes” were part of the repertoire which was fine-tuned precisely because of the mistakes. A focal period would be the late 19th century with the amateur photography movement, on the one hand, and spiritualistic photography, on the other, and it would then branch into multiple directions in the 20th century. The most important aspects are the so-called snapshot photographers and all the recent trends towards exploring the low quality camera as a possible means of producing alternative images, in the literal sense of the word.
These tendencies are not merely concerned with mistakes and their productive application but also with the discovery of photography as a visualization process of the unexpected. Photography is intended to show and materialize in images something that could not have been planned in advance. The aim of the project is an alternate history of photography as the happy exploration of error and as an investigation of imperfection. I invite you to an exploration of such an alternative theory and history of photography.
Bernd Stiegler (*1964) is professor for German Literature and Media History at the University of Konstanz (Germany) with a specific focus on the history of photography. Recent publications include:Theoriegeschichte der Photographie, München: Fink 2006, Montagen des Realen. Photographie als Reflexionsmedium und Kulturtechnik, München: Fink 2009; Belichtete Augen. Optogramme oder das Versprechen der Retina, Frankfurt/Main: S. Fischer 2011.Show