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  • Photography, Memory and Ekphrasis Justin Coombes

    Submission in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the degree

    PhD (by Project), awarded by the

    Royal College of Art

    Submitted August 2012

  • 2

    Abstract: Recollected Places: Photography, Memory and Ekphrasis

    The practice component of my PhD, ‘Recollected Places’, consists of exhibitions combining my work as

    an artist in still photography, video and installation and books that combine text and the photographic

    image. My written thesis, ‘Photography, Memory and Ekphrasis’ looks at a number of artworks from the

    1950s to the present day which employ the photography-ekphrasis relationship.

    ‘Ekphrasis’ is the verbal description of visual works of art, for example, Homer's imaginary evocation of

    Achilles' shield in The Iliad. It became the object of intense academic scrutiny during the 1980s, as part of

    cultural theory’s emergent ‘visual turn’ and its attendant concentration upon image-text relations. The

    Iliad’s extended description of the shield, and the world of peace that it describes, are noticeably different

    from the ‘real’ events of the Trojan wars described throughout the rest of the poem. However, the

    ekphrastic scenes, whilst being distinctly different in tone, are arguably as ‘lifelike’ as the rest of the

    action described. So, from this very earliest recorded instance of ekphrasis, we can see how the mode

    opens up fundamental ontological questions about art and its place in the world that would be highlighted

    by conceptual art almost three millennia later. What holds more presence? The physical work itself, or the

    idea of the work? In a similar fashion, the invention of photography raised questions that were not

    methodically articulated until the 1980s. Thus a body of research from the early 1990s onwards has

    addressed the relationship between ekphrasis and photography. However, the vast majority focuses on

    ekphrastic writing about photography: ‘poems for photographs’, in James Heffernan’s phrase.

    The small extant literature that focuses on photography’s relationship to ekphrasis tends to emphasise the

    technical aspects of the medium. My research is both the first book-length study that I am aware of to

    examine ekphrasis’s relationship to photography and the first such study that I know of to be written by a

    practising visual artist. I consider recent writing on ekphrasis through the prism of various psychoanalytic

    theories, particularly those from recent debates on photography and melancholia. I examine the absence of

    the ‘lost object’ that is both the very condition for ekphrasis and melancholia and a precondition of all

    photographs: simultaneously trace of the object and reminder of its absence.

    Copyright Statement

    This text represents the submission for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at the Royal College of Art.

    This copy has been supplied for the purpose of research for private study, on the understanding that it is

    copyright material, and that no quotation from the thesis may be published without proper

    acknowledgment.

  • 3

    Contents

    p4 List of accompanying material

    p5 Preface

    p9 Acknowledgements

    p9 Author’s declaration

    p10 Chapter 1: Words, Objects and Knowledge: Introduction, with notes on

    methodology

    p17 Chapter 2: The lost artwork: Ekphrasis from Homer to John Ashbery

    p31 Chapter 3: The lost object: Melancholia and some theories of memory

    p47 Chapter 4: Erroneous Representations: Explorations of memory and ekphrasis

    p73 Chapter 5: Writing off photography: Conclusions

    p78 Appendix 1: Recollected Places: A critique of my research by practice

    p88 Bibliography and Sources

    p94 Appendix 2: Illustrations

  • 4

    List of accompanying material

    All of the works that constitute the practice component, which are also a submission in partial fulfillment

    of the requirements of this PhD (by Project), are listed in chronological order below. Appendix 2

    illustrations are listed in normal type below and are found at the back of this thesis. Examiners should also

    consider the accompanying artworks and documentation in the list. These are films (documented here as

    Quicktime movies) and books (documented here as PDF files), collected on a DVD and highlighted

    below in bold text.

    • 6a ‘Love’s Knowledge (Inventory for N)’, Looped digital video, 1min 21 sec, 2008, supplied

    here as a Quicktime file on DVD • 6b ‘Love’s Knowledge (Inventory for N)’, Installation view at the exhibition, A Light Divided,

    Louise T. Blouin Institute, London, 2008 • 6c ‘Grief Tree’, Artist’s book, 28 x 32cm, 2009, supplied here as a PDF file on DVD • 6d ‘Grief Tree’, transparencies in lightboxes (55 x 65cm), framed lightjet prints (100 x 140cm)

    and printed text handouts (dimensions variable), 2009: Installation view at Valentines Mansion,

    Ilford, Essex, 2009 • 6e ‘Grief Tree’: Installation view at Leighton House Museum, London, 2010 • 6f ‘Couriers of Kite Hill’, transparency in lightbox (120 x 450cm) and video installation

    (1min 44 sec, dimensions variable): Video component supplied here as a Quicktime file on

    DVD • 6g, h, i, j, k ‘Couriers of Kite Hill’, Installation views and details at the offices of WilmerHale,

    London, 2010 • 6l ‘Hokkaido Postcard’, Artist’s book, 28 x 32cm, 2011, supplied here as a PDF file on DVD

    • 6m ‘Hokkaido Postcard’ Lightjet photographs mounted on aluminium (each 100 x 140cm) and

    screen printed texts on paper (dimensions variable), installation view at the Royal College of Art,

    London, 2010

    • 6n ‘Hokkaido Postcard’ Installation view at group exhibition, ‘A Man Asleep’, LM Projects, Los

    Angeles, 2010 • 6o ‘Halcyon Song’, Artist’s book, 28 x 32cm, 20102, supplied here as a PDF file on DVD • 6p, q, r and s ‘Halcyon Song’, Lightjet photographs mounted on aluminium (each 100 x 237cm)

    and vinyl lettering transferred onto wall (dimensions variable): Installation views at solo

    exhibition, Paradise Row Project Space, London, 2012

  • 5

    Preface

    ‘Ekphrasis’ is the verbal description of visual works of art, for example, Homer's evocation of Achilles'

    shield in The Iliad (see Fig 1a). The dialogue, the harmony and the battle between word and image are

    central points of enquiry in both the ‘practical’ and written components of this PhD. The written

    component introduces ekphrasis, memory and melancholia as areas of enquiry that are used to critique

    historical models for my research by practice: photo-books, films, novels and other art forms from 1948 to

    the present day. My research by practice, which I refer to as ‘Recollected Places’, includes books and

    exhibitions that combine the written word and photography. Whilst there are a number of overlapping

    themes and points of interest, there is not a direct relationship, in terms of the modes of enquiry, between

    my written thesis and my own creative practice, as detailed in the Appendix.

    Ekphrasis became the object of intense academic scrutiny during the 1980s, as part of cultural theory’s

    emergent ‘visual turn’ and its attendant concentration upon image-text relations. The Iliad’s extended

    description of the shield, and the world of peace that it describes, are noticeably different from the ‘real’

    events of the Trojan wars described throughout the rest of the poem. However, the ekphrastic scenes,

    whilst being distinctly different in tone, are arguably as ‘lifelike’ as the rest of the action described. So,

    from this perhaps very earliest recorded instance of ekphrasis, we can see how the mode opens up

    fundamental ontological questions about art and its place in the world. Does the artwork or its referent

    hold a greater presence, and a greater claim on the truth? In a similar fashion, the invention of

    photography created epistemological questions that remained largely unasked until the 1980s. Thus a body

    of research from the early 1990s onwards has addressed the relationship between ekphrasis and

    photography. However, the vast majority of writings focuses on ekphrastic writing about photography:

    ‘poems for photographs’, in James Heffernan’s phrase. The extant literature that focuses on photography’s

    relationship to ekphrasis tends to emphasise the technical aspects of the medium. In this study, I consider

    recent writing on ekphrasis (WJT Mitchell, TJ Clark, James Heffernan et al.) in the light of certain

    psychoanalytic concepts, as they are deployed in recent debates on photography and melancholia (Rachel

    Moore, Jacques Ranciere et al.). I examine the absence of the ‘lost object’ that is both the very condition

    for ekphrasis and melancholia and a precondition of all photographs: simultaneously trace of the object

    and reminder of its absence.

    There is a need for a study of ekphrasis that is rooted not in comparative literature but in the fine arts.

    Whilst my close