cogent reasons for looking at multiplicity within these photographic artworks.
And thereby, these theoretical foundations provide not only a context, but a
mandate, for an art of plurality; equally, these visual works explore plurality in
praxis in ways that embody and extend available theoretical frames.
Given the parameters of this discussion, I will exclude from this consid-
eration multiple images that were the predecessors of cinema, like those of
Muybridge, for example, as well as zoetropes and other mechanisms whose
processes build in multiplicity. I wish to focus on photographic images that
one would expect ordinarily to be singular, as in the ubiquitous references to
still images as if of frozen moments in time. For the sake of discussion, I must
also limit the range of cultural critics, philosophers and theorists whose work
I address. While the majority referred to here are European based, indige-
nous cultures have a great deal to offer and I have included several references
here that are of equal importance to their western counterparts. Additionally,
I have used abbreviated references to particular philosophers in many places,
understanding that lengthy explanations and interpretations of these major
works are beyond the scope of this article.
What I will argue is that post-war phenomenology, in combination with
the works of cultural critics such as Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin,
followed by the works of French post-structuralists, change the notion of
the seeing-eye by differencing the self and laying down a moral and politi-
cal agenda for plurality in addition to the aesthetic and cognitive differencing
of the phenomenologists. Reinforcing this idea of differencing, the practices
of indigenous Maori and Ojibwe cultures, as two examples of many across
the world, begin with blessings from the ordinal points in every gathering,
understanding the implicit positioning in standing at different orientations.
In covering this ground as both spatial and conceptual points of view, I argue
that artistic perceptions must, of necessity, be multiple rather than singular, if
they adhere to these tenets. Perspective that functions as a perceptual ‘gath-
ering’ rather than an insistence on representation seems more appropriate to
this type of world-view. This is, in effect, a translation of theoretical thought
into creative practice, and vice versa; the insights from a creative practice of
plurality may inform theory. This has profound implications for the way that
the visual arts are taught, and suggests at the very least resistance to entirely
single points of perspective.
Without wishing to try the reader’s patience, one more distinction needs
clarification here: I wish to distinguish between the terms multiplicity and
plurality. Since I am applying this argument to visual practice, I will use the
term ‘multiple’ to refer to the application or use of more than one point of
view in the technical process of creating an image. Multiplicity will therefore
incorporate more than one image, moment, viewpoint or physical location
in a single piece of work. Plurality, by contrast, is a term I use to discuss
this in a more abstract and less physical sense; plurality imparts a conno-
tation of the metaphysical aspects of differencing, and may be inspired by
elements such as an appeal to memory, gendering, cultural or psychological
Benjamin and Barthes have a lot to say on the subject of how photographs
affect the viewer. To summarize Benjamin’s take on the camera as a mecha-
nism, as he outlined in 1936, he argues that the original and non-reproduced
work of art has an aura that does not exist in artwork that is reproduced (i.e. for
our purposes, photography). He considers a photograph to be ‘an image of an
image’, aura-less so to speak. He considers the loss of the aura as the loss of
In praise of multiplicity
single authorship – a machine has intervened between the artist and viewer.
He becomes keenly aware of a new aesthetic at work when he writes:
… the camera intervenes with the resources of its lowerings and lift-
ings, its interruptions and isolations, its extensions and accelerations, its
enlargements and reductions. The camera introduces us to unconscious
optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.
(Benjamin  1968: 237)
The camera-machine as intermediary does not remove the human element;
it mediates the process and couches thinking in different form. If we race
ahead 75 years to our own time, we move this thought forward to the tech-
nology available now. The digital camera and digital image manipulation of
photographic images means that in addition to all of Benjamin’s technologi-
cal ‘lowerings and liftings’, we also have the benefit of stepping outside of
fixed time and place, of multiple exposures, of multiple lightings, of myriad
perspectives combined in various ways to form one photographic artwork. His
prescient words linking ‘unconscious optics’ and ‘unconscious impulses’ rings
in our ears as we consider how these multiple perspectives echo contempo-
rary leanings towards the multiple over the singular. But first, before continu-
ing this line of thought, let us take a moment to consider Barthes’ thoughts on
the mechanical intervention in photography before returning to Benjamin.
In Camera Lucida (1981), Barthes takes us on a sentimental journey by
means of photographs, in search of his lost mother. The photo stands in
contrast to the past, which he implicitly mourns as a distant land. He seeks
photographic representation of his mother as she truly was – and for him, he
finds this ‘truthful’ representation in a childhood photo of her, long before
he was born. The fact that he remembered her as his version of her troubled
him; the difference between internalized memory and so-called documentary
photographs left him bereft. The contrast between what the camera produces
as a conventionally understood image and, by contrast, the photograph as a
piercing image also troubled him (Barthes 1981). This piercing moment was
a punctum, as he called it, but may be for our purposes one element of the
humanly internalized aspect of seeing. This is significant for our purposes
because Barthes separates the ordinary from extraordinary, the mechanically
produced image from the humanly internalized and felt image. Felländer’s
work (Figure 1) moves the notion of punctum to another register by trans-
versing space and time. In his practice, the photograph captures more than
the piercing moment; he may be said to aspire towards the piercing journey
in his images.
Francesa Woodman’s photographs, by comparison, capture the paradoxi-
cal contrast of the punctum by timing the ‘untimely’ in space and time, evok-
ing the quality of the multiple but often ethereal ‘presences’, spectral in their
evocation of half present and half absent figures.
Now, returning momentarily to Benjamin, this contrast is also echoed in
the assertion that a photographer produces an essentially political work of art
(by virtue of its mechanical intervention) in a process of composing ‘multi-
ple fragments’. This leads to a ‘… thoroughgoing permeation of reality with
mechanical equipment’. The key contrast here is that Barthes is concerned
with what is mechanically produced vs what is humanly internalized; in
Benjamin’s writing we find him aligning mechanical production with the
political, thereby expressing human values through the mechanical methods
for an ‘ecology of images’, demands a layered, polyvalent approach to points
of view. This is nothing new: artists since the advent of humankind have made
visible the mystery of what is unseen in the seen, and valued the differences
in these perceptions.
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In praise of multiplicity
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Modeen, M. (2013), ‘In praise of multiplicity: Pluralism and contemporary
photographic art practices’, Journal of Visual Art Practice 12: 2, pp. 135–147,
Mary Modeen is a senior artist/academic at DJCAD, University of Dundee.
She teaches undergraduates and postgraduates both fine art and interdiscipli-
nary studies, and supervises Ph.D. candidates in interdisciplinary practice-led
studies. Her own research combines perception and place-based research,
connecting cultural values, history and embodied experience through creative
art and writing.
E-mail: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
Mary Modeen has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents
Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work in the format that was
submitted to Intellect Ltd.
intellect books & journals Performing Arts Visual Arts Film Studies Cultural & Media Studies
publishers of original thinking | www.intellectbooks.com
This book gives a critical account of four of the most signiﬁcant
avant-garde Chinese art groups and associations of the
late 1970s and 1980s. It is made up largely of conversations
conducted by the author with members of these organizations
and provide insight into the circumstances of artistic
production during the decade leading up to the Tiananmen
Square Massacre of 1989. The conversations are supported by
an extended introduction and other comprehensive notes that
give a detailed overview of the historical circumstances under
which the groups and associations developed.
Paul Gladston is associate professor of critical theory and visual
culture in the Department of Culture, Film, and Media at the
University of Nottingham, UK.
‘Avant-garde’ Art Groups in China,
ISBN 978-1-84150-715-6 | 155pp
£24.95, $40.00 | 2013
Paperback | 230x170mm
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