Before the Catastrophe
by Dr. Nicolas Liucci-Goutnikov
In this collection there is no picture of the catastrophe. For each one of these amateur photographers the World Trade Center is not only a captured memory. It stands also as “my” World Trade Center, that is to say an object related to a highly subjective – not to say affective – experience, as shown by the comments left under most of the pictures deposited here (“deposited” indeed; on MY_WTC, all the pictures are properly deposited). You don’t keep images of your relatives’ death, and here the World Trade Center towers appear fully “alive.” Does anyone need to see the collapse of the towers again in order to put it in pictures? No. And therefore yes: there is no picture of the catastrophe here, but obviously I can’t get it out of my mind.
This collection by Stefka Ammon and Robert Ziegler is indexed. Chronologically: I can check to see the towers under construction, back in 1970. I can also see what they looked like in the year of my birth, or when I first traveled to New York City. Another parameter is point of view. I can see pictures taken from the rooftop, from the ferry, pictures taken from the streets or the plaza … and maybe recognize what I have seen “with my own eyes.” Such an index could have infinite entries, applying to any spatial or pictorial element of the image itself: portraits vs. landscapes, number of people shown, range of the shot (long/medium/close), angle of the shot, etc. And as the collection grows, it would surely be interesting to multiply the entries. There are a lot of indexes in the art of today, multiple attempts to bring together iconographic archives on specific subjects: there is one collecting postcards from Niagara Falls, another trying to constitute an “atlas” of pictorial imagery, yet another that compiles photographs found at flea markets. MY_WTC is an ongoing project in this line. But here the attempt at classification anticipates the huge number of pictures that such a project could bring together, such that only by indexing the collection could one look through it. A huge number of pictures, surely millions and millions, due to the universal accessibility of the internet as well as the extreme banality of the subject. Who came to New York without taking a picture of the World Trade Center? In MY_WTC the logic is very simple: collecting pictures in which (at least a part of) the World Trade Center appears. But in practice, thanks to free interpretation of this rule and through imitation, MY_WTC has become a large collection of private snapshots where people appear with the World Trade Center towers somewhere in the frame. In that sense it is properly a “MY” experience, because the architectural structure itself is hardly distinguished from the experience of the photographer and his or her subject.
Most of the images in the collection are indeed simple tourist portraits, which inexorably call to mind photography as a middlebrow art. In the well-trodden footsteps of Bourdieu, I can see in those portraits a photographic practice based on their representational function. Here, people and monuments are truly represented: that is the essential reason for the pictures’ existence. These pictures have a use – they work as souvenirs. And what strikes us first is their banality. Apart from some “drrramatic” images – to quote Brecht – where the composition denotes a certain inclination towards effect (aesthetic, stylistic, emotional, etc.), what dominates the corpus is its utter banality. The framing of the pictures demonstrates the ordinary and naive attempt to represent the human figure(s) and the towers together in the same picture, sometimes awkwardly, certifying in that way that the person represented has really been in New York City. Such an approach to photography relies of course on the indexical dimension of the medium, according to which a photographic picture is a trace – the trace of the real, of a past reality: “Yes, I (we) have been there”. Furthermore, the World Trade Center sometimes appears as the main element in the picture, but not always: it can simply be the skyline of Manhattan, from which the two long shapes of the towers “naturally” emerge as landmarks, as signs of power. It would be wrong to say that the pictures in this collection are all pictures of the World Trade Center – we say it today, now that we know what has happened. The World Trade Center may appear “by chance,” as an element of the landscape caught by accident in the snapshot (see picture 47). Most of the time, the focal point of the pictures is the human figure: most of the time, therefore, the picture is a portrait with the World Trade Center (somewhere in the frame).
Banality imposes itself through a series of commonplaces. The first commonplace of all is surely the commonplace of poses, which are invariably the poses of “tourist portraits.” A standing figure poses in front of the camera, sometimes in a studiously sophisticated pose (44, or 30) recalling the classical topos of portraiture (hand on the knee, hands on hips, etc.), sometimes in the partially spontaneous rigid pose of the person who wants to be photographed without showing it. Very often, a smile appears. This is maybe the most universal commonplace in tourist portraits: “I am in New York City and I enjoy it” (“I must enjoy it,” as Slavoj Žižek would say). Even if the person represented is obviously not at ease with the camera, he or she smiles (in picture 5, Madame X crosses her arms in a very defensive posture while smiling openly). It is interesting to note that all those poses are quite similar throughout the thirty years covered by the collection. As a matter of fact, clothes and image color and texture are often the only parameters that allow us to date the pictures.
Then, somewhere in the picture, another commonplace always appears: the World Trade Center towers – a prominent signifier that stands for itself and, of course, for a myriad of things: New York City, the United States, the dominance of the United States, the dominance of capitalism, etc. Being an overwhelming out-of-human-scale building, it is not easy to represent. You can be photographed in the towers or on their rooftop, but then you don’t really see the towers themselves in the picture. You have to be photographed at a reasonable distance from it, because when you are too close, the building’s shape bends and warps. But when you are far from it, as in most of the pictures in the collection, the World Trade Center towers are simply one of the buildings in the lower Manhattan skyline. But whatever the framing and the centering of the towers in the picture, when we try to project ourselves into a pre-September-11 period, the coexistence of the signifiers (“tourist poses” + “smiles” + “World Trade Center”) seems in complete and perfect congruity: everything is in its place in the order of tourist cliché. As Barthes would say: in the linearity of studium. The affect invested in the picture seems to be medium, or poor. The viewer from before the catastrophe is totally safe: nothing is coming to hurt him. He is in the presence of a gentle and common desire to represent – to represent a person somewhere near the World Trade Center towers, using an identical range of codes. The project may be called MY_WTC, and it may indeed group traces of diverse subjective experiences, but most of the pictures are quite similar. They are quite all the same. It is a “MY” World Trade Center collection – a collection of personal traces – only for those who really have been living the individual experiences of which photography is the trace. For the rest, MY_WTC is nothing more than a collection of stereotypes (apart from some unique cases) not far removed from Fiona Tan’s Norwegian indexes. Such a collection shows that people may not share the same culture, yet they are defined by the same type of practice.
But the interest of MY_WTC goes beyond mere iconographic investigation. Obviously, the collapse of the towers has transmuted the smoothness of the pictures and created a brutal discontinuity. Of course, for the present-day viewer, a long shot of the pre-2001 New York skyline tends to reduce itself to the towers – the missing signifier in today’s landscape, sort of an A-object that calls for recurring grief and mourning. It is impossible not to notice their presence. My eyes are caught by the towers, terrible signifiers dominating the picture with all that I have seen on TV and all that I have known. So suddenly, something that was meant to be smooth, lighthearted and for fun has lost the sweet triteness of a tourist portrait. The order of studium is perturbed by the reality of which pictures are the traces, a reality that has been tragically turned upside down. A familiar place – a commonplace – is not here anymore. Here appears what Barthes calls a “heterology,” “the frictions of diverse and opposed languages.” The signification of a major signifier within the picture has changed, and suddenly the gentle patina of the image tragically splits. But this split has little to do with Barthes’ punctum, something that would come to hurt the viewer in an obscure, ambiguous, undetermined, subjective way. Here, we all know what is so striking: the towers appear without ambivalence, and their symbolic strength is not that metonymic. They are much more the metaphor of a catastrophe. They stare at us in the same way most of the human figures stare at us in the picture: as a fascinum, an evil spell – the evil eye that cannot help announcing the catastrophe.
Bourdieu has shown how, in the mainstream use of photography, signifiers are totally subordinated to signification. This explains why everything in those pictures appears without any indecisiveness, that is to say raw and ultra-significant. But now that the image of the towers stands for catastrophe instead of standing for a powerful New York or a dominating United States of America, there is no more continuity in the picture: how can those figures smile? How can they keep on taking those happy tacky poses? MY_WTC is an interesting case where history has acted as Lacan’s point de capiton, as an anchoring point, a key moment when a signifier receives its signification retroactively. As if a group of words were waiting for the end of a sentence to receive their meaning. That is why I do not feel the irritation here that Barthes felt in the face of photojournalism, with its routine emphasis on contrasts. Much more empathy for naive pictures, which take on a new dimension as a group, assembled, amassed, submitted as a whole to the course of history, and eventually imbued in their ingenuousness with a monstrous tension. The naiveté of the pictures is the naiveté of those innumerable people we see unaware of the unavoidable catastrophe.
My feeling is rather different when I look at those pictures in the collection that are not so much simple traces as aesthetic compositions. For example, picture 42 is a low-angle shot evoking far too strongly the final collapse. Picture 40 seems very professional: the light is beautiful and the framing has been carefully studied. I am in one of the towers, but still my attention is mainly focused on the aesthetic virtuosity. In picture 31, the perfect framing of a handsome long-haired blond man, standing in front of the foam of agitated waters, causes the shape of the towers to become lost in the mist. I feel quite the same about picture 23: an “artistic” nude in the foreground restores to the towers their phallic symbolism. In these pictures, there is no naiveté in the photographic act – the pictures are constructed; the photographers’ investment is high; each picture uses the towers as an instrument capable of producing an effect. They belong to another system: again, they are not traces; the indexical dimension of photography is not at the center of the act.
Picture 25: a moment of tension between trace, construction, awkwardness and chance: streaks of light dramatically reflect on the towers. At their feet, on a boat, tourists are watching the towers from below and taking pictures. In such a picture, in any one of them, there is undoubtedly obscenity. If pleasure comes from the accumulation of contraries – so says Barthes – part of the pleasure I get from looking at these pictures is therefore a guilty one. A double voyeurism that allows me not only to examine the archive of somebody I have not been introduced to, encroaching on his or her personal territory, but also to contemplate the vertigo of the sublime, the massiveness of the collapsed World Trade Center towers.
Nicolas Liucci-Goutnikov is a graduate from Ecole Nationale Supérieure de la Photographie and has finished his doctorate at EHESS in 2010. In his researches he focusses on the many issues raised by the concept of value as applied to the artwork. He also works as a curator and has been involved in such projects as “Fluxus, on verra bien” (Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow, 2010) or “Bientôt les lettristes” (Passage de Retz, 2012)