Esther Leslie (Birkbeck University of London) – Photography and Laughter’s Shattered Articulation
There are various types of absurdity in early photography – including the props, or the look on the sitter’s face or the frozen gait. Photography, from the start, is bound up with fakery, and this often appears as absurd because it is obvious. At the opposite pole, photography is engaged in making visible the previously unseen for scientific ends. In so doing, it interrupts a process or magnifies something trivial or unknown to absurd or surreal effect. In either case, photographic absurdity draws out a knowing smile or a burst of laughter. Exploring photography of bodily fluids, such as ectoplasm and milk, alongside the photography of nuclear explosions – the ultimate ‘serious’ image that threatens all bodily integrity – I invoke photography as engaged in eliciting, through humour, a bodily appeal. To this end, I draw on Walter Benjamin’s analysis of the Satanic smile, diabolic laughter, the optical unconscious, exaggeration and the technologically generated ‘Room for Play’ (Spielraum).
Louis Kaplan (Professor of History and Theory of Photography and New Media – University of Toronto) – A Morbid Sense of Humor: Reflections on Photography’s Dark Comedy
If photography has been theorized as having an intimate relationship with death and mortality from Roland Barthes to Susan Sontag and if the affective correlate of this has been the serious work of mourning, then it also can be said that the medium has had recourse to a morbid sense of humour as a natural response or antidote to its death-drive over the course of its history. In other words, photography’s dark comedy serves as the flip side to this somber state of affairs in marking the return of the (humorously) repressed. Beginning with the failed Hippolyte Bayard’s prankish performance Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man (1840), photographers have “played dead” and turned to this photographic sense of black humor as a mode of comic relief. This presentation will review a range of genres and fascinating case studies in the history of photography that typify this morbidly comic sensibility whether these images stage macabre stereographic skeletons on parade, the poses of Surrealist humour noir, headless photographic cut-ups, or Conceptual artistic pratfalls. All in all, this presentation recalls what Georges Bataille referred to as anguished gaiety as that ambivalently affective state that calls forth laughter mixed with tears and that serves as an appropriate response by which to explore the photographic joy of living (and laughing) with death.