“Paper graveyards” is a collection of essays by Eduardo Cadava, a professor at Princeton, that sees photography as invested with a migratory potential, the ability to shift away from itself and form new relations with other media.
Cadava’s approach could be regarded with suspicion, another postmodernist trope, an excuse for art photography that loses itself in its own vanity, but mercifully he grounds it in a materialist philosophy and his essays make for rewarding reading.
Walter Benjamin compared time to a photographic negative for which the developing agent that would reveal its true essence remains unknown. In its place, we must contend with dialectical readings, of history and its images, accepting the inseparability of the now with the then.
The title, “Paper graveyards”, refers not just to the impermanence of paper but the way in which the marks inscribed on it refer to an absent subject; like language, paper is “a force of dispossession and death”. A photograph is paper inscribed with an image.
The book’s first essays look at Nadar, the 19th-century French photographer, before moving on to a photo of a London library that had been bombed by the Luftwaffe on the day of Benjamin’s suicide in October 1940.
The image’s ability to decontextualize itself resides in the way it resonates with Nazi book burnings, the enduring value of books and civilians’ resilience when confronted by disaster.
The image is a posthumous event, for time only establishes its moments when they are left behind.
Every image, writes Cadava, is a ruin because of the way it interrupts and erases time, ‘a moment of alteration’, ‘a wound’ that bears testimony ‘to a time whose history is always a history of ruins’.
This finds visual expression in the bombed library picture by the X that is formed by the collapse of the wooden beams at its centre.
Another essay highlights the artist Fazal Sheikh and his early work in the 1990s in refugee camps in Africa. As with the photo of the London library, Sheikh’s images go beyond depicting particular individuals and ask us to think about ‘what it means to be human, and what it means to have the right to be human’.
An essay on Barthes and Camera Lucida , a short book that has been endlessly commented on and annotated, is thematically connected to the essay that follows it, on the late work of the artist Leon Golub.
The book’s final chapter is written in the form of a letter to Susan Meiselas, prompted by her book Learn to See, a set of 100 photographic exercises and experiments aiming to help young children see and read images.
The essay broadens out to consider the remarkable achievements of her work as a whole, focusing particularly on her projects in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Kurdistan.
“Paper graveyards” is helpfully illustrated with reproductions of the images being discussed, many of them in colour, and this adds considerably to the pleasure of reading what Cadava has to say.
“Paper graveyards” is published by MIT Press.