Terry Smith (ed) ‘Impossible Presence, surface and screen in the photogenic era’

Reviewed by Phillip Kent

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  • Marshall Berman “Too much is not enough: metamorphoses of Times Square”
  • Tom Gunning “New thresholds of vision: instantaneous photography and the early cinema of Lumière”
  • Peter J. Hutchings “Through a fishwife’s eye: between Benjamin and Deleuze on the timely image”
  • Richard Shiff “Realism and low resolution: digitisation and modern painting”
  • Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe “Beauty and the contemporary sublime”
  • Jean Baudrillard “Andy Warhol: snobbish machine”
  • Hugh J. Silverman “Andy Warhol: chiasmatic visibility”
    Elizabeth Grosz “Naked”
  • Janiver Sanjines “Visceral Cholos: desublimation and the critique of Mestizaje in the Bolivian Andes”
  • Fred R. Meyers “Traffic in culture: on knowing Pintupi painting”
  • Anthony Vidler “Warped Space: architectural anxiety in digital culture”

Impossible Presence is an edited volume comprising 11 chapters by various authors, with an overarching introduction by the editor, Terry Smith. The stated purpose of this collection is to trace “the fate of the image in modernity”, and how images have “been shaped by the emergence of new media, particularly photography, the cinema and digital imagery – that is, [how they have been shaped] by the photogenic” (p.3).
But before discussing Impossible Presence ‘s various essays, and the inter-relationship between each of them and the publication as a whole, it is worth making a few general observations about the book’s form. For what is immediately striking about Impossible Presenceis not what it says, but rather what it is. Indeed, it is perplexing that a book of this format was published this year, especially considering that most academic publishers increasingly shy away from the edited collection as a preferred manuscript type. Which leaves one to conjecture that the main reason thisbook has appeared, is principally because the editor was also the director of the institute that funded its publication.

The general drift away from edited collections is understandable, for these books rarely cohere to form an integrated totality. Rather they operate as a type of tasting menu – supplying a little nibble of this, a little lick of that, but amounting to nothing approximating a substantial meal. Moreover, the tasting-menu book often diminishes the individual dishes; and this is usually the primary problem when attempting to read or review such texts.

But Impossible Presenceis even more problematic than the typical fragmented sampler, because, taken individually, each of its chapters is very meaty. Indeed, many ofImpossible Presence‘s individual essays constitute excellent main-meals; a dinner of unrelenting Hauptgerichter, however, is hardly likely to coalesce into a satisfying dining experience. In this regard Impossible Presence should have tried to be no more than what it is – a collection of lectures recently given at the University of Sydney’s Power Institute that address aspects of modern art and architecture. In attempting to plot a premeditated kinship between the chapters, and produce an overarching leitmotif that would unify them, the book betrays its inherent artificiality and underscores the fact that ultimately it is an exercise in affected forced-fit.

Smith’s forced fit, and primary mechanism for linking the diverse chapters is to discuss them, and the phenomenon of modern art generally, in terms of “enervation” and “viscerality”. Smith uses these exegetic terms to discuss how it can be that at the very time images are becoming evermore pervasive and proliferous, there can be a concomitant decline in their “power to communicate concentrated [his emphasis] meaning”. This then is “the two trajectories of the [modern] image – towards viscerality, and towards enervation…”

In expanding upon his analysis of the enervating and visceral image, Smith starts by addressing his own previous publications (Making the Modern…[Chicago 1993], and Modernism and Masculinity[Power 1997]) and their supposed links to this form of analytical investigation. After discussing his own works at length, Smith analyses each essay in turn. He usually starts by explicating his two categories as they are played out in terms of each medium the separate authors have chosen to investigate; and this is theorder of how Smith addresses each essay: first – explore the editor’s own categories in relation to each contributor’s primary medium; –thenmove to what each author actually says about their specific medium. In this pattern of analysis Smith is always first, and while the presence of a unifying editor is not necessarily a bad thing when tyring to synthesise a collection of disparate chapters, too often, the aspects Smith chooses to accentuate are not those that form the main point of the particular piece under review. Nor does his analysis necessarily accentuate the best insights and arguments of each individual piece. This then is the ongoing struggle at the heart of Impossible Presence,the clash between the individual voices and the almighty director/editor.

The battle between editor and individual author, however, is not always limited to major themes and concepts, it even invades minor aspects of the book. For instance Peter Hutchings in his chapter goes to great length to explain why Benjamin’s land-mark essay, The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction,should actually be translated as The Artwork in the Era of its technical Reproducibility (p. 103, note 3). Smith, however, resolutely sticks to the former title, and refuses to engage with Hutchings’ reasoning. Numerous such skirmishes between editor and the contributors dot the book.

But this editorial battle, while it may render the book a failure as a unified entity, does not doom the various components. For many of the individual chapters elucidate their various topics with insight and perception, and make salient points about how each medium operates in relation to this “thing” called modernity. The various media tackled by the contributors are as follows- architecture (Berman, Vidler); photography & cinema (Gunning, Hutchings, Grosz); and painting & prints (Shiff, Gilbert-Rolfe, Baudrillard, Silverman, Sanjines, Myers). In his chapter, Berman discusses Times Square in terms of conceptions of the city (as articulated as the Whore Babylon of the Book of Revelation,and Paris in Montesquieu’s The Persian Letters); and Vidler analyses the architecture of Gehry and Libeskind, and the designs of Greg Lynn. Among the essays about photography, Gunning explores the relationship between the instantaneous photographs and films of the Lumières; Hutchings analyses Walter Benajmin’s fascination with the early photographs of David Octavius Hill as filtered by Heinrich Schwartz; and Grosz meditates on the history of culture and its intersections with the body, Nietzsche and Helmut Newton.

In the essays discussing painting, Shiff explores systems of marking, Cézanne, Chuck Close and digitisation; Gilbert-Rolfe examines Barnet Newman and the contemporary sublime; while Braudrillard and Silverman tackle Andy Warhol, and Sanjines explores Dario Antezana’s water-colour, Complicidadand visceral bodies (the only chapter that really sits comfortably within Smith’s framework). Pintupi Painting and “cultural texts” are explored by Fred R. Myers.

Each essay addresses aspects of cultural production and the relationship between specific media and their codes of representation, or rather, what is the presence (or lack of presence) of a subject/”thing” in relation to the medium used to render it. Smith decides that this “thing”-medium relationship can basically be defined as, how art operates in the photogenic era, but, the “photogenic era” is Smith’s term alone. None of the other essays actually address this notion. Many of the essays, however, do touch on the relationship between individual media and the technologies that ferment their creation, but this theme is not consistently analysed throughout the book, so the various chapters ultimately don’t mesh coherently around topic.

Yet, despite Impossible Presence‘s failure to cohere into a unified book, it is undeniably a worthy exercise that the various chapters have been published. Each of the individual chapters has something worth saying about modernity and art, so it’s important that these words were not just presented as lectures, and then were heard no more. But this said, my advice is to approach Impossible Presenceas a smorgasbord. Pick and choose what appeals, devour the individual dishes you want, but don’t be mislead, as the introduction advises, to think of the book as an Eschoffier-inspired, sequential entity, for it will not provide a satisfying unified repast.


Phillip Kent, Art History at the School of Humanities, University of Western Sydney.

Impossible Presence, surface and screen in the photogenic era, edited by Terry Smith was published by the Power Institute, Sydney, 2001.

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