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A Handful of Dust:

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa (SWW): So your latest book retraces the history of photographic modernism and the transformation of modern life from roughly 1920 to 2015, and it does so by way of a photograph that eventually came to be known as “Dust Breeding.” How did you arrive at this point of departure?

David Campany (DC): I feel as if that dust took a long time to settle in me, so to speak. I first saw the photograph back in 1989, when I was an undergraduate. It was in a show at London’s Royal Academy, celebrating 150 years of photography. I thought it looked so strange. It didn’t seem to fit with anything. It was made at the onset of surrealism and the New Vision but it doesn’t look like either. I was intrigued that two artists had signed it: Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp. The dust is gathering on Duchamp’s Large Glass, which was then still in the making. Scratching around for information, I noted that in books on Man Ray the photograph was presented as a visionary work of art. But in Duchamp books, it was more of a document like a production still. Three years later I was a student working in an arts bookshop in London when Sophie Ristelhueber published Fait, her book of photographs of the Kuwaiti desert, taken shortly after the Iraqi army had withdrawn. In an interview Ristlelhueber cited Dust Breeding, with its ambiguous sense of scale and place, as the visual template for her own project. That seemed amazing to me: a photograph of over seventy years of age had had that kind of hold on a photographer, and that kind of relevance to a completely different artistic and political context. Well, from then on Dust Breeding was firmly in my consciousness and I started to notice more affiliations and influences. You can see that image as a precursor to the early work of Bruce Nauman, for example. The first survey show of conceptual art, Information, at MoMA in 1970 included Dust Breeding as a keynote image for the art to come. Rosalind Krauss wrote about it in her landmark essay “Notes on the Index”. Many contemporary artists are still drawn to it. About a decade ago I was asked by Sophie Howarth to write an essay on a photograph of my choice, for a book titled Singular Images. I chose Dust Breedingand in writing the short text I realised there was so much more to explore. Finally I’ve attempted it. A long time coming!

SWW: There’s something in that history of Dust Breeding’s evolving affinities to other artists and critics over time that clarifies photography’s extraordinarily adaptive nature. You write in the book that “[p]hotography is unmoored and porous, belonging everywhere and nowhere, right across modern culture, and not just to art.” Photography has been the willing servant of such radically distinct masters over time. How did you set about tracing a path in images “from the cosmic to the domestic,” as you subtitle your long essay in the book, and how did you think through ways of dealing with photography’s mobility?

DC: In his 1963 memoir Man Ray describes how the dust photograph came about. He had been asked to document works in the collection of Katherine S. Dreier, who was then setting up the Société Anonyme and needed images for press and publicity. He recalls: “The thought of photographing the work of others was repugnant to be, beneath my dignity as an artist.” I’m fascinated by the idea of copy work being the basis, or even baseness of photography, and that a photographer with artistic ambition might be made anxious by it. That idea really haunts all of photography, but it energizes it too. Whatever the artistic ambitions, there remains a degree of plain, automated copying in all photography. I wanted to trace the arc of that anxiety and possibility. I also wanted to trace the arc of plain subject matter in photographic art, and you can’t get much plainer, less desirable than dust. Moreover, I think automated copying and dust are linked in photography. Dust is usually what you get as a side effect, both in modern life and in photography. There’s an unlikely kinship there. I can formulate it quite clearly now, but for a long while I was intuiting this and following my nose to a whole range of photographic practices and works from across the last century. These then got reconsidered much more soberly, and over time they were whittled down to a group or lineage that made some kind of sense to me. It included everything from postcards and press photos of dust storms, to avant-garde journal articles, conceptual art works, surrealist photography and documentary photography. Selecting and sequencing images. Over the years this has become my approach to writing. Images first, then words. In fact with my publisher MACK, we found a way to articulate this. The ‘image track’ of the book presents all the works ,one to a page, around 150 of them, arranged to articulate a chronology and various affinities. Then, there’s an insert with my long essay, plus the works reproduced as small thumbnail illustrations. A viewer/reader can approach it image-to-image, or more ‘theoretically’ through my writing. Hopefully they’ll do both, feeling the differences and similarities.

SWW: You’ve talked before about photography’s moment of ascendancy in visual culture at the height of the picture press, and it’s certainly great to see such an expansive book and exhibition encompassing a broader church of photographic uses and users than the traditional art history canon. Many of the works in the book deal with tumultuous events (like war, famine and death), or propose a shift in conventionally stable cultural categories (like Evans’s ‘Color Accidents’). This reminds me of Allan Sekula’s claim in The Body and the Archive that “photography is modernity run riot,” which I think encapsulates both the transformative effect of technology and the industrial revolution, and the way the camera changes practices in utterly unrelated non-art fields (like criminology). How did you think about change and transformation in your research and your writing, and could you map out some of the changes you outline in the show?

DC: Allan Sekula was right on that score. To follow photography really is to follow it running riot. It scrambled the cultural hierarchy that put museums and canons at the top, books lower down, magazines still further and websites grubbing along the bottom. It’s been interesting to see museums respond to this, becoming places that might incorporate all the outlets and platforms created, adapted or adopted by photography (the running riot). Museums may still be platforms in their own right, but they have also become places simply to look again at all the other platforms. So, I have no problem putting a magazine spread in proximity to a Jeff Wall photograph; a once discarded press photo or postcard alongside a consecrated masterwork by Edward Weston. Sure, it presents its own challenges and pitfalls and one has to be on one’s toes, both as a curator and a viewer, but that’s all to the good. Moreover, I can’t imagine it any other way. Images in the mind know no barriers. There they mix and inform each other. I feel we should accept that and work with it.

SWW: In this new book, and your two previous ones (The Open RoadWalker Evans: The Magazine Work) you have insisted on the co-equal status of non-art photographic uses to understanding the medium, in recognition of photographic art’s irreducible links to popular culture and public space. What role does this book and exhibition play in that ‘transformed’ context, and what do you hope are the implications of this for the art history of photography?

DC: Well, I would hope they’re suggestive or instructive, or at least engaging responses to the challenges of ‘photography run riot’. It’s interesting that photography became important to contemporary art by becoming an allegory or an operating table, a place for taking apart or remaking its non-art practices. Think of art photography in ‘the documentary style;’ or the artist as archivist; the artist as still life photographer; the artist taking on the guise of the news photographer, the packshot photographer or fashion photographer and so on. That was inevitable and has produced at least some extraordinary work. Speaking personally however, I’ve never felt I needed art or an artist to help me ‘see’ the common vernacular practices for what they are, in all their complexity. They’re just as interesting on their own terms. So, for example, I find Douglas’s reimaginings of a postwar press photographer (his series Mid-Century Studio) no more or less engaging or significant than the work of postwar press photographers. I suspect Douglas does too. I’m just as happy and stimulated looking at Cold War-era commercial studio photography as I am contemplating Christopher Williams’ arch ventriloquism of it. And I suspect he is too.

SWW: So much of the work in a Handful of Dust directs our attention toward the at once eloquent and recalcitrant matter of the earth: Xavier Ribas’s fantastic series Nomads for instance, or Lewis Baltz’s Nevada to name just a couple. You talk in the essay about photographs “turning background into foreground, ground into figure.” How do you account for photography’s fascination with the vagaries and textures of the ground on which we walk, and its influence on other art practices?

DC: I think that comes with any lens-based image. It knows no hierarchy, it takes in the world whole, all at once, the desired stuff and the undesired stuff. It has a radical sense of contingency that always threatens to give intention the slip, and to tip the image into chaos. For photographers this is often a problem, until they learn to handle it. Baltz was very elemental about it, whereas a photographer like Lee Friedlander accepts the chaos, delicately marshalling it into a picture that can then contemplate it. Many of the earliest commentators on photography noticed its capacity to pick up all manner of little details without the ‘author’ having to fuss over their presence. Think of Fox Talbot noting how photography incorporates levels of detail that only the most pedantic painter would see fit to include. Moreover that very background condition often underpins the reality effect of photography. The nondescript, undesired extras we get in a picture actually have a vital role. This is why if you Photoshop all the unwanted stuff out of a photograph, it ends up not looking like a photograph. Well, what would a picture be if it was comprised entirely of the stuff we don’t usually want? What if the background was the foreground? That’s one way of understanding Dust Breeding: an image that turns photography’s unwanted marginalia into its very reason for being.

SWW: It’s interesting to note the extent to which a lot of contemporary fine art photography now directs our attention reflexively back toward the digital substrate of modern images, and to the illusionistic relationship photographs establish to the material world. The dust now is the pixel in the screen rather than the mote hanging in the air…

DC: I’ve long been fascinated by the fact that photography became modern when it gave up its surface at exactly the same time painting was becoming modern by foregrounding its surface. To be honest there’s so much at stake in this I feel it deserves its own book! And I’m not sure I’m the one to write it. But I can’t help thinking that art photography’s current thrashing about in an attempt to articulate some sense of surface is another iteration of its long standing ambivalence about its essential surfacelessness. ‘Essential’ in the sense that an image formed by light has no materiality, and the substrate is always secondary, deriving from the attempt to fix it and make it manifest.

Editor's Note
This interview was originally published in an expanded form on January 22, 2016 on The Great Leap Sideways, an online gallery space dedicated to showcasing contemporary photography.