Murat Nemet-Nejat’s book The Peripheral Space of Photography (Green Integer, 2004) appears, at first, to be a straightforward extended essay on a 1993 exhibition of early photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It grows gradually into a fascinating work on poetics with a kind of philosophical novel hiding within, with Nemet-Nejat‘s narrator and the history of art in the last century vying for the lead roles.
The book starts with a disillusionment. Despite the writer's hopes, a show of the earliest photography does not reveal a new art form in a moment of raw revolutionary inception, but, rather, shows the first photographers to be lamely aping the conventions of middlebrow 19th century genre painting. This initial disappointment leads to an exploration of how the medium itself is able to defeat the photographer's own hidebound or obfuscating ideas about art and procedure.
One central point Nemet-Nejat makes in the Peripheral Space of Photography is that photography is the first art where the subject of the art can look directly at the means of representation. This agency of the subject, the ability to look at the camera when someone is photographing you — to make a decision independent of the artist where you are acknowledging the medium — is taken here to represent a kind of radical democratic quality.
This point, and where the author takes it, is not an argument for photography as an artistically objective form. It is a cybernetics of photography, and as such, also a poetics. Poetry that likewise acknowledges its medium, it is implied, shares this democratic quality. This quality of photography forces the reluctant artist to share power with the subject.
The question of whether this acknowledgment of the medium in a verbal art can bypass an artist’s unknowingly obstructionist ideas and allow life information to pass directly from the subject to the reader is one that Nemet-Nejat will have to develop fully in his next book. But the implications here are thought-provoking.
The other central idea in the book is that photography and language are inherently fused. The spaces outside of the frame of a photograph one must consider when looking at what is within the frame immediately generate language in the form of thoughts and questions. In this sense photography is more of a poetic than a plastic art.
Originally published in Drew Gardner's blog Elsewhere, 6/11/2005.