Photographic Negatives and the Unspeakable Event

image from static01.nyt.com

There are two interesting quotes in Andrew Jacobs' story about Xu Yong's new book Negatives, a collection of photographs of Tienanmen Square in 1989. The first quote comes from Xu himself:

“This is an art book [. . . ] I have no interest in discussing what [the photographs] mean.

Yes, Xu has created a book of beautiful images, but his creative decisions don't fit into the conventions of fine art photography. The images in Negatives are drawn from raw 35-millimeter negatives. However, the negatives can be reversed with an iPhone using invert colors setting, a built-in function. From where do the instructions to reverse the negatives come? From Negatives? Jacobs doesn't say. The settings change seems to be a form of samizdat viewing in which the user is responsible for developing (potentially) censored images.  

The second quote comes from Perry Link, an expert on China at the University of California, Riverside.

“[Negatives] is a wonderful way of capturing that underside of insecurity that attends the Tiananmen issue and that, in a larger sense, haunts much of official China today,” he said. “The artist seems to be saying: ‘Here’s the reality that no one looks at squarely but that everyone knows is there.’ ”

Roland Barthes located the essence of a photograph in the event it records. "The photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially," he writes in Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. And in this repetition the photograph disappears. When we look at a photograph of ourselves, we say "that's me," not "that's a photograph of me." A photograph resists language because it is without signs or marks—it simply is.

Xu's photographs in Negatives are a veil over the mechanical reproduction of the events in Tienanmen Square in 1989. The photographs and the events are revealed simultaneously through the very modern act of looking at them through a camera. Xu claims negatives don't lie, but that doesn't mean they're not codes referring to the unspeakable.

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