Writing on photography

Review – Pandora’s Camera by Joan Fontcuberta

Joan Fontcuberta is well known for his humorous photographic projects, which seek to lay bare the more untrustworthy characteristics of photography (some of these have recently been on show at Media Space in London and I have written about them in more depth here). As well as a photographer though Fontcuberta is also a prolific writer and MACK have recently published Pandora’s Camera, a volume of his collected essays translated into English for the first time from their original Spanish.

Plenty of artists put pen to paper at one point or another, relatively few show much of a knack for it. Fontcuberta does though, and reveals himself as a lucid thinker who roves for his material across the length and breadth of the medium’s theory, history, and across culture more generally. As the title suggests, the book takes the Greek myth of Pandora’s box as a starting idea from which to explore photography’s fickle nature as both serial deceiver and deliverer of great truths. This metaphor is also deployed to characterise the invention and proliferation of digital photography, another dominant theme in the book and again a technology which Fontcuberta views not as inherently good or bad, but rather as something whose merit is entirely dependent on the ways and circumstances in which it is used.

The essays that follow mull on these conflicting characteristics and, as mentioned, also rove much more widely. For example the diminutive first essay ‘I Photograph Therefore I am’ takes an old black and white photograph of Fontcuberta’s father and discusses it’s material and aesthetic characteristics, and it’s role in bringing his mother and father together as a couple (and by result bringing Fontcuberta himself into the world). This however is just a thin starting point from which to pass through a host of other topics. From the origins of the term ‘photogenic’, via a discussion of the Minuteros (a peculiar and now obsolete variety of commercial Spanish street photographer) to noting alternative views of the relationship between memory, photography and death. This wide ranging, magpie-like approach to ideas may frustrate some readers who want more development of specific ideas, but in general it works very well.

Technological advance and obsolescence is a reoccurring theme in the book. In another essay ‘I knew the Spice Girls’ Fontcuberta uses a comparison between the old analogue passport photo booths with their new digital equivalents as a way to ruminate on what is gained and lost as a result of the virtual extinction of analogue photography at the hands of the digital. The control offered by digital photography allows of course allows enormous interventions in the fabric of the photograph, for good (technically better images) and for ill (in the form of great opportunities for deception). It also however eliminates the chance of mistakes at the moment of shooting, greatly reducing the possibility of the happy accident which has proved so important throughout the history of photography, a medium whose invention was indeed itself partly the result of a number of happy accidents.

The essays are generally engagingly written and very enjoyable. Fontcuberta’s meaning is at times a little difficult to unpick from the texts, perhaps because he is keen on using rather academic language in a way which can sometimes prove obstructive. I’ve said many times before this type of language has a place, and an audience. It just feels a little difficult here because the topics he deals with and the way that he does it seem as if they might have the potential to appeal quite widely, beyond the usual audience for these types of books. Fontcuberta’s humour and lightness of touch at other times in the text is much more welcome (and welcoming) than his over use of words like ‘ontology’. I have to acknowledge though that this may be as much a product of the translation as it might be down to his preferred style of writing.

In summary Pandora’s Camera is an amusing, far ranging and thought provoking collection of essays. Fontcuberta dives deeply into the history and the theory of photography, but rarely loses sight of the present. While it has a serious point to make his writing, like his photography, still leaves plenty of space for humour and a general lightness. This is something notably lacking from most other texts on photography theory, primarily aimed as I suppose they are at other academics, and not the great mass of people who actually use and shape photography.

Pandora’s Camera is published by MACK.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

Writing on photography