Photography's Mise en Abyme: Metapictures of scale in repurposed slide libraries

Research output: Chapter in Book/Conference proceeding with ISSN or ISBNChapterpeer-review


Always abundant, photography’s ubiquity and multiplicity has undoubtedly intensified in recent years. Photographs proliferate in the digital domain at an unprecedented scale, offering the partial realisation of many longstanding desires from a global encyclopaedic mapping of the visual world to a museum without walls. Photographic multitudes, however, also embody multifarious fears: of visual noise and mindless repetition, of metaphorical promiscuity and overpopulation. To engage with the apparently unmanageable excess of images is, it seems, to gaze into the abyss.
This chapter considers the photographic abyss through an examination of the visual and literary device of mise en abyme and through WJT Mitchell’s concept of the metapicture, that is, self-referential images that ‘might be capable of reflection on themselves, capable of providing a second-order discourse that tells us – or at least shows us – something about pictures’ (Picture Theory, 1994). As several authors of recent survey publications have observed, there is a tendency in contemporary practice for artists to work with photographic abundance as both their medium and their message. Robert Shore, for example, in his 2014 book Post-Photography: The Artist with a Camera, observed the tendency for photographers to ‘conclude that the world-out-there is so hyper-documented there’s no point taking your own pictures anymore’. He identified that ‘a leading post-photographic strategy’ is for artists to instead glean from the abundant resources of the online environment in the guise of curator and editor. Similarly, Joan Fontcuberta’s 2015 exhibition and publication, The Post-photographic Condition, noted a ‘post-photographic readiness’ among artists ‘to make use of the overwhelming quantities of scale’ made available by the expansion in mass photographic practice. Examples of this self-referential tendency are numerous, with particularly prominent practitioners including Penelope Umbrico, Erik Kessels and Philipp Goldbach.
Taking a specific work from Goldbach as a point of departure – the 2013 installation Sturm / Iconoclasm, which spread 200,000 deaccessioned slides from the Institute of Art History, Cologne across the floor of the Wiesbaden Museum – this chapter will consider the metapictorial potential of such works and their contents to comment on photographic excess and loss, and on image futurity and obsolescence. Through the case study of one particular large-scale abandoned and subsequently rescued body of images - the complete collection of slides used to teach the History of Photography at the University of Brighton, UK - this presentation will argue that the tens of thousands of what could be described as ‘images of images of images’ (Knelman and MacDonell, 2018), through their material limitations, their reproduction qualities, and ultimately their institutional treatment, reflect extrapictorial desires and anxieties about image abundance. Gaze long into the abyss, as Nietzsche put it, and the abyss will gaze back.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPhotography Off the Scale
Subtitle of host publicationTechnologies and Theories of the Mass Image
EditorsJussi Parikka , Tomáš Dvořák
Place of PublicationEdinburgh
PublisherEdinburgh University Press
Number of pages26
ISBN (Electronic)9781474478847
ISBN (Print)9781474478823
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2021


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