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http://www.jstor.org Sat Feb 9 21:45:30 2008
Photography's Discursive Spaces:
By Rosalind Krauss
et us start with two images, identically titled Tufa Domes, Pyramid Lake, Nevada. The first (Fig. I) is a (recently) celebrated photograph made by Timothy O'Sullivan in 1868 that functions with special insistence within the art historical construction of nineteenth-century landscape photography. The second (Fig. 2) is a lithographic copy of the first, produced for the publication of Clarence King's Systematic Geology in 1878. Twentieth-century sensibility welcomes the original O'Sullivan as a model of the mysterious, silent beauty to which landscape photography had access during the early decades of the medium. In the photograph, three bulky masses of rock are seen as if deployed on a kind of abstract, transparent chessboard, marking by their separate positions a retreating trajectory into depth. A fanatical descriptive clarity has bestowed on the bodies of these rocks a hallucinatory wealth of detail, so that each crevice, each granular trace of the original
volcanic heat finds its record. Despite all this, the rocks seem unreal and the space dreamlike, the tufa domes appear as if suspended in a luminous ether, unbounded and directionless. The brilliance of this undifferentiated ground, in which water and sky connect in an almost seamless continuum, overpowersthe material objects within it, so that if the rocks seem to float, to hover, they do so as shape merely. The luminous ground overmasters their bulk, making them instead, the functions of design. The mysterious beauty of the image is in this opulent flattening of its space. By comparison, the lithograph is an object of insistent visual banality. Everything that is mysterious in the photograph has been explained with supplemental, chatty detail. Clouds have been massed in the sky. The far shore of the lake has been given a definitive shape. The surface of the lake has been characterized by little eddies and ripples. And most important for the demotion of this image from strange to -
common~lace. reflections of the rocks the in the water have been carefully recreated, so that gravity and direction are now restored to this space formerly awash with the vague luminosity of too rapidly exposed collodion. But it is clear, of course, that the difference between the two images-the photograph and its translation-is not a function of the...