Photography and Memory: An Interview with Yale Professor Laura Wexler
  Resource:people daily   2008-12-23 09:55:14  

Jiang: It’s more powerful. Is it an attempt to differentiate art from commodity, like the copies of Marilyn Monroe?

Wexler: Yeah, that’s interesting; absolutely there is the difference between advertising, which got more and more into color. And serious photography differentiated itself from advertising in that way would be one reason to. But I think that’s all changing.

Jiang: Speaking of changing, the interpretation of photos shifts in the course of history. In your book “Pregnant Pictures”(“Pregnant Woman” as a slip of the tongue), you mentioned that this genre of pictures have turned from an invisible social taboo to cultural icons, such as the nude pregnant Demi Moore on Vanity Fair. Before, these photos have a more significant meaning in helping the women to be self-conscious of their pregnancy. But as the celebrity women strive to imitate Demi and bare their pregnant bodies for the magazines, the photos shift their meaning. Should we protect the original meaning, or should we invite new interpretation? Does it mean that photography is only good at disclosing, but is a failure at constructing meanings?

Wexler: I think that where my own thought leads me is not the only way to see it. So I just want to say it before I say anything further. So it’s not “either…or”, it’s just that I’ve been interested in certain things. Other people would be very skillful talking about the other half. That book is actually not called “Pregnant Woman”, it’s called “Pregnant Pictures”.

The reason why the difference is important is that there is a meaning involved in that which means that the pictures themselves are full of meanings. So it’s not just about women who are pregnant, it’s about the reproductive technology is changing, the way people are forming families, the way people are getting pregnant with assisted reproduction, all of these are technologically very different from what things used to be. Just because most of us do the same old thing in the same old way, our very being is changed by the fact that we can produce pregnancy, we can produce fetuses in Petri Dishes. It’s changed the definition of human being.

When we wrote the book, my coworker Sandra Matthews came to me, and we thought one of the ways to know what the society is thinking is to look at the photographs that the society makes. Sometimes we can’t articulate what something means, what we can show what it means to us. So if we can’t quite yet understand what the social changes of the practice of pregnancy is, maybe our artists and the pictures we are making have something to tell us that we can learn from. So that was the purpose of that book.

That goes along with my whole dedication and my work by using photographs as an analytical instrument and as a way of digging in. So it’s not an “either…or”, and photographs make meaning. I’ve used the quote by Boudrillard for many times on the “simulacra”– a copy for which there is no original. In a word, the images are before the reality. We live in many ways in a world and the images proceeds us and we conform to be the images that we have. You can see this with femininity where you see photographs of what beautiful women are supposed to be like. So we make ourselves as much as we can look quite like those images. The form comes first, then us. The forms in our culture are often visual, in photographs. So the photographs are building our culture and we are filling it in. The photographs are very constructive as to what they produce. They are not innocent, they are not innocuous. They are very, very powerful.

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