In Focus

The Evidence of Images

Andrew Witt

Ken Graves and Mitchell Payne, American Snapshots 1977


Ken Graves and Mitchell Payne
American Snapshots 1977

© Ken Graves and Mitchell Payne

The late 1960s and early 1970s saw the expansion and interrogation of the found photograph and the photographic archive in the history of art. An early iteration of this move came in the form of John Szarkowski’s 1967 Once Invisible at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, an exhibition of photographs selected from scientific disciplines.1 Six years later Szarkowski organised another exhibition of found photographs, From the Picture Press, a show that was also held at the Museum of Modern Art and that featured more than 225 uncaptioned photographs Szarkowski took from newspaper files from the previous five decades.2 At almost the same moment that Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel were gathering and assembling the images for their photobook Evidence 1977 (Tate P14478P14510 and P20292P20294), Ken Graves and Mitchell Payne, contemporaries of Sultan and Mandel at the San Francisco Art Institute, were working on their own book, American Snapshots 1977 (fig.1). This publication consisted of found, amateur photography sourced from family albums. Supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Graves and Payne collected their images by knocking on the doors of residences around the Bay Area. In contrast to this, Sultan and Mandel quickly realised that in their research for Evidence and their use of photographs culled from often ‘top secret’ government and corporate archives, they were working with a type of imagery that had not previously been exhibited. Unlike family snapshots, these images were not easily available or produced for private or public consumption.

Sultan and Mandel’s early forays into the poetics of the found image and its relation to the history of the photobook began in 1974, with their small publication How to Read Music in One Evening/A Clatworthy Catalog. For this project they appropriated and re-sequenced advertising imagery found in instruction manuals, mail-order catalogues and pulp magazines, such as Sunset House and Popular Mechanics. The imagery featured photographs of nose warmers, hand-held fans and strapless bras, among other products. Despite the conventional nature of the imagery, when placed in sequence the relations and connections created between photographs evoked a strange and otherworldly mood associated with the genre and imagery of science fiction. Similar to Evidence, How to Read Music refused captions, and Sultan and Mandel sequenced their photographs using formal and conceptual analogies.

Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel, Untitled from How to Read Music in One Evening/A Clatworthy Catalog 1974

Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel
Untitled from How to Read Music in One Evening/A Clatworthy Catalog 1974

© Larry Sultan/Mike Mandel

Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel, Untitled from How to Read Music in One Evening/A Clatworthy Catalog 1974


Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel
Untitled from How to Read Music in One Evening/A Clatworthy Catalog 1974

© Larry Sultan/Mike Mandel

The first sequence of How to Read Music, for instance, brings three photographs together on the theme of removal: wooden tongs being used to extract slices of bread from a toaster; a plastic ice cube tray being emptied of its contents; and small scissors being used to clip nasal hair (fig.2). Another sequence combines a device that sheathes corn, plumbers’ tape used to fix a damaged pipe, and the same pipe with a broken valve. When people are featured in How to Read Music they are shown in a state of ecstatic joy, as if these low-tech appliances, designed to carry out simple chores, are endowed with magical powers – a belief that surrounds many commodities in capitalist culture (fig.3). As such the first part of the title of Sultan and Mandel’s photobook – How to Read Music in One Evening – can be understood metaphorically, as if the music to be ‘read’ was the imagistic ‘noise’ of commodity culture. The instruction-manual style also echoed Ed Ruscha’s contemporaneous desire to cast his own photobooks, such as Various Small Fires and Milk 1976, as analogous to ‘training manuals’ for industrial machines and domestic appliances.3 These were types of manual, perhaps, that failed to ‘train’ one for any particular instrumentalised activity, conditioned by a technical and bureaucratic discourse, but rather proposed an innovative and eccentric mode of looking.

Context and contemplation

As Sultan recalled in an article published in Art in America in 2006, he received bitter recriminations at a talk at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) in 1981 for omitting the captions for the pictures shown in Evidence.4 As Sultan remembers it, Evidence was criticised – he does not say by whom – for ignoring the approach to captions laid out by philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin. In ‘The Author as Producer’ (1934) Benjamin wrote that the use of captions beneath pictures ‘rescues’ the photograph from the ravages of fashion and confers upon the photograph a revolutionary use-value.5 The indictment was direct and blunt: Sultan and Mandel had indulged in what their critics called ‘poetics’. To correct this deviation from ‘proper’ art practice, Sultan and Mandel would have to control the meaning of their images with functional captions. Otherwise, they would stand guilty of encouraging what Benjamin called ‘free-floating contemplation’.6 Taking note of the timing of Sultan’s talk at NSCAD, we could speculate that this argument was made by the art historian and critic Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, the photographer and critic Allan Sekula, who was visiting NSCAD at the time, or one of their students. This would make particular sense with regard to Sekula, since the young artist and critic had propagated the revolutionary potential of the caption in the photographic series as a means of clarifying or restricting the photograph’s sociological facticity.7

Although the logic of the archive is clearly at play in Evidence, any analysis that is based on the archival aspects of the project runs aground when we come to grips with the sequential form employed by the work (both in its existence as a photobook and as an exhibition, first shown at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1977). By overemphasising the archival quality of Evidence, these interpretations obscure the narrative and political scope of the project. To their detriment, readings that stress the archival predispose critics to an interpretation that underscores the work’s ‘meaninglessness’ over its sequential and syntactical form. Art historian Sophie Berrebi has emphasised the archival quality of the project in her book The Shape of Evidence: Contemporary Art and the Document (2014), as has critic Carter Ratcliff in one of the first comprehensive essays on Evidence, published a few years earlier in Art in America in 2006.8 For these writers, the photobook’s very intelligibility goes hand in hand with the seemingly obscure shape of history. Critic Philip Gefter has written that ‘Individually, the pictures take on surrealist properties subject to endless narrative interpretation’, but ‘collectively, the sequencing creates a running narrative with no coherent story’.9 Photographer and critic Joan Fontcuberta pushed this point in a short review of the republishing of Evidence in 2003. When posing the question ‘Evidence of what?’, Fontcuberta concludes that the answer is ‘Perhaps evidence only of its own ambiguity’. If ambiguity marks the status of evidence today, Fontcuberta asks further, ‘What remains, then, of the document?’, to which he gives no answer.10

In a very real sense, Evidence can rather be read as counter-archival, since it sees Sultan and Mandel using practices that develop from the shadows of corporations and the police and run against the grain of those institutions’ systems of control.11 Unlike an archival interpretation of Evidence that takes pleasure in this unending pile-up of history, a counter-archival model seeks to make connections and analogies within the fragments. By shifting the focus away from the archive and towards the counter-archival strategies of the work, we can see that Sultan and Mandel’s project transforms from an object to be interpreted into a forcefully suggestive sequence of images.

Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel, Untitled 1977, printed 2001, from Evidence 1977

Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel
Untitled 1977, printed 2001, from Evidence 1977
Tate P14483

© Larry Sultan/Mike Mandel

When we subject Evidence to an extended gaze the work produces more questions than answers – questions that range from the simple to the strange and the enigmatic. At first we come to ask: What is it that we are looking at? Are these photographs documents or artworks? Where have they come from? Where are they going? Yet as our gaze drifts from one image to the next, the questions can become more specific: ‘Evidence’ for what? ‘Evidence’ for what court? ‘Evidence’ for what experiment? ‘Evidence’ for what judge? ‘Evidence’ for what purpose? If we choose to read these photographs as ‘evidence’ as the title suggests we do, our reading drifts and skids among a range of discursive codes that oscillate between the genres of the photographic: from the forensic to the anthropological, from the technical to the clinical.12 Most photographs published in Evidence continually trouble the photographic codes that determined the image’s production (fig.4). In any given context we might be forced to ask: is this an image produced by the police or by NASA? By entangling the reader in these different codes, the project’s meaning – while certainly present throughout – appears to lose any stable consistency.

At the outset, however, two particular questions cloud this inquiry: Why did Sultan and Mandel choose to problematise the concept of evidence at this particular historical juncture, in the mid- to late 1970s? Following on from this, what do we mean when we talk about the evidence of images?

Attitudes to evidence in the 1960s and 1970s

It is important to note that Sultan and Mandel were working in the aftermath of the political uprisings of the 1960s, a moment that saw the redefinition of the document and of evidence in popular culture. Whether it was footage from the Vietnam War (1955­–75), photographs of the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Pentagon Papers (1967) or Nixon’s Watergate tapes (1971–3), each case emphasised the centrality of the document, including its mutability and fiction, in the terrains of political, social and economic life.13 What this meant for attitudes towards documentation was uncertain, and this uncertainty was addressed in Sultan and Mandel’s work.

It is also suggestive that their research emerged at the same time as a series of landmark rulings made by United States Congress that clarified the rules of the use of evidence in the American judicial system. Until 1975, the use of evidence in court proceedings was dictated by Common Law and was decided on a case-by-case basis rather than through a set of official codifications. In 1975, however, Congress implemented the Federal Rules of Evidence, which operated as a guide for state and federal courts, in particular attorneys and judges, in determining whether or not their evidence would have judicial relevance in a court of law. In short, the Federal Rules of Evidence allowed the courts to adapt, if not improvise, the rules of evidence to the circumstances of each case with respect to court precedent.14

Specifically, the Federal Rules of Evidence aimed to clarify a number of important distinctions concerning the use of evidence in court, including the limitations of relevant and non-relevant evidence; the definition of prejudicial and cumulative evidence; the admissibility of hearsay, lay and expert testimony; the nature of evidentiary presumptions; and the grounds for the authentication and identification of documentary evidence. The primary characteristic of this rule was that it sought to clarify what evidence could be included and excluded during the course of a trial. For evidence to be included it was required that it carried probative value (the likelihood of proving something useful with respect to the trial), in contrast to so-called ‘immaterial evidence’ that lacked probative value. The American judicial system during the 1970s attempted, in other words, to establish a consistent set of criteria for the meaning of the term ‘evidence’ in the court of law.

Almost a decade earlier, in 1967, art historian Ernst Gombrich presented the paper ‘The Evidence of Images’ at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Gombrich’s paper addressed the ways through which images were mobilised as evidence in different interpretative scenarios. His first example came from the domain of detective stories. Gombrich recalled that in this genre a simple physical trace, such as a footprint, holds no definitive discursive content whatsoever, and therefore offers no evidence of anything. ‘Occasionally’, Gombrich stated, ‘the interpreter may be confronted by a track which sets his mind spinning’.15 This ‘spinning’, it seems, triggers the process of interpretation. Central to Gombrich’s argument is the classification of images as traces: ‘A photograph is nothing but such a natural trace’, Gombrich claimed, echoing a common definition of the photograph as an indexical mark or image. He went on to describe the photograph as ‘a series of tracks left not in the sand but on the emulsion of the film by the variously distributed lightwaves which produce chemical changes made visible and permanent through further chemical operations’.16

During the Second World War Gombrich had worked at a listening post intercepting German radio broadcasts for the BBC World Service. At the time, the pressing problems of perception and interpretation were imposed upon the art historian in a very real manner. His interest in the ‘evidence of images’ was prompted by the misinterpretation of aerial reconnaissance photographs by British intelligence officers of the Nazi base Peenemünde, where the Germans developed the V2 rocket. In ‘The Evidence of Images’ lecture at Baltimore Gombrich recalled an instance in which one officer, who was trained as a classical scholar in Roman water engineering, read the small shapes visible on the photograph – ‘the blur of white on a smudge of grey one and a half millimeters long’ – as associated with water engineering.17 Another scientist, however, not associated with the project but frustrated with the slow progress of the operation, interpreted it as a V2 rocket base. After much convincing, British Intelligence accepted this reading and subsequently attacked the base at Peenemünde. When the same scientist spotted a similar formation at a Nazi site in Poland, his superiors reproached him for stepping outside of his professional station. ‘Nobody should be allowed to comment on photographs without proper training’, an official memorandum declared. The scientist’s interpretation was, in fact, correct, which led Gombrich to the conclusion that interpretation cannot be entirely learned or taught. As Gombrich asserted: ‘All the professional should learn, and obviously never learns, is the possibility of being mistaken’.18 One needs to be flexible, he warned, and always open to the fact that interpretation may be set on the wrong course: ‘Visual evidence never comes neat,’ he wrote, ‘unmixed with imagination’.19

The forensic trace

The primary characteristic of evidence – whether photographic or not – is founded on the physical quality of the trace.20 As the writer and curator David Campany has noted, the paradigmatic forensic image is a photograph taken from head-height of a low-level scene, such as a section of floor, table or street.21 When the scene is shot at night, a blinding flash illuminates it. The typical forensic image, in its very staging, describes what can be termed a threshold condition: the photograph articulates a liminal space situated between the depiction of an incident and the genesis of its investigation. In this sense, the ‘image of evidence’ frames a field of interpretation – the frame allows the viewer to enter the image, acting like a threshold – but because the images in Sultan and Mandel’s sequence are released from their contexts through the omission of captions, each one is allowed to roam along a different track. In this new context, the frame appears porous, if not crumbled altogether. The sequential arrangement and the omission of captions by Sultan and Mandel de-frames the image, de-limiting it in order to expand the capacities and potentials of the image as evidence. In this new context, the threshold has no definitive location per se, but is rather a place that opens onto many forked paths.

Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel, Untitled from Evidence 1977

Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel
Untitled from Evidence 1977

© Larry Sultan/Mike Mandel

The first photograph that appears in Evidence is an image showing four footprints: a left and right in the lower part of the image, and two in the upper part made by what appear to be the same pair of feet, but this time swapped so that the right footprint is on the left and the left footprint is on the right, as if made by two crossed legs (fig.5). This photograph arguably enacts the stakes of Sultan and Mandel’s project as a whole. On the surface, the photograph depicts two sets of footprints placed on a soot-laden ground. In the centre-right of the composition is a pencil, placed next to the right footprint in the foreground as if to measure its length. The entire scene is as banal and uneventful as any forensic image, and yet at the same time there is something odd about this image: in showing the indexical marks left by a criminal or victim, the photograph is an index of an index. The perplexing movement apparently enacted by these two crossed feet seems to offer an analogy for the entire book project: it begins with an oblique movement that triggers an unsure passage through the photographic sequence. By focusing on a pair of crisscrossing feet, it is as if the photobook is announcing, at the outset, the instability of the interpretive ground on which the reader will stand thereafter. One should add, too, that the feet have exited the frame, as if marking the elusive nature of the image – its capacity to ‘escape’ capture. By exiting, the photographed feet lead the book’s reader onwards to more images, and the sequence slowly grows from this first image to the last.

In his book The Historian’s Craft (1954), historian Marc Bloch claimed that knowledge of all human activity in the past is the knowledge of its ‘tracks’:

Whether it is the bones immured in the Syrian Fortifications, a word whose form or use reveals a custom, a narrative written by the witness of some scene, ancient or modern, what do we really mean by document, if it is not a ‘track’, as it were – the mark, perceptible to the senses, which some phenomenon, in itself inaccessible, has left behind?22

History’s documents, Bloch argues, are synonymous with its ‘tracks’. In this view, the writing of history proceeds by a series of tracks through which a narrative can be constructed.23 To play with Bloch’s metaphor, and read his argument alongside the first photograph from Sultan and Mandel’s book, we are confronted with a pressing question: What does the historian do with the ‘track’ if the walker happens to stagger his or her feet? It goes without saying that all forms of evidence are imperfect, if not deceptive and subject to criticism. In Bloch’s eyes, it is the responsibility of the historian to develop the right questions in order to interrogate the evidence. In a section published in Bloch’s book titled ‘Evidence’, the author argues that documents can only speak ‘when one knows how to question them’.24 One can extend Bloch’s methodological imperative to Sultan and Mandel’s project: any rethinking of Evidence must begin with a decisive and rigorous list of questions.