Photographs of Nothing: An Interview with A. Carlisle Weber

Forthcoming in Disposed: A Journal of Photography; first published in we need to talk, 2018

Photographs by A. Carlisle Weber.

Alan Huck and David Richardson: Could you talk about the title of your recent book, Emplotment?

ACW: “Emplotment” is an idea I first read about in the work of the historian Hayden White. In his book Metahistory (1973), he looks at historical practice from the vantage of narrative theory, thinking about the way the past is made. Basically, the historian organizes discreet facts, perhaps listed in the form of a chronicle, into plots, or narratives, such that we can apprehend large-scale, abstract historical concepts, like social change or political revolution. Encoded in this narrative work is a politics: who or what the historian chose to represent and how. So every history is a metahistory: it tells the story of its own making. I was thinking about this, about historical memory, when I was making these images, and I wanted to figure out if I could make photographs that somehow worked against this process.

AH, DR: Against the process of history-making?

ACW: In some sense, yes. I mean, photography is always in conversation with history, as the moment a photograph documents is always over. In this way, every photograph constitutes material evidence. A photograph is always archival. But a photograph also confers some sense of the presence of history: as Barthes writes, “the presence of the thing (at a certain past moment) is never metaphoric.” Which is to say, whatever is in the photograph, though it may be gone now, it once was there, undeniably. And, its history is right here. The photographed subject is a gerund. I was curious about making photographs of this dynamic, images that were in some way about the process of history making but not subject to it. I wanted to make a photograph of nothing.


AH, DR: You wanted to make a photograph of nothing?

ACW: Yes, of nothing. Images, like any material evidence, like really anything at all, solicit interpretation. They solicit emplotment. I wanted an image that would resist emplotment, or at least one that would be available to such a proliferation of banal narrative interpretations that plot wound up being a useless way to think the photograph. I wanted to make photographs of nothing so that no history could conscript them.

AH, DR: How do you make a photograph of nothing?

ACW: It is very difficult. So much of the world is something! It would be easy to play with scale: to shoot something so close as to render the forms unintelligible. But that would be to put the images in conversation with the history of abstraction—its own kind of historical plot. Similarly, you can’t make an image in the total absence of light, a photograph of perfect darkness—it falls prey to the same idea. Also, a photograph of nothing cannot include people. There is too much in the human form. Instead you have to look for moments that just, I don’t know, are. Maybe it’s not even possible.


AH, DR: Do you feel that Emplotment is a success?

ACW: I think these images are frustrating, as a photograph of nothing might be. I hope that as much as they purport to be available to narrative, they are resistant. I hope that ultimately they testify to nothing but testimony. But I will say this, perhaps in contradiction of myself: this frustration can lead to bliss. A photograph of nothing is very beautiful.

AH, DR: Why make photographs of nothing now?

ACW: Maybe we can have photographs of nothing for the first time. It’s been said that history ended, but we are learning that it was only undead: fascism is on the rise throughout the world. Western democracy is eating its tail: a reality television star is President of the United States. And late-capitalism has facilitated the thriving of a very pernicious invasive species: the non-place. Places that aren’t. Places that are felt to be so reflexive as to be engaging in the act of refusing themselves. I set out to make photographs of non-places, images that document this weird distension. I wanted to use the photograph’s appeal to facticity to point to the fact of nothing. I wanted to use the photograph’s appeal to facticity to foreground history’s secret.


AH, DR: History’s secret being that, by its emplotment, it is artificial?

ACW: Right, that facts can be lined up any number of ways to tell any number of stories. History is a made thing, just like an image. Photographs appeal to facticity, and facticity to nature, but even as they tell the truth about what came into the view of the camera, they can so easily be made to lie. Like a conversation, even if it’s recorded: who can say what it was actually about? I mean even beyond the obvious fact that so much is lost in the printed word—gesture and expression, no matter how inventive your grammar—what any interaction comes to mean is all but inscrutable. Even for the two people in the conversation, the ones who were there—two people can barely come to agreement about what is being said.

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