Holes: Colonialism and Negative Space in Modernist Photography
This paper takes as its starting point ideas about documentary which have emerged in contemporary art photography, as one context for reconsidering an earlier moment in photography. In particular I am concerned with the idea of «holes» as a strategy in documentary and in fashion photography. I look at early travel photographs taken by American fashion photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe in the 1920s in the context of her Modernist interest in negative space. This interest had a very particular effect on the representation of colonial space and colonial subjects, and needs to be understood in relation to a modern, Western and feminine experience of travel.
The curator Okwui Enwezor has written about how contemporary artists attempt to distance themselves from the problematic ethics of documentary, from the positivist claim associated with older forms of documentary, the assumption that photographic image provides a route to knowledge. He does not give examples, but we might take as one possible case the approach to portraiture pioneered by Thomas Ruff. Ruff’s influential work rejected the belief that the photograph can reveal psychological depths or concealed truths. Though it is possible to read this in terms of an older, Marxist critique of the photograph as revealing only surfaces, his photographs do not attempt to overcome this, but instead emphasize the blank surface and distance themselves from the political claims of documentary. Though anti-humanist in origin, this aesthetic has shaped a new kind of humanist photographic practice exemplified (for example) in recent winners of the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize. As Enwezor writes:
«In visual art, a hole in vision, a blindspot, a blank stare, a halating gaze have been developed as the essential prophylaxis proper to the documentary form». (2008)
Unlike Enwezor, T.J Demos emphasizes the political potential in the use of holes or lacunae in the image. He writes about the French-Moroccan photographer Yto Barrada’s work Life Full of Holes showing how she uses visual gaps or blindspots in the image to evoke the Moroccan experience of political disenfranchisement and isolation from Europe. (Demos 2013). Similarly, the theorist and film maker Trinh-T-Minh-ha has discussed the significance of what she referred to as «blanks, holes and chairs kept empty». She argues for the political significance of the «forms of invisibility generated within the visible.» For her, the use of deliberate holes or gaps can be a means of rendering forms of political repression explicit (Minh-ha 2013). In other words, gaps or absences are understood variously as reminders of repression or censorship, and the blank gaze or blind-spot becomes acknowledgement of the impossibility of representation. They are put to work in images linked to refugees, globalisation and political exclusion.
Here I want to link such gaps, absences and blind spots to older formal strategies characteristic of modernism. In modernist art, a concern with the negative space produced between volumes came to the fore in the work of Cézanne, then in Cubism, Futurism and Constructivism. In the United States, in the early twentieth century, photographers, including Dahl-Wolfe, often had an art school training. In life drawing and composition classes, students were encouraged to pay attention to negative space, to draw not only what they saw but the spaces around the model or object. This encouraged them to view the composition abstractly, to move away from what they knew (that an arm bends in a certain way) to what they saw (a triangle created in the space between a bent arm and a head). Such techniques of abstraction aimed to prevent the artist from superimposing her own preconceptions. In photography, they encouraged the photographer to view the composition not scenographically, but as a dynamic organisation of forms. This was encouraged also by the kind of cameras that Dahl-Wolfe used which use a ground glass viewfinder that represents the scene upside down.
Negative space can be understood as key to a formalist approach in which, as Walter Benjamin wrote of Albert Renger-Patzsch’s version of New Objectivity, everything became «fair game» for the camera, and all of reality is reduced to a formal, aesthetic arrangement. However, this attention to form also facilitated a new kind of realism insofar as artists were engaged with the specific forms of modernity. Dahl-Wolfe pointed to Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes as a significant influence on her compositions, particularly the dancing of Nijinsky, commenting – «such beautiful shapes and forms he made». The Ballet Russes combined Russian folklore and tradition with Eastern influences but Nijinsky was very conscious of how the form of the dance was specifically modern. One account reports the following said by the (otherwise taciturn) Nijinsky:
«‘A man’s body... contains elements that mirror the characteristics of his time. Look at a man walking down the street, reading a newspaper, dancing the tango – there’s nothing in common between his gestures and those of someone of the age of Louis XV, or a monk copying manuscripts in the thirteenth century ... we have to seek out forms which will characterize our own time just as expressively as the old ballet movements characterize the antique style of living and moving.’» (cited in Parker 1988)
Nijinsky was modernising ballet, trying to make its shapes and moves consistent with the new behaviours and forms of movement of bodies in Western, industrialised society. Dahl-Wolfe was one of a number of photographers who imported these modernist ideas into fashion photography. To understand how she did this, take for example a personal album, photographed in the ‘50s on a trip to Rome. These are not travel photographs or snapshots exactly but not formal fashion shoots either. She arranges travelling companions in staged and legible ways that appear naturalistic by making careful use of negative space. Her friends are pictured on the beach, on boats and hotel balconies; her photographs are carefully constructed arrangements of bodies in space which demonstrate an alertness to the angular shapes or holes produced by an arrangement of limbs. There are no ambiguities and little foreshortening, this is a style of photography aiming at absolute clarity of depiction.
A training in negative space is put to work making people into figures. The figure becomes a sign, a silhouette. It is not accidental that the concept of the silhouette is central to fashion. Here, the silhouette works through careful attention not only to its shape, but the shapes which are cut away. It relies on arranging limbs in a way not possible before this period: in American and European dress, hemlines had only begun to rise in the early 1900s. In her fashion photography, Dahl-Wolfe made her models hold uncomfortable poses for a long time: they are often caught mid-action, but the studied position and the formal composition belies the spontaneity. What this does is make bodies legible but only in relation to an environment of which they become part through a highly artificial formal arrangement.
In 1926, Dahl Wolfe left the United States for France, after being in an automobile accident in which her mother was killed. She then went to visit a friend from New York who was a painter living in Kairouan (Al-Qayrawan), a Holy City in Tunisia, which was where she met her husband, the sculptor Meyer (Mike) Wolfe (Dahl-Wolfe 1984). Kairouan was a popular destination for artist travellers since the 1890s, for its light and colour (Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and Auguste Macke were among the artists who visited the ancient city).
In the 1920s, the new visibility of Western women also drew a sharp line between Western and Arab cultures. In Kairouan, women wore the Haïk, an unstructured woollen cloth which is wrapped around the body and head and held in place with the arms. Malek Alloula, in a critique of colonial photographers in Algeria in the period up to the 1920s, argues that the figure of the veiled woman seemed to disrupt the positivist equation between seeing and knowing. Alloula wrote that, for the photographer,
«The whiteness of the veil becomes the symbolic equivalent of blindness: a leukoma, a white speck on the eye of the photographer and on his viewfinder. Whiteness is the absence of a photo, a veiled photograph, a whiteout, in technical terms. From its background nothing emerges except some vague contours, anonymous in their repeated resemblance» (Alloula 1981)
Alloula’s argument is that the veiled woman was, for the colonial photographer, a hole in vision, intolerable because she forced an acknowledgement of the limits of colonial knowledge and of the photographic gaze. He uses this as the basis for a psychoanalytic analysis of Western pornographic photographs of Algerian women, arguing that the photographer symbolically unveils the woman who has «dispossessed» him «of his own gaze». What happens, though, when the photographer is a woman, already acculturated in a new kind of seeing, attentive to edges and margins, to what is not solidly present? In a pair of photographs Dahl-Wolfe took in Kairouan, two figures are silhouetted in an archway that looks out onto the courtyard of the Great Mosque to its minaret, their shapes repeating both the shape of the minaret and the archway. They refuse to be completely architectural or completely legible as figures. The two images show one covering dropped from a head and it is not completely clear whether these are men or women or whether they are posing or caught unawares. In Kairouan, from a distance, men and women could look alike to foreigners, since men also wore robes, specifically a hooded sleeveless cloak called a Barnous. These early photographs by Dahl Wolfe, seem to confront the problem of visibility that Alloula mentions. Rather than unveiling the figures, she revels in their ambiguity: not only the difficulty of telling men and women apart, but the difficulty of seeing in the bright light of Kairouan.
These pictures depict architecture: bright white buildings, narrow alleyways and strong shadows cast across them. Repeatedly, there’s a correspondence between this environment and the veiled figure. A blurred figure stands beneath a dome that resembles the shape of her head; a woman wearing a white haïk steps from a shadowed part of the street into sunlight, in front of a wall, where an uneven patch of plaster repeats her silhouette. These people thus appear architectural, solid and impenetrable shapes, not legible figures.
On her travels, Dahl-Wolfe also took a growing interest in what she called «holes». While travelling, she would point her camera towards buildings and ruins, or outward, from alleyways and caves, to photograph the negative space they produced. These are images of abstract space, pieces of sky. In her autobiography she wrote «I was always fascinated by ‘holes’ and have a series taken around the world» and she drew a visual analogy between these and her use of holes as compositional devices in fashion photography. Is the veiled woman here a «hole» in vision, a blindspot or a speck in the camera that seems to dispossess and unseat the Western photographer, as Alloula suggests? Only if the photographer subscribed to a positivist conception of photography in the first place. Yet, negative space in modernism posed a challenge to positivism, indeed it emerged in relation to changing ideas in science. From the physics of Poincaré, Mach and Einstein came an understanding of space as dependent on the observer (Kern 1983). Such ideas overturned the notion of an objective reality, «out there» and able to be captured: a notion which has tended to be associated with the photograph as document and with Victorian colonial photographs.
Negative space becomes substantial. Dahl-Wolfe’s photographs of Kairouan may still reinforce Western conceptions of North Africa and of veiled women, but veiled and cloaked figures, without limbs to arrange into legibility, become a negative space, an invisibility that is made solid. Indeed in 1928, Dahl Wolfe seems fascinated by veiling and cloaking: she photographs her travelling companion behind a mosquito net, a boy in a ragged Barnous, and more problematically, poses herself and Mike wrapped in blankets, as if to mimic the local people (Dahl-Wolfe 1984).
Dahl Wolfe’s approach shows a new colonial gaze in development. In fashion photography, in the spreads of magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, this attention to the gaps and holes in the image marked out a photographic practice which, unlike documentary, had no particular commitment to realism. It operated according to a newly modern conception in which the world is arranged for the camera, and made legible according to carefully applied principles of composition. In the context of these magazines, travel, and exotic locations became a means to represent a new kinds of freedom for American women. With Harper’s Bazaar editor Carmel Snow, Dahl-Wolfe pioneered what later became a notorious trope of colour fashion magazine spreads, the use of exotic and «colourful» locations, which continues unabashedly today (Arnold 2002). After World War II, in the early years of commercial aviation, Dahl-Wolfe’s fashion photographs frequently presented the model as tourist, using architectural settings to contrast with the form of the model’s body and the clothes. The move of fashion photography out of the studio and onto the street and then further, into exotic locations, was one means of articulating a new independence for Western women.
Later, in 1950, Dahl-Wolfe returned to Kairouan for a Harper’s Bazaar photoshoot. In one photograph Natalie in Grès Coat (1950) there is a miniscule Tunisian figure, probably a woman in the background, the head uncovered but still appearing to wear the volumous cloak or Haïk. This dark shadow is the negative foil for the white woman whose coat mimics the hooded cloak worn by Tunisian men, and who appears in the act of covering or uncovering her head. Like the self-portraits earlier, there is an element of the white Westerner mimicking the exotic other, but also she echoes the mosque behind her while the small figure echoes its shadow. This is probably as close as these photographs get to overtly hitching of white women’s liberation to the subjugation of women elsewhere. Here, the colonial space and its inhabitants seem frozen in time as if nothing had happened between 1928 and 1950. Dahl-Wolfe is unlikely to have been aware of the feminist movement in Tunisia, which had emerged in the context of anti-colonialist, Nationalist movement in the 1920s (Arfoui 2007). She also returned too early to see the consequences of decolonisation on the presence of unveiled Tunisian women on the streets of Kairouan.
I will end with an image that appears as a manifesto for this colonial feminism of the fashion industry. This is a 1949 photograph by Dahl Wolfe from an issue of Harper’s Bazaar that presented a colonial theme with models in tailored suits, white gloves and pith helmets: Astonishingly, this image was used last year by Harper’s Bazaar to promote a Dahl-Wolfe retrospective and book, with no comment at all on the colonial references.
At first this seems to be a picture that makes fairly limited compositional use of negative space (though the turning of her head to the right acknowledges the priority of the formal silhouette over the explicit content of the image). The pith helmet is clearly symbolic of exploration and colonialism, but the book of maps and the globe suggest something other than earthly terrain. The globe is also a celestial globe, covered with signs of the Zodiac among other strange beasts. The space depicted is not an empirically knowable space, but a different kind of space, an invisible space. Colonial possession is abstracted.
I began this paper with a discussion of writers who understand «holes» as a means to negotiate (or disavow) the false objectivity of documentary, and its positivist truth-claim. However, I argue that modernism had already broken the equivalence between seeing and knowing in photography. In its place it put a set of formal devices that render the image legible and capable of articulating new ideas, new possibilities of bodily expression and new ways of being. The modernist conception of negative space facilitated a new kind of attention: to background, environment, to edges and to gesture. It is through this, precisely, and not through a positivist vision, that twentieth century fashion photography, in particular, sets out a vision that is simultaneously feminist and colonialist. Negative space offered new means to figure the withdrawal from representation, and ultimately to inextricably link invisibility and non-legibility with that which is exotic and «other».
ALLOULA, Malek. The Colonial Harem. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1981.
ARFAOUI, Khedija. «The development of the feminist movement in Tunisia 1920s-2000s.» The International Journal of the Humanities 4.8 (2007): 53-60.
ARNOLD, Rebecca. «Looking American: Louise Dahl-Wolfe’s Fashion Photographs of the 1930s and 1940s.» Fashion Theory 6, no. 1 (2002): 45-60.
DAHL-WOLFE, Louise. A Photographer’s Scrapbook, Quartet Books 1984.
DEMOS, T.J. The Migrant Image: The Art and Politics of Documentary During Global Crisis. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2013.
ENWEZOR, Okwui. «Documentary / Verite: Bio-politics, Human Rights, and the Figure of ‘Truth’ in Contemporary Art.», in The Green Room: Reconsidering the Documentary and Contemporary Art, edited by Maria Lind and Hito Steyerl, 62-102. New York: Sternberg Press, 2008.
KERN, Stephen. The Culture of Time and Space 1880- 1918. Harvard University Press, 1983.
MINH-HA, Trinh-T. «The Image and the Void». Journal of Visual Culture, 15.1 (2015) pp.131–140.
PARKER, Derek. Nijinsky – God of the Dance. London: Equation, 1988.
^ To be clear, I am not arguing that documentary photography is necessarily positivist, and I would situate classic 1930s documentary practices within the category of modernism. However, documentary has become associated with a discredited positivism insofar as it claims a neutral transparency of representation, a realism rooted in the camera’s apparent ability to naturalistically and directly depict whatever is placed before it.