On the Visibility of the Invisible in Michael Michlmayrs photography series View-Finder

by Carl Aigner 1996

The more realistically we want to represent something, the more complex are the instruments we need to do so. In the field of the visual arts, photography provides an excellent example of this. As the first instrumental visual medium, it depicts visual reality in a way which no other medium has done before, giving us the effect of an (apparently) immediate transparent reality. The age of photography therefore opens up the possibility of co-ordinating the picture, the reality to which it refers and our perspective of it; although at the same time the instrumental mediation of pictures qua photography entails an instrumental mediation of our views of things.

This has produced a fundamental change in what we designate as looking: the invention of photography has initiated a process in which looking is transformed into seeing, vision into perception. The (im)possibility of just looking, which the instrumental perspective entails, is the most important theme of View-Finder, the series of photographs produced by Michael Michlmayr in 1996. The conceptual procedure upon which this new work is based seems at first to be rather simple: at the centre of each picture we see first of all a camera - or, more precisely, the viewing image of a 6 x 6 camera; framing this can be seen the floors of the respective places in which the camera is situated.

This picture-within-a-picture situation contains a second mediated way of looking: on the one hand there is the photographic picture, showing a camera, on the other hand there is the viewing image, which - mediated  by the instrumental view - itself already forms a photograph-within-a-photograph. For the spectator, this pictorial discourse also produces a double reference: the spatial situation of the camera and this cameras view of the respective subject, recognisable in the viewing image.

View-Finder is a reflective media study of the instruments used in photography as well as of vision mediated by the optics of these picture-producing instruments. The refinement of these photographs lies in the way in which they make seeing and non-seeing a theme. We see photographs and upon these in turn we see photographic pictures, although these show something which we do not actually see in the picture and can only perceive as a result of the photographic apparatus. The effect of the large reflex camera is to give us a photograph within the photograph (laterally inverted), the reference point of which is to be found somewhere in front of the camera in the picture. The situational context of the photograph first arises from the text of photography (the cameras viewing image). This crossover of the photographs is the result of a double crossover of camera views, insofar as the view of the camera in the picture is refracted through the viewing image and this in turn through the view of the photographically realised picture.

In this way Michael Michlmayr reflects not only the instrumental aspect of a camera and the status of the photographic picture, but at the same time also the view of the photographic apparatus and its medial refraction. The refraction of the light in the photographic optics becomes a refraction of the view in the act of looking. The theme of this work is not the view of something by means of photographic pictures, but the act of looking into both the photograph and the photographic instrument. However, the moment of perception is to be found not only in the act of looking but also in the change in the status of that act; it is no longer simply directed towards the visible as such, but seeks to show the non-visible in the process of transformation: vision, that which one would be unable to see here if one did not have the visual instrument of photography, if the photograph did not indicate another picture, which in its turn indicates an absent picture (and not simply the pictorial presence of a referential absence).

Thus we can also read the View-Finder series as a parable about the world as photography, in that itshows us that every photographic picture always refers to another and that every representative medium is also revealed in its representation, even if simply as an implicit theme. It is all the more impressive when this is further achieved with a poetic gesture (as is the case here), which seems to tell us that every photographic act of looking is, in the last analysis, also a symbolic form of assimilating the world.

Translated from the German by Peter Waugh


"The realism of photography creates confusion as to what is real" Susan Sontag