• Photography, Memory and Ekphrasis

Coombes, Justin, 2012, Thesis, Photography, Memory and Ekphrasis PhD thesis, Royal College of Art.

Abstract or Description:

Recollected Places: Photography, Memory and Ekphrasis

The practice component of my PhD, ‘Recollected Places’, consists of exhibitions combining my work as an artist in still photography, video and installation and books that combine text and the photographic image. My written thesis, ‘Photography, Memory and Ekphrasis’ looks at a number of artworks from the 1950s to the present day which employ the photography-ekphrasis relationship.

‘Ekphrasis’ is the verbal description of visual works of art, for example, Homer's imaginary evocation of Achilles' shield in The Iliad. It became the object of intense academic scrutiny during the 1980s, as part of cultural theory’s emergent ‘visual turn’ and its attendant concentration upon image-text relations. The Iliad’s extended description of the shield, and the world of peace that it describes, are noticeably different from the ‘real’ events of the Trojan wars described throughout the rest of the poem. However, the ekphrastic scenes, whilst being distinctly different in tone, are arguably as ‘lifelike’ as the rest of the action described. So, from this very earliest recorded instance of ekphrasis, we can see how the mode opens up fundamental ontological questions about art and its place in the world that would be highlighted by conceptual art almost three millennia later. What holds more presence? The physical work itself, or the idea of the work? In a similar fashion, the invention of photography raised questions that were not methodically articulated until the 1980s. Thus a body of research from the early 1990s onwards has addressed the relationship between ekphrasis and photography. However, the vast majority focuses on ekphrastic writing about photography: ‘poems for photographs’, in James Heffernan’s phrase.

The small extant literature that focuses on photography’s relationship to ekphrasis tends to emphasise the technical aspects of the medium. My research is both the first book-length study that I am aware of to examine ekphrasis’s relationship to photography and the first such study that I know of to be written by a practising visual artist. I consider recent writing on ekphrasis through the prism of various psychoanalytic theories, particularly those from recent debates on photography and melancholia. I examine the absence of the ‘lost object’ that is both the very condition for ekphrasis and melancholia and a precondition of all photographs: simultaneously trace of the object and reminder of its absence.

Qualification Name: PhD
Subjects: Creative Arts and Design > W600 Cinematics and Photography
Date Deposited: 30 Apr 2013 14:23
Last Modified: 22 Aug 2013 13:31
URI: https://researchonline.rca.ac.uk/id/eprint/1280
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