• On detail, in detail: Reaching a state of nothing

Kwon, Soon-Hak, 2024, Thesis, On detail, in detail: Reaching a state of nothing PhD thesis, Royal College of Art.

Abstract or Description:

When discussing detail in the context of photographic images – a medium much concerned with verisimilitude and exactness, historically speaking – the mutability of this particular linguistic item comes to the fore.

Used to describe an image that exclusively depicts one component understood to be part of a larger whole within its limited frame, the term functions as an image-category descriptor, commonly used interchangeably with ‘close-up’. But the term is also applied to images (or aspects thereof) far removed from that category, wherein ‘detail’ might refer to the capacity of a given imaging technology to resolve apprehensible visual information, a plane of optical focus, a subject, an aspect of fore/background, or any element of the composition included intentionally or incidentally within the frame. Each of these aspects of images are open to subjective scrutiny in terms of their capacity to inform, signify or otherwise inflect the viewer’s experience of both the image itself and what is implied to exist behind and beyond the frame. The relative arbitrariness of detail as it is commonly (and liberally) applied in this context, then, points to the unpredictable, multifaceted, rhizomatic and metonymic nature of the term.

Detail, in standard noun form, refers to an individual fact or item; in the absence of a complete information field to provide context and nuance, it can present an incomplete or distorted account of what it purports to represent. The phrase ‘in detail’, conversely, means including or considering all the information about something or every part of something. As such, the meaning of the phrase is analogous to elaborating, specifying and carefulness. The idiom “The devil is in the details”, for example, expresses the importance of detail: whatever should be done, one should do it thoroughly; there are specific elements of the situation that have to potential to cause later difficulties if not carefully considered and addressed at the outset. Another idiom –that does not contain the word specifically, but clearly refers to the concept of details– is “Not seeing the wood for the trees”. The idiom serves as a warning against over-concentration on details, lest one damage their understanding of the larger endeavour of which those details are a part.

Details captured in photography are essentially different from both these vernacular linguistic references and other image-producing technologies in terms of the viewer’s relationship with the object. These details are beyond physical comprehension regarding memory, time and space. The photographic punctum elaborated by Roland Barthes denotes a photograph-viewer encountering a wounding, personally touching detail that establishes the unexpected perception of a direct relationship between themselves and the object or person depicted in the photograph; a relationship that is entirely subjective, deeply affecting in the sense of a Lacanian trauma, and drawing its particular affective import from –in large part– the indexical nature of the photographic image.

This practice-based research paper proposes that characterisation of the photographic detail and its associated perceptual and affective potentials as nothing (or nothingness) offers both an expansion of the enduring concepts of indexicality and punctum and a productive frame through which to critically assess the role of detail and perception in contemporary photographic, cinematic and virtual reality media.

Just as Barthes attempted to bring the metonymic detail into the linguistic tool-set of discourse around photographic images, this research attempts further to integrate the detail into the realm of the Real as elaborated within Lacanian analysis of the Unconscious. Also, by drawing upon Psychoanalytic theories of infant development, I propose the detail as a means of how humans primarily comprehend the world during infancy, then investigate further stages of infantile development in the context of visual and sensual experience. The line of enquiry draws upon my personal experience of the Isakower Phenomenon - a sensory revival of the infantile experience of feeding at the mother’s breast. I have focused on this particular phenomenon as a starting point of my journey towards nothing as it is a state where one’s perceptions are undifferentiated and instinctive; prior to the acquisition of language and symbolic world that entails. In a broad sense, our infantile memory, the unconscious mind could be regarded as nothing in the world of language.

The application of theories of infant development contributes a unique perspective, proposing that detail plays a central role in investigating our perception given that what we perceive during infancy is grasped almost entirely through details. By drawing parallels to the Isakower Phenomenon, I suggest that our unconscious mind, akin to the detail, could be regarded as a state before language, representing 'nothing' in the world of language. My research ultimately aims to provide a critical reappraisal of the detail as it pertains to the photographic act and an unpacking of the perceptual mechanisms at play in a viewer’s encounter with it.

Another important part of this research is exploring the discourses of digital photography. Several phases of digital innovation in media have fundamentally changed the essence of photography and the way we live. The indexicality that characterized earlier photographic technologies has shifted toward a generative mode of image-making in the digital era, which changes not only our perception of the photographic image but also our ways of interacting with those images. With the emergence of ever-higher-resolution imaging technologies and powerful computational processing of images being easily accessible and widely utilised, our visual and cognitive faculties are constantly adapting and adjusting to the abundance of visual details captured or created with these technologies, wherein both what we see and want to see are beyond our physical reality. What is it that we desire to see and remember? Furthermore, is it possible that our actual experiences in life can be archived as a whole, when lived reality consists of fine details present in orders of magnitude larger than our visual and cognitive faculties can process?

In my photography practice, the concept of detail is explored both within the content of the images I produce and the installation of these works to include situational (or spatio-temporal) aspects. In keeping with my central concept of nothing, many of my works depict a period in-between scheduled exhibitions of a typical gallery space, the absence of any readily identifiable objects of display conflicting with the exhibition space's singular purpose as a place of display. The surfaces of these unadorned gallery walls are painstakingly photographed using a variety of techniques ranging from spatially-sequential, macro-scale captures to large panoramas, focus stacking and extensive post-processing to ensure fidelity of details and perfectly-matched colour and luminance of the prints relative to their real referent (the physical gallery wall). The demanding exactitude of this process necessarily encodes time into the works; this aspect is then expanded throughout the equally laborious process of installing the resulting prints into the gallery space to re-capture (in finalised installation-form) photographically and exhibit. Over time, this process has been refined to the point of installing prints that are processed, sized and installed to present seamless, perspectivally-coherent representations in contiguous relationship to the walls, floor, ceiling, sightlines and features of the gallery space at 1:1 scale from a given viewpoint. Contrary to the complex process that brought them into existence, these installations present a seemingly empty space in their final form. Despite presenting an abundance of detail, the gallery appears to displaying nothing at all. As such, the conceptual relations (and perhaps, mutual dependence) of detail and nothingness are manifested in physical form, coalescing to point to a hard-won practice of nothing.

Qualification Name: PhD
Subjects: Creative Arts and Design > W100 Fine Art
School or Centre: School of Arts & Humanities
Uncontrolled Keywords: Isakower Phenomenon; practice of nothing; Digital Punctum; Detail; Photographic-installation
Date Deposited: 21 Feb 2024 13:22
Last Modified: 21 Feb 2024 13:27
URI: https://researchonline.rca.ac.uk/id/eprint/5733
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