UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Art documents : the politics of the visible in the work of Taryn Simon and Trevor Paglen Wilkinson, Jayne


Focusing on the work of two contemporary American photographers, Taryn Simon and Trevor Paglen, this thesis addresses the gap in photographic scholarship between photography as a documentary form and a conceptual one. Each artist activates questions around visibility, representation, and the relationship between aesthetics and politics through photographic practices that shift between image and information, between seductive formalism and revelatory evidence. At stake in this investigation is a broader consideration of the status of the photograph and its relationship to exposure and redaction in an era that assumes information, including visual information, is and should be transparent and freely accessible. The first chapter introduces a theoretical problem set as the structuring argument of the thesis by articulating a delicate dialectic between visuality and opacity, one that is operative in the revelation and concealment of information through visual means. What the photograph delimits is not contingent, as post-structuralist theory argues, and meanings that press upon the photograph from outside the frame are not arbitrary: what is external to the photograph must be considered equal to what is visible within the frame. The second chapter introduces photographic projects that demand to be addressed as visualizations of state power, even while the aesthetics of each project simultaneously obscure the labour and lived experiences upon which they are constructed. Taryn Simon’s series Contraband examines the space of the American border and the violence done to a highly iii surveilled but not visible body. Trevor Paglen’s series The Other Night Sky likewise examines processes of state surveillance and the covert systems of power that exist beyond the visible realm. In the practices of both it is the self-imposed restrictions, often made visible through the use of texts, which render the projects legible. These projects point to an emergent discursive space that does not speak to the binaries of aesthetics and politics in art, or documentary and conceptual forms of photography. This complex third space must be recognized in order to address a failure of photographic representation that is paradoxically pervasive in the contemporary, image-saturated environment.

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