At the onset of World War II, Raoul Ubac (1910–1985) did a surprising thing: he started burning his glass-plate negatives, heating the emulsion until the image began to decompose. Introducing violence into his process through what he termed an “automatism of destruction,” in these so-called brûlage photographs the artist attacked representations of isolated objects and figures, negating the capacity of the photographic matrix to reproduce its original referents. Almost an oily abstraction, L’Envers de la face (1939) offers the fugitive form of a head seen in profile, all features liquidated, providing only the barest anchors for the possibility of recognition. Ubac’s procedural interventions were explicitly tied to his desire to transfigure human anatomy: “Indeed nothing can seem as abject as the immediate appearance of the human face,” he wrote in 1942. The face, but also photography itself, posed significant problems for Ubac. The destructive intervention of brûlage is only the most extreme of a welter of technical devices by which he endeavored to depersonalize the figure and deconstruct the medium. But he hoped that such an image could provide the matrix for subsequent states in a sequence of transformative figurations.
My dissertation takes up Ubac’s confrontation with photography in the 1930s and through World War II. Born in Germany, raised in Belgium, and trained in Cologne amid the Gruppe
The majority of Ubac’s photographic oeuvre de-centers the camera to privilege the
Ubac’s elaboration of modernist photographic processes offers a distinctive approach to reproduction and transmission, in part informed by his study of printmaking at Stanley William Hayter’s Atelier 17. Unlike the majority of interwar
Ubac’s contestation of photographic media is inextricable from his
registration of contemporary political crises. His anthropological interest in the origins of law, the persistence of the sacred within modernity, and the imbrications of violence and desire are developed in the motifs he adopts; these concerns were particularly pressing with the contemporaneous advance of fascism and the collapse of the French Popular Front in the late 1930s, reaching a breaking point with the advent of war and the German occupation. The clamor of politics bangs incessantly at the door of the atelier; the photographer’s darkroom is leaky. The noise of the present finds a way in, under the cracks, through the vents. Flashes of the contemporary interfere with the photograph in development, troubling the reproductive fidelity of the technical apparatus.