Artist Blog

Every week an artist whose single image was published by Der Greif is given a platform in which to blog about contemporary photography.

The Value of Surplus Images

Dec 15, 2020 - Evan Hume

Participating in Der Greif Issue 13 Surplus Management, edited by Penelope Umbrico, has led me to revisit WJT Mitchell’s “The Surplus Value of Images.” Like Mitchell’s essay, Surplus Management constructs an image of surplus speaking to the order and disorder that can arise from an excess of images and objects. The magazine is unbound, made up of loose booklets opening up to other booklets arranged in a numbered sequence that can easily be remixed. Photographs of mass produced objects collide and merge into one another among others with architectural features, giving the impression of an unfolding, modular warehouse.

As I flip through my copy of Surplus Management, it feels to me that this is not a critique of surplus, not a value judgement, but rather a document of a species of image. Mitchell looks to the natural sciences as a model to circumvent judgment-based approaches to images. He writes, “A species is neither good nor bad: it simply is, and the question of value kicks in only when we are dealing with individual specimen, or the collection of specimens” (6). Even when dealing with individual specimen or a collection, the question of value is more one of “what they do and what they mean” than evaluation based on a particular method of criticism (6). Surplus Management asks me, what is the value of surplus images?

Addressing the value of images raises another question, which is posed by Mitchell – “Is it the image that has value or the concrete thing on or in which it appears?” He elaborates:

The image has value, but somehow it is more slippery than the value of the picture or statue, the physical monument that “incarnates” it in a specific place. The image cannot be destroyed. The Golden Calf may be ground down to powder, but the image lives on – in works of art, in texts, in narrative and remembrance (5).

The image is immaterial and free of any support while a picture is “the appearance of the immaterial image in a material medium” (5). Even seemingly immaterial digital pictures have a support of code and screen. This is one way the value of an image has been addressed historically, taking into account its physical form and the labor that produced the concrete object the image inhabits. Another method of determining value has been through criticism in which judgement and taste come into play. As Mitchell points out, such criticism has often been iconoclastic in nature, “an effort to destroy or expose the false images that bedevil us” (2). He advocates for a suspension of judgement and seeks the image’s source of value. It is not a matter of ranking, hierarchy, or “episodes of image-smashing” (4). The points of focus become how an image evolves over time, how it does or does not survive, reproduce, and circulate.

Penelope Umbrico’s Suns from Sunsets from Flickr (2006-ongoing) is an example of an image of surplus created through collection and re-presentation, exhibiting the surplus value of the sunset image. The image of the sunset is an enduring, omnipresent one. In Umbrico's words, "The sun is this incredibly powerful object, and there's only one of them in our world," she says. "The sun can kill us or give us health. It's the symbol of enlightenment, it makes us happy – it's phenomenal" (Weeks 2013). The sunset image also speaks to the common impulse to freeze a fleeting moment through photography – no sunset is exactly the same. The proliferation of digital photography and image sharing platforms has enhanced the reproduction and circulation of images depicting a subject that people have turned their cameras to time and again. The sunset image flourishes and continues on in a media environment that has gone through dramatic shifts. This is the source of its value.

Surplus Management forms a collective image of surplus from individual specimen, 72 photographs from 45 photographers. The unbound format of the magazine suggests a puzzle or maze, creating an expansive sense of space with inventory that goes on and on. The quantity of objects in the individual photographs appears to extend well beyond the confines of the frame. We see things that are broken, discarded, outmoded, and awaiting the activation of their utility. They are objects that have come into being through labor, have become commodities, and now have undetermined fates.

In addressing the value of the collective surplus image that these photographs form, we can return to Mitchell’s model once more. It is important to neither overestimate nor underestimate the surplus image, or any image. Mitchell calls attention to reoccurring use of the terms idolatry and fetishism in critical discourse concerning the value of images (13). Both concepts involve assigning great power to the image – idolatry treats the image as a god and fetishism treats the image as a source of power to fulfill materialistic, corporeal desires. Mitchell argues that contemporary criticism’s iconoclastic tendency approaches images as dangerous idols or fetishes that must be stripped of their power over beholders and destroyed. It may seem reasonable to assess images of surplus in terms of fetishism given the seductive power of the object’s commodity-form under capitalism, but the photographs in Surplus Management do not function that way. While I do not see “social relations between persons and their work,” as Marx writes in Capital, neither do I see “social relations between things” (commodity fetishism) within the magazine’s pages (166). Mitchell suggests a way forward is to consider the function of a totem, an object of curiosity rather than authority or desire that “allows the image to assume a social, conversational, and dialectical relationship with the beholder” (21). The image as totem is not a god or devilish spirit, but an “active player in the game of establishing and changing values” (21). Surplus images help us sort out what our relationships to images and objects are under advanced capitalism, what we do and do not value, and picture a world where abundance can exist without scarcity.

Works Cited

Marx, Karl. 1990. Capital Volume I. London: Penguin Books.

Mitchell, WJT. 2002. “The Surplus Value of Images.” Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal Vol. 35, No. 3 (September): 1-23.

Weeks, Jonny. 2013. “Sunsets: The Marmite of the Photography World.” The Guardian. December 18, 2013. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/photography-blog/2013/dec/18/sunset-photographs-love-hate-marmite.