Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Critical Response: Jan Baetens on Diarmuid Costello

Reworking or Making Up? A Note on Photonovels in Costello's Approach to Medium Theory


In "Automat, Automatic, Automatism" (CI, Summer 2012, pp. 819-854), Diarmuid Costello makes an interesting case against Rosalind Krauss's reading (and according to him: misreading) of Stanley Cavell's ideas on medium-specificity and innovation. Costello's point would have been even more forceful however if he had challenged as well Krauss's analysis of the work that has played such a dramatic role in her own reflection on medium theory: James Coleman's reworking of the popular Italian photonovel, an formulaic medium that he reinvents by combining it with the equally outdated format of the slide show. "Automat, Automatic, Automatism" pays great attention to Krauss's presentation of the photonovel, to the point of including a set of illustrations that help the reader understand the difference between the artistic conventions in popular culture on the one hand and its artistic reinvention by Coleman on the other hand (pp. 828-829). Yet Costello's article remains strangely silent on the flaws of Krauss's analysis, which he actually repeats and therefore endorses, and he seems to do this for reasons that are not without consequences for the discussion on medium theory in general.

It should be stressed that Krauss's description of the photonovel, which Costello quotes at length, does not match at all its internal and intertextual characteristics, even in the most impoverished forms of the medium. Costello describes the photonovel as "picture books for adults with stock photographs in place of the illustrations in comics" (p. 827), an idea tacitly borrowed from Krauss's repeated mention of a brief and isolated quotation by Roland Barthes. From a medium-theoretical point of view this stance is frankly absurd, as can be observed very easily in the formal and thematic comparison of any photonovel with any comic strip (all that both media share is the use of the grid in their average lay-out structure, literally all the rest is different). Moreover Costello insists, equally with Krauss and Barthes, on the utterly low status of the medium. This may be true in general, and it explains why one does not grasp the differences between photonovels and comics (both are so low-brow that they can only share the same characteristics), but it is totally deceiving in the case of Coleman. His reuse of the photonovel was already strongly framed by the model of the photo-sequence à la Duane Michals, a new type of photography that was rapidly gaining cultural prestige in the 1970s (when looking at the early works by James Coleman, the influence of Michals's work is difficult to deny). Finally, Costello quotes approvingly Krauss's foregrounding of the double face-out, i.e. "the way in which Coleman's stills, like those of the photonovels he draws upon, are obliged to compress action and reaction shots within a single frame" (p. 828). Once again, this may be a brilliant description of Coleman's own images, but it has strictly nothing to do with the photonovel itself, yet this is what Costello is suggesting by writing "like those of the photonovels he draws upon" (my emphasis). Leaving aside the discussion on comics which has no reason to be here, it should be emphasized that the shot/reverse shot technique, is not at all absent in photonovels and that, contrary to what is claimed by Krauss in the discussion of the double face-out, characters do look at each other in the photonovel pictures. Actually, none of the Coleman images is even remotely thinkable in a photonovel, and it is therefore strange to notice that the whole discussion on issues of medium-specificity and medium-innovation is based on the analysis of features that are in fact absent from the photonovel. "Automat, Automatic, Automatism" misreads the photonovel's medium-specificity by projecting Coleman's pictures on it, and this retrospective invention has certainly to do with the implicit assumption that art means high art, i.e. avant-garde art. The photonovel should not really be read for itself, since it is enough to read what high-art claims to do with it.

Yet, Costello's difficulty to grasp the proper conventions of the photonovel can be seen also as an invitation to enlarge the debate and to frame the discussion on what a medium is in terms that go beyond the sole idea of investing the medium's material support with expressiveness, as is assumed in most avant-garde medium theoretical reflection (including by Costello himself, although in very subtle forms) which tends to prioritize formal thinking, reducing issues of subject matter to an anecdotal or ephemeral status. For what is at stake in Coleman's reuse of the photonovel is not just the artistic (new, original) upgrade of an inartistic (old, outworn, stereotyped, fossilized) practice. In Coleman the thematic universe of the photonovel is converted, to speak with McLuhan, into the content of a new material support (that of the slide show as installation art).

Today, we do no longer assume that medium innovation is teleology-driven toward the medium's essence. As a matter of fact, Coleman's work is an exciting example of the limits of the idea that the old is always superseded by the new, since his new medium (the slide show as installation) is as old, if not older, as the one it remediates (the photonovel). Nevertheless, James Coleman's installation art helps understand that content (in the sense of subject matter) should be an important aspect of any medium theory, which cannot be reduced to a side-effect of formal reworking the physical basis. The photonovel, since its content matter is so recognizable and easy to pinpoint, may play a seminal role in such a new interest for themes and subjects in art. Jacques Rancière's "partition of the visible" and his claim for a radical equality are also dependent on the selection of certain themes and certain fields of experience, in short certain types of subject matter that were censored, despised, or simply ignored by other or previous media conventions. That is "why Emma Bovary had to be killed" [1]: because she was doing things that were none of her business: "It is what happens when common people, who should care only for living and reproducing life, get elated by such words as liberty and equality and set out to have their say about matters of government, which are none of their business. It is also what happens when young girls like Emma, who are destined to family and country life, get involved in the deadly pursuit of what is meant by such words as bliss, felicity, or ecstasy. This is an old affair that deals with the good order of family and society."(p. 245) Similar remarks can be made on the poetic revolution brought about by Francis Ponge, which had nothing to do with the shift from verse and meter to prose (although this aspect remains important as well) but everything with the literary promotion of until then nonliterary subjects (such as the 'crate' for instance), or on the paradigm shift in the graphic novel created by Art Spiegelman when he decided to express the Shoah with the help of a technique (the funny animals tradition) that was considered unthinkable for this kind of subjects.

What is then, in this regard, the major contribution of the photonovel, invented overnight in 1947, to the medium of photography? The answer is not only to be found in new ways of picturing characters or making page-layouts, but in the notion of... fiction. True, the photonovel did not invent fictionality, nor did it introduce fiction in photography (one of the first 'famous' pictures in photography history is the staged "Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man" (1840) by Hippolyte Bayard, the frustrated inventor of a photographic technique unrecognized by society), but it clearly highlighted the possibility to use photographs to do something else than what the conventions of its time (the late 1940s, characterized by the dominating position of photojournalism) wanted photography to do and thus to be. In the absence of this kind of perspectives, discussions on the role of the photonovel in medium innovation as well as in medium theory in general may miss a decisive point.


Jan Baetens, University of Leuven (



[1] Jacques Rancière, "Why Emma Bovary Had To Be Killed", Critical Inquiry  34:2 (2008), pp. 233-245.

  • James Coleman, Lapsus Exposure (1992–94). Projected images with synchronized audio narration. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris. © James Coleman.