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Photography, Trace, and Trauma

Photography is often associated with the psychic effects of trauma: the automatic nature of the process, wide-open camera lens, and light-sensitive film record chance details unnoticed by the photographer—similar to what happens when a traumatic event bypasses consciousness and lodges deeply in the unconscious mind. Photography, Trace, and Trauma takes a groundbreaking look at photographic art and works in other media that explore this important analogy.

Examining photography and film, molds, rubbings, and more, Margaret Iversen considers how these artistic processes can be understood as presenting or simulating a residue, trace, or “index” of a traumatic event. These approaches, which involve close physical contact or the short-circuiting of artistic agency, are favored by artists who wish to convey the disorienting effect and elusive character of trauma. Informing the work of a number of contemporary artists—including Tacita Dean, Jasper Johns, Mary Kelly, Gabriel Orozco, and Gerhard Richter—the concept of the trace is shown to be vital for any account of the aesthetics of trauma; it has left an indelible mark on the history of photography and art as a whole.

184 pages | 17 color plates, 29 halftones | 7 x 10 | © 2016

Art: Art Criticism, Photography

Media Studies


"In this challenging analysis of the way photography can provide a trace of trauma, Iversen offers a revelatory exploration of how theory has introduced a complex method for interpreting the “messages” in imagery—imagery that is not limited to photography....Recommended."


"Original and suggestive in both theoretical approach and in the grouping of artists."

Oxford Art Journal

“Few concepts in contemporary culture have become as fraught as ‘photography,’ ‘trace,’ and ‘trauma.’ This lucid and generous study clarifies why and how. Through the work of Zoe Leonard, Gerhard Richter, Mary Kelly, Thomas Demand, and others, Iversen reflects upon the art of recent times as it spirals around matters of evidence, impression, memory, and history. What emerges is a timely response to the limits of representation and the representation of limits.”

David Campany, author of A Handful of Dust

“Iversen is one of our foremost theoreticians of photography, whose pioneering work is grounded in a lucid, sophisticated engagement with philosophical, aesthetic, and psychoanalytical discourses. With Photography, Trace, and Trauma,Iversen turns her critical gaze toward the photographic trace and its psychic resonances. With trademark clarity and precision, she weaves an imaginative, rigorous route through the photographic imaginary of the late twentieth century, attending to both its analogue and digital forms. This remarkable book forces us, at a moment of profound technological change, to take the photographic seriously as both object and idea.”

Jo Applin, author of Eccentric Objects: Rethinking Sculpture in 1960s America

“This is a judicious, sensitive, and moving account of the indexical and contingent dimensions that come into art though photography. There is much here that will be new to readers interested in art history, fine art, and cultural studies. Convincing and illuminating, Photography, Trace, and Trauma is a beautifully written book, one that is eminently accessible without sacrificing the subtlety with which these complex and momentous questions are approached.”

Michael Newman, author of “I know very well . . . but all the same”: Writings on Artists of the Still and Moving Image

“Elegant and thought-provoking, Photography, Trace, and Trauma takes an approach to the photographic that is simultaneously expansive and fine-grained. Through case studies across a range of media, Iversen develops a compelling aesthetics of trauma, according to which the artwork models an openness to being marked by time and contingency.”

Tamara Trodd, author of The Art of Mechanical Reproduction: Technology and Aesthetics from Duchamp to the Digital

Table of Contents


1          Exposure
2          Indexicality: A Trauma of Signification
3          Analogue: On Zoe Leonard and Tacita Dean
4          Rubbing, Casting, Making Strange
5          Index, Diagram, Graphic Trace
6          The “Unrepresentable”
7          Invisible Traces: Postscript on Thomas Demand


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