Seeing Isn't Always Knowing

by Ed Osowski

Classify and Contain, an installation by Emily Godbey, at Houston Center for Photography, Gallery X, June 3-July 3, 1994

A large, red, plastic sign, hanging from the ceiling and positioned over a wooden desk, greeted the visitor to Emily Godbey’s “Classify and Contain.”
the sign announced.
it offered. And, then it encouraged the viewer to
Asking questions is the very center of Godbey’s installation. Specifically, Godbey is concerned with how the visual information found in the photograph (and related media) can trick, mislead, and misinform. Her questions are basic to the very nature of epistemology: how, why, and what we know.

Godbey takes her cues from two sources, both of which address the question of how information is manipulated. In the center of the gallery she placed a desk. Behind it and waiting for a reference librarian to take her place was a chair, quite ordinary, on first inspection, seemingly quite sturdy, also, with a passage incised rather crudely into its back. Quoting a passage from the story “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins” by the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges, the passage claimed to derive from a “certain Chinese encyclopedia” that contained an early system for classifying animals. There are fourteen ways, the encyclopedia advises, not all of which are mutually exclusive, to arrange animals. First are those animals “belonging to the emperor,” a category large enough to include all those that follow. But the category of “tame” animals excludes those that are “frenzied.” Those that are “drawn with a very fine camel brush” may include those “that from a long way off look like flies.” Borges has found – and Godbey is clearly taken by – this systematic ordering that is, actually, illogical or irrational, certainly non-linear, surely imperial.

Her second cue can be found in five medium-sized panels of text spread out across one wall that reproduce the “tables” or classification systems employed by the Library of Congress to catalog books in two areas – Technology (Class T) and Fine Arts (Class N). Among the arts listed in Class N – painting, sculpture, drawing – one does not find photography, because of its origins in eighteenth and nineteenth century experiments with optics and related visual equipment.

What Godbey has done in “Classify and Contain” is look at the ways in which information and, here, specifically the information found in photography is used and misused. Informing her installation is the belief that the Library of Congress system – or, for that matter, any system – which makes of photography little more than a technical tool or merely a very accurate way of illustrating the flotsam and jetsam of life is inadequate and limiting if one holds that photography is an art.

Godbey raises the difficult question of utility: if photography is an art, how does it function? What does the photograph do? What is its purpose if not to provide information, if it is not an illustrator’s tool?

It may be that the Western mind cannot rest until it imposes order on the random pieces of information that comprise the “world of learning.” It may be that something in Western culture rages until discrete bits of data are boxed and contained. It may be that to the Western mind a Chinese system that describes some animals as “fabulous” and others “innumerable” is simply unworkable.

The rather grand and beautifully crafted desk which sat in the middle of the gallery offered the visitor the chance to participate in the process of filing, cataloguing, classifying, and containing. The desk’s surface was covered randomly with a collective of index cards, numbering approximately 150, each one mounted with a small photo-copied image of a photograph. Each card was identified by the name of the photographer, the work’s title, and a date. One pulled out the desk’s large drawer to find twenty-eight compartments, each one large enough to hold one of the cards and each compartment labeled with a category: “children,” “nude male,” “nude female,” “portrait,” “urban scene,” “botanical,” “the blur” (a favorite of mine), “vacation,” “industry,” to cite just a few. The cards, spread out across the desk, were waiting, inviting, encouraging the visitor to impose order on them, to box and contain them.

One began to work. Or began to play. Because the seriousness of Godbey’s installation left room for great amounts of humor and wit. One could take the Chinese perspective. Or one could proceed with the perspective suggested by the Library of Congress tables. Where does one put the female nude by Clarence White? Into the box labeled “nude female,” of course, until one spotted another category, “self-reflexive photograph,” and realized that White’s female also partook of that category. One wished for an emperor who could contain all in one simple file. In Godbey’s effort to uncover the limited strategies of any system that holds no room for spontaneity and discovery, one was forced to make limiting choices.

The difficulties mounted as one continued to look at images. What does one do with Cecil Beaton’s portrait of Marlena Dietrich and an orchid, each object as large as the other, and each dramatically lit and posed? Is it a “botanical”? Is it a “portrait”? And what if one wanted to place it in a category marked “photography by homosexual”? A similar problem emerged when one tried to place Lartigue’s photograph of a bourgeois woman, wrapped in fur, walking her dog. Is this an example of “fashion” or is it an “urban scene”? (And, one asked, just how does a “street scene” differ from an “urban scene”?)1

What Godbey’s installation instructs the viewer to recognize is that information is slippery. She knows that how we see and what we learn are as much functions of what we already know as they are functions of what we are afraid to know. For Godbey context is always important. For Godbey the context within which we study photography is complicated by the most fluid part of the information equation: ART.

How context can skewer one’s reading of the photographic image is made clear when one uses the card catalog that sits on the desk’s left edge. Here the official symbol of how the library controls and arranges access to information is made into anything but an authority figure. Look under the heading “Friend of Photography” and one does not find the San Francisco organization housed at the Ansel Adams Center. What one finds, barely larger than a postage stamp, is an Alfred Stieglitz photograph of Georgia O’Keeffe. Yes, she was indeed a friend of the photographers (Stieglitz, Strand, Gilpin, among others), but, how odd, how enlightened, how funny is Godbey’s choice of illustration! Look under the category “Resembling Flies as a Distance” and one finds two images – Kusukabe Kimbel’s 1890 photograph New Year Drill of the Japanese Fire Brigade and another, dated 1865, by Alexander Gardner showing the Lincoln conspirators/assassins hanging from scaffolds. Yes, indeed, they resemble flies when the image is so reduced to fit on a small card.

Godbey subtly pushes one to conclude that any system that attempts to control and contain by its very nature is aggressively limiting, is about reducing the power of the object that is “contained,” is, in the case of the images which equate people with flies, about reducing the person to the nonperson. 2

For Godbey information contained in the photographic image is not fixed by cultural schemes but is tricky and unwilling to sit quietly in a box. She fills one corner of the gallery with crumpled sheets of newsprint that have seemingly exploded from the pages of three sculptural books that stand over them. Godbey urged the viewer to recognize that the ways in which photography functions are too many and too alive to stay in one place. In “Classify and Contain” she acknowledges those points in a clever, intelligent, and playful manner.3
Ed Osowski is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and his reviews appear regularly in the Houston Post.

1. It is instructive and amusing to see how one dictionary visually makes the point Godbey is making. When one looks up the definition of “décolletage” in the first edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (1970) one finds a photograph of Marilyn Monroe. Interestingly, Monroe herself does not merit an entry in the dictionary although President James Monroe does. The date of Monroe’s photograph and its photographer are nor provided. Subsequent editions of the dictionary dropped her illustration.
2. Godbey deliberately made the process of seeing and knowing difficult. Two walls of Gallery X were lined with small specimen boxes, each one about one cubic inch in size, which contained miniscule versions of “The Twenty Biggest Pictures in Gardner’s Art through the Ages,” each one too small to be viewed with much certainty of what one was viewing. One looked and squinted and finally identified the images only because one had seen these famous images reproduced so many times before.3. In the preface to his Order of Things, Foucault quotes the Borges’ passage that Godbey finds so important and goes on to describe how, upon reading the section in Borges, he began to laugh, laughter coming from his realization that systems of classification are based on the perceived threat of the other and that it is precisely because the “other” is so disturbing that systems are devised to impose order. Such systems, he writes, are actually efforts to “tame the wild profusion of existing things.”