Instructional Photography: Learning How to Live Now
(SPBH Editions, 2021)
“Untethered from the constraints of the gallery wall or the exhibition catalog, instructional photographs have something to teach me about arrangement, flow, density—and ultimately—seeing,” notes Carmen Winant in Instructional Photography: Learning How to Live Now. The writer and artist champions this overlooked typology: books that advise on “practical skills (here is how you might remake your hair), as well as ideological possibilities (here is how you might remake your life).” A collector of the genre, with an archive thrifted from second-hand stores, she has encountered tomes on dog training, breast examination, meditation, bereavement, sex, and childcare. The instructional approach is considered an antithesis—if not an antagonism—to high-concept artistic endeavors: straightforward directive rather than visionary production. “My students wouldn’t dare—wouldn’t care—to make instructional pictures, which is to say, pictures that are designed to teach,” remarks Winant, who was a professor at Ohio State University. “In art school, we call work ‘didactic’ when we think it’s bad (overtly moralizing, demonstrative or facile), and praise photographs for their ambiguity.”
However, Winant sees the value, both aesthetic and symbolic, in the instructional bracket because it’s “staggered across fragmentary time in a series of discrete, often sequential movements.” By this framing, one could create a loose affinity with Eadweard Muybridge, and by extension a sense of legacy within the history of photography. One could alternatively think of these sequences as distant cousins to other visual art forms: panels from a graphic novel or cinema story-boarding. By reinvesting what the genre can bestow, it suddenly takes on a new breadth: transitioning from dry inculcation to uncanny narrative ensemble. “I reconsider their potential as decentralized image,” Winant muses, gathering up the individual frames into a kind of flip book from which one can extract gestures and erudition. (The flip book feel is furthered by the book’s micro size, about four by six inches.) There are aids for gardening, carpentry skills for the incarcerated, and information on the Heimlich maneuver.
Winant draws on Argentine-French writer Julio Cortázar’s 1962 book Cronopios and Famas as an influential reference, with its sly, absurdist “Instruction Manual,” including “Instructions on How to Sing” (“Begin by breaking all the mirrors in the house, let your arms fall to your side, gaze vacantly at the wall”) and “Instructions on How to Cry” (“a weeping that doesn’t turn into a big commotion”). But if there’s a silliness to leaning too heavily on diktats, reaching for the instructional also acknowledges a certain adrift feeling. One might think of Canadian writer Sheila Heti’s autofictional How Should a Person Be?—which, as a review in the Guardian points out, “doesn't answer the question, how should a person be? But it does find an engaging new way of asking it.” Heti’s meandering form reflects the inquisitiveness of the human spirit and relentless artistic seeking, but leaves queries unanswered. The instructional trope functions as a kind of pseudo-soothing thanks to its very lack of equivocation.
The selected images that accompany Winant’s text—all of them black and white, all of them found images sourced from her collection—often seem pedestrian, if not blandly recognizable: a woman stretching in a black leotard, or hands cupping clay on a pottery wheel. But as the silhouette evolves slightly in each new frame, the photographs take on collective power, a kind of choreography. The images featuring the naked body are less pedestrian—they are startling in their anatomical starkness (especially in an era where nipples are policed on the Instagram algorithm). The deconstruction of whose gaze is at play when we look at an image—lessons absorbed from John Berger—are dispelled by clinical purpose, be it orchestrating a pap smear or cataloguing vulva shapes. Carefully cropped to show only the pertinent corporeal reality, the images provide a reference point onto which any reader can graft herself.
Like an anti-portrait, the instructional image is fascinating due to its sheer lack of individuality, its anonymity: photographic normcore. Even a woman who underwent a single mastectomy—the image cropped from her collarbone down to around where her small intestines would lie, her subtle scar and a partial view of her remaining left breast visible—is not about empathizing with one person’s experience. It’s simply projecting a phenomenon that anyone could have undergone, including the reader.
The plain fact of being in a body and figuring out how to wield it is no small feat. This in turn makes the “instructional” nature seem almost like a form of gentleness. Winant notes: “Most young artists do not believe, not even for a second, that photographs can go so far as to affirm or deny existence.” But these images, to some degree, do provide an affirmation: even in their depersonalization, they reveal the nature of feeling lost, of wishing for guidance, of wishing for validation that we’re doing things “right.” Although there is no definitive guide or answer, the images provide a short-lived crutch for navigating a rudderless world.