David Campany: Safety in Numbness

In Part 2 of the notes, in the section titled “Aftermath and Aesthetics”, there is a reference to David Campany’s essay titled Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problem of ‘late photography’’ in which Campany discusses aftermath (or ‘late’) photography and its ability to communicate the complexity of events, especially those with a political background.

Joel Meyerowitz:  Searchers in Rubble 2001

Joel Meyerowitz: Searchers in Rubble 2001

The course notes state that Campany considers the work of Joel Meyerowitz (the official photographer selected to photograph scenes after 9/11) “too safe and beautiful and therefore not fitting for depicting the horrific scenes of terrorism”.



It’s true that the Campany essay does mention that Meyorowitz has a talent for beauty:

“He has photographic skills honed over several decades. It may be second nature to him now, but he knows what makes a good photo and can’t avoid the beautiful. He certainly does have a very strong formal aesthetic even though it clearly overlaps with a popular sense of what a photographic document of a ruin should look like.” (Campany 2003)

However, rather than getting stuck on the word “beautiful”, I think the more relevant word (or phrase) is “the sublime” (which is mentioned several times in the essay). Jesse Alexander (2014) quotes from Edmund Burke’s 1757 treatise, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful as follows:

“Where beauty was the domain of contentment and harmony— a gentle and enjoyable experience of something— the sublime prompted unsettled feelings and emotional awakening; it was often the raw, heart-stopping power of Mother Nature.”

Alexander goes on to state “when something triggers a feeling of fear, dread, or horror (for example, encountering a mountain, a great canyon, or something equally perilous), then you are in the presence of the sublime.”

In my opinion, the photos of Meyorowitz evoke this feeling of the sublime rather than that of beauty although the essay goes on to mention the perils of documentary photography becoming beautiful and therefore missing the point. [Stepping back from the essay a little: it would have been wonderful if a whole bunch of diverse photographers were given access to Ground Zero. We can only imagine what each may have made of the devastation in front of them.]

Company ends the essay with the following statement:

“There is a fine line between the banal and the sublime, and it is political. If an experience of the contemporary sublime derives from our being caught in a geo- political circumstance beyond our comprehension, then it is a politically reified as much as an aesthetically rarefied one.”

After picking apart the complex syntax, it becomes clear that to Campany experiencing the sublime in this way makes the geo-political situation much more concrete: we understand clearly the result of actions taken over decades, and perhaps of other actions not taken. Politics is no longer an abstract thing which rarely touches our lives.

In the end, perhaps we shouldn’t get too concerned about labels. Perhaps we should just be content that Joel Meyorowitz produced “Meyorowitz” photography and that is a very fortunate thing indeed.


Alexander, Jesse (2014) Perspectives on Place: Theory and Practice in Landscape Photography [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.com (Accessed on 29.09.15)

Campany, David (2003) Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problem of ‘late photography’. At: http://davidcampany.com/safety-in-numbness/ (Accessed 21 Nov 2016)


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