The blurred image

Santiago Lucendo


In 1989, an exhibition of a large selection of photographs with blurs, or even blurry photographs, was presented in Vanishing Presence, at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The exhibition established the trajectory of the blur, ranging from the effects produced by technical inability to its subsequent use as an intentional resource [4]. These ’defects’, like ghostly apparitions, continue to manifest, perhaps even more so, in the digital era. The present article attempts to address this type of fuzzy images (digital and analogical), their evocative and significant capacity, as well as to emphasize the power of the Gothic imagery (in the broadest sense) to represent the terrors of the present and the future [5].

Palabras clave

image; art; photography

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OCTAVIO PAZ: El mono gramático, Barcelona, Seix Barral, 1996, p. 25.

Quoted in Vanishing Presence, p. 66, and presented by Helmut Gernsheim: Julia Margaret Carter: Her Life and Photographic Work, Millerton, NY, Aperture, 1975, p. 69. About Vanishing Presence, see footnote 4.

Foucault, M., “El sujeto y el poder” (The Subject and Power). In B. Wallis (Ed.): Arte después de la modernidad (Art after Modernity) Madrid, Akal, 2001, p. 424.

Vanishing Presence was commissioned by Adam D. Weinberg and exhibited for the first time in the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis at the beginning of 1989. The catalogue was edited the same year by the same center and by Rizzoli, in Minneapolis and New York. The blur was very soon used by artists like Julia Margaret Cameron for their own benefit, as will be seen in Vanishing Presence. As one contemporary reviewer noted, “Julia Margaret Cameron was the first person to see that her mistakes were her success” Vanishing Presence, ibid. p. 66. The blur has been used in a totally conscious way with very diverse expressive uses by different authors. The exhibition presented this array from the beginnings of photography until 20th century creators, like the photographers William Klein, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Francesca Woodman, or Patrick Tosani, among others. Although, of course, the digital blur was excluded from it.

I know that to use the Gothic concept this way may be controversial; however, I believe that it is not at all an obsolete term, of which The Gothic, by Gilda Williams (Ed.) [Documents of Contemporary Art, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 2007] and Contemporary Gothic, by Catherine Spooner (London, Reaktion Books, 2006), are a small sample. Likewise, I use the term Gothic in its broadest sense, not as an exclusively literary genre made fashionable by H. Walpole or with reference to the late medieval architecture, but to an extensive and open category that joins The Castle of Otranto with The Cure and -why not?- with the ghosts of the digital era. In this sense, publications like the well-known Gothic. Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin by Richard Davenport-Hines [London, Fourth Estate, 1998] have also made an impact. The close relation between technology and Gothic terror has been noted by diverse authors, but the images of Gothic terror are also very appropriate to reflect the modern world [Cfr. Martin Tropp in Images of Fear, David Skal in Monster Show, etc.] and, from my own viewpoint, the postmodern world even more so, and in particular, the digital environment.

In Spanish, blur (borrón) is, by definition, a drop of ink that spots the paper, the outline of a text, or sketch in painting, but also an imperfection that disfigures, or a discreditable action that ruins one’s reputation. Diccionario de la RAE, 2001, p. 345.

Steyerl, H., “In defense of the poor image”. In e-flux journal 10, retrieved at on June 2010.

Although he refers to digital images, some of his proposals easily extend to blurred images.


By ’thought’ here, I refer to that triggering to which van Alphen alluded repeatedly during the seminar that led to the present publication. The specific expression was “shock into thought”, which is not necessarily a verbalized thought, perhaps the triggering of new images and echoes.

For example, Roland Barthes, in the beginning of his Camera Lucida attempted to determine the essential trait of photography in the “community of images”. Barthes, R., La cámara lúcida. Notas sobre la fotografía, Madrid, Paidós, 2009, p. 25.

It is important to be very cautious about the idea of a global network world because not everything is there, nor does everyone have access to it.

By ’atemporality’, I do not refer to ignoring time, but to consider the relations of the past with the future, independently of the traditional structures and classifications, to travel freely like in Back to the future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985)

Quoted in Didi-Huberman, G., La imagen superviviente. Historia del arte y tiempo de los fantasmas [The surviving image. History of art and time of the ghosts], Madrid, Abada, 2009, pp. 79 and 82

See the definition of ’phantom’ in Wikipedia (September, 2010) With regard to the fraudulent use of photography of spirits, from the mid 19th century, see Houdini, H., “Spirit photography”. In A Magician Among the Spirits, Fredonia Books, 2002 (1924), pp. 116ff.

The blot, through this vagueness, expresses the dynamism and subjectivity that the first vanguards had so eagerly sought, but in a sinister way, due to its Gothic appearance and, therefore, somewhat removed from the modernity of the machines that are idolized by the futurists.

The paradox of these images goes back to their construction, and particularly to the origins of photography, when prolonged and exhausting poses (to die in life) were necessary to be immortalized, in contrast to the blot that represented restlessness, the refusal to pose, or the unawareness of the process being carried out, with the gesture of movement thus being mortified, but not the individual’s mask.

The intermission to which Edmund Burke referred in his philosophical inquiry is quite close to some of the feelings that the blot can generate. The quotation of Spencer that Burke presents seems to be more than appropriate: “A vague shadow of uncertain light, / like a lamp, whose life fades away. / Or like a moon dressed in a foggy night / it shows itself to those who walk with fear and great terror”. In Burke, E., Indagación filosófica acerca de nuestras ideas acerca de lo sublime y de lo bello [Philosophical Inquiry about Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful], Madrid, Tecnos, 2001, p. 63. It would also be very interesting to verify how, among the causes that Burke attributed to the beautiful, those with a very graphic and clear-cut nature (such as physiognomy, the gaze, ugliness) predominate over the more abstract or indefinite causes of the sublime (light, colour, sound, noise, etc.).

For the concept, see its extensive development in Nöel Carroll Filosofía del terror o paradojas del corazón [The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart], Madrid, 2005, and my own application in El vampiro como imagen-reflejo: estereotipo del horror en la modernidad [The Vampire as an Image-Reflection: Stereotype of Horror in Modernity], Doctoral thesis read in 2009 and published by the Unuversidad Complutense of Madrid in e-prints

Lovecraft, at the beginning of his essay on horror said, “the oldest and most intense fear is the fear of the unknown”, to which he added subsequently, “The most important factor is the atmosphere, because the ultimate criterion of authenticity does not reside in a well-woven plot, but in having known how to create a certain feeling”. Lovecraft, H. P., El horror en la literatura [Horror in Literature], Madrid, Alianza Editorial, 2002, pp. 7 and 11, respectively.

The recent exhibition of the Red Specter, Fetiches Críticos [Critical Fetishes] , in the Art Center Dos de Mayo in Móstoles, showed some of these terrifying aspects of current capitalism, from the very presentation of the exhibition. Gothic imagination and the political-economic world are closely united and not only in the work of Marx, as first noted by Chris Baldickien in In Frankenstein’s Shadow [Claredon Press, Oxford 1987], but also in numerous images (excuse the self-citation:) as I have documented extensively in El vampiro como imagen-reflejo [ibid.]. Cartoons for the Cause by Walter Crane is a sample of this. While reviewing this text, I read this critique by David Trueba in El País (digital) of November 16, 2010: “If we remove the laughs from Bush’s book [Decision points] perhaps we will be left with a story of Gothic terror with some outstanding Spanish scenarios to promote touristically.”

Marx, K. & Engels, F.: Manifiesto comunista [Communist Manifesto], Madrid, Alianza Editorial, 2008, p. 39.

It is not surprising that Gerhard Richter should attribute more truth to the blurred representation because truth and realism are not necessarily linked. “The flowing transitions, the smooth, equalizing surface clarify the content and make the representation credible”. Richter adds, “I blur things to make everything equally important and equally unimportant. I blur things so that they not look artistic or craftsmanlike but technological, smooth and perfect. I blur things to make all the parts a closer fit. Perhaps I also blur out the excess of unimportant information”. In Elger, D. & Obrist, H. U. (Eds.), Gerhard Richter. Text. Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961-2007, London, Thames & Hudson, 2009, p. 33.

ibid., p. 29.

Van Alphen, E., Art in Mind, The University of Chicago Press, 2005, p. 31

Barthes in his Camera Lucida, to whom van Alphen also refers, proposed photography as mortification. Barthes, ibid., p. 32. Barthes also said that the “contortions of technique” and “the voluntary exploitation of certain effects” did not convince him, although he admitted to understanding their subversive capacity (p. 51).

Van Alphen, ibid., p. 32.

Foucault, ibid. p. 424.

Woody Allen in the parody of Socrates in Perfiles [Profiles], Tusquets, Barcelona 2001.

In Spanish, the term ripear, from the English rip, reminds one of “Ripio: the residual left over from something/2. Rubble or fragments of bricks, stones, and other building materials that are rejected or broken, used to fill in hollows of walls or floors”. Or ripiar, which in Cuba means “to smash something to pieces” (Diccionario de la RAE). In English rip, like slit or tear or... perhaps RIP, rest in peace?

Ruff also worked with newspaper cuttings. Zeitungsfotos [Newspaper photos] from the 90s, enlarging them like jpegs and, in this sense, a clear evolution can be established of the photographic dotting of the newspaper impression to the visible pixelation. Concerning these cuttings, see, for example, the Thomas Ruff catalogue Surfaces, Depths, Vienna, Kunsthalle Wien, 2009.

It was precisely the media covering of the I Gulf War that aroused Ruff’s interest in this kind of images; Ibid., p. 42

In the dialogue, these pixels in movement are identified as individuals: “I’ve got numerous individuals on the road. Do you want me to take those out?” “Take them out.”

As a counterpoint, see in YouTube:

Published in El Nacional de Caracas on August 13. The image shows the morgue of Monte Bello in Caracas.

It is not a question here of protecting the portrayed people, already dead, but of protecting the observers from the view of the faces (recognition by family members) and the modesty of sexual organs, but showing the lamentable conditions of this morgue. The image generated a debate, also including the excuse to exercise political censure, between the need to denounce a situation of overload and neglect of the morgue and protection from its contemplation by the public.

It is not always a threat of direct violence. As well known, minors cannot be shown in the media without a previous paternal authorization, protecting their identity, maybe not from direct violence, as in the case of witnesses or the forces of law and order, but from being pointed out and somehow assaulted.

Along the lines of Barthes’ Spectrum, ibid., p. 30

’Poor’ images are those that play the role of the predators in the food chain of images. They are the ones who devour their superiors, corrupting them and corroding them, as if they were zombies, to subsequently revive them turned into the “rubble of the audiovisual production”, in Steyerl’s words (ibid.). The second section of Steyerl’s article is precisely entitled “Resurrection (as Poor Images)” and refers especially to how experimental and essayistic cinema has been able to revive, precisely thanks to these new diffusion channels: “Many works of avant-garde, essayistic, and non-commercial cinema have been resurrected as poor images” and, further on, “The poor image embodies the afterlife of many former masterpieces of cinema and video art”.

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Re-visiones - ISSN 2143-0040
HAR2013-43016-P I+D Visualidades críticas, reescritura de las narrativas a través de las imágenes