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Karel Thein

Tactility, Detail, and Scale in the Photography of Sculpture

In the wake of the recent surge of interest in the relation between sculpture and photography, the article revisits the photography’s capacity to convey the haptic qualities of sculpted matter. Starting from the logic of supplementarity, whereby a photograph reveals something that we do not notice while meeting the sculpture itself, the article focuses on the photographic detail and its inherent tactility as the materiality’s own surprising touch. At the same time, a close attention is paid to the role of scale in the photography of sculpture and to the connection between the impact of the detail and the play of scale, which makes us aware of the uncertain borderline between image and mental image. Different from measurable size, scale enters our perception of the photographed sculpture as something irreducible to the detail understood as the matter’s signature. While being a more abstract agent than the more directly tactile detail, scale has its own mode of addressing the viewer by making her suddenly aware of her own situation. The more personal nature of this address makes it possible to connect the scale, rather than the detail in its more usual iconographic sense, to Roland Barthes’ notion of the punctum as, first and foremost, a mental event. However, as the article makes clear, this event, whereby a detail expands mentally and independently on any measurable size, cannot occur without the underlying relief-like or tactile qualities of the photographs themselves. To support this interpretation of the productive tension between the detail and the scale, the article discusses a series of examples (starting with the early daguerreotypes) and appeals to a broad range of studies, from Herder through Aloïs Riegl and Ronald Barthes to the most recent debates.

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