Eduardo Cadava and the Art of Reading Images

Cadava, one of photography’s most thought-provoking authors, scholars, professors, and curators, on what to look forward to in his five-day workshop, “Memory Burns,” why curation is as creative as making work, and exploring what it means to be “photographic.”

Photo © Eduardo Cadava

You’ve asked participants to bring projects, or ideas for projects, to the workshop. How will you engage with these projects and ideas?

I have conducted studio visits at, among others, the San Francisco Art Institute, the Jan Van Eyck Academy in Maastricht, the School of Architecture at Cooper Union in New York, and the School of Architecture at Princeton University and, in each instance, in collaboration with the artist, photographer, or architecture student, we imagine together what might be invented in relation to an idea, how to materialize it, how to have the project embody and enact what it wants to convey. Part of this involves developing a vocabulary and even a lexicon that can match what is being created, drawing from the history of a medium but also working to transform it.

Your workshop will explore, among other subjects, what it means to “see and think photographically.” What does that phrase mean to you? 

In Henri Bergson’s Matter and Memory, there is a moment in which he writes: “The whole difficulty of the problem that occupies us comes from the fact that we imagine perception to be a kind of photographic view of things, taken from a fixed point by that special apparatus which is called an organ of perception—a photography which would then be developed in the brain-matter by some unknown chemical and psychical process of elaboration. But is it not obvious that the photograph, if photograph there be, is already taken, already developed in the very heart of things and at all the points of space?”

This passage has been important to me because, instead of simply thinking of the eye as a kind of camera—that views or captures things in the world—it suggests that the things themselves are already photographic, that is, already images. The world Bergson imagines is a world composed of images, saturated by images, one in which objects themselves can be imagined as photographic. For example, trees themselves, insofar as light passes through their leaves and branches and produces shadowed images on the ground, can be viewed as photographic apparatuses and, if trees can be photographic, perhaps we do not yet know what a photograph is.

What is one example of an exercise or experiment that you will take participants through?

There are many exercises that I might assign in relation to the particular setting we will be in—with its singular landscape and history—but, in particular, I’ve thought of looking closely at Susan Meiselas’s early 1974 book, Learn to See, which includes 101 exercises and experiments that use photography to encourage us to see differently. I can imagine several assignments based on these exercises that would ask the participants to venture out in the villages and landscape of Santorini in order to explore different ways of perceiving similar objects. We also will engage in “reading” photographs together—to explore the archive of relations that each photograph is.

Your new book, Paper Graveyards, has been described as “a training manual of sorts for understanding visual material in the twenty-first century.” Why is it important at this stage of history to consider how we—and especially photographers—read visual material?

Here I hope you will permit me to simply cite excerpts from two paragraphs from the book’s preface:

“If the spectacular explosion of images during the last twenty years has become one of the signatures of our contemporary era, one of the most urgent tasks we have is to understand the role and place of these images in our everyday life, and this without assuming that we know what an image is, since it is only in relation to this uncertainty that we can begin to approach the image in all its enigmatic and contradictory glory. How is it that images, in all their various forms, influence our perception of the world in which we live? How is it that they shape and even largely determine the contours of our historical, political, ethical, and religious life, and in ways that ask us to rethink our relation to these different modalities of our existence, and not only these? If we are to understand the innumerable media and forms in which images now appear, the essays that follow suggest that the only way to read these mostly digitized, and even postdigitized, appearances of the image is through patient, close, and persistently predigital forms of reading that, proleptically, already comprehend digital and even postdigital phenomena avant la lettre.

All the essays in this book are meant to advocate for a literacy in regard to images—in all their various forms and at the very limit of what an image is or is not— and the readings each one of them offers suggest the outlines of the training manual of which they wish to be a part. They wish to encourage a visual literacy that is its own form of activism, and that begins in the conviction that the more attentive and ethically responsible we are as readers, the better able we are to live in the world, openly, generously, and with a sense not only of our essential relatedness but also of a justice that is always on the horizon. This anthology of little ‘paper graveyards,’ then, seeks, in its most hopeful and activist moments, to contribute to whatever we might call the art of reading images.”


You have curated exhibitions at the Slought Foundation, the MAXXI Museum in Rome, Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, the Al-Ma’mal Center for Contemporary Art in East Jerusalem, and the Princeton University Art Museum. How would you describe your approach to curating visual material for an audience?

In each instance, I try to take advantage of the particular setting—both the space and its locale—but in a way that performs what I wish to convey in the exhibition. For example, in the “Itinerant Languages of Photography” exhibition I co-curated for the Princeton University Art Museum, we wanted the person walking through the exhibition to experience the itinerancy of images somatically, intellectually, and in ways that replicated what we wished to suggest about the movement of images across all sorts of borders and limits.

For example, we played with a kind of visual echolalia among photographs in different rooms of the exhibition so that, as the viewer walked into the next room, he or she might register an echo in this room of something seen in the previous room—a form, a shape, a palette of colors or a network of shadows—and, at that moment, the photograph in the previous room could be said to have moved into the next one, enacting the itinerancy we wanted to have the viewer explore. It required the viewer to see the works almost in syntactic relation to one another, as a means of relation but also as a process of interruption, and in a way that itself works to train the viewer’s eye to register repetitions and patterns, relations among the past, the present, and the future. Curation for me is a mode of writing and thinking and no less creative than the works themselves.

What’s one thing you’re looking forward to doing/seeing/eating/feeling in Santorini?

What I am most looking forward to is meeting all the participants in the workshop and learning about their projects. I believe that the work we do is always collaborative—even when we imagine ourselves being alone—and, for this reason, I always enjoy collaborating around shared interests. I have also been to Santorini several times and it’s simply a magical setting for our workshop and, as part of it, and beyond the work we will do together, I look forward to sharing meals, taking walks together along the beach but also in villages, and to thinking and creating together.

Eduardo Cadava x Palm Tree Workshops: Memory burns” 27-31 May 2024.