German artist Gerhard Richter claims to paint photographs. His realist figurative works, called photopaintings, make extensive use of the blurred appearance of photographs that lack focus or show the movement of the camera or its subject. This blurring is central to understanding the dialogue that Richter enacts between photography and painting as media. It is also his means for arriving at immediate and singular works of art based in affect. This visual strategy, though seemingly inarticulate, is able to achieve such effects because of the blur's ability to disrupt traditional representational relations as found in resemblance and imitation. As a result, Richter's work exceeds the signifying power of images based on conventional mimetic schemas. Properly speaking, this blurring shows nothing yet at the same time it generates a play between what is visible and what cannot be shown, but only known through felt sensation. Georges Didi-Huberman describes this kind of relationship in terms of the power of dissemblance over resemblance. The blur makes the most direct type of meaning through this dissemblance: so direct, spontaneous and inimitable as to be the real itself.
Roland Barthes also identifies an immediacy of effect in photography, describing it as the "reality effect", which at its most affecting he calls ''punctum". Richter's paintings can be understood to operate according to these same photographic qualities, but as anterior to both the apparatus of the camera and the discipline of photography. Richter's blurring connects with complex issues from art history, but more than this he reveals the fundamental imperative of painting which can be observed across that history-that painting, in pursuing sensation and affect, has always been in pursuit of the photographic. Paradoxically, the photographic as affect can only be achieved in painting through non-resemblance and what cannot be seen-the very opposite conditions to those feted by photography as medium and discipline.
At a time when it is argued that we have arrived at a post-medium condition for art, Richter demonstrates that medium remains vitally relevant to art today. In particular, he makes clear that media define each other and that this is central to their use and function. That is, we can only ever know painting through photography and photography through painting. The differences made visible through the citation of one in the other allow us to know more of both media. The success of Richter's engagement with painting and photography in these terms is based in what Jacques Derrida describes as the function of idiom. It is idiom that enables the differences between media that are crucial to their signification and upon which the medium exchange that is necessary to art is based. Richter's use of the power of photographic idiom enables his paintings to remain paintings while exercising a photographic affect.
Richter has brought painting and photography to bear upon each other in this way for over 40 years. This sustained critical engagement with questions of media and their function has had a significant impact upon contemporary art practice, and more specifically the conception of photography and the photographic. As a result of Richter's paintings, we know photography far more intimately and accurately. At the same time, he has helped us towards an understanding that the spaces between all media are open to productive activity.
This dissertation considers the literature on Richter, the history of photography and the role of medium in art. Through its analysis of Richter's work, it offers a more accurate account of his engagement with photography and his contribution to discourse surrounding the relationship between painting and photography as media. From this basis, the discussion opens to broader questions about the relation of idiom, medium and discipline.