on Milk and Melancholy, by Kenneth Hayes (MIT Press and Prefix Press)

During a search for an advertising agency in 1998, I visited Goodby Silverstein and Partners in Manhattan, the creators of the “Got Milk?” campaign for the Calfornia Milk Producers Board. The account management executive pitched his firm’s services. At the end of the meeting, a staffer approached and snapped a photograph of me. A few minutes later I was presented with my very own “Got Milk?” print ad, a ragged strip of white splotched digitally above my upper lip. Kenneth Hayes’ fascinating study Milk and Melancholy not only revived this memory but jolted my perception of it.

aaaa.jpgHayes’ original purpose was to write a monograph on Jeff Wall’s 1984 photograph “Milk” (see below). He discovered that a surprising number of photographers and artists had created milk imagery in the 1960s and 70s – milk spilling and spilled, puddles of milk, glasses falling and smashing on the floor. Ed Ruscha, Jim Dine, Roy Lichtenstein, Wayne Thiebaud, Andy Warhol, William Wegman. “The most remarkable thing about these images was that milk was invariably the locus of disturbance,” he writes in his preface. The milk splash “recurred with the regularity of a trauma.” This recognition in turn led to a consideration of the origins of splash photography.

milk6_0.jpgThe first systematic study of splashes through high-speed photography was carried out in the early 1890's by the English physics professor A. M. Worthington. When he published A Study of Splashes in 1908, the public could see for the first time the different stages of a splash, and could question why splashes evolve in the ways they do. Worthington realized the advantages of milk over water for his work (“a higher coefficient of visibility”) and in this way the milk splash became a primal image of stopped time. Next came MIT professor Harold Edgerton whose initial goal was to photograph the performance of power generators in order to improve their efficiency. His subsequent photos published in Life in 1939 included an apple shot by a bullet, a playing card split by a bullet, struck golf balls, and gymnasts in motion. But most famous of all are his milk splashes. He later photographed an atomic explosion.

milkx.jpgBy the time Edward Steichen put together “The Exact Instant,” a show at MoMA in 1949 including Edgerton works such as “Splashing of a Drop of Milk into a Saucer of Milk,” high-speed and time-lapse photography had become part of the dialogue on modern art, “the definitive example of the Modernist ideal of the instantaneity of vision.” Edgerton himself didn’t buy it. “Don’t make me out to be an artist,” he groused, apparently offended. “I am an engineer. I am after the facts.”

Hayes moves beguilingly from facts to mystery and provocation. He picks up an accomplice along the way in Walter Benjamin who in “A Short History of Photography” (1931) claimed that this new photography could reveal “a space held together unconsciously,” and who declared in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”:

“Photography … with its time lapses, enlargements, etc. makes such knowledge possible. Through these methods one first learns of this optical unconscious, just as one learns of the drives of the unconscious through psychoanalysis.”

milk11.jpgIn other words, Edgerton’s photography shows us things we see but ordinarily only unconsciously register and react to. Furthermore, the optical unconscious can never be fully attained. As Hayes suggests, this may be the reason Roland Barthes said, "Whatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see." Hayes also suggests that stopping-time is just one way of regarding the psychological purpose of such photos. “The literature about Edgerton never acknowledges that his work, behind its infinite guises, was almost entirely concerned with the spectacle of sudden death,” he says. Edgerton’s supposed fact-finding purposes begin to seem like pretenses. Hayes goes on, “How can the Edgerton who declared, ‘I am after the facts. Only the facts,’ be reconciled with the Edgerton who regretfully admitted, “’I’ve tried for years to photograph a drop of milk splashing on a plate with all the coronet’s points spaced equally apart’? Is his regret not also an admission that he cared nothing for the facts of any particular instance, but only about capturing the perfect image.” An image of the physical shape coming apart – sudden, spectacular decomposition. Hayes asks us to consider the connection between Edgerton’s bullet-drilled apple and Eddie Adams’ 1968 docu-photo of the street execution of a suspected Viet Cong.

milkxx.jpgBut back to milk in Hayes’ mid-book chapter “Energy Made Visible: Vital Fluids in the Streets.” By the 1960s the “milk-splash discourse” had evolved to “an agoraphilic drive to move into the space of the street … given a sense of urgency by the widespread eruption of street demonstrations in the late 1960s.” Hayes takes up the contemporaneous work of the Serbian artist Braco Dimitrijević and his filmed ruptures of milk cartons by motor vehicles. Sigmar Polke’s “Table With Overturned Jug II” extends the theme and practice further. General Idea’s photo “Nazi Milk” (1979) shows a blond young man with a Hitleresque forehead-sweep of hair holding a filled glass of milk up to his mouth – crested by an Adolph-style white mustache – incredibly, the antecedent to “Got Milk?” Artists were using milk to direct “the sentiment of schadenfreud at consumer society.”

milk3_0.jpgThis takes us to Hayes’ first interest, Jeff Wall’s roughly 6x8-foot photograph “Milk.” Hayes explications and descriptions are first-rate – exact, analytical, clear, and pointing to new questions. About “Milk” he notices that at the moment of milk-crisis the subject “fails to recognize himself as a cause of public disturbance. Yet the picture evidently concerns more than the fate of the individual. The subject’s physical appearance, demeanour and even comportment all correspond to the conventional figure of the melancholic. His darkened face and downcast eyes, his clenched fist and distended veins, his closeness to the earth – all are traditional symptoms of melancholia, which was once thought to be caused by an imbalance of bodily fluids.” Ejaculate, blood, saliva and swallowed drink in trajectory. The milk-splash becomes "an allegory of the fate of the body in modernity." In “Milk,” Hayes also claims to see the end of the milk-splash discourse just as Jackson Pollock, leaving traces of the gesture of splashing, destroyed a mode of painting.

milk14_0.jpgThe musings and assertions of Milk and Melancholy capture the several-decade unpredictable and often aggressive creative acts of a range of artists. The signification of the milk-splash, first seen as a curiosity piece, accrues more weight the more it explodes into droplets. So when Goodby and Silverstein affix the mustache on Hayden Panettiere (left) and her glass of milk shatters, the goodness of the pure product meets an “optically unconscious” social history.

[Published January 30, 2009, 206 pp., 95 color photos, 25 b&w photos, $24.95. Co-published by The MIT Press with Prefix Institute of Contemporary Art. Inc. Kenneth Hayes is an architectural historian and a curator of contemporary art.]