Almost the Same Thing: Some Thoughts on the Photographer as Collector

Cruel and Tender, Tate Publishing, 2003

“Almost the same thing”:

Some thoughts on the collector-photographer.

First published in the Tate Modern exhibition catalogue Cruel and Tender: the Real in the Twentieth Century Photograph, 2003

by David Campany

Near the end of his working life Walker Evans was asked about the relation between his habits as a collector and his photography. “It’s almost the same thing” he replied.[i] At times what he collected and what he photographed were exactly the same thing: small, common, vernacular items. Shop signs. Street furniture. Trash.  Occasionally, he took a photograph of an object and then literally took the object with him. Old roadside signs were particular favourites, perhaps because in themselves they blur the boundary between object and image. Indeed he even exhibited some of these signs alongside his photographs.[ii]  But Evans had a deeper parallel in mind. At their most similar collecting and photography entail accumulation, a faith in the object, but also an understanding that accumulation, collecting, is a fundamentally transformative process.

The culture of modernity that gave rise to the mass production of objects, to scientific rationality and the discourses of History also gave rise to the museum, state archives and the desire to collect. Photography was central to all of these, central to the assembling and ordering of modern society. In art, photographic practice could either attempt to ignore or work through these social functions of the medium. Pictorialist photography of the 19th and early 20th century ignored them. By contrast nearly all the photographers involved with photographic modernism as it emerged around 1920 engaged with the idea of photography as assembly. They turn towards clear description and the rejection of painterly pictorialism in what marked the beginning of photographic modernism, while this acceptance of the industrial basis of photography suggested not just a type of image but numbers of them. Photographic modernism departed from the single Picture and embraced the production of bodies of images – of sets, sequences and typologies. This was partly a response to an increasingly technocratic society. It was also a reflection of the intensifying of visual experience through weekly magazines and the boom in popular printed matter. People were beginning to see a lot of photographic images in daily life. This is why so many of the key moments of modernist photography are not single images, not even exhibitions, but books. The most celebrated include Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s Painting, Photography, Film (1924) Karl Blossfeldt’s art forms in Nature, Albert Renger-Patzsch’s The World is Beautiful (1928), Kurt Tucholsky & John Heartfield’s Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles and August Sander’s Face of Our Time (1929). As a product of new technologies the popular book was an ideal format for a socially engaged and reflective photo practice. It was also the most appropriate mode of organisation and distribution. I mean this in two senses: the book form entails organising and distributing across its pages; and the book was an adaptable means of organizing and distributing to new audiences. Although it was important, the gallery was secondary to the book, by a long way.

Since then the book has lent itself to a variety approaches to image organisation. From the 1920s to the present, most of the bodies of work gathered in Cruel and Tender were published and in many cases conceived as books.[iii] Represented here are typologies, such as those of August Sander, the Bechers and Lewis Baltz; the visual argument, such as Renger-Patzsch’s The World is Beautiful; the lyrical-critical essay, such as Walker Evans’ American Photographs (1938), Robert Frank’s The Americans (1958/9), Robert Adams’ What We Bought (1972/1995) and Boris Mikhailov’s Case History (1999); the poetic sequence, such as William Eggleston’s Guide (1976) and Michael Schmidt’s Waffenruhe (1987); the album, such as Diane Arbus’ posthumous Diane Arbus (1972), Stephen Shore’s American Surfaces (1972/1999) and Nicholas Nixon’s The Brown Sisters(1999); and the thematic collection, such as Garry Winogrand’s Public Relations (1977), Paul Graham’s Beyond Caring (1986), and Martin Parr’s Common Sense (1999).

Certainly some important photographic books have been made in the last three decades. Nevertheless the form has been somewhat displaced. In part this is due to the advent of television and the collapse of print media into entertainment. It is also a consequence of the comprehensive embrace of photography by fine art. After the photographic experiments within Pop, Conceptual art and Postmodern art, photography is now celebrated as the new Picture – the singular, composed image made for the wall (and the market) that often relates to other images less by set or sequence, than through the socially absorbed laws of genre, such as landscape, cityscape, still life and narrative tableau. The work of Jeff Wall is the clearest example of this. It is made explicitly for the gallery wall and like those of many contemporary photographic artists his many books are monographs and catalogues, rather than integral works.[iv]

Historically the connections between photography and the book have been closest in relation to what loosely we might call straight photography – clear, frontal and rectilinear. Here the subject matter insists in such a way that the photograph seems as much a cutting out of the thing or person in the world as a picture. A book of these then becomes a collection of things as much as a collection of images. It functions as an archive, catalogue or atlas.[v] There are good reasons why straight images come to us in number. The straighter the image, the more it describes – or transcribes – but the less it articulates on its own. So the closer the photograph comes to artless description, the more dependent it becomes. Visual facts don’t speak very well for themselves.

Adhering to the factual and avoiding the arty in photography is not easy. Walker Evans remained ever vigilant, purging any trace of artistic pretension from his images. Self-effacement was understood as the price to be paid for description: the appearing of the subject matter demanded a disappearing of the author. Of course, outside of art the suppression of individual authorship is what gives photography its social authority. In its instrumental uses (science, criminology, industry, medicine, surveillance, news and so on) it is bureaucratic text that helps articulate the dead facts of the photograph in the form of the index card, case file or caption.[vi] For the photographers in Cruel and Tender it is a matter of images being given the chance to articulate each other. In this way photography doesn’t simply show but ‘shows itself showing what it is showing’.[vii] The straight image is made self-conscious and reflexive, hence Evans’ deceptively simple description of his work as ‘documentary style’.[viii] It allows an anatomy of the processes of viewing as much as an anatomy of the subject matter.

The straight photograph is often thought of as uncomposed and artless, a ‘degree zero’ of composition, which in some senses it is.[ix] If we understand composition as an orchestration of the picture and an orchestration of its viewing, then the straight image refuses to lead the eye, refuses to lead the reading of the image. On the one hand this makes it a thoroughly generous, open and democratic kind of photograph, but it also makes it resistant and demanding. Without visual punctuation, and despite the wealth of information on offer, the single straight image can appear quite inscrutable, as dumb as it is pensive.[x] It seems to announce a functional use but we don’t know what it is. (“You see,” said Walker Evans “a document has use, whereas art is really useless.”)  Many viewers will testify to a slight bafflement on their first encounter with an image by the Bechers, or one of Diane Arbus’ portraits or one of Lewis Baltz’s images of anonymous buildings. There it is: full and open, but somehow we are momentarily disarmed. The subject matter appears to us at the centre of the image, as the centre of attention, but also as a blocking of attention. The image compels but it is difficult to look at. Our gaze is restless and we don’t know quite what to do. It is only when we see difference and repetition, comparison, contrast and dialogue between images that we can be relieved and stimulated. (Indeed, what might a solitary image by the Bechers mean?) Such is the logic of the collection or sequence. The isolated picture/artefact is given a depth of meaning through the structure and orchestration of the group. Art is largely effaced from the image but returns in the act of assembly.

We can see this orchestration of groups of images as a form of montage. Conventionally, montage tends to be understood as an opposition to the straight photograph. Bertholt Brecht’s famously political call from the 1920s for a practice of image construction is often cited as a resistance to photographic fact:  “A photograph of the Krupp works or the AEG tells us nothing about these institutions. Actual reality has slipped into the functional. The reification of human relations – the factory, say – means that they are no longer explicit. So something must in fact be built up, something artificial, something posed.”[xi] This is usually seen as an explicit argument for photomontage, anti-realist staging, or the use of text to refunction the image. But in their numbers and sequences images can be made to modify and modulate each other in a critical and reflexive manner. This could perhaps meet Brecht’s demand for the “built-up”.[xii] Accumulation, repetition, the series and the sequence are certainly less assertive than overt juxtaposition or artifice. Nevertheless there is an important element of montage here. In fact, it is a consequence of any image collection. The difference is that with the archival set (such as Sander’s Antlitz der Zeit) or the crafted sequence of straight images (such as Evans’ American Photographs) the photographs appear as single shots and as elements of a larger whole. Two readings of the same image are montaged.[xiii]

Montage as orchestration takes on a different character when photography departs from the archival straight image and takes up the model of the snapshot. This way of working became artistically significant when everyday life itself began to be experienced as a form of montage, as a set disarticulated moments that didn’t seem to add up. Robert Frank’s pioneering photo-essay The Americans (1958/9) marked the emergence of a subjective reportage modelled on the snapshot. Up to that point reportage had developed towards a crystalline freezing of movement, a “pursuit of the blurred parts of pictures”, as Jeff Wall put it.[xiv] For Frank blur and other half-controlled accidents could be recoded, for a brief period, as signs of fractured experience, of the anxious immersion of the photographer/viewer in the chaos of the world. Here the cool conventions of the premeditated straight image give way to the heated nervousness of the quick shot. The moment of exposure is privileged as an ecstatic or traumatic guarantee of the ‘nowness’ of the everyday and its photographic observation. Where the calculated straight image tends to describe things or people, the snapshot dramatises the instance of the picture making event – a photography not just of the lens but of the lens and shutter combined. Where the straight image appears to cut around objects and things, the snapshot cuts into the world with the edge of the frame and cuts into time with the shutter.[xv] Frank’s stills were informed by the dynamics of cinema and certainly they resemble the jitteriness of certain kinds of film frames. However it was the emergence of television that suddenly dislodged photography from the centre of image culture just enough to give it some critical distance. The keys to understanding The Americans are not really the celebrated images of alienated street life, but the shots of television sets in empty bars. In that period between the advent of television and the advent of video, Frank’s model of twitchy outsiderism was highly influential. Yet the ‘photographic moment’, which as recently as thirty years ago seemed to be the essence of the medium, has all but vanished from contemporary practice, ceding the momentary to the video freeze-frame. Photography has again become a slow medium attuned more to describing things than instants.

The snapshot model has had its own tendency towards accumulation that is very different from the archival straight image. Essentially chancy and speculative it works by taking many images and then editing the large haul for revelations and epiphanies. It is a procedure that derives from reportage but is also a consequence of the near endless possibilities opened up by the small format camera. It seems the more photography embraces the fragmentariness of daily life, the more the images pile up, confusing and deferring each other. In the work of Garry Winogrand there was a generous embrace of picture taking enjoyed as an act of intensive experimentation and visual hoarding. Winogrand was by no means a snapshot photographer yet the aesthetic and technical conditions of the snapshot allow an understanding of his pictures. William Eggleston’s photography also owes something to the snapshot, but in its crisp centrality it has much in common with the straight image too.[xvi] For all their differences what these two photographers have in common is their vast number of exposures. Eggleston’s projects such as The Democratic Forest often run to thousands of images.[xvii] At his death, Winogrand left over three hundred thousand exposures unseen. Veracity and voracity became almost indistinguishable. The real and the raw appetite for its image nearly collapsed into each other.[xviii] Photography always threatens to plunge itself into disorder, to become the vernacular chaos it tries to sift and interpret. The archives of Eggleston and Winogrand are thrilling and frightening in equal measure, yet they are an integral and logical consequence of their approach to photography.

As with the straight image the snapshot is also an industrial standard. Where the straight image derives its anonymity from the conventions of the archival industrial document, the anonymity of the snapshot derives from the professional formulae of reportage on the one hand, and the amateur formulae of the family album on the other.[xix] Our cameras have been developed and manufactured to these ends. Of course a technical account is not sufficient. The anonymous characters of the straight image and the snapshot are fundamentally connected to their description of the everyday as it borders on anonymity, accumulation and repetition. We see it in August Sanders’ portraits of modern citizens; in Walker Evans’ images of nameless people and vernacular houses; in the Bechers’ and Baltz’s photography of anonymous architecture; in Robert Adams’ and Martin Parr’s interest in mass produced goods; in Stephen Shore’s local streets and drab domestic décor; in Lee Friedlander’s images of office workers; in Andreas Gursky’s pictures of contemporary life gone modular; in the alienated faces of Diane Arbus’ portraits; in Paul Graham’s images of unemployment and so on. Manufacture, consumption, and the patterns of work and leisure under capitalism run throughout this exhibition as subject matter just as emphatically as any formal photographic convention. If photography is prone to accumulation it is because modern life is too. The trick is to make the one try and say something about the other.

‘Almost the Same Thing: Some Thoughts on the Photographer as Collector’ by David Campany in the exhibition catalogue Cruel and Tender: the Real in the Twentieth Century Photograph, Tate Publishing 2003.

German co-edition published by Hatje-Cantz.


[i]Leslie Katz, “An interview with Walker Evans”, Art in America March-April 1971, reprinted in Vicki Goldberg (ed.) Photography in Print: writings from 1816 to the present (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press 1981). “You know how a collector is.” said Evans ,“He gets excessively conscious of a certain object and falls in love with it and then pursues it…And it’s compulsive and you can hardly stop.”

[ii] See Mia Fineman, ‘“The Eye Is an Inveterate Collector”: The Late Work’ in Maria Morris Hambourg; Jeff L. Rosenheim; Douglas Eklund and Mia Fineman Walker Evans (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art in association with Princeton University Press, Princeton 2000)130-139

[iii] Albert Renger-Patzsch’s best known book is Die Welt ist Schon [The World is Beautiful (Munchen: Kurt Wolff Verlag A.G. 1928); August Sander, Antlitz der Zeit. 60 Fotos Deutscher Menschen [Face of Our Time] (Munchen: Transmare Verlag / Kurt Wolff Verlag 1929); Walker Evans, American Photographs (New York: The Museum of Modern Art 1976), Many Are Called (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, The Riverside Press, Cambridge1966); Robert Frank, The Americans (New York: Grove Press 1959); Bernd and Hilla Becher’s long list of books begins with Anonyme Skulpturen: Eine Typologie technischer Bauten (Dusseldorf: Art Press Verlag 1970); Diane Arbus, Diane Arbus (Millerton, New York: Aperture 1972); Lewis Baltz, The New Industrial Parks near Irvine, California / Das Neue Industriegelande in de Nahe von Irvine, Kalifornien (New York: Leo Castelli / Castelli Graphics 1974); John Szarkowski, William Eggleston’s Guide (New York: The Museum of Modern Art 1976); Gary Winogrand, Public Relations (New York: The Museum of Modern Art 1976); Paul Graham, Beyond Caring (London: Grey Editions 1986); Michael Schmidt and Einar Schleef,  Waffenruhe (Berlin: Dirk Nishen 1987); Stephen Shore, Uncommon Places (Millerton, New York: Aperture 1982) and American Surfaces 1972 (Munich: Schirmer/Mosel 1999); Boris Mikhailov, Case History  (Zurich: Scalo 1999); Nicholas Nixon, The Brown Sisters (New York: Harry N. Abrams / The Museum of Modern Art 1999); Martin Parr, Common Sense (Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing 1999);

[iv] Plus of course, Jeff Wall’s presentational format – most often the back-lit light box – cannot be reproduced on the page. Instead the books of his work are used to illustrate the images and unlimber the complex critical framework within which he works.

[v] As Benjamin Buchloh has pointed out, the term ‘Atlas’ has a much more appropriate meaning in German since it can refer to “any tabular display of scientific knowledge”. cf. Benjamin H.D. Buchloh ‘Gerhard Richter’s Atlas: the anomic archive.’ October no. 88 (Spring 1999) 117-45. I use it here since so many important photographic publications have been ‘Atlases’ produced in Germany.

[vi] See Allan Sekula, ‘The Body and the Archive’ October 39 (Winter 1986) revised in Richard Bolton ed., The Contest of Meaning (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press) 342-388

[vii] I borrow this perceptive phrase from Thierry de Duve’s essay ‘Bernd and Hilla Becher or Monumentary Photography’ in Bernd and Hilla Becher, Basic Forms (New York: Te Neues Publishing Company 1999). The essay was first published as ‘Bernd et Hilla Becher ou la photographie monumentaire’ in Les Cahiers du Musée national d’art moderne, no. 39, spring 1992.

[viii] See Thomas Weski’s discussion of this elsewhere in the book; and Jean-François Chevrier, Allan Sekula, and Benjamin H. D. Buchloh. Walker Evans and Dan Graham. Exh. cat., (Rotterdam: Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art 1992)

[ix][ix] I am indebted to many conversations with Mark Bolland on this idea.

[x] This is why Pop and Conceptual art could see the straight photograph as inarticulate and dumb information, while writers such as Roland Barthes could see it as the most rich and strange form of image. “Ultimately”, suggested Barthes “photography is not subversive when it frightens, repels or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks.” Camera Lucida. Reflections on Photography (New York; Farrar,Strauss, Giroux 1980).

[xi] The most well-known citation of the passage is by Walter Benjamin in his “A Small History of Photography” (1929) One-Way Street and Other Writings (London: New Left Books 1979)

[xii] My thinking on this matter is indebted to many exchanges with David Evans.

[xiii] To this end both of these books present just one image at a time to the reader, leaving the left hand page blank. One of the dangers, of course, are that books go out of print and art history had tends to extract single, exemplary images from bodies of work, against the preservation of the project.

[xiv] Jeff Wall ‘“Marks of Indifference”: aspects of Photography in, or as, Conceptual Art’ in Ann Goldstein  and Anne Rorimer (eds) Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965–1975, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles / MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass and London, England 1996 246-267

[xv] For two very illuminating discussions of this duality see Thierry de Duve’s ‘Time Exposure and Snapshot: The Photograph as Paradox.’ October 3. MIT Press, 1978; and Margaret Iversen’s ‘What is a Photograph?’ Art History 17:3 (September 1994) 450-463.

[xvi] As John Szarkowski discussed in the book William Eggleston’s Guide, most of Eggleston’s pictures place the subject matter centre frame.

[xvii] A book of Eggleston’s  The Democratic Forest, containing a sequence of just one hundred and fifty selected from around fifteen thousand was published in 1989. William Eggleston’s Guide (1976) contained forty-eight images, edited from three hundred and seventy-five.

[xviii] See John Szarkowski, Winogrand. Figments of the Real World. (New York: Museum of Modern Art 1988). Most of Garry Winogrand’s unseen exposures were made in Los Angeles, a city that has defeated many a street photographer looking for photographic epiphanies within its serial monotony. It seems to have better suited image makers willing to accept and work with its tedium. For example, the photobooks and sign paintings of native LA artist Edward Ruscha.

[xix] “People who use the term [snapshot] don’t even know the meaning. They use it to refer to pictures they believe are loosely organised, or casually made, whatever you want to call it. Whatever terms you like. The fact is when they’re talking about snapshots they’re talking about the family album picture which is one of the most precisely made photographs. Everybody’s fifteen feet away and smiling. The sun is over the viewer’s shoulder, that’s when the picture is taken. Always. It’s one of the most carefully made photographs that ever happened. ”Interview with Garry Winogrand in Barbaralee Diamonstein (ed) Visions and Images: Photographers on Photography (London: Travelling Light 1981) 180