Time Present: Photography from the Deutsche Bank Collection, 2014
An essay written for the book Time Present: Photography from the Deutsche Bank Collection, 2014
For the better part of a century now, it has been customary to begin an essay about contemporary photography with reference either to the difficulty of defining it as a medium, or to the rapidly changing attitudes towards it. A commentator is on solid if predictable ground with an opening line such as: “In this time of great transition for photography,” or “Now more than ever, the very idea of photography is in question,” or “Photography is the most mercurial and enigmatic of mediums,” or “Photography’s applications and possibilities now seem limitless.” Even the less wide-eyed assessments have a long history: “Photography’s artistic potential is compromised by the document character of the medium,” or “It seems photography’s days are numbered.” One can find expressions like these in writings as far back as the 1910s.
What might this tell us? That photography has never been easy to define; that popular and artistic attitudes towards it are never stable for long; that its technological base changes continuously—it always seems to be coming to an end or a new beginning; and that it has always been practiced with a breadth that defies categorization. What really changes is the detail.
Even a cursory glance across the field of contemporary photography in art reveals a broad range of forms and practices: the framed singular tableau photograph, staged or unstaged, large or small; the suite or series of photographs exploring a particular pictorial approach or subject; the extended typology or grid; the reworking or re- presentation of photographic material from archives (domestic, state, commercial); classical documentary projects; experimental documentary projects; images derived from surveillance or other automated camera systems; still lifes (naturalistic or constructivist); allegories and parodies of applied photography (advertising, fashion, media propaganda, industrial photography, portraiture); performance documentation; photographs torn out of, or reprinted from publications past and present; hybrids of photography and sculptural form; slide-shows (digital or analogue); image-text practices; image-sound practices; explorations of the uncertain border between the still and moving image; elemental explorations of the photographic apparatus (light, lenses, shutter, photosensitive surfaces); photorealist computer-generated imagery; paintings and drawings derived from photographs. Then there is the equally wide range of practices that are not so easily exhibited but make irrefutable claims to artistic significance: photobooks, websites, site-specific interventions. And that’s just at a glance.
When this incommensurable variety troubles a commentator’s idea of “the photograph” or even the less specific notion of “photography,” there is the fallback descriptive term “photographic.” This substitution of noun for adjective—or the adjectival noun “the photographic”—dodges the difficult questions that really need answering but it does at least appear to signal their range. Indeed the rise of the term “the photographic” corresponds with the widespread assumption that photography is now distributed, if not dissolved, across an “expanded field” of artistic production. This particular assumption has been repeated so often of late that it has lost all meaning, if indeed it ever had any: immediately upon its invention in the 1830s photography expanded, or rather exploded into every domain of cultural and scientific life without a second thought. Even within art there were no boundaries to be respected. Anything could be explored and it was. The breadth of what has been possible and what has been achieved with photography is well nigh impossible to comprehend. For this reason defining the art history of photography has always been a matter of highly contested “gate-keeping” which, for lack of consensus—and flying in the face of plurality—dictates which practices are significant. This is why photography now seems so fascinated with its own past. It constantly underestimates how rich it was (is). So let us beware of the art historians’ loose talk of “recent expansion.” It is mere solipsism. They once had a narrower view but something has prompted that view to expand. Let’s accept the field was always more expansive than we can ever know. We are dealing with photography, the most dispersed and flexible of image forms.
Art and non-art
Art is always in some kind of relation with non-art. It does not, indeed it cannot, take place in a bubble cut off from the rest of culture. For photography this relation is often quite emphatic because photography does not belong exclusively to art and has significant currency outside of art (the same might be said of film and video but much less so of painting, for example, although no medium is entirely monopolized by art). At times it seems as if whatever it was that made the space of art distinct, special, or valuable is dissolving. Especially when the art market and the consensual categories of the populist mass media conspire to dictate the making, selection and reception of art. Perhaps the best we might hope for, if we want art to be distinct, is that it has a creativity, or criticality that sets it apart. In 1973, Victor Burgin suggested:
“A job the artist does which no-one else does is to dismantle existing communication codes and to recombine some of their elements into structures which can be used to generate new pictures of the world.”[i]
In this assessment an artist is not simply someone who works within the institutions of art; it is someone who works in relation to, and at odds with the structures of culture at large. An artist may well exhibit in galleries but may also be a writer, architect, filmmaker, designer, musician, philosopher, scientist or speaker. Art is a matter of pursuing “new pictures of the world,” and this pursuit can take place anywhere. In this sense art is not an institution or even a discourse, but a disposition characterized by the desire for things to be other than, or better than they are. Art can be found anywhere and the medium of photography aids and structures the expression of that desire.
More specifically, photography in the contemporary gallery space appears to function as an operating table or a stage set, to which the different potentials and non-art practices of the medium are brought and re-pictured. These metaphors, of the operating table and stage set, map very well onto what seem to be two key impulses of the medium: the forensic interest in detail, and the theatrical interest in mise-en-scène, performativity and time. Photography in art is somehow obliged or compelled to enter a dialogue either with the notion of visual evidence, or with the culture of the moving image in which the still image finds itself, or both.
One medium or several?
Little of what I have suggested so far addresses the question of how it is that photography has eluded stable definition. My hunch, and it is only a hunch, is that photography is not one medium but three or perhaps four, working together.
Looking back at the many discussions of photography and its apparatus, I have noticed that the character and direction of the thinking tends to change depending upon which part of the apparatus is being thought about. The camera, which is just one part of the photographic apparatus, is itself made up of what we might think of as three distinct parts. I mentioned them earlier in passing: the lens (or aperture), the shutter, and the light-sensitive surface.
When the lens is the center of attention it is usually in relation to the depiction of space and the conventions of realism determined by theories of perspective and the laws of optics. Here we are in the realm of resemblance and iconicity. The lens might not be “photography” but it might be “photographic.” When the shutter is invoked, it is in relation to time and duration (instants, long exposures, multiple exposures and so forth). When the light sensitive surface is invoked, it is usually in regard to questions of indexicality, contiguity and touch (the existential connection between light bouncing off a subject and its contact with a chemically or electronically sensitized plate). An artist might use a lens or aperture only, for example, to turn a gallery into a camera obscura that projects inside and upside-down the world outside. This too might be thought of as photographic without being “photography.” An artist might use a shutter only, for example, as a performance closing and opening the shutters over a gallery’s windows, making the space alternately light and dark. An artist might use a light sensitive surface only, for example, by exposing photographic paper directly. Photographic but not photography.
Cover, Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1952. Cover design by Henri Martisse.
At different historical points and in different contexts we can see that the emphasis on each component part of the photographic apparatus has varied. For instance think of how, between the mid-1920s and the mid-1970s, the shutter seemed to play the central part in popular and more serious thinking about what photography is. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s celebrated “Decisive Moment,” in which the lens cuts out a bit of space and the shutter cuts out a bit of time, was understood to be as close to the essence of the medium as you could get. The hunter-photographer moves through the unpredictable world and shoots reactively, making order out of its apparent chaos, or vice-versa. This idea loomed very large in accounts of what photography was or could be. Looking back, we can see that that era—a long one at half a century—was in part prompted as much by other media as by photography’s autonomous search for its own essence. Cinema, a fully mass medium by the 1920s, invented the moving image but it also invented a new relation to still images. Photography began to pursue this stillness as “arrestedness.” With an active shutter it mastered and monopolized arrestedness until video intruded as a mass form to become widespread by the 1970s, with its portability, dispersal, and capacity to be readily fragmented. At that point the decisive moment began to slip from the understanding of the medium’s artistic potential. Indeed, I am struck by how little “shutter” photography there is in contemporary art, which seems to favour slowness of various kinds. These days few art people speak of the moment, decisive or otherwise, as being unique to photography or definitive of its artistic potential. Even so, the instantaneous now haunts photography, which is partly why so much staged photography in art since the mid-1970s has renounced the decisive moment to better explore what such a moment was or is. The early work of Cindy Sherman and much of the work of Jeff Wall comes to mind in this regard. Both of them began in earnest in the late 1970s. Today contemporary photographic artists seem to prefer the stoicism of the lens to the ecstasy or trauma of the shutter. That seems to be what this now relatively slow medium is for them.
Cover, Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Stills, Rizzoli, New York, 1990
So photography has always had a shutter in one form or another, but its significance has experienced a rise and fall. Likewise we could think of the various points at which the light sensitive surface—the component that makes photography, at least in part, a trace of the world as light—has peaked within the understanding of the medium. These would include the crises of historical memory felt in the wake of various wars. Think also, in a different way, about how the becoming electronic of the apparatus (digital cameras) focuses discussion on the light-sensitive surface. Debates about the digital have made a fetish of their difference from, rather than their continuity with, older equipment. Digital cameras still have lenses, but little is said of them. We might also think of the indexical turn in art’s conception of photography in the 1970s that was so well described by the critic Rosalind Krauss. Advanced art of that time stressed the photograph’s status as physical record, either by making use of it in practices such as performance art and Land Art documentation, or by digging up the foundations of its status as neutral evidence. Conceptual Art liked to parody the photo as “dumb document.”
Ideas about the role played by the lens have also risen and fallen, but with fewer extremes. Think of the preoccupation with the “faults” of the lens and the artistic aversion to clear detail typical of Pictorialist photography (shallow focus, vignetting, imperfect glass), or the strong presence in art since the 1920s of the “straight photograph” (frontal, rectilinear, uninflected), which clearly marks a certain kind of ascendance of the perfectible lens and its descriptive capacity. Since the beginnings of photography lenses have basically stayed the same, inching steadily towards a kind of perfection. About shutters—control of duration and exposure—we can say much the same. That’s the front of the camera (I am simplifying, obviously). At the back, the light sensitive surface has changed a great deal, especially in the move from paper, metal, and celluloid coated with chemicals to the electronic plate. It will no doubt continue to change. Putting all these things together, which cameras do, we can say that photography stays the same and changes too.
Is that all there is to the apparatus and to photographic change? Yes and no. We should also add the question of subject matter—because although ordinarily it may not count as being part of the apparatus it is indispensable to photography. Subject matter, without which photography would not quite be photography, has changed the most. There have been about one hundred and eighty years of global change under modernity since its invention. I’ll return to this.
We tend to think of photography telling us something about subject matter, or at least about what subject matter can look like when photographed. But it also works the other way around. It is barely possible to understand photography outside of how and what it depicts. Subject matter affects what we think photography “is.” For example industrial subject matter (say, a steel and glass building) makes photography seem industrial. Nature (a forest, or a cloud) can make it seem natural. The fleeting (a man jumping over a puddle) makes it a medium of the shutter. The immobile (say, a water tower) makes it a medium of the lens. And the desirable, or the past (in the end they are much the same thing), make it an existential medium of connection and contact. The actual technical procedure of the photo might be exactly the same in each case (lens, shutter, sensitized surface and so on), but the subject matter seems to dictate how the photography is “felt.” This is photography’s “affect.” Imagine a bizarre scenario: First, a formal photograph of a building. There is nobody in front of the building. Photography would seem here to be emphasizing its lens to us, with its powers of optical description of the thing and space before the camera. Imagine the next image on the roll, or the next digital capture is shot just the same, but it happens to “freeze” a figure now running past. Suddenly the shutter seems to be more active. Imagine the building has since been destroyed, or that the running figure is your since deceased lover, in the flush of youth. Suddenly the physical contact of light, the indexicality of the optically produced image, the trace, becomes more central. Perhaps it even becomes overwhelming, as it did for Roland Barthes in his book Camera Lucida. The sense of a person or building “having been there” overcame him, and flooded his conception of photography. Our grasp of lens, shutter, and light sensitive surface are never really this separate but abstracting the idea may allow us to see how subject matter conceptualizes photography for us in different ways.
Cover, Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida. Reflections on Photography, Hill and Wang, New York, 1980
Cover, John Szarkowski, The Photographer’s Eye, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1966
It can sometimes seem as if photography awaits definition from the world. Let’s recall John Szarkowski’s first major attempt to define the medium when he was made Head of Photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. In his book The Photographer’s Eye (1966), he came up with a set of categories. If a photo—any photo—“excelled” in one or more of these categories it would be worthy of serious attention (his and presumably ours). They were: The Frame, The Detail, Time, Vantage Point, and The Thing Itself. It is a flawed if fascinating attempt, as many critics soon pointed out. Nevertheless his inclusion of “The Thing Itself” is instructive. The other four categories seem to pertain directly to the procedures of the camera. The Thing Itself, i.e. subject matter, is resolutely not “of” the apparatus, yet it is necessary for the making of a photograph (granted, photographic works can be made with light alone, which may suggest light is really the ultimate subject matter of photography, but we mustn’t ignore the power of photography’s realistic illusions). Could we go all the way, and say that subject matter is part of the photographic apparatus? It is a drastic redefinition, but in granting a place to all the elements that that are necessary for photography, it might get us closer to grasping the problem.
“The magic of photography,” suggested the philosopher and photographer Jean Baudrillard, “is that it is the object which does all the work.”[ii]
Cover, Jean Baudrillard, Photographies 1985-1998, Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 1999
Might this suggest that beyond the art and craft of the image-maker it is the thing in the picture that is the real source of photographic meaning? Or is this itself an effect of photographic “magic”? In appearing to merely present us with the world as a sign of itself (as what Barthes called a “message without a code”), photography hides its own powers to radically transform subject matter into image. Its transparency is more than it seems. It allows the photographer to camouflage the preparations that make the image of the subject what it is. The photographer need not even be aware of the process, and it leads Baudrillard to conclude that: “the joy of photography is an objective delight.” It brings to mind the photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch’s famous essay “Joy Before the Object” (1928): “There must be an increase in the joy one takes in an object” he declared, “and the photographer should become fully conscious of the splendid fidelity of reproduction made possible by his technique.”[iii] Renger-Patzsch argued for the photography of servitude, homage, and worship of the world as potential subject matter. More than that, taking pleasure in photography for its own sake risked competition with the subject matter. For him the task of the photographer was to imagine and then master an art of selflessness. The joy taken in photography would then be inseparable from joy taken in the world. The more selfless the photography, the more delight would appear to stem from the object/subject, and the more enjoyable the making of the image. In this regard it is interesting that Renger-Patzsch didn’t like the title of his best known book Die Welt ist Schön (The World is Beautiful, 1928), which his publisher insisted upon. He preferred the more disarming Die Dinge: Things.
Cover, Albert Renger-Patzsch, Die Welt ist Schön (Munich, 1928).
This transference of pleasure is always present in photography, but it can best be understood if we think of perhaps the most selfless and authorless uses of the medium: the copying of paintings for reproduction. The photographer Edwin Smith described it thus: “Making an accurate color transparency of a painting is perhaps one of the least creative of a photographer’s tasks. If he is sensitive to the painting, there will be, if the work is admired, the consolation of having it to himself and of paying it the ritual homage of his own craft; though this pleasure may turn to torture when the work is despised—a condition not infrequent enough to be ignored!”[iv] When we look at a photograph of a painting we know we are not seeing the painting but we can’t quite relate to it as photograph either. No other medium has this strange mixture of camouflage and cannibalism.
I think there is much to be gained from the idea that photography and its subject matter define each other in both directions and that our conceptions of photography emerge from the exchange. It allows for both a technical and a cultural reading of the medium, i.e. as something that “is what it is” and something that “is what we do with it.” It also tells us something about why discussions that only admit to one direction—photography telling us about the world, or the world telling us about photography—tend to go around in circles producing fixed and frustrating accounts.
Even so, accepting this two-way co-definition does not solve things once and for all. If we wish to discover why photography remains so elusive the answers are to be found less within the medium per se, regardless of the technical changes, than in its status as recorder. Photography is inherently of the world. It cannot help but document things however abstract, theatrical, artificial, or contentious that documentation may be. So the meaning of photography is intimately bound up with the meaning of the world that it records as light. Moreover, photography is a product of modernity. Modernity has meant change, in photography, and in the social world. So the identity of photography as recorder is condemned to remain restless, mobile, volatile even.
Does photography “point” at what is photographed? If it does, the direction of the pointing is opposite to the direction of the light. The camera is pointed at the object while light comes from the object to the camera. We can certainly take photographs to help us point things out to people who are not there to see them for themselves. Indeed it would be difficult to imagine the history of photography without this capacity, however unreliable it is.
Cover, Dieter Graf, Point it: Traveller’s language kit., Graf Editions, 1992
The best selling photographic book of the last thirty years is not an art book. It is called Point it, and it is subtitled Traveller’s Language Kit. You can buy it in many countries. It comprises simple photos of 1,200 objects. Everything is there – from Apple, Bicycle, and Caravan to X-ray, Yacht, and Zebra. The principle is simple. Photographs are taken of various objects. The resulting images are assembled in the book. When words fail the tourist abroad they can point at the right object in the photo. The book thus overcomes language barriers, providing of course we wish to communicate only with nouns. Photography’s “ostension,” its capacity to point, works best when it points at discrete and familiar things such as named objects (apple, bicycle, caravan). This is why Conceptual Art, in its disarming exploration of the camera as simple recording device tended to point the camera at banal objects: Edward Ruscha’s photo-books such as Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations (1963), Joseph Kosuth’s “proto-investigations” such as One and Three Chairs (1965), and Victor Burgin’s Photopath (1967–69). Point it makes no attempt to represent adjectives, prepositions, verbs, and so on, although this might be possible within limits. We could imagine a page of seascapes from “calm” to “stormy,” faces from “sad” to “happy,” or little tableaux enacting scenarios such as “missed flight” or “lost luggage.” Nevertheless, the further photography moves from known objects, the less reliable its description of the world. If, as we are often told, the photograph is a universal form of communication, it is only at the level of the obvious and the already understood. It is clichés and only clichés that bind us in this increasingly fragmentary world, argued Gilles Deleuze. Indeed, what there is of a “global language of photography” is made up of images of commodities, celebrities, sunsets, and other clichés of locality. “Viewzak.”
Realism and desire
Reality, argued Freud, is essentially that which “gets in the way,” that which comes and disrupts or derails our fantasies. In this sense the photographic real is never just a matter of formal technique or “objective style.” In photography it is often the ugly that seems more real than the beautiful; the flawed seems more real than the perfect (that’s why “cleaning up” an image with Photoshop makes it look less real); plain buildings seem more real than named architecture; cheap commodities seem more real that luxury goods; work seems more real than leisure; TV dinners more real than expensive food; the passport photo more real than the glamour portrait. As a result the photographic real is always marked at a social and political level. This may account, at least in part, for why it is that documentary photography—which has invoked realism more than any other kind of photography—has generally taken as its subject matter the various obstacles to fantasy, and the various states of unfreedom that exist in the world. In recent decades documentary photography has looked to consumption and commodities as subject matter, but the aim has still been to show them as obstacles: false, distracting things that in the end come between us and our happiness.
No doubt this is in part a consequence of the “reality effect” of photography, derived from its blind inability to distinguish between what might be desirable in the picture and what might not. As the photographer Lee Friedlander put it:
“I only wanted Uncle Vern standing by his new car (a Hudson) on a clear day. I got him and the car. I also got a bit of Aunt Mary’s laundry, and Beau Jack, the dog, peeing on a fence, and a row of potted tuberous begonias on the porch and 78 trees and a million pebbles in the driveway and more. It’s a generous medium, photography.”
The point here is that the photographic reality of Uncle Vern and the Hudson are guaranteed, so to speak, by their co-existence with the undesired stuff. Interestingly Roland Barthes illustrates the same point with a startlingly similar example to Friedlander’s in his Camera Lucida (1980). Talking of André Kertész’s image The Violinist’s Tune (1921) he asks: “How could Kertész have separated the dirt road from violinist walking on it?” Of course if we are not interested in the violinist, or Uncle Vern, everything in the picture flattens into a banal equivalence with everything else. Photographic boredom is a phenomenon—seen as both attractive and dangerous—that runs through many of the different conceptions and definitions of photography. It is there in accounts of the medium in the 1840s, and in different guises in Benjamin, Bazin, Barthes, Baudrillard, Batchen, and Burgin. And of course there is some artistic potential in this ambiguity.
Growing up / growing old
Layered on all this continuity and change we have the vexing question of “mature work” in photography. The matter hardly ever seems to arise. (True, it hardly arises at all in a culture of contemporary art marked by adolescence and amnesia, but least of all with this medium). It is almost as if it would be inappropriate. We might be tempted to think that photography has built-in limitations that preclude development beyond certain points. From its very beginnings there have been critics who have argued as much. But it may have to do with an absence of limitation combined with its very accessibility. A lot of people have done a lot of things with it, with relative ease. It is certainly possible to make photographic work of extraordinary intelligence, craft, and creativity at a young age. Indeed photography in art has often been a story of remarkably youthful achievements. Often these have been followed by artistic plateaux, consolidation, or a moving on to other things (film, painting, sculpture, literature). Beyond the self-portrait, what photograph made by a seventy year-old could not be made by a twenty-five, or thirty year-old? To risk a comparison with pop music, it has sometimes seemed as if great artistic heights are attainable early on. Lifelong careers may sustain that richness but those early flourishes may never be surpassed. We might think of the boyhood family albums of Jacques-Henri Lartigue in the 1910s and 20s; the very early formation of Cartier-Bresson’s style in the 1930s; the city books of William Klein from the 1950s; the 1960s photo-conceptualism of Dan Graham, Mel Bochner, and Joseph Kosuth; the Untitled Film Stills of a twenty-something Cindy Sherman in the 1970s; or Wolfgang Tillmans’ early re-enchantment of the everyday. Youth and inexperience are little obstacle to achievement in photography. They may well be an advantage.
There seems to be little doubt photography has been eclipsed. It no longer symbolizes the visual zeitgeist. Nobody would say the 2010s is “the decade of photography.” It no longer epitomizes the general field of representations in which we live. But eclipse does not mean obsolescence. Far from it. Photography is still with us. Moreover, this vestigial state, this existence in the shadows of other media is the source of photography’s increasing visibility in contemporary art. Might it be that photography became fully available to art once it had become at least partially dislodged from the centre of culture, and partially dispensable to it? Might we see this eclipse (which began in the 1960s but is now very clear) as the necessary precondition for photography’s fullest artistic exploration? This is a line of argument familiar from accounts of the artistic fate of painting—that once usurped, it was somehow free to explore “itself.” However, the idea of “photography itself,” independent of everything, is unfeasible from the outset (when photography is only photography, it isn’t even photography). Thus photography finds itself eclipsed but also rooted in the world at the same time. And it is this challenging combination that we see at the heart of photographic work today.
[i]Victor Burgin, ‘Commentary Part I’, Work and Commentary, Latimer New Dimensions, 1973. n.p.
[ii]Jean Baudrillard ‘For illusion is not the opposite of reality…’ Jean Baudrillard, Photographies 1985-1998, Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 1999.
[iii]Albert Renger-Patzsch ‘Joy Before the Object’ / ‘Die Freude am Gegenstand’ (1928). The year before he had also spoken of magic: “We still don’t sufficiently appreciate the opportunity to capture the magic of material things” (‘Aims’/ ‘Ziele’ 1927. Both statements appear in English in Christopher Phillips, ed., Photography in the Modern Era. European Documents and Critical Writings, 1913-1940 Aperture / The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1989.
[iv]Edwin Smith, ‘The Photography of Paintings, Drawings and Print’ in John Lewis and Edwin Smith The Graphic Reproduction and Photography of Works of Art, Cowell and Faber, 1969.