Affection and Suspicion
C Photo, vol.2, n. 10, 'Don't Call me a Photographer!', 2015
‘Affection and Suspicion. A Productive Tension’ is an essay published in C Photo vol.2, n. 10 – Don’t Call Me a Photographer!, 2015
Ivory Press, ISBN 9788494282065
After ten years exploring the diversity of approaches employed by contemporary photographers, the final volume of C Photo acknowledges the artists who eschew this label. ‘Don’t Call Me a Photographer!’ brings the project to a close with a series of essays by contemporary thinkers who reflect on what being a photographer means today and what direction the medium is taking.
280 p, ills colour & bw, 24 x 30 cm, hb, Spanish/English
An early version of this essay was given as a keynote address at the Delhi Photography Festival in 2015
Affection and Suspicion: an essential tension.
by David Campany
There are many ways to think about photography’s artistic identity. There are many ways to think about the views practitioners who engage with photography in and as art have of what they are doing. And there are many ways to think about how viewers, critics and curators relate to it all. What I would like to do here is to think about these things through two apparently simple concepts: affection and suspicion. Why these two? Because there are good reasons to be affectionate about photography and there are equally good reasons to be suspicious of it. It is clear to me that as a medium (however you define ‘medium’), photography can be fascinating and compelling for image-makers and audiences. But as a mass medium in the corporatized service of all that is shallow, exploitative and distracting in contemporary visual culture (what has come to be called the military-entertainment complex) there is plenty in photography to be suspicious about.
More to the point, a particular tension between affection and suspicion has underlined photography’s relation to art for a long time now. As is often recounted, in 1910s and 20s vanguard photographers dropped their too-literal associations with painting along with their anxiety about the document character of the medium. Instead they embraced the look of photography found in the rest of culture: the snapshot, reportage, fashion, the commercial still life, the scientific photograph, the archival image and so on. This reconnected photography to the complex and contradictory social life around it as never before. In doing so it put art into a new set of relations to the world of the mass media and the illustrated press. It also let in all the wildness and unpredictability of photography: the machinic automatism, raw indexicality and all manner of unexpected encounters with the world’s changing appearance.
This shift was how photography became modern. Significantly, it coincided with the great shift we associate with a figure like Marcel Duchamp who, with his gnomic Readymades, mocking self-portrait photographs and arcane mixed media works, preferred to suspend the aesthetic question ‘What is beautiful?’ and to ask instead the ontological question ‘What is art?’ Photography has triumphed in an art culture which is still plagued by, or fascinated with both of these questions, and they map quite well onto the notions of affection and suspicion. Photography began to be important to art precisely at the point when we began to wonder what art is, and what its differences are from all the other fields of the image under globalized capital.
Competitions, false and true
I want to consider a number of moments in this tension. But first let me recall an episode from ancient Greece. No, it’s not the allegory Plato’s Cave, which crops up so often in pre-histories of photography. I have in mind a very early encounter between affection and suspicion in art. In his Historia Naturalis (AD 77-79) Pliny the Elder describes a painting competition that everyone expects to be won by the much-celebrated Xeuxis:
“The contemporaries and rivals of Zeuxis were Timanthes, Androcydes, Eupompus, and Parrhasius. This last, it is said, entered into a pictorial contest with Zeuxis, who represented some grapes, painted so naturally that the birds flew towards the spot where the picture was exhibited. Parrhasius, on the other hand, exhibited a veil, drawn with such singular truthfulness, that Zeuxis, elated with the judgment which had been passed upon his work by the birds, haughtily demanded that the veil should be drawn aside to let the picture be seen. Upon finding his mistake, with a great degree of ingenuous candour Zeuxis admitted that he had been surpassed, for that whereas he himself had only deceived the birds, Parrhasius had deceived him, an artist.”[i]
That’s all there is to the story. Pliny tells it in just four sentences but there are enough clues for us to draw out a whole range of possibilities and implications. Whenever I read this passage, this is what I imagine in my mind’s eye. The gathered crowd has looked at the painting of grapes by Zeuxis. Seeing the birds descending around the painter and his canvas the crowd prepares to give Xeuxis the prize. Then, perhaps up on a hill, Parrhasius yells: “Not so fast!” He makes his way down through the crowd, carrying his canvas. Xeuxis sees the canvas is veiled and demands that it be pulled back to reveal what is beneath. This is precisely what Parrhasius needs. An atmosphere of charged anticipation. In this setting he announces he has painted a veil.
Now, I suspect that if the paintings by Xeuxis and Parhassius were simply presented side-by-side, Xeuxis would have won. Technically and traditionally, he probably was the better painter, but Parrhasius is thinking not just about painting but about the particular theatre of spectatorship that surrounds a painting competition and the presentation of art. Parhassius cultivates a specific and novel situation: the intervention. He is a trickster, diverting and subverting desires in that moment. If Parrhasius presented his painting outside of that situation, it would probably not be very convincing. Let us say Xeuxis had a genuine affection for painting, while Parrhasius is circumspect about it, even a little suspicious. He is just as interested in the crowd itself and the heated play of expectations.[ii]
Parrhasius is a prototype for an artist like Marcel Duchamp, the anticipator of our own era in which we cannot help but think simultaneously about the artwork and the institutional structures that allow the artwork to function. Are we not forever caught between Xeuxis and Parhassius? Between the grapes and the veil? Their differences foreshadow the way that the culture of art often feels as if it is forcing us to choose between, say, Picasso and Duchamp. Or, to be more explicitly photographic about it, to choose between Henri Cartier-Bresson and Andy Warhol, Helen Levitt and Hans Haacke, August Sander and Cindy Sherman, William Eggleston and Hans-Peter Feldmann, Edward Weston and Christopher Williams. But art is not so binary, especially today, when we consider the work of contemporary practitioners as varied as Anouk Kruithof, Christian Patterson, John Gossage, Doug Rickard, Sara Vanderbeek, John Stezaker or Roe Ethridge. One salutary consequence of the rise of photography in and as art has been the tentative acceptance of common ground between ‘photographers’ and those ‘working with’ pre-existing photographic imagery. The most important procedures are shared: recognition, selection, framing, cropping, editing and re-presenting. Many concerns are shared too: the desire to illuminate the world and its representations; the slowing down and interrupting of our viewing habits; and the animating of the relation between the photograph as raw document and the photograph as artwork. This common ground is far from new. It was there in the 1920s but it seemed to take another half century or so for the wider realization to set in.
Artworks, traces and documents
A few years ago, Hilla Becher described the complicated position of the photographs of industrial architecture she had made for over fifty years with her partner Bernd:
“I was always very happy with the borderline existence which our works have had. For a long time, they were just on the edge of art, and there was a very constructive discussion about this borderline, whether photography belonged to art or the sciences.”
Hilla Becher points us towards the idea that no medium is contained by art entirely, and least of all photography. This is partly because photography still has no many functions outside of art, but mainly it’s because of what I earlier called the ‘document character’ of the medium, conditions its relation to art. In 1970 the Bechers published the first major book of their work, Anonyme Skulpturen: Eine Typologie Technischer Bauten (Anonymous Sculpture: a typologies on technical constructions). The title made explicit the connection with Minimalist sculpture that used industrial materials unadorned (bricks, boxes, fluorescent tubes) while aligning their photographs with conceptual art’s anti-subjective, para-bureaucratic functionalism.
Few would dispute that the neo-avant gardes of the 1960s and early 70s (Pop, Situationism, Conceptualism, Minimalism, Performance art, Land Art) continue to loom very large in accounts of the artistic development of photography. The taking up of the medium by artists of all kinds placed it in an “expanded field” of production (in reality there had always an expanded field, but this was the moment to accept it). At that juncture the attractions of photography were multiple but quite particular. It seemed to many that it had little artistic baggage or accumulated history of the kind that weighed so heavily on the shoulders of painters or sculptors, so it offered the promise of a new start. After the retrenchments of post-war abstraction it allowed a new dalliance with something other than high art, perhaps with mass culture, or at least with making art that did not look or feel like high art traditionally defined. Certain forms of photography were easy to make, or use. It was largely a democratic medium, not perceived as special or privileged. In addition, it could bring site-specific works, interventions and performances into the space of the gallery and into the orbit of published reproduction and distribution. Central to this conception was the photograph’s status as base record, document, or trace. Photography produces imprints of light and by extension traces of that which is before the camera. Whatever else it was, that neo-avant garde moment involved an equivocal, perhaps irresolvable reflection upon what is at stake in the photograph as and of traces. For example Chris Burden had documented many of his performances those actions live on as a series of photographs that oscillate between being historical documents and partial interpretations, between records and artworks. The same could be said of Richard Long’s photographs, which both document his actions in the landscape (moving stones, making paths in the dust or grass) and immortalize them as mythic emblems. That tradition continues in the performance documents made by Roman Signer and the ‘sculptural opportunities’ staged or observed and photographed by Gabriel Orozco.
The attitudes to photography in the 1960s and 70s certainly opened up new artistic paths, and made it possible for new kinds of artists with non-traditional skills and aptitudes to emerge. But it also closed a number of doors (specialist “photographers” were excluded, or conspired to marginalize themselves). The reductionism, the anti-aestheticism, the de-skilling and the anti-pictorialism were a blessing for some but a curse for others. While important strands of contemporary photographic art can be traced back to the innovations and insights of that moment, it also became something to be overcome, particularly if a reengagement with the pictorial was the goal. For there is, at the heart of the matter, a tension between the photograph as trace and the photograph as picture. That is to say, a tension between the photograph as document and the photograph as artwork.
Reflecting on the relation between documents and artworks in 1928, Walter Benjamin assembled a list of thirteen propositions, formulated as binary pairs:
I The artist makes a work.
The primitive expresses himself in documents.
II The artwork is only incidentally a document.
No document is as such a work of art.
III The artwork is a masterpiece.
The document serves to instruct.
IV On artworks, artists learn their craft.
Before documents, a public is educated.
V Artworks are remote from each other in their perfection.
All documents communicate through their subject matter.
VI In the artwork content and form are one: meaning.
In documents the subject matter is dominant.
VII Meaning is the outcome of experience.
Subject matter is the outcome of dreams.
VIII In the artwork, subject matter is a ballast jettisoned during contemplation.
The more one loses oneself in a document, the denser the subject matter grows.
IX In the artwork, the formal law is central.
Forms are merely dispersed in documents.
X The artwork is synthetic: an energy centre.
The fertility of the document demands: analysis.
XI The impact of an artwork increases with viewing.
A document overpowers only through surprise.
XII The virility of works lies in assault.
The document’s innocence gives it cover.
XIII The artist sets out to conquer meanings.
The primitive man barricades himself behind subject matter.[iii]
For all the internal complexity and despite the fact that they are not entirely consistent, these binaries express the idea that the artwork and the document may coexist but will remain irreconcilable. Did Benjamin have in mind two separate and distinct categories of object? Or, more radically, was he proposing that ‘art’ and ‘document’ might be two potentials of the one object? Photography has made its strongest claim to art not by choosing between these oppositions but by insisting on having it both ways, putting itself forward as both artwork and document, picture and trace.
Towards the end of the 1970s a number of important artists began to propose forms of photographic art that shifted image making away from conceptualism’s interest in traces and towards an exploration of the photograph’s potential as ‘picture’. But here too there were significant differences as to what a photo as picture was, or could be. In 1977 the US critic Douglas Crimp curated a group show titled ‘Pictures’ for Artists’ Space in New York. Featuring work by Troy Brauntuch, Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo and Philip Smith, it came to be regarded as an early landmark of postmodern photography, and these artists (along with several others, including Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger and Richard Prince) are now often referred to as the ‘Pictures Generation’. This is the second paragraph of Crimp’s essay for the catalogue of that show:
“To an ever greater extent our experience is governed by pictures, pictures in newspapers and magazines, on television and in the cinema. Next to these pictures firsthand experience begins to retreat, to seem more and more trivial. While it once seemed that pictures had the function of interpreting reality, it now seems that they have usurped it. It therefore becomes imperative to understand the picture itself, not in order to uncover a lost reality, but to determine how a picture becomes a signifying structure of its own accord. But pictures are characterized by something which, though often remarked, is insufficiently understood: that they are extremely difficult to distinguish at the level of content, that they are to an extraordinary degree opaque to meaning. The actual event and the fictional event, the benign and the horrific, the mundane and the exotic, the possible and the fantastic: are all fused into the all-embracing similitude of the picture.”[iv]
Here ‘pictures’ constituted the dizzying vortex of mass media spectacle rather than what you might find in traditional museums and galleries. Pictures were, as so much postmodern theory went on to proclaim, untrustworthy, illusory, distractive, hegemonic, dangerous to ‘firsthand experience’ and proliferative. There is an evident debt here to the warnings Guy Debord sent out in 1967 with The Society of the Spectacle (first published in English in 1970), and there parallel with Jean Baudrillard’s writings on simulation, which he started developing in the mid-1970s.[v]
The ‘Pictures’ artists were trying to make art by means of appropriation and dissimulation in ways that would make sense of, or at least dramatize, the cultish power of images in a world increasingly dominated by advertising.
But around this time a number of artist photographers began to explore a very different idea of the photograph as picture. For them pictures were not simply things to be overthrown or ironized. Rather, in their connection with the pictorial tradition, they contained a promise, a way of outflanking mass spectacle and carving out something else, a way of depicting that reconnected with those modes of picturing that were once predominant but had been repressed by the iconoclasm of the avant-gardes. This is close to Jean-François Chevrier’s idea of the photograph as tableau.[vi] While this term may connote staging or something overtly theatrical, it need not involve any of that. A photograph is apprehended as a tableau if it is given to be seen, by whatever means, as an internally organised image that compels on the basis of that organisation. It may be documentary in origin or highly staged, but what is important is that the mode of attention and aesthetic judgment solicited by the tableau is itself a way of ‘artificing’ it. The tableau always has, at least in part, an ideal, a promise.[vii]
In parallel to the Pictures Generation there emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s what we might call a ‘picture generation’ (although the artists may not have seen themselves in such terms). Along with Wall the list would include Jean-Marc Bustamante, Hannah Collins, Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky and Hiroshi Sugimoto. Their works place photography not as a pretender, not as medium to hang on the wall with irony or the mocking distance of an outsider. On the contrary, these artists accepted that there was no longer any anything to be gained by behaving as if photography was only effective as a provocation to the academy. The challenge was to find a way to take up and renew the pictorial tradition, working with contemporary concerns in depictive form.
In many respects the internal paradoxes of the photographic medium have at each historical moment produced splits, rifts and oppositions in the way it is to be understood and pursued as art. The tensions in conceptualism over the photo as trace, and the ensuing tensions over the photograph as picture might be thought of as instances of this. But it would be hasty to assume that the animating force of photography as art simply moved from a preoccupation with the trace in the 60s and 70s to the picture in the 80s and 90s and 2000s. Although photography ‘matters as art as never before’, to paraphrase Michael Fried’s recent account of the situation, there can be no unified assessment of exactly how it matters. And this lack of unification is implicit in the medium itself. There is a thread that connects the photographs of Chris Burden’s performances to Gordon Matta-Clark’s photographs of sculptural-architectural interventions, to Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, to Sarah Lucas’s performative provocations before the camera, to the photographs produced by Matthew Barney in conjunction with his films and multi-media installations. Similarly a thread connects Ed Ruscha’s ‘artless’ photographs of American gas stations to Hiroshi Sugimoto’s ‘artful’ typology of movie theatre interiors, to Andreas Gursky’s topographic landscapes and the photos of flowers by Fischli & Weiss. Something is recorded before for the camera but the camera also poses, theatricalizes what it records. The camera is not outside of what is presented to it. It is complicit with it.
The artist in general and the artist in particular
There is much talk of art now being in a ‘post-medium condition’ and in this condition there are just ‘contemporary artists’. In many ways the decision to identify with this generalized term rather than ‘photographer’, for example, is a symptom of the attitude that emerged in the 1960s and is now commonly accepted. An artist can use any medium they like. They need no have loyalty and no commitment to a métier. By contrast the modernist or mediumist position, although it elevates the idea of the singular and autonomous artist, does so by elevating the idea singular and autonomous medium with which the artist and the audience are expected to identify. Here the artist is first and foremost a practitioner of their chosen medium. The artist makes the best work they can in their medium and the art part takes care of itself (this is what Man Ray meant when he suggested that photography was not art but it was an art). In other words there are no modern artists in the generalized mixed-medium sense that we now have ‘contemporary artists’. If you were or are a modern artist, really you are a modern painter, modern sculptor, modern photographer and so on. It’s only when art’s mediums begin to be mixed or appropriated, or treated as less than autonomous, or even regarded with suspicion rather than affection that the general idea of ‘contemporary art’ made by generalized ‘contemporary artists’ begins to take hold. That’s a legitimate position, but it’s only half the story. It’s also legitimate to have a commitment to a medium in the sense we associate with modernism. Of course in this sense modernism is not a historical moment or category. It’s ongoing. As always there are plenty of practitioners who identify with the medium of photography, and plenty of audiences who respond to that. And of course the suspicions, misunderstandings and differences between generalized ‘contemporary artists’ and ‘art photographers’ is inevitable. Moreover it is misguided to brush the differences aside by saying “It’s all art in the end”. It misses the point.
We are all familiar with the idea that affection for a medium, any medium, must be some kind of weakness, a symptom of bourgeois capitulation, anti-revolutionary conservatism or aesthetic regression. That line of thinking really gathered momentum after Manet’s time, and came to its greatest intensity in the various avant-gardes of the 1910s, 20s and 30s. Dada, Surrealism, Constructivism, the New Vision, Neue Sachlichkeit, the Worker Photography and agit-prop movements: photography appealed to all these tendencies, not because it was regarded simply as ‘non-art’ but because it was not exclusively art. It belonged to visual culture defined more broadly, as well as belonging to art. That attitude resurfaced in Pop, Conceptualism and the various practices hastily labeled ‘postmodern’.
To that suspicion of affection for a medium, we could add what has come to be called ‘photography theory’, because so much of it has been motivated by a critique of photography as a tool of mass culture (advertising, fashion and lifestyle imagery) and of its uses in institutions such as the police, tourism and anthropology. The tone was set by the early writings of Roland Barthes, firstly in his Mythologies (a series of short essays unmasking the manipulations of populist culture, published in book form in 1957), then in a series of essays from the 1960s. ‘The Photographic Message’ (1961) was a close reading of the claims and conventions of news photography; ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ (1964) was a semiotic dismantling of an advertising still life; and ‘The Third Meaning’ uncovered the wild significations of the lens-based image that are beyond anyone’s conscious control, least of all the artist’s. Even in Camera Lucida (1980), where Barthes did come to accept a degree of affection, or at least affect, he felt the medium’s essential condition has nothing to do with art, residing in its peculiar relation to indexicality and time: the visual trace of that which has been. In fact he felt artiness could only corrupt this primary automatism of photography. Alongside Barthes’ writing, a canon of iconoclastic photographic writing was established. I’ve already mentioned Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. Then there are the early writings of Allan Sekula, Martha Rosler, Victor Burgin, and John Tagg. Susan Sontag’s On Photography (1977). The texts on photography published by journals such as Screen, Camerawork and Ten8. Jean Baudrillard’s Simulations (1981). Vilém Flusser’s Towards a Philosophy of Photography (1983). Most of this thinking was concerned with the hegemonic functions of the photograph in the mass media or family album, and had little to say directly about photography’s relation to art.[viii] This continues in the influential writings of John Roberts, Ariella Azoulay and others. It has become the theory of photography that is taught in art schools (and a few photography schools). But the aesthetics of photography are barely considered. This state of affairs is frustrating sometimes but it is understandable for a least two very good reasons. Firstly, of all the photographs produced in the world, only a tiny fraction of them have been made in the name of art. Secondly, as I’ve argue already, photography became significant in art when it accepted that it would be in dialogue those non-arts practices.
A century of too much
It has become a cliché to speak of there being too many images in the world. (Who knows how many is enough and how is too many?) It is in the nature of images, all images, to offer us too much and too little. Images exceed meaning in ways that are unruly, even treacherous. They are also elusive, laconic and enigmatic. René Magritte called it the ‘treason of images’. This is why the image world is so bound up by the conventions of genre and the law of language (caption, title, commentary). But in the last instance images remain anarchic. This is why they have always been a source of great affection and great suspicion. The anxiety that the world of images might disturb or distort civil society is familiar. How often do we hear that we are ‘bombarded’ or ‘under siege’ from pictures, as if somehow they were pursuing us? And in that narcissism we may delude ourselves that it is a new problem, afflicting only us, and only now. The arrival of photography in the 1830s and its subsequent development into a mass medium certainly introduced new problems, new pleasures, new affections and new suspicions into the family of images. But these have only exacerbated the essentially unpredictable condition of the image as such.
Over the last century photography has been the exemplary medium in discussions about reproduction and originality, about authorship, anonymity, authenticity, agency, the status of the document, quotation, appropriation, value, democracy and dissemination. It’s the medium that prompted art to rethink what’s at stake in those concepts while proving itself to be the medium best placed to articulate and express them. Meanwhile photography has also been an exemplary pictorial art and, having its roots in the essentially affectionate matter of depiction, the pictorial in photography has been a regular object of suspicion on the part of the various avant-gardes and critical theories of photography.
Evans, Gudger, Burroughs, Carrington and Levine
If there is one moment that has come to symbolize and intensify much of what I have described thus far it is Sherrie Levine’s decision in 1981 to photograph a number of photographs that had come to be institutionalized as works by ‘modern masters’ of photography, notably Edward Weston, Walker Evans and Alexander Rodchenko.
Was it, as the anti-modernists suggested, some kind of critique of canonization? Was it a response to patriarchal attitudes: the masculine gaze and masculine criteria of ‘greatness’? Was it a philosophical reflection on reproduction and originality? Levine takes a photograph taken by Evans, taken by the museum? Could it have been envy? Or even have a reminder to respect the high standards of the past? This is the photographer Jeff Wall:
“When Sherrie Levine presented her photographs of Evans’s pictures, I interpreted the work as her saying, ‘Study the masters; do not presume to reinvent photography; photography is bigger and richer than you think it is, in your youthful pride and conceit.’ […] The fact that nobody seemed to notice that her work was an admonition, or at least that it contained a hidden, cryptic admonition, is no excuse for ignoring it.”[ix]
By the 1970s mainstream museums had canonized quite a number of photographers but in doing so many important aspects of their practices were lost, especially in the case of Walker Evans. At the time, museums preferred the singular, exemplary picture and Evans had certainly made dozens of those over his long career, in what he called the ‘documentary style’. They could be framed, hung on the wall and contemplated for their enigmatic reticence, compositional daring and complex standing as historical records. Evans had a lot of affection for his medium and for his subjects and that really shows in the pictures he made. But that’s only half the story.
Let’s take just one of the several Evans photographs that Levine re-photographed from a high quality exhibition poster. It has come to be called Alabama Tenant Farmer, 1936. Levine printed her copy small (12.8 x 9.8 cm) and titled it Untitled (After Walker Evans) no. 4, as if to underline that the fact that it was by Evans had somehow become more significant than the subject depicted. Levine re-photographed one of four that Evans had made on his 8×10 inch camera of a tenant farmer named Allie Mae Burroughs. In each Burroughs has a marginally different facial expressions, from contentment to grim confrontation. In Evans’s 1938 book American Photographs, Burroughs is smiling slightly and the photograph is titled Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer Wife. When he took the portraits Evans had been in the pay of the US Government’s Farm Security Administration but was on loan to Fortune magazine, which had commissioned a story from Evans and writer James Agee. When Fortune declined to publish, the two were free to turn their work into a book. A more austere and stern image of Burroughs appears in Let us now Praise Famous Men (1941). Here it has no title at all, and in his writing Agee changed her surname to Gudger, partly to play with the line between documentary and fiction, partly to make her seem more ‘earthy’. (The book sold just 199 copies in its first two years and only became a classic decades later.)
In 1942 Marcel Duchamp and André Breton needed portraits of all the artists exhibiting in First Papers of Surrealism, the first major show of surrealist art in America. They couldn’t locate any, so instead their catalogue reproduces what they called ‘compensation portraits’: semi-arbitrary photographs they found in books and magazines around them. The painter Leonora Carrington is represented by one of Evans’s portraits of Burroughs, which Duchamp and Breton had sourced from a copy of US Camera Annual 1939, where it was part of a folio of FSA documentary photographs. The editors of that annual had captioned the images with lines taken from the public comments book at an exhibition of the prints. There Evans’s photograph is captioned ‘Magnificent Propaganda’. (Evans was no stranger to such appropriation. As early as 1933 he had slipped anonymous press photographs of murdered revolutionaries and political prisoners into his sequence of Havana street pictures commissioned for Carleton Beal’s exposé The Crime of Cuba). When working for the FSA, Evans often took one version for the government, who kept the negative, and others for himself. The government’s version of the Burroughs portrait has ended up in the public domain and for little expense you can order your very own copy print from the Library of Congress. Evans kept the others for himself but they’re now in museum collections.
This is hardly the upstanding biography of an icon of modernist photography. It is a messy and cautionary tale of shifting meanings, varied uses, proliferating reproductions, changing texts and little regard for ‘art’ in any precious sense. So when Sherrie Levine’s gesture is not some postmodern trashing of a canonized past. It’s merely a logical extension of an already postmodern story. In the age of the internet, that story is not doubt continuing. Whether Levine thought this way about her action is neither here nor there. I suspect that she was responding to the simplified account of Evans that was being told by the big museums and the amnesiac histories of Art Photography that wanted to make the past look more simple and less compromised than it really was. And I suspect Jeff Wall had the same account in mind when he felt Levine’s gesture was reminding to him ‘study the masters.’ But Evans was a master of much more than the single, great, institutionalized picture. He was an editor, a rephotographer, an appropriator, a subverter of the conventional photo-essay and much more. He was certainly affectionate about his medium but understood that a little suspicion was also necessary.
I have noticed that photographers and writers on photography often use the word ‘fascination’. Rereading this text I notice I’ve used it a few times myself. I make no apologies for that. Certain subjects for photography, or ways of taking photographs, or ways of looking at photographs may strike us as fascinating. Max Kozloff once wrote a very fine book titled Photography & Fascination (1979). He didn’t really explain why he used that word but in reading his book, which I think is one of the best written on photography, it becomes quite clear how significant fascination is, and how particular it is to photography. Fascination is a response that to some extent is beyond judgment, beyond any distinction between visual pleasure and visual displeasure. Beyond affection and suspicion. To be fascinated is to be seized, to have one’s critical faculties suspended, or at least put beyond aesthetic criteria, if only temporarily. The synonyms for fascination include preoccupation, passion, obsession, compulsion, captivation and enchantment. Fascination does not offer the distance required for clear judgment, or for contemplation. It is immersive and subversive, de-centering and destabilizing. It may be close to what Roland Barthes called ‘jouissance’, that ungrounding, uncategorizable affect that cannot be controlled or channeled. Sometimes fascination comes from the sheer strangeness of the photographic appearance of things. Think of the film still collages of John Stezaker, which seem to put image destruction, or iconoclasm, and the service of a strange and subterranean iconophilia. Or think of Eadweard Muybridge’s studies of human and animal locomotion: the pretext of ‘science’ barely explains the obsessive-compulsive nature of Muybridge’s vast project, nor the obsessive-compulsive appeal it makes to us to look and keep looking for whatever we wish to find or experience, be it knowledge or some kind of voyeurism. Few bodies of photography have had more influence on the art of the last century than Muybridge’s studies. Think of Thomas Eakins, Francis Bacon, Sol Lewitt, Hollis Frampton and Eleanor Antin. Or think of Jeff Wall’s photograph Milk (1984) with it’s weird white irruption that cannot really explain itself but is so vividly there, transformed and yet documented as only a fast shutter speed can. That exploding milk is a bizarre patch of semi-controlled chaos, of pure fascination amid the harmony of Wall’s artful composition. Might this double-edged quality of fascination be the source of affection and suspicio
Backwards and forwards
Back in 2002 I was invited to write a book about all this. My publisher Phaidon had already decided it would be called Art and Photography. I was unsure about it. I hadn’t written much before that and the title made me nervous. At the time I was teaching with Keith Arnatt whose art practice and writing seemed to dance all over these anxieties and confusions. Arnatt had begun very much as a 1960s conceptual artist, ‘using’ photography to record performed gestures or propose philosophical questions. Over time, however, photography appealed to him more and more. He embraced the pictorial (even when subverting it conventions) and became fascinated with the specifics of its apparatus. It was a subtle shift, made work-by-work. And because it was so subtle, both the ‘art world’ and the ‘photography world’ had difficulty placing him. (Actually there were many who made this shift, notably Stephen Shore and Jeff Wall who were both making conceptually driven work around 1970s but soon reconnected with the pictorial tradition. Theirs shift were much more abrupt, Shore switching almost overnight, Wall taking a few years out from art making). Arnatt also wrote a highly suggestive essay titled ‘Sausages and Food’ (1982) which was a reaction against the Tate Gallery’s policy of collecting photographic work only if it was made primarily by artists working in other media. Arnatt declared: “Making a distinction between, or opposing, artists and photographers is, it strikes me, like making a distinction between, or opposing, food and sausages – surely odd.”[x]
I was stuck with the title Art and Photography but I was able to reprint Arnatt’s ‘Sausages and Food’. That book was published in 2003, the same year that Tate finally staged its first major photography exhibition. It was titled Cruel and Tender (there’s that tension again!) and it looked at the ‘documentary style’ from Walker Evans and August Sander, via Lewis Baltz and the Bechers, to Michael Schmidt, Paul Graham, Faizal Sheikh, Rineke Dijkstra and Andreas Gursky.[xi]In many ways it was a ‘purist’ show, made by people who definitely saw themselves as photographers, but in exploring the documentary tradition in art it was far from purist, placing the medium right in that heterotopic space between art and non-art that had been so crucial to the establishment of photography’s modern significance in the 1920s and 30s. Tellingly, photographs had formed an important part of Tate Modern’s previous shows such as the inaugural Between Cinema and a Hard Place (2000), Surrealism: Desire Unbound (2001-2), Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962-1972 (2001), Century City(2001) and Andy Warhol (2002). In addition photographic work by dozens of artists and photographers had been displayed as part of the museum’s permanent collection. Even while Cruel and Tender was running there were photo-based works by another twenty people in the Tate Modern’s permanent collection (including Sol Lewitt, Gunther Forg, Astrid Klein, Roni Horn, Zoe Leonard & Cheryl Dunye, Anna Fox, Sonya Boyce, Marcel Duchamp, Bruce Nauman, Dennis Oppenheim, Cindy Sherman, Vito Acconci, Craigie Horsfield and John Coplans. Some anonymous colonial postcards of North Africa were also on display. I remember enjoying all these tensions for what they were. They were extremely stimulating and truly energizing. They still are. It in not necessary to expect photography or art’s relationship with it to be consistent and unproblematic. The tensions cannot, need not, be resolved or dissolved. They are essential.
[i] Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Book XXXV, “An Account of Paintings and Colours,” Ch. 36 (Artists who Painted with the Pencil). Trans. John Bostock. London, 1855.
[ii] You’ll notice I have put aside the question of realism, and you might well be thinking that the scenario described by Pliny the Elder couldn’t happen in the era of photography, when hyperrealism is the norm (even if birds aren’t easily fooled by it). In fact the history of photographic realism is full of just such interventions and ruptures. Technical advances, sudden changes in how the world is photographed and so on. And is it not the case that images of unfreedom, pain and ugliness appear to be real precisely because they come between us and our desires?
[iii] Walter Benjamin, ‘Thirteen Theses Against Snobs’ (1928), One Way Street and Other Writings, New Left Books, London 1979, pp. 66-67. Why thirteen? Benjamin makes light of the arbitrariness by quoting Marcel Proust: “Thirteen – stopping at this number I felt a cruel pleasure”.
[iv] Douglas Crimp, ‘Pictures’, in Pictures, Artists’ Space, New York, 1977, n.p.
[v] See Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, London: Sage Publications Ltd, 1976.
[vi] Jean-François Chevrier, ‘The Adventures of the Picture Form in the History of Photography’ (1989, trans. Michael Gilson), in Douglas Fogle (ed.), The Last Picture Show: Artists Using Photography 1960–1982 (exh. cat.), Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, pp.113–28.
[vii] Jay Caplan argues that the tense of the tableau (in classical painting at least) is future perfect, ‘the tense that makes a past out of the present (or entombs it). “What will have been” is the present viewed from an imaginary perspective in the future: a perspective that simultaneously recognises the mobility (or inherent “pastness”) of the present and claims to bring it all together from a fixed (transcendent), future perspective. It reconciles the fact of mobility (of life) with a desire for immobility (for death).’ J. Caplan, Framed Narratives: Diderot’s Genealogy of the Beholder, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986, pp.89–90.
[viii] The American October, established in 1976, was one of the few journals to directly theorize the photograph in and as art.
[ix] Jeff Wall, ‘Frames of Reference’, Artforum, September 2003.
[x] Keith Arnatt, ‘Sausages and Food: a reply to an interview with Alan Bowness of the Tate Gallery’, Creative Cameran. 214, October 1982. Reprinted in David Campany ed., Art and Photography, Phaidon, London 2003, pp. 228-229.
[xi] Cruel and Tender: the real in the twentieth century photograph, Tate Modern, London, 5 June – 7 September 2003.