Still Searching – blog
Fotomuseum Winterthur, 2013
Blog posts commissioned by Fotomuseum Winterthur for their Still Searching project.
PHOTOGRAPHY AND PHOTOGRAPHS
My first post will be quite long but I will make up for it with shorter subsequent posts. I’m hoping they will add up to an essay on a single theme: the relation between photography in general and photographs in particular, although this may change in response to comments and contributions as we go.
I begin with some thoughts about how Still Searching has developed since it launched last year, and what this might say about the ‘Online Discourse on Photography’, as it is subtitled. Back in January 2012 I was invited to be a co-blogger for the first two contributors, Bernd Stiegler and Aveek Sen. Since then I have watched with interest. The discussions have ranged far and wide but I note a polarization between thinking about ‘photography’, which most contributors seem to feel is too complex and contradictory to be a unified field (without quite giving up on the term all together) and considerations of ‘photographs’ (this or that image or specific project). The general and the particular. This is not unusual. The split has haunted photography at least since it became a fully mass medium and modern artistic medium in the 1920s. However, despite Sophie Berrebi’s recent posts there has been much more discussion of photography than of photographs. (And unsurprisingly, the writer mentioned very frequently across the blog is Vilém Flusser, more on whom in a while.)
As a student I once worked in an arts bookshop where, one Sunday afternoon, the writer Susan Sontag was due to give a talk. She got the time wrong and arrived four hours early. So, she pulled up a chair we began a conversation. I admired her writing, especially her early essays, and told her so. When I said I was studying film and photography she asked if I’d read her book On Photography. I think she could tell from my face I wasn’t a fan of that one.
I didn’t mind the book’s suspicious, denunciatory tone. In fact, I thought it summarized pretty well the inevitable distrust that was typical of advanced thinking about the medium by the mid-1970s. At the onset of ‘media studies’ and the rapid expansion of consumer culture, photography was bound to be characterized as unavoidably cruel, voyeuristic and distracting on a grand scale. On Photography remains a bestseller and undergraduate entry point, partly because of its powerful prose, partly because our first critical engagement with ‘photography’ (as opposed to ‘photographs’) usually involves becoming aware of the manipulative banalities of the mass media and the family album. The book delivers sobering news in magisterial, if stentorian sentences. When done well there’s a place for that, and On Photography has occupied it for longer than anything else.
Of course, I didn’t say this to Sontag. What I did say was that I didn’t like the lack of illustrations in the book. She said it was like that for economic reasons: the cost of clearing rights and printing images made it impossible to include images. I replied that it was easier to write a book on photography if it didn’t have photographs in it. Otherwise it might have to be called On Photographs and that may demand a different kind of writing.
When photographs are discussed in their absence, under the name ‘photography’ let’s say, the writer is more likely to take liberties with them than if they were there on the page/screen. The writer is also more likely to generalize. Sontag conceded this was a valid criticism and that at the time she found it difficult to write about photographs. Her honesty surprised me. In her book she did at least call for taking particular images seriously, what she called an ‘erotics of the photograph’, but it was something she knew she could not supply. That would come with the other bestseller of the era, Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida.
That was a long time ago but I am reminded of that conversation regularly. So much of the writing and thinking we encounter today is split between an engagement with photographs and photography (or ‘the photographic’). More broadly there is a split between writing about images in particular and ‘the image’ in general. I presume there can be no photography without photographs, and no photographs without photography. When we pick up a camera or look at a specific image we always invoke, however provisionally, some wider sense of photography (in fact we are doing this the instant we recognize an image or object as being in some way or other photographic). And when we think about photography in general we are informed by the sum of our particular encounters. Maybe that’s all photography in general really is. Not an abstract a priori, but an accumulation, partly shared, partly subjective.
In a lecture in 2002 Sontag remarked: “I have passions and interests I’ve never been able to get into my work.” That’s quite humbling. We cannot assume we will be capable of writing about all things that interest us, any more than assume we will be capable of photographing all the things or in all the ways that interest us. We are conditioned not just by our interests but by our competence (I can’t write about novels, films or pieces of music, all of which matter to me more than photographs, and far more than ‘photography’). Perhaps those who write about particular photographs have passions and interests in photography more generally but are not so able to express them. And might it be that those who are able to write about photography in general have passions and interests in particular images they cannot express?
Nevertheless, it is clear that certain writing, certain arguments, certain lines of thought, certain theories about photography, and even certain photographic practices require the absence of photographs in the particular. Sontag’s On Photography is an example, as is Vilém Flusser’s now widely read treatise Towards a Philosophy of Photography.
Promisingly, Flusser’s book does have a chapter with the eminently singular title ‘The Photograph’, but then he begins: “Photographs are ubiquitous, in albums, magazines, books, shop windows, on billboards, carrier-bags, cans” and he carries on in this overarching manner, never touching the ground. The writings of Sontag and Flusser are full of jaw-dropping generalizations but readers are encouraged to accept them in good faith because they aim to address photography as a generalized, jaw-dropping cultural condition. It’s the sheer amount of photography in the world that concerns them. Sontag wrote of ‘The Image-World’, Flusser of ‘The Photographic Universe’. It’s worth recalling how Sontag opens her book:
In Godard’s Les Carabiniers (1963), two sluggish lumpen-peasants are lured into joining the King’s Army by the promise that they will be able to loot, rape, kill, or do whatever else they please to the enemy, and get rich. But the suitcase of booty that Michel-Ange and Ulysse triumphantly bring home, years later, to their wives turns out to contain only picture postcards, hundreds of them, of Monuments, Department Stores, Mammals, Wonders of Nature, Methods of Transport, Works of Art, and other classified treasures from around the globe. Godard’s gag vividly parodies the equivocal magic of the photographic image. Photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all the objects that make up, and thicken, the environment we recognize as modern. Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.
I recall that Bice, the protagonist of Italo Calvino’s suggestive short story ‘Adventure of a Photographer’ (1958), comes to much the same conclusion:
Perhaps true, total photography, he thought, is a pile of fragments of private images, against the creased background of massacres and coronations.
But the question remains as to what happens when photography is generalized into ‘total photography’. For a start it always comes out badly. No account of photography in general is positive (just as analyses of ‘the art world’ are always chilling). But what is lost in this way of thinking?
Reading the first English translation of Flusser’s book it seemed to me obvious he was above all a critical stylist and provocateur, a hilarious and gifted rhetorician enjoying wild hyperbole to make his central point: photographic technology is ideologically pre-programmed to produce a consensus complicit with the dominant capitalist/technocratic order that produced it, and there is nothing any individual can do with a camera to sidestep or surmount this. Photography is photography in general and there are no exceptions to the rule. It sounds manic when I put it like this, but there you are. It’s also tautological: all mediums have their pre-programmed conditions and limitations. That’s what a medium is (do correct me if I’m wrong). The point then is just how pre-programmed and what space there is within the given conditions. I, like you, was born into language I didn’t create. Sometimes I bump up against its limiting fixity and feel constrained by it; sometimes I am able to shape it. Perhaps photography is much the same.
The fans of Flusser’s take on photography are multiplying like rabbits but they seem to have missed the humour and the high style of his darkly comic parable (maybe it’s because they’ve read nothing else by him). I imagine these same fans also read Orwell’s novel 1984 completely straight, somehow preferring the cold comfort of the totality he imagines to the greater challenge of heeding his warning and acting upon it in our world. If we are in a position to describe totalities, then they really aren’t quite that total. Yet. “To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing”, declared Raymond Williams.
Like Sontag’s book, Flusser’s book includes no images. In the afterword to a recent reissue, Hubertus von Amelunxen notes: “one should not be surprised that there are no descriptions of photographic images nor are there any photographs included by way of illustration. Flusser is not concerned here with the history of photography, but rather with presenting a way of thinking about history post-photography.” For Flusser the flood of photographic images replaces language, logic, argument, even conscious progress. He’s not really alert to the thorough intertwining of image and language, which is the nature of most of our photographic culture and should really be our chief object of study. I see no evidence of the replacement of language by photography, only new modes of interrelation. I am puzzled as to why photography today is so rarely thought/taught as a matter of image and text (although for a brief time it was).
Looking back, we can see that writings about the ‘flood’ of photographs in society tend to be more prevalent when the flood surges. The advent of halftone printing in the 1880s; the huge growth of the illustrated press in the 1920s and 30s; the 1960s boom in television ownership; the early 1980s boom in commercial/advertising imagery; the 1990s arrival of the internet. All these moments prompted commentaries expressing and exaggerating the tendency towards image proliferation that we have all felt and either succumbed to, worried about or attempted to resist. One can sense a baton being passed from Siegfried Kracauer and Walter Benjamin across the Second World War to (political differences aside) André Malraux, Marshall McLuhan, Guy Debord, Susan Sontag, Jean Baudrillard and Vilém Flusser. So, before we parrot the old cliché, it is worth remembering that we’ve had nearly a century of ‘too many photographs’. Moreover, let’s not forget that it is in the nature of any image to be ‘too much’, to be somewhat wild and excessive. Photographs do not carry meanings the way trucks carry coal. Individual images have the potential to flood us too. As the photographer Lee Friedlander puts 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 seventy-eight trees and a million pebbles in the driveway and more. It’s a generous medium, photography.
Perhaps it’s this potential of any photograph stir up pleasures and terrors that is so often displaced onto the abstract idea of ‘photography in general’.
FROM ONE PHOTO TO ANOTHER
We rarely make or see photographs singularly. They come in sets, suites, series, sequences, pairings, iterations, photo-essays, albums, typologies, archives and so on. Daily experience involves moving between one image and another. Editing, the selection and arrangement of images, provides perhaps the most vital bridge between photographs in the particular and photography in general, although more so for image-makers and publishers than for critics and theorists, it seems. I’m struck by how few writings there have been about the complexities of photo editing as it takes shape in mainstream media or in more resistant practices. Aside from occasional essays on the arrangement of a few famous photographic books (Walker Evans’ American Photographs of 1938 and Robert Frank’s The Americans of 1958/9 are the obvious ones) writers have had surprisingly little to say on the matter.
There’s a whole history of editing yet to be addressed, particularly as it becomes so central to photographic culture with the growth of the illustrated press in the 1920s and 30s. Suddenly there was a whole array of professional image handlers: the magazine picture editors and art directors, the new art historians taking advantage of photographic reproductions (e.g. Aby Warburg and Franz Roh), as well as the managers of the fast-growing picture libraries, archives and news agencies.
That said, there have been some notable contributions lately. Jorge Ribalta’s work on what he has called the universal archive expressed by the choreography of huge numbers of images in exhibitions such as Pressa (1928) and Film und Photo (1929), Victor Burgin’s The Remembered Film (2004), Blake Stimson’s The Pivot of The World: Photography and its Nation (2006) and Hito Steyerl’s very recent collection The Wretched of the Screen (2013) come to mind. Nevertheless, even the belated recognition that the photographic page – magazines, journals, books and now screens – has been photography’s primary vehicle does not seem to have prompted much of a reflection on just what is at stake in our movement from one photographic image to the next and the next, at least not without resorting to the generalized criticisms of quantity, overload and spectacle.
When Blake Stimson writes that “The photographic essay was born of the promise of another kind of truth from that given by the individual photograph or image on its own, a truth available only in the interstices between pictures, in the movement from one picture to the next”, he points to perhaps the most vital key to our experience of photographs in particular and photography in general. If he then struggles to conceptualize exactly what is going on between one image and the next, it’s only partly because there’s almost no critical tradition to draw upon. The dearth of writings on photo editing is a symptom of how difficult it is to articulate. But I would maintain that it’s essential to try. Without it we’re left with photographs as dissolute fragments and photography as a totalized mass, precisely what any and every photo-sequence attempts to overcome.
Last year I responded to one of Bernd Stiegler’s suggestive posts on the subject of ‘Order’ with an edited sequence of quotations about photo editing: http://blog.fotomuseum.ch/2012/01/3-order/#respond. It was a kind of meta-commentary on the problem. I had been keeping a file of these remarks as I came across them while putting together a book about the long-standing dialogues between the moving and the still image (Photography and Cinema, 2008). Although it was to be a ‘history and theory’ book, I had wanted images to do a lot of the work on the page. So before I began writing I spent several months selecting and sequencing the 127 illustrations my publisher allowed me. Film stills, posters, constructed tableau photographs, sequences, spreads from various books and magazines, and so forth. The idea was to see if I could apply the qualities of photo-sequencing I was describing to the form of the book itself. Such experiments with editing have been my main challenge and source of pleasure in all the books I’ve published. I do the same with essays for journals and magazines, working out the images first (this blog is an exception, an attempt to bend the stick the other way). It’s partly a fear of the blank page but largely it comes from being an image-maker, writer and occasional curator. Editing is the shared term we use to describe the fashioning and arrangement of words and pictures.
Interestingly, while Photography and Cinema was well received only one reviewer picked up on this, wondering, correctly, if the picture editing had preceded the writing and if it was arranged to express and nuance the book’s central points. I’ve kind of got used to nobody really noticing, and presume that most picture editing has its ineffable effects upon experience anyway, be it in books and magazines or our own ad hoc shifts from one image to another as we move through a city or around the internet. Maybe we only notice when it’s done badly or it somehow jars. And perhaps it is this difficulty with paying attention to editing that is the reason for the lack of critical reflection. But what is photography without editing? As Walker Evans put it:
‘The essence is done very quickly with a flash of the mind, and with a machine. I think too that photography is editing, editing after the taking. After knowing what to take you have to do the editing.’
BACKWARDS AND FORWARDS
For many years I have been looking through the back issues of the 20th century’s illustrated press. Magazines, journals, newspapers. It is really impossible to write or teach the history of photography without doing this. The Sunday Times Magazine from March 24, 1968 carries, among other things, Don McCullin’s celebrated black and white images of soldiers in Vietnam – one throwing a grenade, another lying dead with his possessions spilling out.
It’s a stark if fairly conventional photo essay, although it’s always revelatory to see photojournalism in its original context rather than in coffee table books, hagiographic exhibitions and bad histories. It’s also interesting to see that McCullin wrote the accompanying text and that several of the images were shot and reproduced in colour.
However, a few pages further on in the same issue of the magazine there is a second, very different photo essay. Eve Arnold travelled to North Carolina to document a fake North Vietnamese village, constructed by the American military for training purposes. New recruits were sent here before being shipped out to the war zone. Arnold’s opening spread shows two young men who have been asked to attempt to camouflage themselves. In the fake hospital one smears his face with white cream and ties a pillowcase around his head. In the bushes outside another puts leaves in his hair and rubs grass into his cheeks. Two innocents, encouraged to enter a fantasy of Vietnam before they enter the real thing.
The contents page of the magazine pairs the photo essays by McCullin and Arnold under the heading “America in Vietnam, Vietnam in America”. Two photographers, two visual strategies, two incongruent but equally valid ways to represent the Vietnam war early in 1968. How smart of the editor. And how respectful of the intelligence of the readership!
Contents page, Sunday Times Magazine, March 28, 1968
McCullin’s pictures have been recycled endlessly while Arnold’s are forgotten, never reproduced subsequently. Why is this? McCullin’s pictures fit the narrow – and largely retrospective – idea of what photojournalism should have looked like and how it functioned.
In some respects, we can see Arnold’s approach as a precedent for the more recent ‘conceptual turn’ in documentary photography (a horrible term I know). Think of Broomberg & Chanarin’s Chicago, their series of photographs of the fake Palestinian settlement built by the Israeli military for training; or An-My Lê’s documentation of US preparations in Californian deserts for war in the Gulf; or Sarah Pickering’s images of police and fire department training facilities. But let’s not forget Arnold was doing this in a mainstream magazine, not the sandpit of art with its greater freedoms but far more limited audience.
In fact Arnold’s piece is not that exceptional. If we go back and look for ourselves at the illustrated press of the past we find it is far more diverse, experimental and speculative than the written histories seem to suggest. The whole of Life magazine is now online page by page, and it’s possible to see, for example, its complex and often brave coverage of the civil rights movement, and its experiments with staged photography. (Here you can see Gordon Parks illustrating moments from Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man in 1952, half a century before Jeff Wall had a go: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=g1YEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA9&dq=%22invisible+man%22&hl=en&sa=X&ei=WLt_Ub-CE8mAONzPgJAP&ved=0CDgQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=%22invisible%20man%22&f=false)
We should go back and see just how much intelligent work was done, and how contemporary it often feels. This way we might perhaps get the history of photography we really deserve. But why do we need one, you may ask, when the illustrated press has been eclipsed by the cultural and economic conditions that characterize the internet? Well, we would be able to see that many of the problems we face have arisen before. Questions to do with the politics of representation, with image/text relations, questions of context and use, pictorial challenges and so forth. This in itself can be salutary and helpful. The discourse of photography has a habit of seeing its own present problems as unique, and its own moment as the most intellectually nuanced and radical. This failing leads it to underestimate continually the sophistication of its past, and to see itself as entirely separate from it. I am reminded of a suggestive and elegant reply Umberto Eco once made to the question about the merits of study:
We often have to explain to young people why study is useful. It’s pointless telling them that it’s for the sake of knowledge, if they don’t care about knowledge. Nor is there any point in telling them that an educated person gets through life better than an ignoramus, because they can always point to some genius who, from their standpoint, leads a wretched life. And so the only answer is that the exercise of knowledge creates relationships, continuity and emotional attachments. It introduces us to parents other than our biological ones. It allows us to live longer, because we don’t just remember our own life but also those of others. It creates an unbroken thread that runs from our adolescence (and sometimes from infancy) to the present day. And all this is very beautiful.
Umberto Eco, “It’s not what you know …” The Guardian, April 3, 2004
OPTICS AND DESIRE
In 1996 I was living in Brixton, south London, during a very hot summer. On July 12 Nelson Mandela came to visit and the crowds turned out to greet him in their thousands. I had been active in the anti-apartheid movement and gathered with some friends opposite the main sports hall where Mandela was due to arrive and address some local dignitaries. As Mandela and his entourage approached the steps of the hall the crowd was ecstatic. I had never seen such emotion and tears of joy. Mandela stood before us. He waved, smiled and then disappeared with the throng around him into the hall. We had waited hours to see him, and in a very real sense many people there had waited decades to see him. Actually setting eyes on the man was intense, to say the least.
The next morning over breakfast my friends and I bought all the daily newspapers to read the coverage. My girlfriend at the time suddenly asked: “Did any of you see Prince Charles yesterday?!” None of us had. She held up one of the newspapers carrying a large photo of the scene on the steps. Yes, there was Prince Charles, the sheepishly grinning dauphin, just behind and to the right of Nelson Mandela. Why had we not seen him? A friend suggested it was because none of us wanted to see him and, somehow, we had all erased him from our experience and memories. Symbolically, British monarchy and Mandela were contradictions that just didn’t add up for us and would have ruined the day. So, we had taken from the event what we had really wanted to take from it. I don’t have that newspaper but you can see a very similar image here: http://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/news-photo/prince-charles-and-nelson-mandela-in-brixton-news-photo/52098946
Clearly, we don’t see or look the way cameras do. What we see is informed by experience, desire, ideology and expectation. Moreover what we see is governed by processes that are substantially unconscious. In fact my girlfriend suggested that our total blanking of Prince Charles was one of the few occasions on which we could be genuinely proud of our unconscious! The photo of course, could not blank Prince Charles but I’ve no doubt that, similarly, some people looking at it in the newspaper would have not noticed his presence if they had not wanted to.
That’s an extreme example of ‘motivated’ seeing but to a greater or lesser extent we are all doing this all the time. We can’t avoid doing it. If photographs offer more than we want from them, and they offer it in ways that strike us as mechanical and less prone to subjectivity than we are, then the whole dynamic of looking at photographs becomes somewhat fraught. Speedy consumption is a way of avoiding the anxious stand-off between how we look at the world and how the camera looks at the world.
Currently Jacques Rancière is read widely by the critically engaged parts of the photography and art worlds. His writings have proved to be highly stimulating, provocative, even ‘useful’ for their consideration of the relation of aesthetics to politics and agency. Most of the time Rancière remains quite unspecific, leaving us readers to move as we see fit from his general argument or point to a particular example that may come to mind. When Rancière does talk about particular images I often wonder if he’s really looking at the same things I am looking at, or in the same way. In a now notorious instance to be found in his recent book The Emancipated Spectator, Rancière discusses one of Martha Rosler’s Vietnam-era photomontages from her series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Back Home (1967-72). You can see a reproduction of it here: http://www.moma.org/collection/browse_results.php?criteria=O%3AAD%3AE%3A6832&page_number=1&template_id=1&sort_order=1
Rancière notes that “in the middle of a clear and spacious apartment, a Vietnamese man holding a dead child in his arms. The dead child was the intolerable reality concealed by comfortable American existence…”
Well, I see a woman carrying a living child, and Rosler was making the montages from reportage and advertising images found in the same magazines. Recently an artist friend of mine saw Rancière give a talk on a video by Woody Vasulka. One of the clips in Vasulka’s montage was of an Atom-bomb explosion. Cacti and Joshua trees were prominently silhouetted in the foreground but Rancière kept referring to the “image of Hiroshima”.
I certainly don’t want to single out Rancière as a unique offender and obviously his contributions far outweigh his slips. But our photographic discourse is full of such slips, and I’ve no doubt made many myself. Nevertheless we ought to face the awkward question of whether the contributions and the slips are related, even inseparable at a deeper level not just of competence in writing, but looking and thinking about a medium so vast in its generality, so open in its optics, and yet so specific in its details. When you ‘look for’ something in photography, the more determined you are to see it, the greater your chance of seeing it. Even if it’s not there. And if you don’t want to see something, you often won’t. Then there’s the lazy or hasty reading. Since most of the photographic images we see around us expect to be consumed rapidly we are often tempted to look and draw conclusions at speed. Slow looking becomes an anxious or perverse demand. I have always been struck by this passage from Victor Burgin’s 1980 essay ‘Photography, Phantasy, Function’:
To look at a photograph beyond a certain period of time is to become frustrated: the image which on first looking gave pleasure by degrees becomes a veil behind which we now desire to see. To remain too long with a single photograph is to lose the imaginary command of the look, to relinquish it to that absent other to whom it belongs by right: the camera. The image now no longer receives our look, reassuring us of our founding centrality, it rather, as it were, avoids our gaze. In photography one image does not succeed another in the manner of cinema. As alienation intrudes into our captation by the still image, we can only regain the imaginary, and reinvest our looking with authority, by averting our gaze, redirecting it to another image elsewhere. It is therefore not an arbitrary fact that photographs are deployed so that, almost invariably, another photograph is always already in position to receive the displaced look.
The psychoanalytic terms (the gaze, the imaginary, captation) were relatively new to the discussion of looking at photographs but Burgin describes the familiar experience of a visual culture dominated by the photographic image as distractive spectacle. Photographs are exhausted and discarded well before we have the chance to come into a reflective relationship with them. That is the condition and purpose of the vast majority of photographs presented to us: their meanings are meant to be obvious and formulaic and if there is sustained interest in any particular one it is unpredictable.
But is this distractive gaze simply a matter of cultural habit? That for generations the ubiquitous visual culture to which photography gave rise has been a continuous stream of largely dispensable images? Do we not look at photographs for very long because we do not expect to, because we are not encouraged to? Did the popular press, advertising, cinema, television, the internet or even art’s compulsively serial use of photographs negate the long look? Or were deficiencies there from the start, built into the photograph’s very structure? Is it the coldness of its optics, perhaps? Does its surface fail to hold the gaze? Do its perceived limitations of time and place frustrate extended reflection? For Burgin at least, the position was clear enough: there is something about photographic images that precludes the long look, “therefore” (his word) they are deployed in number and the look is displaced.
There will always be a mismatch between the unconscious and the industrial mechanism of camera vision.
POPULAR, NOT POPULIST
It seems generally accepted now that photography became a modern medium of art in the 1920s. This was when it gave up its resistance to the widespread industrial basis of photography (Pictorialism is thought to have typified that resistance) and came into a close or parallel relation to the medium’s various social functions. Photography triumphed artistically by remaking, diverting, re-presenting or otherwise contemplating its ‘applied’ forms such as the document, the film still, the advertisement, the commercial portrait and the archival image.
Many of the key figures involved in that moment actually worked in the medium’s applied fields. Man Ray, Laure Albin-Guillot, Germaine Krull, Albert Renger-Patzsch, Walker Evans, André Kertész. Others made images that could be taken for applied images (Edward Weston – check out his images of vegetables in the book Fit For a King, László Moholy-Nagy). But as Modernists true to their métier, the aim was to make good photography and the ‘art’ part could be left to take care of itself. Photographers as different as Man Ray and Walker Evans insisted their medium was not art but it could be an art – a distinction lost on many today. Exhibiting or publishing a book of one’s commissioned work might be enough to shift the emphasis from the things depicted to the depiction, from anonymity to named author, from paid work to Works, from applied to fine art. Context, as any photographer will tell you, is key.
For all the mutations in the intervening century there has been some continuity. Describing the role played by photography in art of the 1960s and 1970s, Jeff Wall used the term ‘the art concept of photojournalism’. He was referring to the way the important art of that time understood photography in its worldly condition – as a set of embedded social practices that could be analysed, critiqued, challenged and subverted. Artists probed photography’s assumed role as social fact in news, science and law, opening up a space to reflect upon the authority often given to photographs in daily life.
This turn of photography in art towards a reflection on photography’s roles outside of art remains its most significant mode. Photography has not entered art on an independent footing but as something inextricably bound up with non-art, and with the photographic as it appears across all of culture’s spaces. Today we see practitioners and curators working with ‘art concepts’ of all the various fields of photography. The fashion image; the snapshot; the portrait; the medical photograph, the architectural photograph; the film still; the passport photo; the archival image; the penal image; of kitsch; of the topographic image and so on. The gallery has become the space to look from the sidelines at the general field of the photographic, to engage directly or indirectly with a commentary upon the image world.
The space of art has thus come to function either as an operating table to which the different forms of the photographic are brought for creative reflection, or as a set upon which they can be can be reworked and restaged. These two metaphors – operating table and set – map quite well onto what seem to be the two key impulses of the medium: the forensic interest in detail and the cinematic interest in mise-en-scène or staging. These impulses are so forcefully present today because all photography in art is somehow obliged to enter into a dialogue either with the notion of the photo as visual evidence or with the culture of the moving image in which the still image now finds itself. Or both.
What has changed, or what is assumed to have changed, is the attitude to popular culture, and the idea(l) of an intelligent and reflective cultural commons. I sense art in general has given up on this, so that its relation to photography at large is now high-minded and superior, and its reworkings of photography’s applied forms are now marked by a very different dynamic. Art assumes it holds the cultural and intellectual high ground, and presumes nothing of much intelligence or reflection could be achieved within the space of the applied image. This is not only plain wrong but it becomes a painfully self-fulfilling prophecy, and it skews the discourses around photography.
The book I’m just finishing concerns Walker Evans (1903-1975), a photographer championed still by big museums as a maker of exemplary images in the documentary style. Discrete rectangles framed behind glass. But Evans was uneasy with photography as art and cautious about his image as an artist. He did not even attend the opening night of his now legendary solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (but he did lock himself in the night before to ensure the complex sequence of images on the walls was as he wanted). He was just as ambivalent about the printed page, where he earned his living. Nevertheless, he was formed and fascinated by printed matter, and felt even the most conservative publishing empire might afford the space to make good work with a resistant, reflective, intelligent attitude.
When Life magazine launched in 1936 Evans and his friend the writer James Agee noted its tendency toward spectacle, sentimentalism and consumerist values. Even so, the duo submitted a proposal for a subsection of Life to be devolved to them. As editorial advisors they would provide a space for experimental writing and a visual approach devoid of what Agee called “all ‘art’ and ‘dramatic’ photography and of the plethoric and flabby ends of Leica photography”. They asked for an office and $75 a week each, promising to take care of everything. Life actually considered the idea for a while but eventually declined. Still, the desire to carve out an independent space within mainstream culture never left either man. Such a sizeable audience was too significant to be ignored entirely. Fleeing into small circulation journals, into vanity publishing and into the sanctum of the gallery was not the answer. To give up on the popular, to presume it can only ever be a crudely populist space dominated by the lowest common denominators of ideology, is simply to give up on the very idea of culture.
Eventually Evans found a space with some autonomy within Fortune magazine. For twenty years (1945-1965) he set his own assignments – which were frequently at odds with the general direction of the editors and the readership – did the editing, the writing and the layout. It was a struggle. He recalled:
“I had to fight for it. But in a way I accepted that as a challenge. I had to use my wits there. And I think I did all right. I think I won in the long run. I was very pleased with that because that’s a hard place to win from. That’s a deadly place really, and ghastly. I can’t tell you how horrible that is, that organization [Time Inc.]… But it’s such a large thing for very bright people and you can find places in there that are habitable.”
One might argue say that since there was no art market Evans had no choice but to struggle in the space of commerce (putting aside the glaring fact that the art world is extremely commercialized these days). But how interesting that some of the best, most critical, most long-lasting, most ambitious photographic work ever made came out of that compromise, and could only have come out of that compromise. Weegee, Gordon Parks, Brassaï, Arbus, Krull, Albin-Guillot, to name just a few. But I doubt any of these figures would have simply fled into art had there been a living to be made there. They understood themselves as connected to, invested in, an intelligent popular culture.
Away from art, that struggle over popular culture continues. There are plenty of photographers today who are committed to this struggle in different ways. Moreover, I think this struggle must continue because the alternatives are unthinkable. A crass, exploitative, voyeuristic and reactionary mass culture deserted by every photographer of critical intelligence is too high a price to pay for an art world that thinks it is above it.