‘Traces and Pictures’

Through the Looking Brain, Kunstmuseum Bonn, 2011

Traces and Pictures

by David Campany

Looked at as a whole the works gathered together here cover one of the richest and most complex periods in the development of photographic art. The collection of Zellweger Luwa AG begins with key works of Conceptual and performance art from the late 1960s and early 70s, passes through what came to be called the ‘postmodern’ arts of appropriation, quotation and re-photography, and concludes with large-scale photographic tableaux. Each of these moments is of course rich and complex in its own right and has been the subject of important exhibitions and critical studies. Through the Looking Brain allows us to consider what is particular about these moments but more importantly perhaps, it allows us to see significant overlaps, dialogues and tensions in the way photography has been understood and what its artistic possibility has been thought to be across the last four decades

Few would dispute that the neo-avant-garde of the 1960s and early 70s continues 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. At that juncture the attractions of photography were multiple but quite particular. It seemed to many to have 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. It allowed a 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 as 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 the medium could bring site-specific works, interventions and performances into the space of the gallery and also 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 many of his performances and documented and 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 photographed by Gabriel Orozco.

The attitudes to photography at that time 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. 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 conceptualism, that moment was 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 between the photograph as document and the photograph as artwork.

To be sure, this is not a new matter. It has been there at the core of nearly all the shades of debate about photography’s merit as art, a debate made rich and strange by the fact that photography’s triumph in art came through its flirtation with its status as document, with science, with automatism, with anonymous vernacular practices and other modes of authorial erasure. Just about all the vanguard art of the last century walked or erased the line between artwork and document, and this is why photography became so central.

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.[i]

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 the medium best placed to dramatize the tensions between artwork and document.

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 a an exploration with the photograph’s potential as ‘picture’. But just as conceptualism held in tension the idea of the photo as trace 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 characterised 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.[ii]

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. A debt to the warnings Guy Debord sent out in 1967 with The Society of the Spectacle (first published in English in 1970) is evident, as is an echoing of Jean Baudrillard’s writings on simulation, which he started developing in the mid-1970s.[iii] Crimp reflected on the show the following year in Flash Art International, and again the meaning of the term was pressing:

‘Pictures’ in the colloquial usage is non-specific: a picture book might be a book of photographs or drawings; a film is sometimes called a picture-show or a moving picture and in common parlance a painting, drawing or print is often called simply a picture. Equally important, on a more theoretical level, picture, in its verb form, can refer to a mental process as well as the production of an aesthetic object. By using this term I want to avoid references to mediums, as if they were ontological categories, and to aesthetic styles, as if art were somehow exterior to those activities which produce instances of it. In all of its usages of course, picture carries the notion of representation, of copy. A picture is always ‘of’. Yet, in modern culture, the relationship of the picture to what is pictured has been obscured. Because the relationship of a mechanically, or electronically reproduced picture to what is pictured is unquestioned (it is, after all, simply a trace, and is therefore one-to-one), it has been supplanted by an infinitude of indistinguishable copies, and the notion of the original is lost. We are left, therefore, with an experience that must remain, and in any case chooses to remain, with the picture itself. [iv]

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. If their art was ever at large-scale it was in order to allude to publicity, the cinema screen or the cityscape of advertising, rarely to the bodily scale of the painted canvas or sculpture. Large meant looking too large, ‘blown-up’. When the artworks were presented at small-scale, as many of these originally were, this played on the fact that imagery derived from printed pages looks noticeably smaller on the wall than in the hand, creating an air of knowing, faux-classical seriousness.

For example, the scale of Cindy Sherman’s 10-by-8 inch prints of her series Untitled Film Stills was deceptive. They resembled magazine-sized images or standard publicity shots for page reproduction or display outside movie theatres. At the same time, 10-by-8 was the sanctified format of purist fine art photographers, who, if they had become aware of Sherman’s play with masquerade and role-play, would probably have been quite baffled by it. Only when artists began to explore greater scale in the late 1980s did Sherman reprint some of the seriesmuch larger (40 by 30 inches), evoking less the classical museum picture than the cinema screen.[v] Richard Prince also began to enlarge his source images beyond the magazine page, while Sherrie Levine stayed close to the scale of the printed matter she was copying.

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 ironised. Rather, in their connection with the pictorial tradition, they contained a promise, a way of outflanking spectacle and carving out something else, a way of picture making that reconnected with those modes of picturing that were once predominant but had been repressed by the iconoclasm of the avant-gardes. In 2007 Jeff Wall ventured:

A picture is something that is difficult to define, but we know that what we call a picture, in the Western tradition of art at least, is something extremely compelling and that the standards for it, established both by painters, photographers and so on, are very high. Therefore a good picture is difficult to make.[vi]

This is close to Jean-François Chevrier’s idea of the photograph as tableau.[vii] 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.[viii] Of course, this idea has existed for centuries in painting, but when it appears in photography it produces a tension between the image’s status as evidence or trace, which locates it in the past, and its pictorial organisation, which conjures an imaginary, contemplative dimension.

So, 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. Such works understand 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

That thread has something to do with both the trace and the picture, the document and the artwork. Something is recorded before for the camera but the camera also poses, theatricalises what it records. The camera is not outside of what is presented to it. Rather, it is complicit with it.

jeff wall the crooked path

Jeff Wall, The Crooked Path, 1991

It seems fitting that this collection includes a key historical precursor of these productive ambiguities, a 1921 portrait by Man Ray of Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy. But it is perhaps more instructive to consider as emblematic of all this an image made in 1991, roughly in the middle of the period covered by the Zellweger Luwa AG collection. The Crooked Path, by Jeff Wall shows an informal, semi-planned area, perhaps on the outskirts of a city, where nature begins to give way to industrial development. The foreground is a flattened expanse of uncut damp grass and shrubs fading from the greens of late summer to the straw browns of autumn. A path, in places worn down to the bare earth, extends from the lower edge of the composition, through the foreground and into the mid-ground. It is, as the title states, a crooked path, the result of repeated crossings by animals, or, more likely, by humans. A second, lighter path traverses the grass from left to right, forming an irregular cross in the middle of the scene. In the background on the right we see the typically modular architecture of a large food processing depot. Emblazoned on the side is the company name. The company has made an attempt to soften the harsh outline of the building by painting it a pale sky blue. But the sky on this day is overcast and colourless. The building is partially obscured from the camera’s view by the leafless trees and telegraph poles that sketch the border between the uneven grass and the tarmac or concrete surface, which cannot be see but we know must be there in the distance. On the left of the photograph, amid the trees, is a small group of beehives, distinguished by their brightly painted stripes. Some of these stripes match the blue of the factory building. The path seems to beheading between the beehives and the factory but ends nowhere in particular, at least nowhere we can see.

Although Wall has made ‘cinematographic’ images in which scenes are prepared in advance he has also made many ‘documentary’ images, in which places or situations encountered in the world are simply framed and photographed.   Sometimes his cinematographic images advertise their own artifice, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes his documentary-looking images are naturalistic; sometimes their formality as pictures raises the spectre of artifice. The documentary claim is put forward but suspended, and in that suspension other ways of relating to the image and what it depicts are permitted to emerge. Wall himself notes of this image: “It’s a little path made by its users, without a plan, in order to do something that the usual administration could not or did not do – so there’s a slight trace of disobedience or independence – people may do things that we can’t predict.” He refers to it as ‘a’ path, which of course it is, but for the title of his photograph he has chosen what in English called the definite article: ‘The’ Crooked Path. The distinction is significant both for Wall, whose titles over the years indicate a very careful understanding of the matter, and for the photographic medium as such. A photograph refers to and describes things in their particularity – this, that, these, those, an, a. Strictly speaking one cannot photograph ‘the’ crooked path; one can only photograph ‘a’ crooked path, one instance of a potentially limitless number of crooked paths in the world. (One can photograph ‘the’ Queen of England because there is only one, and to title it ‘A Queen’ would be a mild subversion of the idea of monarchy). To title this photograph ‘The Crooked Path’ is to draw the image away from its status as prosaic document or trace and towards a more pictorial, symbolic or allegorical reading.

There is nothing particularly special about this path. What might transform it is the way in which it has been photographed and how the photograph’s title might encourage us to make sense of it. So what might be ‘The Crooked Path’ here? Is it the path between nature and industry, perhaps? Between the country and the city? Between subsistence farming and corporate food production? Between nature’s chaos and modernity’s fantasy of order? Between civilization and its discontents? Between summer and winter? It could be one, or all, or none of these because a symbolic title cannot guarantee anything. It can only suggest, and as such it is in irresolvable tension with the factuality of the photograph.

And the brute fact of the path is important too. A path is a trace, so a photo of such a path is a trace of a trace. Wall’s photograph of that worn path conjures up memories of marks left in nature by performance artists and Land artists. So might the crooked path here be between the photograph as raw document and the symbolic language of composition and titling? The crooked path between trace and picture.

[i] ‘Thirteen Theses Against Snobs’ in Walter Benjamin’s ‘One Way Street’ (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”).

[ii] D. Crimp, ‘Pictures’, in Pictures, Artists Space, New york, 1977, n.p.

[iii] See Jean Baudrillard Symbolic Exchange and Death, London: Sage Publications Ltd, 1976.

[iv] D. Crimp, ‘About Pictures: Picture as Representation as Such’, Flash Art International, no.88–89, March–April 1979, p.34.

[v] Sherman evoked classical museum pictures in her History Portraits series (1989–90). Discussing the origins of these images, she has said: ‘When I was doing those I was living in Rome but never went to the churches and museums there. I worked out of books, with reproductions. It’s an aspect of photography I appreciate conceptually: the idea that images can be reproduced and seen anytime, anywhere, by anyone.’ See Michael Kimmelman, ‘At the Met With: Cindy Sherman; Portraitist in the Halls of Her Artistic Ancestors’, The New York Times, 19 May 1995.

[vi] ‘Jeff Wall Talks About his Work’, public lecture at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 26, 2007.

[vii] See 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.

[viii] 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.

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