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Creating a critical base for fine art photography

photographers photographs artists images

The photograph is never unique since (in most cases) it is made from a negative. It is therefore always a copy and always reproducible. Viewing a photograph in reproduction does not degrade it to the degree that a painting is degraded when viewed in reproduction. In other words, “mechanical reproduction had brought an end to the work of art’s ‘aura’”. Yet, in the case of photography its aura has been institutionally established by fetishizing the vintage print (in which it is hoped the photographer had either authored that print or at least supervised its production). For the collector such editioning guarantees that there are a limited number of copies in existence and returns to an anonymous image the aura of authorship. Those photographers who make camera-less photographs or work with the intention of making unique works such as Lucas Samaras, Robert Mapplethorpe, and William Wegman, who had worked extensively with Polaroids, are of course the exception.

Given this complexity of issues, Alfred Stieglitz, at the beginning of the 20th century, worked tirelessly to differentiate the practice of art photography from the mixed bag of amateur and distinctly commercial interests. The photography community of the time viewed Stieglitz’ circle as elitists because of the high critical standards and strict views that they held concerning the practice of photography as art. Rather than being interested in capturing a picturesque moment, or creating one in the darkroom, these photographers were committed to expressing a depth of emotion that was dependent on temperament and aesthetics while reinforcing the generally accepted view that veracity was photography’s quintessential characteristic. To achieve these goals, Stieglitz asserted that fine art photographers not only needed critical criteria but they also needed to establish their own institutions based upon them.

The struggle to create an institutional base for art photography began with Stieglitz’ founding in 1902 of the journal Camera Works and launching the organization Photo-Secession. This organization, due to its select membership of influential photographers, became the primary legitimizing institution for fine art photography. In 1905 with the opening of his gallery 291, Stieglitz further advanced photography’s claim to being art by exhibiting photographers along with avant-garde American and European artists. Between 1908 and 1911 the photographer, Edward Steichen, and Stieglitz organized exhibitions that included Matisse, Picasso, Cézanne, Rodin, and Brancusi. Yet, despite this impressive record, when it came to the Armory Show of 1917 organized by the Association of American Painters and Sculptures, Stieglitz was little more than a consultant. Yet, the Armory Show permanently changed American culture, unleashing a new vision that wed science, revolution, and new artistic forms (including photography) together.

The triumph of the process of institutionalization and differentiation set into motion by Stieglitz culminated in 1929 when the Museum of Modern Art opened with a photography department that acknowledged both fine art photography as well as vernacular images as an important facet of Modernist practice. Ironically, in the 1960s such photography departments were finding it necessary to discriminate between fine art photographers and artists who were using photography as a medium. This confluence of art and photography in the 1960s reflected both the influence of mass media and reproduction in producing our image world, as well as Modernism’s own conflicted nature, which in the wake of Abstract Expressionism coalesced into a formalist aesthetic. Based on a reductive vision of art, formalism took as its premise the belief that art’s specificity lay in the essential qualities of its traditional forms.

Spurred by the failure of the formalist vision to sustain art’s ability to challenge its audience, it seemed that art’s inevitable fate was that it would become a form of decoration, a product of taste, a novelty, or a commodity. In the face of such a dire prediction, there was a renewed interest in Dadaism and in particular the conceptual and media experiments of Marcel Duchamp. In the mid-1950s, the composer John Cage, while teaching at Black Mountain College and then in his seminal course in composition at the New School, disseminated Marcel Duchamp’s ideas to artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Alan Kaprow, and Jasper Johns as well as those who would form the core of both Pop Art and the Fluxus movement. In keeping with Warhol and Rauschenberg’s use of photo silk screen, John Baldarsari and Bob Wade began to make “paintings” that consisted of half-tone photographs printed on canvases that had been prepared with liquid light (a paint-on, light-sensitive photo emulsion). In these cases, the photo imagery was handled either as a found object or as a staged event. For instance, Pop artist Ed Ruscha began to produce books of photographs to document such mundane events as the destruction of a Royal typewriter being dropped from a speeding car or documenting all of the buildings on Sunset Strip. In those cases where the artist took the photographs, their amateurishness can be understood as part of the ongoing process of de-skilling art.

The rash of experimentation that characterized the 1950s and early 1960s came to focus on the hope of establishing a conceptual specificity that went beyond formalist issues and began to play with the idea that art’s object-hood was expendable. These artists envisioned the work of art as little more than a document that corresponded to the artists’ intentions. In this, they considered that they were furthering the modernist program of challenging the conventions of art by exposing that art is an information system that functioned within an institutional framework. At its most extreme, conceptual art was immaterial in the sense that its only object was the limited means by which to communicate an idea or event. From this perspective, all modes of representation and presentation from those of spoken and written language to the creation of large-scale objects and systems became available.

Within the context of conceptual art, stripped of aesthetic aspiration and disciplinary limitations, photography had now become an art medium. As such, Douglas Huebler, Mel Bochner, and Joseph Kosuth, along with Dan Graham, Walter DeMaria, and Victor Burgin, produced works using a wide array of photo-derived reproduction processes such as Xerox, and photo-stats, as well as photography per se. Others like the minimalist Robert Smithson were producing photo-essays with titles such as The Monuments of Passaic, and Mirror Travel in the Yucatan, which were published in the art magazine ArtForum . Sol Lewitt, another artist identified with minimalism, also produced photographic books (catalogs) of his systemic sculptures based on the grid as well as ones in which the images of things were ordered categorically. Likewise, by presenting their photographs as artworks, artists such as Wallace Berman, Dan Graham, and Douglas Huebler jumbled the categorical, practical, and aesthetic goals that it had taken photographers so long to sort out.

Performance artists such as Vito Acconci, Gilbert and George, and Carolee Schneemann presented photographs often taken by others in the course of their performance as a means to communicate what being there might have been like. These photographs in form and content run the gamut from the snapshot to what might be considered a theatrical still depicting significant moments. Other artists such as William Wegman, Mac Adams, and Bill Beckley created tableaus and performances in their studios that were essentially meant to be photographed. These works related to the staged photographs of the 19th century. Others used the photograph to document such temporal or inaccessible works as earthworks (Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer), walks in the English countryside (Richard Long and Hamish Fulton), or to create an image that would function as record of a temporal events (Bruce Nauman, Joseph Beuys, Klaus Rinke, etc.).

Likewise, the German artists Hilla and Bernd Becher at the intersection of conceptual art and minimalism produced photographic studies that consisted of multiple examples or views of such industrial structures as water towers, conveyor belts, and factories. The Bechers exhibited these as either sets of the same type of structures or multiple views of a single structure. Their black and white images with their banal objectivity shared an aesthetic with such photographers as Louis Baltz, Robert Adams, Joe Deal, and Nicholas Nixon among others. What was common to this latter group’s work was that they explored with a dispassionate eye the desolate, disfigured, and forgotten places nearly ruined by natural detritus and human intervention that made up the new American landscape. These photographers, similar to the minimalist and conceptual artists, were trying to define both the role of objectivity and aesthetics in contemporary art.

What held these diverse practices together were conceptual and aesthetic congruities rather than stylistic or thematic consistencies. These differing practices formed a definitive economy of practices that corresponded to the formal aspects of the media used to realize them. Consequently, the use of non-traditional materials and processes, and forms such as ready-mades, text, photography, film, and video came to be added to the canon of both art making and art photography. This brought an end to the hierarchy of both forms and subjects that were cherished by traditionalist and formalist, alike. From the point of view of fine art “photographers,” beyond the fact that art sold for more than photographs, the worst aspect of this trend was that these artists had adopted the amateur aesthetic of pointing and clicking; in other words, they were presenting snapshots as artworks. Equally reprehensible was the alternative that in other cases artists did not take their own photographs, but were hiring professional (commercial) photographers to produce their images for them.

Critically, the purist stance, which was the standard well into the 1970s (and beyond) was based on the general belief that fine art photographs depict what we would have seen if we had been there ourselves looking through the camera’s lens. In this they continue to adhere to the veracity of the photographic image. This mythology was introduced to qualitatively rather than quantitatively differentiate the subtle ways fine art photographers manipulated their images from the ways in which commercial photographers constructed their images. Early fine art photographer’s commitment to create evocative images that were more truthful than mere transcriptions of the world required that they produce photographic images that appeared natural, which is not quite the same thing as unadulterated. Consequently, fine art photographers could assert that their photographs conserved the veracity of photography while reaching beyond the merely documentary to produce something aesthetic.

A parallel approach to this idea of preserving the veracity of photography emerges from the formalist aesthetic and structuralist investigations of the 1970s. Both photographers and artists set to work exposing what is veiled by the conventions of the photograph and the practices and contexts these engage. Likewise the methodology of Canadian artist and filmmaker Michael Snow and the British conceptual artist Victor Burgin was to turn the means that were used to create photography’s illusion of naturalness inward to expose the deeper structural and conceptual implications that stem from the fact that even the most common photograph was an artifice.

Snow’s paintings and sculptures during this period included the production of photographs, short films, and film installations that explored the subject of a medium’s ability to represent itself and its limitations. Burgin rather than making works that were about himself in the sense of process, instead sought to expose the hidden semiotics of photography and the codes and practices that make it a vehicle of ideology by indexing them to context. Comparable to Burgin’s stance would be the work of Mary Kelly who would come to address in psychoanalytic terms what photography represses and Martha Rosler’s composites (photocollages) meant to make explicit the politics of photographic representation.

Such themes are also taken up by photographers Zeke Berman, Thomas Barrow, and John Pfahl whose works exploited the distortions produced by the camera, and the qualities of the negative, processing, and print. Their intent was to challenge the assumptions and conventions that circumscribed fine art photography motivated by questions of the relevance of the imposed limitations of the tradition that defined their work as art. Acknowledging the fact that while a photograph is a record of what has been seen, they also refer to what had been excluded in the very process of its making. Others like Robert Cummings tackled the presumption that the photograph represents an isolated a moment in a continuum. Cumming’s photographs of studio setups demonstrates how cropping masks the truth of an image by exposing how the photograph is just one frame in an endless sequence of other frames. His pairing of photographs exposes how what the photographer chooses to exclude or include creates a fiction in the guise of truth—each image is no more truthful then the other—and that the photograph creates its own truth.

Robert Frick took our expectations of what may take place before or after a given moment as his subject. He presents repeat images of his subject from differing distances, angles, and lighting in a grid format allowing the viewer to go from detail to whole. The resulting experience (that is both cinematic and minimalist in form) forces upon the viewer an awareness of how the framing of an image is an act of inclusion and exclusion and that our knowledge of a given situation is always a composite of multiple experiences. Other photographers, such as Eve Sonneman and Jan Groover, who straddled the art/photography divide also challenged the belief that a photographer’s choice questions the notion of the photograph as representing the most significant or opportune moment within a given continuum by presenting what appeared to be sequential images. For instance, Sonneman would present similar sequences of images in both color and black and white in this way and in doing so she tested the sense of reality that photographs induced.

If photographers were interested in visually exposing how all photographs in one manner or another are fictions, Duane Michals and Frencesca Woodman used anecdote and narrative captions rather than titles to establish context for their images. Michals’ work consists of narrative sequences of photographs accompanied by short handwritten text similar to storyboards. Woodman, on the other hand, includes short self-reflective texts. Such approaches extend photography beyond what had become fine art photography’s limitations and conventions by suggesting other models of what might constitute the veracity of the image. This conceptual approach addressed the possibility that photography is capable of documenting something more than the external world while also corresponding to the renewed interest of contemporary artists in narrative and anecdote.

Openly using the photograph as an element in the construction of narratives has its roots in the history of staged photography, which developed in the days before the advent of moving pictures. This was also reflected in the experimental works of the surrealist photographers. The effect of these traditions is found in the allegorical photography of Clarence John McLaughlin, Ralph Meatyard, and Jerry Uelsmann. These created-for-the-camera or made-in-the darkroom visions form the bridge for the staged tableaux of the photographer Les Krims and the staged, manipulated images of the artist Lucas Samaras in the 1960s that form the segue into what photography critic A. D. Coleman identifies as the directorial mode of the 1980s.

Though often identified with post-modernism, such contemporary artist/photographers as David Levinthal, Gregory Crewdson, Jeff Wall, Sandy Skoglund, Joel Peter Witkin, Laurie Simmons, and Cindy Sherman, respectively, exploited differing aspects of both photographic and cinematic traditions to naturalize what are obviously staged situations. This work is based on the theory that every photograph is the intersection of two complimentary precepts. These artists and photographers have self-consciously appropriated the conventions of photography’s catalog of genres and exploit photography’s ability to induce in us a state of suspended disbelief premised on our continued belief that photography in some manner is the shadow of the real. Mary Kelly, Carrie Mae Weems, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Shimon Attie, and Krzysztof Wodiczko in the form of installations, or site-specific projections consequently, exploit the lack of a clear-cut division between photography as a means of commentary and reportage (the evidentiary) as a document and an artifice.

Also emerging in the mid-1980s, artists such as Sherri Levine, Richard Prince, and Barbara Kruger who were also identified with post-modernism, extended the critical practices of Pop and Conceptual Art by making explicit the sociopolitical opacity of the photographic medium and its reproduction. Levine does this by photographing reproductions of the work of historically important photographers such as Walker Evans, Rodchenko, and Edward Weston. Upon cursory inspection, the viewer cannot discern her copies from the original. In doing so, she questions the authenticity of the fetishization of the vintage photograph in the sense that her reproductions of reproductions seemingly offer the same pictorial information and aesthetic experience. Likewise, Prince whose early photographic works consist of re-photographing images from advertisements and biker magazines, and Kruger, who works with appropriated photographic images, address how the implicit associations of a photographic image can be made explicit by textually and aesthetically contextualizing it.

The practices ushered in during the late 1980s meant to analyze modernism’s essentialist myth of originality, authorship, and purity corresponded not only to the values of mass culture, but also the changing terms and conditions of cultural production and its media. Central to this was the degree to which advertising and mass media had immersed us in a world of simulated representations and reproductions created by new technologies that increasingly could simulate most other media. For the photographers this meant that due to digital imaging technologies the photograph was an aesthetic effect. Seemingly under such conditions, what had driven photography’s discourse for more than a century—its capacity to compel (or challenge) us to believe that its referent is real and therefore capable of invoking the past—had come to an end. Yet under these conditions photography and its doppel-ganger, the photographic effect (of digital imaging), continues to be ordered by the look of photography’s historical development and practices, as well as a self-conscious reference to its construct as a simulacrum. The distinction here is that digital imaging, though different in process, is indistinguishable in appearance beyond that of scale and on occasion material choice (paper, canvas, lamination, and inks).

The work of “photographer/artists” Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff, and Thomas Struthe is located at the intersection of those discourses concerned with the effect wrought by the technologies of mass production, reproduction, and replication and the historical imagery and practices that inform our conception of what photography is. Within their appropriation of the wide range of photographic genres and their ethos, these artist/photographers investigate the relation between three categories of media image—documentary (objective), aesthetic (expressive), and the collaged (constructed). Given the scale and clarity of digital photography, by extension their work also reopens the question of photography’s relation to painting. In this digital imaging has a relationship to chemical photography that is similar to photography’s relation to painting in its early days. As such, the evidence of the digital’s effect on our consciousness may be observed in the changing relationship between painting, photography, and film as each succumbs to, resists, or is annexed into the experiences and aesthetics engaged by digital’s media sphere. Consequently, just as modernism (which was stimulated by the advent of photography and the age of mechanical reproduction) is brought to its end, the differentiation between visual art and photography now exists only as an index of differing perspectives and contexts.

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