1. Conventions, Conditions, and Practices of Photography Conceived as a System of Relations
Published: 14.04.2012
in the series Exceptional Position of Photography within the (Art) World
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As works of art have increasingly embraced the polysemy of images—to the point where the question of what a particular image depicts has become all but minor in the discussion of contemporary art—what we generally describe as photography continues to be understood as primarily depictive (and to that end as a transparent medium) and taken in unitary terms (i.e. taken as discrete pictorial worlds rather than as objects in an expansive aesthetic distributive system). In fact, the level of self-awareness about images seems to be the metric by which those who practice photography are relegated to either the attribution  “artist,” or “photographer,” the absence of aesthetic reflexivity delineating the latter from the former, while the photographic itself is often, despite its instrumentality, delivered in theoretical terms as an exemplar of a loss of meaning (at various times theorized as death, or absence), and the domination of the image over the material.

The peculiar instability of photographic meaning has lead many on a fool’s errand, leaving its history littered with false ontologies and misplaced certainties, diverting attention from the political implications of aesthetics to the phantasmagoric world of likenesses. This is not unique to photography, but perhaps photography is exemplary of this confusion. Yet the material conditions underpinning the current state of affairs in the distribution, reception, and production of what we might loosely refer to as the photographic apparatus (conceived in a broad sense as including not only the machinery, but the social systems within which photography operates), have all too easily been swept up in this fantasy of our transcendence into a dematerialized image world.

Needless to say, it is curious that a medium that was born less than two hundred years ago, in the midst of the industrial revolution, would be the primary contemporary vehicle of the western pictorial tradition, as its more established siblings continue to reinvent, and intervene within the conventions of aesthetic reception. There are certainly many reasons for this, some more compelling than others, but this forum seems a valuable opportunity to sketch out this theoretical problem, and reexamine the assumptions associated with that loose collection of practices and theories that we call the photographic, and attempt to propose broader, and perhaps more dynamic tools through which to understand it. This process seems best begun with a discussion of the functional construction of the category of photography.

And in my next posting, I will provide a loose history of this apocalyptic imagination of photography, one which I will argue, is predicated upon the false separation of representation from its material substrate, a problem which begins in structuralism, and has led to a general problem of what Alfred North Whitehead referred to as “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” In short, my postings will speculate about the possibility of recovering the term photography, and to reconceive it not as a category whose boundaries are to be analyzed, but a dynamic ever changing system, more a relation between elements, that organizes interactions and flows, than a category that we place certain types of objects within.

I’ll end with the following questions that come from those I posed last year in the context of the Museum of Modern Art’s ongoing series of discussions of photography, questions which are, to me, still unresolved, and also seem germane to the discussion of photography taking place here:

What, if anything, is to be gained by approaching photography as a discrete medium? Is there truly any solidity to a category that links together everything from the gelatin silver print, to the magazine page, the computer screen, the billboard etc. all of which have distinctly different modes of address, access to audience, and distributive networks? Do they all require the same or similar questions? Even if the “same” image occurs in each of these instances, does it make them, for all intents and purposes, equivalent? Or is this just a vernacular misuse of the term photograph, using the word photograph as though it was synonymous with picture or image, a confusion of a schematic formal similarity for material/epistemological/ideological continuity? Does it make as much sense to describe a reproduction of a painting in a magazine as a painting? Or should our approach to how to discuss that material shift be different, and if so, exactly how should it be different, since the material transformation from a painting to the printed page is akin to the transformation of the photographic print or digital file to the printed page? Does it have to do with what qualities we assume are germane to the photograph, and which are not? What qualities are these? And finally, what tacit assumptions are being made when we link these, or the multitude of other distributive forms of the photograph together?

6 comment(s)
Nicola Trezzi
Posted 16.04.2012 at 11:46


I completely agree with Walead Beshty’s use of the word “polysemy of images” in regard to visual art and art works although I am not sure our reasons are the same. For me the “polysemy of images” must be understood symbolically. In other words the more we see art as polysemic and thus enriched by multiple meanings, the more we allow ourselves to apply the same status to other channels of communication such as speaking, writing, and in this very case blogging. For this reason I deliberately decided to transform my debut as co-blogger in a totally confusing and apparently incoherent digression.

I therefore began to write this first posting right after I submitted a text describing the practice of a young generation of New York-based painters dealing with the genre of abstraction. As we all know painting and photography have always been enemies and lovers, they often sleep in the same bed, which is probably the one described by Jean Dubuffet when he said: “Art does not lie down on the bed that is made for it; it runs away as soon as one says its name; it loves to be incognito. Its best moments are when it forgets what it is called.” In the introduction of my text I was trying to provide a brief history of Abstraction in New York. After few attempts described by my editor as total failures I decided to make it very personal opting for a presentation of my “New York encounters” with the spirit of abstraction.

In doing so I couldn’t help but thinking that Richard Prince decided to end his 2007 retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York with a new body of work appropriating images of Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning. Was Prince trying to appropriate Abstraction through one of its main protagonists? Interestingly enough the term “Appropriation,” which was coined in the 80s to describe the practice of Prince, Sherrie Levine, Louise Lawler, and Sarah Charlesworth among others, has been recently brought up again into the conversation in relationship to artists like Kelley Walker or Ann Craven whose modi operandi are definitely closer to painting than photography.

Before continuing I would like to inform those who might see this tormented relationship between painting and photography just as a “New York affair” that it was 2001 when English artist David Hockney—who is literally obsessed with the relationship between painting and photography—presented 'Secret Knowledge', a television program where he tried to demonstrate that the old masters used dark rooms and concave mirrors, which allowed them to project an image onto the surface of a painting. From a total different position I was impressed by the international scope of the so-called Photo Realism or Hyper Realism while visiting the exhibition 'East of Eden - Photorealism: Versions of Reality' at the Ludwig Múzeum in Budapest.

Nevertheless what makes my schizophrenic stroll—a term associated to Antonin Artaud and then used by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari—quite suitable for New York is probably the connection between photography and abstract painting, a path that I would like to continue through the work of artists as apparently different as Peter Halley and Sarah Morris.

Halley is mostly known for works of art embracing the legacy of abstract geometry in relationship to post-structuralism—Deleuze but also Jean Baudrillard and Michel Foucault—through the minimal representation of prisons and conduits, ideal sites for 'The society of control' (Deleuze again). Here I would like to consider the relationship between this work, which falls into the category of abstract painting, and 'Index Magazine' a publication he started in 1996 with curator Bob Nickas. Beside the obvious connection with Andy Warhol’s 'Interview', it is interesting to note how Halley used the magazine and especially its cover to promote photographers like Wolfgang Tillmans, Terry Richardson, Richard Kern, Tina Barney and Juergen Teller. In a text published in 'Flash Art International' (November-December 2003) Craig Garrett writes: “Magazines still offer a crucial venue for snapshot diarists, not just in fashion but also in the grey area—between fine and commercial art—that has always been unique to photography. In the early nineties Britain’s 'i-D', helped launch the careers of Wolfgang Tillmans and Corinne Day, while in the United States Peter Halley’s 'Index' has been instrumental in promoting the snapshot aesthetic, first with Tillmans and later with Leeta Harding and Ryan McGinley.” Why an abstract painter should be so engaged in the discourse around photography?

Since the very beginning of her career Sarah Morris has worked in a bipolar way, presenting abstract paintings in parallel with films. Allowing myself a digression within the digression, I always thought her practice at large stands to Piet Mondrian’s masterpiece 'Broadway Boogie Woogie' (1942–43) the way Christo’s modus operandi stands to Man Ray’s iconic piece 'L’Enigme d’Isidore Ducasse' (1920-1971). On one hand she presented “metropolitan close-ups,” colorful abstract household gloss paint on canvas which linear motifs can be easily associated to details of cities’ skyscrapers. On the other hand she produced a series of fascinating and almost hypnotic videos devoted to cities like Chicago ('Chicago', 2011), Beijing ('Beijing', 2008), Los Angeles ('Los Angeles', 2004), Miami ('Miami', 2002), Washington DC ('Capital', 2000), Las Vegas ('AM/PM', 1999), and New York ('Midtown', 1998). Morris, who studied Semiotics and Political Philosophy at Brown University where she must have learnt Baudrillard’s book 'America' (1986) by heart—as much as Halley had in mind Baudrillard’s 'Simulacra and Simulation' (1981) when he wrote 'Frank Stella and the Simulacrum' in 1986—is the living confirmation that abstraction and the moving image can be two faces of the same coin. Her work is the legitimate child of a longtime affair between abstract painting and photography.

The aforementioned cases may open several questions—which I will deliberately leave open—regarding the notions of old fashioned words like discipline, medium and technique. Furthermore they challenge the meaning of “abstract representation” in relationship to painting and photography. Speaking of this oxymoron (abstract representation) we should bring once again to the table Mondrain, who thought abstract art was the most “concrete” art that could be.

Jan-Erik Lundström
Posted 16.04.2012 at 16:59

Trojan horses, scandals, et. al.

It is indeed curious and remarkable, yet somehow also reasonable, comprehensible, and not surprising that photography remains the ”primary contemporary vehicle” of global – picture-making and picture-perceiving (not to confuse with image-making sine the photographic act presupposes an external image, an external picture and object, external to the mind, whether on paper, screen, etc.; realizing as I write this parenthesis that this is of course exactly Whitehead’s complaint, referenced by Walead). The example of the reproduced painting is consummate, since also the reproduction of the painting involves a photographic act, equivalent to the reproduced photograph (which, one could claim, is a photograph of the photograph, but where that second-generation step is not, as such, a shift of medium, but a shift of system position.). And as regards the transition into the digital universe, photography has remained the dominant conceptual vehicle tout court of visual communication/cognition regardless of the technology in use.

Photography stretches, not least in its contemporary outfit, to the point of collapse or implosion, the notion or concept of a medium. Its ubiquity makes it difficult to categorize and its sheer quantity seems to demand new tools of analysis or investigation. In parallel with the computer as a super-tool or a meta-instrument, photography is perhaps better understood as a meta-medium (something which I am certainly not the first to suggest).

Equally curious is the fact that at the heart of the intervention of photography into the human world (its human intervention into the human world), as a consequence of its invention/intervention, is an exceptional double-bind, a simultaneous advance and crisis in representation, a fulfilment of certain ambitions or fantasies in that shuffle between art and life, picture and world (poignantly discussed in Aveek's post some weeks ago) and, simultaneously, a collapse and break-down in the assured relation between these two terms, between the representation and the represented, signifier and signified, world and image. Photography induces, more than a fulfilment of realism, a scandalous and irreversible crisis in representation, a concrete and if you allow me, hard-core experience of the chasm (as well as chiasm we might add), of the abyss between language and world, between representation and its subject matter. Joyce´s heroic struggle to uphold this link in his slow magnificent slide from Ulysses to Finnegan’s Wake and its wholeheartedly constructivist methodology. Here is why photography is so resolutely post-Kantian and why realists of all shades must be denied their privileges only to understand that it is only the absolute realism of photography that can be a path towards comprehending that there is no transparency, that it is only the intractable interdependency of representation and its object that sustains our existence (yes, Barthes is talking here from the last pages of La Chambre Claire).

Walead’s questioning of terms like ”category” or ”medium” actualizes a need to think about the nature and power of language, our yet fundamental method, medium and source for understanding and articulating our existence. Perhaps parallel to the crisis in representation, in knowledge as such, that photography induces, as a kind of epistemological Trojan horse, photography is also a source for – or a catalyst – understanding, sensing the limits of words, concepts, language. Rather than trying to answer the question of whether photography is a medium or not, we ought to, perhaps investigate what photography actually does with the concept of a medium. How does photography change our notion of what is a medium and how does it operate (for example in its present challenge through flashing various material states and innumerable distribution systems) within/without the boundaries of how it might be conceived – still – as a medium? In other words, how is it that photography again seems to crush or upset or upturn language, our notions of communication, our paths to Knowledge, or, even, our sense of what constitutes a concept, a term, a word, a medium?

In closing, we then have to ask about the current coincidence of a kind of reactivated, modernist, ban on depiction, as Walead suggests, and the current call for a non-representational theory of photography, picture-making? Are we doing naive realist reruns of the this-is-not-a-pipe type or is it that we are able to truly configure new figures in the sand?

Meanwhile, I can’t wait to follow Walead’s next chapter in the recovery of photography as term, concept, method, medium, system. This is indeed a thriller, is it not?

Jan-Erik Lundström

William Messer
Posted 16.04.2012 at 20:24

More curious to me is that a medium (with cinema and video) "born less than 200 years ago" is expiring so young. But, of course, Hockney's arguments, regardless of whether factual, were obvious. Fetal (pheotal) photography proceeds its birth by countless millennia, at least to cave paintings, which themselves may have been instigated by random projections from pinholes in entrance coverings (some are upside down). Photography merges the longstanding desire for semblance in representation with (and this is what was new) the certainty of trace or deposit of the subject. It was this deposit/trace which caused Barthes to quiver in Camera Lucida. Being able to touch the the embedded light reflecting from the eyes of the adored is no mean thing, and the thing being lost. It is Photography's Wake were are currently experiencing, if not confronting.

I like (even enjoy) much of what Jan-Erik has contributed, flipping the discussion to examining what photography does to the concept of a medium. The flip-side of what Chomsky called "Plato's Problem" of knowledge outstripping experience is one that may apply to photography: that experience actually outstrips knowledge and certainly language's ability to describe and communicate it. Lundström clearly loves language, and the almost photographic relevance of chance associations and meanings perceived. She states categorically that "it is only the intractable interdependency of representation and its object that sustains our existence", but what happens to our existence when that interdependency becomes infinitely tractable? Where do we turn? Soon it may be only the language of photography we have left to comfort us.

Jan-Erik Lundström
Posted 20.04.2012 at 17:02

Following Nicola’s response to Walead, regarding the polysemy of images, I’d prefer to stay within the non-symbolic. Rather than suggesting the multiplication of meaning – suggesting a sort of, I believe, retro-hermeneutics – I prefer, as I read Walead, to link it to a notion of what one could call a renewed ban on depiction, reference, even representation; a kind of - surprising (less than a decade after what was named an explosion of the document) return of modernism’s fear of – or prohibition on representation (most eloquently observed by Max Kozloff once upon a time) if one so wish. More bluntly: The play of the signifier as opposed to the anchor of the signified. Yet I would, simultaneously, suggest that this also might be identified as a sort of field of operation which photography has organized – perhaps performed, or created - within the contemporary art complex, a space of non-depiction, of opacity, of play, of meta-levels, of reflexivity, of metaphor and metonymy friendly co-mingled, of irony and of ”know-how” (this might be properties of its distributive system in Walead’s terminology). All of which takes on further weight considering Messer’s pertinent underlining of the millennia of photographic prehistory (or foetal photography as he terms it). Nonetheless, I would argue that the tremors articulated by Barthes are still available to us. Granted that the implosion of photography into social media has offered a kind of reversal of photography’s temporal arrow, pursuing photographs as speech-acts, conversations in the present, even aimed at the future, rather than memento mori, and, thus far from the kind of Melancholia offered by Barthes. Nonetheless, regardless of storage medium, silver-salt emulsion or photo-electric plate, the veracity of light remains. I am looking at a marked surface struck by light rays reflected from the eyes of my love. Or: We might still found ourselves as tenants under the regime of intractability.

Jörg Scheller
Posted 22.04.2012 at 16:31

Dear Walead Beshty, dear all,

throughout the posts of this blog, a sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit question or problem has recurred: if it is no longer possible to address photography as a "discrete medium", taking into account the much mentioned polysemy, polyfunctionality and the increased embeddedness of images, how can we keep on discussing about "photography" at all? Even this blog is called "an online discourse about photography", thus somehow suggesting that "photography" in singular exists. So on the one hand side, we are still talking about a distinct category while on the other hand side, we are talking about the impossibility of talking about this distinct category. In a way, this is typical of the current situation in the humanities. In Germany, for instance, the young field of studies "Bildwissenschaft" is somewhat reluctant to define what an image actually is, while in the recently emerging "Heavy Metal Studies", scholars tend to stress that, taking into account the plurality of "modes of metal", it is hard to define what is actually to be defined. Nonetheless, normative notions are still required to allow for communication at all. Against this background, isn't it the case that wondering about the "implosion of photography" still presupposes a concept of what has imploded or rather keeps on imploding?
Best wishes from Jörg Scheller, Mira Andres, Sofia Bempeza, Rubén Fructuoso, Claude Gasser, Martin Walther, Mikhail Wassmer, Zurich University of the Arts

Walead Beshty
Posted 23.04.2012 at 09:40

With regard to the question of the medium (for which technological and instrumental factors are central), and how I was approaching what photography means as a category, I’d like to offer the following text I wrote in for the symposium “Is Photography Over?” held at SFMoMA in 2010 (the museum’s prompt in capital letters).


Before one could address the questions above in good faith, one would need a serviceable definition of what “photography” (and here, its hypothetical exemplar, a “photograph”) is. Without veering into convoluted ontology, this “photography”, regardless of what might be argued to fall within its boundaries, seems best described as a type of “medium”, or “an agency or means of doing something”, and in its specific case, “the intervening substance through which impressions are conveyed to the senses or a force acts on objects at a distance”. Defined in this way, a medium is constituted by a dialectic of applied use and technological development, and is further defined by the conventionalizaton of the relationship between the two, a process that occurs over time and is in a state of constant revision. It would follow that a medium is never freed from its use, nor is it freed from its position between some agents in a transaction, and it is always steeped in the inertia of its conventions, for this is how, by analogy, each new relation between shifting technologies and new applications is self-historicizing and legible. This is the unending “crisis” of all media, the struggle between adherence to convention, and new relations between technology and use. This would describe the transformation of a series of relations between technology and use, to the becoming of a “medium”, in short, the institutionalization of these instances of negotiation, which is consummated by the use of its name in an abstract trans-historical sense, as in when its name is invoked in and of itself as a stable entity. The identification of a medium is an act of institutional reification par excellence, in fact, it is the institutional act, that which makes the institution concrete, like air made solid.

The means by which this conventialization is distributed is either practical, such as vocational training or apprenticeships, or disciplinary, i.e. localized within--from the perspective of media--a meta-discourse such as the museum or art history (a hybrid form these is reflected in most art school curricula). But the process of development, and institutionalization mentioned above is internal to the “medium” itself, and it would be appropriate to add that only an outside agent (a disciplinary agent) would be concerned with the nature of one medium’s distinction from other media, and in so doing, is attempting to situate that medium within a larger array which is specific to that institution. In short, a medium is always relational, and the attempts to isolate and treat it as discrete is to institutionalize it, and to further attempt to place it within a larger schema is to institutionalize it a second time, rendering it further abstract. While a medium is always a play between the spectral hold of its name, and the material minutiae of its development, the disciplinary must cling to the spectral alone, and make it tangible. This is always tenuous. So it seems safe to say that when we speak of a “crisis” in the way asserted above, we speak of the trouble in institutionalizing photography within a broader field as a discrete entity, here specifically the field of art, and whether or not this category, in and of itself, is still useful for these purposes.

So we have a question above that tacitly pertains to ontology, that points to the status of “photography’s” being--here of being “over”--and thus, it is not only “photography’s” position within a larger constellation of aesthetic production residing under the umbrella heading “art”, but the entire structure of differential media within the institution of art that is called into question. When we ask “what is at stake in seeing something as a photograph?” we ask that of all media (it would be just as sticky to ask the same of painting or sculpture). In other words, when we ask the value of the term beyond its provisional utility, and moreover, when we ask these questions from the perspective of the maintenance of the disciplinary institution of art (pertaining to taxonomic areas of study, and theoretical objects or objects of discourse) alluding to the need to reevaluate its parameters, we are implicating the categorical systems applied to all art objects, questioning the way medium specificity is applied on an institutional level. “Photography” becomes, in this instance, a way to name this institutional anxiety, and any perceived crisis is really that of the disciplinary structures applied to it. In the case of photography, this difficulty has inspired several admirable attempts at reconciliation which are germane to the current debate, from John Szarkowski’s foundational “The Photographer’s Eye,” to Rosalind Krauss’ “Photography’s Discursive Spaces”, to Peter Galassi’s “Before Photography: Painting and the Invention of Photography”, to the more recent “Photography’s Expanded Field” by George Baker, all of which attempt to negotiate a position for photography within the museum or art history as a discrete and identifiable “medium”, one with a coherent identity, and in so doing, they constitute a defense the institutionalized categorical delimiters of art historians, curators, or critics respectively.

The questions posed for this conference neither relate to practices which we might call photographic, nor do they point to the theorization of those practices, as these practices are all specific sets of relations and do not operate at the level of abstraction. Instead the condition of “crisis” is realized on the level of abstract institutional categories invented to delineate one set of practices from another, a crisis pertaining to whether or not the current structure of disciplines is able to identify and dutifully manage the traditions they are called upon to preserve and maintain; it is about creating a criteria for what is excluded and what is included in the hypothetical warehouse called “photography”. It is less a crisis for the medium, but more so a crisis of the institutionalization of art itself. Actually, it is even more mundane than that, when medium specificity is staged from within academia or museums, it is really a question of paying the bills, of funding lines, departmental autonomy, curriculum, intellectual fiefdoms, library tabs, allotted real estate, and canons wrapped in the guise of a broad philosophical conundrum. When these debates are realized on the level of abstraction, such as “what is photography?” or “Is photography over?”, the details of this bureaucratic topography are glossed over; we are reduced to the intellectual equivalent of theorizing empty filing cabinets, of treating the terminology and categories as fixed and searching for some hidden meaning within them. A more pointed question might be, how is the current means of understanding the institutionalization of these conventions useful for the maintenance of the organizational structure of cultural institutions? For example, why do photography departments exist in institutions along side regional or historical specialties? Or why do we maintain photography departments within art schools, most absurdly graduate art programs, when these professional distinctions barely exist within contemporary art? We could also ask if these departmental divisions continue to serve any purpose, or if they are the institutional equivalent of the appendix, slowly evolving away. Is that what we are worried is “over”? Or, is it possible to leave behind the empty essentialization of categorical delimiters without sacrificing an awareness of historical development? These are not ontological questions, but questions of logistics, of bureaucracies and their historical development, of how the contemporary field is an accumulation of minute negotiations. These are the questions pertaining to the quotidian, and the incremental formulation of history, the same incremental formation implicit within the course of any medium’s, or discourse’s life. This would be a pathway from abstract argumentation to the real political stakes of the production and reception of aesthetics, and more so, a means confront the widespread confusion of a disciplinary reckoning for a crisis in its object of study.

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