1. Two Radically Disjunct Approaches
Published: 15.04.2014
in the series Abigail Solomon-Godeau
Previous Next

This is the first of five blogs I will be writing for the Fotomuseum Winterthur and, as it happens, the first I have ever written. But because almost everything I write is done on commission, the daunting freedom provided by this kind of blog (“write anything on photography”) is more intimidating than exhilarating. Given such freewheeling editorial liberty, I had to decide whether to orient this first blog to the “general,” or to the “particular.” Both approaches have their problems. As soon as photography is invoked as a generality, that is, as an abstraction (as though its technologies, uses, and practices could be considered one thing), differences are flattened, history disappears, context vanishes. But to write about a particular photographer, body of work, or specific exhibition, seemed too close generically to a journalistic review and a blog need not simply ape the conventional form of arts journalism. Thus, at least for this, my blog debut, I thought I might reflect on a selection of the exhibitions (i.e., the particular) viewed in the past couple of weeks and try to distill, or extract, something that might count as some valid generalities about photographic practice and photographic discourse in their current manifestations.

In no particular order these exhibitions were America Latina 1960-2013: Photographs, at the Fondation Cartier; Esther Ferrer: Face B. Image/Autoportrait at the Mac/Val; and Robert Adams, The Place We Live, at the Musée Jeu de Paume, Paris. In New York City, there was a group show at Leslie Tonkonow, (all women photographers: Tracey Baran, Nikki S. Lee, Malerie Marder, and Laural Nadadate); Juan Manuel Echavarria: Silencios at Jose Beinvenu, Sarah Jones at Anton Kern Gallery; Collier Schorr 8 Women at 303 Gallery; a group show entitled Reframing History at the Galerie Lelong, and the press opening of a very large retrospective of Sigmar Polke, Alibis, at the N.Y. Museum of Modern Art.

Somewhat serendipitously, this entirely disparate array of photographers, artists and exhibitions provides certain chronological and stylistic markers, encompasses certain of the ruptures, transformations and discontinuities that have characterized photographic use since the 1960s, and hardly least, gives some indication of the way a boundless and voracious art market and its various institutions play a not-so-subtle role in determining not just what we see, but how they shape photographic production itself. Equally important, they remind us that something called “photography,” a term that once simply designated a particular medium, a picture-making technology employed for various purposes, has no longer has any descriptive, much less epistemological coherence, and is virtually useless as a defining category for much of contemporary art. 1In the field of cultural production this has many ramifications. Among them, the plight (recognized or not) of those institutions, university departments, educational programs and exhibition spaces that have historically defined themselves as medium specific. Obviously, the Fotomuseum is one such example. I will consider these issues in a future blog.

In this first blog, I want to consider the two of the most contrasting bodies of work. For me, they epitomize a polarity between the aesthetics of a photographic modernism whose durability owes something to nostalgia, and a contemporaneous practice that is now associated with postmodernism, or better, postmodernity. I refer here to the simultaneous exhibitions of Robert Adams’ The Place We Live, at the Musée Jeu de Paume, Paris and Alibis, the Sigmar Polke retrospective at the New York Museum of Modern Art. That the German artist (1941-2010) and the American art photographer (b. 1937) are near-exact contemporaries is somehow unexpected, but serves to accentuate what separates photographic modernism from its successors. But it also prompts a reading of their work that could be called a tale of two radically disjunct approaches to the photographic medium and two equally contrasting notions of the politics of artmaking. This is not to dismiss the no-less important distinctions in national identity and the consequent determinations of history on artistic production, nor the personal preoccupations of each. That said, In the case of Polke, photographic processes, and even photographic imagery were only one element in a phantasmagoria of media, a hybridized constellation of paint, photography, film, video, mass culture, chemical mixtures (many of which in the form of controlled substances he consumed in quantity), pigments, dyes, chemistry, snail slime, all deployed in surprising ways. (One of his heroically scaled watchtowers is printed on bubble wrap). But it was the period of his work under the aegis of Capitalist Realism where his use of photography provides the starkest possible contrast with the formalist modernism (or modernist formalism) that informs Adams’ career.2The term derives from the 1963 exhibition Demonstration for Capitalist Realism in Dusseldorf, featuring the artists Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Wolf Vostell and Konrad Lueg. For if a certain tradition of black and white art photography defined itself by its formal vigor, it’s “fidelity” and adherence to the medium’s norms, (indeed the very acceptance of the notion of photographic norms), what we have come to consider grosso modo as postmodernist art constitutes a decisive break with such orthodoxies and protocols. Which is only to say that the mass-media derived works of Polke, especially those composed of hand painted dots mimicking the half-tone dot matrix formerly used in the newspaper reproduction of photographs, represents a programmatic embrace of impurity, heterogeneity iconographic promiscuity, and the visual cacophony that is the condition of mass culture, mass consumption and the society of the spectacle.

Sigmar Polke, Raster Drawing (Portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald) 1963, Poster paint and pencil on paper, 94.8 × 69.8 cm, Private Collection, Photo: Wolfgang Morell, Bonn, © 2014 Estate of Sigmar Polke/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Like his cohort Gerhard Richter, the handmade painterly mark becomes itself subordinated to the mass cultural image, which is made strange (or given new meaning) by the act of selection and montage rather than the act of invention. In this respect, Polke’s art is far more closely allied to the ready-made than with photography, but unlike his American Pop Art contemporaries, the appropriation of mass media—especially advertising and pornographic imagery—was anything but celebratory. On the contrary, the mordant view of the “New Germany,” and its rhapsodic embrace of commodity culture (and commodified eroticism) that characterized Capitalist Realism was itself inseparable from a critical discourse.

Sigmar Polke, Guardian of the Threshold, 2003

To enter the immaculately tasteful photographic world of The Place We Live is truly to encounter a parallel photographic universe. Leaving aside the humanist piety of the title (who are “We?”), Adams’ show, organized by the Yale University Art Gallery, has been a critical and popular success. Adams first achieved significant critical recognition under the banner of the so-called New Topographics, featuring ten other photographers, working in black and white, often with view cameras, all American with the exception of the Bechers. This in turns suggests the role of nostalgia in the critical reception of Adams’ photographs, insofar as the epistemic rupture constituted by the increasing dominance of digital technologies (in all aspects of photographic production) creates the illusion of the auratic in black and white analogue imagery. In this respect, we might note the increasing deployment of artisanal modes of photographic production, such the fetishizing of older apparatuses (e.g., view cameras).3The flip side of this fetishism of residual technologies might be considered as the fetishism of digital grandiosity, as with Andreas Gursky for whom even the staged spectacles of North Korea are grist for artistic statement. Departing from the previously privileged art photographic genre that I refer to as “Beautiful Nature” photography, this generation of art photographers retained the generic category of “landscape,” although their photographs were more accurately to do with environment (i.e., the built, despoiled, industrial or suburban terrain). Subsequently, Adams went on to photograph the suburbanization of the American west and various environmental depredations. The photograph used for the catalogue cover and publicity for the exhibition is emblematic of this particular form of representation in art photography pur et dur.

Robert Adams, Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1968, Gelatin silver print, 15.1 x 15.2 cm, Yale University Art Gallery, Purchased with a gift from Saundra B. Lane, a grant from the Trellis Fund, and the Janet and Simeon Braguin Fund

Carefully framed, starkly rendered, impeccably printed, the isolated figure seen through the window of the tract house performs the self-referential trope so common in modernist photography (cf., the window as photograph, the picture within the picture, etc.). Similarly, the evocation of the bleakness, anomie, and cheap architecture of l’Amérique profonde pretends to a kind of cultural critique whose superficiality is usefully contrasted with, for example, Dan Graham’s 1965 Homes for America. Where Adams depicts the suburban landscape in the language of [photographic] art, Graham employed the cheapest of color prints, the most blunt and artless framing, and used as his “support,” the pages of a magazine. And, not least, included a textual element. Adams, however, is a photographer who truly believes in a kind of theology of the image, such that to photographically represent something is thought to automatically convey some (well-)intended meaning. Thus, to take pictures of deforestation is imagined to be a brief for ecological responsibility. Nowhere is this attitude better illustrated than in his 1981 series Our Lives and Our Children (who is “Our”?) in which white Coloradans—with children—photographed in a parking lot of a mall, are meant as a protest against the nearby presence of the dangerous, accident-prone, and ultimately cashiered Rocky Flats Plant—a nuclear production station whose site is still contaminated.

The issue here is not to do with the good faith of Robert Adams either politically or environmentally, but rather with the limits of photographic aestheticism in its formalist incarnations. Be that as it may, when mapping the territory of contemporary art in which something called “photography” is increasingly ubiquitous, we might wish to consider how something called the politics of representation is, or is not, should be or should not be, a determination in how we approach it.

Cancel reply