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

6 comment(s)
A Friend of Photography
Posted 17.04.2014 at 09:03

Thank you for a wonderful and thoughtful post— there is much to reflect on and consider...

Nils Plath
Posted 17.04.2014 at 12:53

„To someone looking through piles of old letters a stamp that has long been out of circulation on a torn envelope often says more than a reading of dozens of pages. Sometimes you come across them on postcards and are unsure whether you should detach them or keep the card as it is, like a page by an old master that has different but equally precious drawings on both sides.“ The wonderful welcome introductory remarks on “Two Radically Disjunct Approaches” made me think of this entry by Walter Benjamin in his book “One-Way-Street.” As well as of the postcards by Merle Porter, „a one-man postcard production company, producing and distributing millions of cards over a 50 year career“ (http://clui.org/section/a-selection-merle-porter-postcards). On the one side a series of photographic celebrations of the ordinary American landscape in once bright, now fainting colors – coastal highways, farm land, „abandoned buildings, oil fields, small town downtowns,“ plus lots of sky blue. And on the other side this sliver from the sometimes sparklingly enigmatic and yet precisely materialistic argumentative reflections of the famous cultural critic on what was then his world in 1920s-Berlin (His book was adorned by a photo collage by the Russian graphic designer and photographer Sasha Stone: http://bookdesign.wordpress.com/2009/10/23/walter-benjamin-sasha-stone-penguin-classics-a-one-way-street-to-brilliant-design/; for other pictures by S. Stone see: http://www.fulltable.com/VTS/b/berlin/01/x.htm).
They came to me together in my mind. Most certainly not entirely without reason. Maybe because while having the pleasure of reading these promising starting points it felt as if I were receiving a postcard from afar. One of these rectangular pieces of thick paper or thin cardboard intended for writing and mailing, not only I have a fondness for. Postal miniatures with a front and a back side, combining words with (mostly photographic) pictures. Receiving them makes me an addressee who is coming to know that some place else there was something to see and experience. I enjoy reading and looking at them. As a series in which views of the worlds are exhibited.
It was illuminating to me how the two exhibitions considered here for a start were juxtaposed, and how reflections upon identities are being initiated in drawing striking distinctions. Let me admit that for a long time I valued the photographs of the “New Topographics” compiled in 1975 (yet mainly those of Lewis Baltz) as black-and-white counter-images of the advertising glamour shots that had been touting the land of opportunity to my European gaze. In the rigor of their concentration, I saw a favored prompt to extract individual moments from the overwhelming dynamics of a promise called “America,” which had been conveyed to me in flickering and quite colorful images (in film and television). Today, and the instructive comments on Robert Adams' photographs accentuated this for me, something else has also become conspicuous in (especially his) landscape images from that era: a certain sense of cultural pessimism or despair of civilization in view of a nostalgia for a lost Eden. That is what makes them appear so time-bound and dated. And yet so popular in the age of seemingly unlimited technical possibilities when answering the cry for authenticity. I find this argument brought forward very compelling. And in fact quite telling about “our times” with their current modes in search of a lost time for which photographic images are being deployed. By the way, last summer „The Place We Live“ was on display in a place amidst what in the 19-century turned from farmland into one of the centers of industrialization in Central Europe, the Ruhrgebiet (Ruhr distric), still up to this day one of the largest urban agglomerations on the continent. A region for nostalgia for quite some time, too, as depicted by Wim Wender's in his black-and white road movie „Alice in the Cities“ from 1974 (see: http://cinephile.ca/archives/volume-5-no-2-the-scene/alice-in-the-cities-the-uses-of-disorientation/). Wenders sent the protagonist of his film into the Ruhrgebiet after his return from the United States in search of a little girl's grandmother – the only clue to find her being a photograph of the facade of her house (strangely resembling one of the Becher's case studies). In this former land of steal and coal now turning more and more into a large scale landscape park, the Josef Albers museum in Bottrop hosted the exhibit with Adam's landscape photographs, placing them into an ongoing series of shows that promote the value of the supposedly time-transcending quality in (mostly) photographic works of art. Josef Albers place of birth is no more than forty miles from Düsseldorf or Cologne where Sigmar Polke lived and worked. But the cities on the Rhine and the town in the industrial zone are worlds apart. Differences in mentalities, a social and economical gradient, and divided histories draw the borders. Whereas Gerhard Richter (the one-man Düsseldorf school) is known to have painted often from photographs, to bring history into the present of his pictures, the works of the alchemist Sigmar Polke are exhuberant and yet precise material experiments that put all conventional ways of seeing and methodologies of understanding to the test. As accurately described above, they incorporate the imagery of photographic reproductions and use their specific – aesthetic as well as material – traits for their pictorial inventions. In addition they possess what other export hits of German art are lacking when displaying their teutonic gravity and depth: a good sense of non-seriousness. Greatly appreciated, wherever paired with a display of caustic wit in approaching ideologies, surfaces, and composite materials alike. This being said, it is in fact not without a nicely fitting irony to juxtapose views on this inventive wisecracker from the land of the thinkers of Ontology (Kant, Hegel, Heidegger...) with those on a photographer from the land of the superficies who evidently longs to express transcendency and the sublime in his highly stylized works of art.
Allow me only one question, after thanking you for the inspiring thoughts on much more than just Adams and Polke: Can one really speak so fundamentally of the „limits of photographic aestheticism in its formalist incarnations?“ Isn't it that sometimes the most rigid examples of formalism provide the much needed scope for new views and open up the room to experiments? Don't we often find ourselves (“whoever we are” – see the previous conversations with François Brunet on the topic) surprised by formalist reflexions that playfully bend the standards that would otherwise continue to rule the modes of image production? Just to name two prominent examples (one German and one American, of course): the „Bilderhefte“ by Hans-Peter Feldmann, also from Düsseldorf („Picture Books,“ 1968–74; http://frieze-magazin.de/archiv/features/euphorie-der-bilder/?lang=en), and the early photo books by one of the portrayers of the capital of Sunshine & Noir, Ed Ruscha (see for instance his „Thirty-four Parking Lots in Los Angeles,“ http://patrickpainter.com/editions/artists/Ruscha_Ed/parkinglots.html; Reyner Banham used photographs from this series as illustrations in his case study book „Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies“ (1971) and thus extracted them from the realm of art photography soon after they were made).

Abigail Solomon-Godeau
Posted 18.04.2014 at 20:00

Thank you so much for your thoughtful remarks to my blog. It's interesting that you bring Edward Ruscha, and, for that matter, Feldmann, into the discussion because I would also place them both at the opposite pole of Robert Adams. Who, let us not forget, in his 1981 book Beauty in Photography: In Defense of Traditional Values, puts the word "beauty" in upper case, never mind his defense of "traditional values." I do not myself see how a particular paradigm of art photography that privileges either has now what in show business is called "legs." I fail to see how either of these artists can be seen as avatars of photographic aestheticism, much less formalism. But perhaps I am missing your point, and if so, please forgive me.

François Brunet
Posted 20.04.2014 at 23:21

@Nils (and Abigail of course). I am glad to see the question of "we" picked up again here, albeit by way of Robert Adams. Though Abigail is right to question the what of "photography" today, the history of this thing that has been called photography — the way this history has been made possible as a narrative — has very much revolved, I think, around the notion of collectivities vs individualities, and of course, in certain dominant aestheticizing language games, the excision of individualities out of/against collectives. Robert Adams, in this sense, is an interesting example, because "beauty" and "traditional values" and "the place we live in" refer to outdated collectives that he somehow claims to be an isolated heir to.

Nils Plath
Posted 21.04.2014 at 14:25

Thanks for your reply! I completely agree with you. When pondering what to make of Adams photographic aetheticism in the context of that time with its desparate and ideological longing for "traditional values" (thanks for the additional hint to "Beauty!") I must have overlook the conditional clause of your expression I quoted, and therefore tried a bit too hard to come up with a defense of (certain forms) of formalistic works (not formalism). Well, as you rightfully remarked I indeed brought up Ruscha and Feldmann as counterpoints to the aestheticism seen in Adams works; and as well as examples for a playful and yet at the same time very reflexive mode of photographic practice with a very highly formalistic edge.

Chuck Mobley
Posted 22.04.2014 at 22:09

If the view from the Ivory Tower appears regressive comrade Abigail, you’ll perhaps be unsurprised to learn that it’s even grimmer out here “on-the-ground,” in the provinces as it were. It seems that the pendulum in the so-called “photography world” has swung into an anti-intellectual, populist realm, so much so that there isn’t anything remotely resembling serious discourse and few, if any, display interest in exploring the world of ideas. It’s even worse in the cacophonic echo chamber of the Internet, the level of dialog barely rises above the exclamatory Facebook and/or Instagram post: “Damn, I just love photography!” When the conversation does get serious it’s often by way of a nauseating appeal to the emotional, with discussion of the photographic object’s “aura” and how it “speaks to” a hypothetical viewer. (Which, oddly, makes viewing photography analogous to an acid trip, as photographs don’t have tongues enabling them to speak and only have auras if one is under-the-influence or clairvoyant.) Similarly, the rhetoric may focus on aesthetics and, for those with highly developed critical thinking skills, this can be considered the most awkward approach. (Again, metaphorically speaking, there are many attractive people with whom presumably most of us would like to spend an evening, but how many of those attractive people do we want to wake up beside the next day and have coffee? The wisest know that beauty fades, stupid is forever.) Generation gap, be damned. It’s enough to make even an autodidact flush with embarrassment and wax nostalgic for the tropes of “formalist modernism (or modernist formalism).”

In an increasingly dematerialized “online world,” the photographic medium has (seemingly) finally been democratized in a way that is somewhat akin to our relationship to Top 40 radio (if such a thing still exists), movies, and TV. In other words, anyone can now be a “photographer,” everyone has an opinion about “photography” (and an outlet for it), and all of this has “value.” (Unfortunately, when it comes to the field of cultural production, namely music, television, film, and photography, everyone seems to have an opinion, however ill informed or uninteresting. In some sense this might seem logical as we’ve listened to music, watched television, gone to the cinema, photographed, and been photographed all of our lives. Yet most of us have also grown up with indoor plumbing and electricity, but who among us has any strong opinions about either? When one or both stop working, we will set aside any anti-elitis leveling, phone a professional and, at best, grouse about the cost and inconvenience.) Hence, the residual gatekeepers of the old meritocracy have (ostensibly) been successfully pushed aside and the emergent realm of both online exhibitions and print-on-demand or vanity press publication (the book form, ironically, also residual media) can now be considered avenues for legitimizing a photographer and her work. (And, because of this, I would argue that it is the photo book that is blindingly fetishized even more than analog technologies by contemporary photographers.)

Yet the dominant system of the retrospective exhibition model still remains to confer true legitimacy by providing entre into the art historical canon. The caveat, and of course irony, to Raymond Williams’ Marxist theoretical logic of the dominant, emergent, and residual that I employ here, is that there never really was a meritocracy in the "world of photography” (“fine art” or otherwise). Like America’s current political economic system, it remains what it has always been: a plutocracy. Those that can successfully navigate an artistic practice through various commercial strata are likely to one day be rewarded with the “major museum” retrospective (and accompanying residual media catalogue); which many would still consider the ultimate recognition for and validation of one’s professional photographic career. And, as cynical as it sounds, it must be said: if one is lucky enough to be an apolitical, white, heteronormative, cisgendered male producing work that appeals to middle-aged (and older), middle- and upper-middle-class, white, heteronormative, cisgendered males who make up the majority of the collecting (and curatorial and scholarly) demographic then the privileged path is sure to be that much smoother.

The emergent online outlets (both nonprofit and commercial and sometimes commercial masquerading as nonprofit) largely function as PR, branding, and/or marketing and communications endeavors supported by free original (or aggregated/recycled) content. Despite this so-called democratization with its “free flow” of images and “information,” one cannot live on online recognition alone. Objects are still produced with the hope of garnering sales income and, hence, the fetishized “artisanal modes” of production and engagement (and sometimes language) are often deployed. (Even a drowning man will clutch at straws.) It is important to note that the marketing term “artisanal” has been branded onto virtually every realm of culture, including the culinary and domestic arts. By way of example, in my (mercifully slowly) gentrifying San Francisco neighborhood (the Tenderloin), tony bars have opened serving “artisanal cocktails.” The prices of which are so high, one is left wondering if even the ice cubes, nostalgically hand chipped with an ice pick from a large block of ice, might also be considered “artisanal” in order to justify the price. Perhaps the same could be said for the level art production driven by commercial aspirations within the “fine art photography world.”

To be fair, most who studied "fine art photography" in the middle part of the 20th century (and regrettably even later) in America, either as a practice or historically, are likely not the beneficiaries of an education that included the language and discourse of critical theory that inform most critiques of contemporary art. These include, but are not limited to, literary, feminist, queer, and Marxist economic and political theory, as well as a cornucopia of other areas of academic study such as psychoanalysis, linguistics, anthropology, sociology, French and German philosophy (to list just a few examples). Therefore, the lingering effects of a dated, (some might say dogmatic and fastidious) formalist approach still linger and the medium is most often the only message to convey where photography is concerned. That is to say, the formal qualities of a photographic print and/or its emotional impact on an imaginary viewer are often addressed as the key elements for justification as "art" worthy of (a museum’s) retrospective attention that follows speculative investment (by collectors). (At least this remains the case for those self-identified as “photographers” and whose careers remain situated within the arena of “fine art photography” and medium specific institutions and institutional departments.)

To generalize further, many who studied photographic practice likely endured a rigorous technical training that included composition, lighting (both natural and studio), large, medium, and small format cameras, and darkroom developing and printing. From this training one also probably developed or adopted a vocabulary (and perhaps artistic approach or ideology) reflective of the modernist period in which the idea of what constitutes "fine art photography" was cemented. Given this kind of investment of time and energy (and, not least of which, money), it's not hard to imagine that one might be disinclined to rebel against one's peers and training and feel free to experiment or explore ideas across media; likewise, the photo-centric institution’s curator’s potential reluctance to unleash the lexicon of postmodernist critical theory on audiences (and patrons) with varying levels of expertise and education.

Nonetheless, as we move past modernity and continue muddling through postmodernity, it is important that “alternative” photographic methods and strategies not be fetishistically sentimentalized anymore than formal approaches. In the end, it is ideas that power intellectual and creative advancement (never mind the machinations of conferring canonical authentication). More important is recognition of the fact that we operate and engage within a system called capitalism and that is what truly dominates everything—within and without the esoteric area of cultural production.

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