Why Art Photography?
Art Photography is both desired and an object of hostility. Lucy Soutter asks where this ambivalence comes from and why we might value the photographs we see in galleries.
by Lucy Soutter
What is the difference between an art photograph and a designer handbag? I pose this rhetorical question to my photography students from time to time. It's a crude provocation, but invariably leads to a productive discussion. The room polarises sharply. Knee-jerk, common-sense-based responses gradually unfold into more complex positions. The students fall into roughly four different camps on the relationship of photography to commercial culture. With the fervency of mid-20th century modernists, some argue for the aesthetic, expressive and craft value of photography; they see the mass-produced handbag as a different category of object. Others occupy a cynical, even Baudrillardian position. They feel that contemporary art and fashion are both capitalist conspiracies, covering up a central bankruptcy in our culture. A third group embodies a critical realist stance. They argue that photography's function is to tell important social truths. These truths, they feel, are too easily obscured in an art context, with the art photograph reduced to the superficial commodity status of the handbag. There tends to be a small (well-dressed) group who believe that the commercial fashion industry makes an important contribution to individuals' identity formation via personal style. These students defend the handbag and may even prefer it to the photograph, unless the photograph is also concerned with design and visual self-expression.
The handbag question, as we could call it, helps students to articulate their own relationship to photography as art. For some of them, this may be the moment that they begin to identify themselves as art photographers or artists using photography (and to wrestle with the semantic confusion of these interlocking terms). For others it is a defining moment of rejection, in which they choose to distance themselves from the use of photography within the institutional settings of art. From an educational standpoint, one of the reasons I pose the question is to make my own position clear, so as not to merely sweep the students along in my own personal net of taste and ideology. Yes, I am a believer in art photography - but it's not a matter of blind faith.
If art photography has value in our culture beyond its market price, what might that value be? Do we believe that there is 'work' to be done by photographs within an art context? Is such work expressive, critical, or something else? And how do photographs go about doing such work? This essay is a brief status report on the relationship between the terms art and photography. It explores some of the different positions that currently have a stake in the matter. Issues raised by the handbag question - market forces, aesthetics and desire - will all play into my account. Along the way I will also discuss the ongoing tension between modern and postmodern positions, both still prevalent, though often taken for granted or repressed.
To its detractors, art photography is elitist, pretentious, irrelevant, self-indulgent and even misleading - a kind of distortion of photography's proper function as a vernacular democratic medium. These accusations sometimes cross over and attach themselves, ad hominem, to the photographer, critic or art historian who takes up the art photography torch. The opponents of photography as an art form come from a number of different constituencies. Although the more intellectual detractors would distance themselves from the philistine view that photography is too easy and direct to be used for artistic purposes, the more subtle arguments against art photography still rest on a commitment to photography's relationship to reality. At stake are fundamental questions about what photography is, what it ought to be doing, and how it ought to be disseminated and received.
Since the mid-19th century, and the earliest attempts to articulate an aesthetics for photography as an art form, the field has been a specialist area, with its own vocabulary and ideas, drawing on various disciplines including academic painting, avant-garde theory and optics. The specialized nature of art photography is at odds with the ubiquity of the medium as a whole. One of the criticisms of an art historical approach to photography is that it displaces and distorts photographs made for non-art reasons - the vast majority of photographs in existence. Drawing on social history, cultural studies and visual studies, both Christopher Phillips and Geoffrey Batchen have described the violence done to the meaning of anonymous and/or vernacular images when they are shoe-horned into elite museum collections such as that of The Museum of Modern Art, and formalist histories such as Beaumont Newhall's. Such images, they argue convincingly, benefit from being studied from a more heterogeneous, inter-disciplinary point of view. Yet for photographs made with an art orientation, an art historical approach can provide layers of context and meaning.
Contemporary art photography has a number of tangled strands that are difficult to tease apart, and often overlap in the work of a single photographer. One of the most influential has been formalist, and engaged with the modernist history of photography. MoMA curator John Szarkowski had a significant role to play in shaping this tradition, tracing a lineage from Paul Strand and Walker Evans to Lee Friedlander and William Eggleston. While all of these photographers recorded elements of everyday experience, the work has been valued primarily for its formal innovation (different ways of arranging the elements of the picture) and singular, idiosyncratic vision. Alex Soth could be seen as carrying this torch. Another strand of art photography goes back to surrealism, and images that are staged, manipulated or loaded with metaphorical import. Joel-Peter Witkin falls into this category, as do Loretta Lux and Anna Gaskell. A third strand of work aspires to transcend the specialist context of photography and be taken seriously within a broader contemporary art arena (and a higher-priced contemporary art market). With its academic critical framework, work by artists such as Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth or Thomas Demand makes more exalted claims to historical and political relevance. As I will discuss in further detail, this work is dominated by a large-format deadpan aesthetic. The different kinds of art photography are categorised partly by the way they look, and also by the constantly shifting ways they are framed by language and institutions.
Fine art photography - that is work with a more formalist, modernist orientation - tends to circulate in specialist photography galleries and fairs. Yet the reception of photographic work is just as important as its appearance or subject matter in determining how it will be contextualised. A successful photographer who accrues critical attention and market value may graduate from an art photography context to the institutions that exchange and promote photography within contemporary art. There is certainly overlap between the worlds, but it would be rare, for example, to see a Gursky for sale at Photo-London, or conversely to see a Loretta Lux at the Frieze Fair.
Whether art photographers, or contemporary artists using photography, both sets of practitioners are committed to photography as a serious field of enquiry, full of visual and intellectual satisfactions (in this piece I leave aside artists who only occasionally pick up a camera or use an appropriated photograph). They are united in regarding photography as a medium that is tied to the world, but flexible in its relationship to appearances, and independent in its production of meaning.
Some of the most passionate defences of art photography are made by and on behalf of practitioners. Bob Hirsch's 1999 history of photography, entitled Seizing the Light tells the story from a maker's point of view. Artist and curator Hirsch is interested in describing images, but he is not merely re-telling Beaumont Newhall's formalist, genius-centred version of events. Photography itself becomes a protagonist, with its aesthetic value, craft value, visual and intellectual pleasures made available to a reader who is invited implicitly to add to and participate in this history. Hirsch is deeply skeptical of postmodern theories, in part because he reads them as iconophobic and anti-photographic. Yet he is not anti-intellectual; he places photography against a backdrop of 19th and 20th century intellectual history, pointing out that photography has been repeatedly allied with positivist and realist agendas, at the expense of the metaphysical idealism and expressionism found in the contemporary work that he champions.
The sense of being inducted into the traditions of an art is even stronger in Christopher James' The Book of Alternative Photographic Processes, soon to be reprinted in expanded form. This is an inspirational how-to book, detailing dozens of processes, with sections of technical, art historical and biographical information about photographers provided in the interests of informing and empowering the aspiring photographer. The kinds of photographic handwork demonstrated in James' book might be seen as regressive, a head-in-the-sand refusal to engage with contemporary visual culture. Alternatively, the celebration of photographic craft could be read as a resistance to the spectacularisation of contemporary art, and as a holding fast to photography's amateur (i.e. done for love) roots. James hearkens back to the strand of photographic modernism that celebrated photography's relationship to light, and its ability to defamiliarise and create new realities, rather than slavishly imitate 'reality'.
For those engaged in the doing, art photography is a subject area with rich internal dialogues and a continuing engagement with traditions. Hirsch and James as writers and teachers on the practitioner side do not judge the motivations that might lead to the making of particular kinds of image. Photographs may highlight fleeting moments, reveal hidden realities, challenge assumptions, transgress norms (all classic modernist drives) but for them, a creative engagement with materials and form is itself an acceptable motivation, as is a traditional urge to self-expression. They do not see themselves as elitists competing with, co-opting or excluding non-art photographs, but as establishing an inclusive domain of practice. They do not defend galleries, collectors or institutions, neither do they praise them; the economic critique of art is held to one side.
Critic and curator David Hickey occupies a related position. Writing about a range of historical and contemporary art in The Invisible Dragon, Hickey argues that academic language excludes audiences, and that critics have insinuated themselves into the triangle of artist, artwork and viewer. He likes to place himself on the side of the 'beholder,' aiming his writing at the curious but not necessarily trained reader/viewer. He argues that the viewer has been badly treated by contemporary critics, and that the age-old desire for visual pleasure should not be dismissed as conservative or as collapsing straight into the logic of the market. There is also space within Hickey's scheme for art to be subversive; he describes the rhetorical triumph of Robert Mapplethorpe's exquisitely beautiful photographs of gay sex acts, images whose persuasive power was amply demonstrated by the conservative backlash that they generated.
Hirsch, James and Hickey provide arguments that support photography from a standpoint of art-for-art's-sake. The artists and art historians who developed theories of postmodernism in the visual arts had a totally different logic for valuing photography as art. These writers, including Craig Owens, Rosalind Krauss and Abigail Solomon-Godeau, were not interested in photography as a medium carrying its own traditions as an art form - quite the contrary. Rejecting traditional fine art photography aesthetics, they embraced photography as an anti-aesthetic form, paradoxically making it the centre of a new model of art. As these writers understood it, the crucial task of art in the moment was to reflect back on the way that images make meaning. As Victor Burgin put it in his 1977 article, 'Looking at Photographs': "...the photograph is a place of work, a structured and structuring space within which the reader deploys, and is deployed by, what codes he or she is familiar with in order to make sense."
Photography, following its self-conscious uses by conceptual artists in the 1960s and 70s, was seen as a perfect medium for enacting postmodern critiques of representation. Race, gender, sexuality, consumerism and various other cultural constructs came under scrutiny as part of this project. Work made with these ideas in mind can be powerful, not least for students who aspire to be image makers. I regularly witness the 'Barbara Kruger effect,' in which individuals discover the artist's work for the first time, embrace it enthusiastically, and go on to develop a more active, combative relationship to official and commercial culture.
Postmodern theories brought a new level of seriousness and academicism to the study of photography. There was also a potential playfulness brought to work in the postmodern embrace of eclectic styles and genres, and in the transgressive shock of appropriation. For the first time large, colourful, and visually dramatic (and expensively framed) photography was for sale in art galleries. The prices for photography rose exponentially. At the same time there was a puritanism to postmodernism, a purging of the modernist values of originality and authenticity, accompanied by a rejection of preciousness, craft, and markers of personal expression. Academic photography programmes can still be categorized by the degree to which they embrace this postmodern model of photography-as-art, or continue to tolerate modernist values and aspirations. Photography students on their individual journeys of discovery are often baffled as they hit the invisible postmodern barrier. Some are disappointed when they discover that the subjective, expressive urges that brought them to photography in the first place are considered highly problematic within contemporary photographic practice.
Not all photography as art made since the 1980s has been anti-photographic or anti-subjective. At the same time as Richard Prince and Sherrie Levine made use of appropriation, other practitioners, less resistant to the label 'photographer' were making work that explored issues around representation while still engaging with and even developing photographic aesthetics. Artists like Carrie Mae Weems and Joy Gregory actively mobilised the aesthetic of cyanotypes and platinum prints. Addressing issues of cultural identity and history, they took advantage of the lyrical potential of alternative processes to heighten their critique of the representational status quo. Nan Goldin and Andres Serrano, among others, forged a new aesthetics for large-scale colour photography, using large grain and large areas of shiny darkness within the colour photograph in unforeseen ways, underpinning confessional or shock-based content that transgressed cultural norms. Jeff Wall pioneered a new form within photography-as-art - the lightbox - to heighten the visual appeal of his large staged tableaux. This commercial aesthetic could not be more different from the subtle pleasures of the traditional modernist silver print, yet the work imagines a new field of operation for photography. On the postmodern side, Wall is interested in all the ways that meaning can be constructed and communicated within photographs; he is also very much invested in the making of pictures. His conceptual framework for staging the photographs in relation to painting, social history and critical theory gives him permission to raise the production values of the work while still projecting a sense of seriousness and engagement.
The model of art photography I have set up is very western, and operates on a New York-London-Düsseldorf axis. Photographic aesthetics read differently depending on their cultural context. In Eastern Europe under communism, for example, a melancholic mode of black and white photography was coded as a form of resistance against an official aesthetic of socialist realism. Czech photographers like Jan Svoboda and Peter Zupnik worked this way, drawing on both conceptual art and surrealism. Contemporary Czech photographers like Marketa Othova might draw on these precedents, and the style of her work would become difficult to read for viewers unfamiliar with a Czech context. In Japan, Iran, or any number of other specific cultural contexts, photographic aesthetics have a life of their own. A mode of art photography that seems culturally exhausted in one place or at one moment may provide a unique way of communicating in another.
The anti-subjective tendency of postmodern photography continues in the prevalent mode of photography as art in Europe and America. This large-scale, sharp-focus colour work is both immediately accessible - what you see is what you get - and intensely academic, in that its layers of meaning cannot be accessed without insider knowledge about both the specific project and contemporary photography as a field of inquiry. This work trades on a central confusion; its deadpan sharp-all-over aesthetic appears to overlap significantly with documentary photography. And indeed, much of this contemporary photographic art shares with documentary an urge to describe the visual world. While traditional documentary photography seeks to educate, agitate, activate its audiences, much of this art-based work is conceived as a spur to contemplation. Although subject matter is usually apparent in the images, the meaning of the work is frequently ambiguous. While modernist works were proudly autonomous, this work is contingent on the language that circulates loosely around it: artist's statements, press releases, reviews and catalogue essays.
The work of Bernd and Hilla Becher is often cited as foundational for contemporary document-based photographic art, and the connection is fruitful. The Becher's work has a dual identity in which it has the appearance of a rational inquiry, a masterful study of industrial structures. Yet at the same time, the logic for approaching the project in this particular way is not manifest, and the efforts gone through to achieve many of the images are superhuman (ask yourself: where is the camera located to achieve these evenly lit vistas of god-like objectivity?). The gridded results are visually satisfying because they have the visual presence and anti-subjective geometry of minimalist sculpture. Their appeal is in their resistance to subjectivity, rather than in any true embrace of objectivity. Although one might imagine contexts in which historians would study these documents for knowledge of a lost industrial age, for the majority of viewers the works are supremely anti-functional.
Jean-François Chevrier has written productively on the rise of the document in contemporary photographic art. In the 2006 exhibition catalogue Click Double Click, he describes the 'assiduous regulation of context' necessary in order for photographic documents to transcend the specifics of their making and generate a wealth of interpretations for diverse audiences. He argues that it is in this 'transcultural permanence' that effective work exceeds the limitations of its original context to gain lasting value as art.
Photographs with documentary content but limited documentary function seems pointless - decadent even - to those who are committed to traditional photojournalism. But to judge such work against the standards of social documentary is to miss the point. Simon Norfolk and Luc Delahaye both draw on their experience as photojournalists to produce large-scale images of the aftermath of war. The photographs have some documentary status, as everything depicted is actual (if somewhat rearranged). Yet the images are severed from a documentary function by their painterly aesthetic and their framing within an art context. The gallery images tell us little about the mechanics or ethics of contemporary war, but a good deal about the representation and assimilation of the image of war. Rather than a polemic, they offer an aestheticised space to pause and consider.
Some art historicans and critics argue that it is in working out what is at stake, in negotiating the terms and terrain of the art debate, that art does its cultural work. Art may not bring about revolution, but there may still be some worth in the notion of avant-garde activity. In his 1996 book Modern Art in the Common Culture, Thomas Crow admits that the radical ambitions of the artistic avant-garde are never fully realised: 'Culture under conditions of developed capitalism displays both moments of negation and an ultimately overwhelming tendency toward accommodation.' For Crow, art's ongoing value lies in the way it struggles to maintain an independent identity for itself, even as it is constantly swallowed up by the market. For art is not addressed to the market, but to audiences, who are diverse and constantly changing. On the one hand, the discourse about art is ever-more abstract and specialised, on the other, contemporary art and photography exhibitions attract ever-larger new audiences.
This paradox lies at the heart of the work of writers such as Nicholas Bourriaud, whose Relational Aesthetics (1996) is designed to revitalise and redefine art in relation to social situations rather than static objects or images. Photography has a role to play too in such works. An artist like Phil Collins creates complex social situations within an art context, following on from performance works of the 1970s and institutional critiques of the 1990s to use photography as a means of documentation and dissemination. South African artist Robin Rhode uses photography to record people on the street in interaction with objects both real and drawn. His serial stagings have some of the narrative appeal of Duane Michals, but with a more pointed social and political edge. Such works use photography as part of a broader practice that aspires to be global, vernacular, tied to life and attuned to reception as much as to itself. In the brief moments that it seems to work, this model offers a new dynamism to photography as art, though of course photography is never really the point. Relational aesthetics focuses on the situation and social exchange rather than the medium. And indeed a photographic document of a relational piece can be all too easily decontextualised, losing its ability to reflect back on human culture or behaviour, and becoming just another picture.
In his 1985 book, Patterns of Intention, art historian Michael Baxendall provides an extremely eloquent rebuttal to the over-simplified economic analysis of art. I quote at length because the web of interconnecting motivations that he describes for the making of paintings has direct relevance for the discussion of photographs as art:
"In the economists' market what the producer is compensated by is money: money goes one way, goods or services the other. But in the relation between paintings and cultures the currency is much more diverse than just money: it includes such things as approval, intellectual nurture and, later, reassurance, provocation and irritation of stimulating kinds, the articulation of ideas, vernacular visual skills, friendship and - very important indeed - a history of one's activity and a heredity, as well as sometimes money acting both as a token of some of these and a means to continuing performance. And the good exchanged for these is not so much pictures as profitable and pleasurable experience of pictures. The painter may choose to take more of one sort of compensation than of another - more of a certain sense of himself within the history of painting, for instance, than of approval or money. The consumer may choose this rather than that sort of satisfaction. Whatever choice painter or consumer makes will reflect on the market as a whole. It is a pattern of barter, barter primarily of mental goods."
Of course it is not only art that participates in this kind of significant, pleasurable system of mental barter. Some people spend their time thinking about poetry, ceramics, computer games, haircuts. To some extent, all of these cultural forms - along with handbags - can carry symbolic as well as exchange value, can relate both to everyday life and to abstract ideas, and can employ appropriation, intertextuality, and a mixing of high and low forms of culture. But do they do it as well as art photography? To conclude this discussion, I will return briefly to the handbag question, and to the relative merits of the handbag and art photograph within contemporary culture.
Over the past few years, a legal battle has unfolded in France, in which Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the world's largest luxury goods maker, has fought for the right to open their flagship store on the Champs-Élysées on Sundays. Under French law, this privilege is reserved for businesses that offer their customers some sort of cultural experience. Handbags alone were not enough to win the case. In the summer of 2007, the handbag maker ensured a favourable ruling on Sunday trading by launching a small contemporary art space within the shop. The inaugural exhibition at Espace Louis Vuitton, of video and photographic work by artist Vanessa Beecroft, saw contemporary art and commerce at their most symbiotic.
As with many contemporary artists, Beecroft works across several different forms. In the Vuitton work, the videos and photographs were documents of a performance she had staged at the original opening of the shop in 2005. In Alphabet Concept VBLV (2005) black and white female models, dressed only in makeup and pastel coloured wigs are arranged on the floor, their bodies forming the crossed L and V of the Louis Vuitton logo. The photograph is as visually seductive as a top-budget advertisement. Unlike 1970s performance art, in which the documentation was a shabby afterthought, Beecroft's work places equal emphasis on event and image. Shot from above, and brightly lit, the final form of the photograph was clearly integral to the conception of the work.
On one level the piece operates as branding; idealized female bodies promote the Louis Vuitton label (and the Vanessa Beecroft label, vis the title VBLV). For viewers trained in contemporary art, particularly postmodern critiques of representation, the work kicks up a number of disturbing questions about gender, race and consumerism. Part mannequin, part clown, part doll, these figures draw attention to the way the culture industry turns women into mere ciphers. As a commission, exhibited in a commercial space, the work is surely more affirmative than it is critical of fashion or advertising. Yet the photograph is not straight advertising, it is art. In the gap between these two contexts a small space opens up for reflection. By being called art, by being framed institutionally as art, and by relating to previous works of art, this photograph claims greater cultural significance than a handbag. It may not be good art, and not every viewer will like it. But it participates in a rich and well-established field of endeavour.
Among other things, art photographs are elite commodities, status symbols. Yet each one also represents a set of risks taken. In order for one image to be significant, expressive, critical, provocative etc., there must be others that fail to be so. Whether one views the Beecroft photograph as a success or failure is a matter of training, politics and taste. In my view, this particular image is repellent - like a drink with too much sweetener in it - but also fascinating in its deranged complicity with Louis Vuitton branding (do LV customers really aspire to such an image?). I view it as effective in that it functions as a kind of art parasite. It feeds on the commercial host, while retaining its own slightly perverse agenda.
The different constituencies within art photography are constantly at odds with each other. Modernists are appalled by what they perceive to be the cold blankness of the deadpan documentarians (Christopher James calls them 'the boring postcard people'). Postmodernists revile the makers of expressive or process-based photography as romantic and clichéd. Contemporary artists using photography want to escape from the confines of the art photography ghetto. Art photographers resent artist-photographers for being paid more money for their work (especially since it has usually been printed by somebody else). Yet for all the differences among their makers, the photographs have far more in common with each other than they do with other forms of cultural production. The manifold forms of art photography share a language, history and body of ideas far richer than handbags can ever hope to achieve.