The break from the aesthetic formalism of the modernist period within photography associated with photoconceptualism in the 1960’s and 70’s was the subject of all three essays this week – Jeff Wall’s “Marks of Indifference”: Aspects of Photography in, or as, Conceptual Art, Hal Foster’s An Archival Impulse, and (our professor) Gregg Foster-Rice’s recent essay “Systems Everywhere” New Topographics and Art of the 1970’s. All three essays dealt with conceptual art’s impact on the way many photographers approach image making, and the way in which we interact with photographic imagery itself.
Vito Acconci, Following Piece, 1969.
I’m a little obsessed with conceptual art of the 1960’s and 70’s myself, so when I found this week’s readings in my dropbox folder, I was definitely excited to dive into the topic in a little more depth. My approach to photography is definitely more driven by an initial idea than the pursuit of formalist perfection, and I definitely look at the camera and photographic equipment as more of a tool to express that idea rather than something I use to achieve a perfect image or express poetic/esoteric beliefs about the world through. The artists I look at and respond to often come from this school of artistic practice – I’ve long been interested in work such as Vito Acconci’s Following Piece, in which Acconci followed strangers walking in public until that stranger entered a private space (while someone followed him, documenting the act with a 35mm camera), or other works from this period that use photographs to describe an otherwise ephemeral action or event. I find the idea that, by way of the photograph, something that would otherwise be overlooked and inconsequential (Acconci’s stalking of strangers notwithstanding) is given a heightened sense of importance and depth very empowering, and ultimately more compelling than the experience I have in front of more traditionally “aesthetic” works. The “artless” nature of many of the works made during this period, the sense that they could be taken by anyone and that it is not the aesthetic qualities of the image that hold it’s importance but the ideas behind it, all add up to more beyond the usual experience of the photographer as omniscient creator.
Jeff Wall underlines this rift between the dictum of aesthetic formalism associated with modernist photographers such as Ansel Adams and the generation that came up around the dialogue of minimalism in the 1960’s early in his essay: “for the sixties generation, art-photography remained too comfortably rooted in the pictorial traditions of modern art; it had an irritatingly serene, marginal existence, a way of holding itself at a distance from the intellectual drama of avant-gardism while claiming a prominent, even definitive place within it.” I often feel that way about much of art-photography today, that while within the world of painting or sculpture the process of making a piece or the experience one has interacting with it is generally more important than the artists technique or the perfection of they’re specific craft, photography still manages to churn out masses of artists who are very skilled at using they’re 4x5, but aren’t doing anything beyond mimicking the tropes of fine-art photographers before them. In a sense, the pervasiveness of ingrained “fine-art” aesthetics are part of what attracts me to work of a more “artless” aesthetic – the repetitive tropes of many fine-art photographers working today hit on the same ideas and emotions over and over, creating a one-dimensional experience of many works. Wall describes art-photography as having “evolved an intricate mimetic structure, in which artists imitated photojournalists in order to create pictures”, and counters that “photoconceptualism worked out many of the implications of this, so much so that it may begin to seem that many of Conceptual art’s essential achievements are either created in the form of photographs or are otherwise mediated by them”. To Wall, it seems, the techniques and ideas associated with photoconceptualism begin to solve the dilemma associated with the experience of modernist photography. Rather than having an experience of awe with an object explicitly designed to illicit that specific reaction by way of perfected, yet isolated craft and technique, photoconceptualist images emphasize a banality with the making of the image, inviting the viewer to question the ideas behind the actions they depict. In short, photoconceptualist imagery invites the viewer to become engaged with the ideas being communicated within an image, to become part of the dialogue surrounding the objects one is looking at.
Bruce Nauman, Failing to Levitate in the Studio, 1966.
One example Wall uses that I found particularly interesting was Bruce Nauman’s use of the artists’s studio as character within his photographs and video pieces. “Working within the experimental framework of what was beginning at the time to be called ‘performance art,’ he (Nauman) carries out photographic acts of reportage whose subject-matter is the self-conscious, self-centered ‘play’ taking place in the studios of artists who have moved ‘beyond’ the modern fine arts into the new hybridities.” Where previously the artists’s studio had been a place of hidden genius and mystery, Nauman’s use of the studio feels like anything but. In fact, Nauman’s studio seems rather banal, both in the space itself and the actions Nauman is performing in it – ranging from a failed attempt at levitating between two metal fold up chairs, to choreographed walks that reek of self-imposed boredom. Likewise, Nauman’s early use of two decidedly opposite styles of photography when working in the studio – highly saturated color portraits utilizing colored gels, contrasted by harsh, grainy black and white images - “reduced to a set of basic formulae and effects, are signifiers for the new co-existence of species of photography which had seemed ontologically separated and even opposed in the art history of photography up to that time.” In a sense, the combined use of stylistic technique to at once build the fantasy of the photograph and undermine it, underscores “the two reigning myths” associated with photography – that of the truth of the image and it’s inherent fiction. While the events in Nauman’s photographs are “true” in the sense that they actually transpired in the space of his studio during the camera’s exposure, one is never unaware of the space of the studio and construction it dictates. As Wall states: “The two reigning myths of photography – the one that claims that photographs are ‘true’ and the one that claims they are not – are shown to be grounded in the same praxis, available in the same place, the studio, at that place’s moment of historical transformation.” In that respect, both the “true” image and the “constructed” image are shown by Nauman to be one and the same.
Bruce Nauman, Self Portrait as a Fountain, 1966/67.
In Greg Foster-Rice’s Systems Everywhere the New Topographics photographers are directly linked to ideas of systems theory – the idea that “complex phenomena cannot be reduced to the discrete properties of their various parts, but must be understood according to the arrangement of and relations between the parts that create a whole.” In other words, the work of the New Topographics and the issues of urban sprawl and it’s environmental impact that they were dealing with cannot be understood through individual pieces, but from they’re body of work as a whole. Foster-Rice goes on to point out that, unlike prior landscape photographers such as Carlton Watkins, the images associated with the New Topographics were often printed with an overall idea of the greater body of work – Robert Adams, for example, developed his film so that the highlights would be pushed more towards the grey side of white. This allowed for the body as a whole to be “infused with the same quality of light”, and helps to draw more direct correlations for the viewer among the photographs within the project. This, combined with the direct rejection of Ansel Adam’s “disinterested, purely aesthetic subject position” within the landscape serve to create a serial experience of the work, rather than simply appreciating the images on a singular basis. Foster-Rice links this idea of the serial aesthetic more with the work of Eadweard Muybridge’s stop-action photographs and the work of minimalists such as Sol Lewit, and looking at photographers such as Bernd and Hilla Becher, it becomes easy to see the connection.
Bernd and Hilla Becher, Gravel Plants.
Sol Lewitt, Wall Drawing #136: Arcs and Lines, 1972.
In both the Becher’s gridded photographs of gravel pits, water towers, and other industrial relics, and Lewitt’s gidded wall drawings, it is not the individual images or mark making that it important to the work, but the body of work over time. Just as the Becher’s shared responsibility equally between both photographers, not differentiating tasks or who made what image, Lewitt’s wall drawings exist merely as diagram of what the drawing should ultimately look like, physically drawn on the wall by gallery and museum installers. It seems to me that is part of why they are so powerful – though both work in an incredibly precise manner, they’re ultimate product becomes an outline of how it was made and conceived. One could, with some practice or with careful technique, feasibly make they’re own Lewitt or Becher grid (admittedly, remaking the Becher’s images would be considerably more difficult), and have the same experience with the one they made on they’re own as they would in front of it in a museum. This drives home the point, in essence, of the break from the viewer’s singular, yet awestruck, experience of the landscape within the work of Carlton Watkins or Ansel Adams. If those photographers wanted to show how technology could function harmoniously within the landscape, the photographers associated with the New Topographics used serial depictions to dispel that myth.
Finally, I was left a little confused by Hal Foster’s essay An Archival Impulse, so I will end with the New Topographics. Perhaps it’s because I don’t know the work of the artists well enough, or perhaps it’s on account of Foster’s writing, but I’ll leave this essay for class discussion, and maybe update this later when I have a better understanding of it.