READING: Contemporary Photographic Criticism
Thoughts and reactions to essays throughout my MFA Photography class Contemporary Photographic Criticism taught by Greg Foster-Rice at Columbia College Chicago.
Michael Fried, Chapter 1.

 Michael Fried’s basic point within his introduction and first chapter for Why Photography Matters… is that, beginning sometime around the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, art photography began to be made “at a large scale but also for the wall”, and that this shift ushered many of the issues associated with high modernism “to the very center of advanced photographic practice”. This can be seen in the distancing of the viewer from the photographic object, the increasing use of a flattened, mechanical perspective, and the direct acknowledgement of the falsity of the photographic process. Fried begins by outlining three beginnings of this shift in photographic discourse – the investigation of photography and cinema inherent in the work of Cindy Sherman, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Jeff Wall; the assertion of the photograph as art object in the work of Wall, Thomas Ruff and Jean-Marc Bustamante; and the questioning or undermining of notions of voyuerism as discussed in three texts – the anonymous French conte Adelaide, Yukio Mishima’s The Temple of Doom, and Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others.

In some ways, I see a lot of correlation between the ways in which Fried talks about the work of Jeff Wall, Jean-Marc Bustamante and Thomas Ruff, and some of the aspects of Modernism. Just as Manet and modernism after him stressed the fact that the paintings in front of the viewer were not windows into another world, but in fact were paint on canvas, so too did Wall, Bustamante and Ruff refute the tendency of the public to do the same with photographs. At every step of the image making process, the three photographers seem to reinforce the fact that one is looking at a photograph, to deny the impulse to escape into another world. Where Manet used the flat application of paint to reassert the issues pertaining to the present day, rather than painting allegorically like painters such as Jacques-Louis David, the large scale images produced by Ruff, Wall and Bustamante reassert the artist behind the camera – both in the flat, deadpan style of Bustamante and Ruff, and the assertion of the artist’s studio with Wall. Fried himself talks about the notions of antitheatricality associated with the work of Manet when discussing the rise of photography made for the wall, stating: “such photography immediately inherited the entire problematic of beholding that had been central, first, to the evolution of painting in France from the middle of the eighteenth century until the advent of Edvourd Manet and his generation around 1860;, and second, to the opposition between high modernism and minimalism in the mid- and late 1960s…” If, as Fried later points out, Bustamante’s “tableau form” is in direct opposition to the era of the somewhat romanticized images of Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places before it, it becomes apparent that the use of these techniques in some senses mirror the issues more commonly associated with Modernism’s prior break from the art predating it. Where Shore made photographs and sequenced them within an overriding narrative arc – telling the story of the search for the experience of (his then) contemporary America – Ruff, Bustamante, and (somewhat surprisingly) Wall all actively work to deny the viewer that experience. At the heart of they’re images, the impulse to describe a person, an environment, or a fictional situation is given the same, unequivocably sharp, level of heightened of description. 

Central_Park_North_of_Obelisk

Joel Sternfeld, Central Park, north of the Obelisk, behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, May 1993.

For example, in Joel Sternfeld’s photograph Central Park, North of the Obelisk…, Sternfeld photographs the site of a murder in Manhattan’s Central Park at sunset, with warm orange sunlight raking across the dirt in the front of the frame, highlighting the trunk of a tree where a woman’s body was found on August 26, 1986. The image, by utilizing the sunset to evoke a sense of spiritual transcendence, allows the viewer to enter into the image – to pull a subtle sense of narrative from it’s warm light and rustling leaves blowing in the warm spring air. The viewer simultaneously examines the image and can imagine what it was like to make it. As Hilla Becher described Stephen Shore’s work in Why Photography Matters…, “With Shore, everything is rendered very affectionately, it is genuinely grasped.”

Bustamante

Jean-Marc Bustamante, Tableau T.72A.82, 1982.

In the work of Bustamante and others like him, however, that ability to feel as if the scenario in the photograph has been “genuinely grasped” is challenged both by scale, and the unilateral level of description. The photograph Tableau T.72A.82, for example, depicts a cypress tree, surrounded by an extending hillside behind it, covered in similar trees. Photographed by a photographer like Sternfeld, the scene could have come across as transcendent as the image in New York’s Central Park – the images do look somewhat analogous on the surface of things. However, as in all of Bustamante’s Tableau images, Bustamante uses his camera in a manner intended to flatten the subject matter into a single plane, shooting at high noon so that everything is described equally by the available sunlight. Whereas the Sternfeld image uses camera shifts, time of day and motion to create an image of an ethereal moment outside of the picture, Bustamante’s image does the opposite – the definition of the image he gives us can not be described by that which is beyond the frame of the photograph. Scale, too, plays a role in this. Bustamante’s prints, which are mounted on aluminum and framed without mats, are printed roughly 50x60 inches, and present the viewer with objects which are somewhat analogous to human scale. In essence, the experience of viewing a Bustamante print inextricably differs from that of viewing a Sternfeld – where Sternfeld gives you a somewhat cinematic experience of losing yourself in the image and it’s implied narrative qualities, Bustamante gives you the experience of observing a reproduction of the object itself. It is not the introduction of poetics into the photographic vocabulary that defines ones experience of the image, but the investigation of the image in front of the viewer as object.

Andreas Gursky, Installation View at Matthew Marks Gallery, New York.

 Ultimately, I am conflicted in regards to how I feel about Fried’s positions regarding the fundamental changes he sees with this type of photography, and it’s implied death of the voyeur. While I acknowledge and fully agree with the ways in which he describes the conflicts within this type of work, and in particular these artists (substituting Shore for Sternfeld, of course), I can’t help but feel as if he is actively writing out so many other types of photography that don’t necessarily fit within his strict definitions. It is definitely true that Gursky, Struth, Wall, Bustamante, etc reintroduce many concepts commonly associated with high modernism into the contemporary photographic dialogue, but there are many artists who, one could argue, subvert those ideas.

Sitting

David Horvitz, Sold Project - Anna Karenina, 2008.

David Horvitz, for example, photographs everyday, somewhat banal scenarios which are “commissioned” by the visitors to his website – in one series, he took the money donated to him and spent eight days traveling back and forth from Roosevelt Island in New York to spend the day reading Anna Karenina, all of which was documented photographically. In essence, the photographs are a collaboration – they are not made without the participant and viewer. The acts depicted in them would, outside of the photograph, be inconsequential to anyone besides of the artist. If outside participation is so integral to these images, how does that function within Fried’s framework?

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