October 5, 2006

Photo-Text



Photography has two functions in the discourse of art. First, it is an “art form” itself, although Frederick Jameson seems to dismiss it as a true “medium”; and second, it is the “mass medium” by which other art forms are reproduced. Photography reproduces the art that we look at in magazines and books, and it helps us structure an identity for the art work through these reproductions. Setting aside Jameson’s argument for the moment, we might accept photography as an “art form” briefly if we consider the photography of Stieglitz, Adams, Strand and Brassai. These photographic works were supremely descriptive or anecdotal, with their depictions of beauty or candid “decisive moments,” respectively. This kind of “high art” imagery might be theorized as a direct extension of Modernist ideals. Modernist art was premised on medium specificity and explored the expressive qualities of a medium. Modernism’s “truth to materials” credo would be coupled with the above photographers’ delivery of their individual expressions of “subjectivity” into their chosen medium.

Photography’s further relation to the printed page resides in the captions that describe a reproduced image. With “news” photography, the “story” is additionally embellished by more words written by a journalist to establish a relation to the reproduced image. The story-telling nature of photography delivers this “literary” quality that is championed as photojournalistic, to be extended further from “reportage” in the work of photographers like Joe Rosenthal and Robert Capa. The use of photographs by the media to “illustrate” news and events is sacrosanct and rarely transgressed by artists. We can explore the manipulation of “images” another day, as I would like to pursue the relationship of photography to conceptual art.

In the late 1960’s, Douglas Huebler began to use photography to make “location” and “duration” pieces, works that specified random spatial and temporal rules for the production of photographic documentation, i.e., shooting the same space at one minute intervals, or a series of spaces a fixed distance apart. This functioned as a kind of “conceptual cartography,” or mapping. The photographic documentations of Huebler’s pieces were accompanied by his often dead-pan descriptive text that outlined the assignments. In staging and documenting his “meaningless,” non-newsworthy actions, as photographer-critic Jeff Wall notes, Huebler engages “two simultaneous negations, which produce a ‘reportage’ without event, and a writing without narrative.”(1) To be sure, Wall’s insightful critique directs our focus to the essential elements of Huebler’s work:

"The more the assignment is emptied of what could normatively [be] considered to be compelling social subject matter, the more visible it is simply as an instance of a structure, an order, and the more clearly it can be experienced as a model of relationships between writing and photography."(2)

Wall suggests that Heubler’s work is an extension of Modernism, i.e., “the idea of an art which provides a direct experience of situations or relationships, not a secondary, representational one.”(3) Thus, "depictivity” itself is contemplated and Huebler’s conceptual art “permits photography to become a model of an art whose subject matter is the idea of art.”(4)


Readings for 11 October: From Chapter 9: Mary Kelly’s Preface to Post-Partum Document and Hans Haacke’s Museum: Managers of Consciousness.

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1. Jeff Wall, “Marks of Indifference: Aspects of Photography in, or as, Conceptual Art” in Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965-1975, Cambridge, 1995, 258.

2. Ibid., 255.

3. Ibid., 257.

4. Ibid., 258.

4 comments:

patrickjdonovan said...

Hans Haacke's proposition that museum curators' decisions may be subtly or not so subtly influenced by corporate contributors and sponsors seems likely to be true. However, what is the alternative? Public funding would probably lead to more direct limits on exhibitions etc. Corporate sponsorship seems relatively benign, especially since there remain "alternative" venues and galleries for non-mainstream and emerging artists.

More important, I wonder if Han's thesis is being rendered obsolete by the Internet. Since anyone can publish on the Internet, and even some artists, e.g. Duane Keiser, are selling directly to the public without gallery intermediaries, perhaps it goes to far, if it was ever valid, to say that museum managers are exerting undue influence on our art consciousness.

Shanthi said...

Mary Kelly’s Post-Partam Document has been making me think a lot more about art theory and the fine line between a psychological experiment and conceptual art. As I was reading the essay, I kept forgetting that it was an art theory book and not a book on psychology. I was also contantly reminded of the Zen philosophy.
I can relate to Hans Haacke’s “…make something, which lives in time and makes the “spectator” experience time…”
The essay “Museum, Managers of Conciousness” brought back to my mind the question “Should artists fit into a Genre?” If the musuems showcase a certain type of art that is “keeping with the times” and that can bring in funds, what happens to the artists who like to stick to their unique style or just cannot bring themselves to be part of a “conciousness” organization just because it is in vogue? What if the concept is ahead of the times?

mm said...

Response to Haacke:
I found the idea of artists being pressured to do self-censoring kind of sad. Everything is run by money and it seems only natural that business and marketing specialists at some point would distribute art. I feel it is tragic if in their desperation for money museums and galleries fudge the way they do things (purpose). I do not want to think that this big-timer management of art is making artists also change their ways, but it is ridicules to think a bit of that isn’t happening. It is always nice to have someone who knows what their doing (business) running the venue that deals with the sale of your work, but as cheesy as this sounds, I also want them to have their heart in it…. a true lover of art.

M. Cameron Boyd said...

Patrick: “Public funding” may consciously exert undue influence or cause artists to self-edit their intentions, and unless one wants to participate in the “patronage game,” is not viable or secure financial support. Equally distressing, the world of corporate sponsorship is rife with hidden agendas and, although tempting for many, innocent artists may find themselves in indefensible political waters. The Web continues to hold promise for personal expression and artistic discourse [this very blog is currently being read in Singapore, Zagreb, Spain, Ireland, Malaysia, etc.] yet we must remain vigilant to the “managers of consciousness” and their insidious power structures.

Shanti: I am pleased that you are finding the readings rewarding. The original conceptual artists used various “fields of knowledge” outside of the normative art realms, including psychology, psychoanalysis, statistics and logic, to create new forms and contexts for their art. Temporality was of particular interest for minimal artists like Morris and Judd who explored viewing in relation to duration. If you “make the spectator experience time” you extend art past its objecthood to disassociate the work from the experience. These artists paved the way for younger practitioners like you to continue the investigation within your work. In essence, you must continue to make your work and be rid of “style” but aware of “what” to add that may be original to the discourse.

Mia: Yes, it is sad when museums “pressure” artists to “fit” within their parameters but even more tragic when the artists capitulate and lose their autonomy. Haacke stood his ground and lost his chance for that Guggenheim solo. Still, his commitment to his art allowed him to develop projects that museums now must have. Thus, sometimes, work made “outside” the institutional framework will be “transformed” by that very same curatorial framework so that it will (eventually) “fit.”