October 5, 2006
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.
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.