Dorothea Lange: The Great Depression - 100+ Photographic Reproductions
Why notweve already been talking about them in one form or another for years or so. And yet, as time goes by they will seem It strikes me forcefully that a typical Chelsea art gallery samples visual culture but doesnt even begin to understand itits occupants inhabit rarified air, and at the same time, the artists they elevate wrestle with old questions and tired conceits.
They do this because this is what people want to buy, or at least what they are habitually fed. Being cutting edge, but at the same time a little behind the curve, is a solid economic proposition for an art gallery.
But my friendsdear, sweet, misguided friendsthat is so yesterday. Still imagesand I mean all still imagesare already old-fashioned, and have been for some time. What use will they have in a world swarming with high-def video and film and cell phone electronica? Photographs have already lost their bite, and now exist principally to reassure us, in much the same way oil paintings do.
One of the great ironies of the early 21st century museum world is that just as photography is losing its potency, curatorial positions dedicated to the form are sprouting like mushrooms. It is not a coincidence.
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Declaring a medium worthy of serious institutional attention in its own right is something of a death knell, because it is only when something is no longer dangerous that we clutch it to our collective bosom, like a giant teddy bear. Art is a relic culture, and photography has become the ultimate relic. It is the T-shirt you wear from a city you never visited.
Bedfords appeal to fortify photographic criticism is absolutely on target. And yet, I believe photography is not the only medium that escapes thoughtful analysis; nor is photography so distinct among media that we should allow it to be ghettoized. The contextual rigor Bedford prescribes is appropriate to art in all its forms.
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So let us not be content to settle for circumspection in the way photographs are seen and discussed. Lets reinvent the way art is understoodthe whole lot of it. Surely this is not the time or place for a rehashing of Greenbergian modernism, and not simply because of its outmodedness within contemporary art discourse. As others have noted, the battles fought by Greenberg and his acolytes primarily centered on what was at stake in painting and sculpture. A true photo-criticism, if there is such a thing, must, first and foremost, start with photography.
We have seen where attempts to historicize and break down photography using models from other mediums have lead us. Specifically, these investigations signaled a return to pastichea mode of photography that embraced the tableaus of history painting under the rubric of postconceptualism and postmodernism. A similar dilemma has arisen when an essentialist program for photography has been mapped diagrammatically as an expanded field from which several intermedia branches extend.
This is where we encounter the frustrating category of the artist using photography. Curiously enough, here perhaps it is worth recalling a canonical essay by Rosalind Krauss that offers a key to the simultaneously problematic and liberating potential of the photographic medium. In Photographys Discursive Spaces, Krauss articulates some of the fundamental misconceptions underpinning the art critical historicization of photography.
I am not suggesting that we take Krauss as the model for photographic criticism or her subject, Eugne Atget, as the prime example , merely that the critical language and institutional categories that we use to build histories around images are themselves constructed, even as they organize the ways in which we remember and It is precisely photographys numerous contexts and types of functionalities that make it fascinating and confusing.
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In this light, it is useful to cite Bedfords example of Demand, whose work perfectly addresses many of the complications within contemporary photographic practice, but I do so for reasons other than the ones that Fried implies. The strength of Demands images lies in the very fact that they are photographs. Re-imagined from an archive primarily drawn from popular media, Demands paper constructions require an erasure of detail in order to hint at something remembered, and not in an effort to disclose any laborious back-story or intentionality.
It is only when the sculptures take the form of photographs that they can begin to re-circulate as images and thereby tap into something approaching collective memory. Photography, for all of its verisimilitude, is an adaptable, ambiguous, slippery thing. Undeniably populist and multifaceted, it is necessarily always pointing outside of its own frame. It can never fold in upon itself in the manner of a Greenbergian, medium-specific object because it must always be about other pictures, temporalities, and modes of representation.
Indeed, even when photography is liberated from the burden of traditional representation and concerns itself with material investigations that explore and dismantle the interaction of light, paper, and photochemical processes, we do not and cannot reach its essence. In the most interesting examples of such work the impulse and the impact reach far beyond a vogue in the market or a simple exploration of photographys mechanical supports.
Perhaps it is little wonder that we see a retreat from the real and a return to photographic abstraction at our current moment of extreme geopolitical crisis, when depiction seems somehow unsatisfactory and, at best, unstable. Nevertheless, the call for a criticism grounded in a reduction of photography to a mere set of technical concerns is misguided and would return us to equally outmoded debates around craft and As our copies of The Contest of Meaning begin to yellow, I wholeheartedly agree that it is time for a revaluation.
But in an era when it is standard for students to learn both blackand-white printing and Photoshop in high school, it is ridiculous to approach the camera as if it were some kind of mystifying magic box. Although we may never be satisfied with the words we use to investigate photographic pictures, maybe it is worth taking a look at the extensive criticism on photography that we do have and asking how it can be expanded. The main assumption is that the labor involved in art is ontologically prior to the existence of the art itself. With something such as a painting, any given canvas brings with it an implied linear history of labor: an artist started with a blank space, so to speak, and worked on it until, at some point, it became art.
But the fascinating thing about the ontology of photography is that its instantiation of this kind of labor means that the labor is produced alongside or after the art. Maier-Aichens work is a good example of a case where the labor happens somewhere between taking a photo and printing it.
Jrg Sasse also comes to mind, and so does Soo Kim. In fact, ever since James Welling started sticking his hands under the enlarger lamp, the materiality of the photograph as an object has been a given.
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- Migrant Mother.
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What this instantiation does, though, is problematic, because it tends to pose the photographer And cleaving content from form by means of time divides things too neatly into documentary content-based photography on one hand and formbased art on the other, thereby overvaluing the labor prior to product at the expense of photographys flexible ontology. This is kind of a shame, because rather than wondering how photography can be positioned within the terms of the art market, it may be more interesting to explore in more detail how photography manages the balancing act, more than any other contemporary medium, of simultaneously being both art and non-artboth the thing itself and a record of that thing.
Date: 6 December From: KEN ABBOTT Christopher Bedfords article and the equally illuminating responses to it are a good indication that photographic discourse and criticism are, despite reports to the contrary, still alive and kicking.
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This discussion reminds me of one of my favorite rants: that the art world success of conceptually based photography as opposed to the essentialist, observe and record mode is mostly due to the fact that nowadays to teach you have to have an MFA or other academic pedigree. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are taken from Bedfords article. Its clear to me that teaching art students to think up interesting ideas and imaginative schema for their presentation is easier to work into a syllabus than a method that relies for success, at least in part, on.
Academics must publish exhibit or perish, and this fact provides all the fodder necessary for keeping the shoe gazers busy, and the accomplishments measurable. I recall a field trip when I was an undergraduate student in a photo class being taught by a visiting professor, Frank Gohlke.
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About the only blessed conceptualizing Frank did was to suggest that in photographing we were creating new things, and that those things were evidence of a new reality that we were creating. I was driving Frank and several students; in an idle moment, I asked Frank what he said when people asked him, Is photography really art? Okay, this conversation took place about thirty years ago, and if youre old enough you may remember those heady days when there was still considerable debate about this.
At any rate, I was taken aback by Franks reply. It went something like this: When Im feeling feisty, I might even make the argument that photography is better than art. Take that! That hadnt occurred to me.
But a correlate to Franks suggestion crystallized quickly. In suggesting that perhaps photography is better than art, Frank was implying that perhaps it also was something different than art, to be judged on its own terms and not considered any less important for that fact. I think its worth considering that determined, intention-laden industry doesnt necessarily make for better pictures, and interpretive difficulty isnt necessarily a plus.
Could it be argued that photography has been co-opted by the contemporary art world, and its talents made to serve a false god? Another teacher, Richard Benson, used to say, The world is a more interesting place than our ideas about it. Id like Marcel Duchamp The cycle of art criticisms infatuation with photography that Charlotte Cotton speaks of in her response to Christopher Bedfords essay seems to me to have a longer span than the thirty or forty years she suggests, though the rate of repetition may be accelerating.
The big push to have photography accepted as a major art form, spearheaded by Alfred Stieglitz and crossover critic Sadakichi Hartmann about years ago, was, all things considered, a flop. Photography continued to languish in a dusty corner of prints and drawings departments, or at best as a separate and segregated department all its own, until late in the 20th century. Then, in an ironic historical twist that added insult to injury, photography burst upon the art scene full-force when a new generation of artists took it up, not because they revered it as an art form, but because they despised it as a vulgar and debased mass medium.
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The co-opting of photography by postmodernists left in the lurch those who wanted to continue to meditate on the methods, history, and aspirations of traditional art photography, which had been thrown into a parallel universe where everything was now reversed as in a mirror. To continue to pursue a traditional program in photography now made one a bit of a simpleton, somebody who was out of it, rather than the aesthetic sophisticate A double consciousness was now necessary to pursue artistic ambitions in photography that would have seemed de rigueur before.
Whereas Bedford, while wondering whether our definition of art in photography is comprehensive enough, focuses on Thomas Demands career and on an essay that Michael Fried wrote on Demand , I might have been tempted to look instead at another photographer on whom Fried has written illuminatingly, but who is mentioned only in passing by Bedford: James Welling.
I remember that when I once confessed to Welling that I did not know what to do with him in my photo history survey course, he seemed pleased. Though a pretty low-key guy, he was almost enthusiastic about being an enigma. Its a distinction he has in fact sought, with his shifts in genre, his explorations of process, and his modestor is it deadpan?