Jeff Wall – Photography and Conceptual Art

by evanbaden

Since it’s inception, photography had been seen to have a clear advantage over other art forms. That being a photograph could capture people, places, and things “as they were”, without the subjectivity that accompanied art forms such as painting and sculpture. Today we think of photography as being subjective in the way we crop, post work that is done, and the types of processes we use. But in it’s early days, photography was seen as a tool of record keeping, and indexical medium that could preserve moments in time. While it was seen as superior in the way that it recorded the world, it was never fully accepted as an “art” because it didn’t require “talent” and the “hand of the artist” was not visible.

Heinrich Kühn, Still Life with Steins, c.1900

In these early days, the first photographers weren’t sure how to use this new medium. They fell back on the same tried and true tools of painting such as the still life (maybe the most boring photographs ever?) and even  brushing emulsion on so as to create the effect of a painted image.

So how did we get from there to where we are now in the photographic world? Photography has always been pictorial, and for a long, painting was as well. But then modernism begins and painters begin to question the very medium they are using. They begin to critique painting with paintings. Wall believes it is “the fate of all the arts to become modernist through a critique of their own legitimacy…” (Wall, 39) But how does photography question itself? The painters did away with all the essentials until all they had left was paint on canvas, and in some cases, just the canvas. But as wall points out, photography “has virtually no dispensable characteristics.” So photography had to go a different route, and in my opinion, it was a better one.

The modernist painters were so lofty in their goals and theories that the “average” person could not understand what they were trying to accomplish. Because of this, the general public felt alienated from the artists, and the artists reacted by ignoring them. I think this is where the large rift in public support for art began (but I could be super wrong). Wall said, “the great mass of the people had been excluded from art by social barriers and had internalized an identity as ‘untalented,’ and ‘inartistic’ and so were resentful of the high art that the dominant institutions unsuccessfully compelled them to venerate.” At the other end of the spectrum were artists like Beuys, who insisted that everyman was an artist. And I believe this is where photography’s self criticism works together with the general public.

There wasn’t really anything structurally that photographers or those using photography could change. There was some sort of film, some sort of camera, and some sort of substrate that the image was printed or projected on. But the users could change what the photographs were of. This is where the conceptual art movement played a large role is shaping photography. The Light Years show had a number of great examples, but I will confine myself to three.

Mel Bochner

The first way for photography to critique itself is to show the camera for what it is, a device used to force a viewers view of an object so that they see it the way the artist wants them to see it. This was exemplified by one of my favorite pieces from the Light Years show, Mel Bochner’s 36 Photographs and 12 Diagrams. What was interesting to me about this piece is the way that the camera is used. This work is done in only the way a camera can do it. If instead, these sculptures had been built on site and the viewer was able to walk around them, the experience would be completely different. This is mainly because the viewer would posses the ability to experience an uncountable number of vantage points. Instead Bochner uses the camera force the viewer into having the vantage point that he wants them to have. And at the same time, he shows the same sculpture from three different vantage points, which explains the viewer how different the same object can look from one vantage point to the next.

Webster and Nobel

Bochner’s piece reminds me a little of Webster and Noble’s trash piles. The sculptures were piles of trash that made a silhouette of something else (yeah, it’s slightly tacky). Although not related directly to Bochner’s piece, it has the same “vantage point” issue.

Ed Ruscha

The next is to use the amatuer nature of photography to critique the culture surrounding it. This was exemplified by the always enjoyable Ruscha book. (although I found the mockup quite intriguing as well) The book on display was the Every Building on the Sunset Strip, but Wall talks at length about the Twentysix Gasoline Stations book. I have to admit that while I have always found his books interesting, the way Wall describes the work makes more sense then what I have understood in the past. I especially like the sentence “Only an idiot would take pictures of nothing but the filling stations, and the existence of a book of just those pictures is a kind of proof of the existence of such a person.” (Wall, 43) The great (and terrible) aspect of photography is that anyone can do it, if they have some sort of access to a camera. And the fact that photography has become so mainstream (Wall refers to it as Amateurization) has led to a certain type of picture making that can be turned on itself in an examination, not of medium as painting did, but of the culture it exists in. By adopting this method of picture making, and then pushing it to the point of the ridiculous, Ruscha is able to make a comment about the current “road” culture that existed at the time. However, maybe where it fails a little is when it is turned into a “precious art object” (which the AIC has done) because it has once again been separated from the culture it was critiquing.

The third is the documentation of a performance that can only be experienced by the viewer through photographs. Dora Maurer’s Parallel Lines: Race is a good example of this, however, there were tons of examples of this from the Light Years show. I couldn’t find an image of it, and since we can’t take photos in the photography show, I’ll have to explain it. The piece consisted of a number of images shot by two people (Dora and one of her students) on opposing balcony/walkways. The performance consisted of both shooters standing across from one another. They began by taking a photo of each other. Then they would run to pre-deterined places on the walkway and take another photo. There were around 6 places where they took photos.  Through the photographs, which give the vantage point of each shooter, the viewer can experience the race, and they can see that one of the contestants (Dora) falls behind.

Lastly, I don’t feel like the humor involved in any of the pieces in the Light Years show existed to the same extent with the modernist painters. They were just too serious.