Fried – Wall – Fried – Wall – Fried
Right off, Fried states that there will be three beginnings to his book and then summarizes them.
The first seems to have something to do with notions of the cinema. More specifically, I think it has to do with the absorption that viewers experience while attending the cinema. The three photographers Fried references all have a hand in undoing the viewer’s notions of cinema and the theatricality involved. Sherman’s photographs break those notions by using various techniques of the cinema to lead the viewer to question what is outside of the screen as opposed to being solely contained within it. Wall turns the camera on the audience, denying the viewer the chance to see what the characters in the image are viewing and turning the focus on how absorbed those characters are in the screen. And finally, Sugimoto’s movie screens, which both simultaneously deny the viewer the chance to see what is on the screen and the audience that is watching it.
The relations to each artist seem to be as follows:
Sherman = focuses on the screen = denies us the absorptive experience of the audience.
Wall = focuses on the audience = denies us the screen and focuses on the absorbed audience
Sugimoto = focuses on the phantasmagorial machine = denies us both the screen and the audience.
Fried summarizes the argument as, “although [these photographs are] mobilizing one or another convention of movies (or the thought of movies), [they] also provide a certain essentially photographic distance from the filmic experience a distance by virtue of which the automaticity of the avoidance of theatricality I have just evoked is forestalled or undone.”
The second is the tableau form. These are works that are made large; specifically they are made for the wall. Photographs, while commonly exhibited on a wall today, were not always created with the intention of being on a wall. Many times photographs were intended for book or other print forms. Fried thinks that between 1978-81, there was a break where large photographs began to be made with intention of being exhibited on a wall. This makes a lot of sense to me. Museum and gallery walls are big, and work that was made with the intention of being exhibited (it seems to me) should be made to fill those walls. It has always seemed odd to me to walk into an exhibit of 8×10” photographs exhibited on walls that were 15’ high. Fried responds to the idea that previous work by earlier photographers did not lend itself to being “matted, framed and exhibited on a wall” by saying:
…compared to new work, there had always seemed something a little arbitrary about such a mode of display, as if material images that had not been made for the wall – which often appeared to have been made to be reproduced in books and catalogues, where they could be studied in private by individual viewers – could not be certified as works of art unless they were so displayed, usually in gallery or museum environments which further magnified their “esthetic” cachet.
He goes on to say, “Their subsequent increase in scale therefore seems right, as if only then did they assume the dimensions and sheer “visual presence” proper to their idea.” Again, I tend to agree with him. The photographers that he mentions in the article seem to relate to themselves as artists that want to be part of ‘art’ discourse. And it seems proper that the works should be large in scale so as to properly dialog with works of the past, especially painting. One of Bustamante’s quotes perfectly sums this up. He says:
I wanted not to make photographs that would be art, but art that would be photography. I refused the small format and the craft aspect of black and white. I wanted to move into color, in a format for the wall, in order to give to the photograph the dimensions of a tableau, to transform it into an object. (emphasis mine)
The third “beginning” seems at first to be concerned with works of literature, but I think what he is getting at is a removal from the persistent voyeurism that is inherent with photography. Both Yukio Mishima’s The Temple of Dawn and Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others deal explicitly with a type of voyeurism. The scene that Fried uses from Mishima’s book is when Shigekuni Honda places a peephole in the back of a bookcase so that he can spy on the Thai princess Ying Chan while she disrobes. This is something that no one has ever seen before. However, what he had fantasized about seeing (Ying Chan as she never had been seen before) was ruined the moment he looked through the hole. He was peering in on a world that was not his own, and in effect was also no longer the princess’s world either. For while she was unaware that Honda was watching, he had contaminated her world with his own looking. Mishima refers to this notion by saying “it now became clear that Honda’s ultimate desire, what he really, really wanted to see could exist only in a world where he did not.”
Sontag also examines a type of voyeurism. This time it is one of the photographer “capturing” a world that is not the viewers own, and the viewer being able to peer through the frame into a world that is not their own and which they have no experience of. Sontag finds this problematic not only because of its voyeuristic aspects but because of the aestheticization of the images, which usually contain suffering.
I find the Sontag excerpts from Fried’s first chapter to be especially important in explaining the break that was happening in photography with the introduction of Wall’s Dead Troops Talk (A Vision After an Ambush of a Red Army Patrol near Moqor, Afghanistan, winter 1986). This image can be interpreted as a war image, except that it makes several severe breaks from what we think of as ‘war photography’. We might think of Nachtwey or Cappa, who were good at imaging suffering and devastation. Yet those images are also aestheticized, which is what Sontag has such a problem with. How do we as viewers both empathize with the people pictured in the images as well as think that the image itself as an object is a beautiful thing to look at?
I think the staging in Wall’s image is particularly important when thinking about how war photographs have functioned in the past. Wall’s photograph is able to make a comment precisely because it is a staged (and understandably staged by the viewer, there is no illusion of reality here). It does not “take” the same way that a Nachtwey does. It does not attempt to aestheticize the suffering of others, but rather makes a comment about the complexity of war, and that the viewer plays no part in the experience of the soldiers (there is no direct recognition of the viewer). Sontag comments about Wall’s image that “no one is looking out of the picture.” None of the soldiers are looking to the viewer for help that the viewer cannot give, there is no empathy from the viewer the way that there is in traditional war photography.
I think this is also where Wall’s photos link back into the traditions of painting. When paintings were made of war or some sort of “suffering event”, (such as the Raft of the Medusa or Napoleon Crossing the Alps)
the empathy from the viewer was less present because, while there was an understanding that maybe something similar to the painting actually took place, these characters in the painting were not actually suffering. When photography came along, there came with it the ability to “capture” the suffering. Now there was a record. Now what was contained within the boarders of the image was a person who was experiencing great pain or death. Upon looking at such an image, especially when that image has been composed in an aesthetically pleasing way and when it is placed upon a gallery or museum wall with the specific intention of being viewed as an “art object”, there is a break in how the viewer understands the image. They can either attempt to empathize with the suffering contained, or they can admire the beauty of the object. But to do both would be to believe that the suffering being witnessed is a beautiful thing. It makes the viewer inherently evil.
Broomberg and Chanarin have also found a way to escape the type of documentary photography that Sontag is commenting on in Regarding the Pain of Others, and I would be curious to know what she thought about this move. The project that they worked on was titled The Day Nobody Died. From their website about the project:
In June of 2008 Broomberg and Chanarin traveled to Afghanistan to be embedded with British Army units on the front line in Helmand Province. In place of their cameras they took a roll of photographic paper 50 meters long and 76.2 cm wide contained in a simple, lightproof cardboard box. They arrived during the deadliest month of the war. On the first day of their visit a BBC fixer was dragged from his car and executed and nine Afghan soldiers were killed in a suicide attack. The following day, three British soldiers died, pushing the number of British combat fatalities to 100. Casualties continued until the fifth day when nobody died. In response to each of these events, and also to a series of more mundane moments, such as a visit to the troops by the Duke of York and a press conference, all events a photographer would record, Broomberg and Chanarin instead unrolled a seven-meter section of the paper and exposed it to the sun for 20 seconds. The results – seen here – deny the viewer the cathartic effect offered up by the conventional language of photographic responses to conflict and suffering. (emphasis mine)
This is interesting because where photographers normally would take photos, Broomberg and Chanarin only recorded the light as seen by a roll of photo paper. While a typical photograph of one of these events would create a window into the world of warfare, Broomberg and Chanarin only create a relic, an object that was specifically created in response to a certain event. It does not picture the event and the only allusion to that event is the title. This is how Broomberg and Chanarin escape the normal tropes of war photography.
Adad Hannah, a Canadian based video artist also plays with the historical tableau paintings. In 2009, in cooperation with 100 Mile House in British Columbia, Hannah restaged the tableau painting The Raft of the Medusa. I see a couple ways that this video and Wall’s photographs are similar. First, and most notably, they both draw from tableau painting. While Dead Troops Talk is not directly related to a specific painting, images like Destroyed Room and Picture for Women are. Secondly, both Wall and Hannah’s work are envisioned to be objects, Wall as a photograph and Hannah as a video and installed performance. They are both also highly staged and crafted. However, they differ on one key point. While the video that Hannah creates looks eerily like a moving Wall photograph, it also does not stray very far from the original painting. Wall pushes things further by only referencing the original painting.
While there are some connections, the viewer would have to have some background history of art in order to fully grasp that Destroyed Room is related to Death of Sardanapalus. It is the fact that there is only a subtle reference that leads us as viewers to believe a comment is being made, as opposed to just trying to get as close as we (as artists) can to recreating a previous artwork with a new medium. Wall continues to push things with Dead Troops Talk because it is not a simple reenactment of an event either, but something that could never happen. An important part of Wall’s photograph is that the soldiers are talking to each other and behaving as if they might while alive, only they are dead, with the evidence of their death clearly visible to the viewer. The Afghans that are scavenging the site are in a separate world and left to their own devices. This is where Wall goes further than Hannah’s video recreation and further then his previous works like Destroyed Room.
And while it may be corny, I’m going to talk about my own work in relation to this sense of voyeurism contained in both The Temple of Dawn and Regarding the Pain of Others (shameless self promotion). I am going to mention my last work Technically Intimate. The project consisted of reenactments of “sexting” images that had originally been sent via cell phone (in most cases) yet had somehow found their way to multiple websites that trafficked in pornographic material. The images that I used as source materiel, as a loose guide for my own reenactments, were very much voyeuristic in their nature. While not a direct hole into another world (such as Honda’s), they functioned as a static window into a world we (as viewers) were never supposed to see. What is interesting about those source images is that someone (although we can only assume who) was supposed to see them. In that way, there is a little twist on what was happening in The Temple of Dawn, and is more akin to what might happen in a peep show, where a performer is acting out something specifically so a viewer can have a voyeuristic experience.
I think that my images can escape that voyeuristic experience to an extent (although not completely) for the same overarching reason that Wall’s image Dead Troops Talk does – because it is a recreation, and not just a recreation, but an obvious one. No viewer of any intelligence would come to understand my images from Technically Intimate (or Dead Troops Talk) to be a documentary photograph, captured while the character in the image was unaware of the camera. It is precisely because of the awareness of the reenacted image, both by the poser and the viewer, that the voyeuristic titillation that Honda was feeling is defused. This is because the viewer is looking in on a world that was created specifically to be looked at. This world was meant to be seen by the viewer, therefore voyeurism (as we would generally understand it) is impossible. The illusion of voyeurism may still be inherent, but it is only an illusion, and one that is dispelled quickly by an intelligent viewer.