Size Matters – Ruff, Gursky, and Delahaye

by evanbaden

Words to know for Chapter 6:

Tableau – There seems to be no real definition (at least on the Interweb) that fits the way Fried is using the word (as there seems to be no clear definition of any of the words Fried uses repeatedly). However, it seems to me that Tableau is not simply just a “large picture”, but a photographic image that is large enough to command a presence in front of the viewer. The size of the image in relation to the size of the viewer causes the viewer to interact differently than they would with an image of smaller size.

It is also not true that it is just size (otherwise bill board ads could be considered a Tableau) but detail. One of the reasons Tableau images are large is to emphasize the detail contained within the image that would have been lost to the viewer in a smaller format.

And finally there is interaction. The viewer must be interacting with the image in some way, not simply absorbing it as we would do with advertisements, but having an engagement with it.

Facingness – Fried uses this word a number of times when talking about Ruff’s portraits. He also uses it when talking about Manet’s paintings. It refers to the sitter of an image being front on to the viewer, and refers to the notions that the face of the sitter (and indeed the work as a whole) is merely a surface, one which the viewer cannot penetrate.

Strikingness – Slightly different than facingness, strikingness is the ability of a work to stand out from other works around it. To strike the viewer and cause them to stop and interact with the piece. This word is used specifically when referring to the paintings of Manet.

Severed – A word that is used a number of times to refer to the viewers separation (somewhat violently) from the ability to have a deeper connection with the subjects contained within the artwork.

All-overness – It is what it is. The area of the image (painting) is covered from edge to edge with a somewhat uniform density.

Chevrier coins the Tableau

Jeff Wall und Jean Chevrier

Alright, time to get started. Much of Fried’s theory of the Tableau form (and indeed the coining of the term) comes from the historian and art critic Jean-Francois Chevrier. Fried believes that the development of the Tableau form in new photogrpahy has been it’s most decisive development. It began in the late 70s and built up steam in the 80s. In his essay “The Adventures of the Tableau Form in the History of Photography” from 1989, he writes:

There images are not mere prints – mobile, manipulable sheets that are framed and mounted on a wall for the duration of an exhibition and go back into their boxes afterward. They are designed and produced for the wall. summoning a confrontational experience on the part of the spectator that sharply contrasts with the habitual processes of appropriation and projection whereby photographic images are normally received and “consumed”… It is about using the tableau form to reactivate a thinking based on fragments, openness, and contradiction…

This is the quote that Fried bases most of his chapter. Fried goes on to break down (Hammer style) Chevrier’s paragraph into 4 basic chunks.

1. The Tableau works were “designed and produced for the wall”. These pieces were specifically intended to be on a wall (hence the size of the pieces). Examples include just about everyone in Fried’s book, however, he specifically sites Wall’s Destroyed Room and Ruff’s Portraits.

2. The importance of “the confrontational experience”. Fried notes that the new Tableau “marks a break with traditional modes of photogrpahic reception and consumption” because of the way that viewers will interact with the piece in an exhibition setting. Because while it was always possible for photographs to be exhibited by hanging them on a wall, but because the images were usually small viewers still had to experience them one at a time by walking up to them. Think about that mode of experiencing a work as opposed to The Raft of the Medusa (and looking at Struth’s museum photographs) where a number of people can stand back and be in dialog with the piece simultaneously. And to go even further, the viewers can acknowledge the fact the piece is a piece and that there are other viewers looking on as well.

3. I think the third point has to do with viewpoint. Also in his aforementioned essay, Chevrier writes “A picture…is only what it wants to be; there is no way of looking at it [other] than on its own terms. Painting has but one point of view; it is exclusive and absolute.” One of Fried’s main problems with Morris’s “Notes on Sculpture”, and the reason for writing “Art and Objecthood” was that Morris believed that the viewer shaped the experience they had with the sculpture as they walked around it and experienced different vantage points and light. A painting or tableau photograph cannot be viewed this way, because there is only one point of view, and the viewer is confined to that.

4. Fried says that Chevreir say that going big is something other than trying to give photography the “prestige of painting”. Although I am not sure really what Fried thinks about this fourth thing other than it also has something to do with antitheatricality and absorption.

Gettin’ Ruff

Fried focuses mostly on Ruff’s portraits for this chapter. Ruff began photographing these in 1981 while a student in Dusseldorf. They were taken of friends and acquaintances. All of the portraits follow a single set of protocols. He wanted the photographs to be as “neutral as possible” and wanted to “foreground the sitter’s face while at the same time avoiding any psychological interpretation.” This was because Ruff believe that a photograph did not have the ability to show anything but the surface of things anyway, so why should he attempt to create some psychological meaning where there was none.

The first set of photographs were photographed on different colored backgrounds and measured a paltry 18 x 24cm (7 x 9.5 inches). He began enlarging the portraits in 1986, and realized the color of the background was too dominant. He began to photograph with a blank background and a large format camera. He printed on the largest paper available, which now measured 165 x 210 cm (65 x 82 inches) which is approximately 80x larger than his original portraits. My favorite part of the entire book is that “the series came to an end in 1991 when the paper was discontinued.”

Ruff was (and maybe still is) interested in the “picture as a picture” (something that gets said over and over in this chapter). People tend to mix up photographs and reality, and Ruff is interested in thinking about photography as nothing more than a “projected surface”. Peter Galassi says that Ruff’s portraits prove that “photography is equally capable of recording everything and revealing nothing” and referrs to the portraits as “monumental icons of blankness”. Regis Durand also commented that Ruff’s portraits appeared “as highly polished surfaces, through which it rapidly appears quite vain to reach for ‘another reality.'”

Houses

Fried goes on to talk about the similarity of painting and photography with relation to both having the ability of “‘making present’ [a] social, psychic, or indeed physical being of the sitter or sitters”. However, Ruff’s images “systematically seek to frustrate the viewer’s empathic or projective or identificatory impulse ‘to draw conclusions about the lives of the people’ portrayed in them.”

All of this is to work against the viewer. To push back against the viewers want to create some sort of narrative about the sitter depicted in the image. This is not the sitter, the viewer does not know them and never will no matter how much time they spend in front of the image. This is an image of the sitter, and an image only. It is a projected surface to be thought of only as a surface.

Finally, I am going to paraphrase a paragraph of Fried’s I find particularly important to understanding the work but was entirely too long winded to retype:

By 1860 the supreme fiction, advocated by Diderot, that paintings are not made to be beheld could no longer be sustained. What took its place in Manet’s art was a new acknowledgment that paintings were indeed made to be beheld…to make not just each painting as a whole but every bit of it’s surface…face the beholder as never before…In the case of Ruff [there was] a shift of empasis from considerations of psychology or social identiy…to something more encompassing, surface-oriented, [and] in that sense abstract.

Gursky – He Must Be Important

Fried must have been feeling guilty about leaving Gursky out of the book up to this point, so he devotes pages 156-182 soley to the G-man. ( P.S. Struth, Ruff, and Gursky are all the bestest of pals and went to the same school with the same teacher (Mr. Becher) and are about the same age)

This chapter traces Gursky’s development. It begins in 1984 with Sunday Strollers, Dusseldorf Airport. There are several things that are important about this image and that Fried lists. 1) Gursky is far enough away from the people depicted in the image to loose any connection that either the photographer of viewer might feel for them. There is no “impulse toward ‘identification'”. This will be a common theme and one that Fried believes is important in it’s antitheatricality. 2) All of the people that are depicted in the image are depicted from behind which “conveys the strong impression that the onlookers are unaware of the photographer’s presence (and by implication the viewer’s).” These two elements (the distance from the subject and the depicted’s unawareness) are important to Gursky’s work and will make many appearances in this chapter.

Another piece that is seen as critical to Gursky’s development is Klausenpass, which was also made in 1984. The story goes that this image was made at the request of a friend and that it was not until Gursky enlarged the image that he recognized the small charecters scattered across the landscape of the image. Again, the separation of the viewer and photographer from the tiny figures in the image is the sole reason that the viewer feels the “tiny figures’ obliviousness to being beheld.” We instantly recognize that “the beholder [is] too far away to be engaging in any act of reciprocal seeing…[and thus] has the distinct effect of “severing” the human subject, and in effect the picture, from the beholder, thereby declaring the picture’s antitheatricality.”

In many of Gursky’s images “the viewer is both led to approach close in order to discern precisely what is going on in them and required to stand back in order to take in the picture as a whole.” I find this back and forth quite interesting. It goes beyond how we as humans can see our own reality. It allows us as viewers to realize the small details that happen in the wide area that is the world. It also points out the disconnection between all of the characters that appear in the images.

Something that also appears in a number of Gursky’s images is his vantage point, usually high above the scene that he is depicting. One of the early works that exemplifies this is Swimming Pool, Ratingen, which was made in 1987. The high vantage point and emense amount of detail (especially the small couple engaged in conversation on the bench in the lower left corner) could lead the viewer to believe that this image has a sociological interest built into it. And while Fried believes that this could be a possiblity, he finds that the severedness of the image is of utmost importance. Fried comments that because of the high vantage point and the great expanse of space covered in the image “the viewer’s feeling of remaining wholly outside the proceedings the picture depicts that he or she is “severed” not just from the doings of the swimmers and sunbathers but also from the image itself, which in that sense is formally and ontologically comprehensive and complete, however radically open to view it may also be.”

Gursky takes another step with regards to Tokyo Stock Exchange, from 1990. Peter Galassi notes that “the aloof vantage point and small figures persisted, but the crowd now filled the frame in a dense mass from edge to edge.” This is where Fried brings in term “all-overness”. The viewer still has the sense, from the high vantage point, homogeneity, and involvedness of the traders that they are unaware of being photographed.

Several things get repeated over and over in this chapter when referring to Gursky. Those important aspects of his images are:

  1. The unawareness of the subjects being beheld
  2. The penchant for viewing from behind (another clue to the unawareness)
  3. Gursky’s obsession with distance
  4. Preference for views from above – “implying an actual location – a particular spot that was occupied physically by the photographer and that we as viewers are led to occupy imaginatively in turn.

For Gursky’s images, it is particularly important that they are large. This is because “the sheer scope of his characteristic images, as well as the extraordinary profusion of fineness of detail they comprise, so far exceed the capacity of the human eye to register either – much less both together, across the entire height and width of the depicted scenes – that it seems patently impossible that the images are grounded in an originary perceptual experience”. This type of effect is something that only large prints can emphasize. If Gursky’s images were printed in a small format (such as they are in this book) they loose some, or a lot, of the effect they would normally have. The fact returns that they were designed to be on a wall, and a large one at that.

Fried then goes on to say he will comment on seven additional features of Gursky’s images, however, he actually numbers eight. I will only list them, without comment.

  1. The digital manipulation of the images – which has a “consequent loosening connection between the picture itself and its real-world source or origin.” He does this a lot which has an effect of “loosening the indexicality” that photography has long been thought to purport. Many of these are “impossible images”. Examples include Rhine II, Paris, Montparnasse, and Chicago Board of Trade.
  2. “The presence of fences, glass walls, windows, and similar elements that intervene between the viewer and the principal motifs of the works in question.” Examples include Happy Valley I, Schipol, Zurich II, and Stateville, Ilinois (IT’S A PANOPTICON). 
  3. The Diptych Form. While sometimes two seperate images like in Hong Kong Stock Exchange, Diptych, these can also include images that have been shot and composited together to form a long image such as Paris, Montparnasse. It can also be more figurative, such as in Sha Tin where the horses are pictured on the big screen, yet the track remains empty, implying there is action outside the frame and by showing that action – yet it is technically another image
  4. The absorption of the characters in the images and their unawareness of the photographer. One important thing Fried brings up (especially because it directly relates to Ruff’s portraits) “is that absorption in Gursky is consistently ‘flat’ or mechanical; nowhere is it perceived to imply the least inwardness or psychic depth on the part of his human subjects.” Examples of this are ANYTHING GURSKY HAS EVER DONE, EVER.
  5. The idea of globalization. As in Tokyo Stock Exchange, not only is the trading floor shown, but “all of its unseen machinations”. The fact Fried brings up is that globalization is “essentially invisible.” Some of the other images that speak to this are Siemens, Karlsruhe and Nha Trang, Vietnam.
  6. Distance and severing. Again examples are ANYTHING GURSKY HAS EVER DONE, EVER. For this instance though Fried brings up an unusual piece where Gursky selected fragments from The Man without Qualities and hired a typographer to set them on a page which Gursky then photographed.
  7. His relation to abstract painting. Fried gives five examples of this. 1Chicago Board of Trade vs. Pollock’s drip paintings 2Untitled I vs. Richter’s grey monochorme paintings 3Prada I and Prada II vs. anything by Donald Judd and 4Rhine II vs. Newman’s Onement I, however, Fried thinks that Noland’s Via Median is a better example.
  8. I don’t know what he his really talking about here, but I think it is everything (1-7) combined.

Delahaye – I almost forgot he was in the chapter

Fired must have been all out of breath (which is hard to imagine is possible) by this point because he spends about two seconds on Delahaye.

Delahaye is a French photographer who moved from a photojournalism bent to the art world. He began to photograph the same types of events he would have as a photojournalist, but photographed them with a view camera and printed them large. According to Quentin Bajac, “The photographs that result involve a balance of opposing forces.” The images that Delahaye produced have a “strong impression of deliberate non-engagement” and the viewer “quickly becomes aware that a basic protocol of these images rules out precisely the sort of feats of close-up capture…that one associates with photojournalism at its bravura best.”

Delahaye also uses forms of digital construction in his images. One particular example, which I am liking more and more, is A Lunch at the Belvedere. The image is of a lunch hosted by President Musharraf at the World Economic Forum. The lunch includes a number of super-important, powerful people. The image is digitally contructed from what I am guessing are negatives taking throughout the lunch and I thouroghly enjoy the way he has put the image together (reminisent of Shambroom’s Meetings). The other thing I like about this image is it’s reference to The Last Supper. I am not sure if that was intentional as it doesn’t get talked about here, but seeing as how this was at the World Economic Forum and was only several years before the collapse of that economy, I find it to be poignant.

I also like the idea that “the viewer tends to feel, at least momentarily, that the details he or she comes to invest with significance are discovered by him or her rather than delivered personally by the photographer.” It dosen’t last, but I like the idea that the viewer feels an engagement of that sort with the image. Fried also relates what Delahaye does to Wall’s idea of “near documentary”.

Finally I will finish with one quote relating Delahaye to Gursky. Fried says:

It is as though Delahaye’s panoramic pictures, antithetically to Gursky’s work, aspire in the end to yield and imaginative experience nearly like merger with the world – an aspiration that may well strike a wholly original note in contemporary photography.