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Is Photography Over? And if not, Where is it Going?

Is photography over? It’s the question that is raised by this weeks reading. Personally, no, photography is not over. I think it is just beginning actually.

We have, for the past century or so, seen the rise of the camera in the consumers hands. Photography has grown from being a specialized science to a ubiquitous part of our everyday cultural operation. It will only continue to grow and become ever more prevalent.

The more poignant question to ask is where is photography going?

Right away, I agreed with much of what Vince Aletti said in his response to the question. Especially the quote “what’s over is the narrow view of photography — the idea that the camera is a recording device, not a creative tool, and that its product is strictly representational”. In my mind this is a good way to look at where photography is going. The idea that the photograph is some sort of “document” has been dead a long while I think. I don’t really view photography (at least anything that shows up in a gallery) to be a document. My view is “if it is in a gallery, than there are intentions other than just making a document. I do still believe and appreciate the idea of the document (no matter how skewed it may be) when it comes to historic or daily events. Then, I still see the photograph very much as a document.

But for myself, and what I think holds true for much of the art world is that the camera is a device for creation, not recording. My images, or at least the way I view my images, is far from what I think of as traditional documentary. My images are very constructed, so much so that the viewer of the work should be on to that fact fairly quickly. I would highly question the intelligence of anyone that thought I had “captured” my images in the moment.

For me, my camera serves as a tool to make a piece of art, not to index the world. But I think that notion has been around for quite a while (as Aletti also points out). Artists like Gursky, Wall, Charlie White (one of my current favorites) and a number of others have been working in this vein for years now. I am coming somewhat late to the game in that respect.

I also really enjoyed Jennifer Blessing’s notions of the ever dying photography. Photography seems to be one of the few arts that has morphed so much over time. When was the last time there was a monumental breakthrough in paint brush technology that profoundly changed the way painters painted? Maybe the introduction of acrylic paint? Does that count? I don’t think I’d equate acrylic paint with the emergence and introduction of digital into the photographic toolbox.

The idea of an ever renewing media is quite interesting. And it harkens back to some of Aletti’s comments about the rebirth of a number of older processes in recent years. I remember when Ilford started making a number of the old crazy film formats (only b&w unfortunately) again. Some of the film formats (like 8×20, 12×20, 20×24) had either not been available at all or were extremely hard to find. But there has been a resurgence in interest for some of these older ways of making images.

PLdC’s answer kind of skates around the question, but he brings up an interesting point, is art relevant? For most of the world he says (and I think I agree with him, at least when we think of the high-art of contemporary galleries and museums) it is not. Photography, however, is extremely relevent to any part of the world that it has touched. As odd as it seems, taking photographs of ourselves and those close to us seems to be human nature. While it is not “art photography”, I would argue that photography has been extremely relevant to the general population of the entire world (again, for the most part). Even when we think about the way we as people, not just western civilization, receive our news. There is almost always an image attached which we usually remember over the story that was actually written.

Getting back to thinking about where photography is going–no idea. There is definitely a broadening happening among the general public. I own at least 4 devices I can think of that have cameras in them but whose main purpose is not taking photographs. And all over the world, because of the logistics, emerging nations are opting for going straight to cellular phone over building an infrastructure of landline communications. All of those phones have cameras in them. The amount of people that own cameras (worldwide) has never been higher than it is today. Where art photography is going? Not sure about that either. I think that for a number of years, mainly that last two decades the art world has been moving away from documentary work (at least in the style of the “great photographers”) and has moved the either the more narrative or ephemeral.

I am in the camp with Jennifer Blessing, that photography is not dying, and because of the constant human urge to capture the world and people around them, I think that some sort of photography will always be around. But photography is constantly evolving, now more rapidly than ever. What it will look like and how far the new digital technology will push the medium? I’m not sure anyone can say.

It’s almost 1am, Ill have to give this more attention in the morning. Not to mention the images.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art


Photography in the Age of the Internet

How has the Internet, particularly the photocentric sites that are mentioned in the articles by Manovich, Evans, and Murray, changed our notions of photography – specifically art photography? Or has it even changed?

The shift from Web 1.0 to 2.0 is something that I have long thought about. The explosion of user generated content that all the articles are very much focused on is something that is new to the world in the last 20 years. Never has there been a medium where anyone with access to the most rudimentary computer technology and a phone line been able to post their own content with the possibility (although a small possibility) of the world seeing it. Before this time there was always someone curating what the public saw. If it was a gardening magazine, then images of flowers or gardens would be shown, if it was Art Forum, then only ‘serious art’ would grace it’s pages. With the Internet, there is either very limited, or no censorship at all. The Internet is the most democratic of forums.

Lev Manovich asks the question: “Do professional artists benefit from the explosion of media content online and the easily available media publishing platforms?” I’m not sure why this question is being asked. Of course professional artists benefit. There is absolutely no downside to having the availability of the Internet if you are a professional artist. And I don’t even mean that in the sense of using the Internet to distribute your own work (which is an amazing tool for doing just that) but as source material, as a way of learning about other artists working in similar veins, as a way of learning about and drawing cultural connections between events that are occuring in real time, as a way of placing yourself in context as an artist. All of these ways (and many more) are ways in which professional artists are benefitting from the Internet.

Where is the downside of the Internet for a professional artist? I don’t see one, but I am going to play devil’s advocate for a little bit and say that, for the most established artists working in a very specific way, the Internet may misrepresent the art you as an artist are creating. Maybe your images (we’re talking about photography only here) are really large. Maybe the color is very important. In these ways, viewing the work on a screen the size of the average computer may be a drawback. Misrepresenting your work in both the way it physically looks and it’s size. But really, anyone who is serious about art and is looking at your images on the Internet should understand that a screen is not the finished work. They are just looking to get an idea of what the work looks like. And really, the onus is on the artist to put that work into context. If you as an artist working large are worried about someone viewing images online and not understanding that they are large images, then it is your responsibility to include all the information needed for the viewer to understand what that piece looks like in the real world. This could come in the form of text – stating the images size, material, and whether it is framed and so on – and images of the work installed in a space. Installation images are maybe the best way for an internet viewer to understand what your images look like in the real world. But again, it is up to the artist to provide this material. If you as an artist want to put your work out onto the Internet as a mode of dispensation, then you had better include all of the relevant context that goes with it.

And maybe you are one of those very paranoid artists who worries that someone will take that very small JPEG that you have put out into the world of the Internet and use it without crediting you? So your soloution is to not have anything available online? The museum I used to work for (or at least the director of the museum I used to work for) was very concerned about this when we were making our digital database available to the public. Worried about viewers taking images and using them for who knows what. But most of the time, the reason that people are taking those images are for educational purposes. Perhaps there is an educator putting together a slide show for a lecture and they need images. Our database was somewhere they could find those images, and many times they would credit the museum for the image.

For me, I love it when people take my images because most of the time they are taking them with the intention of spreading them, either by posting them somewhere else, using them in a lecture about a specific topic, or using them as idea generation or planning for an exhibition.

I want to tell a small story about my career to this point and how the Internet has been a large part of the small amount of success I have had. In my undergrad it was stressed to me the importance of having a website. My instructor, who currently heads up (a website to promote artists in Minnesota currently managed by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis) was always stressing web presence. He said that we should have every account available to us and be posting regular content to it. Our own website, our own blog, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Linkdn, mnartist, saatchi, and so on. The more of a web presence you have, the more chance that your work will be seen. And coincidentally, if you understand how Google works, the more links back to your own website, the higher your website will appear when someone Googles you. And, if you develop enough of a web presence, you can crowd out everyone else that may come up when your name is Googled.

I began by having my website and went out into the internet world and looked for blogs. This was in 2007 when the blogosphere was really starting to pick up. I looked for art blogs that had high traffic and where I though my images would be a good fit. I started to contact bloggers and see if they found what I was working on of interest. If they did, maybe they would write a bit about them. Then other bloggers would pick up the images and writing and repost them. I carefully tracked these things. I watched my images take on a life of their own and hop from blog to blog. The web traffic to my own site increased as the images spread. I knew that many of the people that came to my website may not stay long, but you never know who is looking. Within a year I was approached with a proposal for my first international group show. About a year later the publications started to roll in. By this time I had a second body of work up (though not completed) and the traffic drawn by the original images that were still circulating allowed viewers to see the new work, which then also left my website and entered the world on their own. Publication of the images led to blog posting about those images, which created more of a presence for them. Publications across Europe started to publish images which led to shows that have been happening in major venues over the past two years. Many times, when I am contacted for a show, the curator has only seen the images they are requesting online. Sometimes they have seen them in print. Sometimes they saw one body of work in print, but upon seeing the other online, they decided to change which work they wanted for the show.

My point in all of this is that as a very young artist I was able spread my work throughout the US, Europe, and South America in several years without any gallery representation (and really without a single gallery show). These are the positives of the Internet. If an artist (or gallery representing an artist) can understand how to work the correct venues of the Internet, the work can take on a life of it’s own and can lead to a variety of opportunities.

As far as the Internet, or these social networking sites changing photography, I don’t see it happening. What sites like Flickr allow for is a broadening of who is getting their photos looked at. There is a wider audience and a space for those who were not able to participate due to certain ‘gates to the photography world’ a place to show their work. But does it change photography fundamentally? No. As far as community sites like Flickr go, I don’t think they are anything more than aggregators. They are just collections to me, they don’t get to the level that I think Evans wants them to.

I agree with Penelope Umbrico’s view at the end of Evans’ essay. She says, “The idea of exchange and engagement with the platform itself (creating work on, with, and for this platform) is where the interesting space on the Internet is for me.” I believe I have brought this notion up in class before. As far as photography goes, the Internet is mostly a form of distribution. The art that should be happening should only be able to happen on the Internet, artwork that involves the medium of the Internet itself. Right now photography is relatable to leaves floating on a river. Some bystanders on the banks may pluck individual leaves from the river, look at them and throw them back. But artists have yet to deal with the river itself. They have yet to create work that cannot be plucked from the river, work that cannot survive outside the river. That space is where some truly revolutionary stuff could happen. The trick becomes how to leverage the economics of creating something that cannot be owned, cannot be saved as an object? How do we interpret something so transitory? With the happenings and performances that happened in the 60s artists recorded them with photography. But how do we record Internet Art? Do you sell or exhibit images or screen captures of an Internet performance? Or when making Internet Art, do you make it a piece that will continue to change and evolve, so that it is always there yet always changing. The Daily Nice doesn’t do it for me. Yes, it changes everyday, purporting to never be available again, but really? Does Evans delete the file from his drive? Is it gone from the server he placed it on? To me, The Daily Nice is not Internet Art, it is photography that uses the Internet, but only at it’s most basic level. It is still just a floating leaf.

As far as what I consider true Internet Art, I think Rafael Rozendaal is a pretty good example. He has a number of websites that are for sale. These websites are usually interactive pieces. Much of the time you have to click around and explore the piece before you figure out just what it is. When he sells a piece, he sells the domain name. There is also a contract that the buyer must sign stating that the site will remain available to the public. It is an interesting concept. What exactly the art says, I don’t know, but they are fun things to play with. It’s a start. Some of the good ones are: From the Dark Past, Please Touch Me, Into Time, Le Duchamp, Big Long Now, and Paper Toilet.

The other person I think of is Constant Dullaart. I particularly like his YouTube As A Subject pieces (although some more than others). I have provided one below.

I love the fact that he has made a YouTube video that references the fact that it is a YouTube video and nothing more. In that little flash, it comments on the medium and the problems with that medium (the fact it doesn’t really communicate anything other than frustration).

Hiphopopotomus – The Hip Hop Culture and Considerations of Race

I am going to try and be a little more thourough this week and make some points about each essay, then go off on my own for a bit.

Howard Winant starts us off this week. In The Theoretical Status of the Concept of Race he proposes that there have been two definitions of race over the past some-odd hundred years. The first is to look at race as an objective characteristic. If you are black, then you are black (and I guess you behave a certain way) and if you are white, then you are white (and I guess you behave another way) and this continues for all the other races. He says the other way that race has been looked at over the past centuries is as a social construction, architected with the intentions of subduing a certain people.

What I realized while reading this is that I have always confused terms when thinking about race. I am a big believer in evolution and that people living in certain areas developed in ways to suit those areas. I feel like that is pretty sound and scientific, although people get really touchy when talking about it. However, that is not race, that is biology. There is no objective look at race (my opinion) like the one Winant has mentioned because it is not focused on what “race” actually is. It has confused terms. That type of looking focuses on biology. The issue, and the problem with the idea of objective looking, is that even if it were the best way to look at race (which it is not), the only way to study it would be to examine people that had only had similar ancestors. In this day-in-age, that is so rare that it is stupid to even consider an “objective” look in a positive light.

And back to my original point, looking at biology is not looking at race. Much of those biological differences are only skin deep. The idea of “race” is a social construct, that is obvious to me. Which then gets to Winant’s larger point:

The main task facing racial theory today, in fact, is no longer to critique the seemingly “natural” or “commonsense” concept of race–although that effort has not by any means been entirely completed. Rather, the central task is to focus attention on the continuing significance and hanging meaning of race. It is to argue against the recent discovery of the illusory nature of race; against the supposed contemporary transcendence of race; against the widely reported death of the concept of race; and against the replacement of the category of race by other, supposedly more objective, categories like ethnicity, nationality, or class.

Something that I heard over and over again after the 2008 election was that, because of Obama’s election to U.S. President, race was no longer an issue in this country. Every time I heard that I thought “how naive”. While there has been a lot of progress made since the civil rights movement 5o years ago, race is still an immense issue in this country. I would submit the political environment today as evidence of those issues. No other President in recent years has drawn as much scorn as Obama has. From accusations that “he is not a citizen” to “he was not born in the U.S.” to “he is a muslim attempting to undercut the great and infallible Christian religion.” And these are not argued by a small extreme group, Fox News proudly has Donald Trump on to discuss the investigation into Obama’s birth certificate. I am curious to see, when the next white President is elected, if he has to go through such hoops.

The questions I have are “how do we get to a point where ‘race’ is no longer a determining factor in how we view people?”, “should we get to a point where ‘race’ is no longer a determining factor in how we view people?”, and “would our country be a better place to live if we were to dismantle the idea of ‘race’?” While “race” can be viewed as a negative, there are also a lot of people that proudly identify with their “race” and heritage. I don’t, in fact I don’t even really know what mine is completely, but would it be a disservice to eliminate “race” for those that do proudly identify with it? One of the big criticisms of America is that it absorbs all cultures and strips people within a generation or so of all of their cultural history and homogenizes them into “Americans”, even if other sections of the population do not view them as so.

I did think that Barbara Jeanne Fields had an interesting quote from an article that Winant cited. She said, “…once historically acquired, race becomes hereditary.” I found that really interesting, although I am still trying to grapple with whether it is correct or not. If you learn your “race” a certain way, will you be doomed to act in accordance with it? While I think the statement has some merit, I also think there are about a million other factors that figure into America’s race issue. Those include the monstrously large issues of income disparity and education disparity, which in tandem are able to keep a certain population of people at bay.

I think one proposed solution could be to attempt to strip the economic and educational barriers that have been imposed on minorities and to let the cultural identity remain. Maybe there is no way to save cultural identity. Capitalism’s nature, and it’s greatest defense mechanism, is to absorb and adopt anything that stands in it’s way, that includes cultural identity. So maybe, regardless of what is done, any cultural identity will be lost.

This line of thinking is just creating more questions than it is answers, so I will move on.

Next up were two articles by Holland Cotter. The first was a review of Only Skin Deep, a show which took place at the International Center of Photography and that examined race and racial identity throughout America’s history. He enjoys the fact that show covers such a broad range of racial exploration, bringing in images from pre civil war all the way up to the contemporary and juxtaposing those images. He pulls out several examples of images he thinks fit well. However, his one disappointment is the lack of content that he finds with some of the images. Some of the more famous images are fine because the context is already known, but there are lots of images that have no labels and no context, leaving the viewer unawares to what the image means or how it fits with the tenor of the show overall. He is disappointed that the catalog, which would have been a good place to have covered this, did not. There were lots of great essays, but it seems that he wishes it would have gone further.

The next article by Cotter was more enlightening than the review. Here he begins to examine the issue of multiculturalism in the contemporary art market. This article really made me think about Lorraine O’Grady, more on that in a minute. Cotter delves into the problem with the art market and the attempt to diversify it. He begins by noting that the racial make-up of the US has changed radically over the last 50 years, however the art market has remained much the same, dominated by whites.

There was an attempt to diversify, and there was much worry about doing so. What Cotter finds is:

neither the best hopes nor worst fears were realized. Instead, a middling solution was struck, one that seemed to serve everybody’s purposes but had intrinsic liabilities. Instead of a periphery-to-center integration, group affiliations were drawn deeper along racial and ethnic lines. Black shows, Latino shows, Asian-American shows proliferated. A theory-based way of talking about art, race and culture was brought in from academia and served for a while as an empowering common language, but it soon became diluted through overuse and misuse.

I really like where he ended up going with this argument. Although much progress has been made, the idea of having shows based on racial lines creates a number of problems. The advantages of these types of shows, he points out, are that more artists that have been marginalized in the past have a chance to exhibit art, and therefore the possibility to expand beyond the small scope of those exhibitions. The problem is that it pigeonholes those artists into only being able to make work about race. And while race is still a large issue in America, you shouldn’t be relegated to having it as your only subject matter just because you are not white. It reminds me of a quote from Lorraine O’Grady’s talk. As an answer to one of the questions from the audience, she said, “most of the artists that I know that consider themselves ‘post-black’ are making work about ‘blackness.'” That was so interesting and insightful to me.

Cotter also brings up the fact that only a few of these artists are embraced, making it seem like there is growing progress in the mainstream art market. He says:

The art world, market-driven and self-protectively conservative, operates on a token system and always has. It chooses a black, Latino or Asian artist and assiduously promotes each one. Recycled in A-list shows and handed endless prizes, these artists come to represent all the other ”others” not present. It’s no surprise that before long the chosen few begin to be talked about resentfully as affirmative-action cases.

He finishes by noting that post-black or post-ethnic may be the way to go and that even though shows that are drawn upon ethnic or racial lines are problematic, they are many times still the only option for artists of racial minorities to exhibit work.

Finally we get to the behemoth (okay, not really) essay The Sound of Light: Reflections on Art History in theVisual Culture of Hip-Hop by Krista Thomson. I found this piece really interesting in how it examines the way that light is used to exemplify the audacity that is current rap culture.

I can already tell I will be going off on a number of tangents during this part of the post. The first thing I want to talk about is what I see as the timeline of hip hop to rap. I don’t really believe that hip hop exists anymore, nor did it exist for very long. Generally, the birth of hip hop is traced back to late 70s and the collapse of the disco era. The first major artists to break through in the hip hop genre were artists like Run D.M.C, Will Smith, Slick Rick, and LL Cool J. These artists were making music that did not often deal with the problems of race. There were some that were dealing with race, one of those being Public Enemy.


With NWA and Ice-T on the west coast, I think hip hop began to die. Now there was a lot of focus on “race” and the situations that many young black men living in poverty were finding themselves in. The success of this sub-genre led to the notion that it was commercially viable. Dr. Dre and his portage Snoop Dog would come to prove how lucrative this could be.

Capitalism’s best defense mechanism is to adopt, and as with many things that begin to revolt against a current capitalist system, rap became part of the system. By the late 90s and into the 2000s, mainstream rap was diluted (for the most part) into a substance-less money making machine. This would be the era that coined the term “bling”. Toward the mid-2000s there was a slight change in some of the mainstream with the emergence of conscious rappers such as Blackstar (Mos Def and Talib Kweli), Planetary, Esoteric, Common, J-Live and the largest commercially of the group, Kanye West.

I think Kanye West is a particularly interesting example of both falling into the tropes of commercially controlled rap music and trying to rebel against the establishment. I just want to talk for a minute about the song All Falls Down, his first single that was played over the radio off his first album, The College Dropout. Thomson mentions that West is one of the few rappers that makes references to slavery, and I think also the current state of black affairs in America. Thomson refers to the same song. It struck a cord with me because when it was released I was taking a course on black culture that focused on the time period from the slave trade through civil rights. From the song All Falls Down:

We shine because they hate us, floss cause they degrade us
We trying to buy back our 40 acres
And for that paper, look how low we a’stoop
Even if you in a Benz, you still a nigga in a coop (coupe)

West makes specific references both to the promises made to slaves (that they would receive 40 acres and a mule) and that he tries to gain acceptance from the white majority by purchasing “things”, however, even if you have made enough money to buy a Mercedes, you are still just viewed as “a nigga in a coop (coupe).” He continues on in  All Falls Down:

We buy our way out of jail, but we can’t buy freedom
We’ll buy a lot of clothes when we don’t really need em
Things we buy to cover up what’s inside
Cause they make us hate ourself and love they wealth
That’s why shortys hollering “where the ballas’ at?”
Drug dealer buy Jordans, crackhead buy crack
And a white man get paid off of all of that
But I ain’t even gon act holier than thou
Cause fuck it, I went to Jacob with 25 thou
Before I had a house and I’d do it again
Cause I wanna be on 106 and Park pushing a Benz
I wanna act ballerific like it’s all terrific
I got a couple past due bills, I won’t get specific
I got a problem with spending before I get it
We all self conscious I’m just the first to admit it

106 and Park with Kanye West and 50 Cent

In this second example, we can see West commenting on some of the very things Thomson mentions. First, West makes mention that he has been made to “love they wealth”, which would refer back to Thomson’s notions of rap stars cueing on the classic portrayal of the rich white man, although in West song he is referring to the slave owner and not necessarily European royalty. He also mentions “bling” by referring to “Jacob”, also known as Jacob the Jeweler – the best known jeweler to rap stars, claiming to have purchased $25,000 worth of jewelry before buying himself a house. He also mentions the idea of being seen stating, “I wanna be on 106 and Park pushing a Benz,” making the reference to the popular rap chart show “106 and Park” on BET. He wants to be seen with his Mercedes, one of the trademark signs of success in the rap world. And just as a side note, West routinely referrs to himself as the “Louis Vuitton Don.”

I really liked Thomson’s examples of the prom goers hiring photographers to make them feel like stars. The first thing I thought of was the MTV show “My Super Sweet 16”, a show focused on rich teens who wanted to have blowout 16th birthday parties. These parties were all about them being the star of the party and everyone adoring them. I think this is a perfect example of the crossover that the rap culture of excess has had on youth. Many photographers are usually hired at these events to make the birthday boy or girl feel like they are famous. MTV heightens that experience by actually putting it on TV. I also like the notion that the kids are not actually concerned about the real images that are captured at the event, but it being more about creating a mind-image of themselves being watched. Berger talks about this phenomenon with advertising, substituting yourself for the person in the ad, wanting to be idealized and idolized.

I find Thomson’s observations about the music video especially right-on. I was hoping she would talk about the videos as I was reading. I especially like the idea of the glowing black skin. Thomson mentions that “Bodily shine helped to increase slaves’ worth.” I immediately thought of video vixens, and West’s video for Golddigger (about a woman trying to get at your money) is a prime example. The video, directed by Hype Williams, showcases a number of beautiful black women, however, it over-sexualizes them, many times only showing specific–sexualized–parts of them. By presenting the women in this way, it commodifies them and turns them into desirable objects instead of a person. This video is also a perfect example of the shine used on their (the women’s) bodies.

The videos are also important because they allow the viewer (and listener) to visualize the ‘conspicuous consumption’ that may be hard to visualize by just listening to the music. Lil’ Wayne’s Lollipop would be a good example of this visualization. The song is not really about possesions, however, the video is filmed in Las Vegas, at a mansion, and in a limousine. Even though the song does not mention any of these specific things, picturing them allows the viewer (and in the future when they are just listening and not viewing) to envision themselves singing the song in those locations, becoming the star.

I also just want to take a moment to look at how Pop-country has adopted the same visual effects that rap videos have used to elevate the stars. While the two musical worlds seem very different, they are actually quite similar. The use of lights and flashing things, as well as adopted terminology such as “bling” help to bring the musical genres closer. And as with both pop-country and mainstream contemporary rap, the videos and lyrics are all about being seen and possessions.

I only really want to focus on two of the artworks featured in Thomson’s writing. The first is the painting St. Sebastian II by Kehinde Wiley. The pose is what interests me in this painting. Thomson thinks “his pose could also be read as much as a gesture protecting himself from the glare of lights as basking in its visibility.” This was not at all what I thought about looking at this painting. The first thing I thought of was that the figure posing looked like he was being pressed against a pane of glass. This was mainly because of the way that the figure’s head is turned. Then I noticed his hands, one stretched out above him a nd the other behind his back. The first thing that came to my mind with this pose is that this is the pose that someone who is getting arrested makes. Usually they are pressed up against a car hood or window, told to raise their arms, then the police officer places hand cuffs on one hand, bringing it down and behind his back. Then the other arm is brought down. This is the pose just before the second wrist is cuffed. I think it is an interesting juxtaposition and I would be interested to hear Wiley’s take on the pose. Many of his poses are glorifying, but this pose seems different and I think that the reference that I have picked up is hard to miss.

The other artist, and one I am glad that Thomson chose to include was Paul Pfeiffer. I remember watching his videos for extended periods of time. The way that black athletes are animalized is interesting. It makes me think of a recent Vogue cover featuring basketball star Lebron James and supermodel Giesel Bundchen. The cover was much criticized for falling prey to a number of racial tropes, most notably the angry animalized black man with the helpless white women


While I can’t find it anywhere, there is a video that Paul Pfeiffer has made of a basketball player celebrating after making a basket. The imagery in the video captures a lot of what has been talked about in Thomson’s piece. There are camera flashes going off all over in the crowd, the player looks into the camera and screams, appearing to be in pain. I find this work both beautiful and a fitting comment on the power dynamics of the NBA, which mimics power dynamics between white slave owners and their slaves. Basically a bunch of really rich white guys effectively “own” players (a great percentage of whom are black and from inner city neighborhoods) and make them compete against each other. Now those players may be making significant amounts of money, but the relation to the slave trade is hard to ignore. That being said, I love basketball and the Celtics. Go Celtics!

The last thing I am going to mention, and this will be quick because I am tired. But I wish I had the time to fully examine the power dynamics between white and black when it comes to the rap industry. Many of the labels that rap artists belong to are run by white men. These labels tend to be the one’s that reinforce black stereotypes to their audiences. The labels that are owned by black owners, such as Dr. Dre and Jay-Z, tend to be willing to take more chances on experimentation and music about racial impact. Kanye West tells the story on the final track of his first album about how he went to a number of white-owned record labels looking for representation and was told that “Jesus Walks” one of his many single hits, could not be played in a club. It was finally Jay-Z’s record label, Rockafella, that was willing to take West on. It is great to think that there has been a lot of advancement made, but then, when you take a closer look at the images that are being put forth to a young audience, and it is sometimes hard to see the progress.

Mark Reinhardt – The Ethics Continued

This week’s reading was interesting, but in a different sort of way. Where Sontag just poses questions over and over again, Reinhardt attempts to find artists (photographers in this case) that are trying to break with what Sontag found so problematic. He is also interested in the idea of beauty and aesthetics, something that he rightly does not believe are the same thing but thinks that many mistake one for the other. The essay comes from a catalog that accompanied an exhibition titled Beautiful Suffering and that was exhibited in 2006.

Subversion of Suffering

The Abu Ghraib photos are an interesting example of picturing suffering. I find them interesting because they were created with an entirely different intention. These were not images that were created to cry out to the public about the tragedies that were being committed at Abu Ghraib, these were images that were originally produced to humiliate the prisoners. And while there had been reports of torture being committed by the guards, as Anthony Lewis pointed out, “it was seeing the mistreatment that produced the outrage.”

But it was interesting to read about how those images ended up being published. In many cases, specifically those involving nudity, the genitalia were blurred but many of the faces were left. However, as Reinhardt points out:

“American newspapers and magazines did conclude that decency required the suppression of many photographs and the alteration of others, but these editorial decisions appeared to be focused more on the readership’s sense of propriety than on the dignity of the tortured…Pictures deliberately blurred genitalia to the point of illegibility. Faces, however, apparently required no such digital drapery: in the Post, as in most other publications, they were not altered. And so the victims were identifiable and – since many of these photographs remain in circulations – anyone may still look at them, endlessly extending the moment of violation.”

But the question then remains, should the images have ever come out? I still think it is important for these images to have been released, because I think it is the only way that those responsible will be held accountable for their actions. The debate about what to blur then becomes the matter. The story gets interesting though, because when the ALCU filed a FOIA request to get a look at the rest of the images, the government fought the request by sighting the Geneva Conventions, “arguing that releasing photographs from Abu Ghraib would be a form of public humiliations and would thus constitute a violation of [those] Conventions.” So, what I guess was said was that using photography in private to humiliate a torture a human being is fine, only when releasing those images to a larger audience (larger than the one that the soldiers were threatening the prisoners with sending the images to) does it become a violation of the Geneva Conventions and “public humiliation.”

This reminds me of a case that just happened and the subsequent law that was passed in Iowa. In Iowa, an animal rights group had members apply to work on farms and then filmed abuses that were taking place. They then put the footage together and made a PSA about animal cruelty. Farmers were upset (I guess about the fact that they don’t treat their animals very well?) and so the Iowa legislature, in all it’s great wisdom, decided to enact a law that states it is illegal to get a apply for a job in the farming industry with the intention of filming abuses. That action is not punishable by a year in prison plus a fine. The lawmakers say that this won’t prevent abuses from being filmed by other employees, just not by employees that intended to do it before they were hired. However, that is one slippery slope. I’m curious what would happen if we applied this to human suffering?

Stopping back by Abu Ghraib for a minute, I found the section about Ali Qaissi admitting that he was the hooded man in the now famous image extremely interesting. First, it was interesting to hear about someone using the images for their own purpose, in a sense taking back some of the power from those that had humiliated him. But then to learn that he had lied and was not indeed the person in the photograph (although he was a prisoner and tortured). It would seem that he did gain some notoriety because of it as well. I see that as co-opting the suffering of another even though he still experienced something like it first hand. It is an interesting situation.

I can’t believe that I am going to be writing about Ruff again, but I found the section about Ruff’s JPEG images, specifically the one of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 especially important. While there are many images of suffering in the world, Ruff’s image jpeg ny01 seems to escape some of the classic tropes of what constitutes an image of suffering. The biggest aspect being that there is no physical suffering pictured. Granted, because we know the event (a strong reference in American, and much of Western culture) we as viewers understand that there are people suffering inside. But they are not pictured here for us to see, we only have the allusion to that suffering. The image goes further though. The image is highly pixelated. This is important for two reasons. First, it distorts the image even further. Which disassociates the suffering and further removes it. Even though we know there is suffering to be had inside the building, the distortion prevents the viewer from looking for that suffering. It, like much of Ruff’s previous work, creates only a projected surface to be looked at and makes it difficult for the viewer to penetrate the image and in effect be ‘in’ the picture. The second aspect of the distortion is to recall or reference both the media coverage of the event, perhaps making a comment on how images of suffering such as this one are portrayed and broadcast to a large public audience effectively turning an event of mass devastation and suffering into a form of entertainment to be viewer repeatedly, as well as the mass spreading of images like this through social media and reposting (which each time degrades the quality of the original image).  Reinhardt says, “Ruff’s photograph also invites doubt or anxiety about its own labor.” Ruff’s image is more a comment on the culture that created it rather than a cry for help or mercy for those pictured suffering in the image. This image does not promote outcry nor is it supposed to.

The other person that is talked about in the essay is Shimon Attie and her Steinstrasse 22. This is another example of a subversion of the photographing of suffering. This work focused on an area of Berlin that had once been a Jewish area, however, after the second world war it had been cleared out of it’s previous inhabitants. Attie went back and projected images of the former residents. These were not photos from concentration camps, but were many times photographs from before the war began. Therefore, while many of those pictured had presumably suffered and many had been murdered, they were not suffering in the images presented. What Attie’s work does is to point to the fact that someone that was here, as certain people as a whole, have disappeared. Everyone knows why, but the image acknowledges the fact that they have been removed. Reinhardt mentions that these “photos cannot but conjure the policy of systematic murder.” I find this attempt a smart subversion of what we think of as picturing suffering.

I find it interesting that the photos that are also critiqued in this essay are the one’s that Attie took of the projections. I am not sure why it is necessary to critique these. I understand that the images that Attie took are what is exhibited, but this work is much more conceptual than photographic. I don’t think that the art is on the gallery wall in this case, the art is the performance and the experience of the projection. The images that Attie actually took are just documents of that performance. This is equivalent to critiquing some of Vitto Acconci’s photographs instead of the performance that they document and to me, the critique of Attie’s photographs is totally irrelevant.

One other artist I’ll bring in to the conversation is someone I have written about before. I will just copy in what I said about them earlier:

Broomberg and Chanarin – The Press Conference

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.

Aesthetics v. Beauty

The other aspect that Reinhardt writes about is the idea of ‘beautification’ and ‘aestheticization’. I think that these two things are different, yet I have mixed them up in the past as well. The idea that an image of suffering can be aesthetically pleasing and that it can be beautiful are two very different things. As photographers, we inherently take aesthetically pleasing photographs. That is the difference (supposedly) between a photographer and someone with a camera. That aestheticization can have the effect of making people look. As bad as it is to say, viewers do not look at aesthetically unpleasing photographs. If you are someone who wishes to convey a sense of suffering and perhaps urge viewers of the image to be of some help to those pictured, that image must, in a sense, be attractive. Does that mean the image has to beautiful? No.

To defend Nachtway to an extent–although I have a number of other issues with him–his images are aesthetically pleasing, but an example like Sudan does not appear beautiful, at least not to me. Maybe where Delahay’ s images fail is that they are beautiful. They are not simply well-composed photographs, but because of how he shoots, how he prints, and how he exhibits, he has turned them into beautiful, covetable objects. Once they become collectable objects, any aspiration for a message to the viewer, a cry for help, evaporated.

I find that this is the problem with some of Salgado’s work as well. He photographs people with extremely hard lives, and transforms that form of suffering into beautiful objects. Things to be coveted. And when that happens, the viewer begins to care more about the object than the people pictured. I think that is what Sontag was getting at, but I think she used the wrong vocabulary. We are photographers and we inherently  make well-composed, aesthetic images. Those images make people look, but that does not mean that they have to be beautiful things.

Oh The Humanity! – Gettin’ Ethical

This week we take a look at the ethics of photography. Primarily looking at the ethics of photographing suffering. For the weeks reading we look at two authors that have very different views of the issue.

First off is Susan Sontag and her book Regarding the Pain of Others. She reduces a lot of her argument to the fact that she has witnessed so much suffering (through the onslaught of images she sees) that she, as well as much of the population that views these images, has been desensitized to that suffering. The suffering she witnesses no longer affects her the way it once did.

Guy Debord – He's Either Smoking or Drinking in Every Picture I Found

Sontag mentions Guy Debord and his piece The Society of the Spectacle. I find this reference interesting because when I read The Society of the Spectacle last semester I found that a lot of the little arguments he made still apply today to technologies that had not even been fathomed when the piece was written. This reference also made me think immediately of the events of 9/11. I think the media coverage of that particular day goes towards Sontag’s desensitization argument, but it also works another way as well.

On September 11, 2001, news outlets like CNN and FOX and just about any other channel with a camera (or feed) out of New York that day continually had the viewers fixed to the single smoking tower. Then the plane crashing into the second tower. Then both of the towers burning. Then finally, the towers falling. First one, then the other. When there was no more destruction to be witnessed “live” the news outlets turned to the replay. The towers falling were replayed over and over and over. And the footage was not just replayed, but condensed. There was no bread given between each oh those events. They simply showed them one after the other. Over and over. It was like a concentrated version of horror, like a horror movie put in a pot, boiled down to only the death, and with just a sprinkle of ominous commentary.

While this had the effect of desensitization, it also made the event understandable to the audience. A common description by people that have witnessed a horrific event is that it was as if they were in a movie witnessing the event. Recently, that has been turned around and it has been theorized that people can now only understand and come to grips with severely tragic events if they are dramatized and put together as if they were a movie. Just take a look at any coverage of prolonged horrific events in the news media. It is turned into a narrative, with photos, videos, interviews, and commentary. All of this is to distill the horror and make it understandable to mainstream viewers.

Azoulay has a different take on the idea of photographing suffering or horror (and one which I was much more interested in, maybe because I have heard the Sontag argument over and over and over – I’m desensitized). It is one that I think makes more sense to me. Sontag’s reading I think is too simplified for such a complicated topic.

The Photograph as a record

Photography has the ability, unlike any other media before it, to record events. While there are a number of considerations that can lead to a specific reading of an image, it is important to remember that the photograph records – it is up to the viewer to interpret what has been recorded. About this notion, Azoulay says:

no photographer, even the most gifted, can claim ownership of what appears in the photograph. Every photograph of others bears the traces of the meeting between the photographed persons and the photographer, neither of whom can, on their own, determine how this meeting will be inscribed in the resulting image.

So both the photographer and the person that they photograph will have an impact on the image that is created. Which in theory means that it is impossible for a photographer to go out into the world and make photographs (at least the kind that are being referred to) by themselves. I would go further and say that it is not only the photographer and photographed that are responsible for the image, but the viewer as well (as Azoulay would say later). If we are like Sontag and simply “close our eyes” we have done a disservice not only to the photographer but to the photographed and the meeting and political circumstance that resulted in the image before us. As Azoulay goes on to note, it is our civic duty, as citizens of humanity, to use the photograph to question how we as a people are ruled by our elected (or not) powers. She says:

[While] the photograph bears the seal of the photographic event…a viewing of the photograph that reconstructs the photographic situation and allows a reading of the injury inflicted on others becomes a civic skill, not an exercise in aesthetic appreciation [as Sontag would have us believe]…The civil spectator has a duty to employ that skill the day [he/]she encounters photographs of those injuries – to employ it in order to negotiate the manner in which she and the photographed are ruled.

Captain Jonathan Walker

I think the perfect example of this is the photograph The Branded Hand of Captain Jonathan Walker by Southworth and Hawes. Here is an image of a hand with the letters SS (for “slave stealer”) branded into his skin. While this is just a photograph, it was used and disseminated to create a wider awareness of the greater problem. Azoulay says:

The photographic act initiated by Walker did not challenge the penalty that had already been seared into his flesh. The challenge was of another type, including three dimensions: to the content of the court ruling, according to which the assistance that Walker provided to seven human beings to escape slavery was a criminal act; to the sable meaning of the punishment, part of which was manifested through inscribing a mark of shame on the body; and to the boundaries defining the community authorized to reinterpret the court ruling.

Even in the very beginning, the presence of the idea of the photographic record as a way to not only record an event or artifact in a believable way but to attempt to realize social change existed.


Welcome to Gaza

Azoulay seems to be interested much more in the politics surrounding a certain image, especially the idea of citizenship and civic duty and all that those words mean.  Azoulay sees Sontag and Barthes looking at photographs the wrong way. She says, “They threaten to seal the photographs within a protective shield that will turn the photographed people into evidence that something ‘was there.’” Barthes and Sontag are viewing the photographs as if the photographed people and the events pictured within have been lost to the past, as if they no longer exist except in photograph form, but that is not always the case. Azoulay goes on to say:

When these photographs are watched, not looked at, when they are read both out of and into the space of the political relations instated by photography, they seem – conversely – to testify to the fact that the photographed people were there. When the assumption is that not only were the photographed people there, but that, in addition, they are still present there at the time I’m watching them, my viewer of these photographs is less susceptible to becoming immoral.

Anat Saragusti

Sontag and Barthes, with their arguments, reduce the importance of the person in the photograph. They turn that person into an object, an artifact that becomes “evidence that something ‘was there.’” I think that kind of thinking is what allows us as viewers to aestheticize those in the images, and thus brings up the issues that Sontag grapples with. However, when we do as Azoulay says, and remember that in many of the images of suffering that we see, the suffering – the struggle – did not end with the press of the shutter, it continues on. Remembering this is important because then larger issues about the events surrounding an image (events that in many instances still continue to be perpetrated) will become a larger part of the discussion of the image. Azoulay continues on to say, “The Civil Contract of Photography is an attempt to anchor spectatorship in civic duty toward the photographed persons who haven’t stopped being ‘there,” toward dispossessed citizens who, in turn, enable the rethinking of the concept and practice of citizenship.”


Initially when we see someone suffering in an image, then see that image hung in a gallery and aestheticized (an consequently sold for what sometimes seems ridiculous sums of money), we think of exploitation of those pictured by the photographer, gallery, and viewer. However, I think this is too simplified, too easy of an explanation of what is happening.  Photography should be thought of as a participatory act. While this is not true in all cases (and seems especially relevant to the images that Azoulay is writing about), in many cases those being photographed are aware that they are being photographed. In some of those cases, those being photographed realize that this (the act of being photographed and recorded) can be a means for them to express their anger/despair/distain/plea to the rest of the world – a world that may not know about their struggle if not for the camera, operated by the photographer. Azoulay makes this point by saying:

The relations between the three parties involved in the photographic act – the photographed person, the photographer, and the spectator – are not mediated through a sovereign power and are not limited to the bounds of a nation-state or an economic contract. The users of photography thus reemerge as people who are not totally identified with the power that governs them and who have new means to look at and show its deeds, as well, and eventually to address this power and negotiate with it – citizen and noncitizen alike.

Anat Saragusti

She makes another great point of this earlier in the chapter when speaking about an image of a Palestinian shopkeeper whose shop was broken into by Israeli soldiers. About the encounter, she says:

On encountering the photographer, Anat Saragusti, the merchant faced the camera and demonstrated directly, for all to witness, evidence of the damage caused to him, the lock of his store forced open and destroyed by Israeli paratroopers sent in to break the strike. The photographed subjects of numerous photographs participate actively in the photographic act and view both this act and the photographer facing them as a framework that offers and alternative – weak though it may be – to the institutional structures that have abandoned and injured them, that continue to shirk responsibility toward these subjects and refuse to compensate them for damages. [This] presumes the existence of a civil space in which photographers, photographed subjects, and spectators share a recognition that what they are witnessing is intolerable.

Azoulay is noting that photography requires subjects to be in front of the camera and that those in front of the camera have a power of their own. The other point she is making is that photography is not only participatory, but also can be an active agent against the state, which, while using photography itself, does not own ‘photography’ nor its operators. Photography has the ability to “look at and show [the state’s] deeds,” which is what is happening in this image and in many of the images of suffering that we witness on a daily basis.

Size Matters – Ruff, Gursky, and Delahaye

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.'”


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.

Chapter 2 – Never Has a Man Used so Many Words to Say so Little.

This man is also named Michael Fried. Only he is a Gastrologist

In chapter two of Fried’s book, his primary concern is with the absorption vs theatricality argument. He particularly focuses on the absorption side of that battle. He relates three of Wall’s images (portraits?) and one of Gerhard Richter’s paintings (which I find somewhat interesting in that they are paintings and not photographs, yet they do hearken back to photography because of the source images) as well as paintings by Chardin, Caravaggio, and Manet.


For the first half of the chapter, Fried examines Wall’s photograph Adrian Walker, Artist, Drawing From a Specimen in a Labaoratory in the Dept. of Anatomy at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, 1992. In Wall’s photograph, the viewer is looking in on an artist who is drawing from a preserved arm. The artist does not appear to realize that the camera is present and taking the image. Yet he is neither absorbed in his own drawing nor the object he is drawing from. He is at the point where he has just finished his drawing and is contemplating what he has just accomplished. This is where the absorptive mode that Fried is talking about is exemplified. Adrian Walker is not simply acting out what it is like to be in his world; he is fully engaged with it. This probably has something to do with the fact that this moment, at some point in time has actually existed. Adrian Walker (the actual man in the photo) was an artist who asked the anatomy department if draw from their specimens. Wall says that “there was such a moment in the creation of his drawing, but the moment depicted in the picture is in fact not that moment, but a reenactment of it. Yet it is probably indistinguishable from the actual moment.”

Fried relates Adrian Walker to three paintings by Chardin, however I will only be talking about two of them. The first is of a young draftsman working at a table (which seems to be somehow directly related to Adrian Walker, especially seeing as how Wall has mentioned Chardin by name in an interview.) In this painting, the figure seems to be wholly engrossed by whatever he is drawing, however, instead of being involved in the action of drawing, but instead in a moment of contemplation of the drawing he is creating (perhaps trying to figure out what to do next.)

The other painting is of a young man playing a card game, although the title is The House of Cards. The character in the second of the two paintings seems to be more absorbed in his own activity whereas the character in the first seems to be more along the lines of what Wall is striving to accomplish in his own image. Fried has some theory about the cards in the open drawer, one facing the viewer and one facing away, representing both the acknowledgement of the viewer and the paintings “facingness” (the card facing the viewer) and the absorption and “sealed off consciousness” of the character. And while I too agree there is some meaning in the cards (especially the Jack of Hearts) that are left in the drawer, I don’t think it was intended to mean what Fried thinks.

However, what is important to take away is that many of the images talked about in this chapter create the “fiction that the beholder does not exist.” I think this is an important aspect of Wall’s photographs, because while they create that fiction, by their sheer size and clarity, they also refute the fiction they create. It is a nice duality in the images.

Moving to Wall’s After “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue, 1999-2001, we find the same absorptive mode. About the relation between Adrian Walker and “Invisible Man” Fried says, “What the two have in common is that each is ‘a picture of someone engaged in his occupation and not paying any attention to, or responding to the fact that his being observed by the spectator.’” However, “Invisible Man” is different from Adrian Walker in one key way, and that is the setting. This time it is not a found stage, nor is it a redocument of a moment previously experienced. This is the big break between the two images, because where in Adrian Walker we can believe (at least shortly) that the character has no idea we (the viewer) exist, in “Invisible Man” we know that the work is pure fiction, and we are given a large clue in the form of the title relating to a work of fiction, not a “real moment” as in Adrian Walker. Fried says:

Wall…[can] work against the grain of photographic spatialization and world-deprivation – of its address to a subject who ‘looks explicitly’ at the photograph and all it depicts…it is above all the viewer’s awareness of the fact that Wall’s Invisible Man is posing for the camera and that his surrounding s have been laboriously constructed by the photographer…[which] reduces to a minimum any tendency on the part of the viewer to ‘identify’ with the protagonist and on the other actively promotes the kind of imaginative engagement with a philosophical reflection on the larger import of the picture that I have been pursuing here.

Again, in this image, Fried marvels at Wall’s ability to both create the fiction of the character and acknowledge that fiction to the viewer.

What I thought maybe the most interesting part of the chapter came from a quote from Wall himself.  When asked by Robert Enright during an interview why a copy of Don Quixote appeared in Wall’s image Adrian Walker, wall replies:

The picture is factual. The man who is named in the title is in fact the person Adrian Walker; that is the corner of the anatomy lab where he worked. It’s all real…I might have moved the lamp over a little bit, but I didn’t change anything. The picture is an example of what I call “near documentary.”

The idea of “near documentary” is something that I think a lot of photographers have been playing with for sometime, however, (and maybe this is just my lack of looking further into the art world) this is the first instance where I have heard the term.

In a recent blog post from Auckland Art Gallery about Wall’s recent work, they make a nice comment about the “near documentary.” They say:

Today, the term ‘documentary’ is used much more hesitantly. Post-modernism caused this shift because new approaches to camera work appeared that validated the trope of ‘fabricated to be photographed’ imagery. Two of the most notable practitioners of this mode of image construction are Jeff Wall and Cindy Sherman.

Jeff Wall’s art has recently shifted in its nature and direction. It has become less art historical in its referencing and more connected with an expression of streetwise experience. Jeff has a fascinating show at Marian Goodman Gallery in New York until 21 January 2012. The gallery’s promotion of the show is perceptive: “In these new works the artist continues to address the neo-realist and near-documentary concerns at the core of his practice for the past decades.”

Near-documentary? Marian Goodman’s press-release further states that Wall’s art is a “hybrid integration of the documentary and the cinematographic, the ‘street’ and the monumental, two directions he has pursued simultaneously, while being partial to neither.”

This is a really interesting method of working to me, probably because it again relates somewhat to the ways I have thought about my own working process. I can think of a couple other artists that work or have worked in this vein at one point or another.

Chicago Board of Trade

The first that comes to mind is Gursky. While not finding models to pose in his images, the images are constructed through many exposures to create scenes that could be real, yet they sit on the cusp of being believable as “real.”

Untitled (McDonald's)

Another artist I can think of is Angela Strassheim, who has (at least for one body of work) recreated moments from her own childhood. Staged moments reinterpreting past experiences. Her images have a “caught-in-the-momentness” (I am becoming Friedarian), however, when seeing her images at scale and clarity, the viewer questions how these images could have been captured without the characters in the image realizing the camera was there.

And while these two examples have a similar kind of “precieved reality” that Wall’s photos do, the bodies of work waiver to and from those types of images whereas Wall’s photos all exhibit the same perceptual duality.

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.

Wall – Dead Troops

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.

Raft of the Medusa

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 – The Press Conference

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.

Raft of the Medusa (100 Mile House) #1 from Adad Hannah on Vimeo.

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.

Jeff Wall – Destroyed Room

The Death of Sardanapalus

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.

What is Contemporary?

What is Contemporary Art? I have always thought that it we call the art we make now contemporary because we don’t know what to call it, and we won’t for another 20 or 30 years. I also wonder whether all times of art making have had this much diversity when it comes to subject matter, medium, and style? And maybe there always has been great variety in art making around the world, and only a few definitive styles have been able to stand the test of time. Or maybe what has changed in our ability to see and be influenced by all art instead of only what is in our general geographical location.

I think this is a large part of what Alexander Alberro is getting at in his Questionnaire on “The Contemporary.” Alberro defines four major aspects of contemporary art. These are as follows:

  1. “Social and political (and to a large degree economic) and relates to what has , since the end of the Cold War, come to be referred to as “globalization.” I have never thought about the term globalization referring to art, but in Alberro’s writing, it makes sense to me. I have previously thought of it mostly as economic and somewhat culturally, at least when related to the US. I think it can most notably be seen in the crossing of styles that were once relegated and contained to one particular culture. I mostly think of eastern traditions crossing with western. And while I think there is still much seperation between cultural styles, I can see the barriers being broken down until there is a homogeny that develops.
  2. “…the emergence of new technological imaginary following the new communication and information technologies of the Internet, and the development in the 1990s of the global hypertext space know as the World Wide Web.” The free flow of ideas and art is an important, and maybe the most important, aspect of what it is to work in the contemporary space. I think about what my own work would look like had it not been for the Internet. In my case, my work in it’s current form would not exist at all. Not just because I would not have been exposed to the styles that have influenced me, but my subject matter would never have existed at all. I also think that the Internet provides a shortening of distance that makes us (at least as young people) more able to relate to other young people around the globe. Especially as shared ideas become common due to constant exchange.
  3. “The reconfigured context of contemporary art prompts a thorough reconsideration of the avant-garde.” Contemporary art today asks the question; What is the Avant-Garde? Does it even exist? Things move so rapidly at this point, that was the avant-garde yesterday is no longer accepted as valid tomorrow. To use an analogy, in war, the avant-garde (or advanced guard) were basically scouts that advanced ahead of the main body of troops. This was when troops moved slowly. The parallel to current art practice is the same as current warfare. In current warfare theory, there is no longer an avant-garde because mechanized warfare has lead to soldiers being everywhere, always–making the avant-garde (as well as front-lines) obsolete.
  4. “the surprising reemergence of a philosophical aesthetics that seeks to find the ‘specific’ nature of aesthetic experience as such.” I think this is a reaction to the over-theoried work of post-modernism. This backlash (although I don’t really see it at Columbia) says that the meaning behind the work is no longer important, but rather what is important is how the viewer experiences the work. I think this also has to do with the great abundance of work that is no long visual (or solely visual), but instead immersive sound and video, or tactile, or installation. While there may be meaning behind the work for the artist, it is no longer important to the artist whether that specific meaning is related to the viewer, but instead what is important is that the viewer have an experience that is unique to that viewer, in that particular space and time.

Terry Smith also has some viewpoints of his own on different ways that contemporary art can be viewed:

  1. “Contemporary art, as a movement, has become the new modern or, what amounts to the same thing, the old modern in new clothes.” He uses Barney and his Cremaster


    series as well as Serra, Koons, Murakami, Richter, Gursky, Struth, and Demand as examples. To me, these artists are all highly institutionally supported and sponsored. They are continuing the modernist structure that has been in place and continued to be carried on by institutions like MoMA and the Guggenheim.

    Serra Tilted Arc

  2. “that which emerges from within the conditions of contemporaneity, including the remnants of the cultures of modernity and postmodernity, but which projects itself through and around these, as an art of that which actually is in the world, of what it is to be in the world, and of that which is to come.” Smith uses Shirin Neshat’s video Passage (2001) and Ayanah Moor’s installation Never.Ignorant.Gettin’ Goals.Accomplished (2004) extensively as an example. Both of these works carry a duality that I find in many examples of art that is considered ‘contemporary’ and both are works that have arisen from the contemporary culture, yet have distinct differences. While Moor’s piece evolves out of current politics familiar to Western culture, Neshat’s video shows contemporary culture that those in the West are not familiar with. While what we see in Neshat’s video may seem foreign and out of time, there is something familiar about the ceremony that surrounds death. All cultures that have ever existed have had some sort of ritual regarding the death. So while at first we are unfamiliar with the actions that are taking place on the screen, we soon relate to notion of death and the traumatic experience that surrounds it.


    Moor’s work carries another type of duality. While the clip of Rice being presented as Secretary of State (as well as the words in the title) can be seen as a huge accomplishment for a woman of a minority, the abbreviation of the title provides a negativity. Perhaps a secret thought by those purporting to be for advancement.

  3. A number of different small-scale strategies “are understood not as mere artworld stylistics but as symptoms of a limited number of powerful, shared tendencies that are themselves the outcome, not of a persistent modernist formalism, but of the great changes of the 1960s and 1970s, the paradigm shifters internal to art itself, and those of a world reshaped by rapid decolonization and incipient globalization.” I think what Smith is talking about here is all of the different approaches that are pervading the current art scene. And this is only furthered by the amount of art fairs, festivals, biennials, triennials (and all the other -ennials) as well as the ability to rapidly communicate ideas and art across great boundaries and the ability of artists to be influenced and, in turn, respond to artwork that would have been previously inaccessible. Artists are responding in countless ways and exhibiting those responses at a speed incomprehensible two decades ago (especially given that an artist not need to be represented by a gallery or have a dealer in order for their work to be seen).
  4. His own proposal: “Every situation that is truly contemporary is an out come of the friction” between the first three proposals. “…Art supplies provisional syntheses, provides pauses in the overall rush into the unsynthesizable…” I find his own proposal somewhat lazy. But maybe it is correct. Instead of picking one way that art in the contemporary space is headed, he simply concludes that the current trend is not an either/or, nor is it a middle pathway, but instead is a friction between all three of his previous proposals. Art that is truly contemporary works both within and against the current condition. It both uses and critiques the condition it works within.

I also thought the section in Smith’s piece about curators framing the debate was an interesting one. What Okwui Enwezor did with Documenta 11 seems very fitting in the world we live in today. The old centers (at least the physical centers) of art are disappearing. Why? I think it has a lot to do with technology and the Internet. The Internet (while a terrible way to view art) is slowly diminishing the importance of physical art centers by providing access to those who would not have had it before. There was a time not too long in the past, where if you wanted to see a great work of art you either had to 1) travel to a museum or gallery that was exhibiting it or 2) buy a book containing it or 3) buy a print of the piece. The problem with all of those is the limits it placed on the works that were not “great”. Because being in a larger museum or gallery show, or book, or having a print of your work made and sold was something that an artist needed support for, there were only a select few that were afforded the chance. And they were usually operating within proximity of a large art center like New York or Paris.

What we have been afforded today is the ability to create and spread work like never before. And the gates have been thrown open to the masses in many art forms (music, writing, visual art, film, and publishing) with large industries being the victims. Music is maybe the most publicized, but digital technologies have exploded the old gated system and have allowed many that may have previously been unable to disperse their work to do so. I think this is what is most contemporary about the time that we are living and working in.

Jeff Wall – Photography and Conceptual Art

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.