I don’t like Photography
Modern fine art is a democratic milieu, offering a space and a semi-mystical aura to any loosely-defined perception presented by anyone anywhere who is interested in that place and that aura. And what medium to better occupy that space than photography, the most democratic and ubiquitous visual medium in the world, perhaps ever? Indeed, photographic prints, matted and framed, are quickly becoming a dominant sector of the art market, in both volume and gross sales, while on the Internet, every photographer has a direct and immediate international platform to display his or her creations. And yet why is it that such an egalitarian medium, and such an open discourse and market for fine art, have come together in such a way that fine art photography is so frequently dull and distasteful, so paralyzed by moribund subjects and forms?This is like the classic gag about how, if sex movies are usually funny, French movies are usually funny, and comedies are usually funny, why is it that French sex comedies are never funny? Well, in both cases, the unfunny answer is this: too much pressure. And in the case of photography, the key anxiety of the medium is its own transparency, the sense of constantly being an undressed emperor. The anxiety is narcissistic, the uncanny otherworldly familiarity of the mirror. Fine art is so hard to distinguish from anything else these days, and fine art photographs are so hard to sift out of the ocean of photography, that the signifiers are, by necessity, highly rigid – a rigidity the market richly rewards. So, what are these signifiers of “photography as art?”
I see fine art photography as hemmed in by three ‘P’s: painting, poverty, and Pentax. From its inception, photography established itself as art by trying to move into the space abandoned by painting. Examples? The great portaitists of our time are Dawoud Bey, Ben Gest, Carrie Mae Weems, Melanie Schiff, and Jason Salavon, descended from Alfred Stieglitz and Robert Frank. For landscape we had the benighted Ansel Adams, later Edward Burtynsky and Richard Misrach and now Andrew Fladeboe, John Opera, and Anja Behrens. In the arena of still-life we have Brian Ulrich, Jessica Labatte, Jason Lazarus, and Yosuke Ito. And of course the nudes—from Edward Weston on up to Roe Etheridge, Katy Grannan, and Dean Sameshima. At the fin-de-siecle, painting was moving away from these genres, and becoming preoccupied with realizing the perceptual immediacy and social zeitgeist of the ascendant middle class (Impressionist liberalism) and depicting mystical animal states of sex-induced delirium (Symbolist conservatism). So, exemplifying the crowded tableaux of Manet, but a century post-flaneur, we have Jeff Wall and Wolfgang Tillmans, Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky. As for semi-pornographic hallucination, a la Gustave Moreau, we started off with Man Ray, and have ended up with Miwa Yanagi, and Francesca Woodman, Anna Gaskell and Tierney Gearon. Painting went on to its own tightrope walk on the thin line of cultural relevance, and photography seemingly stuck around to lap up painting’s sloppy seconds. Painters who indulge in sumptuous outdoor scenes, quirky still-life images, bustling interiors, or intimate and revealing head shots (not to mention naked chicks turning into tigers) get to be the slim economic hope of whatever struggling regional metropolis is attempting urban renewal through monthly gallery walks. Photographers who continue flogging those forms can wind up adorning the walls of wealthy corporate offices and the pages of international art journals.
From Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange to Diane Arbus and Richard Avedon, to contemporary work by Paul Graham, Nan Goldin, Jesse Kotler, and Chris Verene, there may be some mumbled apologia, but the assumption is that we are ennobled by the images of people whose bondage and suffering ultimately undergirds our liberty and comfort – and whose misery deeply fascinates us. “Poverty” describes a voyeuristic urge to claim that the same authenticity that is projected on to the anguish of a suffering face applies reciprocally to the image, its maker, and its viewer. Of course images of injustice and struggle have been a direct call to action, but this is usually not art, as such, but widely reproduced photojournalism – fraught with ideological baggage all the same, but generally the macro-politics of policy outweigh the micro-politics of viewership. But then again, the ideological role of documentary photography’s nuanced and special moments has been considerable in the soft borderless colonialism of the postwar years. Whether appearing in Life, National Geographic, or Harper’s, this intrusive intimacy and false familiarity needs to be challenged at the intuitive level at which it operates, which has been happening in recent work by Alfredo Jaar and Renzo Martens. For the most part, however, we are treated to an endless minstrel parade of homeless veterans, junkie drag queens, sideshow refugees, depressed suburban loners, trailer-park residents, and various other contemporary mutants deemed undeserving of dignity.
And, last but perhaps most widespread, “Pentax” denotes the fetishization of equipment, techniques, and software, everything from pinhole cameras and photograms to clever Polaroid processes to high-end old-timey analog large-format film cameras to elaborate exposures to messing with reality in Photoshop. Not that these aren’t legitimate ways to make images, but the same kind of elevated cultural status is rarely claimed on behalf of a ceramicist, glassblower, low-rider enthusiast, etc., whose skilled and/or ingenious approach to their craft results in a remarkable decorative object (jazz is an interesting exception, but I’ll leave music out of it). Really, this is another aspect of the obsessive quality of photography—the desire to see and possess results in compulsive behavior. And yet, depicting recognizable things in unusual ways does not on its own, perhaps, equal a conceptual vision.
Certainly the technological bravura inherited from photography’s early days has been tempered by many critiques, notably that of Susan Sontag. Her 1977 treatise On Photography informed the political aspirations not only of photography, but also those of all consumer-grade mimetic media that followed, via the rhetorical device of the constructed image. This is the idea that photographs are to be acknowledged as human creations, like any representation, and should not be treated as if they contained a truth value beyond that of written language, paintings, etc. But, while the apparent paradigm shift of postmodernism has led to more whimsical and elaborately staged work, the rut has in some ways been dug yet deeper.
The thing is, truth was never as important an ingredient of fine art photography as it has been made out to be. The issue was and continues to be transparency, a tantalizing sense of access to virtual experiences, in which validity is not singular and transcendent, but universal and uniformly distributed— almost like the tools of photography. A founding obsession of photography and of modernity generally is the obliteration of enigmas, like those hovering around sex and death. Linda Williams; writing on the transparency of women’s bodies in pornography, links the repetitive quality of adult cinema to sadism, an analysis that completely makes sense for the immodest eye of the still camera, a phallus that claims as property everything its aperture can encompass. The devices that have exposed these enigmas have not made them less monotonous, but have spurred our desires for them immeasurably- photography’s obsession with endlessly repeating outdated tropes could be read as a sadistic fetishism of the lens. A nauseous and unfettered allure characterizes the viewing of much photography – take the work of Terry Richardson or Dash Snow (please). The abject capacity of photos to reach outside of their boundaries has certainly been suggested by Snow’s recent passing.
Photography is unique. It is not like other art, because there is no step away from mimesis. The image is not made of something clearly artificial, like paint, clay, or even collage. There is no embodiment. The print or screen quality is merely a certain kind of window. And, unlike the analogous media of film and video, there is no time, and thus no sense of the third party – the camera and the subjects being part of a distinct event, whether explicitly contrived or not. What photography then offers is a pure presence, a mirror that shows us what Lacan contends is at stake when we develop in early childhood a sense of our own objective existence, by not just (mis)recognizing oneself in the mirror, but wanting oneself. The visual aspect of the psyche gets its own name from Lacan– the Imaginary– and it is, coincidentally, the area where our bottomless pit of desire may be found. This is an area that photography has access to, without disturbing either our sense of what we know (the Symbolic) and what we cannot know (the Real). The Imaginary is part of language, but not precisely rational – it contains the image of the chair we think of when we use the word ”chair,” but not the word itself. This is why there is no question of truth in photography. This can make it seem problematic, and apparently pointless – also a problem of fine art itself, thus enforcing the aforementioned discipline of rigidity. And, as with Foucault’s sciencia sexualis, the pleasure that comes with observation is a pleasure in control, so we will never tire of dissecting and reconstructing the abyss of the desired object in all her glorious minutiae.
To close, I would argue that two giants of feminist postmodern photography, Catherine Opie and Cindy Sherman, only succeed artistically in a rather qualified and provisional fashion—by ultimately helping to bring about a more qualified and provisional viewing experience, a compromise with the post-metaphysical world. The self-affirming visual flourish of Opie’s lesbian subjects makes their autonomous alterity merely interesting, just another lifestyle choice. To quote aesthetic philosopher (and celebrated killjoy) Theodor Adorno, “The more (modern art) aims at projecting dignity, the more it becomes tangled up in ideology. In order to exude dignity, modern art would have to puff itself up, posing as something other than what it is. Its gravity, on the contrary, demands that it dissociate itself from the pretensions of dignity (…).” Yet, in an equal but opposite deconstructive collapse, the deliberate ugliness and artifice of Sherman’s portraits ironically but clearly embroil the critiques themselves in a conundrum of projected authenticity far more than the airbrushed femininity Sherman is engaged in critiquing. For both Opie and Sherman, the market rewards them based on their academic imprimatur but largely motivated by zoological curiosity. At the same time, the social power of viewing and being viewed on a mass scale that gives transparency its paranoid force, “surveillance,” exposes and incinerates the private, special selfhood that these images attempt humanistically to preserve.
Redemption for Opie and Sherman may come in the back door, through a link between femininity, technology, and the pleasure of language. In a sense we are infantilized by photography – we are seeing something like a waking dream, a scene as both a memory and an object of desire, but not an event or a thing unto itself. And, if there’s anything to that, the profusion of photography has perhaps made us a lot less psychoanalytically grownup, but, by that logic, a lot less repressed. The spread of capitalism and the spread of photography on a grand scale has meant, on the scale of the community, the deterioration of transcendent truths (such as patriarchy), and the spread of speaking and writing – a key element of feminine sexual pleasure, jouissance, as described by Lacan. Sherman and Opie signify the intention to bestow phallic power on themselves and their subjects by using photographs as wordless statements, staged and intentional semi-enunciations, sentences needing to be finished. The identities of the subjects can perhaps, through force of will, occasionally merge slightly with the viewer instead of melting before his eyes. Perhaps this is the best a narcissistic medium can do.
by Bert Stabler