Monday, December 6, 2010

SFMOMA's Symposium: "Is Photography Over?"

As I read through the 13 responses (Vince Aletti, George Baker, Walead Beshty, Jennifer Blessing, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Geoff Dyer, Peter Galassi, Trevor Pglen, Blake Stimson, Charlotte Cotton, Corey Keller, Douglas Nickel, and Joel Snyder) for this symposium, I noticed a few things overall.
  1. The need to define exactly what "photography" is and exactly what "over" means was a prominent concern.
  2. This discussion seemed for some people to be a catalyst into topics that they have wanted to verbally express, but have not yet found the time and/or place to do so. These responses seemed to sort of maybe start out relating to the question, then veered off course and never really returned to the question, nor did they ever give an answer one way or the other.
  3. There is no actual answer to this question.
I felt that my views on this matter were sort of a mesh of three different responses, none overcoming any of the others, but equal parts of each. These three people are Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Geoff Dyer, and Joel Snyder.

DiCorcia draws up a standpoint that photography isn't quite over, but that's not the right question. He agrees, like most, that photography's form is rapidly changing (and how can it not in this digital age?), but he also adds that the content has stayed the same. Altered form, same old content. Photography has lost its grip on reality, and is not now measured by how true the picture is, but how much of a lie it is not. DiCorcia also relates photography's "overness" in terms of its stance in the art world. He states that art has been irrelevant in the world, but that photography has been quite relevant (even though photography has tried so hard to be an art and is now widely accepted as art...sort of), and now that photography is "tired-out", maybe it is either bringing the art world with it, or being liberated from it.

What I found I connected to in diCorcia's response was his statement on the change of form but not content. Maybe that's what defines a medium though? The form? But photography's content is in a way its form because no other medium can capture its content in the same way. Photography's form is a view of reality in the most documentary sense of the word, and its content is just what we choose to frame as reality. So the tools that we are using to form its, well, form, and content also, has gone from chemicals to electronic transmission through a screen. I can still photograph a tree with both digital and analog means and you will still see both as accurate representations of that tree (unless of course I change the digital image to have tentacles protruding from said tree, but that's a different topic).

Geoff Dyer started out by describing both jazz and painting and the ways in which they have risen, climaxed, and subsequently changed (but thrived). He also mentions elegies being written for these different art forms after the climax, but says that he has not been able to find these elegies in photography regardless of its many climaxes and falls. Photographic movements (and here I am referring to movements as the people who started them as well as the actual movement in the medium) have exploded and then sort of quietly slipped away. There is no mourning, we just keep moving forward. We'll study these people and these movements, but they will become nothing more to us than an inspiration, perhaps, or maybe just a useful bit of information tucked away until we need it someday.

Dyer's point on multiple climaxes in a movement or medium is what I connected to. There will be phases in a medium that will move through time like a wave frequency, rising and falling, each with a crest and a trough, followed by another crest and trough, but the medium will remain widely unchanged. Photography will still be photography at the end of the day, whether Eggleston made his godawful (yet somehow revered) photographs or not.

Joel Snyder's response to this question seemed the most unique of them all. Whereas most people toyed with the idea that 'well, photography isn't necessarily over, but it's not quite the same, but it's sort of on its way to being over...', Snyder started his essay out with saying that " more vital than it has ever been." He agrees that it is ever changing and that some of the chemical/analog processes are slowly shrinking, but says that they will never disappear, just as all the old photographic processes are still used to some extent today. He also points out that digital photography is growing exponentially every day. With more and more people gaining access to photographic equipment of some kind (cell phones, point and shoots, disposable cameras, etc), there is no end in sight for the viral medium. However. Snyder does make it clear that although the use of photography is growing, the interest in it is shrinking. It is not so much used as an art form any more as it is more so used now as the growth of our third arm.We photograph our food at restaurants, we photograph our kids blowing out candles and opening presents, we photograph college students playing beer pong, we photograph sexual acts, we photograph sweet bruises we get and post them online so we can tell people what happened. We aren't usually consciously thinking "Wow I'm using photography right now" when we snap the shutter, we just want to document the moment and this is how we do it. The difference with photography vs. other art forms, is that photography has become part of our daily lives. We wouldn't sit at the table and say "Okay, son, now I need you to start opening that present, yup, just like that, okay....STOP. Freeze, just like that. Don't move" and then paint the scene. Nobody does that. But if they did, they would be thinking about painting as they painted. John Doe is not thinking about photography as he's photographing his kid open the present that he's wanted for months. He's just not.

So according to Snyder, photography as an art form has become the minority. Photography as photography, however, has become a practicality. In this way, photography is surely thriving.

To sum it up, I would say that my ultimate answer to this question, sort of in combination of these three responses would be as follows:
Photography is not dead, photography is changed. Some aspects of photography in relation to its use in the art world may be over (or close to over), but in the form of he digital, photography has become a definition in all of our lives. We use it daily, we communicate with it, we share it. This digital age of photography is still rising, but eventually it will climax, just as analog did. At that point, it will fall, and a new rise in the medium will begin. With photography being used so widely, it has branched from the art world. The public probably does not see it as art so much, because it already proved itself to be that. It wasn't art, then it was, and now it has morphed into something that is accessible to everyone (people go to museums to see the paintings of the masters. They cannot ever do that. Photography seems a bit...easier, regardless of how easy it actually is. People would consider themselves photographers long before they would consider themselves artists.) Photography as we knew it yesterday is over, and photography as we know it today is in the process of becoming over, and photography as we will know it tomorrow is about to be over. It is always changing and always reforming. As things (ideas, movements) are put into action in photography, they are constantly becoming part of photography's history. Ansel Adam's f64 movement is over. Street photography as it was in the middle of the 20th century is over. Black and white photography is over. Color photography is over. Parts of these larger ideas are still used in the everyday photograph, but they are no longer part of a larger movement. They stand alone.

P.S. I've thought all morning about this idea of photography being art (because a lot of these responses dealt with photography either breaking from art or having been art, or how the art side of photography is dead, etc) and I actually am now wondering if photography ever could have been art. It seems as if taking something that existed in life (maybe even a piece of art itself) and putting it into the spacial frame of a photographic lens, then transferring something palpable into a 2D representation on a piece of un-unique paper that has mass produced thousands of other once real life things, is nothing more than creating relationships. I photograph food. The art of this process for me is in the creation of the food, the styling of the food, and how to make it look good in "real life" before the camera is even set up. I know how to frame it to make it look aesthetically pleasing, but is that part of the art of photography? Or is that simply part of knowing what aesthetic beauty looks like when put into a geometric frame. Photography would change drastically if photographs were circular. Or triangular. I guess it's a set of skills that need to be learned to understand what a good image would look like in a photographic frame, and actually using the camera to change exposure and focus and all of the technical aspects would be part of a skillset of the medium, but I'm still not convinced that this can be considered art. It seems to become more artistic when it is manipulated, and people argue in this case that at this point, it may not be photography anymore because it has lost its realistic representation. But what am I creating besides a frame? This doesn't really have to do with this blog post, but it's been on my mind this morning.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Relational Art

This week, the discussion is based off of a video by Ben Lewis for BBC entitled "Relational Art: Is It An Ism?"

Lewis travels to different artists that are listed in Nicolas Bourriaud's book Relational Aesthetics as "relational artists". He poses this quote from Bourriaud's book to a few of them:
"The possibility of a relational art (an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space), points to a radical upheaval of the aesthetic, cultural and political goals introduced by modern art."
To break this down a bit, it is saying that there is a possibility that there is a new art movement (relational art) and that we can see this in the disruption of modern art's key points (aesthetic, cultural and political goals). What this relational art is, is an art that deals with human interaction, removing the line between a gallery-goer/viewer, to a participant and incorporation in the art itself. This art does not focus on individual artists creating work that only they can fully relate to but attempt to show it with some meaning to an outside audience. Relational art uses "minimal forms to create political statements, doesn't like global capitalism, relates to its exhibition space, and can sometimes be useful". It is open, it is malleable, and it is new. But is it an "-ism"? Well, Ben Lewis hopes so. Throughout the video, he puts together a list of 8 rules that deal with "-isms".
  1. A new ism must develop from an old ism.
  2. A new ism is a new way of thinking about art.
  3. Artists of an ism must hang out together.
  4. A new ism is invented by an art critic.
  5. A new ism always has a slightly different British sub-species.
  6. At first, people think that a new ism is not art.
  7. A new era leads to a new ism.
  8. A new ism must have a landmark exhibition.
With these 8 "guidelines" in mind, Lewis attempts to prove to us that relational art can certainly become the next ism.
  1. Based on Bourriaud's quote above, it would seem that this relational art grew from modern art, attempting to bypass the standards set for this -ism.
  2. With the "audience" becoming the art and interacting with it, this relational art would rid galleries of their "Do Not Touch" signs. The art is no longer a deity, but something to experience first-hand. It doesn't have to mean anything and it can be useful.
  3. Liam Gillick, Douglas Gordon, Carsten Höller, Pierre Huyghe, Philippe Parreno, and Rirkrit Tiravanija all came together to collaborate on a film entitled "Vicinato II". These artists would all be considered relational artists.
  4. This idea is being presented by Nicolas Bourriaud, a French art critic and curator.
  5. The British version of this art movement is "Art For Networks", which is basically the same thing with the interaction of real people in the gallery art, but it remains separate from the relational art movement in Europe.
  6. Jorge Pardo and Philippe Parreno created 3 lamps with holes punched into their outer casings, one lamp in each room, with wires attached to all three. Parreno said that this Untitled project meant nothing beyond "three lamps, three spaces". With no meaning beyond this, it is easy to see how many would not see this as any form of art.
  7. We have entered into the 21st century, into the digital age. The way we go about our daily lives has dramatically changed since as recent as 1990. We now heavily rely on our cell phones and computers for information, contact, and entertainment. There are new wars being waged and the environment is encountering more problems than ever. We are certainly in a new era.
  8. Tiravanija held a relational art exhibition in Venice, pulling in artists from all over the world, and giving out free bags. The location, scale, and extent of this exhibition made it landmark.
As far as photography goes, I do not currently see it as being a form of relational art. I think it may be possible in that people could come to a gallery, take a polaroid camera laying out on a pedestal, snap a photo of their friend, and place it on the gallery wall, but beyond the audience interaction of simply "the audience took the photos and placed them on the wall", I do not see how photography could branch any further into this type of art. I'm sure I'm wrong and that we'll see people attempting this "relational photography", but as of now, I have not seen it and don't have too good of an idea how much further photography can be pushed "relationally." I wouldn't say that it's completely unrelated, but it has not yet been added to this new art movement. (Well, maybe as a documentation of a relational action, such as Bourriaud's photographs of S&M and the holes dug by African Immigrants. But the photograph is not what makes the art relational, it is the actions that were done, being shown in the photograph because they could not be performed live or shown in any other way in a gallery. I could take 30 photographs of relational art, then post them in a gallery, each photograph 2 feet away from each other, and 57" to the center from the ground. The subsequent viewing of these photographs would then basically be no different than the viewing of any photographic exhibition in the 20th century, regardless of subject matter. I know that my thought process in these parenthesis does not flow nicely, but bear with me).

I did find an artist who, although not a photographer, fits into this relational art movement. Marina Abramovic, a Serbian artist who usually uses herself in the art exhibitions. The one piece that most struck me was her project entitled "Rhythm 0", where she stood on a small pedestal in an art gallery for 6 hours, with a table of 72 items before her and a sign that told people to do what they wish with these items upon her. There were things such as a feather, chains, roses, honey, a whip, a saw, a knife, grapes, a gun, and a bullet. As she stood impassively, people came up and cut her clothes off, cut her skin and drank her blood, sucked her breast, and put the gun in her hand, putting pressure on the trigger to see if she would resist. She says that most men were aggressive, with some women egging them on, and some women wiping her tears. After 6 hours, she started walking toward the audience, and everybody scattered for fear of confrontation. This to me seems the epitome of relational art, where not only is the public interacting with the piece, but the piece then attempts to later interact with the public (in which this confrontation didn't go over so well). Though this was performed in 1974, it does seem to fit into the relational art of today.

Here are some links to more information about Rhythm 0:
MoMA (Click the 6th video in the playlist)
New Yorker

After viewing the BBC video, I was left with a few question. When Lewis tries to show how the automatic blinds are relational art, he is shut down. Why would this not be relational art? If it is just "blinds being closed over a window", how are the "just 3 lights in 3 rooms" any different and any more validated as art? And around the 26 minute mark in the video, there was mention of this relational art being an uncut slice of time with real people in real life. Does this art have to take place in a gallery to be art? That seems too formalistic for these artists. Couldn't my cooking in my kitchen with a few people be the same thing as some of these artists cooking in a gallery with a few people? I think that there is something in the new relational art, but it is not fully there yet and some of these artists seem to me to be a bit confused about their own art and how it would fit into a cohesive movement (not that they're specifically trying to fit it into a movement, per se, but because they are all working together and know of each other, they definitely are aware of this new art form).

Monday, November 22, 2010


The question as to whether or not photographs can work as narratives is explored in John Szarkowski's "The Photographer's Eye", Clement Greenberg's "Four Photographers", and Charlotte Cotton's "The Photograph as Contemporary Art: Chapter 2, Once Upon A Time".

Szarkowski begins by describing photography as a new art, something completely separate from painting, and therefore needing to find a different way to express its meaning. The field of this new art, from the beginning, was chock-full of experimenters, amateurs, and hobbyists. As time went on, the medium became increasingly cheaper and easier to use. This opened the door for even more people to get their hands on; people from all parts of society and all ages. Where painting was done for specific purposes and was thought out and planned well ahead of time so as to make the most of the expensive resources required to create the painted work of art, photography was taken on the fly. People would photograph store fronts, people, objects, window views, etc, without concern for reason or composition.In fact, the only thing that really tied all of these photographs together was the pure fact that they were photographs. Each image was photographic and that is all they had in common.

Szarkowski brings up five points of discussion, dealing mostly with early photography but still relevant today: The Thing Itself, The Detail, The Frame, Time, and Vantage Point. As a "thing", photography was seen to be "the real". Everything caught through the lens of a camera was 100% real because it could not be created by hand. However, there was a slight misunderstanding when it came to using the word "real" (or actual). Reality is real life. It certainly is what sits in front of the camera lens, but once the image of what is in front of the lens is captured onto film, there is no reality in that image. It is a static documentation of the real, definitely, but it is simply an image. Szarkowski's strongest point in arguing that photography cannot be a narrative, comes in his section about detail. Photography became about small, fragmented pieces of a story, found and maybe attempted to be pieced together, but not a story in and of itself. Photographs therefore become symbols, pieces of information we can create relations to based upon our knowledge of the world in relation to each specific photograph. As for the frame, the photographer can choose to create relationships between shapes, people, and events within a single frame of an image that were never there in real life. Szarkowski uses the example of two people walking in a crowd, but the photographer framing the picture so only the two people can be seen. The viewer then sees a relationship between these two people who probably didn't even notice each other on the sidewalk. I found it slightly curious, that through the argument of photography as not-narrative, Szarkowski throws in this quote, "The photographer looked at the world as though it were a scroll painting, unrolled from hand to hand exhibiting an infinite number of croppings - of compositions - as the frame moved onwards." I am still very torn as to whether this would suggest narrative or not. If one was to take a scroll painting, and read it from end to end, it would either be of a large scene with many doing their own things (such as Rejlander's attempt at negative piecing)
or the same people progressing in an action throughout the scroll (similar to some Egyptian wall art which I cannot find a photo for, where the same few people/gods are shown on their way to see a pharaoh, maybe walking, then crossing a river, etc). At first I saw this as a narrative, pictures depicting a story (a very slow framed movie, perhaps). However, because it would be viewed from end to end slowly and with attention to details in between, I guess it would be non-narrative in that the actions of these people are merely represented by their frozen forms. Though we can deduce that they may move from one place to the next, we don't actually see this movement. Time is the next "issue". All photographs are in the present. Whatever was captured by the camera at the time of the shutter being released was what was happening for that split/multiple second exposure. It does not show what had happened 5 minutes ago, nor does it have the capability to show what happens 5 minutes after. Photographs can alluded to the past or present, however, but they are simply the immobilization of time. The last point was vantage point, but I didn't see this really relating much to the discussion about narrativity.

Clement Greenberg starts off his writing with "The photograph has to tell a story if it is to work as art". Wow. Very strong statement. However, he does not seem to back up such statements with much evidence. He gives an example of a photograph (which I also cannot find) that he would considered narrative. The photograph is Edward Steichen's at the Acropolis. A woman's arms extend above a stone parapet in the foreground, and in the background is the Porch of Erechthyum, created with columns shaped as women. This contrast between actual flesh and stone carved flesh, Greenberg believes, is what makes this story of "life versus trimmed and carved stone" and that this has force and a message. Personally, I would say that a story does not exist here, but that the symbol of this message does. Of course it is a direct comparison, whether intentional or not (part of the joys of photography), of stone versus life, but that is all the photograph does for us.

Charlotte Cotton also believes in the narrativity in photographs. One of her first examples is Jeff Wall's piece Insomnia.
Cotton believes that this photograph is narrative in style because "The layout of the interior acts as a set of clues to the events that could have led up to this moment..." in which she counteracts her statement of the photograph as a narrative. She points out that the open cabinets, moved about chairs and table, and the man laying on the floor "act as a set of clues" (not "show the man doing these things") "to the events that could have led up to this moment". She is admitting that this photograph is simply a moment, not a series of moments. Sure, the room is messed up and we can imagine that this man did those things, but nothing is directly telling us that. Somebody else may have come through and done these things and the man is now laying terrified on the floor. Maybe there was a storm and things got banged around and he is now taking some sort of refuge under the table. Granted, the title of the pieces is "Insomnia", but this gives context only to the fact that this man is not asleep. All we know for fact, is that the cabinets are open, the furniture is moved around, and the man is on the ground. This photograph does not actually show anything more than that, we simply imagine more. Cotton even says this: "These pictures encourage a  kind of storytelling in the viewer's mind." The pictures encourage this storytelling out of the image, not within its frame.

When I first started these readings, I had the mindset that photographs could for sure tell a story. Of course I had heard some arguments that photographs could not be narrative, but it didn't seem to make much sense to me until these readings. First off, I'd like to define narrative. According to the OED, narrative is "the practice or art of narration or story-telling". The definition of "tell" is "To make known by speech or writing; to utter words; to say; to speak; to express in words". This would all lead toward photography not being capable of being a narrative. There are no words in photography unless placed alongside an image, and in that case, the words are narrative, the pictures are not. They would simply be a representation of those words, without which, the meaning would not be fully clear and would be open to interpretation. However, the OED does also define narrative as "Art. Representing a story through the medium of painting or similar art forms." I am curious as to when this definition of narrative arose. I don't even know where to begin looking for that, but I really hope it did not become part of the discussion of art after photography was invented. Anyway, I know I spewed much of my argument for photography as non-narrative in the above paragraphs, but I'll quickly recap. Photographs are representations of the real. All we know when looking at a single photograph is that when this photograph was taken, that is what was happening within the frame. Sarah Dobai's photograph Red Room
shows us that this woman is laying on top of this man and that her hair is covering part of their faces and she is wearing a shirt and the man is naked and they are on a blanket covered loveseat in a red room. Sure, I can infer that before this maybe they had dinner at a restaurant and then came home and were involved in sexual activity, resulting in the stripping down of clothing, up to the point where this photograph is taken, and that afterward they may go brush their teeth and read a book before falling asleep in bed together. However, everything I just said after "red room." is purely made up. Maybe it's inference, but maybe I am 100% completely off and maybe she's a stripper, or this is adultery, or these two people have snuck off on a school trip somewhere to be together. Your guess is as good as mine and the photograph tells us nothing except they are, at this moment, right now, in that position on that couch in that red room. Even photographs as a series, one after the other, potentially showing somebody in their car, then in their driveway, then in their front entryway, then in their kitchen, tells me nothing except the fact that these photographs were chosen to be placed in this order of car, driveway, doorway, kitchen, and these photographs may have been taken each a year apart from each other. Maybe they were taken days apart, and the woman one day was in her car, and the next day took the bus home and is walking up her driveway, and the next day walked through the front door and right upstairs, and the next day, came through the back door and into the kitchen. Maybe she chose to wear the same clothes for each of these photographs. Each photo stands alone. It shows is small piece of time and that is all it is capable of doing. It cannot show us what happened before or after, though it can lead us on to imagining what had happened, and even then, we may only know this because of context we picked up in Sunday School when we were 8, or through some classic literary piece we had to read when we were 15. Without written narrative, or spoken, photographs would fail as story-tellers because of their ambiguity and lack of being able to show more than just one, very, very small piece of time or event.

Monday, November 15, 2010

New Topographics: Man-Altered Landscapes, Systems Method, and Serial Images

In Greg Foster-Rice's "Systems Everywhere", the exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape was broken down and analyzed. In the 1960's and 1970's, photographs (and art in general) took a turn from the "aesthetic formalism" and became more about the experience one encounters in the production and viewing of the art pieces. The art as an object lost its basis, as the method for the creation of the images became more noteworthy. This method of creation was based of of a biologist's definition of what systems theory is: a "complex phenomena cannot be reduced to the discrete properties of their various parts, but must be understood according to the arrangement of and relations between the parts that create a whole." This is the underlying theme to the three defining factors (serial, visual arrangement, and emblematic of system as a whole) of the New Topographic artists, which I will discuss later on.

The New Topographics displayed photographs of Robert Adams, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Stephen Shore, and five others, with each artists displaying work that relayed a similar message: we are destroying our environment. In contrast to these exhibition prints, photographs from the 19th century began to show the industrial strength of man in coordination with nature. As Foster-Rice points out, photographs then were taken of railroads from above, displaying their visual similarities to river bends, and the organic nature surrounding it. Any inkling to destruction was reduced to the frame in which the photograph was taken. There were no reverberating, widespread affects to be shown in these photographs. It was all about publicity for the good that man was doing and how it was to better the lives of America's citizens. People bought it. However, this expansion and increased production of roads, towns, interstates, etc., started to catch people's attention after awhile. This is where the New Topographics exhibition comes in. In the '60s and '70s, post WWII America, subdivisions began to go up off interstates, meaning mass amounts of repeating blueprint houses/trailers/nuketown-looking homes and a complete dependency on cars for any sort of transportation. This expansion drastically changed how some businesses functioned. Places along these interstates that relied heavily on passersby now became closed because everybody lived "just down the road" and the need to stop at the motel for the night was lost. These new buildings were build cheaply and were not constructed for archival purposes. Some developments were never finished, with buildings left in a half built, ruined state. As Foster-Rice put it, we were creating structures that were to rise into ruin before they were built, versus having fallen to ruin after their use. We were creating for the sake of creation, pocketing the profits, and moving on to the next subdivision blueprints. This is where the New Topographic artists come in.

Photographers such as Joe Deal and Robert Adams saw this expansion as that of a destructive nature (which it was), and began photographing these building sites. In general, they created photographs that incorporated all three parts of the systems method of these artists: serial images, a visual arrangement (versus aesthetic composition), and photographs emblematic of the system as a whole. The serial, which is not a series, is the creation of images where there is no visual hierarchy. One photograph is not more important than another, and no photograph stands out visually more than another. They are simply a set with common denominators (whereas a series would be a continuation of an idea, event, emotion, etc). In focusing on a visual arrangement instead of an aesthetic composition, photography actually played on its strongest point: becoming a true visual record of what was in front of the lens. Though the photographer was still selecting what to be cropped and the angle of view and where they photographed and how to expose, because of its seriality, this all stayed relatively neutral. For instance, Deal photographed downward, eliminating the horizon line and flattening out his images. His prints were all low contrast were well within the serial method. Without an aesthetic influence to create the work, the photographs became very accurate depictions of what they represented. They became, to an extent, what Hal Foster would consider "archival", in his piece "The Archive". The photographs were more similar to the legislative and institutive qualities that Foster named as archival standards in opposition to having destructive and transgressive qualities. I may be incorrect, but I understood the latter qualities to be more of an aesthetic nature, versus the former qualities of a more serial nature. In this inference, the New Topographic would come across as an archival exhibition.

The last part of the three categories is the photographs' incorporation of the system as a whole. Each part of the each photograph does not stand alone, but rather, is influenced and given meaning by its surrounding parts and subsequently, its surrounding photographs. They all link to each other and as a whole, create a strong, meaningful body of work. This would be the epitome of the systematic or procedural method of creating something (as biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy had described it), with these photographs creating each other, and having been created not with aesthetics, but with thought and purpose for visual communication.

One part I found a bit controversial in "Systems Everywhere" was the statement of how photography was a master at this new "systems method" and was seen as the way to accurately and fully convey this landscape, not as sublime painters did with a dramatized framed scene, but with open ended borders on the photographs, and a straightforward view. Its almost as if photography visualizes driving down the unfinished Jersey Turnpike, as Tony Smith had said, where it cannot be fully considered art, but the experience of moving through its environment becomes something more powerful than any art piece. This all made sense to me, and maybe it was just a comparison between two different types of photography, but before this statement of affirmation of photography in this usage, Ansel Adams's f/64 club was brought up. These prints were compared directly to the sublime painting, being all about the perfection of the landscape within the frame, and the posterchildren of what America looks like. Adams' prints do not have the "move through the environment and past the photographic frame" feel, so this just seemed a contrast to the statement of photography being able to best fit the systems method of creating these "unbiased" pieces of information.

Somebody who has created a similar style of work to those of the New Topographics, would be Roni Horn. In three of her projects, Cabinet Of (2001), This Is Me, This Is You (1999-2000), and You Are The Weather (1994-1995), the styles and methods of the New Topographics artists is almost directly emulated, albeit a different subject matter is used. All three works are of faces, and heavily use the three parts: serial method, visual arrangement, and emblematic of a system as a whole. She either grids her photographs, or lines them up, each image playing simultaneously off of the previous and the next. There is no visual hierarchy, (though in You Are The Weather, there is change in saturation and contrast, but it happens in such a pattern, that the pattern is what creates the seriality) and each project is generally printed in the same style and with the same contrast/color saturation/framing. Her works are a study of the body of images as a whole, how they all play off of one another to create a larger meaning and interpretation of the body of work.

 Cabinet Of (2001)
 Cabinet Of (2001)
 This Is Me, This Is You (1999-2000)
You Are The Weather (1994-1995)
You Are The Weather (1994-1995)

Monday, November 8, 2010

George Baker on The Expanded Field of Photography

In "Photography's Expanded Field", George Baker argues that over time (mainly since the 1970's and the postmodern era), photography has changed into, well, something else which we cannot truthfully still label "photography". It seems that photography today has become something of a halfway  house into other mediums, that photography is no longer the be all and end all, but is "an insufficient bridge to other, more compelling forms." Thought I would think that photography could lead basically into any other form or medium, Baker does mainly focus on the cinematic (and as of right now, it seems that every photographer, whether they include actual cinema into their work or not, will eventually be considered both a photographer and cinematographer within this digital age).

In explaining how photography is changing/has changed, and more importantly, its expansion, Baker creates a sort of map on which he would seemingly be able to place most any photographer in order to better understand how each individual's work is grounded within this new photography. The map looks like this:
He also creates one where the question marks are replaced with 3 chosen artists that would fill their specific locations within this map, and another that looks like this:
With this third map here, it was a little unclear to me whether these "topics" placed in the map ("still film" projected images, digital montage "talking picture", and "film still" cinematic photograph) represent the last stage of the map and are therefore the categories that work should fit into in his map? Or if they were each simply small explanations of the artists he had placed in there as example in the second (not pictured) map. Seeing as these labels fit the artists to a T, I am going to go with the latter and regard these labels as permanent titles of each section of the map. Regardless, this is what Baker's map looks like, and the four points at the tip of the center X are the more important, unchanging points anyhow.

These points are: narrative, stasis, not-narrative, and not-stasis. A narrative has referentiality and is culturally relatable, or more so, is the cultural dimension of the photograph (its build). Stasis is is the unthinking nature regarding photographs. Not-narrative, therefore would be stasis, and not-stasis would be narrative. Baker also points out that no photographer has successfully created a purely stasis image. The other part of that must then be that it is impossible for a photographic image to completely be a narrative, as a "photograph" will always be simply a single frame and therefore will always have some level of stasis (I am not including other incorporated mediums such as cinema into this argument, just photography).

As Baker continues, he stresses that we must not revert to the traditional forms of photography, that those forms are basically deceased in its medium, and what has awakened in its void is this metaphorical universe of a constantly expanding field of photography. This field, I imagine, would look something like this:

However, even if stasis and narrative were not key talking points in traditional photography, it seems that we would still be able to go back to it now and place it within its rightful category on Baker's map. Regardless, traditional photography is what it is and contemporary photography certainly is no longer traditional. It seems as though part of the dangers of going back to traditional photographic forms would be losing all that has grown with the medium over time (the points on my above map). Its essentially "pure" original state would be greatly lacking and have no weight accompanying it.

Baker concludes his discussion with the somewhat discomforting point that truly, photography does not have a clear, thought out map. The medium is in limbo, and though we are aware of specific points in its ever expanding field, we do not know where it will take us or where it will end up.

As for two photographers that I would like to analyze into Baker's views here, I have chosen Beate Gutschow and David Hilliard. Gutschow is a large format photographer who started creating landscapes that never existed, by splicing together different negatives (digitally) and presenting each image as though it (almost) flawlessly one appeared at the same time in front of the same lens. These montages eventually broke from nature and she began shooting in cities all over the world, using the same techniques, but creating cityscapes of a very almost futuristic feel. Though her work sometimes includes people, they are represented in the frame similar to some of the paintings from the picturesque movement, as objects to confirm a sense of reality, but not to take away from the scene around them. They blend into the background. To me, it feels as if Gutschow's work would fit on the right side of Baker's map, between stasis and not-stasis. Though she creates large-scale montages like Wall, I believe that the difference does come in the representation of people, which makes Wall's work more narrative and therefore fitting at the top of the map between narrative and stasis, and places Gutschow's nicely between the stasis and not-stasis on the right. Her images do seem more reminiscent of "traditional" art forms (painting) and this picturesque movement of painting was to make beautiful, breathtaking scenes. There was no royalty depicted in these pieces, no hierarchy of social class, no hints as to global location. It is quite a stasis movement. Gutschow's emulation of this movement similarly creates very stasis images, although I believe that with her cityscapes series, more of a narrative can be drawn because of the types of buildings she displays. In fact, by just displaying buildings of any kind, it creates a time frame for the image. They appear futuristic and a bit bleak, almost on the verge of an apocalypse. However, they do seem almost lifeless, which would therefore categorize them, at least to me, as being not quite narrative, but more so "not-stasis".

David Hilliard creates work based upon people that he knows. He even describes it as being autobiographic and fictional at the same time, trying to recreate events or moments within our chaotic lives. All but maybe three images he shows on his website would be classified as portraiture, but all his images are very narrative. His format of a three image panoramic creates this movement throughout the frame that not only addresses a passing of time, but a movement through space. We as viewers experience part of his subjects' lives, many times very intimately, and receive just a taste of their being. A few of them to me feel a bit cinematic, although not on a large scale. They mostly seem to resemble home videos. As such, I would place Hilliard on the left, between narrative and not-narrative. The images seem to "home video" for me to be able to place them as completely stasis, but again, they are unmoving, still photographs.
Bluebird by David Hilliard, 2009.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Digital Age and Photography

The three readings this week, Jason Evans's "Online Photographic Thinking", Susan Murray's "Journal of Visual Culture", and Lev Manovich's "Everyday Media Life", all posed different viewpoints on society's switch from the analog into the digital realm.

In his essay, Jason Evans did not take a side in the digital vs. analog "debate", but rather listed some pros and cons for each method of photography. Digital photography, he says, encourages the photographer "to deliberate less about whether or not to actually take a picture." It has a tendency toward flippancy, where the art of the photographic practice is lost in the quick shoot, review, delete, and reshoot, review, delete, etc. that is the norm in digital photography. There is no limited shots, no end to the roll of film, no monetary value associated with every shot as there is with analog. The delicate practice of photography has ended with digital. Evans makes an interesting comment on page 43, stating "We are not having our choices taken away from us by the usurping of analog by digital; we just have to expand what photography can be." To a point, I can see where he is going with this. That if the type of film you are using is discontinued, you need to overcome that obstacle and figure out a way to continue your photography; you need to broaden what your photographic practice may encompass. However, there is definitely a different look, or a different aesthetic, to each type of film. If Kodak discontinues their film, maybe Fuji does not hold up for the style of work that the Kodak user is creating. And Kodak more than likely would not have discontinued the film if digital had not been around to encourage people to stop using the film. So I would tend to disagree with Evans in his above statement. Yes, there will always be a way to get film and continue analog projects, but as time goes on and there digital advancements continue, choices will become more limited, scarce, and expensive. Digital is usurping analog.

As for the internet's "contribution" to this digital age, Evans compares its use to that of galleries and museums. He talks about how the internet can reach audiences to the extent that galleries and museums cannot, without a sacrifice of content or style. On the internet, it is free to post as many photos as you'd like, and it's a safe way in going about showing your work. In galleries, it's a little different. They don't get the range or size of audience that the internet gets. However, what they do get, is viewers who are genuinely interested in the artist and their work. These viewers went out of their way to physically get themselves into this gallery to view this specific work. For the internet, all you have to do is minimize the movie you're watching, click "stumbleupon", browse through the page a little without really taking in who the artist is (although maybe you thought that the work was alright), and clicking "Stumble!" again, and *poof*, now you're watching the world's funniest cat video. Not much of a gripping viewing experience in relation to photography. With galleries, there is also a certain standard that your work needs to have achieved before it can be shown. There are critics and curators that will analyze the work and break it down, maybe declining the artist 3 or 4 times before their work has reached the standard of that particular gallery. It's a risky way of trying to get your work out there, but it pays off. You become part of a community of curators and critics, of viewers and collectors. Your name is remembered and has weight. Your work has a backbone; other people like it too and wanted to show it publicly. It's not just the artist liking it and posting it to their website. Galleries give artists credibility where the internet, at this point, cannot.

I don't recall whether it was Evans or one of the response essays, but there was a question posed regarding the types of photos that are posted on the internet, and how internet photos are not serious, whereas gallery and museum photos still are. There is not space in the gallery world for snapshot photography, family portraits, wedding photography, and some of the new (godawful) aesthetics that the internet is glorious at holding onto and showing. The gallery-type photography is still that of a more straightforward, serious nature, connecting more directly to the roots of photography. I think the question posed was something along the lines of "Will there ever be a time where these serious photos make it to the internet?" and I believe that there definitely will be. Considering that the average museum and gallery audience is mainly senior citizens and some student artists, and that kids growing up currently have not experienced the analog age and have no real connection to the photographic print, that eventually the need for printing out a photograph and displaying it in a gallery or museum setting will phase out. I believe that there will be an equivalent of this gallery credibility online when this happens, but I do believe it will happen. As for now though, we are still in the middle ground, stuck between the internet and galleries.

Gallery type print: Julie Blackmon's Green Velvet
Blackmon, although works with digital processes to collage and manipulate scenes, does shoot in film (if I'm not mistaken) and creates work that would not be just fleetingly taken and posted to her website (though she does have a website). To me, her work seems more to fit the gallery scene/collector's world.

Weird, godawful, internet aesthetic of "vintage photography" (or so the blog is named). Unknown photographer.
This is what I picture when the words "aesthetic internet photography" are spoken. I cringe. They are horrible. I have come across photographer's websites that are full of photos like this. Straight on, point and shoot camera mounted flash of girls' legs with ripped stockings, usually outside or at a party. I get queasy just thinking about these photographs. Maybe it's because I've never been a Nan Goldin fan...? Anyway, I'd agree that right now, galleries give nice credibility to artists when their work is shown versus an artist's personal website with work that is cringeable.

Susan Murray approaches the analog vs. digital slightly differently. She talks mainly about how social photographic networking sites, mainly Flickr, create this digital "community" similar to the analog community. With digital photos, there is this development of a communal aesthetic, brought about by what Lev Manovich would call "tokens", which include comments, replies, tags, and messages all used to discuss individual photographs, groups/pools of photographs, etc. This digital community does not respect traditional amateur/professional hierarchies. On Flickr, there is no distinction between the amateur, the professional amateur, and the professional. You can make your best guess, but sometimes it is very difficult to distinguish between the three. All three types of photographers have their work in the same pools, with the same tags, gridded next to each other on the same page. Flickr is a celebration of photography, not a popularity contest, and not a place for ego. If the photographer likes the photoraph, maybe the comments will solidify this enjoyable aesthetic. Manovich points out that when we comment or reply to messages or other comments, we are creating discussions that are immediate. We are exchanging ideas that are constantly changing the art world and how we view it and how it develops. Time is not an obstacle anymore. It does not take weeks for one art critic to contact another art critic about a certain artist's work. It is happening now. All of these pieces work to create this communal aesthetic that Flickr has most definitely achieved.

Murray also mentions the more prominent differences between how digital and analog photography are viewed. Analog photography, or indexical and photography, was mainly used as means for more accurate documentation. Amateurs photographed their families, events, and used the medium to create memories. Professionals photographed in a way that was more artistic and reminiscent of painting. As Barthes said, photography is "a contract with death." Analog photographs were and are viewed as moments in the past, historical, and melancholy. This photography is emulsion on paper and silver on plastic. It is physical. Digital photography, or nonindexical and photographic, is mainly used as an a visual aesthetic, or content aesthetic. Of course it is still used to document families, children, holidays, events, weddings, etc., and photographers still use it as an art form in ways very similar to previous professionals of the analog age, it is not viewed as looking upon death. These new digital photographs are very transient, continual, and full of life. This photographic is what is mentioned above: content aesthetic. It is not so much about "This is the only documented photograph of William S. Johnson, lieutenant in the Civil War. He had 3 children and a wife and he never made it back home to them." Digital photography is about "Look how this light caught the pages of the book I was reading this morning, and how the wood grain is accentuated beneath the smooth texture of the book's edges." I'm not saying that analog photography cannot capture this exquisite light (it may even capture it better than digital can), but that traditionally, analog was not used for images such as these, whereas the digital bank of photography is overflowing with the small, beautiful things in everyday life. The same idea can be flipped, where digital photography can be used in the melancholy way that film was, although I have not yet seen something quite as successful at doing this as old tintypes or daguerreotypes.

Unknown photographer. Civil War Soldier. Daguerreotype.
This image screams melancholy.

This is one of my photographs that I would place neatly into the digital category.
I don't know if it is going too far to classify digital as "delicate" but I do get that feeling when looking at many digital photographs (Maybe I should be more specific here. The word that more properly fits that sentence would be digital images. As Evans stated, it sometimes does us good to not look at the analog physicality of photographs, but the digital image itself.) To me, there is something lighter about digital photographs in comparison to the heaviness of analog, and maybe this stems from digital's transience and movement. Analog is very solid, and digital feels a bit more pliable and flowing.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Ritchin, Ribalta, and Dzenko on Analog to Digital Photography

Fred Ritchin in "Into The Digital" from After Photography, Jorge Ribalta in "Molecular Documents" from The Meaning of Photography, and Corey Dzenko in "Analog to Digital" from Afterimage all pose different view points on the shift from analog photography in to the realm of digital photography.

Fred Ritchin, I feel, gave the most straightforward breakdown of the analog to digital transition. He ultimately does not quite take a personal stance on which he feels is "better" or more relatable to photography's original indexicality (realism), but rather he lists what has changed in the movement from film to digital. What he focuses on is the fact that photography, and the way in which we view photography, has changed dramatically. As you can see in the above diagram, Ritchin broke down the distinguishable characteristics between analog and digital photography. Here is what he came up with:

          Analog:                              Digital:
          - Substance                         - Code and bytes
          - Organic                             - Geometric
          - Rottable                            - Infinite
          - Original                            - Non-original
          - Nature-based (real)          - Representation of the real (nature)
          - Linear (time)                    - Non-linear
          - Tone imprint                     - Changeable pixels

As you can see, some of these are pros, some are cons, but some points are just fact, and seem to present no argument for or against either analog or digital practices of photography. The way in which Ritchin addresses the digital real is almost a mix between how Dzenko sees the digital real (representational) and how Ribalta sees the digital real (different from analogous real, but still a level of reality). Ritchin states that we have compressed the real world into a 2D rendering of reality in a confined box (camera screen, photograph, computer screen, etc.) This "rendering of reality" is created because we still can see trees and people and objects in the digital photographs, but the linearity is removed (this may be a digital composite of objects that never existed in the same frame at the same time) and the light that was reflected off of these objects through the camera lens was not burned away on silver, but rather imprinted and changed into code and bytes to be read as an electronic rendering of "this is a tree" and "this is a human" and "this is a car". Though we still see the photograph as reality, it is quite a different reality than when we view an analog print. With the digital, we are looking at a compilation of thousands upon thousands of small, colored squares, whereas with the analog, we are looking at pieces of organic, randomly shaped grain that create the "tone imprint" Richtin previously mentioned. Ultimately, Richtin leaves it up to the reader whether they want to view this changed photography as a step up from analog, a step down, or just a change.

Jorge Ribalta is a little more opinionated in his discussion of the analog and digital, but he bases his ideas of this changed medium on the same points that Richtin makes when talking about photography's transition. Ribalta seems to be more biased toward the solidity of the analog, but won't deny the fact that photography is no longer analog and needs to then be rendered accordingly because we cannot keep looking at the digital in the same way in which we viewed the analog. One of his main arguments for the analog is that there is a direct relationship between the object and the photo and the viewer, that a viewer looks at this analogous photograph and sees that this tree exists in this spot at the exact point in time the shutter opened and closed, and now here it is, shown before them on paper in a realistic duplication of that instance in nature. However with these digital ideas, they become disposable: the photographer can take a picture of the tree, delete it, take another, delete it, take another, merge it with another photo, and present it as a realistic moment in time. In doing so, the relationship with the photo has been distanced and the linearity has been broken. This is the reality of the digital. Okay, says Ribalta, since "Documentary realism is the status power of photography" then we need to come up with a separate realism to pair with digital photography. With photoshop and the ability to edit photographs from their original form, the analogous reality disappears, and photography dies. This is where the photographic (the immortal aura of photography in its cultural and social effects of on people; photography's ghost, still floating among society) is born, in that we need realism, and we will always view photography as realistic (well, maybe we won't always view it as realistic, but as of now, we still heavily do), then we must reinvent this realism. Ribalta's idea is for a molecular realism. This molecular realism is based off of Felix Guattari's view of the changes in political revolution, going from a unified, homogeneous group, to a "molecular revolution" where these political view points scatter and each take up a separate stance. Ribalta states "A molecular realism involves overcoming the opposition between documentary and fiction and reinventing documentary methods based on the negotiation of the relationship between author [photographer] and spectator." As an example of this molecular realism in practice, Ribalta uses Jo Spence, who made the statement "If we truly want to democratize how meanings are produced in images, we need to realize that all those practices available to the professional, from the high street photographer, through to advertising photography, to avant-garde image/text art photography can all be appropriated right into the living room." Basically, Spence is saying that photographs can be created with a meaning that embodies the way the average person may see the image. In doing so, this molecular realism is put into play and the way people view the realism in photographs can be controlled in the way the photographs are taken. Again, Ribalta sees this analog-to-digital in relation to reality as a call for changing the way in which we view these photographs and their reality.

Also touching on photography's indexical role, is Corey Dzenko. His main argument is that yes, although photography has gone from a film base to a digital base, and although the tools for its creation have changed, the act of viewing the photographs has not. He says that digital photographs are still read as reality; that people don't look at a digital photograph and immediately question its legitimacy based solely on the fact that it was captured or rendered digitally. Dzenko does admit that whereas the analog is straight documentary, and it is physical and carries with it the weight of substance, that digital is merely representational, symbolic, and iconic. However, he goes on to discuss the ways in which we have moved from the analog to the digital, and that it has not been a jump, but a slow, somewhat smooth integration of the two processes into each other. He gives the example of the newspapers (ones that have no print versions now but are solely online), where people read the same stories and see the same photographs set up in the same style and the same places on their screen as they would see on the physical paper. The title is still at the top, with the date below it, and below that, columns of text with photographic integration. The process of reading the article is the exact same, albeit the fact that one is now looking at a lit screen instead of physical newsprint. Dzenko says that because we have smoothly integrated ourselves into this digital realm, we still view analog and digital photographs the same, and take each of their realities as, well, reality. His views do differ greatly from those of Ritchin and Ribalta in saying that there really is not much of a change, but he does also admit that sometimes people do not take digital as reality and that there is the potential for people to not believe digital in the future, although at this point, this has not yet widely happened (and he references the fact that even analog photography has not always been completely truthful in its representation of "reality).

 I have had somewhat similar views to all three writers here, differing at some points but agreeing in others. As for the index of photography being that it is perceived as real, I have always had a problem with this. Even in the late 19th century, photographs were being staged (people were dressed in indian costumes and told to pose with a gun behind a rock wall, or dressed as a "poor Egyptian" and posed amongst massive Egyptian sculptures, etc) and these photographs were told off as reality, that this is what the world is like because how can it not be? We have photos!! So even if the photograph shows exactly what was in front of the camera when the shutter opened and closed, I don't believe that this should be taken for a different type of reality. I am not yet sure what type of reality that would be, but I believe that there is a photographic reality (this unaltered image of what was burned into the film) and an actual reality (what is real outside of the frame; the reality that comes with the linearity of time). Because there is not just one umbrella of reality, nothing can then be taken as a perfect reproduction of an event in time (this also includes the fact that somebody is taking the photograph, and therefore chooses what to frame, what to crop out, the angle the photograph is taken at, the focal point, and later, whether it should be color or black and white). Not only can photography not be taken as a perfection of a representation of reality, but even things seen with our own eyes, without the barrier of a lens or ground glass, can be a warped sense of reality (magicians have been playing with this concept since, well, whenever perception of the eye was discovered. Maybe this is how Jesus performed "miracles"?) Anyway, in the discussion of analog versus digital not dealing with reality, I have mixed feelings. The pros and cons have been long talked about, with convenience, cost, tonality, crispness, quality, etc, but with these points, at least at the point we are at in the digital realm, it is all subjective and opinions. I do believe, however, that film will never be completely obsolete, albeit harder and harder and more expensive to find/use.