Up Against the Wall

What does it mean to claim that photography matters as art more than ever before? Unequivocal hierarchies and distinctions abound in Michael Fried’s book.

Simply put, the core argument stems from the shift inaugurated when photography increased its scale and was made with the intention of being displayed on gallery and museum walls. Fried links this moment to the late 1970s with Jeff Wall’s lightbox transparencies and Jean-Marc Bustamente’s big colour pictures of nondescript places on the outskirts of Barcelona and Provenance, Tableaux, as well as Thomas Ruff’s decision to make his portraits largescale in the mid 1980s. Previously, photography had lent itself to being matted, framed and exhibited on the wall, yet compared to the new work, for Fried, “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.”

Jeff Wall’s work plays the largest role in the book than any other photographer.   The other photographers considered in Fried’s book are nearly all as well-known and there are few challenges to the established canon that has now come to dominate contemporary art— Bustamente is one of the exceptions (the others are Patrick Faigenbaum and Roland Fisher).   A big part of this book is taken up with photographers from the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, Bernd and Hilla Becher, and their students, Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth, Andeas Gursky and Candida Höfer. Work by Thomas Demand (who studied sculpture in Düsseldorf) Cindy Sherman, Rineke Dijkstra, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Luc Delahaye is also subject to discussion as well as Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s film Zidane: A Twenty-First Century Portrait and Beat Streuli’s videos and photographs of street crowds. Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand also feature, but are part of a different relation and moment within the history of photography, one preceding the radical transformation of wall-based photography.

Philosophical texts by Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Hegel are, as Fried says, “vital to his project”, but the references are the most difficult and tricky in the book and do not really help clarify what is already quite a complex and at times contradictory argument about photography’s value as art. In terms of writers on photography, Jean- François Chevrier is important in first identifying the significance of big photographs, what he calls the “tableau form” in photography. A whole chapter is devoted to Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, Susan Sontag is repeatedly cited and in the most unusual and original context for photography writing, Fried draws attention to several passages from Yukio Mishima’s tetralogy, The Sea of Fertility. In one key passage Mishima gives an account of the ultimate act of voyeurism, where the desire of the protagonist to see the beautiful Thai princess alone as no-one had ever seen her, can only be fulfilled with his disappearance— “what he really, really wanted to see could exist only in a world where he did not.” This becomes important for Fried’s approach to big photography because it links with his idea that such work excludes the viewer, shuts him or her out.

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To understand the full implications of this as a criterion of judgment, Fried calls attention to the arguments set out in his art historical writing that drew out an anti-theatrical absorptive pictorial tradition in French painting from Jean-Baptiste Greuze and Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin to the advent of Edouard Manet and his followers in the 1860s, as well as the importance of his critique of minimalism in his 1967 essay, ‘Art and Objecthood.’ Denis Diderot’s injunction that the viewer of painting and the theatre be treated as if he or she is not there, that nothing in a painted or staged tableau be felt by the spectator to be there for him or her, provides the core premise of absorption and much discussion of photography is in relation to this motif or condition. For example, many of Wall’s pictures appear to show people in absorptive states or situations: with his “near documentary” (the term is Wall’s) portrait of the draftsman in the anatomy lab, Adrian Walker, 1992, the discussion leads to a very odd moment in Fried’s book as the author quotes Wall describing the picture in terms of Fried’s very own distinctions between absorption and theatricality! Small wonder they became friends and that Wall is so integral to this book.

Influenced by Clement Greenberg, Fried emerged as an art critic in the mid 1960s, taking up his predecessor’s formalist argument at a time of crisis, defending artists whose work he saw as high modernist— Jules Olitski, Morris Louis, Anthony Caro and Frank Stella— against the theatricalty he identified with minimalism, or as he called it, literalism. In his famous essay ‘Art and Objecthood’ he saw minimalism in terms of the problem of its openness and incompleteness as a work. Minimalism was theatrical because it invited the viewer to complete it. Minimalism and postmodernism “routed” (Fried’s word) high modernism and Fried turned from art criticism to art history, working through what, in many senses, might be seen as a pre- history of modernism up until Manet.   In Why Photography Matters… he turns to contemporary art again, albeit photography as contemporary art, and now makes the grand claim that the issues that were seemingly eclipsed by the triumph of postmodernism both artistically and theoretically in the 1970s and 1980s have now returned to the centre of “advanced” photographic practice. Of course by missing out postmodernism, he sidesteps much of the politicised debate about art’s contexts, and can still maintain the abstraction of a term like “the beholder” throughout the book.

The argument here is essentially in praise of the condition of absorption, valuing work in terms of its anti-theatricality. So much of the reading of the big photography is about how the pictorial space addresses the beholder, or rather how the space shuts us out— “severance” becomes a way of describing this condition in his reading of Gursky’s photographs. What Fried is doing in effect is championing the pictorial autonomy of the new art photographers, something that he sees brings photography closer to the high modernist painting and sculpture he championed in the 1960s. But the link is tenuous. Photography remains an awkward medium for modernism, as Greenberg himself was very much aware. For Greenberg photographers should acknowledge what photography does best, and that was tied to its identity as a document, as a realist art.   Allied with narrative and storytelling the medium was seen to be closer to literature than painting. Greenberg was writing before the “tableau form” radically shifted photography’s identity and presence, but questions about photography’s realism do not go away— indeed in some of Fried’s case studies they return more strongly than ever.

In relation to absorption, Fried repeatedly quotes Sontag’s beautiful description of Walker Evans’s subway photographs from On Photography— “There is something on people’s faces when they don’t know they are being observed that never appears when they do”. Many photographs, like Evans, can be seen to depict figures who appear oblivious to being beheld. But the pose in portraiture is a problem for absorption, as it is inherently theatrical. While candid or unposed portraits are closer to the condition of absorption, Fried nevertheless also discusses portrait photographs that look us ‘straight in the eye’, as Barthes’s puts it. Such an address clearly acknowledges the viewer, but Fried also manages to speak of such portraiture in terms of absorption— Dijsktra’s adolescent beachgoers are aware of being photographed, but there is still a sense of them not fully being aware of how they look and the portraits are absorptive in terms of “all the awkwardness, vulnerability, blemishes, physical idiosyncracies, oddities of costume and so on.”

One problem with Fried’s book concerns the different kinds of photographs that are presented together, not only the candid and the posed but both straight and staged photographs. The question of stagedness, and with it a certain theatricality, remains a crucial problem with Wall’s work in terms of absorption. The issue is raised at the outset in a brief discussion of Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, 1977-1980, which Fried links to absorption through the way in which a number of the ‘characters’ in her stills are depicted looking away from camera. But they are at the same time clearly staged. They are not untheatrical. Fried does have an answer for this and it concerns a quality he terms “to-be-seenness” or “facingness”. The terms are related to his account of Manet’s modernism, how the tradition of absorption became subject to a different address to the viewer in his paintings, with his subjects looking not away but straight at the viewer and with the way his pictures asserted their flatness through the open display of their brushmarks.   Fried uses such terms in describing the artifactuality of Wall’s work, the “to be seenness” aspect of the very form of the backlit lightbox itself as well as his pictures’ stagedness. The question of the photographic surface remains however an unresolved issue in this book. Wall might be able to draw attention to the surface by his mode of display but his pictures still remain transparencies, bereft of what he refers to as “the eros specific to painting”, touch.

Thomas Demand’s ‘straight’ photographs of life-size paper models are based on other photographs— his source images were often scenes of a crime, the hallway to the apartment of the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, the bathroom where a prominent German politician was found dead and so on. But in many respects Demand’s work is anti-photographic, in the sense that his pictures are constructed and that they are also about the erasure of details and traces, they are bereft of the indexical force of the source images and their documentary realist texture. The forms and elements in Demand’s photographs possess a digital or virtual look as a result. For Fried such a quality becomes important because it is a way of “emotionally and imaginatively shutting the viewer out.” Demand’s work, like much of the work discussed here, counters the humanist tradition of photography and humanist criticism. Consider in this respect Max Kozloff’s recent book on portrait photography, even its title jars with the Friedian model: The Theatre of the Face. In this book Ruff’s portraits become a problem because they fail the social relation integral to the portrait tradition. But Ruff’s inexpressive front-facing portraits are important to Fried precisely because they are made not to invite any empathic association— “take the picture as a picture” is Ruff’s mandate to the viewer.

There is a danger with such an all-encompassing theory, that the examples are pulled this way and that to fit Fried’s big idea. Ruff’s photographs seem to fit.   But this does not seem to be the case with Thomas Struth’s Museum Photographs, works that explicitly address the question of beholding in their portrayal of both art and its audiences. Instead of allying himself with the general reading of this work that considers they are to do with the correspondences set up between the people who have come to view art and the artworks themselves, Fried claims that the photographs indicate two separate worlds.   To see the work as being about the relation between viewer and artwork— the seeming absorption of the woman with the pushchair in the rainy street scene of Gustave Caillebotte’s painting in Art Institute Chicago 2, 1990, for example— challenges his thesis about the essentially confrontational address such Impressionist painting have towards their beholder, and the fundamental exclusion Struth’s art photography is seen to be characterised by.

What Fried is trying to do in this book is to view photography as art in relation to the terms of high modernism and it is in this respect his book is unconvincing. Minimalism and postmodernism defeated modernism and any attempt to return, albeit, as he suggests, in work that is aware of the developments of art in minimalism and postmodernism, is awkward. Formalist and modernist readings can be made of Wall’s work but much of his art is nevertheless rooted in a political context, reliant on the antagonism between the social documentary narratives suggested by his subject matter and the allure of the backlit lightbox mode of display, borrowed from late capitalist spectacle.   And even when Fried discusses more socially neutral works as the ‘straight’ colour transparency photograph of an everyday and unspectacular scene in Vancouver, “a simple urban monument”, Concrete Ball, 2003, his reading goes awry from his overarching thesis. Wall’s picture becomes a means of refining his early essay ‘Art and Objecthood’ in its critique of minimalism. In arguing against minimalism’s lack of specificity in terms of its use of generic objects he champions the way Wall’s picture alerts us to what Fried refers to as the “intractable facticity” of the thing photographed. It is an abstract form, but photography’s descriptive detail makes it specific, gives it a material weight and density. But such a realist response pulls against the model of distance, blankness, facingness, so integral to his book’s polemic about this new art photography.

In connection with this, Fried earlier gives us a curious commentary about Thomas Struth’s series of photographs, Unconscious Places, (dating from the late 1970s to the mid 1980s), central perspective views of streets in various cities from around the world. These, by the way, are not big photographs. Contrasting them with Demand’s controlled and intended pictures, these photographs are seen as layered with traces: “of architects’, developers’, and simple builders’ intentions and decisions, as well as the actions over time, for good or ill, not only of the inhabitants of those places, but also, so to speak, of the various social and economic forces that shaped the neighbourhoods in question.”   A multitude of intentions determine what we see in these photographs. The issue of intentionality is integral to Fried’s account of Barthes’s punctum— the idea that Camera Lucida is driven by an unacknowledged anti-theatricalism since the punctum is not intended by the photographer and has to do with the surfeit or excess of details in a picture, things that the photographer may not have seen when the photograph was initially taken: the nuns in the background of Koen Wessing’s photograph of soldiers in Nicaragua, for example. (In relation to Wessing, one can understand the significance of Luc Delahaye’s detail-rich largescale panoramas of newsworthy scenes and events, familiar to us because of photojournalism but refuting the message-determined and ‘intended’ photojournalistic image.) It is photography’s very documentary identity, the sense it cannot fully be reigned in by authorial intentionality that becomes important here. But this does not seem to sit very well with Fried’s attempt to argue that photography matters as art in terms of the values and issues arising from his championing of high modernism in the 1960s. Barthes’s imaginative and emotional attachment to the detail is the very relation that Demand’s photographs are celebrated for denying us— and one assumes, Struth’s photographs of streets can only invite. Exciting and engaging as this book is, there is a lot that remains unclear and unresolved. There is still much work to be done.

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Published in Photoworks Issue 12, 2009
Commissioned by Photoworks

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