Up Against the Wall

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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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Published in Photoworks Issue 12, 2009
Commissioned by Photoworks

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