Follow by Email

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Cracking the Surface. On Understanding Fine Art Photographic Practices - Paper by Clara Turchi

List of images:
P. 12 Blue Mitchell. The Calling (no specification of size, medium, and date of the work). Transferred image presented on wood panels and covered with a UV gloss varnish.
[Online image]. Available at: <> [Accessed 28 January 2012]
P. 16 Richard Prince. Untitled (Cowboys), 1993. Ektacolor print from 35mm colour negative film. 121.9x182.9cm (Marien, 2002, fig.7.34)
P. 18 Thomas Struth. Audience 2, Florence, 2004. Chromogenic process print from 10x8 inches colour negative/slide (?not specified). 178x234.5 cm. (Fried, 2008, p.139)
P. 23 Sigmar Polke. Untitled (São Paulo), 1975. Gelatin silver print from 35mm BW negative film.105x130cm (Polke, 1995 , fig.73)
P. 31 Henri Cartier-Bresson. Behind Saint-Lazare Station, Paris, France, 1932. Gelatin silver print from 35mm BW negative film. 24.1x35.6 cm (Cartier-Bresson, 2003, fig.45)
P. 34 Henri Cartier-Bresson. Hyeres, France, 1932. Gelatin silver print from 35mm BW negative film. 40.6x50.8 cm (Cartier-Bresson, 2003, fig.76)
P. 37 David Hockney. Mr and Mrs Clark with Percy, (1970-1). Acrylic on canvas. 213.4x304.8 cm.  (Hockney, D. & Joyce, P., 1999, p. 15)
P. 37 Taryn Simon. A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters, (2008-2011). Photography. London: Tate Modern
P. 41 Death's-head Hawkmoth [Online image]. Available at <’s-head-hawk-moth/> [Accessed February 2012]
P. 42 Jeff Wall. Morning Cleaning, Mies van der Rohe Foundation, Barcelona, 1999. Transparency in 4.0 light-box, 187x351 cm (Conley, 2010, fig.1)

Extract _ Chapter 1. The Surface _ pp. 9-11 and pp. 14-20

pp. 9-11

(...) we tend to behave with photographs as we behave with money, that is, because of the difficulties and obscurities of the system (financial and photographic), which are paired with an incredible easiness of access (to money and images), by entrusting these surfaces with a nominal value, we relieve ourselves from understanding the forces that control them (which is what caused the irrational raise in credit and credit derivatives and the period of recession we are actually living in).

During the twentieth century photography has become regarded as ‘the visual currency of our time’ (Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego, internet page), view confirmed by exhibitions such as ‘Currency - Contemporary New Zealand Photographic Art’ (1995) and books such as ‘Visual Currencies - Reflections on Native Photography’ (2009). Various sources have alluded to the close time-relation between the invention of photography and the raise of a new industrial age dominated by the capitalist model in the early nineteenth century: in one case the production-machines were to substitute men labour, in the other the camera-machine was to substitute men artistry. The output of the new mechanical processes were money in one case and photographs in the other. It is appalling how many characteristics these two objects share.
Firstly they both are images which can be assessed from an aesthetic point of view (view reinforced by the fact that monuments and works of art are normally reproduced on money). In the case of paper money, they also share the same bi-dimensional flat surface which doesn’t allow any in-depth knowledge about the system that created it. Historically, money were a promise to pay a certain amount of gold that was stored somewhere and represented by the note. The fact that until at least the II World War any country issuing money was in various ways compelled to do so on the basis of its physical reserves of gold, whilst nowadays this parity  doesn’t exist anymore, doesn’t diminish the fundamental role that trust has in the successful use and circulation of money. Indeed, it is trust in a vast, complicated, and largely misunderstood system, the financial system, that permits the light-minded mass-consumption of a promise that somewhere, somehow there is gold for everyone (hence the inflation is the measure of how much we believe in that promise). Likewise, photographs are usually considered a promise that somewhere, sometime, the subject of the photograph (which is the nominal value of the photographic image) has been existing in front of the camera and is truthfully represented in the final print. ‘The painter constructs, the photographer discloses’ affirms Susan Sontag in On Photography (1977, p.92). The issue here is not that the photograph can only depict something that for sure exists in a specific time and a specific place in the realm of the real, but that from such a definition we can appreciate the switch that occurs in the attention of the observer/user of the photographs from the value of the surface as such - as meaningful property of the image-object that can be constructed - to the nominal value of the image, that is, the promise it carries, the subject represented, the information imbedded in it.
Because of the complexity of a medium which encompasses natural phenomena, human control and machine power, paired with an apparently effortless, reproducible and so forth mass-usable image, its worth has been almost exclusively linked to its informative value (which corresponds to assessing a Turner on the exclusive basis of the subject depicted, or assigning to it a value based on how useful the canvas can be in explaining the weather).

Hence the ambiguity about the epistemic significance of photography. (......)

pp. 14-20


To summarize the ideas expressed so far, on one hand the photographic surface doesn’t lend itself easily to the interpretation of the intentions of its creator, and on the other the easiness of access to the referent compared to the technical difficulties of a not well known process makes the former the central focus of the public and the critics’ interest.
Knowledge and information are severely intertwined. If a limited knowledge of a complex process and a limited amount of informations are provided, the usual parameter employed to assess the work of a photographer is its being inserted in a precise schema or series: the seriality of the images becomes the only reassurance that there is a precise intent behind the work. I am not referring to the necessary fact that any artist, in order to be considered as such, must demonstrate a certain coherence of talent and quality over time, and that a posteriori is often possible to group up works by the same artist in series characterised by similar concerns or techniques, but the fact that photographic works are very rarely given any artistic value if they are not inserted in a precise schema or series since their conception. This might well explain why postmodern photography has so much contributed to establish photography as art, or at least this is true when we consider auction prices of postmodern photographic (almost exclusively serial) works.
Iconic books for the study of photography such as Marien’s Photography A Cultural History are overabundant in illustrations of photographic works but there is not one indication of the dimensions or mediums of those pictures in the over 500 pages. The same can be said for Jeffrey’s Photography A Concise History, or Clarke’s The Photograph, Wells’ The Photography Reader, or Grundberg’s Crisis of The Real; in none of these publications, which are at the basis of any undergraduate course of photography, there is any specification of size, medium, support, printing support etc. of any of the images reproduced. This is a common practice in photography and can often be seen in exhibitions of original works as well; surely this doesn’t happen for painting and sculpting, where medium, size and support are treated as integral part of the work and so forth always mentioned.

Richard Prince. Untitled (Cowboys), 1993. Ektacolor print from 35mm colour negative film. 121.9x182.9cm
Size and medium are crucial information to appreciate the work but they are ignored in Marien (2002, p.425)

Information stimulates curiosity and learning, and vice versa, but little attention is usually given to photographic information. I propose that specifications about the photographic image (device, negative support, printing technique and printing support, scale, seriality or singularity of the images and eventual positioning instructions, if any) are paramount in order to assess the picture and must be provided by the artists to accompany the piece along with the conceptual explanation that normally goes with it, rather than being relegated to the status of technical knowledge for technical experts. These elements do provide meaningful insight into the artist’s practice and are important aids to its interpretation for, ‘although the process of production of the work of art is deliberative and intentional, discerning meaning in the work, or providing an interpretation of it, cannot be reduced to, or be simply derived from, statements about the artist’s intentions’  (Wilde, 2007, p.126).
It is important to remind the reader that I believe that this more informed approach is necessary but not sufficient to assess the photographic work. As it happens in the assessment of more traditional kinds of artistic practices, other orders of conditions are necessary, such as historical knowledge, a certain level of sensitivity and, of course, the ability to read and contextualise the referent. The point I want to stress regarding the common critical approach to fine art photographic practices is that, by limiting the analysis to the referent of the photograph, a whole set of information about the work is ignored.

Take the Audience series by Thomas Struth. This is the last in a body of work that span over more than two decades and in which the artist has photographed the spaces where art is celebrated, from churches to, especially, museums. The exquisite images of the ouvre are all chromogenic prints from large format negatives (10x8 inches), mounted to plexiglas by Diasec method; some are larger than a man with his arms stretched out, some are comparatively of a more intimate size. For easiness of purpose I will refer to Audience 2, Florence, 2004.

Thomas Struth. Audience 2, Florence, 2004. Chromogenic process print from 10x8 inches colour negative/slide (?not specified). 178x234.5 cm

In this occasion Struth photographed the audience contemplating the monumental David by Michelangelo in the Galleria dell’Accademia. The usual reading based on the referent of the image concerns the temporal (De Diego, 2007) or spatial (Fried, 2008) communication between the audience and the masterpiece. Both De Diego and Fried acknowledge Struth’s presence in front of the photographed public and resolve to insert him as third element in this exchange. Despite being an interesting interpretation that leads to a number of important considerations about the museum as institution, the relationship between the work of art and the place where it sits, and it brings a whole set of possible speculations about the contemporary audience, I don’t find it satisfactory.  My main issue lies with the format used.
A 10x8 inches camera is, literally, enormous; it requires a similarly big tripod and the two of them together weight and are as tall as a teenager. The 10x8 is one of those cameras that attract immediate curiosity, not only because of its dimensions but also because of its “vintage” looks: it looks (and it is) like one of those used by photographers at the end of the nineteenth century, those that can be seen in very old pictures or historical films. This is not a camera that people are accustomed to see anymore. And this is not a camera that takes snaps in a fraction of a second and is ready for the next in even less time, as the negatives sit in big black holders which must be inserted in before and removed off after each shoot. It is not automatic either, it requires long time to focus trough a loupe posed on a glass plate that is larger than a man’s face and that shows the image upside down. It requires very small apertures for it to deliver sharpness throughout the negative, which means that it requires a strong source of light (natural or, as in Struth’s case, artificial).Framing the images is complicated as well because of the upside down view and because of the heaviness of the camera itself. In brief, it is not possible for the camera and the photographer to remain unnoticed and to avoid receiving active attention. My very humble experience with a large format camera (5x4 inches) is that even when I place it within the night in isolated, dark places, and I leave its side, any person passing by is attracted and moves towards it.
Going back to Audience 2, I start speculating that there might have been a sign somewhere, either in or outside the room at the Galleria, explaining the presence of a photographer in action and specifically asking the audience to ignore him. Or maybe when Struth was ready he shouted to people to look somewhere other than at him (more likely museum attendants might have asked the public, rather than the artist being shouting). Occasionally within the series there is someone whose sight accomplishes the presence of the photographer, but these cases are far too few for me to believe in the genuinity and spontaneity of the entire scene.
If I am correct in this supposition and a sign or signal have been given to these people, then ‘the handsome woman in chic black slacks’ (Fried, 2008, p.139) on the right side of the picture may not be bending to ‘protect her daughter’ (for economy of words I stay with Fried about their relationship) but she might be doing it to make sure that the little girl looks up and in front, for the sake of the photograph and of the photographer. Then the image starts talking about surveillance; about the intrusion of the artist in people’s life (as it happened in fact in the two decades previous to the economic meltdown, those during which Struth composed the series), about the recognition of the intrusion of photography in the fine arts; about not the awe that we feel in the presence of a masterpiece, but the awe that we feel towards postmodern art and artists, and other sets of conclusions. It is not my intention to discuss in this instance the validity of these interpretations and their relationships, which certainly there are, with the referential ones previously mentioned of Fried and De Diego. My intention has been to broaden up the debate about fine art photography by reaffirming the importance of usually overlooked information which might challenge or reinforce critical approaches that otherwise cannot but be limited. This more informed approach, I argue, better suits the task of understanding fine art photography and the hand behind it.

-  Bibliography:

Abell, C. & Bantinaki, K. Eds. (2010) Philosophical Perspectives on Depiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Althusser, L. (2008) On Ideology. London: Verso
Barnes, J. Ed. (1984), The Complete Works of Aristotle, , Princeton: Princeton University Press
Barthes, R. (2001) Camera Lucida. London: Vintage
Benjamin, W. (2008) The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. London: Penguin
Cartier-Bresson, H. (1999) The Mind’s Eye. Writings on Photography and Photographers. New York: Aperture
Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Comay, R. (1993) Mourning Work and Play. Research in Phenomenology, Vol. 23, issue 1.  Brill Online
Conley, C. (2010) Morning Cleaning: Jeff Wall and the Large Glass, in Costello, D. and Iversen, M. Eds. Photography after Conceptual Art. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell
Costello, D. and Willsdon, D. Eds. (2008) The Life and the Death of Images London: Tate
De Diego, E. (2007) In the Meantime, in Making Time. Madrid: Museo Nacional del Prado
Flusser, V. (2000) Towards a Philosophy of Photography. London: Reaktion Books
Freud, S. (1961) Beyond The Pleasure Principle. New York: W. W. Norton & Company
Fried, M. (2008) Why Photography Matters as Art as never before. New Heaven:Yale
Grundberg, A. (1999) Crisis of the Real: Writings on Photography since 1974. New York: Aperture
Hamilton, J. (1997) Turner. A Life. London: Hodder and Stoughton
Hirsch, R. (2008) Photographic Possibilities: The Expressive Use of Equipment, Ideas, Materials, and Processes. 3rd Ed. London: Focal Press
Hockney, D. (1981) Looking at Pictures in a Book. London: The National Gallery
Hockney, D. & Joyce, P. (1999) Hockney on Art: Conversations with Paul Joyce. London: Little, Brown
Jeffrey, I. (1981) Photography: A Concise History. London: Thames & Hudson
Klein, A. Ed. (2009) Words Without Pictures Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Kosuth, J. (1991) Art after philosophy and after : collected writings, 1966-1990. Cambridge, MA ; London : MIT Press
Kosuth, J. (2011). The Mind’s Image of Itself #3. London: Spruth Magers
Lévi Strauss, D. (2003) Between the Eyes, Essays On Photography and Politics. New York: Aperture
Livingston, P. (2005) Art and Intention. A Philosophical Study. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Manovich, L. (2001) The Language of New Media. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press
Marien, M. (2002) Photography: A Cultural History. London: Lawrence King
Maynard, P. (1997) The Engine of Visualization: Thinking through Photography. New York: Cornell University Press
Maynard, P. (2005) Photography. In: Gaut, B. and McIver Lopes, D. Eds.The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, 2nd Ed. Oxon: Routledge
Metz, C. (2003) Photography and Fetish. In: Wells, L. Ed. The Photography Reader. London: Routledge
National Gallery of Art (2009) Reading the Modern Photography Book: Changing Perceptions. London: National Gallery of Art
Newhall, B. (1982) The History of Photography: from 1839 to Present. London : Secker & Warburg
Phillips, D. M. (2009), Photography and Causation: Responding to Scruton’s scepticism. British Journal of Aesthetics Vol.49 [Number 4], October 2009. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Read, R. and Goodenough, J. Eds. (2005) Film as Philosophy. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan
Rosler, M. (1993) in around and afterthoughts (on documentary photography). In: Bolton, R. Ed. The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press
Rothko, M. (2004) The Artist’s Reality. Philosophies of Art. New Heaven: Yale University Press
Roudinesco, E. (2008) Philosophy in Turbulent Times. Canguilhem, Sartre, Foucault, Althusser, Deleuze, Derrida. New York: Columbia University Press
Sennett, R. (2008) The Craftsman. London: Penguin
Sirridge, M. (1976) Hospers on the Artist’s Intentions. The Reason Papers [Internet]. Vol. 13. Available from <> [Accessed November 2011]
Smith, B. C. (2010) Is Free Will Just an Illusion? [Internet]. Available from <> [Accessed January 2012]
Solomon-Godeau, A. (1989) The Armed Vision Disarmed. In: Bolton, R. ed. The Contest of Meaning. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press
Sontag, S. (1979) On Photography Harmondsworth: Penguin
Sontag, S. (2003) Regarding the Pain of Others. London: Hamish Hamilton
Suess, B. J. (2003) Creative Black and White Photography. Advanced Camera and Darkroom Techniques. New York: Allworth Press
Szarkowski, J. (2003) Introduction to the Photographer’s Eye. In: Wells, L. Ed. The Photography Reader. London: Routledge
Szarkowski, J. (1989) Photography Until Now. New York : Museum of Modern Art
Szrebowski, L. (2010) Productive Misunderstandings: Interpreting Mel Bochner’s Yheory of Photography, in Costello, D. and Iversen, M. Eds. Photography after Conceptual Art. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell
Talbot, W.H.F. (1841) Calotype (Photogenic) Drawing. Literary Gazette, 13 February
Traub, C.H., Heller, S. & Bell, A.B. (2006) The Education of a Photographer. New York: Allworth Press
Turner, P. (1999) Photography and Paradox. New Zealand: The New Zealand Centre for Photography
Van Lier, H. (2007) Philosophy of Photography. Leuven: Leuven University Press
Wells, L. Ed. (2003) The Photography Reader. London: Routledge
Wilde, C. (2007) Matter and Meaning in the Work of Art: Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs. in Goldie, P. and Schellekens, E. Eds. Philosophy and Conceptual Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press


No comments:

Post a Comment