Thursday, September 30, 2010

Excerpts from "Regarding the Pain of Others" by Susan Sontag and "The Civil Contract of Photography" by Ariella Azoulay

      These readings yet again forced me to sift through a bunch of "stuff" to get to the meat.

     In the beginning of Susan Sontag’s excerpt, she feels the need to revise her ideas from her previous writings on photography.

         Back in 1977 in her book On Photography, she wrote that though photographs make events more real (photojournalistic images shown to the public during times of war, for example), they also diminish the public’s sympathy for the people portrayed in those pictures. Viewers may more quickly become bored by images shown on television due to the frequency of how they are displayed. Sontag notes that as far back as 1800, the public has been overwhelmed with images of horror from daily life and the news. Over time we have become more and more desensitized to them because of new technology being able to spread these images even more, and even more frequently as well. The television has taken away the shock value of images that should be arousing sympathy within us. Yet, it is not possible to have the media “cut back on” how many shocking, sad, terrible images they show us.

    This view expressed back in 1977, Sontag calls “the conservative critique.” She calls it this because reality itself is not entirely gone, but the “sense” of it is when we see appalling images. In addition to that, reality (situation, that is. For example, war) has to be turned into a “spectacle” as images for it to even be interesting to us. Sontag even quotes French philosopher and writer Andre Glucksmann mentioning that “the war would be won or lost not by anything that happened in Sarajevo, or indeed in Bosnia, but by what happened in the media.”

    But to say reality is becoming a spectacle is to assume that all people watching media are viewing news as entertainment and that suffering is not a real thing in the world. Though many people may be spectators, unaffected by what they see, it is not everyone. This is where Sontag begins to change her opinion. She says that it is cliché to think that images of tragedy have no emotional effect on anyone at all. There are those people who are “consumers of violence as spectacle” as she says, who are trained to be unaffected. There is also another side to all of this: the people being photographed. Certainly they do not want their photographs to be seen as just another tragedy alongside the rest. In fact, Bosnians photographed by photojournalist Paul Lowe wanted their recorded sufferings to be unique and were not happy when those photographs were displayed alongside photographs taken in Somalia of similar subject matter.

    In the following chapter of this excerpt, Sontag boldly makes the claim that once we reach a certain age, we should no longer be allowed to be ignorant of, indifferent of, or surprised by images of tragedy. There are so many pictures of atrocity floating around in the world that, at the very least, we should be reminded of how cruel human beings can be to each other. Yet there is such a vast history of human wickedness that is difficult to remember all of it. It is natural to turn away and forget. But the images cannot do much more for us than to call us to pay attention to and think about what is going on in the world.

    In the last chapter of this excerpt, Sontag says that if tragic images should make us think and “deepen our sense of reality,” like “secular icons,” we should have a special place to meditate on them. (I think she is likening this experience to praying in a Catholic or other denomination church in which the interior of the building is decorated with sacred statues or pictures of Jesus, saints, etc.) This is because she thinks it is exploitative to view these pictures in a gallery. Because pictures acquire different meanings in the vast amount of different settings to look at them (from galleries to newspapers to magazine), there is really nowhere for them to be looked at in a respectful way and really respond to them. In a space in which they are hung on a wall as art, there is much talking, distractions, people passing by, etc. and the solemn-ness of the photograph is removed; it is better preserved in a book privately viewed, but even then, the emotions we feel when looking at it will pass when we close the book.

the photo of the boy in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943 mentioned in the beginning of this chapter.

    Sontag then poses the question of whether an image could move us to oppose war. A photograph she finds very powerful in maybe doing this is “Dead Troops Talk” by Jeff Wall from 1992, which was mentioned in week 1’s blog entry. Despite this picture not being taken at a real event during the war, it still is quite realistic looking. The “dead” soldiers engage with each other but take no notice of us as viewers in the least bit. This is because as hard as we try, we can never truly understand how horrible war is if we have never experienced it firsthand.

    Ariella Azoulay begins her introduction of  The Civil Contract of Photography with stories about her experiences during the Palestinian occupation when she was younger, and how headshot portraits of Palestinians in the Hebrew daily newspaper Hadashot urged her to write about photography while she was writing about art in general at the time. She did not know how to begin writing about photographs like these, especially with writers like Susan Sontag and others claiming that the public is desensitized to these images.

    When Azoulay began curating photography exhibits, she came to the realization that to her, no photographer can claim ownership of an image they take of someone else because every picture of another person holds the remnants of the meeting between subject and photographer; there is an event present in the picture, and no one can own that. Even if it is an image of a person that can be named, stories, theories and analyses can always be made from it. Anyone who sees a photograph is free to recreate a meaning for it. Therefore a photograph is more than just an object, an image printed on paper. The event portrayed can only be understood by “watching” a photograph instead of look at it. What this means for pictures of someone who has suffered means to visualize the situation in the photograph and understand the injury of the subject. In that case, according to Azoulay, this is a “civic skill, not an exercise in aesthetic appreciation.” She gives a slightly tighter definition on page 16: to watch a photograph is to read it “both out of and into the space of political relations instated by photography.” I personally prefer the definition I tried to make, and I had to read through a page or so about politics before I saw another actual reference to photography.

    Azoullay seems to be against the terms “empathy, shame, pity or compassion” when viewing photographs; instead, she brings up the term of “contract.” She is mostly talking about pictures of the Palestinian occupation of Israelis here, and basically, she wants viewers to feel more than compassion for the people in the pictures; instead, she wants viewers to somehow “restore their citizenship through her viewing.”

    The next thing Azoulay talks about which truly caught my attention is this: a subject’s willingness to be photographed or their own photographing of themselves and their situation during a time of suffering creates a “civil space” in which all viewers, subjects and photographers agree that this situation of suffering is not okay. To me, it seems like a desire to showcase their suffering in order for others to see it and “watch” it as opposed to looking at it.

    Next Azoulay describes the civil contract with a photographic example of 1845. In this year, a man named Johnathan Walker had his palm photographed by Southworth and Hawes, which was branded with “SS” for “slave stealer.” He was tried in court for trying to “steal” slaves and bring them to the north - he basically tried to set them free. The photograph of his palm was an objection against his imprisonment and the fine he had to pay. This photograph had power to “overturn his disgrace” if it were to be published. Now this describes the civil contract in this way: the photographer and subject made the image with the intent of it being seen by someone who would care about the injustice done to Walker. This “someone” was no one in particular, but it would hopefully be someone willing to stand up for people like Walker. This photo created this supposed community of people that would be on his side. In the civil contract of photography, each party (spectator, subject and photographer) is aware of their role and what is expected of them during the taking of the picture.

    I suppose I cannot ignore Azoulay’s constant incorporation of politics in this introduction. It is really overbearing to me and I am inclined to not really care about the political aspect of anything whatsoever. (I lean more towards the caring about people in photographs and their situations, being moved to compassion and wanting to take action, but not getting into serious political detail about all of it.) This book is a way to create an idea of citizenship through photography. Azoulay uses Palestine’s occupation to talk about citizens. Both citizens (Israeli Jews) and non citizens (Palestinian Israelis, and perhaps even visitors to the country) are all governed together, but citizens receive more privileges. So both groups of people are not equal. However, in a photograph, all people are treated the same, whether they are a citizen or not. Photography makes everyone a citizen within that medium.

     The political talk in Azoulay’s introduction was really overbearing for me. Not that I am ignorant of politics or choosing to be ignorant, I just have another agenda in my life that is truly more important to me that goes even beyond photography, so I really had to sift through this introduction to find the points about photography that were meaningful. This is because I believe the civil contract and things Azoulay mentioned can be applied to all photography (or pictures of people, anyways) and not just images that are political or taken of people during times of suffering in war. However, I do truly appreciate how personal she gets with her own experiences and how much knowledge she employs.

     My understanding of these readings is that they do not necessarily completely disagree with each other, however, Azoulay may not entirely agree with Sontag's earlier opinion that we are desensitized to pictures of tragedy. She basically seems like she believes that a photograph commands us to care; she is not quite as passive about it as Sontag, who thinks that a photograph cannot do much more for us than to make us think about the subject and be aware of human wickedness. Azoulay does not really go into detail about what we can DO when viewing images of suffering, but it is clear that she wants us to do more than just dwell on it a little.

     (I'm not entirely sure if this is allowed in this blog, but these readings kept bringing to my mind "Pictures of Tragedy" sung by Kristi Northup .... I very highly doubt anyone will listen to this considering, well, the fact that Columbia is a "liberal arts school" but this is what my other "personal life agenda" is really all about.. and literal photographs of tragedy truly do compel me to care about, pray for, and give to the suffering - and that includes suffering of all kinds, all politics aside.)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Chapter 6 of Michael Fried’s “Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before”: Jean-Francois Chevrier on the “tableau form”; Thomas Ruff, Andreas Gursky, Luc Delahaye and end-of-book conclusion

     Part I: Chapter 6

 This chapter brought me to a slightly less complicated visualization than previous weeks. Everything was very straightforward, more than the last two weeks. With every analysis and visualization I create, I tend to eliminate unnecessary specifics (such as who said what) but I stick to the points made in the writings that illustrate the argument. This week is no different.

      The point I am trying to make with this diagram is how the three artists highlighted in this chapter possess the main qualities of the tableau, where they overlap and share the same qualities and which qualities they do not share. By using the colors it makes it easier to see, and certain artists not having every specific quality of the tableau form does not automatically remove them from that category of new art photography.
     The most decisive development of new art photography starting in the 1970s is what Jean-Francois Chevrier calls “the tableau form,” the main topic of this chapter.These photographs are not just works of art printed and framed to be hung in a museum just to be taken down again, but are giant works made specifically for the wall. They are made to be more confrontational. It has no intention of being reminiscent of painting.

     Only large works on the wall could confront the viewer in this new way. This inspired Thomas Ruff in the late 1980s to make his portraits much larger (which have made his smaller ones seem much less significant) and Jeff Wall to start making his giant light box photographs.

     Chevrier claims that having an experience with such a large photograph on a wall changes the traditional way a viewer receives it as opposed to smaller ones. This made Ruff reconsider his small scale of his portraits and made him realize that they were “inadequate for his purposes.”

     Chevrier also says that the art of the 1960s and 70s was opposed to this tableau form because they “downplayed” the artistic aspects of the actual photographic object.

     Again, this new art form was in no way an attempt to make photography as esteemed as painting by making it large and made for the wall; rather, it was an attempt to “reactivate a thinking based on fragments, openness and contradiction.” To me, this means open-endedness, and open to interpretation. A painting often gives one closure when viewing it, and this tableau form is an attempt to get away from that.

     Fried then goes onto explain that he uses the word “tableau” instead of its barely close English equivalent of “picture” because “tableau” expresses how a photograph is not just a picture taken, but  a work of art that is “caused to exist” concretely in a public space.

     To further illustrate the tableau, Fried brings in several specific artists.

     Thomas Ruff began his portrait series in 1981 in which he photographed his fellow students and others in the studio, deciding on a from-the-shoulders-up type of neutral, serious portrait in which nothing psychological could be interpreted. He allowed his models to choose their own background color, but in 1986 when he decided to enlarge his portraits, realized that those colors would be too overbearing and switched to a white background. His images were taken with a view camera and printed on 7 foot by 5.5 foot paper. This series, ending in 1991, established Ruff as one of the most well known photographers of his generation.

     Ruff has said, to paraphrase, that he does not like viewers projecting their own experiences into his photographs or trying to make up theories about the people in his portraits; he wishes people could just look at the photograph and take it for what it is and that’s all - a large portrait of a person. That is because he believes photographs can only show the surface of anything anyways and there is no point in trying to create a deeper meaning. This makes his intentions very clear to viewers.  The photographs are so realistic that no meaning can be taken from them, not even ruff’s feelings about each subject. The frontal facing of the subjects in Ruff’s photographs is not to make a point, but to stop viewers from “drawing conclusions of the lives of the people” and make them take is as just a picture.

     On the other hand, this makes his work so much like easel paintings in which a subject is painted and hangs on a wall and faces its viewers. As Gertrude Stein said, as one becomes more familiar with a painting, so does one become more familiar with a face as they see it over time. Yet the relation between the painting and who was being painted is not “anybody’s business,” just like it is irrelevant  to make a relation between photographs of Ruff’s and the subjects in them.

     This makes Fried think about Manet’s paintings, and how, by the 1860s, the idea that paintings “are not meant to be beheld” could no longer be considered. Thus, Manet created paintings that were indeed intended to be beheld. In the same way ruff created portraits in which all psychological meaning was stripped. Manet’s Portrait of Victorine Meurent from 1862 is a painted example of this.

     Manet’s “painting as a painting” is quite similar to Ruff’s “picture as a picture.” Yet Fried does not have the intention of directly linking ruff with Manet. Yet Fried makes many connections between different series from ruff’s work that reference the past.

     Fried now brings Andreas Gursky into the picture. Though Gursky’s photographs also increased in size starting in the late 1980s, his ideas were made strong right from the beginning. This comes across in Gursky’s Sunday Strollers, Dusseldorf Airport from 1984. Though it is not very large, it is much wider than it is high, and depicts an entire straight-on scene of people yet it is so distanced that viewers cannot feel a connection with them. This is not unlike his Klausenpass photograph made in the same year, yet he did not realize all the unsuspecting people in the photo.

     Fried says that Klausenpass is antitheatrical because of the distance of the people from the camera. This huge distance certainly separates the people from the viewer. This separation is prominent in all of Gursky’s work from here on out - the separation of viewers from tiny people engaging in leisurely activities with there being no way that they would know they are being photographed.  Another aspect of his work is the fact that viewer must get up close to see the details of the people, and then take a step back to see the work in its entirety.  A common characteristic of his work that enables viewers to see all these tiny details is the perspective - his images are usually taken from above the scene. He wants to eliminate viewers’ perception of perspective, to not even think about where the photographer actually was when taking the photo. A grand example of this is Salerno from 1990. The perspective in his works cannot naturally be seen with the human eye.

     Because of the obliviousness of the subjects, there may indeed be some truth to the photographs, perhaps contradicting what Ruff said about photographs only scraping the surface, not revealing anything about the subject. Gursky creates worlds separate from his viewers’ worlds, yet not with that intention. Not only are we far away, but unable to engage in the same activities as the subjects in the photos.

     The main aspects of Gursky’s work that put it in the antitheatrical category, according to Fried :

1. His use of digital manipulation, furthering the disconnect between his subject and how close it is to real life. What is in his images cannot be seen in the real world by the human eye.

2. The physical layer layer Gursky often uses to further separate viewer from subject - windows, glass walls, fences, etc. such as in Happy Valley 1 from 1995.

3. Gursky’s use of diptychs, which cuts in half the viewer’s point of view and further “violates the viewer’s spatial logic,” such as in Hong Kong Stock Exchange from 1994.

4. In many of Gursky’s photographs, his subjects are often completely absorbed in their tasks at hand, not at all aware of anyone watching them. These images are often quite flattened, furthering the un-identification and absorption of his subjects.

5. His interest in photographing subjects that are part of globalization. He has more than one stock exchange photograph from more than one place, showing his interest in not the place itself but the stock exchange as a global institution.

6. Subjects that create “distanced and severed seeing” in the viewer. The main example used here is Untitled XXI, a photograph of a page of an unfinished German book by Robert Musil, Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften. However, the page was manipulated - Gursky chose specific lines of Musil’s prose, reassembled them into one continuous text, and had a typesetter recreate the page so that Gursky could photograph it. Not only is this an image of text to be read, but an object to just be viewed.

7. The connection between Gursky’s work to abstract sculpture and painting. For example, his use of “all-overness” as it is called in the book (where his many subjects fill the frame) can be likened to Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings and Gursky’s abstracted Rhine II can be likened to Barnett Newman’s Onement I, etc.
Rhine II
Onement I

     Fried makes mention of how Restaurant, St. Moritz reiterates his point about how the subjects here are still unaware of the photographer and the viewer.

     This brings us to Luc Delahaye, a French photographer who started out as a photojournalist. He began to explore other areas of photography, bringing him to a project in which he photographed homeless Parisians, which led him to another series of black and whites done with a hidden camera on the Metro. However, most attention is paid to his project beginning in 2001 in which he explores subjects that a photojournalist would, yet he does not use a handheld camera, but a large format. He captures more of the scene than he would otherwise, and prints them very large in order to really engage viewers. These photographs end up with “opposing forces”: there is much distance from subject to photographer, there is much detail, yet there is never a close-up of a subject. Though there are no close-ups, the detail, scale and beauty of the images draws in viewers, and requires them to truly look at those details. While a photojournalistic image makes one point, Delahaye’s images require to contemplate many parts of them. This makes viewers feel as though they have “discovered” details rather than them being given by the photographer.

Taliban, 2001

U.S. Bombing on Taliban Position, 2001.

     There is a remarkable similarity between Delahaye’s photographs and Gursky’s in regards to the aesthetics and the way the pictures look. Yet, they are different because of the way viewers are severed from any relation to what is in the photograph in Gursky’s work, and Delahaye actually works to “reduce the distance between the event and the spectator,” in his words.

     At the end of this chapter, Fried says that an important function of the tableau form is “to compensate for the transparence of the photographic surface by keeping the viewer at a distance from the latter not just physically but also imaginatively.”(Transparency is, according to Clement Greenburg, the way a photograph can be realistic yet viewers look past that realism to find meaning. In addition, the literal material surface of the photograph holds little meaning (for example, Plexiglass over a photograph for presentation purposes).) This is especially true for all three photographers mentioned in this chapter. Ruff, Gursky, and Delahaye's photographs have such amazing detail that almost asks viewers to look for more meaning, yet the scale and other factors sometimes prevent that and indeed create a physical and imaginative distance between viewer and photograph.

     Basically, Fried's argument is that the tableau form of photography has specific characteristics and uses three photographers' work to make his point. He seems to enjoy going into excessive, unnecessary detail about specific photographs even though they are in the book for readers to see for themselves. He quotes other authors to support his point. Despite my disagreement with Fried only using three main people to support his description of the tableau form, I agree with the points he makes. I also certainly agree especially with the imaginative distance created between me and photographs like the ones in this chapter - though I find them incredibly beautiful and find myself looking at as much detail as I can in the small-scale book reproductions, I find it hard to draw meaning, even from SMALL versions. if I were to see them in person, I would only stand in awe of the scale, beauty and detail but not from any conceptual meaning. Jean-Marc Bustamante's Tableaux of cypress trees, as mentioned by Fried in chapter 1, fall into the tableau form; these too, are large, detailed, and beautiful, yet I find it difficult to draw any kind of psychological meaning from them. But that is not to say that works of art cannot be large scale and very detailed without having some kind of underlying meaning. For example, the large lightbox transparency by Rodney Graham at the Donald Young Gallery:
Artist's Model Posing for "The Old Bugler, Among the Fallen, Battle of Beaune-la Roland, 1870" in the Studio of an Unknown Military Painter, Paris, 1885 - made in 2009.
     Though one could argue that there is not much conceptual meaning behind this photo, either, since the title pretty much says it all. Either way, this certainly represents the tableau form in new art photography.

      Not only is the tableau mentioned as one of the 3 beginnings of new art photography in Fried's chapter 1, it also is relevant to the other 2 beginnings - the tableau form addresses the viewer (beginning #3) in a confrontational way, yet most subjects are often shown to be unaware of the viewer, as well as the tableau's (sometimes cinematic) qualities drawing you in, yet never recreating cinema (beginning #1).

Part 2: Conclusion: why photography matters as art as never before

     According to Fried, what it means to say that photography matters as art as never before is NOT that work from the 1970s and beyond is better than the work prior to it.

     He quotes other authors that explains what he means. According to Walter Benn Michaels, photography more than painting raises the questions about the “limits of representation” and the limits of the critique of that representation. This means that whatever the subject is in the photograph is questionable because the photograph is a much closer representation of a subject  than a painting.

     The photograph is significant because the question of the photograph is whether or not it is an object. It is not merely a “picture” of its subject.  Yet photographers seem to work so hard at trying to make their work appear as only representations. However it is questionable if that should even be said because it might imply that photographers prior to the 1970s and great photographers not mentioned in this book are guilty of not trying to establish their work as just representations. Rather, Fried (and Michaels, too, according to Fried) thinks that what makes the photographers highlighted in his book different from the rest is that they wrestle with “opposition between theatricality and antitheatricality.”  Yet Fried still makes it clear that there are many artists and works he could have included to support his argument.
Kate and Ben, by Ben Gest
Beate Gutschow

     That is not to say that the issue of theatricality has not come up in work prior to the 1970s. The point is that while much work over the course of photography has dealt with theatricality, they stop short of bringing up the issue of  the relationship between the photograph and viewer. Those issues are especially important in photography now because of: the large scale of so much work, which is what chapter 6 highlighted, and the issue of whether or not the subject in the photograph is aware of photographer or viewer, and whether or not it even matters. Fried references chapter 6 and mentions how Gursky’s work actually tries to “sever the photograph from the beholder.”

     Fried goes on to mention Barthes and Camera Lucida and how antitheatrical it is, without Barthes even realizing it.

     He also suggests that photography is an ontological medium and that the work he discusses in the book  are inspired by  ontological thinking and even contribute to it.

     Finally, Fried makes one last mention of a work of art - Jeff Wall’s After "Spring Snow" by Yukio Mashima, Chapter 34, 2000-2005. Obviously each thing Fried talks about cross-references each other. One of Mashima’s stories is gone into detail in chapter 1, now Wall makes a photograph about it. Anyways, aside from that, the story is explained and so is the photograph. It was taken from a scene in which, after a secret affair, the main male character of the story and his lady are in a car and she has to take off her shoe because there is sand in it. Such a simple part of the chapter, and yet, it took 30 days to shoot the image and a total of almost 6 years to complete the actual photograph, printing included. This expresses a to-be-seenness despite the character in the photo being very absorbed in what she is doing; the photo in general is very absorptive. Fried finds that Wall’s photograph reminds him of Gustave Courbet’s Wheat Sifters painting and it is possible that Wall had this painting in mind. This again goes back to how contemporary photography often referencing the past. Fried wonders if Wall thought about that and about the way that things are constantly being renewed throughout time.

After Spring Snow, by Jeff Wall

Wheat Sifters by Gustave Courbet

     This conclusion spends much time referencing the same things over and over again as well as referencing his past writings. In class, I wondered why some students were so annoyed with Fried, but now I can understand. Reading this conclusion made me wonder when Fried would ever shut up, would this book ever end, etc. and I have not even read the entire book. Half of this conclusion is Fried referencing himself or other authors that have referenced him.

     It was actually difficult for me to even make sense of this conclusion. Though there were a few points I did agree with, and that was his summary of issues of scale and relationship of beholder and photograph, but I think that may just be because I read chapter 6.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

"Why Photography Matters As Art As Never Before" by Michael Fried: chapter 1

     This was a much easier read than last week in regards to helping me form an understanding of contemporary photography.

CLICK IMAGE for larger!

     Fried says in his introduction that he never thought he would be writing a book on photography, so it is very interesting to see his take on something he did not think he would ever think this seriously about. His encounter with several particular photographers' work pushed him to do some serious research. In chapter 1, Fried's main focus is "three beginnings." I first asked, three beginnings of what, exactly? Not only did I find that it could be considered three beginnings to the book itself, but three beginnings to Fried's idea of a "new regime of photography." Those three beginnings also seem to separate into a few other "sub beginnings" (in my terms) or just general branches of this "new regime" that aren't as prominent as the three main ones.

     Fried goes into such great detail about all of his ideas and what inspired them that I have do try and do it some justice and elaborate on some things he said.

     The first beginning addresses contradictions, to put it most broadly, and uses theater and cinema and how it is used in photography to make his point. It springs off from a discussion of Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto. In the mid 1970s he began making photographs of movie theaters in the U.S. and did this for 25 years. What is unique about this project is that he shot the theater with the movie screen for the entire duration of the movie to get a blank white screen.

Orinda Theater, Orinda, 1992

      He claims that he had a vision, something intuitive telling him to begin this project. There were no outside influences. However, Fried points out that there were 2 other artists at the time dealing with cinema… Cindy Sherman and Jeff Wall.

     Cindy Sherman made 84 photographs in the Untitled Film Stills series in which she plays the part of another female character that is not herself. She was interested in looking as emotionless as possible in her imitation film stills because so many of the movies that inspired the photos had the actress overreacting to sell the film. She was basically trying to avoid looking theatrical in a photograph that is made theatrically by her “performing,” setting up, dressing up, etc. She intentionally wants a disconnect between viewer and subject in her photographs; in every one she is sure to not address the viewer directly, as in real films, by looking offscreen, looking at herself in a mirror, or by appearing self absorbed.

     Jeff wall deals with cinema in his work, in the sense that he makes a connection between photography, painting, and cinema all at once; his “cinematographic” photos all require some form of staging. His images as a cibachrome transparency in a lightbox have been his preferred medium from the start. The work he has done most relevant to Sugimoto’s movie theaters was his Movie Audience of 1979 - 7 lightbox portraits of moviegoers that appear to be watching a film at a theater.

These portraits are in color, but the color version I found online is too small!

     This work can be connected to Sugimoto’s in the sense that it is the opposite; Sugimoto’s theaters are empty, without an audience, but Wall’s work focuses on the audience itself. Wall actually talks about the theater and perhaps was motivated to make a staged photograph of an audience because he is in awe of the fact that moviegoers obtain happiness by going inside a theater and “losing themselves” watching the movie, trying to forget that they are in the theater. In the work he is addressing this because by viewing these large photographs we are in a way experiencing the same thing moviegoers do while viewing a film.

     This all causes Fried to draw the conclusion that a movie’s audience and its absorption of the movie avoids “the question of theatricality.” There is nothing theatrical about sitting inside a theater, forgetting you are in the theater, and staring at a screen watching the images inside of it. This seems to be problematic to him, and he sees Sugimoto and Wall’s work as a response to and addressing of that problem of being so engrossed in a movie that you are in a way becoming unattached to the theater. In Wall’s work, his viewpoint in the portraits distances you from them and at the same time you find yourself engrossed in them because of their beauty and the way they are made (transparencies in a lightbox).

      Sherman addresses the theatricality issue, by, as mentioned before, by making her characters look self absorbed or distracted away from the viewer. As for Sugimoto, his blank movie theater screens are fascinating and beautiful (like “shiny objects” being known for distracting) and cause the viewer to become engaged in them the way an audience becomes engaged in an actual movie. The emptiness of the theater plays off of the fact that an audience tends to “lose itself” and become unaware of the environment they are in.

     The second beginning addresses large scale pictures. Fried traces this mostly back to the time between 1978-81 when three artists (Jeff Wall in Vancouver, Thomas Fuff in Dusseldorf, and Jean-Marc Bustamante in Provence and northern Spain) began making work that Fried considered to be part of the new regime of art photography. While still considering Sugimoto’s work as part of the new art photography movement, more prominent characteristics of this regime are large scale photographs with the full intention to be hung on a wall and viewed as paintings. Though plenty of photographs in the past had been made somewhat large and framed and hung, this new regime of photographs started to be made so large and so full of detail that they could not be “certified as works of art” unless displayed at that scale publicly.

"The Destroyed Room" by Jeff Wall

     As for Thomas Ruff, his headshots started out as quite small but increased their scale likely in response to Wall’s photographs. However they could have very well been intended for the wall - the confrontation of photo to viewer was better expressed through a larger size.
One of Thomas Ruff's portraits.

     Bustamante’s Tableaux series from 1978-1982 are large color photos (more than 3x4 feet wide) made in the outskirts of Barcelona and places in Provence. done with a large format 8x10 camera, again, printed large so the viewer misses out on no details. Like Ruff’s photographs, it is up to the viewer to make something of them. So much detail is given that not just one thing is emphasized as the main subject; the work is “without qualities” according to Bustamante. His intention is to “make the viewer become aware of his or her responsibility in what he or she is looking at.” there is some kind of “exclusion of the beholder,” in which the viewer cannot truly consider the meaning of the things in the photograph because of how true to life they are. The viewer has a relationship with the photograph because of its physical presence and not so much its meaning. This is especially true with his later Tableaux of cypresses. These photographs are hard to even tell apart if the viewer does not look hard for subtle differences in the trees.

an image from Bustamante's Tableaux series

      These 3 artists are used as examples to show that these new approaches to photography came about without them knowing each other, or sharing a common background or influences.

     Fried's third beginning addresses exploitation or generally unwanted viewing. He considers 3 texts: Adelaide, ou la femme morte d’amour (the woman who died from love) anonymously written in 1755, The Temple of Dawn by Yukio Mishima in 1970, and Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag.

     Again, I must go into detail about these readings because Fried does. A brief summary of Adelaide, ou la femme morte d’amour is as follows: The widowed Marquise de Ferval takes into her home the beautiful orphan Adelaide to offer companionship to her 16 year old daughter. The Marquise also has a son who falls for Adelaide but cannot be with her due to “disparity in their fortunes,” thus, Adelaide avoids the son. But their feelings cannot be hidden and the son almost confesses them to his mother. She, however, knows already and does not approve of the relationship and sends her son out to fight in the war France is in, but not before he asks Adelaide to wait for him. While the son is gone, a neighbor falls for Adelaide and is about to marry her. Somehow this news reaches the son, who begs and pleads with his mother so that he can be with Adelaide. The neighbor hears of this and breaks off the engagement. Adelaide is thrown out of the Marquise’s house, and her son marries Adelaide and is cut off from the family. They have a son together, which still does not cause the Marquise to accept them. The infant son tragically dies. Eventually the Marquis and Adelaide have to separate; Adelaide goes to a convent and her husband joins another religious order in Paris. The women in the convent find out Adelaide’s past and try to get her to leave, but an older religieuses feels sorry for her and recommends her to her father in Paris, who tries to help Adelaide find another place to live. Adelaide relays a message to her former husband that she is coming to Paris and wishes to see him. He refuses because he still loves her. This makes Adelaide want to see him even more. She goes to the monastery where he is engaging in a “religious exercise“ with his religious community, and tries to get his attention, but he refuses to even look at her. Though she understands why, severe pain overtakes her and she dies before he can get to her. Though he is saddened and cries, he tries to distract himself with his duties from then on.
     Fried is interested in how stories like this paint a “picture” in the mind and he is particularly interested in the “pictures” of the Marquis engaging in the religious exercise right before Adelaide enters and as she enters and shows herself to him, his deliberate ignoring of her. He compares these pictures to mid-1750s French paintings in which the subject is painted to be completely unaware of the viewer, absorbed in whatever they are doing, and should the subject address the viewer, it is considered theatrical and not taken seriously.
The scenes Fried is interested in are a form of tableaus, something made for someone to view or behold, yet the subject is unaware of the beholder, fully engaged in their surroundings. (This is similar to Sherman's contradiction of her work as trying not to be theatrical while making a theatrical photo, and also not addressing the camera and whoever will be viewing the photograph.) The pictures painted in the story of Adelaide are for readers to visualize; it is absorptive. Fried finds that as early as Adelaide was written, there was a certain “falseness” about tableaus. This truth vs. falseness can also be applied to photographs.

     The Temple of Dawn by Yukio Mishima touches on this unawareness of being seen, but leans in the direction of true voyeurism. 57 year old Shigekuni Honda wants to spy on the Thai princess Ying Chan undressing in his house as a guest - it was the thing he wanted most above all things. He wanted more than just the Ying Chan that was seen by everyone, he wanted the unseen Ying Chan. This longing was equal with love, which depended on the unknown. The unseen Ying Chan was unknown. He must make it known to him by seeing it, by perceiving it. But the love could not come to be because his love was separate from his perception. Therefore his desire to see the princess naked became a desire not possible, divided separately into perception and love. The perception would not allow him to have his desire because it would contaminate her world, even if she was unaware of being seen. Whether she is unseen or is seen and does not know it is similar but different, in mishima’s words, which is similar to Adelaide: if Adelaide is not sure if she is being seen, but truly is seen by her husband in the monastery, it is similar but different to Adelaide thinking she is seen by her husband but is not truly aware that she actually is.

     These two stories can be related to photography. A photographer that photographs people who are unaware of it are often considered to be voyeurs, sometimes in a bad way, regardless of the reason why they are photographing people discreetly. The way this kind of photography is viewed started to change by the end of the 1970s with Gary Winogrand. In other words, the problem with so-called “voyeuristic” photography can be linked with the problem of Honda spying on a nude princess - it is unwanted behavior for the person being photographed or viewed.
In Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag, she reflects on images of suffering, death and the like and how they may be ineffective for political awareness because images are often used for more than one purpose and are seen often, thus making viewers numb to the circumstance.  These images are especially criticized if they look too much like “art” because there is a conflict between the purpose of photography - to document or make art. And some opinions would say that a photograph cannot fulfill both those purposes: as Sontag said, supposedly, “Photographs that depict suffering shouldn’t be beautiful.” Because those types of photographs draw attention away from what is actually happening in the image. And even if the photographs cannot make us do something or truly tell the story of everything that happened during the time the photo was made, they at least serve to remind us of what humans are capable of and that viewers should keep that in the back of their minds always.

     Sontag says that one photo that does a tremendously well job of reminding us of that is Jeff Wall’s Dead Troops Talk ( A Vision After an Ambush of a Red Army Patrol near Moqor, Afghanistan, Winter 1986).

     Despite being staged, it shows us as viewers that we cannot possibly understand how terrible war is for everyone fighting it and involved in it. And though it is staged, it truly feels like we are “voyeurs,” “beholding” the subject in the photo while they have no idea that we are. Sontag's writings remind me of the ideas discussed in The Civil Contract of Photography by Ariella Azoulay.

     Overall, chapter 1 seemed like an introduction to some ideas that characterize photography from the late postmodern era until now. This is truly just the beginning of reasons of "why photography matters as art as never before."

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Defining "contemporary": class readings for the week of 9/7/2010

      The readings from this week that made an attempt at explaining the term "contemporary" are as follows: "Questionnaire on The Contemporary, October 130 Fall 2009" by Alexander Alberro, "Contemporary Art and Contemporaneity" by Terry Smith, and reviews (by Leesham and Wright) of Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before by Michael Fried and The Civil Contract of Photography by Ariella Azoulay.

      My visualization for these readings expresses how the term "contemporary" came to be and what it encompasses, according to these authors and these readings.

      "Contemporary" in the case of these readings is a time period and a style of art. It is a vague term, yet has many characteristics. I will start with The Questionnaire on "The Contemporary" and what Albero had to say.

      The first page of The Questionnaire makes some interesting points with Hal Foster, apparently one of the editors. According to him, Contemporary art is not by any means new, but what is new is the fact that it seems to evade a solid definition, “critical judgment,” and historical background, and it also seems to be lacking in the conceptual area in some cases. It seems to “freefloat” throughout time yet at the same time, classes, institutions, museum departments, etc. have all become devoted to contemporary art. After this first page begins the start of what Alberro has to say about this topic, but the prior introduction makes quite an impact on the reader.

      In the fine art field, “contemporary” is the term used to define the period of time since 1989 to now where many changes have taken place, such as the collapse of the soviet union, and huge technological advances making this a digital age. But again, it is more than a period of time; it is also what we call the art made during this time. There is a socio-political context and reasoning for contemporary art and exhibition practices becoming so important, according to Alberro, besides the fact that we just happen to be living in the contemporary age. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the way that “art addresses its spectator” (meaning art suddenly being classified as contemporary, according to Alberro) has changed because of several reasons.      

      First off would be the twofold movement - where the continuity of the flowing and passage of time from past to present, modern to contemporary, etc. is suddenly broken by force to push “the contemporary” into its own time period. Suddenly the contemporary is noticed as its own time, being separated from the rest of the passage of time before that. Thinking of the contemporary as a period of time helps us to think about what is happening during that time that may be impacting the art. We think about the events.

      One of the events (as well as one of the reasons that art is being classified as contemporary) is political, social, and economic - globalization, which is a labeling of the present, saying the world is more connected than ever. We can see that globalization plays a large part in the art world for a few reasons.
1. Global integration is represented in many works as a theme or symbolically.
2. There is an increase in global exhibitions that are temporary (traveling ones) which not only enables many people to see the art but extends Western art to the East.
3. New collecting practices take place; people purchase art for different reasons now than before. Before, people wanted culturally diverse goods that are certainly valuable; now, according to Alberro, it’s out of “sheer speculation” in which the collector is playing a guessing game, thinking that perhaps the art they’re buying will become valuable, increase in value or is already extremely valuable as is, but they’re not entirely sure.
4. Because of the prominence of globalization, some artists create art just to counter it. (Some examples of artists given are Khaled Hafez and Yto Barrada.)
2. The technological advancement has played a huge role in this time period in the art world. Because of how so many things have gone from analog or traditional to digital, things like digital photography, digital animation, film and video installations and digital art done on a computer have replaced the kind of art one would  normally imagine to be in a gallery, like an oil painting.
The internet has also enabled us to view and spread works of art in a new and different way, a different experience then going to a gallery yourself to see it.

      Another reason the way that “art addresses its spectator” has changed is because the context of contemporary art makes us rethink what is avant-garde (new and experimental). We have to think about how this art can truly impact our lives.

      Finally, there is a shift of the importance from the meaning of the art to how aesthetically pleasing it is; it is often said by contemporary artists that the meaning is important and does not need to be understood, but the work should just be experienced.

      All of these ideas seem to somehow repeat themselves in the next two readings.

      In Terry Smith's "Contemporary Art and Contemporaneity," according to Smith, no one has really come up with a definite generalization of what contemporary art is except that it is work currently being made. However, artists that call themselves contemporary artists as well as organizations that support them try to have a narrow definition of it that is open and closed at the same time; vague definitions that talk about the usage of current practices within the art, such as digital technology. Again, the digital age is taking a large role in the definition of contemporary art and the time period.
      Smith has come up with two types of contemporary - contemporary as the new modern, and contemporary as passage between cultures.
      With contemporary as the new modern. Smith uses particular, specific examples of works of art to express what he means by this. Just reading about the art and trying to define this term is difficult, but its as though contemporary art is trying to keep the style art from the modern period (1850-1960s). It is considered to be “the high cultural style of its time”. As for contemporary as passage between cultures, it is art that is emotionally attached to a culture that has nothing contemporary about it; it draws in viewers from other cultures and basically shows the bond between two cultures. It is art that can resonate with someone from a different culture than the one that made it.
      These two strands of contemporary are parallel with some curatorial practices best explained with two galleries mentioned by Smith - DIA:Beacon and Documenta11. DIA:Beacon encompasses the preconceptions of what a gallery should look like; clear-cut, plain; all the art in the gallery is continuous, not separated, to signify that “art has no history,” it is always alive and new. Documenta11 links the first four  platforms of the gallery together, and tries to show the relationships and even disjunctions between the artists and works of art, interconnecting them instead of showing a piece of art as pure and standalone.
      Contemporary as the new modern (linked with galleries like DIA:Beacon) vs. contemporary as passage between cultures (linked with galleries like Documenta11) is described as tiring juggernauts vs. a swarming of attack vehicles - a tiring juggernaut being repetitious and expected, being “managerial, curatorial, corporate, historical, commercial, educational - imposed by art institution” (Smith p. 695) and a swarming of attack vehicles being art that is aware of its “psychic, social, cultural, and political” settings. (Smith 695). It is normal, logical, expected art vs. a network of art with some other kind of agenda (like political undertones).

      Still, that does not give any better of a definition of contemporary. Smith’s proposal of what to do about the question of “what is contemporary art” starts with realizing that we should perhaps find a better way to categorize the art of today besides calling it “contemporary”; it isn’t much different than calling the art of the 1850s-1960s “modern”. Ultimately, contemporary art should be categorized as such if it focuses on the artist’s concerns of time, place, mediation and mood.

      And of course, not to forget contemporaneity - a “pointer to whatever is occurring in the world right now” according to Smith; it is something relative to the present time. More than that, it makes present times be looked at as “modern” regardless of what time period and year is actually taking place. It encompasses all time and all people, not just “us” (whoever may be reading this). It is also temporary, never lasting forever. Therefore you could determine the contemporaneity of a work of art by looking at the year it was made in and what was going on in the world at the time.

      As for the reviews, they incorporate aspects from both of the previous readings. Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before by Michael Fried and The Civil Contract of Photography by Ariella Azoulay were reviewed by Noam Leshem and Lauren A. Wright. According to these review authors, these books take a stab at answering the questions: “what does it mean to look at a photo and what is our role as spectators and how do we perform it?”

      Fried talks about these questions in terms of distance from the art, like Azoulay, but Azoulay mentions the distance by talking about what kind of responsibility viewers have towards images of “violence and suffering”.
      Fried mentions how viewing photography was more intimate prior to the 1970s, making the relationship between viewer and photo much different by looking at small scale prints. Since then, contemporary artists have been making work that is very large scale and creates a different kind of relationship between the work and viewer. We must also understand that recent photographers make work that aspires to be like paintings that address the viewer somehow, yet still retain their identity as a photograph. Many contemporary artists make work like this: it addresses the viewer in the sense that their subjects often seem engaged in an activity making them unaware of the viewer, yet their surroundings are obviously intentional, meant to be seen and addressed. However, it still does not allow the viewer to enter into the subject’s world. This is illustrated by Jeff Wall’s photography, for example, After 'Invisible Man' by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue (1999-2001).

After 'Invisible Man' by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue

Images like this are impersonal, yet still gives the viewer information about the scene.

      Fried mostly talks about aesthetics, not really addressing the conditions of the world and the environment around the contemporary art being made. (This mention of aesthetics being more important than meaning is mentioned in "The Questionnaire.") This is possibly a problem when thinking about Azoulay’s side.
Fried seems to intentionally avoid telling us how to deal with it when we view photographs in which we could easily question the ethics of it, as if we are not required to respond to it even if it clashes with our own morals, since the photo is not truly addressing us.

      Azoulay is quite the opposite. She wants us to think about what our responsibility is as viewers towards perhaps controversial images. In fact, she even thinks that some images ARE addressing the viewers, unlike fried. (She mainly talks about images of Palestinians and women - which ties into Smith's idea of contemporary as a passage between cultures - the images referenced by Azoulay can tug at anyone's heartstrings despite their culture.) A photo like that makes itself out to be “civil space” (meaning it involves everyone - model, photographer, and viewer) in which viewers cannot be hard-hearted and passive towards the situation. But at most, the only thing viewers can really do is feel compassion for the subject, which doesn’t help much after the fact.

      Fried thinks there should be distance between art and viewer, but Azoulay thinks that is just what would prevent a viewer from taking any ethical action the photograph may call for.

      This reading makes viewers think more seriously about the way they should view a work of art, which seems to be thought about more now during this contemporary age than ever before. Even the galleries mentioned by Smith make one think about the way a work of art is even displayed and why it is so important.
      Basically, these readings make me think that contemporary artists are truly aware of the world they are in and are aware of their viewers' thoughts, and somehow manage to make art that is aesthetically pleasing and/or talks about t the current social and political things going on in the world. Still, contemporary is not really a "style" that can be defined, the way that some art can be defined as abstract, cartoon, realistic, etc.