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.

No comments:

Post a Comment