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."

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