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Photography spent its first half century struggling to be accepted as an art form, typically by trying to emulate painting. Photographers smeared their lenses with Vaseline or kicked their tripods during exposure in attempts to convey their subjective impressions of the depicted scene, as required by the then-prevalent understanding of art. Genuine acceptance in the artworld, however, awaited the modernist credo that each fine-art medium must achieve its ends via its own unique characteristics. For photography, this meant emphasizing the qualities of sharpness, fine detail, and infinite tonal gradation. Twentieth-century photographers such as Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, and Ansel Adams worked to perfect the craft of rendering images whose beauty emanated from such uniquely photographic qualities. As the century progressed their images became increasingly accepted by the fine-art establishment.
By the 1960s, however, conceptual art had arrived, and with it an emphasis on "dematerializing" artworks. Art came to be about the communication of ideas, rather than the craft of materials, or the beauty such craft could yield. On the basis of this one might predict the demise of fine-art photography and, indeed, the works of the modernist photographers were shunned by the avant-garde of that era. But in a lovely irony the medium instead became the darling of the conceptualists, albeit in a form very different from that embraced by the modernists. The key was the development of the point-and-shoot camera, which enabled artists purposely ignorant of photographic craft to quickly and easily produce images which served, not as objects of adulation in themselves, but rather as mere means towards the end of communicating ideas. Even better from the perspective of the conceptualists, such snapshots were easily reproducible, a quality which--it was hoped--would remove the commodity-subtending "aura" emanating from modernist masterworks. Dan Graham and Robert Smithson explored suburban or industrial regions of New Jersey with five-dollar cameras, publishing their results in influential arts magazines. Later Cindy Sherman presented a now-famous series of auto-portraits printed by the local photolab on cheap, glossy paper. (Walker Evans, an interesting transitional figure, lived into the era of the Polaroid and embraced the effortless technology, remarking that it reduced photography to "brains and taste.")
This marriage of conceptual art and photography was quickly embraced by art-college photography departments. New generations of photographers emerged deeply imbued with a sense that attempts to perfect craft merely distracted from the goal of broad social critique. There were changes in technological emphasis during the 1980s and '90s, as many abandoned point-and-shoot cameras in favor of large-format cameras like the ones used by their modernist predecessors, but the aim in doing so was never a return to earlier craft-based sensibilities.
Art Photography Now surveys the contemporary legacy of this postmodern movement. Editor Susan Bright has selected some 260 images made by an international cast of eighty photographers, grouped them into thematic sections (on portrait, landscape, narrative, object, fashion, document, and city), added an introductory essay, brief essays to head each section, paragraph-length biographies of the artists, short artist-statements, a helpful list of further readings, a comprehensive index of names--and presented all of this in 224 pages.
Such a wealth of material in such a compact package suggests a jumble and, indeed, this is what we get. Save for those pages separating individual sections, each page consists of both images and texts, the images presented in a variety of sizes and positions, and the texts in a motley of fonts (large, small, serif, sans-serif, frequently with inadequate leading). Almost all of the images are in color. Almost none are beautiful. Some are revolting.
What are we to make of this rejection of elegant modernist sensibilities, with their insistence on single images centered on capacious white pages, and their strict separation of image and text? Love it, I suppose, or hate it, or (like me) feel strongly ambivalent. But whichever reaction you have, it will likely indicate your attitude toward the world of contemporary photo-based art, of which this collection is a perfect reflection. Bright has done an excellent job of creating a miniature of the real thing, a distillation in bookform of photography as it is currently practiced in the fine-art context. Indeed, in perusing it you are left with the very same feelings that arise from an afternoon spent exploring the galleries: a mixture of boredom in the face of old ideas recycled, indifference in the face of ideas not well handled in visual form, and fascination in the face of novel ways of informing objects of vision with ideas constitutive of the contemporary zeitgeist.
Familiar figures are represented--Sophie Calle, Nan Goldin, Andreas Gursky, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall--but Bright grants less-known figures equal space, and this admirable democratic spirit results in the delights of exposure to new work. I learned, for example, of Tacita Dean, who collects snapshots at flea-markets and groups them in ways that generate narratives no doubt quite distinct from the actual life stories of which the images are now mute indexes. The work is about human epistemic limitations and, more specifically, about our sharply limited ability to learn about the world via quick glances at it, which are precisely what snapshots provide. At the same time it is about our innate tendency to attempt to compensate for this by generating rich narratives on the basis these meager sources of information. The inadequacy of this arrangement is clear to anyone who has noticed the Rashomon-like way in which witnesses to an event offer divergent interpretations of what occurred.
If I have a complaint about the book as a whole it is that Bright has limited herself to the role of reporter, declining to editorialize on the current state of her subject matter which, in a number of instances, looks tired. Bright notes in her introductory essay that early practitioners of postmodern photography "probed the belief in the photograph as evidence, questioning its relationship to realism and reality in provocative ways" (page 10). Indeed they did, and they were right to do so, as a corrective to a mid-century blind trust in the veracity and objectivity of the medium. But it is now four decades later, and further such probing and questioning is not as helpful as it once was. Indeed, the fact that photography continues to be used fruitfully in journalistic and evidentiary contexts notwithstanding such sustained critique suggests that there is something to the old modernist assumptions that contemporary practitioners are missing. Bright, in her position as editor (and frequent curator), would be doing a service by highlighting this--and the several other--threadbare aspects of the new photographic orthodoxy.
Nonetheless the book is an essential addition to the libraries of serious students of photography, and a helpful addition to the libraries of those general viewers who desire an overview of this varied and proudly unruly dimension of contemporary artistic production.
© 2007 Scott Walden
Scott Walden, Ph.D. is Visiting Scholar in the Department of Philosophy, New York University. His academic work focuses on issues in the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of art, especially photography. He is author of Places Lost (Lynx, 2003), and editor of Photography and Philosophy: New Essays on the Pencil of Nature (Blackwell, forthcoming).