Art and Photography

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Art and PhotographyReview - Art and Photography
by David Campany
Phaidon, 2003
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Sep 25th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 39)

Art and Photography describes itself as a survey of the presence of photography in artistic practice from the 1960s onwards.  It's a fat book in large format, with 304 pages of 10"x11".  It has 3 main sections: Survey, Works, and Documents.  Survey is 35 pages of illustrated text; Works is a collection of photographs with a paragraph about each image, over 123 pages; and Documents is 80 pages of text, with many extracts from writings and interviews with photographers and other experts. 

The photographs in the Works section are well chosen and the accompanying words are informative.  Many well known art photographers are included, and browsing through the collection gives a good sense of the range of art photography in the last half-century.  All three sections are divided into eight subsections:

·         Memories and archives

·         Objective objects

·         Traces of traces

·         The urban and the everyday

·         The studio image

·         The arts of reproduction

·         Just looking

·         The cultures of nature

This way of organizing the whole of art photography into different themes is probably as good as any other, although it seems pretty arbitrary. 

Obviously the book is aimed at people who want to know more about art photography.  Everyone who looks at it will look over the photographs, and they are a great pleasure to view.  But looking over them, most readers, especially those new to art photography, will have many questions about what to make of the photographs.  For example, consider Jeff Wall's The Destroyed Room (1978), which is reproduced in the Works section.  It is a bewildering image, showing an obviously staged picture of a specially constructed room full of broken objects piled on top of each other, the most prominent being a mattress.  The actual version is a transparency 2.3 meters wide, over a light box.  It will not be obvious to the casual observer why many consider this to be an important work of art.  The short paragraph accompanying the image in the book (which appears in the "Traces of traces" section) says the image depicts the aftermath of violence in a woman's room, and highlights the tension between the reality and the blatant artificiality of the image.  The image is one of the very few that has a document devoted to it in the third section: a short essay by Dan Graham.  Graham's essay highlights themes especially important to 1970s and 1980s artistic and literary criticism: gender, violence to women, and fetishization; it refers the theorist Laura Mulvey and compared Wall's work to that of Marcel Duchamp and Gustav Courbet.  His discussion is helpful in showing a possible way of understanding the image, although it makes its highly theoretical approach makes the image seem like a work of philosophy, albeit not a very interesting one.  It will leave the reader still puzzled as to why Wall is considered to be a major photographer.

For most photographs included in the book, there is no extended discussion.  They are of course placed in some context, being in one of the eight book sections.  Furthermore, the introductory section does try to set the scene.  However, that introductory section is not particularly easy reading, partly because of the terminology it uses, and partly because it reads more like a collection of notes or observations than a guide to interpreting photography.  So Art and Photography does not provide its readers with enough of an integrated approach to understanding photography as art.  It is a safe bet that most readers will browse through the middle section, glance over the introductory essay, and browse through some of the readings.  Even those devoted readers who read the whole book from start to end will end up with a mixture of rather unconnected ideas. 

To ask that a survey of art photography impose thematic unity on its subject is a tall order, it has to be admitted.  This is not a topic that has much unity.  But such a book, apart from including a good set of examples of art photography, needs to help its readers more.  There are many ways of doing this.  One could highlight various movements within art photography, and examine some of the central figures in those movements.  Or one could examine some of the discussions of the place of photography within art from an aesthetic point of view, relating central works of photography to the theoretical discussion.  Alternatively one might include more modern art in a survey, and relate major developments in photography to parallel developments in modern art.  Each approach has its strengths and weaknesses.  And my complaint is not that Art and Photography does not do help its readers at all; just that it does not do enough, and most readers with only a sketchy acquaintance with art photography are going to be left not much the wiser by this book.

Despite my reservations, I should emphasize that the book does have a wonderful selection of photographs and even those who know a great deal about art photography are likely to see something new here.  The text does give readers some indication of how a photographer relates to various traditions, and editor and author David Campany does provide some ways to understand the profusion of photographs.  For those interested in art photography, this book is a great resource since there are few comparable surveys available.  For anyone who wants to get an overview of the area, Art and Photography is one of the best available places to start.

© 2007 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews. His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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