From THE MOST AMERICAN PHOTOGRAPHER
(i.e. Walker Evans)
Nearly every photographer whose work was exhibited at MoMA, or who received a Guggenheim Fellowship, or was published in a serious journal was one whose work acknowledged Evans’ influence and advanced his ideas. This species of photography, which often resembled snapshots in its seeming immediacy unexpected framing, and openness to “bad technique” (blasted highlights, blurred motion, centered subjects, intrusions of the photographer’s shadow or reflection, skewed horizons, etc.) was embraced by three generations of photographers; Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Tod Papageorge, Henry Wessel and William Eggleston, for example, all built on Evans’ legacy. Others drew different inspirations from Evans: Stephen Shore’s precise, empty color images of the man-altered landscape; John Gossage’s concern with Evans’ narrative method; or William Christenberry’s labored retracing of Evans’ footsteps throughout the South. New Topographies was in some part indebted to Evans as was, if one agrees with Jean-Francois Chevrier, the one-time conceptual artist Dan Graham. Through William Eggleston Evans’ influence reached the U.K. and can be felt in the entire enterprise of what has been called The New British Color, most notably in the work of its most thoughtful practitioner, Paul Graham, whose immensely subtle works echo some of Evans’ meticulous attention to significant detail. Traces of Evans’ infused Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and nearly overwhelm Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law. When appropriation artist Sherrie Levine selected Evans’ classic images for her conceptual pieces – titled After Walker Evans – one might say that his work had come full circle. (pp.25-6)
From THE NEW WEST (a book by Robert Adams)
Adams claims pioneer photographer Timothy O’Sullivan as an antecedent; one might add William Henry Jackson who, like O’Sullivan, also worked in the same terrain a century before Adams. More recent photographic practice offers few parallels to Adams’ work, the closest being the use of photographic documentation in the work of certain conceptual artists, such as Ed Ruscha’s books, or the industrial typologies of Bernd and Hilla Becher, all of whom have a shared interest in the efficiency of photographic information. (pp.33-4)
The New West is a unique and valuable contribution to this collection; thus far no other book has so compellingly demonstrated the mutuality of intrusion between the landscape and its inhabitants, or so clearly shown why we should be paying attention. “Why open our eyes anywhere but in undamaged places like national parks? … We also need to see the whole geography, natural and manmade … ” (Claude Levi-Strauss) (p.35)
These kind of images seems to be the counterinstance of the ‘decisive moment’, with Adams willingly trading one of photography’s most dramatic attributes, that of isolating a specific action out of the flux of time, for something less inherently theatrical but equally potent: the rigor of scientific observation.
Adams’ insistence on the ordinary and typical, as well as the suggestion that his work is experientially verifiable, acts as a prophylactic strategy against our culture’s increasing suspicion that photographs, if not outright lies, are at best naive distortions of reality. (pp.36-7)
From NOTES ON PARK CITY (a town)
Recently I showed my work from Park City to Walter Hopps whose opinions I value. After looking at the work rather thoroughly he remarked that landscape was a particularly modern concern in Western art. The remark struck me because, on an instant’s reflection, it was so evidently true that I felt embarrassed not to have thought of it before.
What I understood him to mean was in the approximately 20,000 years that people have been making images of their gods, their animals, and each other, it has been only in the last four centuries that landscape, other than as a backdrop for figures, has appeared in art. (p.43)
From AMERICAN PHOTOGRAPHY IN THE 1970s: TOO OLD TO ROCK, TOO YOUNG TO DIE
Expanding enrollment and expanding employment in the university system (including both private and public colleges and universities, art schools, and two-year colleges) meant that higher education was becoming both major educator and employer of serious photographers. It is probable that teaching had supplanted commercial or magazine work as the ‘other’ work of most serious photographers by the mid-1970s; especially outsideNew York where relatively few opportunities existed for the newly-made Master of Fine Arts other than to return as an employee to the system he or she had just left. Such academic recidivism (teachers teaching students to become teachers who would teach students to become teachers ad infinitum) was only imaginable in a rapidly expanding sector of a healthy economy. (p.49)
Long constrained by the preciosity of the ‘master’ print and dismayed by the informational limitations of the single image, many photographers chose to work in groups of serial or sequential images, often narrative but many times not. These photographers came to regard the single print as an element of a larger entity: the series, sequence or group, which was, rather than the individual photography, the indivisible unit. Further, many of these photographers were coming to resent the reduction of the photograph to commodity status, costly and rare, and preferred to make their ideas and images available at a low cost to the widest possible audience. (p.58)
Perhaps the last institution to be mentioned might be the critical press, if only because it disappointed so many of the expectations it raised. One of the hopes for photography in the 1970s was that it would attract the critical attention of leading writers and thinkers outside the photographic community. This much at least was fulfilled: photography exerted a fascination for art writers who had made substantial reputations for their critical views on the other plastic arts. However, almost without exception they failed to come to terms with photography in any but the most superficial way. The astuteness that had gained them such success in other areas was abandoned as they became seduced by the most trivial instances and trivial issues in photography. Few retired from the field with their reputations untarnished; many were in tatters.
The most egregious example was Susan Sontag’s On Photography, an edited anthology of articles written for the New York Review of Books in the early 1970s.4 One critic was unkind enough to remark that since Sontag could no longer think nor write she should consider not publishing the results of her losing struggle. Though perhaps too harsh a judgment, there is little doubt that On Photography, with its unsupported assertions, poorly reasoned arguments, and internal contradictions, is not Sontag’s finest work. Nevertheless the book became the nearest thing to a bestseller that photographic criticism had yet enjoyed, and most right-thinking American readers believed that they could learn everything necessary about photography, both as a cultural artefact and as a form of aberrant behaviour, in the pages of this simplistic book. (pp.60-61)
Photography’s entrance into the mainstream of American culture changed all of that, the good and the bad, permanently. Henceforth photographic practice and theory would be held to the same standards used to assess other ambitious contemporary art, and a number of practices and attitudes from the 1950s and 60s would no longer play. Traditional photographers could no longer have the luxury of disguising the bankruptcy of their vision behind technically ‘perfect’ prints and pseudo-spiritual utterances; soidisant ‘experimental’ photographers could no longer pretend that Robert Rauschenberg had not gotten there first, and done it better, ten years before. Those stables, and others, were being swept, and those who were brushed aside complained that photography had lost its innocence.
Much of the American photography of the 1970s seems curiously affectless and divorced from the political, social, and interpersonal issues that surfaced during the decade. If it is so, it is less the blame of uncaring photographers than of those same photographers’ chastened view of the powers of their medium. During the 1950s and 60s ‘concerned’ photography was perceived, at least by its makers, as a form of activism. By the 1970s it became clear to more thoughtful photographers that is was, in truth, the antithesis of effective social involvement: a form of elitist play-acting, morally satisfying to the player, but without serious political or social consequence. If one wished to influence social or political issues, then images were no substitute for direct political struggle. Photography’s value lies elsewhere: in describing the surfaces of the phenomenal world in a manner unique to itself; hoping, at best, to contribute a precise, if necessarily limited, understanding of the objects and events in front of the lens, and some insight into the mind behind it. (pp.62-3)
In the late 1960s three extremely influential exhibitions introduced what would become the mainstream issue in American photographic work throughout the 1970s. These exhibitions were Toward a Social Landscape, Twelve Photographers of the American Social Landscape and The New Documents. Two of the three exhibitions incorporated in their title the term ‘Social Landscape’, a phrase coined by Lee Friedlander some time earlier. Friedlander, along with his two colleagues Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand, formed the nucleus of ‘Social Landscape’ photography.
It was a useful term to embrace the cool, laconic, post-Pop look of much of the best of contemporary American photographs in the 1960s and 70s. Its subject was an America no longer postwar, and it’s hidden agenda a redefinition of photographic formalism. Formalism is usually taken in photography in its smaller sense: the orderly and considered distribution of elements within the frame to achieve a ‘pleasing’ arrangement of shapes, tones, etc. With the works of Friedlander and Winogrand, formalism in photography came to take on the broader definition that critics such as Greenberg and Fried has assigned to it in painting: the investigation of the material and historic possibilities of a medium, using that medium as the tool of investigation. In other words, a definition, in practice, of the extreme frontiers of what may be deemed as ‘photographic’ seeing. This, and not the adoption of the snapshot as a vernacular model, as Janet Malcolm suggested, is the way in which photography became ‘Modernist. (p.64)
‘Social Landscape’ had another antecedent than the snapshot: the work of Walker Evans. For a great number of American photographers he is what Cartier-Bresson is to the French: an artist with an inexhaustible heritage. Be this true or false, Evans’ ironic, dialectical images informed much of the sensibility of the ‘Social Landscape’ photographers. Evans’ irony was more than a detached superiority, it was, at its best, a form of reserved judgment, an appropriate stance from which to view a society whose ideals, fortunes, and individuals are in constant flux, and this lesson was not wasted on the generation of photographers who came to artistic maturity in the 1960s and 70s.
In very different ways the three leading photographers of ‘Social Landscape’ challenged the prevailing ideas of what photographs must look like. Diane Arbus’ artless, straightforward portraits resemble nothing more than fashion portraiture gone horribly wrong. Photographing the dark underside of American society, Arbus found horror and desolation not only in the most freakish of her subjects but, more eloquently, in the faces, postures, and costumes of ‘normal’, average Americans. No American photographer had ever taken such a relentless, surgical look at what lay beneath the surface of American society. Her closest counterpart might be the writer William Burroughs, whose Naked Lunch shared many of the elements of Arbus’ sensibility. (p.65)
Taking nothing from the contributions of his contemporaries, Lee Friedlander stands out as the colossus whose work dominated American photography in the period 1967-80 and beyond. He is the only American photographer working whose images have assured him a place of honour among the photographers he admires: Atget, Evans, Cartier-Bresson, and Frank. His crowded, tense and often humorous images, and skein-like interlocking of pictorial elements were so complex, and so thoroughly defied traditional notions of photographic composition, that they were, literally, incomprehensible to many upon initial viewing, and were interpreted by some as metaphors for the obdurate chaos that is modern life. In retrospect that seems naive. As Jonathan Green observed, for all their apparent disorder the images have a sophisticated and compelling logic, not unlike that of a Rauschenberg assemblage. (p.66)
But if a movement is to be worthy of a name, its vitality must be tested not only by the strength of its progenitors but by the strength of succeeding generations of workers as well. And it is against this critical test the ‘Social Landscape’ proved so durable, attracting, for a period, a group of photographers as interesting and diverse as Mark Cohen, Bill Dane, William Eggleston, Anthony Hernandez, Tod Papageorge, and Henry Wessel, Jr. Many of these photographers have found their mature expression in styles widely divergent from the ‘Social Landscape’ aesthetic, others have extended the idiom and forged from it an instrument of strong personal expression. But it touches, at one time or another, all of these prominent photographers of the 1970s and many made their work in that style. (p.67)
An exception should be made here for the work of Robert Heinecken during this period whose best efforts escape self-conscious facture and convey wit, intelligence, sexuality and rage. Two movements, or trends, seem to belong exclusively to the 1970s, the first, ‘New Topographies’ (after an exhibition in 1975 of that name), the second, what one might call, for want of a better phrase, The Rush to Color.’ (p.69)
by the late 1960s there was no convincing school of landscape photography in America. The vital West Coast School, founded by Edward Weston, had entered its late-mannerism phrase, typically producing oversized, overworked calendar pictures of mountains and black skies, while the Equivalent, with its roots in Stieglitz and carried through by Minor White, has degenerated into self-indulgent mystification. (p.70)
Despite radical differences in style, technique, and temperament, Eggleston and Shore shared a commitment to the use of color as a descriptive, as opposed to decorative, element in their photographs. They were among the last to do so and by the end of the decade it seemed as though their work, almost solely, redeemed the entire shallow, dismal affair that was America’s flirtation with photographic color. (p.72)
From UNTITLED: FELIX GONZALES-TORRES
Feminist artistic discourse devolved from the complexities of Eva Hesse into the simplistic sloganeering of Barbara Kruger. Gay art, in previous decades defined by artists such as Johns, Rauschenberg, and Warhol, was now characterized by a dominant practice of homoerotic pinups. (p.132)
From NOTES ON THOMAS RUFF
Gursky operates from the same impulse that has traditionally motivated photographers: to make an aesthetic statement about something observed in the world. As such, Gursky is arguably the most skilled photographer of our time while Ruff’s interests have always been elsewhere. (p.180)
SEPTEMBER 12, 2011
INTRODUCTION BY MATTHEW S. WITKOVSKY
NOTES ON RECENT INDUSTRIAL DEVELOPMENTS IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
THE MOST AMERICAN PHOTOGRAPHER
THE NEW WEST
NOTES ON PARK CITY
AMERICAN PHOTOGRAPHY IN THE 1970s: TOO OLD TO ROCK, TOO YOUNG TO DIE
NOTES ON WAFFENRUHE
THE DEATHS IN NEWPORT
CITY LIMITS (OR HAS THIS BEEN USED BEFORE?)
LEARNING FROM LUXEMBOURG
A BETTER TOMORROW
THE PAINTER OF MODERN LIFE
FISHES AND SUBMARINES
UNTITLED: FELIX GONZALES-TORRES
AUF DIESE DINGE GJBT ES KEINE ANTWORT
WHAT DOES POSSESSION MEAN TO YOU?
MAYBE IT’S ABOUT KIM NOVAK
NOTES ON THOMAS RUFF
VELOCITY PIECE #2 (IMPACT RUN, 1969), BARRY LE VA
MEETINGS WITH REMARKABLE MEN: JOHN MCLAUGHLIN