What Can Photography Do? | Hilde Van Gelder | Thursday, 31.05.2012

What Has Photography Done?

In order to grasp what photography can do as an art today, I want to start with looking back, asking ourselves the question: what has photography done so far? What relevant lessons can we learn from photography’s past? Before which carts has photography been put – so to say – ever since it was invented? What intentions has it served, both within the art world and outside of it, in its relation to society? Reflecting on photography’s historical trajectory as an artistic medium is helpful when one wishes to imagine what photography’s future roles can be.

In my previous writings on the medium, I have proposed to distinguish between two models or two main trajectories that photography has followed in order to develop itself as an art. These two models are still operative today, and in each of them photography appears to serve quite diverging aims and interests.

The first model is the one within which photography has been able to develop itself into what Jean-François Chevrier has defined as ‘the exemplary form of autonomous pictorial art’ or the tableau. Jeff Wall, with his body of work a prominent actor within this model, has famously described this employment of photography in terms of a renewal of the ‘great Western Picture.’ The germs for this very evolution were present within the medium’s potentialities almost from the very start. Early on already, some sharp minds anticipated it indeed, among whom the eccentric yet highly visionary painter Antoine Wiertz. In the June 1855 issue of the Brussels-based journal Le National, he wrote: ‘Before one century there will be no more masons in painting: there will only be architects, that is painters in the largest possible sense of the word.’

We now know that much, though not all, of this predilection has proven true. Several painters, most prominently Gerhard Richter, have continued to successfully reinvent painting’s long-standing, handcrafted tradition. Yet, if we are to follow Michael Fried, it is photography that nowadays matters most as a, newly established painterly art. The formal conventions of this hybrid, composite ‘auratic art’ – in the Benjaminian sense of the term – are for example large-scale formats, technologically sophisticated color prints and limited editions (often only one). When Thomas Struth photographs important history paintings in his series of Museum Photographs (1989-1992), he overtly points at these works’ discursive link to the history of monumental painting.

But, as Julian Stallabrass has argued, what does this ‘museum photography’ achieve beyond the genesis of ‘museum prose,’ which – in his opinion – serves to ‘assure the status of its object of study for the museum and the canon’? The deliberate rarity of these object creates ‘an extraordinary environmental profligacy,’ as shipping costs are so high and the frequency of their travels all too intense in a globalized world that nevertheless desires to see the real thing itself. The world view contained in these images is dubious: they appear to somehow absorb the information about the reality they reveal into a synthetic visual totality with an all too often freestanding narrative dimension.

Finally, it is crucial to dwell upon the aberrant market prize for these works. Recently, a Gursky picture was sold for $4,3m. Andrea Fraser’s recent analysis of this phenomenon is clear: such works serve to create further wealth for the 1% richest patrons in the world. This model, which I have called the absorptive one, makes photography subservient to stylistic prescriptions, and appears to be posing acute threats for a truly democratic and environment-friendly image culture. Stronger, as Stallabrass writes, art here becomes a vehicle to keep democratic freedom itself at bay.

The second model overtly addresses this very threat. Sharply aware of photography’s chameleonic character, it nevertheless aspires to hold on to what it sees as photography’s greatest tool: its ability to offer subtle critical comments on the social and economic reality in which we live and thus actively take part in transformative social processes. This model, which I have called the intervening one, relies strongly on the engaged legacy of the documentary tradition in photography – while learning from its failures and, at the same time, keeping the best of it.

Allan Sekula is, together with Martha Rosler and several other contemporary artists working with photography (I will discuss some of them later on in this blog), one of this model’s epigones. In Sekula’s opinion, the photo is a material, tangible form of communication between the image and the reality it visually displays. The photo digs its critical potential out of this privileged relationship to reality. It really has to say something about it because it arises out of it. Photography in this model testifies to an attitude, a way of approaching reality, to a method: the artwork is not only the result of a committed process of investigation but also an actual, personally experienced record of it. The photographic image is an analytic, critical inscription of a reality it aspires to fathom.

In his statement for the 7th Berlin Bienniale, which he curates, Artur Źmijewski makes a strong case for an art that ‘makes its mark on reality, and opens a space where politics can be performed.’ This political change, he says, cannot be done by art alone. Art is but one of the many forces at play that work towards change, but a crucial one. Photography, given its peculiar Janus-like character, strikingly reveals the two diverging paths towards which visual art is currently developing.

Therefore, the careful examination of photographs is crucial today. And so is the discourse on photography, including our discussions, on this blog. I hope we can make them move beyond the safe distance of ‘museum prose’ while at the same time holding on to the museum as a space that is a privileged and facilitating ally. To Fraser, the – at least partly – publicly funded European museums are key actors in bringing about what she defines as ‘a new art field.’ I invite you to talk about these issues via this blog, in an environment-friendly, democratic (all comments are welcome!) and low-cost way.