Popular, not Populist
My apologies for the extended silence. I have been putting the finishing touches to a book about the relation between popular culture, art and photography, which will also be the subject of this blog entry.
It seems generally accepted now that photography became a modern medium of art in the 1920s. This was when it gave up its resistance to the widespread industrial basis of photography (Pictorialism is thought to have typified that resistance) and came into a close or parallel relation to the medium’s various social functions. Photography triumphed artistically by remaking, diverting, re-presenting or otherwise contemplating its ‘applied’ forms such as the document, the film still, the advertisement, the commercial portrait and the archival image.
Many of the key figures involved in that moment actually worked the medium’s applied fields. Man Ray, Laure Albin-Guillot, Germaine Krull, Albert Renger-Patzsch, Walker Evans, André Kertész. Others made images that could be taken for applied images (Edward Weston, László Moholy-Nagy). But as Modernists true to their métier, the aim was to make good photography and the ‘art’ part could be left to take care of itself. Photographers as different as Man Ray and Walker Evans insisted their medium was not art but it could be an art – a distinction lost on many today. Exhibiting or publishing a book of one’s commissioned work might be enough to shift the emphasis from the things depicted to the depiction, from anonymity to named author, from paid work to Works, from applied to fine art. Context, as any photographer will tell you, is key.
For all the mutations in the intervening ninety years or so there has been some continuity. Describing the role played by photography in art of the 1960s and 1970s, Jeff Wall used the term 'the art concept of photojournalism'. He was referring to the way the important art of that time understood photography in its worldly condition – as a set of embedded social practices that could be analyzed, critiqued, challenged and subverted. Artists probed photography's assumed role as social fact in news, science and law, opening up a space to reflect upon the authority often given to photographs in daily life.
This turn of photography in art towards a reflection on photography's roles outside of art remains its most significant mode. Photography has not entered art on an independent footing but as something inextricably bound up with non-art, and with the photographic as it appears across all of culture's spaces. Today we see practitioners and curators working with 'art concepts' of all the various fields of photography. The fashion image; the snapshot; the portrait; the medical photograph, the architectural photograph; the film still; the passport photo; the archival image; the penal image; of kitsch; of the topographic image and so on. The gallery has become the space to look from the sidelines at the general field of the photographic, to engage directly or indirectly with a commentary upon the image world.
The space of art has thus come to function either as an operating table to which the different forms of the photographic are brought for creative reflection, or as a set upon which they can be can be reworked and restaged. These two metaphors – operating table and set – map quite well onto what seem to be the two key impulses of the medium: the forensic interest in detail and the cinematic interest in mise-en-scène or staging. These impulses are so forcefully present today because all photography in art is somehow obliged to enter into a dialogue either with the notion of the photo as visual evidence or with the culture of the moving image in which the still image now finds itself. Or both.
What has changed, or what is assumed to have changed, is the attitude to popular culture, and the ideal of an intelligent and reflective cultural commons. I sense art in general has given up on this ideal, so that its relation to photography at large is now high-minded and superior, and its reworkings of photography’s applied forms are now marked by a very different dynamic. Art assumes it holds the cultural and intellectual high ground, and presumes nothing of much intelligence or reflection could be achieved within the space of the applied image. This is not only plain wrong but it becomes a painfully self-fulfilling prophecy, and it skews the discourses around photography.
The book I’m just finishing concerns Walker Evans (1903-1975), a photographer championed still by big museums as a maker of exemplary images in the documentary style. Discrete rectangles framed behind glass. But Evans was uneasy with photography as art and cautious about his image as an artist. He did not even attend the opening night of his now legendary solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (but he did lock himself in the night before to ensure the complex sequence of images on the walls was as he wanted). He was just as ambivalent about the printed page, where he earned his living. Nevertheless he was formed and fascinated by printed matter, and felt even the most conservative publishing empire might afford the space to make good work with a resistant, reflective, intelligent attitude.
When Life magazine launched in 1936 Evans and his friend the writer James Agee noted its tendency toward spectacle, sentimentalism and consumerist values. Nevertheless the duo submitted a proposal for a subsection of Life to be devolved to them. As editorial advisors they would provide a space for experimental writing and a visual approach devoid of what Agee called “all ‘art’ and ‘dramatic’ photography and of the plethoric and flabby ends of Leica photography”. They asked for an office and $75 a week each, promising to take care of everything. Life actually considered the idea for a while but eventually declined. Still, the desire to carve out an independent space within mainstream culture never left either man. Such a sizeable audience was too significant to be ignored entirely. Fleeing into small circulation journals, into vanity publishing and into the sanctum of the gallery was not the answer. To give up on the popular, to presume it can only ever be a crudely populist space dominated by the lowest common denominators of ideology, is simply to give up on the very idea of culture.
Eventually Evans found a space with some autonomy within Fortune magazine. For twenty years (1945-1965) he set his own assignments – which were frequently at odds with the general direction of the editors and the readership – did the editing, the writing and the layout. It was a struggle. He recalled:
“I had to fight for it. But in a way I accepted that as a challenge. I had to use my wits there. And I think I did all right. I think I won in the long run. I was very pleased with that because that’s a hard place to win from. That’s a deadly place really, and ghastly. I can’t tell you how horrible that is, that organization [Time Inc.]… But it’s such a large thing for very bright people and you can find places in there that are habitable.”
One might argue say that since there was no art market Evans had no choice but to struggle in the space of commerce (putting aside the glaring fact that the art world is extremely commercialized these days). But how interesting that some of the best, most critical, most long-lasting, most ambitious photographic work ever made came out of that compromise, and could only have come out of that compromise. Weegee, Gordon Parks, Brassaï, Arbus, Krull, Albin-Guillot, to name just a few. But I doubt any of these figures would have simply fled into art had there been a living to be made there. They understood themselves as connected to, invested in, an intelligent popular culture.
Away from art that struggle over popular culture continues. There are plenty of photographers today who are committed to this struggle in different ways. Moreover I think this struggle must continue because the alternatives are unthinkable. A crass, exploitative, voyeuristic and reactionary mass culture deserted by every photographer of critical intelligence is too high a price to pay for an art world that thinks it is above it.