Photography's Ghosts: The Image and Its Artifice
Ritchin nods to Sontag, Barthes and numerous other writers who have wrestled with such puzzles--including Walter Benjamin, whose 1936 essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" remains a touchstone for techno-ethical visual criticism. Fried engages these thinkers too. He also makes extended forays into Wittgenstein, Mishima, Heidegger and Hegel. Ritchin's reader might wish for tougher dialogue with the theorist predecessors. Fried's, meanwhile, must hang on to his or her philosophical hat. In addition to extensive quotation from Fried's previous writings, and substantial asides relating to his career-long animus against Minimalist art, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before includes a Hegelian chapter called "'Good' versus 'Bad' Objecthood" (related to "genuine," or present, versus "spurious," or invisible infinity) and another centered on Heidegger's distinction between "ready-to-hand" and "present-at-hand." (Compare a hammer used to pound nails to a broken hammer, one confidently grasped as a means to an end, the other suddenly betrayed into lumpen thingness.)
Nuances notwithstanding, Fried's antagonisms are less rigid than his antithetical terms suggest. He reflects, for example, that things depicted in photographs have traditionally--wrongly--been regarded as broken hammers, mutely present-at-hand in the unmodulated continuum of matter. (This is more or less what Barthes meant when he famously called the photograph "a message without a code.") However, as Fried elaborates, when Wall sets forth a dizzying array of objects in a photograph like After "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue (1999-2001), the light bulbs, furniture, clothing and other junk that cram the basement lair have all been placed exactly and symbolically by the protagonist, by Ellison, by Wall. They are not dumbly "present-at-hand" at all. Similarly, in the photographic grids of Bernd and Hilla Becher, the artists' taxonomies of obsolete water towers, blast furnaces and the like--shot in deadpan black-and-white--can in principle be infinitely extended but in practice are rigorously controlled. "The infinity at play in such incompleteness," Fried explains, "is of the kind Hegel calls 'true' or 'genuine.'" A less polemical argument might put the play of incompleteness first. This would alleviate the necessity of admitting (halfway through the book) "the embarrassing truth is that the entire issue of absorption in photography is more complex, less 'pure,' than it is usually made out to be."
German idealism and French poststructuralism, Canadian and German artists, an American novel and a bristling handful of buzzwords all packed in a paragraph: it's difficult not to write like this when discussing Fried's work. Doubling back to Ritchin and the emergence of "hyperphotography," the story is refreshingly--possibly deceptively--simpler. According to After Photography, Photography 2.0 emerges not from centuries-long intellectual adaptation but from the rupture consummated in a single editorial sleight-of-hand:
If I had to pick a date when the digital era came to photography, it would be 1982. It was then that National Geographic's staff modified a horizontal photograph of the pyramids of Giza and made it vertical, suitable for the magazine's February cover. They electronically moved a section of the photograph depicting one of the pyramids to a position partially behind another pyramid, rather than next to it. It was a banal change--after all, the original photograph was an already romanticized version of the scene that excluded the garbage, tourist buses, and souvenir hawkers--but it opened the digital door.
Later, National Geographic editor in chief Wilbur Garrett reportedly claimed that the fix equaled, in Ritchin's words, "merely the retroactive repositioning of the photographer a few feet to one side so as to get another point of view." But Robert Gilka, then the magazine's director of photography, countered that the introduction of the technique was "like limited nuclear warfare. There ain't none." Indeed, as Ritchin shows, more disquieting doctorings have included the darkening of O.J. Simpson's complexion on a Time magazine cover in 1994 and the juxtaposing, on a conservative website in 2004, of young John Kerry with "Hanoi Jane" Fonda. The propagandists who pirated Kerry's picture also forged an Associated Press credit for the shot. Such dirty tricks, of course, are not the same as forwarding a cellphone snapshot to a friend, or even inventing a virtual double who spends virtual money in a quasi-utopian virtual community. Digital devices enable them all, nonetheless, and Ritchin's survey of the tech-scape seeks to remind viewers of their troubling, exciting intertwining.
Fried implies that he can set aside the issue of digitization, and the visions of a flattened, all-commodity world that it transmits, because manipulation has been the name of the image game since the 1730s. Digitization may or may not change anything important.
The issue of "truthfulness" versus "falseness" in this connection already looks beyond...painting, with respect to which it makes no sense to ask what a personage in a canvas is "actually" or "truly" doing, thinking, or feeling, toward the mechanical reproduction of reality in photography, with respect to which such questions are inescapable. (Or with respect to which such questions have been inescapable; I am thinking of the advent of digitization, the consequences of which for photographic practice and theory have yet to become fully clear.)
This bracketing of the problem prompting Ritchin's entire exegesis is literal; Fried relegates digitization to parentheses. Regarding, for example, Thomas Struth's "Audience" series--apparently candid shots of museumgoers--he asserts,
we sense intuitively that the actions and expressions of the tourists--also their distribution in space--are genuine, spontaneous, Diderot might say "naïve," one of his highest terms of esthetic praise. (We sense this, I say, but we might be mistaken: since the advent of digitization it has become possible for scenes such as these to be staged.... In actual fact that is not true of the "Audience" series. However, technologically we are forever now on insecure ground....)
Of Gursky, he remarks, "(I am deliberately putting to one side the question of the digital manipulation of his pictures, to which I shall shortly turn.)" He does turn there, noting that
commentators on Gursky's art have noted his interest in subjects--such as the Siemens plant at Karlsruhe, the Tokyo, Chicago, and Hong Kong stock exchanges, the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank building in Hong Kong, and the coolly lit modernist shelves lined with Prada shoes or Nike sneakers--that belong to the social and economic phenomenon known as globalization. As in the case of his use of digitization, I have nothing to add except to say that this too fits my larger thesis.