Photography's Ghosts: The Image and Its Artifice | The Nation


Photography's Ghosts: The Image and Its Artifice

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Shift again from art to journalism, and such sophisticated, absorptive phantasmagoria are exactly what Ritchin wants to undo. For Ritchin, the "ontological illusion that the beholder did not exist"--that images float unmoored from living creators or perceivers--can't help but be a pernicious cover for power, be it corporate interest or state ideology.

About the Author

Frances Richard
Frances Richard is the author, most recently, of ANARCH. (Futurepoem).

Also by the Author

In the poems of Peter Gizzi, the powers of tradition meet and mingle.

Susie Linfield's The Cruel Radiance is a demanding and flawed attempt to regard the pain of others through photographs.

Fried discusses twenty photographers in some detail. Just one of them--Hiroshi Sugimoto--is not European, American or Canadian. Women contribute sixteen out of the 213 illustrations in the gorgeously produced Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before. The number rises slightly if collaborations between the husband-and-wife Bechers are included. But then, regarding Cindy Sherman, Fried declares that he finds "almost all her work" after 1981 uninteresting. So, de facto, Dijkstra and Candida Höfer are the only female artists, and Sugimoto is the only artist of color, whose work sustains the critic and historian's attention. How can a compelling theory of the most important image-regime of the past hundred years fail to account for work produced by artists who are not white men? Fried would likely dismiss head-counting as irrelevant to his emphasis on the interrogation of pictorial aesthetics as pursued since 1970. But haven't we spent those same decades extricating ourselves from such circular logics of "quality"? The emphasis on historical continuity here sours.

I quail to say so, though. Fried countenances little deviation from his view, so that despite his capacious consideration of matters poetic and theoretical, his argument feels narrow. He goes so far as to "preempt" queries regarding narrowness. As he states in the introduction, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before relates closely to his preceding trilogy:

This means, among other things, that the chapters that follow constantly refer to my own earlier writings; I declare this up front, to preempt the facile criticism that I am excessively preoccupied with my own ideas. I am preoccupied with those ideas, for the simple reason that they seem to me to hold the key to much (far from everything, much less than half of everything, but still, a great deal) in the pictorial arts of the past 250 years.

Let it be so noted.

Ritchin has none of Fried's hauteur, but his style also tends toward hyperbolic pronouncement. We might give him a pass on flare-ups of melodrama ("Cause and effect, even life and death, flicker nostalgically in the rearview mirror that is now the twentieth century"). Occasionally, though, his hyperbole obscures a deeper point. "The originality and spontaneity of experience is at stake, with a chance to be revived." What do these words mean? Were originality and spontaneity guaranteed by old-fashioned Photography 1.0, with its portraits of fairies and darkroom obliterations of fallen Soviet commissars? If photo fakery is as old as photos themselves, whither revolution?

The answer lies, perhaps, in the drastically altered economies of time that Ritchin analyzes. Digital media deliver data, and the opportunity to rewrite data, with instantaneous rapidity. This is revolutionary. Very Large-Scale Conversations (to use a term from information theorist Warren Sack) can now be joined by anyone with an online connection and the social freedom, or daring, to use it. This is very large-scale democratization. As Ritchin argues, crowdsourcing, wikis and sousveillance ("vigilance from underneath") have the potential to transform fact-gathering and the communal conversations dependent on it--albeit in terms of ever-fluctuating access and potentially problematic speed rather than some stable, transcendent "truth." Diderot the skeptical encyclopedist would be fascinated.

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