Photography's Ghosts: The Image and Its Artifice
Jeff Wall/Marian Goodman Galley, NYC
Photography is haunted by distortions, or what philosophers and media theorists call "simulacra"--those devils or replicants that blur authentic essence and mere appearance. Pictures in general trigger these anxieties, Plato having bequeathed to Western culture a fear that overidentification with images will dull perception of a spirit that eludes sight. Photography, however, has been especially seductive, seeming to offer unmediated access to how things "really" are. As Martin Jay explains in Downcast Eyes, his marvelous history of antivisual themes in French thought, "Because of the physical imprinting of light waves on the plate of the camera...it might seem as if now the oeil was not trompé in Daguerre's new invention. But doubts nonetheless soon arose." By the 1840s, it was clear that even apparently direct imprinting could not rout the ghost of simulacra. "Yet as late as the Dreyfus Affair," Jay notes, "it was still necessary to warn the naïve viewer against concocted images." Photographs could be retouched or faked through double exposures--as when, in 1899, the newspaper Le Siècle printed composite pictures of enemies in the Dreyfus Affair appearing friendly. Technologies have drastically evolved, of course. Nevertheless, according to new books by Michael Fried and Fred Ritchin, warnings about photography's uncertainties are no less necessary.
Fried's still controversial essay "Art and Objecthood" was published in 1967, when he was in his 20s. In it, he accuses Minimalist art of "theatricality" because it plunks a de-aestheticized object--say, a steel cube--in the viewer's path and proposes that real-time engagement with this object constitutes art. Fried, who has explored the implications of his daring article across the decades, has become J.R. Herbert Boone Professor of Humanities and the History of Art at Johns Hopkins University and written a great deal else, notably a trilogy of studies shifting the emphasis from sculpture and tracing a path through eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French painting, toward the nexus of imperatives and disjunctions that we name modernism. Through it all, he examines the convention that paintings "primordially" are "made to be beheld." This apparent no-brainer exists paradoxically in tandem with another bedrock assumption of modern visuality, "the ontological illusion that the beholder did not exist." From Chardin to Manet and on to Stella and Caro, Fried contends, artists have negotiated between self-conscious or "theatrical" display--playing to the beholder--and meditative or self-sufficient "absorption"--pretending the beholder isn't there. His new book, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, extends the inquiry into art photography as it has developed since the '70s. Trilogy enlarges to quartet, and arguments that have engaged Fried since "Art and Objecthood" are staged anew via large-scale images produced by American and European artists. Like painters, these photographers intend for their work to be displayed on the wall. But they seek in best anti-theatrical style to keep their subjects, and their viewers, at a distance.
After Photography, by Fred Ritchin, is a very different book. Ritchin is a professor of photography and imaging at New York University and director of PixelPress, an online journal dedicated to documentary and social justice. He was picture editor of The New York Times Magazine from 1978 to 1982 and founding director of the Photojournalism and Documentary Photography Program at the International Center of Photography in New York. After Photography is the third book he has written or edited, and it heralds the arrival of what he calls "hyperphotography," or "Photography 2.0." The digital turn, for Ritchin, is a revolution untelevised. This is because television is analog, but more important because a collective lack of imagination has sidelined the potential of image-driven technologies into the realms of commerce and celebrity. Nevertheless, while new media are still new, we have the chance to perform unlikely feats of consciousness-raising about the effects of our image use. If we succeed, the revolution may yet be e-mailed to an iPhone or uploaded to a virtual coffeehouse in Second Life.
The two authors make strange bedfellows. Fried remains a conservative provocateur attempting to define the nature of art. Ritchin, who is a generation younger, theorizes progressive photojournalism. Fried promulgates a lineage connecting medium-specific abstraction and theories of pictorial realism, while Ritchin analyzes the impact of digitization--the manipulability of the visual document at the level of the pixel--on reportorial objectivity and public commentary about the news. Fried says nothing about journalism, and Ritchin de-emphasizes art. Both cite classics of photographic criticism from the predigital, pre-big-art-photo era, including Susan Sontag's On Photography (1977) and Roland Barthes's Camera Lucida (1981). But they consider pictures made with cameras to belong to distinct cultural systems, and they make opposite claims regarding the state of photography. Either photography matters as never before; or, as we have known it since Daguerre, it is over.
Yet reading Fried's and Ritchin's books together is a useful, if disorienting, experience. In a sense, each corrects the other's blind spot. Both authors focus on conditions of beholding, the perceptual and political opportunities and responsibilities incumbent on the person who looks at a photo, be it in a magazine, on a website, in a book or in a gallery. Both are fond of antithesis: theatrical images are bad, anti-theatrical images are good, and it's not hard to tell the difference. Or: Photography 1.0 is dead, and a wired yet lazy populace needs new literacy. Each then admits significant ambiguities. Theatrical methods are sometimes the only way to produce anti-theatrical effects; and the new literacy might cause as many problems as the old. Ritchin, not surprisingly, has more to say about the dangerous blessings of e-innovation and its disembodied spectacles. Many of the artists Fried champions also manipulate their photographs on computers and criticize neoliberalism's symptoms: commodity fetishism, tourism, racism and uneasiness about claiming an inner self in a maze of ideological mirrorings. Fried concedes this without being much impressed. His issue is not social critique but ontological perspicacity. How do photographs project conditions of truth? Ritchin's crux is precisely social. How do projected truths block or solicit well-informed, compassionate response? In short, both ponder the proper uses of artifice. For both love the image yet worry constantly about its powerful near-enemy, the histrionic come-hither simulacrum.