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.