Monday, February 26, 2007

The Unblooded

"One thing that Wall knew for certain when he took up the profession in the late 1970s is that he would not become a photojournalistic hunter." Arthur Lubow

The NY Times Sunday Magazine has published a piece about Jeff Wall’s work on the occasion of his new show at MOMA, and the article provoked some commentary on Lightstalkers which I found intriguing. In yet another variant on the by now rather tiresome Postmodern obsession with the tenets of Representation, Wall adopts the vocabulary of street photography to render semblances of American life in elaborately constructed tableaux. Although diametrically opposed to the kind of photography that I myself practice and write about here, Wall’s thinking, cogently set out in the article, not only intrigued me enough to study the photographs, but after such study obliged me to reflect on the curious and almost complete disappearance of genuine street photography from the canons of the Art World. Mainstream critics routinely write about Wall and other stars, but rarely if ever deign to consider the incredibly rich traditions of documentary and photojournalism where the street photography esthetic still reigns. I find this a singular failure of imagination on the part of our critics, but one that doesn’t surprise me given the tenacious hold that Poststructuralist theory has on American Academe and the Art world.

Though it is a bit like comparing apples and oranges, I think I can clarify my beef with the currently entrenched thinking about meaningful photography by providing a simple comparison of certain images that share specific figural motifs. With all due respect to Wall and his meticulous work, the comparisons are not meant to critique his specfic thematic concerns, so I admit that he and his admirers may well find the point I wish to make rather specious, but I ask for a little forebearance as I attempt to introduce a caveat. Here are the images:

Jeff Wall/Museum of ModernArt

Eugene Richards/VII

Jeff Wall/Museum of Modern Art

Larry Towell/Magnum


Jeff Wall/Museum of Modern Art

Jon Anderson/Dark Horse Images

In each case it seems to me that the hunted image as opposed to the contrived image presents the more complex narrative and is richer in meaning, more open and more mysterious. The elaboration that is a hallmark of Wall's work, which you can plainly see in the third image, "After 'Invisible Man' by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue," is often singled out for praise, as Arthur Lubow observes: "Like a commercial light box, a Wall photograph grabbed you with its glowing presence, but then, unlike an advertisement, it held your gaze with the richness of its detail and the harmony of its arrangement. You could study it with the attention you devoted to a Flemish altarpiece in a church, and you could surrender yourself to its spell as if you were in a movie theater." The mix of metaphor is revealing: on the one hand, Old World harmony and detail signifying high seriousness; on the other, modern packaging of a spellbinding "experience" in a form commensurate with mass media. It would seem almost too calculated but for the fact that Wall undoubtedly is aware of the ironies and seeks to explore them. However, the ironies stem from the method and thus are as hidebound as the rest of this ultimately claustrophobic exercise in self-referentiality. One can get lost in the magnitude and detail of a Wall, but the experience seems something of a ruse in the end.

At one point in the article Wall is quoted as saying, "I couldn’t get into ’60s art photography — Friedlander, Arbus and Winogrand and Stephen Shore,” Wall says. “These guys were in a photo ghetto. They were into their own world, with photo galleries and their own photo books." What is one to make of such a statement? These shooters, whose fanatical engagement with the world around them managed to cement life and art perhaps as no other American artists ever had and eventually create a mass audience for their work, can hardly be said to have ghettoized themselves in any form prejudicial to the import of their work. One is left to wonder whether the pomp and circumstance of a Wall installation is in any way a guarantee that Art has escaped the ghetto or merely tricked out the pad with a bit of day glow and UV.

In any case, I am left wondering when the critics will rediscover the tradition that Szarkowski championed, a tradition whose reliance on the flux of life virtually guarantees its unending interest. Lubow writes, "what appeal was there in a genre whose practitioners seemed to have already taken their best shots?" Yet each so very different and consistently full of surprise, I can hardly believe that one could conclude the genre was tapped out. The issue, in my view, is ultimately one of control: does one allow the object world a hand in matters and thus allow for surprises, for discovery; or does one retreat to the chamber of one's solipsism and fashion homunculi after one's own image?

Friday, February 09, 2007

Back from Vac

well not exactly. My blogging has been unceremoniously interrupted by the advent of a particularly nasty tropical bug, so I have been taking a break from my usual endeavors. That will change shortly with the publication here of more musings. Hold tight folks and thanks for checking in.