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?

12 comments:

Bruno Trematore said...

I am not sure you can really compare the picture pairs you have presented. I'll go for the first pair Milk/Eugene Richards.

In the first one I see an individual gesture, tension, maybe rage. In Eugene Richards' the feeling is completely different. There is more joy in it.

Yes, formally, from a composition point of view, they are quite similar. But the message they deliver me, is completely different.

Stan B. said...

That Wall statement is about as disconnected as it
gets. "Imitations" of life are best suited to movies, novels, painting and... commercial photography. Why settle for cover versions?

PS- Welcome back!

Jon Anderson said...

yep, that is why I admit it is a bit like comparing apples and oranges, but I still think that there is something to be gleaned here. My question remains, however: why has the street tradition been relegated to the status of a poor stepchild, while the "constructivist" esthetic rules the Art World so much? I personally favor one tradition over the other, but I dont mean to be exclusionary -- photography is many things and comprises many genres. I just dont see why one particularly rich genre gets shortchanged.

Anonymous said...

jon; jeff wall is guilty of falling into two terrible traps both of which reduce his work to derivative and contrived. the first is his attempt to hide his insecurity as a photographer by surrounding his work with the intellectual language and traditions of real art. the second to believe that photography is merely a continuation/variation/extension of classic art and hence trapping himself into an archaic form that art long ago abandoned itself as it proceeded to develop creatively and intellectually into expressioanism, modernism, post-modernism and so on. charles harbutt has argued that photography is something more than art. that is is the only form that links the real to the unreal and that in an instant can make something unreal but only from the real. and there in lies its infinite possibilities, possibilities that free it from the constraints of art. and that it lacks an intellectual tradition - well, there is little that we can do about it. wall's desperate attempts to place himself in the history and lineage of paintings seems to reflect more his insecurities as an individual, and his dire need to 'belong' to a culture of celebrity and power. as eliot erwitt recently said; it is the classical photographers who will remain (bresson, bravo, kertesz) while all these others will fade from memory. i agree with that, for the classicists retained the essential factors that create impact and longevity; humanity, compassion, insight and a belief in the goodness of the world as we experience it around us.

surtr said...

isn't the 2nd photograph after hokusai or hiroshige?

Bruno Trematore said...

My question remains, however: why has the street tradition been relegated to the status of a poor stepchild, while the "constructivist" esthetic rules the Art World so much?

I can only speculate, but I have no answer for this.

On the other hand, one could ask himself how many "new" street photographers are there around who can really break with the tradition. Once you've seen HCB, Frank, Arbus, Winogrand, Friedlander, and a few others you can ask yourself what still remains to be said in this field, and especially who is saying it.

Another difference is in the purpose. People like Nacthwey or Pellegrin, who I ammire immensely, reflect a social and documentary value. Their purpose is to inform and move, not to make art.

It's not the same league, it's not even the same sport. They are aiming different targets.

Dan Estabrook said...

While you admit you are comparing apples and oranges, you are clearly taking sides and stating a preference as, of course, is your prerogative. However what, exactly, is your "caveat"? The pictures you compare were made for very different ends and to be seen in very different contexts, as Bruno Trematore suggests there... In just what way does the "hunted" image of the pair contain "more complex narrative" or is "richer in meaning, more open and more mysterious"? Beyond the generalities afterward, you never do say.

I am no Wall apologist - I've never really been a fan - but I find the attacks on him from the Defenders of the Old Guard very odd indeed. It's very dangerous to claim Purity for any kind of photograph. By your criteria against the Contrivances of Art, shouldn't the Decisive Moment, with its emphasis on a particular composition within a particular frame, therefore be less "pure" than any one of the thousand, um, "Indecisive Moments" before or after? Wouldn't that make surveillance video the pinnacle of your Art?

stanco said...

While no fan of the "constructivist" esthetic, it's no great mystery as to why street photography is no longer in vogue, just as jazz or the blues doesn't dominate the airwaves. It's been done, "perfected," people have moved on... I just don't understand how 2nd. rate mimickry is any better.

Jon Anderson said...

HI Dan, actually I am a bit dismayed that you cast the comparison in those terms, which I am not certain are quite what is implied by my comments. Of course I have my druthers, I prefer the street esthetic, but I am not after "purity" of any sort, nor the Decisive Moment -- not all street is about HCB's DM (which by the way has been misinterpreted to death; you know that the book's French title is more apt: images a la sauvette. Much more in line with HCB's thinking. anyway, my own "thing" has nothing to do with the rigor of DM or any other rigidly conceived protocol. If you want to know my own thinking about shooting, just read the intro essay of this blog, and maybe that will clear things up. Actually I find lots of Wall's images interesting, I happen to like the second example I gave above very very much and believe it is a very intriguing image. No, as I tried to clarify, but perhaps I need to work at it some more, I am mostly curious as to why one sort of approach rules while another wanes, when I think the street tradition is so full of possibilities. You are right I dont offer much more than generalities, but actually I just wanted people to look at the images side by side, since they share certain obvious motifs, and see what they thought about the juxtaposition, which might then elicit comments that could lead me to understand why one tradition has precedence in the Art world over another. I gave my opinion that one set of images is more suggestive than the other, but I felt I should let people know where I stand on the comparison; howver, perhaps I should have let the thing stand without further comment. Anyway, thanks for chiming in, I appreciate it.

Stanco, I am not sure that the thing has been "perfected" as you say and we have moved on. Clearly that was what Wall was thinking when he made his move, but I think the thing is more complex. Social changes are never so cut and dry or linear in direction, and we have to remember the advent of Po-Mo thinking that arose and came to dominate the last decades of the 20th century. People move on -- well, yes and no. Clearly, Richards, Towell, myself, and a host of others are still shooting with a street esthetic and it continues to yield some of the most important contributions to contemporary photography. Perhaps as Bruno says the purpose is key to understanding the differences, and I would add that the market, that is, the means of distribution and reception is an important part of the equation.

Well I thank you all for taking the time to read the thing, and I apologize if I came off as too judgmental vis a vis Wall's achievements. That was not my intention.

stanco said...

I don't think street photogrphy has been "perfected" by any means (and thus the quotation marks)- not when we have heavy hitters like Friedlander turning out masterpieces like "Sticks & Stones," and relative youngsters like Trent Parke with his recent color work- not to mention a host of others... Photography moves on like any healthy, living, evolving art form. Hopefully, history will sort out the memorable from the flavors of the month.

Dan Estabrook said...

Ha, fair enough, Jon! I , too, love a good discussion on photography... But if it's not your intention to come off as judgemental, watch out for suggesting that non-street photography is "retreat[ing] to the chamber of one's solipsism and fashion homunculi after one's own image." Them's fightin' words!

Anyway, good going on the blog...

Jon Anderson said...

Ha! Dan, actually i have to say on rereading that line a day or so ago I was dismayed at the tone, but I let it stand because to modify it would have been somewhat dishonest. I do think I got a little petulant and that is not the mark of good criticism. Thanks for reading and forgiving.