|PROFILE: Still Standing, Still|
In recent years the photographic image has become central to art practice in ways that are very different from the intermittent curiosity it has attracted in the past. At the same time distinctions between ‘photographers’ and ‘artists using photography’ have become blurred. Whether aiming for a medium-specific purity or fusing with other forms, photography has made itself indispensable to recent conceptions of art. What has changed and why?
While I was writing, Henri Cartier-Bresson, still
perhaps the most famous and influential photographer there has been, passed
away at the age of 95. If his death represented a moment of closure for the
medium, it was for that model of art photography derived from classical
photojournalism and reportage. His was a picture taking that elevated
quickness, lightness, mobility and economy of expression above all. The
technical tools were minimal and immersion in the changing world was the
key. Motion would be frozen in fleeting frames by the Leica camera. Small
and neat, it took 35mm film originally designed for making movies. Where
cinema celebrated movement, the photographer’s aim was to suspend things in
beautiful and symbolic geometry. Jeff Wall recently called it a ‘dynamic of
anticipatory framing’, dependent on the ability to pounce when the world
appeared to be organised momentarily as a picture. For Cartier-Bresson it
was simply ‘the decisive moment’. It would be difficult to underestimate the
grip that this way of working had on photographers, on art and on the
popular imagination. Its simplicity seemed to distil, for a while at least,
something thought to be unique and fundamental about the medium. So it is
all the more surprising that for art, that way of thinking and making images
now seems very distant indeed.
Banal as the question may sound, perhaps we should ask what the tripod actually means for photography. In a simple sense it is a mark of seriousness. It forces a careful preconception of the image. Shunning the casual, it has connotations of ‘commitment’. Any serious amateur will tell you this. It suggests gravity (in both senses of the word – physical weight and importance). Nimbleness and a ‘quick eye’ are passed over and the photographer attunes to the longer wave rhythms of the social world. As a consequence the image becomes less about the decisiveness of the shutter and more about the stoicism of the lens.
The prevalence of the tripod may also be a symptom of photography coming to terms with its relative primitivism as a technology. It has been overtaken by the spread of the moving image from cinema and television to computers, mobile phones, electronic billboards and the like. Where the boundaries between the still and moving image are breaking down, photography circulates promiscuously in all these different spaces, dissolving into the hybrid mass of mainstream visual culture. But where photography attempts to separate itself out and locate a sense of specialism, it now seems to be decelerating, pursuing a self-consciously sedate pace. Production is slower and the look is extended. There is a backing-off and away from the white heat of mainstream imagery.
This is reminiscent of the path taken by the avant-garde cinema of post-war Europe. Filmmakers such as Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, Michelangelo Antonioni, Chantal Ackerman and Wim Wenders exploited the long take, the locked-off camera and the funereal tracking shot. The glacial tempo of their films sought a distance from the spectacle of Hollywood and the cut and thrust of television. The fleeting was considered irredeemably frivolous and artistically beyond the pale. Instead the camera’s gaze would be so long and penetrating as to estrange what at first looked banal and familiar. The long look would describe the surface of the world but doubt would creep into the equation between appearance and meaning. As Wenders once noted ‘When people think they’ve seen enough of something, but there’s more, and no change of shot, then they react in a curiously livid way’. Admittedly, photography is almost always a fixed look, it always stares a little. Nevertheless there are similar disturbances rippling across much recent practice. Most often it comes through a hyper-attention to detail in the image. The meticulous in photography tends to become a fascinated agitation for the viewer. Whether it is the intense visual description of the grand print or the laboured construction of an image, there is a refusal of the quick glance.
If art-reportage was an attempt to invest the snapshot with the power to convey history and change, recent photography effects an altogether more complicated relation to social time. First of all there is what we might call the ‘long project’. Photography can lend itself to styles or subject matter that can be worked with over a great period of time, a career even. This is evident in the work Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth, Candida Höfer, Hiroshi Sugimoto and younger photographers such as Dan Holdsworth. Change is not so much recorded in their photographs as measured against them. This has its roots in the organising principles of the archive and the series as comparative typology. Focusing on spaces and buildings rather than their occupants, this is photography as monument not moment.
Secondly, photographic time can be folded in on
itself. This is most evident where images work allegorically. When allegory
returned to photographic art in the 1970s and ’80s it took the form of overt
appropriation and quotation (think of the subversive re-photography of
Richard Prince and Sherrie Levine, or the photo-texts work of Victor
Burgin). It is still present, but is now discernible in the diverse ways in
which image-makers are in dialogue with different pictorial genres. Few
genres are unique to the medium (street photography may be the only one), so
working generically will inevitably mean connecting with painting, cinema,
theatre and literature. For example, in their gestures and enactments, the
photographs of Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Hannah Starkey forge hybrid visual
tableaux from a range of sources. Their references are rarely explicit,
rather the images draw from a storehouse of popular imagery past and
present. There is a commitment to social description here, but in the mixing
of artifice and realism the sense of the present is revealed as an
accumulation of past experiences.
How then to account for the ways photography can fascinate for a lifetime? Why can it be such a rewarding medium for makers and viewers? What is it about photography that sustains the interest? Is its longevity simply a matter of compulsive repetition? The answers are to be found less within the medium per se, but in its status as recorder. Photography is inherently of the world. It cannot help but document things however abstract, theatrical, artificial or contentious that documentation may be. So the meaning of photography is intimately bound up with the meaning of the world it records. The theorist and photographer Jean Baudrillard put it even more starkly: ‘The magic of photography is that it is the object which does all the work’. Perhaps it doesn’t do quite all the work, but certainly photography without subject matter is unimaginable. Moreover, photography is a product of modernity. Modernity has meant change, in photography and in the social world. So the identity of photography as recorder is condemned to remain restless, mobile, volatile even.
The matter is made more complex still because today’s media are thoroughly interconnected, yet those connections are never fixed. What we think of as photography derives in part from its place within a broad range of image technologies. If the era of the ‘decisive moment’ has passed it is because media other than photography connect to history more directly. If photography now strikes us as essentially restrained it is because other media do things quicker and more immediately. Photography can never be fully grasped or defined in isolation from other visual forms.
There seems to be little doubt that photography has been eclipsed. It no longer symbolises the visual zeitgeist. It no longer epitomises the general field of representations in which we live. But eclipse does not mean obsolescence. Far from it. Photography is still with us. Moreover, this vestigial state, this existence in the shadows of other media, is the source of photography’s increasing visibility in contemporary art. Might it be that photography became fully available to art once it had become at least partially dislodged from the centre of culture, and partially dispensable to it? Might we see this eclipse (which began in the 1960s but is now becoming very clear) as the necessary precondition for photography’s fullest artistic exploration? This is a line of argument familiar from accounts of the artistic fate of painting – that, once usurped, it was somehow free to explore ‘itself’. However the idea ‘photography itself’, independent of anything, is unfeasible from the outset. Thus photography finds itself socially eclipsed but also socially rooted at the same time. And it is this challenging combination that we see at the heart of photographic work today.
David Campany is the author of Art and Photography (Phaidon) and a co-founder of Photoforum