Walter Benjamin points to the fact that by means of mechanical reproduction the unique existence of a work of art at the place where it happens to be is no longer a given. The concept of authenticity is discussed at length and we learn that this has to do with uniqueness – Mechanical reproduction, as it were, robs the work of art of its aura – by which Benjamin means the subtle field of uniqueness which surround original works of art.
(The word AURA having clearly religious connotations – today we might find it predominantly in esoteric and spiritual traditions, often described as a luminous radiation surrounding an object or a person… )
I found the historical derivation of art as originating in cult – magical or religious – and only later emancipated from ritual and based on, as Benjamin sees it, politics, interesting.
Cult value being replaced by exhibition value to which the invention of photography and especially film contributed.
Benjamin wrote this essay in 1936 – and yet it is pertinent to this day and seems to anticipate and explain the postmodern ideology refuting the “cult of beauty” and replacing it by the ambiguous, the puzzling, the inexplicable….
What do I think about Benjamin’s viewpoint? History has in part shown that Benjamin was pointing to a development that was ( and is) indeed taking place – but art (painting, sculpture) has been created in the last 78 years that, despite ever better methods of mechanical reproduction, has lost none of its value as original, as the major art shows, auctions and exhibitions prove. On the contrary, one would think, mechanical reproduction contributes to an inflation of prices not only for original paintings, but original photographs as well…. as latest auction prices for first prints of photographers like Robert Frank show only too well…)
On the whole I agree with M. Warner Marien who writes: Benjamin was wrong about the special aura tha unique objects have. Far from destroying the aura, art reproductions served to increase it. Photographs of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa roused people to want to see the original. …..(Warner Marien, 2002, p. 306)
Genre appears to be a slippery term – its use stated by David Bates lying in creating ‘an expectation for the meanings to be derived from that type of photograph”. (Script “Body of Work” p. 12). He himself mentions widely accepted genres like portraiture, landscape, still life, documentary etc. If we search the Web under the term ‘genres in photography’ we find virtually dozens of more or less absurd entries as ‘Top 10 photography genres” (listing among more usual categories such genres as Light painting, floral photography, food photography, bokeh photography…. ) “The 11 most important genres of iPhone photography” or “Photography genres demystified (or muddled)” which lists no less than 25 genres, including Astrophotography, Stock photography, Fine art photography….
What is a genre might appear then to be solipsistic to each person dealing with questions of photographic theory, or at least arbitrary when we compare different art critics’ enumeration of genres. Bate goes on to say that “Genres, however, are not fixed; they are mutable. Genres are processes, which evolve and develop or mutate into hybrids.” (Bate, D. p.4). Another explanation I find helpful is given by Richard Salkeld : ” ‘Genre’ is a term used to indicate a particular style or category of communication. … Typically, a genre classification will point to conventions associated with the history or ethics of that style – not for the purpose of laying down rules, but for facilitating coherence; however, it is certainly true that slavish adherence to conventions may produce boring and predictable results and that the most stimulating work will often play with, or break, those conventions. “(Reading Photographs, p. 55) By defining entirely different genres our script seems to attempt such a playing with or breaking the conventions of genres as we generally find them in the critical literature of photography or the visual arts in general. The use of this appears to me to be able to to lead a rational discourse on work under discussion, but also to reflect my own work and to account for it within other current photography being produced. Thinking of an example: If I work within a genre like ‘phychogeography’ my photographing landscapes might not only evade the derogatory opinion of critics that picture postcard sights have been created, but I will actually LOOK at what I am photographing differently and possibly frame my subject in an entirely different manner. – The electric power lines going through a valley overview will not be painstakingly photoshopped out of my image because they convey meaning within my landscape.
Genre then seems to be useful as a concept which facilitates discourse, (the blurring of the boundaries included), as long as the group of people talking about a certain set of genres has a shared understanding of what exactly is meant by it, helping to conceptualise what photographic work is all about and how we might make sense of what we read in a photograph as long as the term genre excludes categorising into rigid boxes, as this, in my opinion, would be a questionable use of the idea of genre, preventing both creativity and fruitful dialogue.
Watching the three films Source photographic journal published in 2012 (www.source.ie/feature/what_is_conceptual.html) I cannot pretend that I fully understand what “Conceptual photography” is all about, but will note down what I have taken out of the discussion and statements by different photographers, critics and curators :
- The beginnings of Conceptual Photography dates to the 1960ies.
- “Conceptualism is an attitude about the function of art, not a clearly identifiable visual style. Its Manifestions can be remarkably diverse.”(Cuban photography curator Cristina Vives Gutiérrez, quoted in M. Warner Marien, 2002, p.393)
- Conceptual photography is preconceived rather than spontaneous and is based on (very often hidden) ideas the viewer is invited to retrieve and understand. Critic Lucy Soutter speaks of layers of meaning that need to be uncovered, artist John Hilliard, speaking about his work ‘Camera recording its own Condition (7 apertures, 10 speeds, 2 mirrors’ )calls it “a set of ideas you can speak about”.
- Conceptual photography became the thing the market, and with that the galleries, wanted.
- As critic Lucy Soutter puts it: ” Conceptual photography is anti-personal, anti-emotional and anti-subjective”. – The ‘Idea’ overrides everything else (Sean O’Hagan) ….some of the newer conceptual photographers, however, seem to feel it important to “bring emotion back into conceptual practice.” (James Casebere). As Soutter points out, the question to be asked is how the driving principles of art photography before the conceptual era might be described. Her answer: expressive, personal, subjective – work made as a result of a gut feeling, an impulse, a response of the eye, maybe something poetic or tactile or emotional.
- Critics of conceptual photography cite Paul Graham’s presentation at the first MoMA Forum in February 2010, in which he strongly spoke up against a critic’s claim that conceptual photographer Jeff Wall carefully structured his pictures, implying that all the other (and earlier) photographers just snapped their surroundings .(http://www.paulgrahamarchive.com/writings_by.html).
- It does not seems surprising that Guardian critic Sean O’Hagen appears the strongest opponent to conceptual photography, as newspaper photography defines itself differently to the photography of art galleries and museums . (Of course this again is not a clearcut division – as the World Press Photo Exhibition on the one hand and the 2008 work of Adam Bloomberg and Oliver Chanarin - The Day Nobody Died – makes only too clear.) O’Hagan: Conceptual – that’s where the money is. Showing absolutely no understanding for the Bloomberg/Chanarin project in Afghanistan, he insinuates the two photographers to have been driven by self-importance and narcississtic motives.
Conceptual photography, in my understanding, is a trend in fine art photography that is based on ideas rather than the immediate perception of the world. Often immediate understanding is denied, photographs appears elusive, baffling, difficult to understand, obscure. I cannot pretend to be enthusiastic about most of the conceptual photography I have so far encountered, but there are exceptions:
By seeing the long strip of partly exposed photographic paper without any explanation, the work of art would have remained absolutely incomprehensible. This is my basic reservation and contention withConceptual Photography. On the other hand, the same artists have made projects that fall into the category of Conceptual Photography that I find both fascinating and convincing, as eg. the ‘Holy Bible’ , where meaning is immediate and no external explanation required. My reaction to Conceptual Photography remains ambivalent after the three films by Source magazine.Which might have to do with the un-emotional representation, the hidden meanings, the obscure intention many of these photographs seem to contain. But I am better able to reflect on the impact these photographs have and see them in relation to other trends in photography.
Question: In terms of psychogeography, do you think it’s possible to produce an objective depiction of a place or will the outcome always be influenced by the artist? Does this even matter?
The way I understand the text the idea of psychogeography is very much to take a subjective stand with regard to the surroundings we find ourselves in. The flâneur/ flâneuse experiences certain psychological sensitivities and very much wants to use this in the way landscapes are creatively depicted. The surveyor is much more inclined to produce an “objective” depiction of a place – but even there we know ( The Telegraph, 29 September 2009,see also R. Howells, 2011*) that the objectivity is a selective one
Since psychogeography is (at least originally) an ideological anti-capitalist movement concerned with the theme of destruction of community and alienation of people there has been no attempt at objectivity - and even though more recent artists concerning themselves with psychogeography may have less politically inspired motivation for their work the issue of interaction between human beings and the land (often the city) have remained. Pedro Guimaraes writes about his work ‘Bluetown’: …. a dream of London about itself, a celebration of the beauty of its own alienation and loneliness.
Quite apart from the intention of psychogeographic photographers I do not think objective depiction is possible or should even be attempted by any photographer. Too many variables (climatic/ technical as well as the photographer’s mood (Tagesverfassung)) play a role – and this seems a good thing if we are talking about photography as a medium of communication rather than a scientific instrument.
*Howells, R. (2011). Chapter 8: Photography. In Visual Culture, Cambridge, England, Polity Press
The script asks me to do some research into Crewdson’s work and to reflect how his work relates to film and/or art. The internet search yields a lot of factual information about him, – my most interesting sources are texts from the galleries that exhibit his work ( Gagosian, the White Cube, Rogallery), museums (Kunstverein Hannover, Fotomuseum Winterthur) and interviews he gave (Der Spiegel, aperture) and information about Ben Shapiro’s documentary about Crewdson (Brief Encounters).Crewdson, born in Brooklyn in 1962, is a photographer and professor at Yale School of Arts. His photographs are elaborately staged scenes – tableaux – from small town American life. In an interview with Alyssa Loh and Alma Vescovi he states“Since a photograph is frozen and mute, since there is no before and after, I don’t want there to be a conscious awareness of any kind of literal narrative. And that’s why I really try not to pump up motivation or plot or anything like that. I want to privilege the moment. That way, the viewer is more likely to project their own narrative onto the picture” (http://theamericanreader.com/interview-with-photographer-gregory-crewdson/)
Crewdson’s images are full of unsettling atmospheres, leaving the viewer immediately wondering, what happened here – whether it is a woman in white underwear lying on a living room floor, staring at the ceiling, or a night scene with a car shining its headlights at yet another woman standing in downcast position in front of it, while two other women and two brown shopping bags, and a row of houses complete the picture.”Haunting, surreal and – most agree profoundly unnerving”is the way Loh and Vescovi describe Crewdson’s art. And they go on to state, (here our first hint at the connection to film) that production teams and set budgets for a single photographs can equal that of an entire film. The lighting stage direction in many of the pictures create this sense of the mysterious and evoke the world of Hollywood film scenes. The Whitecube gallery information localises the origin of Gregory Crewdson’s work“within a photographic tradition that combines the documentary style of William Eggleston and Walker Evans with the dream-like vision of filmmakers such as Stephen Spielberg and David Lynch. Crewdson’s method is equally filmich, building elaborate sets to take pictures of extraordinary detail and narrative portent.” http://whitecube.com/artists/gregory_crewdson/
Of all my sources I am most fascinated by an interview Gregory Crewdson gave the German
magazine “Spiegel online” in February 2014. Asked to elaborate on a comment Crewdson allegedly made that every photographer had one story to tell – with the emphasis on “one” he replies that he does not know what his story is: “If I knew that, I would not have to make pictures. In my head the story is undefined and hazy – inscrutable. My urge to photograph arises from the urge to understand it”. The journalist interviewing devotes a good part of the talk to an investigation of the influence the fact that Crewdson’s father was a psychoanalyst might be having on the kind of photography he is making. Crewdson readily acknowledges this interpretation of the journalist, commenting that “without doubt the fact that my father is an analyst is important for my outlook on the world. What I have taken from my father was this combination of distance and intimacy. My pictures show intimate moments, but from a distance” (http://www.spiegel.de/kultur/gesellschaft/seen-by-interview-mit-fotograf-gregory-crewdson-a-955509.html – translation mbd) For me it is the enigmatic composure of the scenes in combination with the obviously elaborate technical perfection of the execution and the cryptic content that provokes our imagination to create a “story” to each photograph that distinguishes this artist from other tableaux photographers. To the Spiegel journalist’s comment that his work is often described as relating to films I find Crewdsons’s answer that it is stillness, the silence, that distinguish photographs from films and that still pictures make more sense for him. “I think in still pictures and know how I have to read them….( When later in the extensive interview, he is asked to name a film that influenced his work most he mentions “Blue Velvet” by David Lynch, ” the attempt to lay bare something dark and uncanny” making the deepest and most lasting impression for his work…)
Although often irritated by tableaux photography I am intrigued by Gregory Crewdson’s work and hope to get hold of “Brief Encounter” – the documentary film made about him to find out more about the man and especially his way of making the haunting images he creates.