Exercise: The Judgment Seat of Photography

Brief

Read the article ‘The Judgment Seat of Photography’ (Christopher Phillips 1982)

Add to your learning log the key research materials referenced in the text.

Response

This is an enlightening essay on photography as art, built around the historical work of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. It is not, however, specifically about documentary photography as art. Certain aspects of the essay did strike me as relevant and thought-provoking and I will extract these below.

The instruction in the exercise brief to add the referenced research materials to my learning log is somewhat odd: the text has no less than 81 footnotes and only a handful of these came across as being strongly relevant to my current studies.

My preference for how to respond to this essay is to:

  • Discuss the different approaches by MoMA’s first three Directors of Photography and how these relate to the debate of photography as art
  • Discuss the recontextualisation of photography in the gallery/museum, specifically the role of the curator vs the role of the photographer
  • Add my own thoughts on documentary photography being treated as art

MoMAs place in photographic history

Without crediting MoMA with single-handedly elevating photography to the status of art in the 20th century, it is difficult to imagine exactly how the history of photography as an art form would have unfolded had the museum never existed.

MoMA’s first Director of Photography was Beaumont Newhall (1908–93) and my simple take on his tenure (1940–47) is that he was, in a sense, ahead of his time. He saw the potential of photography as art but struggled to articulate this to both the museum’s management and its visitors.

Phillips’ argument is that Newall deferred to the ‘cult value’ of photography over its ‘exhibition value’ (the two kinds of value described by Walter Benjamin in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1969). He treated photographs as pieces of art and emulated painting’s modes of presentation; he emphasised the ‘art credentials’ of the photograph by bringing attention to the unique qualities of the materials used and the variability of the printing process. His first MoMA exhibition with Ansel Adams was accompanied by text that introduce “notions of rarity, authenticity and personal expression – already the vocabulary of print connoisseurship is being brought into play” (Phillips 1982: 36).

Newhall’s prolific curatorial output (almost 30 exhibitions in seven years) seems with hindsight to have been a breakneck attempt to educate the US public on the artistic potential of the photograph as quickly as possible. He curated shows covering the history of the medium, the “canonisation of masters” (ibid: 38) and emerging talents such as Levitt and Cartier-Bresson. But it was possibly all a little too much too soon, and he tried too hard to borrow characteristics from other art forms.

Edward Steichen (1897–1973) was already a renowned photographer when he took over the MoMA role (1947–62), with a very different approach. He had a highly democratic, populist vision for photography and did not care for the notion of photography as an autonomous fine art.

His tenure was marked with an emphasis on Benjamin’s derided ‘exhibition value’ of photography; Steichen cared little for uniqueness and ‘aura’ and instead positively embraced the reproducibility of the photograph as a means of illustration – the photograph as mass media object.

Steichen’s exhibitions (including, most famously, Family of Man in 1955) were thematic collections that elevated the role of the curator above that of the photographer (a move that triggers interesting discussions on the notion of authorship and context – of which more below). He held no reverence for the sanctity of the original print or the personal expression that this had implied: “The photographers complied, for the most part, signing over to the museum the right to crop, print, and edit their images.” (Phillips 1982: 48). His installations drew comparisons with magazine layouts more than art galleries, and were considered more accessible to the general public as a result.

Although hired directly by Steichen, MoMA’s third Director of Photography (1962–91), John Szarkowski (1925–2007), again took a different approach to his predecessor. He returned, to an extent, to the ‘cult value’ of photography – white walls, uniform print sizes and wooden frames made a comeback. He built on Steichen’s intervening populism to reintroduce some of Newall’s underlying principles of photography as art, but with an increasingly contemporary twist.

Where Newall had emphasised the uniqueness of individual prints as art objects by comparing them to other art forms, Szarkowski was more interested in the uniqueness of the medium itself. His seminal work The Photographer’s Eye (1964) deconstructed the photograph into five formal elements intrinsic to photography (the detail, the thing itself, time, the frame and the vantage point). His work with photographers was more respectful of individual practitioners with their own ‘voices’ than Steichen’s subjugating curatorial approach.

The photographers championed by Szarkowski, such as Arbus, Winogrand, Friedlander and Eggleston, all worked in what one might term self-expressive documentary rather than traditional social documentary photography. They were all investigating the real world but from a viewpoint inside their own heads.

For me, Szarkowski stood on the shoulders of Newall and Steichen to complete the circuitous journey to accepting photography as a branch of fine art; maybe we had to go through the earlier two phases first and Szarkowski was the right person to bring it to fruition at that point in time.

Curation: recontextualisation and reinterpretation

Stepping back from the detail of these three phases, there is a connecting thread here of recontextualisation: in all three tenures MoMA was at the forefront of attempts not necessarily to promote photography as art but certainly to take photographs out of their original context and present them in a new way. Newall and Szarkowski favoured presentation akin to paintings while Steichen preferred more modern, magazine-like installations. In all cases, photographs were being recontextualised by a curator, and the key difference is the extent of curatorial involvement (interference?).

All photography is inherently taking things out of context. In the words of Garry Winogrand: “When you put four edges around some facts, you change those facts.” (date unknown). Szarkowski himself has this to say on the subject: “To quote out of context is the essence of the photographer’s craft.” (1964: 70).

The interesting and potentially problematic aspect of this context question is the additional layer of a curator – if the original photographer is already making authorial decisions on inclusion/exclusion at the level of the individual frame and the project body of work, these are potentially subsequently diluted by the selection decisions of the curator, working to their own authorial intentions. Or maybe the original authorial decisions are amplified rather than diluted – who knows?

There is a kind of parallel with the role of the picture editor in journalism – the editorial selection decision ultimately trumps the picture-taking one, in terms of what is presented to the audience. One key difference between a picture editor and a curator is the objective of the curation exercise: the former is trying to best illustrate a news story, the latter is trying to articulate some coherent larger communication message through ‘art’. But in both cases, the press picture editor and museum curator become what Phillips calls an “orchestrator of meaning” (Phillips 1982: 38).

At MoMA Steichen was the most extreme example of this, collating photographs as illustrations of predefined messages:

“To prise photographs from their original contexts, to discard or alter their captions, to recrop their borders in the enforcement of a unitary meaning, to reprint them for dramatic impact, to redistribute them in new narrative chains consistent with a predetermined thesis – thus one might roughly summarize Steichen’s operating procedure.” (ibid: 46)

Szarkowski may have paid more attention to the self-expression of the original photographer but ultimately is still sculpting his own ‘version’ (of Arbus, of Friedlander, etc) from the available work.

Documentary photography as fine art

The essay doesn’t cover this subject specifically or thoroughly but the preceding course notes do raise some points that I’d like to address.

The art curation process described above can, and often is, applied to documentary photographs. This brings ethical questions into play: is it acceptable that images of death, destruction, squalor, sickness and depravity are converted into art objects?

It’s possible and hopefully useful here to make a distinction between the objectives of the museum and the gallery:

  • An artwork in a museum is a public presentation, to be experienced (enjoyed / educated by)
  • An artwork in a gallery is a commodity, to be bought and sold

My personal view is that documentary photography in the informative environment of a museum is a valid and ethical communication form (whether it is ‘art’ is another question). Documentary photography in a gallery, with a price tag attached and wealthy art enthusiasts sipping champagne before it, pondering an investment – that is unethical.

To an extent I believe that some photographers allow or even encourage their documentary photography work to become treated as fine art. If the intent of the image is to communicate a ‘truth’ then why not produce limitless low-cost reproductions? By restricting the reproduction and display of their own work, photographers are effectively participating in the art market with their documentary images.

Luc Delahaye, for example, is one photographer who straddles the worlds of documentary and fine art – he shoots on a large format camera and exhibits wall-sized prints that sell for thousands of dollars, yet the subject matter is the kind of thing seen daily in newspapers, magazines and on news TV – bomb sites, angry mobs, bodies. I find this somewhat distasteful, I must admit.

To close with my take on Benjamin’s theory of two types of art value:

  • Documentary photography should have exhibition value
  • But I’m not convinced it should have cult value

Sources

Phillips, C. (1982) ‘The Judgement Seat of Photography’ in October, Vol 22 (Autumn 1982) pp 27–63

Benjamin, W. (1969) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,’ trans. Harry Zohn,in Illuminations, New York: Schocken Books.

Szarkowski, J. (2007) The Photographer’s Eye. 2nd edn. New York: Museum of Modern Art.

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