Affinities … Now and Then Essay

02/01/2003 - 03/26/2003

Download PDF

Affinities…Now and Then

Keith Davis and Raechell Smith

Photography lies at the heart of contemporary artistic practice.  The humorous but telling observation that “Photography is the new painting” is in the air [1]—and its truth is revealed in every leading survey of international contemporary art. Why photography and why now? What is new about this work, and what is its relation to the medium’s “traditional” history?

This exhibition seeks at least tentative answers to such questions by exploring a central aspect of contemporary artistic photography—large-scale color images made in an essentially formal, uninflected manner—and its historical “genealogy.”

From this relatively simple description of purpose flows a complex set of ideas. The contemporary works on view are by artists of leading international stature (most of whom, we would note, have never before been shown in Kansas City). Common to these works is both a basic technical approach (the descriptive precision of the large-format view camera) and a characteristic mode of addressing the viewer (the insistent, even enveloping, physicality of the large print).  Behind these very real shared qualities, however, lies a rich diversity of expressive intentions and results.  These artists use roughly comparable approaches in order to express purely individual visions.  This exhibition does not seek to “name” the work of these contemporary artists—to reduce them to a single “movement” or concept.  Instead, it attempts to highlight certain stylistic affinities by recognizing both shared concerns and individual expressive differences. [2]

The historical work on view suggests a few of the roots of this aesthetic.  Many of these earlier photographers exerted a clear and direct influence on the more recent ones.  In other cases, we have attempted to suggest parallel or correspondent concerns.  “Influence” is a complex matter.  While some bodies of artistic work have been influential on others in a directly causal way, the process of influence is more typically indirect and diffuse.  Many ideas are in the air at any given time; we reject some and ignore others (or think we do).  Even the ideas we consciously embrace are inevitably interpreted (or misinterpreted) according to our own needs and knowledge—we transform them in the process of making them “ours.”  Further, once we are relatively clear about our expressive ideas or strategies, our natural tendency is to look for relevant precedents—the examples of history that provide a larger sense of justification and nourishment.  This is an inverted form of “influence”: our present-day concerns spur us to find connections to, and value in, the work of earlier artists.  The matter of influence, and the relationship between present and past, is thus the result of a two-way dialogue.  We are both the products and the makers of history: we are profoundly shaped by what has come before us, but we inevitably “construct” the narrative of history according to present-day values.   Thus, it is our intention that the historical work on view will suggest relatively open-ended affinities of idea and approach as well as providing specific examples of causal influence.

Affinities…Now and Then is, in large part, about a dialogue between two decades—the 1990s and the 1970s.  The contemporary works on view were all made between 1989 and 2001.  Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff, Andreas Gursky, Rineke Dijkstra, Elger Esser, Doug Hall, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, and Marc Räder all came to international prominence in the 1990s and their work, collectively, has powerfully shaped our ideas of what was most important in the art of the last decade.   With few exceptions, however, these artists all came of age in the late 1970s: they completed or began their studies in that time and were powerfully shaped by the artistic ideas then in the air.  These ideas were expressed in the most provocative contemporary work of the period, as well as in an on-going process of historical rediscovery and reevaluation.  In this sense, the era of the 1970s serves as a kind of lens, through which the refracted images of past and future may be brought into a mutually illuminating focus.

An important conjunction occurred in the art world of the early 1970s—the overlap of Minimalism and Conceptualism.  While distinct from one another, both movements represented reactions against earlier approaches: the by-then clichéd bravado of Abstract Expressionist painting, for example, and the easy irony of Pop Art.  Both movements sought to critique and reinvent the artistic object.  Minimalism accomplished this by way of a rigorous process of reduction and purification—achieving a state of perceptual clarity and ontological primacy in the austere logic of geometry.  Conceptualism effectively dissolved the physical work into acts of pure thought, gesture, or presence.

The art of this era was conceived in a spirit of rebellion and negation.  As the pioneering Conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth stated: “Painting itself had to be erased, eclipsed, painted out in order to make art.” [3]  Varied and unconventional forms of expression filled the spaces created by this “erasure”: the most important of these was photography.  Overnight, it seemed, photography became central to the concerns of contemporary art.  The radical nature of this embrace stemmed, in part, from the medium’s historically low status in the “traditional” hierarchy of the arts.   What had previously been a weakness—marginality—was now a strength.  Further, the photograph offered a way out of several perceived dead ends, including the traditionally “precious” nature of the work of art, and the clichéd rhetoric of “self expression.”  By contrast, photography was (perceived to be) mechanical and impersonal—the ideal means to transcend the “merely” subjective.  In truth, of course, this putatively “impersonal” medium was immediately recognized as perfectly suited to conveying highly individual visions, emotions, and opinions.  The delicious irony of it all was that photography allowed artists to cloak purely personal expressive ambitions in the guise of the impersonal, the unemotional, and the uninflected.

The art world’s embrace of the medium coincided with—and was amplified by—changes already underway in the (self-identified) realm of photography.   Beginning in the years after World War II, photography’s place in higher education—in both the U.S. and in Europe—began a gradual shift.  What had been considered an “applied” science, taught in trade schools or departments of journalism, became a tool of personal expression and was relocated to departments of fine art.  This change in attitude—widely apparent by the late 1960s—created a radically new context for photography.   For artists, the medium became a key expressive tool; photographers, on the other hand, were made aware of the larger concerns of art.  These concerns and attitudes were not constrained by any national borders.  In parallel with the increasing globalization of capital and culture in the past few decades, we have seen a comparable globalization of artistic ideas.

The vitality of the art-photography scene of the past several decades is a direct result of the synergistic energy of this two-way, international conversation.  In this era, artists explored the experiential possibilities of art—its temporal, spatial, and auditory potentials—in film and video, installation and performance work.  Technologies of all kinds—from the mechanical to the electronic—have been put to stimulating new use.  Together, these strategies and tools place viewers in a new kind of relationship to the work of art, creating an encounter that is increasingly dynamic, participatory, and multifaceted in nature.  Works of art address viewers in more complex ways, opening up the potential for more complex meanings.  And yet, it is worth noting, these new approaches are often applied to the most venerable of ideas—the genres of landscape, architectural, portrait, and street photography, for example, appear to be alive and well.

The nature of this relationship between artwork and viewer lies at the heart of the current interest in photographic scale.  Large photographs have an unprecedented physical presence.  They fill our visual field: we do not read them as images of the world so much as image-worlds in their own right (an important difference).  Interesting perceptual and cognitive tensions are generated—these works are at once pictures of things and things that happen to be pictures.  This new mode of address has been the result of both the enlarged notions of artistic engagement outlined above, and the recent technical ability of high-tech photo labs to make very large prints. [4]

As this cursory discussion may suggest, fundamental questions of definition and analysis were of central intellectual concern in the 1970s.  What is photography?  Even more important, what are representations and what kinds of truth (or lies) do they convey?  These questions were raised in a philosophic climate dominated by an acute awareness of the complexity of language—the slippery relationship between linguistic signs and things, signifier and signified.   Photographic representation thus became a problem of intense interest.   The photographic image is both a record and a transformation of worldly fact—a product of both the mechanism of the camera and the subjectivity of the operator.   It was not at all clear how these (apparently) opposing forces were to be understood or quantified.  In part, photography presented a compelling puzzle because it cast into such high relief fundamental assumptions about both the nature of representation (and all the accompanying notions of “fact,” “truth,” etc.) and of human understanding.

In this light, the historical photographic work that held the greatest interest for leading artists of the 1970s was drawn more from the medium’s vernacular and documentary traditions than from its self-consciously artistic ones.  The bodies of earlier work that were given new attention in the 1970s included nineteenth-century topographic pictures (descriptive images by professional and commercial practitioners), Eadweard Muybridge’s studies of human and animal motion of the 1880s, the portraits of August Sander, which comprise a visual catalogue of German society of the 1910s and 1920s, and Walker Evans’s cerebral 1930s images of Depression-era America.

Important influences of more recent date included the 1960s work of American artist Ed Ruscha and the German husband-and-wife team of Bernd and Hilla Becher.  Ruscha came to public attention in the early 1960s with his sleek paintings of the most banal of subjects: highway gas stations.  Ruscha had made simple snapshots of these structures as studies for his paintings.  He soon turned his artistic attention to photography itself; the first of a series of curious, small photo books—Twentysix Gasoline Stations—was self-published in 1963.  The flat-footed factuality and repetitiveness of Ruscha’s images indicated that he was not interested in any traditional notion of either “documentary” or “artistic” photography.  In fact, the apparent stylelessness of his photographs was central to Ruscha’s purpose.  He combined a sly Duchampian sense of humor with a fundamentally conceptual purpose: to investigate both the homogenization of American culture and the curious nature of photographic truth.

The Bechers, working in their native Germany, began their photographic “typologies” of workers’ houses and industrial structures in 1957.  This work epitomized the idea of the photograph as evidence rather than expression.  The Bechers’ images—all scientifically precise and devoid of apparent stylistic inflection—systematically record vernacular and industrial structures as a kind of “anonymous sculpture.”  Some of these images are shown individually; others are presented in grids in order to emphasize the formal permutations of a given class or type of structure.

As both artists and teachers, the Bechers’ have been doubly influential.  Since the late 1950s, they have taught at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf, a vital center for contemporary art.  Beginning in the late 1970s, Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff, Andreas Gursky, and Elger Esser all studied with the Bechers at the Kunstakademie.  In addition, the Bechers’ influence is clear in the work of European artists such as Rineke Dijkstra and Marc Räder, and can be sensed—albeit less emphatically—in the work of Americans Doug Hall and Philip-Lorca diCorcia.  But, it bears repeating, the process of influence is usually diffuse and indirect, a matter of both cause and effect.  At the same time that the Bechers were showing their classes the work of contemporary American photographers such as Stephen Shore and Robert Adams, Americans were learning from the example of the Bechers, as well as from Ruscha, Evans, Sander, and a host of others.

By the mid-1970s, this uninflected, “topographic,” or “forensic” aesthetic—the idea of the photograph as a mode of visual inventory—had become a central element of the visual language of artistic photography.  Curator Ralph Rugoff has noted the predominance in this period of artistic practices “that suggest links to a forensic approach or address the art object as if it were a kind of evidence.  These works emphasize the viewer’s role as investigator while underscoring the cluelike and contingent status of the art object.”  This expressive concept grew from a multitude of historical sources and served a variety of expressive interests.  It was, in the jargon of the day, an “overdetermined” idea.

This aesthetic was explored in the important 1975 exhibition “New Topographics,” curated by William Jenkins of the George Eastman House.  Included in this exhibition were Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, the Bechers, Joe Deal, Nicholas Nixon, and Stephen Shore, among others.  In his catalogue essay, Jenkins’s description of Ruscha’s work summed up a central theme of the exhibition as a whole:

The pictures were stripped of any artistic frills and reduced to an essentially topographic state, conveying substantial amounts of visual information but eschewing entirely the aspects of beauty, emotion and opinion. Regardless of the subject matter the appearance of neutrality was strictly maintained.

Jenkins concluded his essay with this observation: “If ‘New Topographics’ has a central purpose it is simply to postulate, at least for the time being, what it means to make a documentary photograph.”[6]  This is a deceptively modest statement.  In fact, it may be argued, the problem Jenkins outlined in 1975 continues to lie at the heart of contemporary photographic practice.  What does it mean to “make” a photograph—particularly in this age of the digital image?  Is this a matter of “taking” or of “constructing” an image, and what—really—is the difference?  What does “documentary” mean?  What is the real or expected “truth-function” of camera images?  And, finally (or yet again), what is photography?  Is it one thing or many?  Does it have some “essential” nature, or is it simply a convenient (and thus rather imprecise) term for a set of overlapping technologies and practices?

This aesthetic—and these questions—were of great importance when the contemporary artists presented here were in their formative years.  Their responses are wonderfully varied and profoundly personal.  These bold and eloquent works exemplify the leading concerns of today, while prodding us to think anew about history and the evolution of artistic ideas.

[1] This phrase is cited in Martha Schwendener, “Doug Hall,” Artforum (September 2001), p. 195.
[2] What is important here is not any simple matter of “sameness,” but of something like Ludwig Wittgenstein’s definitional notion of “family resemblance.”
[3] Quoted in Irving Sandler, Art of the Postmodern Era: From the Late 1960s to the Early 1990s (New York: Icon Editions, 1996), p. 12.
[4] A dramatic increase in average print size took place in the late 1980s.  In his informative essay on the work of Andreas Gursky, Peter Galassi notes that Thomas Ruff first had large prints made from his negatives by a leading commercial lab in 1986.  By 1989, Ruff, Struth, Gursky, and Axel Hütte were all having large prints made by the same Düsseldorf firm (Fachlabor Griegor).  See Peter Galassi, Andreas Gursky (New York: Museum of Modern Art/Harry N. Abrams, 2001), p. 27.
[5] Ralph Rugoff, Scene of the Crime (Los Angeles: UCLA at the Armand Hammer Museum of Art/MIT Press, 1997).  On this subject, see also Charles Desmarais, Proof: Los Angeles Art and the Photograph, 1960-1980 (Laguna Beach: Laguna Art Museum/Los Angeles Fellows of Contemporary Art, 1992); Ann Goldstein and Anne Rorimer, Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965-1975 (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art/MIT Press, 1995); and Marc Freidus, et al., Typologies: Nine Contemporary Photographers (Newport Beach, Calif.: Newport Harbor Museum/Rizzoli, 1991).
[6] William Jenkins, New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape(Rochester: George Eastman House, 1975), pp. 5, 7.