Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 27, 2009
Michael Fried Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. 410 pp.; 70 color ills.; 90 b/w ills. Cloth $55.00 (9780300136845)
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Two related projects are combined in Michael Fried’s well-observed, conceptually ambitious, and beautifully written new book, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before. First, the text presents a formal and theoretical justification of tableau photography since the late 1970s, arguing that the large-scale art photography of Jeff Wall, Thomas Struth, Jean-Marc Bustamante, Luc Delahaye, Thomas Ruff, Andreas Gursky, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Rineke Dijkstra, Beat Streuli, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Candida Höfer, Thomas Demand, and Bernd and Hilla Becher, among others, constitutes a significant trajectory within contemporary art. Second, Fried puts forward an important reevaluation of his own critical and historical account of modernism, demonstrating its relevance for a time—and a medium—seemingly far removed from his modernist concerns.

“Art and Objecthood,” Fried’s famous essay from 1967, provides the pivot around which both projects revolve. In it, Fried distinguished (high) modernist painting and sculpture, which he found artistically important, from the works and writings of the American Minimalists, whose art he dubbed “literalism,” and whom he criticized for producing “theatrical” (and thus non-medium specific) “objects” rather than true works of art. Whereas modernist art created its significance through formal interrelationships within the work itself and, as a result, through its innovative relationship to important works of the past, Minimalism reduced art’s meaning to the beholder’s experience in front of the work (or, to be more specific, to the relationship between the work, the beholder, and the space wherein both were contained). As a result, literalist art was incomplete without the viewer, and its meaning was ambiguous since the relationships between the work of art and the beholder were not (and could not be) determined by the artist. For this reason, as opposed to modernist painting and sculpture, which maintained a far greater separation from the beholder (and instead communicated a “presentness” and an “instantaneousness” that was antithetical to the theatricality and duration of literalism), Minimalism was weak in intentionality, and thus lacking in the essential qualities that were necessary for important art.

Despite the acuity of its arguments as well as the prominent role it played in subsequent debates about Minimalism, “Art and Objecthood” seemed in certain ways a failure, for, as Fried admits, “minimalism/literalism routed high modernism” and “by the early and mid-1970s theatrical, beholder-based art definitively held the field” (43). In Why Photography Matters, however, Fried demonstrates that antitheatrical concerns did not actually disappear for long, although when they reemerged they had shifted media. Beginning in the late 1970s, antitheatricality was increasingly taken up by advanced art photography, while, at the same time, Fried himself developed arguments about the centrality of questions of “absorption and theatricality” to the history of pre-modernist and modernist French painting. As was the case with his critique of literalism, this history—developed in Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), Courbet’s Realism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), and Manet’s Modernism, or, The Face of Painting in the 1860s (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996)—forms a necessary part of the conceptual framework through which the artistic significance of tableau photography is to be understood.

To simplify, Fried’s broad historical argument, the salient aspects of which he carefully reprises, runs as follows. In the middle of the eighteenth century, a new and important set of concerns emerged in French painting and criticism that aimed to establish the “ontological illusion” that the beholder did not exist. Exemplified by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin and Denis Diderot respectively, this mutually reinforcing current in painterly and critical practice attempted to produce this fiction of the work’s self-sufficiency through the creation and championing of depictions of absorption—scenes in which the painting’s protagonist was completely lost in thought, action, or feeling, or, in multi-figure compositions, tableaux in which all the depicted characters were engrossed in some overarching dramatic action and embedded in a strongly unified compositional structure. The demand that painting defeat theatricality—“theatricality” being defined in this context as the acknowledgement of the beholder and thus the denial that the world represented in the painting was a separate self-enclosed realm—in turn put painting under tremendous pressure, since paintings more than most artifacts in the world were created precisely in order to be viewed and interpreted. As a result, between the mid-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, painters developed various strategies to defeat theatricality, each one ultimately revealing its inadequacy, when, as he writes in Why Photography Matters, “the underlying truth about painting—that it had the beholder in view from the first—could no longer be denied” (26). Gustave Courbet, in this account, represented the unstable climax of the antitheatrical tradition, since he attempted to merge his body with his paintings in order to allegorize the absorption of the painter as beholder in the midst of creation. In Courbet’s work, in other words, although the canvases acknowledge the painter in front of them, he is no longer separated from the painted surface, and thus Courbet’s paintings both recognize and abolish their inherent theatricality. Edouard Manet, in turn, embodied the final crisis of the antitheatrical ideal, because in his work absorption finally gave way to a new ideal of radical “facingness”—through the direct gazes of his subjects, the employment of highly saturated colors, and his characteristic flattening of representational space. The revolutionary importance of Manet’s paintings, in other words, lay in their powerful acknowledgment that they were made to be beheld and, thus, in their announcement of a new project for advanced painting: acknowledging the presence of the beholder while not addressing him or her “in the wrong way” (100).

For Fried, the importance of contemporary tableau photography—defined as large-scale photographs intended to be hung on walls and viewed as paintings—can only be revealed in light of the development, breakdown, and eventual (modernist) transformation of the antitheatrical tradition in painting. This new type of photograph—which, in comparison to traditional photographs, claimed the viewer’s attention in a new way, and which simultaneously emphasized its artificiality or staged character—revived the absorptive ideal while at the same time acknowledging the various crises with which it had to contend. In addition, it responded to the development of Minimalist and Postminimalist practices as well as the supposed rout of “modernist absorption” (a formulation that Fried does not use in “Art and Objecthood”), i.e., the failure of the values of “presentness” and “instantaneousness” to hold the field in the 1960s and 1970s.

Fried gives Wall the most attention in his book, arguing that he constantly employs absorptive motifs in his large-scale photographs, while at the same time signaling their “to-be-seenness,” a quality that results from their staged character or nature as representations of constructed realities permeated by Wall’s intentions. The “to-be-seenness” of even Wall’s most highly constructed works is not theatrical according to Fried; rather, it helps to reveal the world as instrumentally interconnected in a manner similar to Heideggerian phenomenology. In Wall’s “near documentary” works, photographs made on location rather than on sets, there is a similar transformation of the everyday, which shows people and objects to be interconnected by structures of intelligibility. At the same time, these images also reveal the marks of time and actions—and thus the traces of history—that permeate the everyday world. Fried shows Wall to be engaged in a highly conscious dialogue with specific works and styles of painting, sculpture, and photography and, thus, a photographer who is very much interested in developing ideas and values drawn from the antitheatrical tradition. Missing from Fried’s account, however, are specific analyses of the photographer’s very clear engagement with nineteenth- and twentieth-century history and politics. Indeed, although he acknowledges Wall’s understanding of “micro gestures” revealing unconscious social values, Fried’s analysis of an overtly racist gesture in Wall’s Mimic (1982) focuses on the fact that it is an absorptive motif rather than a sign expressing something about relations between whites and Asians in Vancouver in the early 1980s.

Fried also focuses intensively on Struth, whose first series of museum photographs, depicting viewers contemplating paintings, assert the separation of the space of painting from the space of photography and, by implication, the various spaces of pictorial representation from that of the real world. (Two later series of museum photographs perform related but not identical functions.) Struth’s radically frontal family portraits, moreover, simultaneously evoke and defeat theatricality by revealing, first, their subjects’ awareness of the fact they are being photographed, and, second, apparent family relationships (physical similarities as well as collective familial and cultural styles) of which the subjects remain unaware. Like Dijkstra, whose beach portraits of adolescents work in the “gap between intention and effect” by showing their self-consciously posed subjects to betray unconscious (and thus unintended) expressive details, Struth achieves a new solution to the problem of posing by acknowledging to-be-seenness while pursuing antitheatrical ends, thus driving a wedge between the two and establishing antitheatricality on new grounds.

The portraiture practices of Ruff, Streuli, Delahaye, diCorcia, and others are also analyzed to show different ways of handling the dialectic between absorption and to-be-seenness, thereby revealing a variety of antitheatrical strategies, which include methods of staging and lighting, hidden camera techniques, and all-over focus and detail. Finally, Struth’s cityscapes are shown to exploit the trace structure of the photographic medium to produce an effect of heightened meaningfulness and, like Wall’s near-documentary works, reveal the signs of history that permeate the everyday world. Struth’s employment of photography to depict a layering of traces signifying multiple intentions is used as a foil to reveal the achievement of Demand, who makes photographs of paper and cardboard constructions that recreate images culled from the mass media. Demand’s photographs, Fried brilliantly demonstrates, completely negate the trace-revealing strategy characteristic of Struth’s cityscapes. Instead, Demand sacrifices traditional forms of photographic indexicality in order to produce images that are saturated with his thinking—that reveal nothing other than what was intended by him. Thereby, Demand’s photographic practice transforms a medium considered to be weak in intentionality and allegorizes intendedness as such—an achievement that Fried characterizes as a “trace eliminating” and “implicitly anti-literalist project” (275).

In addition to Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein, Fried’s other major theoretical point of reference is Roland Barthes, whose Camera Lucida (trans. Richard Howard, New York: Hill and Wang, 1982) Fried reveals to be a book that surreptitiously champions the antitheatrical aspects of photography. Central to the antitheatrical side of Barthes’s thinking is his concept of the punctum, traditionally understood as that which strikes or pierces the beholder, thereby making the photograph real for her or him, and which, as Fried shows, also indicates the appearing of an aspect of reality that by definition evades the photographer’s control. The punctum’s indexical and viewer-dependent nature make photography something other than art, since the photographer cannot intend the punctum. It thus may be central to Fried’s account, not only because it functions as a means of defeating theater, but also because it helps clarify the ambiguous nature of the photograph as both a (non-artistic) mechanical trace and as an (artistic) representation intentionally created by the photographer. Fried pays much less attention to another set of concepts central to Camera Lucida: “operator,” “spectator,” and “spectrum,” respectively defined as the photographer, the beholder, and subject or object represented. This is a shame, because by thinking about photographic meaning as (simultaneously but differently) produced by these three discrete types of photographic “author,” it is possible to discover the importance of Fried’s achievement. Perhaps more than any other recent book on photography, Why Photography Matters is an extended meditation on how photographs depend on a variety of different (and sometimes opposed) creative forces. By revealing how contemporary art photography has examined these three poles of photographic authorship so complexly, Fried pinpoints a significant achievement that has for the most part escaped sustained critical attention.

Late in his book, Fried turns to the photography of James Welling and the Bechers to explore the concept of “good objecthood,” a notion that advances his idea of objecthood beyond the critique of Minimalism. Welling’s small-format Lock (1976) represents a wooden plank leaning against a door as a specific object that reveals the traces of its particular history. As such it contrasts with the objects of Minimalist sculpture, which are generic rather than specific. The Bechers’s photographic typologies of industrial structures, which present grids containing multiple examples of particular industrial forms, reveal the “conditions of intelligibility” of the various objects they collect. Allowing the beholder to examine the exact similarities and differences that help define these structures as instances of a particular type, they reveal the objects’ “substantial individuality” against a background of specific possibilities established by the different types, families, groupings, and instances that structure and constitute the Bechers’s photographic archive. As such they fulfill the Wittgensteinian idea of seeing objects sub specie aeternitatis: beholding them as if they had nothing to do with us or our particular points of view and, as a result, seeing them “objectively” within the context of a logical world or system.

The great importance of Fried’s book lies in the fact that he presents a radically different understanding of the significant characteristics and concerns of art photography than has previously been offered. Not only does he articulate a convincing alternative to the account of the artistic use of the medium developed by postmodern thought, but he also offers an important corrective to the naïve realism that mars certain forms of social-historical photographic analysis. The main flaw in Fried’s study is its lack of concrete non-art-or-photography-related historical analysis, a deficiency that is most strikingly felt in his readings of Wall, Delahaye, Gursky, and Demand, in whose work the social and the political loom so large. Fried might respond to this criticism by insisting that it was only by bracketing all references to history—other than references to the formal histories of art and photography—that he could reveal tableau photography’s significance for art. This answer seems reasonable except for the fact that personal, social, or political history cannot for the most part be removed from a photograph’s interpretation without seriously distorting its meaning. As a medium, photography always refers beyond its own formal history in ways that painting does not always have to. Also missing from Fried’s important book is a thorough reflection on how photography still distinguishes itself from painting; as a result, Fried does not acknowledge what appears to be a significant transformation of his own account of high modernism that occurs in his text. The theatricality of literalist art, according to Fried’s original formulation, was a problem because it meant that Minimalism relied on effects drawn from another medium (or, more accurately, that it relied on effects taken from a set of activities and practices that undermined the strict separation of the different arts). If contemporary photography matters as art as never before precisely because it has now taken up specifically painterly concerns, does this mean that medium specificity no longer plays a role in Fried’s account of modernist practice? By better distinguishing antitheatricality in painting from antitheatricality in photography, Fried would not have left readers with this apparent contradiction in his thinking as a whole.

Matthew Biro
Professor, Department of the History of Art, University of Michigan

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