Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 19, 2011
Charlotte Cotton and Alex Klein, eds. Words Without Pictures New York: Aperture Foundation, 2010. 510 pp. Paper $24.95 (9781597111423)

From the time of its invention, photography has caused trouble for art. Now, in a belated stroke of reciprocity, art is causing trouble for photography. Early signs included photography’s absorption into museum collections and its embrace by the art market. Then came art historians, fueled by the writings of Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes, arguing that photography had eclipsed painting and sculpture to become art’s medium ne plus ultra. One of the most recent and influential contributions to this line of argument, Michael Fried’s Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008) (click here for review), hinges on his theory of absorption and theatricality, developed to interpret eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French painting—and, famously, to discredit Minimalism in the 1960s. Fried’s assertion that the central arguments of late twentieth-century art have now shifted to photography provides another indicator of critical mass.

Words Without Pictures is an ambitious and fittingly complex response to photography’s changing status as art—one constructed at the same moment as the seismic shift set off by the digital revolution. It enters discussion now as a book, but it began as a yearlong project organized in 2007 by Charlotte Cotton, then a curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Alex Klein, a Los Angeles-based artist. Twelve essays, written by artists, curators, and an art historian, were posted on a website devoted to the project. Topics ranged from the impact of 1960s Conceptualism to the recent rise of abstraction and “material” practices; photographic books; the dissemination of images on the internet; and the photographing of minors. The resulting collection includes edited versions of the essays, online responses, questionnaires concerning the state of photography, and transcriptions of once live conversations and forums.

The book itself, which was designed by Dexter Sinister (David Reinfurt and Stuart Bailey), reflects photography’s current and historical concerns. The original was released as a print-on-demand edition, a potentially significant method for disseminating photographic books. As the title suggests, there are no pictures. This harks back to discussions of text-versus-image, as well as captioning, and Benjamin’s apocryphal quotation that the illiteracy of the future will be “ignorance not of reading or writing, but of photography.” It is cheaper, obviously, to produce a book without images, but it also lends a DIY scrappiness to the book-as-object—particularly compared to Fried’s sumptuous coffee-table tome—which might make readers forget, occasionally, that the project was sponsored by a museum. The original edition had a black cover with white lettering; the Aperture edition is the negative (or, if you like, positive) of this: white with black lettering.

Some of the essays and responses address concerns specific to artists, like printing, archiving, or changes in pedagogy as art departments in colleges and universities become more interdisciplinary. More interesting for critics and art historians, perhaps, is the discussion of how different lineages have been collapsed, so that previously incompatible practices—say, street photography and Conceptualism—are drawn upon simultaneously by younger artists. (The sampling techniques of hip-hop DJs are a frequently referenced model.)

Unlike James Elkins’s Photography Theory (New York: Routledge, 2006) or Robin Kelsey and Blake Stimson’s The Meaning of Photography (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), which focused on ontology and historiography, Words Without Pictures consistently challenges the divide between criticism, history, and practice. Alex Klein’s essay on Conceptualism begins with a discussion of Ursula Meyer’s Conceptual Art (New York: Dutton, 1972), whose interpretation-free format “eliminated the need to distinguish between artist and critic” (120), while Christopher Bedford describes contemporary artists like Thomas Demand as making work that “seems to presuppose its own theorization” (10). Walead Beshty’s virtuosic essay, “Abstracting Photography,” prompts other artists to reflect on the “prevailing injunction to separate the labor of producing from the work of commentary” (320), but Cotton seeks to avoid “drawing a line in the sand” (77) between makers and interpreters.

Along with this comes a discussion of photography as an artistic medium and noteworthy differences in the language employed by various writers and speakers. Where Bedford describes medium specificity as a “passé art historical concern confined chiefly to the pages of art history” and proposes thinking of photography as “a specific technical practice” (4, 7), the word “medium” pops up frequently throughout the book. But, then, so does the word “tool”—and that recent art-writing favorite, “instrumentalization.” Bedford cites “photographers who instrumentalize photography as one component of a broader practice” (9), while Beshty distributes the term across the field, from Appropriation’s “instrumental use of images” to the “discursive instrumentalizations” and “ideological instrumentalization” of critics (299, 305, 313). (Tools and instruments are rather synonymous, of course, which makes Allan Sekula’s comparison of the archive to a “tool shed,” cited by Klein in her essay, an interesting footnote.)

The jostling of terminology is perhaps a natural outgrowth of photography’s recent embrace by the mainstream art world—or, as Cotton points out, its most recent embrace, given art criticism’s “cyclical interest in photography—one that reaches infatuation point about every thirty or forty years” (12). “Pictures” artists of the 1970s and 1980s are credited as the first generation to make a distinction between “photographers” and “artists who use photography,” however. Representing the former camp is John Divola. Sarah Charlesworth occupies the latter, stating that she was drawn to photography as a young artist because it was “the primary visual language of our culture” and that she and peers like Cindy Sherman and Laurie Simmons “made” photographs rather than “took” them—part of a process in which “one asks questions and finds the materials to pose them” (140, 149, 150). Younger artists are more wary of being pigeonholed—even with regard to analogue and digital practice (one describes himself as “either/and,” rather than exclusively analogue or digital (43)).

So what does it mean for art to cause trouble for photography? One obvious benefit of languishing in a “ghetto” (another recurring word in the book) is that photography could revel in its dual role as a commercial and artistic medium and flaunt intrinsic qualities and strengths, like reproducibility. In a conversation with Allen Ruppersberg, Allan McCollum sums up the poignant paradox of “Pictures” artists and subsequent generations growing up “in a culture of mass production where we’re surrounded by things that were produced in mass quantities. But as artists, traditionally we’re not supposed to produce things in mass quantity. We’re asked to produce unique, individual things that have special values” (438).

The artist Paul Graham describes the shift in even subtler terms, borrowing a binary employed by Stephen Shore: art privileges a “synthetic” form of making, so that the street photographer’s “analytic” ability to identify the possibility of an image before him on the street and to make something “from nothing” is discounted. James Welling puts it another way: “I feel like photography was sucker-punched by art, and it is trying to catch up somehow” (37).

Photography has historically been democratic, and yet when canonization in art becomes the primary aim, how does one winnow the field down to objects “worthy” of being exhibited and historicized? Artist A. L. Steiner cites a recent show in Sweden in which a collection of 80 million photos was reduced to 350. But, of course, the entire art history of photography, from the nineteenth century to Newhall forward, is an enterprise marked by colossal shrinkage. Rather than thinking of photography as art, one artist suggests it might be more productive to explore how photography, more than any other medium, manages “the balancing act . . . of simultaneously being both art and non-art—both the ‘thing in itself’ and a record of that thing” (23).

Other points of interest include the discussion of still versus moving images. Where early twentieth-century writers like Siegfried Kracauer considered film and photography alongside one another, the practices diverged in later years. Younger practitioners weaned on the internet, however, are collapsing the two. Similarly, it is suggested that the future of photography might lie in “disposable visual ephemera” like YouTube, Facebook, Flickr, blogs, and computer games, and that sorting, editing, and “creating meaning out of a sea of images” (249, 248) will become a central creative activity.

It should be mentioned that the project originated in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Photography Department, and included a large percentage of participants based in that city. The importance of CalArts and its pedagogical support of photography is underscored, as well as Artforum’s original residence in San Francisco, and the presence of artists like Ed Ruscha. The ur-artists for this project—those whose names come up most frequently—are also tied to the CalArts/Los Angeles lineage: James Welling and Christopher Williams.

The book begs a parting comparison with Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before. Because where Fried’s project implicitly challenges the pluralist turn in art history, which discounts grand narratives delivered by singular critics, Words Without Pictures is small, portable, heterogeneous, and multi-vocal. It is at turns scholarly and, with the inclusion of conversations and panel discussions, similar to oral histories like Challenging Art: Artforum 1962–1974 (New York: SOHO Press, 1999) or Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia (Ojai, CA: Minneola Press, 2003).

Mark Wyse’s essay provides a perfect example. In it, he holds Williams up as an exemplary artist working in photography (Williams does not self-identify as a “photographer”). En route to making his point, however, Wyse discounts what he sees as the central drive of Nan Goldin’s photographs—“to accept or reject her feelings toward her people”—as opposed to Williams’s ostensibly more rigorous point, “that interpretation [of a photograph] is an impossible task” (90, 91; emphasis in original). The sharp exchange among participants that follows opens up questions of subjectivity, intellectualism, desire, ideology, and anxiety in photography. “Rather than sending Goldin to her emotive corner so that Williams can ‘rightly’ take up the critical/intellectual center of the room,” one respondent suggests, “what if we left them alone with the doors and windows open?” (96)

It is an apt analogy for Words Without Pictures, which refuses to place one artist, narrative, or lineage at the center of contemporary photography. And because there are no pictures to fix upon, it sends readers out into the world to find the ones discussed—or, potentially, to produce their own. More important for critics and scholars of photography, it argues that reading, writing, and looking at photographs are very different operations—in the same way, as one artist points out, that there are vast distinctions between “experiencing and interpreting.”

Martha Schwendener
PhD candidate, Department of Art History, The Graduate Center, City University of New York