Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 20, 2014
Jerry L. Thompson Why Photography Matters Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013. 112 pp.; 7 b/w ills. Cloth $14.95 (9780262019286)

If the grandiose title Why Photography Matters rings a bell somewhere in your memory, it is because Jerry L. Thompson hoped it would. His brief polemic declares itself a response to Michael Fried’s Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008) (click here for review), which Thompson found over-long and misguided. Fried’s tome has produced much debate among scholars, to be sure. Many have taken issue with its implication that photography found a way to matter as “art” only with recent developments in large-scale tableau production, when most photo historians contend photography has mattered both to art and as art since its invention. Others have objected to Fried’s analysis of contemporary photography through his powerful but well-worn models of absorption and theatricality. Indeed, art-historical opinions have been divided over whether Fried’s terms offered a convincingly fresh approach to tableau photography or were over-extended to a realm where they had little historical relevance or explanatory power. Refusing to seriously engage with the terms of Fried’s project, Thompson uses the book as little more than a pretext—more like a provocation—to advance his own theory of the photographic medium and how it can matter as art. Where Fried’s book is an enthusiastic work of analysis, Thompson’s is prescriptive. Where Fried’s book explores the (relatively) recent, Thompson’s seeks to resurrect the old.

Thompson, who was Walker Evans’s assistant from 1973 until his death in 1975, takes inspiration from his mentor in asking rhetorically: “Shouldn’t photography—which began as a hyper-detailed record of our shared visible world—provide a close, critical examination of that world, the kind of jarring irritant able to rouse viewers out of a complacent, forgetful slumber, and into a wakeful regard of what is?” (4; emphasis in original). Querying “Why does photography matter, and why now?” Thompson promises to explore two trajectories: first, how photography works as “an artistic but also as an epistemological medium”; and second, how photography provides an “instructive example of what might be called present-day understanding,” or how we understand anything now (4; emphasis in original). The agenda sounds ambitious but viable if the author were planning, say, an examination of the circulation of digital images and their impact on contemporary formations of the social and political. Thompson, however, takes readers back to a late modernist definition of legitimate photography.

His first move is to dismiss the objects of Fried’s attention—made-for-the-wall work by Jeff Wall, Thomas Demand, Rineke Dijkstra, and other contemporary luminaries—calling them “decorative self-indulgence” and “knowing riffs on the history of painting” (4). The next is to invalidate the notion of the “studio artist” in photography who thinks the camera provides raw material to be shaped according to a subjective vision or a preexisting model. According to Thompson, the studio artist craves fame befitting his fantasy of genius, and fails to respect photography’s power to uncover a world beyond our imaginings. The photographer worthy of the title will allow what Evans (in his 1931 essay “The Reappearance of Photography”) called “swift chance, wonder, disarray, and experiment” to enter in; he will cultivate an openness to the unpredicted and unknown (14). Rather than a “Master of the Universe,” Thompson decrees, the true photographer “will be an attentive observer . . . perhaps even a servant of, a system larger than the artists’s individual, personal, particular needs” (14). According to Thompson, photography replaced older ways of knowing the world predicated on human-projected models (mathema) with one that cannot be fully modeled in advance and requires acceptance of experience passively received (pathema) (14). Upon this conviction Thompson asserts photography has its own intellectual and ethical structure, and to override it in the interests of a personal art is to betray not only the medium but also those viewers “who are distracted from perhaps hard-to-follow argument by the easy-to-understand veneration of the stature fame conveys” (15).

Here Thompson is not exactly promulgating a serious critique of the market-driven art world and its production of artists-as-commodities. Nor is he accusing modernist photographers of appropriating subjects to their own auteurist visions and reputations, as Allan Sekula, Martha Rosler, and Susan Sontag had accused them of doing in the 1970s, forever changing the medium’s equation with objective truth-seeking. He is not even arguing with Fried over his definition of artistry; indeed Fried’s work is never engaged directly in this line of argument, but only obliquely through attacks on “studio artists” in love with their own creativity. Instead, Thompson is reviving (albeit without credit) T. S. Eliot’s “impersonality,” the thrilling notion of becoming an intelligent medium for the world rather than a creator of new worlds that enabled Evans and a few fellow travelers to revolutionize photography’s identity and artistic possibilities in the early 1930s. But Thompson embraces the principle in the guise of medium-inherent gospel, not an explanation of modernism’s intellectual history. In a nutshell, that’s the weakness of Why Photography Matters.

As Thompson sees it, a genuine photographer is made, not born, because photography’s nature demands a certain kind of training. Photography “at its best,” he claims, is a balance of the “outside” (the shared, visible world, all that is regardless of our grasp on it) and the “inside” (“the perceiving, shaping intelligence of the photographer”) (19; emphasis in original). The relationship between the two should therefore be understood as a dialectic: one side presents a proposition, the other a counter-proposition; a new one emerges from their synthesis only to be countered by yet another in an unending series of refinements and discoveries. Likewise, a true photographer is made through a dialectic of pictures and contemplation: the first photo of a subject—any subject—is a “provisional agreement between the multiplicity of the world and the narrow understanding of the artist” (20). Thompson explains: “If all the right things are in place, the artist/photographer will think about this provisional agreement, and then look at the world again, this time with a perception altered by having thought about what the first picture shows.” He continues: “If this process continues without distraction, thousands of such back-and-forths are possible” (20–21).

Photographers with especially “fertile imaginations” will have to be careful not to short-circuit this “lengthy, laborious” dialectic by substituting easy conclusions, he cautions. Process is everything; the photographer must learn to prefer pictures that “present the world on something like its own terms . . . as much as those terms can be deciphered” (22). In legitimate art photography, for Thompson, there is no alternative to the hard work of distilling pictorial principles from a lifetime of studying one’s subject through a camera. Avatars include, unsurprisingly, Evans, Eugène Atget, and Garry Winogrand, along with the lesser-known landscape photographer Marcia Due.

The passionate ethic of photographic practice described in these passages drove the work of Evans and certain other American modernists from the 1930s to the 1950s, and in some respects through the 1960s. But it should be impossible in this day and age to construe as timeless truth what is really an artifact—a historically and culturally specific theory about how to practice photography as a consequential art form. It is also unfair to Evans, who knew that every generation reinvents photography for itself.

We are decades past the point of defining the art of photography as any one thing, let alone a thing defined by an ascetic code of practice. Like it or not, art in photography might be anything made with a lens-based mechanism, a reproductive imaging technology, light-sensitive materials, or appropriated stuff, along with any combination of analog or digital capture, manipulation, and output. “Subjects” were never restricted to the visible facts of a shared and incontrovertible reality. Indeed, it feels somewhat quaint to find Thompson objecting, by inference, to the well-established work of Wall or Thomas Struth. What would he make of Walead Beshty’s materialist constructions and deconstructions? Or Erik Kessel’s downloading, printing, and mountainous heaping of the photos uploaded to Flickr in a twenty-four-hour period?

The book’s second trajectory promises to make photography an “instructive example of what might be called present-day understanding.” But this discussion turns out to be a sweeping indictment of contemporary society’s obsession with celebrity, personality, fashion, and style—all the pressures (along with high prices for photographs) that encourage photographers to consider themselves artists of individual vision, to compete in battles of style, to take shortcuts, to make large expensive pictures for the wall, to contend with the history of painting. All are distractions from what Thompson sees as the unique epistemological powers of the medium itself. Photography properly understood is a slow, quiet “cottage industry” dedicated to “describing in the toughest, deepest, most penetrating way” and to understanding “some aspect of the world humans live in” (84). Photography is inherently, irrevocably committed to reveal what is, contends Thompson, even when photographers are not: that is why it still matters.

It is therefore a bit strange to find Why Photography Matters published by MIT Press, which has published so much work defining the anti-essentialist, anti-modernist turn in photo-criticism and theory—from the semiotics-based approaches advanced in early issues of October, to the institutional critique and politics-of-representation methods in Richard Bolton’s anthology The Contest of Meaning (1992), to the Foucauldian genealogy of Geoffrey Batchen’s Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography (1999). Thompson does not acknowledge the scholarly or theoretical discourses that have transformed the study of photography since the late 1970s (his references include Socrates, Immanuel Kant, Emily Dickinson, and Harold Bloom; his sole direct rebuke is directed at Sontag circa 1973). He appears immune to the postmodernist attack on photography’s status as truth-seeker, and impervious to the sea change wrought by digital technologies. Thompson is entitled to his belief that self-effacing modernists working in Evans’s vein made the best photographs, and to work this way as an artist himself. But that model cannot be revived as the sole definition of legitimacy by sheer force of will, nor is there solid ground on which to suggest that it should be revived, given all that has changed artistically, politically, and technologically. Ultimately, Thompson’s credo stands outside much of the current conversation in academic and artistic circles about what photography is and why it matters.

Sarah M. Miller
independent scholar