Essays Photography Artists

In the wake of Abstract Expressionism, a number of painters developed strategies that extended the life of painting while simultaneously pointing to its inevitable demise. Jasper Johns’s flags and targets were epistemological cul-de-sacs—the image they portrayed could not be separated from their material qualities, literally, as flag or target (1998.329). Like his colleague Robert Rauschenberg, Johns revived concerns of the prewar avant-garde in a postwar context, but in a more conceptually provocative manner in his fusion of two previously antithetical paradigms, that of Duchamp’s readymade with notions of abstraction and the grid from Malevich and Constructivism. Slightly later, Frank Stella created paintings from programmatic arrangements of lines that radiated outward to determine the overall shape of the canvas; all compositional and expressive decision making had been suppressed in favor of the execution of an idea. As the artist’s famous tautology went: “What you see is what you see.”

By 1962, the idea for a linguistic work of art had been proposed by artists associated with the Fluxus collective, particularly in the event-structures of George Brecht, where a simple phrase or directive (one piece was entitled and consisted of the word EXIT) could be enacted by the viewer in an infinite variety of ways. In that same year, the California painter Ed Ruscha used this principle to create the book Twentysix Gasoline Stations, in which he first came up with the title, then proceeded to photograph the subject on one of his road trips from Oklahoma City (his hometown) to Los Angeles, his adopted city. The work of art was to be the book itself, simply but carefully designed, whereas the photographs inside showed no traces of aesthetic decision making at all, as if the artist had merely pointed the camera out the car window in order to fulfill the requirements of the textual phrase. In another book from 1966 entitled Every Building on the Sunset Strip, Ruscha joined together separate photographs of each structure to create a fold-out version of the street itself. With characteristic humor and elegance, Ruscha had extended Jasper Johns’s notion of the completely self-referential object into the realm of mass-produced commodities.

Ruscha’s books of photographs (1970.590.5) introduced the medium as a central aspect of Conceptual Art. Bruce Nauman’s Photograph Suite (popularly known as “Eleven Color Photographs”) of 1966 were comic enactments of puns and wordplay such as “Waxing Hot” (showing hands moving over a bright red sculpture of the word) or “Bound to Fail” (showing the roped torso of the artist from behind) that combined sculptural form, linguistic content, and photographic staging. Dan Graham’s Homes for America, published in the December 1967 issue of Arts magazine, looked at first sight like a bland sociological tract on postwar cookie-cutter housing, but was actually a sly comment on the industrial coloring and geometric structures of then-current Minimalism; like Ruscha’s books, the work was inextricably tied to its status as an article in a mass-produced and circulated publication. This idea of attaching the work of art directly to the channels of distribution and publicity that constituted its inevitable fate as a commodity reached its most pointed use by Martha Rosler for her series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home, in which she hijacked lifestyle magazine photography to devastating effect (2002.393).

Another example of Conceptual Art’s uniquely self-critical tendencies can be seen in the predilection for bureaucratic forms by artists such as Robert Morris and Douglas Huebler. In works like Cardfile (1962) and Document: Statement of Aesthetic Withdrawal (1963), Morris avoided all traditional signifiers of the work of art; this turning away from the viewer served as a darkly effective counterbalance to the more affirmative gestures of Happening and Fluxus artists, who envisioned the total liberation of the viewer from the restrictive codes of society. Douglas Huebler (2004.51a,b) grouped his works into preestablished categories—Duration (involving the passage of time), Location (involving specific sites), and Variable (such as verifying the existence of every living person on the planet via photography), pieces consisting of typed statements combined with deadpan photographs that documented the results of the linguistic directive. Each work was a unique instance of dipping into the vast ocean of measurable data—people, places, and their transformation over time—that only highlighted the absurdity of the attempt.

On Kawara’s work represents perhaps the purest strain of Conceptualism, in that he most fully and consistently erased the boundary separating art production and everyday life. His most famous project is his Today series (begun 1966), paintings that consist solely of the date on which they were made, in the language of the city in which they were painted, against a monochrome background; each painting had to be completed by midnight of the day it commemorated or it was destroyed. In these seminal works, process, form, and content become one, reconciling existentialist notions of present-ness with a Zen-like erasure of self through meditative, repetitive acts. He also created a series of “autobiographical” works that chart the daily events and rituals so carefully excised from the Today paintings, including I GOT UP, I READ, I WENT, I MET, and telegrams responding to professional inquiries that read simply I AM STILL ALIVE. Tracing his passage through the ubiquitous, yet usually invisible, systems of measurement (map, calendar, clock) and communication (postcard, telegram) that structure everyday life, the artist accumulates abstracted signs of his own presence—an archive of the self—to test the limits of self-expression within the structures of modern society.

Douglas Eklund
Department of Photographs, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2004

“Is Photography Art?”
© 2001 Robert Balcomb

(I have capitalized Art and Artist to speak of them as being in the true realm of Fine Art.)

We hear over and over the question as to whether photography can be considered as its own form of Art. And we see numerous treatises on yes it is and no it isn't. The main objection seems to be that it is primarily a mechanical process that handles most of the work—that the photographer has nothing further to do with it, other than some manipulation in the printing of the picture (If indeed the photographer does his own darkroom work. For example the WWII photographers overseas snapped the shutters, but the stateside labs developed the film and printed the pictures—the photographers usually had no idea what the results, if any, would be).

Perhaps I can offer one way that might help come to some conclusion. In 1956-57 I spent upwards to a year with William Mortensen in Laguna Beach, California, learning his philosophies and techniques, both of which I have loyally practiced for over forty years as a portrait photographer. Mr. Mortensen had developed his own techniques of lighting the subject, determining the exposure, developing the film, and making the print. At every step, he ran afoul of the Group f/64 headed by Ansel Adams, who believed that there should be no "manipulation" in either developing the film or making the print. It would seem that this philosophy itself would eliminate photography from the consideration of Art, by their own arguments. The group had so much clout that they were successful in the elimination of Mortensen from virtually every history of photography for over a decade. Mortensen reversed the basic concept of "Expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights" by practicing the opposite. The concept demanded the darkroom technician to "pull" the negative at a certain point of development, guided by what's known by the "gamma" factor. This short-changing of the negative robs it of a certain degree of its potential by stopping development before it is complete. I cannot argue the results as shown by luminaries such as the Group f/64—they have certainly produced magnificent photographs that will live on forever. But I can argue the basic concept. Mortensen said that a negative, compared with the ultimate "camera obscura," the human eye, is restricted enough in its ability to record the complete gradations of a subject, that to further rob it of that ability makes little sense. The above concept does just that.

The Mortensen concept "Expose for the highlights and develop for the shadows" results in complete development of the film, arriving at what he called his "7-Derivative," or "7-D" negative. He even proved it by giving the film adequate agitation during the basic time for that film to be completely developed, say five minutes, then "going out to lunch"—he left the film in the developer for upwards to 1-1/2 hours, or just up to the time when developer breakdown would stain the negatives. From the 5-minute development on, nothing else can happen; everything has been done. With a totally developed negative, only minimal exposure need be done to the paper for a fully graded print, from its whitest white to its blackest black. I have done this several times, the 1-1/2 hour bit, with no untoward effect on the negatives.

Getting to the point of the title, this practice of involving the photographer in every aspect of achieving a picture goes a long way to place photography in the halls of Art, but it has one more demand. Mortensen, a most competent artist, fulfilled that demand. Long before going into photography he studied in New York with the artists Bridgeman, Henri, and Bellows, painting mostly cityscapes,spent a year in Greece painting. Back in his home state in Salt Lake City he taught art classes in his old high school. I saw a couple of his oils that Myrdith Mortensen had in Laguna Beach—highly competent work. The point is that he was a proven artist, carrying that talent into his work with photography.

I'm sure that my own competence as an artist, albeit a technical artist as compared with a fine artist, has been behind my success at totally absorbing Mortensen's techniques and accepting and applying his philosophies and so successfully carrying on with my own forty+year practice as a portrait photographer. I have found no other photographer that produces portraits with the same quality as mine—I'm not tooting my own horn as much as to show the Mortensen influence in my work, work that I have seen no match anywhere. My impression is that everyone learned from the same source: the works of one are indistinguishable from those of the next. My answer is that although they are good technicians, they do not have that spark of the artist. And that spark is a quality one is born with, not learned. However, an in-depth study of art history and an examination of the works of the Old Masters and successful Artists does tend to improve one's understanding of Art and to improve his own work.

I have attended so many photo shows and have gone through so many photo magazines and books to have seen works by technicians, but few Artists. One illustration: Mortensen was invited to help judge a photo show in Santa Ana, one of the few times he was away from his Laguna Beach home and studio. He took with him his understanding of "Schnitt," a method of determining the placement of the picture's principle point of interest, eponymously named after a German mathematician, Schnitt—A is to B as B is to A-B, both vertically and horizontally. The prints were laid on the floor in straight lines as in a vegetable garden. The judges walked along between the lines of prints, indicating their choices. Mortensen looked at each print, muttering "Schnitt" or "No Schnitt," picking up to too-few "Schnitts" and leaning them against a wall for further comparing. The other judges were puzzled—most of their choices were not among Mortensen's. He explained that if a print did not have good composition, it did not matter how well it had been exposed and printed, and that the application of "Schnitt" would easily determine between a print with good composition and one without. The other judges finally agreed—Mortensen's final choices were the ones given awards.

I have no argument with photographers showing their work in the usual displays. But when they try to pass off mediocre work as Art, work that is technically competent but without the true quality that Art demands, I raise an argument. I'm even no longer asked to judge photo shows because I'm known to refuse considering color prints that do not indicate who printed them along with who shot the pictures. Most photographers farm out their color printing to laboratories that have the expensive equipment—this I understand, but the labs should be given due credit.

So consider this: For photography to have its place in the world of Art, it must have within it that quality of having been achieved by the hand of a competent Artist, along with the hand of a technically competent photographer. Many technical photographers do magnificent work in the way of recording what the world has, but only Artist-photographers can do work that can hold its place in Art salons and Collections.

To the Robert Balcomb Main Page

TOP

HOME

F
I
C
T
I
O
N

T
H
E

S
T
R
A
N
G
E

A
N
D

B
I
Z
A
R
R
E

P
H
O
T
O
G
R
A
P
H
Y

E
S
S
A
Y
S

A
R
T

E
D
I
T
O
R
I
A
L
S

C
U
R
R
E
N
T

I
S
S
U
E
S

F
I
C
T
I
O
N

T
H
E

S
T
R
A
N
G
E

A
N
D

B
I
Z
A
R
R
E

P
H
O
T
O
G
R
A
P
H
Y

E
S
S
A
Y
S

A
R
T

E
D
I
T
O
R
I
A
L
S

C
U
R
R
E
N
T

I
S
S
U
E
S

F
I
C
T
I
O
N

 

0 Thoughts to “Essays Photography Artists

Leave a comment

L'indirizzo email non verrà pubblicato. I campi obbligatori sono contrassegnati *