This section is about photography as art. As often in this book the breaks between the “genres” and between the different stages in the history of photography are a little sharp and in some ways false. Ideas as periods, easy bites of a continuum, but it helps sometimes to impose these markers on history and themes. In this section we look at photography as part of the arts establishment placing it within galleries, museums, public and private patronage. It examines the history of photography in relation to these establishments and to the history of art.
It begins with the battles that saw photography defined as a representation of objects move to become an object in and of itself. From a potentially mass produced item to a precious item of value. To make it through the filter of taste makers, experts and elites to be included within their canon. Seeing image makers using the compositions and tools of painting etc to try to escape the accusation of just showing something. To give part of themselves. They also combined the camera with other skills and tools to creat unique items or painterly objects. The migration and movement of those who use photography as a tool for gathering reality for their fine art projects toward the use of the camera alone. Carrying their history and skills with them. A new art both discovering itself and trying to replicate and follow the art that went before to give it value? This pictoralist vein transforms into Modernism.
Modernism erupted out of a time of great upheaval and change, displacing people and social orders. A change that brings reflections on the new world, a rejection of the aping of the past. Now! Here! Straight photography rejecting the attempts to make paintings with a camera, the soft focus, the blur, the printing methods. A growth in confidence, so that the camera and photographic practice is enough. The camera eye, the extension of the human. A thing that sees more. This period has a number of utopian strands looking forward towards a better world. Bauhaus trying to integrate art and design and life. Russian Constructivism came out of a revolution and led to some seeing the artist as not an élite but as another worker. Depersonalised, in the production line. Rejecting the gallery and the élite and embracing popular forms e.g. magazines and posters. Constructing new images, new ways of seeing for a new world. Formalism also rejected the pasts attempts to replicate painting and used the camera to see more, however it seems to have rejected the more radical elements of the period. It focused on the image as a technical work, it looked inwards towards photography rather than out at the world. The precious object set in the gallery.
Surrealism grew out of DADA with its attacks on the gallery/art/society and combined it with freudian thoughts on the unconscious. As a movement it embraced the accident, and imagination as insight. And used disorienting images to creat knowledge. Use of Freud’s theories and the depiction of repressed male desires suggest a very male vision esp. within the official histories. The political values of DADA seem to have been left behind.
Late 20th century art seems to embrace many of these critical elements, feminism, class and race theory. Critics of the world. It takes ideas and concepts and places them at the centre of photographic practice. These ideas that surrounded and reinforced the practice is seen to have moved photography beyond the representative. Positioning it firmly as art. Many embraced the radical ideas of the 60’s and began to examine what the art establishment. This was reflected in art which pushed beyond the bounds of the gallery and the museum and into the everyday and by an extension of techniques and elements with the gallery. Photography now starts to work with ideas of representation. It becomes ok to use photography as a way to capture transient art such as performance pieces or land art. The photographs often the only remains of the action. In some ways this lead and combine with ideas regarding the staging and construction of photographs. The artist is visible in the construction thus reducing the need for the photographer to try add themselves to the photograph. Often the photographs almost have a hint of the pictorlist in them. They often seem in some ways to be using the constructions and compositions of painting etc. However they are combined with postmodern though changing these images into pieces that are not representations or backward looking pieces but comments and questions that use conventions of historical art to add layers of meaning and tension.
There this period has seen great changes in artistic practice. A growth of ideas that have expanded the area of photography from the print into slide shows and other technological elements. It has also seen changes in the display of photographs, the growth in size of gallery spaces has helped to bring about an increase in print size, and the knowledge that nothing is neutral, that everything to do with the print ties together and can add or subtract from the actual image. The importance of framing, titles, display methods, and caption amongst other things. All these elements can be used to anchor or play with meaning. For example print size can reflect the traditions in painting where the small, the realm of the minature, displays the personal and demands close inspection, and the large is statelike and imposing. Difficult to escape?
There have been a number of critical strands that emerged with radical politics, feminism and theory surrounding gender, sexuality, class and race have all led to a re-examination of artists practice. 1. The knowledge of his gaze (This is mainly within the field of feminism but also I believe can be expand through many of the other theories, examining how the dominant culture examines, owns and displays the “other” and the way in which these perceptions are internalized). 2. Archeology of Art: There has been much effort to rediscover neglected artists. 3. Fighting for space with the art establishment and by extension the world. These points of view have led to questions about inclusion/exclusion, integration/marginality and history/heritage.
Identity: Ideas and examinations of identity. Is this a flexible construct? Are personalities made up and supported? We identify with things and this builds our vision of ourselves? Art feeds these identifications and can also challenge and reinforce them. Is this why we look at images in order to built our personality, our identity. Identity combines with many of the critical strands above to provide critical analysis of both dominant and marginal cultures.
Photography within the Institutions: Lens based media has been absorbed to a greater extent by fine art practices, it has greater acceptance. There is less debate around is it or isn’t it art? However its potential to be a mass-produced item still includes some boundaries such as prices. The institutions themselves have grown, perhaps this has something to do with its acceptance. More space to fill. Something new? However in recent months this might be reversed as government and other patrons make cuts. They have been key patrons in recent years influencing practice and markets. In some ways this can become a dependency through which state and industry force elements to conform, for example the Side Gallery in Newcastle which has been threatened with cuts as it wishes to stay a collective rather than to have a board. This attempt at a different power structure seems to be unacceptable. Photographic outlets have also been reduced and the gallery and museum has a kind of monopoly on photographic display. The curators have a great deal of power, a cultural élite, the taste makers, and share this role with collectors, they give art “value” and validation. A market is created that accepts of rejects art based on certain ideas or fashions, a cultural elitism and a confinement of culture. Ideas have to fit in to be accepted? Festivals seem to provide a little more dialogue but are also similar.
Assessing the contemporary: Is always difficult practice is wider and we don’t benefit from hindsight. We can’t assess the contemporary merely through exhibitions. They have limited capacity and availability. We must include photo books, magazines, reviews etc. These items are more available and longer lasting but they are also a product of the institutions and can be open to similar criticisms. There have been changes in perspective, subjects and ideas. They fall in and out of fashion. The gallery etc. maintains a dominance over art. Can it exist outside it? Radical ideas, self-run projects etc.