Image As Container, Süddeutsche Zeitung
Link to original published excerpt (in German).
The difficulty of resurrecting photographic history.
Beaumont Newhall, in 1937, then the librarian for the Museum of Modern Art, was asked to compile what is now widely regarded as the first critical history of photography in the English language. In this seminal work he states, “Within a dozen years after its formal publication, all the subsequent applications of photography were clearly envisioned.” This new means of expression—the photographic image—was deeply and universally embraced. It would seem that all the genres of photography that were to blossom had rightfully and spontaneously sprung forth into being as quickly as technological developments allowed. It is almost as if the medium was waiting for humanity to reflect and project itself within the purview of photographic practice. One shouldn’t be surprised—photography only extends an ongoing discourse humans have had through language and the visual arts, a discourse longer than the record of history.
This is a conversation we’ve been having with ourselves for a very long time. The more recent urge to respond to something by taking a photo is a culturally learned response that requires a particular technology, but it feeds into the primitive need to assimilate and assert one’s own tribe, its conventions, its convictions and its boundaries. A photograph is a mark and a projection of our unique experience. Only recently have we had the technology to create and distribute images so readily, so easily and on such a large scale.
As a container of ideas, the photographic image presents an illogical construct. As a two dimensional impression removed from the reality of our four-dimensional world, the image presents a frozen, flattened past. It is an object tied to a concrete reference yet open to any number of interpretations.
A school of thought, a similarity of ideals, similar avenues of investigation will yield results that can be compared, contrasted and which also, sometimes, can get mixed-up or conflated, both stylistically and ideologically. Portraits by Leni Reifenstahl, like those found in her book Schönheit im Olympischen Kampf (1937),
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or head shots in her film Olympia, or by images by Rodchenko or other Russian Constructivist photographers, or by an anonymous Chinese or Soviet Socialist Realist, or some Bauhaus photographers, or even occasional images by Paul Strand (primarily those shot on film), all have a certain and similar quality about them. These images, taken a little from below, in open natural light and framed against a pure grey sky in a simple direct manner, share a strong graphic style, and project a certain heroic quality that I equate (and conflate) with fascist and socialist ideas and ideals. There is nothing that is concretely “fascist” or “socialist” about these images themselves, but I project these different ideologies onto these images, simply by association. Stylistic conventions convey implied meanings, and evoke particular ideas by association, even when we may not be consciously aware of them. Conversely, stylistic approaches can directly challenge assumptions and contravene conventional attitudes. Subversions of this kind happen all the time, especially in politics and advertising. But associative readings are never absolute, and shift depending on how the vernacular is used, who is viewing the work and in what context the work appears. Indeed, messed with enough times, an image’s power to evoke any particular association will be lost. If a particular understanding is needed to inform an image, and the specifics of that understanding are lost, the image will lose its ability to project those qualities, fundamentally changing the way we see it and understand it. I can enjoy a Hugo van der Goes painting, but it will mean something fundamentally different to me than it did to a 15th Century devout Catholic on a pilgrimage in Northern Europe. That meanings will shift and that mixed messages abound—this is inevitable. When I was in college, there was much discussion over the merits of “political art,” but John Heartfield’s collages are still powerful to me, as is Picasso’s Guernica. We may not be deeply embedded in the realities of WWII anymore, and some iconographic references have slipped away over time, but their power still moves and informs: certain human qualities endure.
Turning again to the early, seminal work on the history of photography by Beaumont Newhall, I am struck by several things. In Photography: A Short Critical History, there are oddities and omissions. Newhall chose to include a portrait (of Lord Alfred Tennyson) by Julia Margaret Cameron, rather than one of her now
more renowned allegorical images. A mountaineering photo, as opposed to his more iconic image of French café life, represents Brassäi. I am unfamiliar with photographers like Hugo Erfurth and Gertrude Fuld. I can only assume they had more influence or were known professionally more widely at the time. Where is the work of Jacob Riis or Lewis Hine or August Sander? The status of certain photographers have obviously gained favor while others have diminished in importance through the years, like some kind of intellectual stock and bond. The conceptions we have are different than those that existed in the past. We would choose work of other artists in our
histories as being more significant. The work of August Sander was brought to the fore as the influence of Lisette Model and the work Diane Arbus became more widely recognized. Riis and Hine came to be more appreciated only after the work of street photographers (like William Klein, Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander) and social documentarians (like Robert Frank, Danny Lyon and Bruce Davidson) in the 1950’s and 1960’s came to be more widely regarded during a time in which the boundary between art and documentary blurred. Photographers of the New York School, canonized in the New Documents exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, legitimized and allowed for the reappraisal of work by much earlier photographers that are nowhere to be found in early editions of Newhall’s history. Granted, Newhall’s work was one man’s reckoning and is filled with the kinds of idiosyncrasies one would expect from an individual working in an area that previously had little critical scholarship or precedent. History is a process that isn’t always clear.
History takes time to digest; it takes the work of many, working from different perspectives to pull out greater truths that aren’t immediately apparent or relevant. Critical discourse is a collaborative effort. The work, scholarship and the conceptions of many allow ideas to blossom and bear fruit. Debates ensued on subsequent editions of Newhall’s history. John Szarkowski had to convince Newhall to include Robert Frank in a later edition, as Newhall saw nothing of merit in Frank’s work.
Currently, the world of photography is undergoing profound changes. As we've moved from analog to digital images, the way we use and consume images has shifted. Photography’s use and