Photography as art, art as photography
Margarethe Jochimsen
They can’t get together?
The professional photographer and the visual artist

The misunderstanding and its causes

One recurring and apparently unavoidable point of contention in discussions about and photography that involve professional photographers who have learnt their craft from the cradle and confine themselves to it, and exponents of the visual arts who take photos or use photo in their work is this: many professional photographers (though not all) accuse the creative artist of taking and using bad, sometimes even pathetic photographs, and then passing these off as art. To the astonishment of the professionals, the creative artists often react in an unusually casual way. They willingly admit to producing and using photos which, measured against traditional photo-aesthetics, are quite poor, or they even go one step farther, and claim to want to make and use dad photos, knowing full well that they are so. And yet they work with these photos in their art. How can we come to understand this professional’s standpoint – as perverse? How can these opposing opinions as to the artistic possibilities of photography be explained? And are such very different judgments merely the result of having applied different aesthetic standards?

Hardly. The causes for this misunderstanding are deeper rooted. They lie, in my opinion, in the fact that photographers and visual artists have different outlooks, and aim at different things, and also in the fact that they have taken different paths – at least since the thirties, when photography freed itself from pictorial art and stood on its own feet artistically. This came more as a result of the different function and tasks assigned to these two areas of visual art than as a result of any inherent difference between the two media, which are both essentially pictorial. If, having abandoned a great proportion of its direct social function to photography, painting derived its reason for being mainly from its capacity for self-criticism, then photography could not complain of having to operate in those areas which were not concerned with self-analysis. Just consider the yet undiscovered and fascinating territory of photoreportage, advertising and systematic documentation. Their social function, the value society put on them and, as a result, their integration into society (through the illustrated magazines as a vehicle of mass communication, and through the amateur photographer) are far stronger than those of the visual arts.

These different functions necessarily gave rise to different artistic considerations. Whilst the exponents of the visual arts were primarily concerned with examining their own pictorial medium, which led to a progressive reduction of content to the point where it was totally eliminated, (eg. the blank canvasses of Richard Tuttle, in which picture and object coincide) the photographers were at that time concentrating in the main on developing and consolidating the position they had achieved after their symbiotic relationship with the pictorial artists right up to the twenties (Man Ray, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, for example). The destructive tendency of painting stood in stark contrast to the constructive intentions of photography, where broadening of the technical vocabulary, looking at questions of composition and so on were just as energetically pursued as the development if its own forms such as photoreportage (the search for the unique moment), electrifying advertising, or true-to-life documentation of the typical and realistic. Nor should we forget the evolution of an aesthetic taste for pictures which has come about independent of pictorial art, and whose criteria still today colour the consciousness of a broad public, and to which the majority of professional and amateur photographers still feel obliged, as is shown by photomagazines and catalogues, and by discussions in the controversies mentioned above.

The new significance of photography in the wake of the increased concentration on process and concept in the visual arts
Next to the traditional uses of the photograph as a means to quote from reality and as an element in the composition of photocollages and photopmontages (practised most extensively in pop-art after 1945), next to the equally traditional use of the photograph as a “sketch” for the painted picture (as in photorealism after 1945), there arose in the late fifties and early sixties a new opening for photographs within pictorial art. This brought with it a fundamental change in the ways we regard and judge photography, and prompted painters to accuse it, of all things, of not satisfying the aesthetic standards of photography. This change – about was precipitated by radical, pioneering innovations in the visual arts of that time. And this meant that pictorial art could expand into areas hitherto closed; above all into actual space and actual movement, and thus into time.
Next I shall attempt to sketch out the most important stages of this development. In an undertaking of this sort it is necessary to bypass many of the nuances and “splinter developments” in order to bring out the main thread of the argument. This is, regrettably, as unavoidable as the need to limit oneself to citing but a few examples.

Action painting
The revision took this course with action-painting in the forties and fifties, when artists were concerned with expressing their emotional state spontaneously and directly. The decisive step from the act of painting to true action, and from the act of painting to true action, and from the picture’s surface into actual space was taken by Jackson Pollock, who laid out his canvasses on the floor and literally went into the picture in order to work in real space. Here the painter becomes one who moves, a sort of “doer”.

As a further consequence of this actual movement in actual space, there comes a new art-form – the happening, first carried out by Allan Kaprow and his students in 1958.
Whereas signs left on the canvas can serve to document movements made by the action-painters, a happening can only be documented by the remains of the materials used, or by reports, but above all, and most vividly, by film, video or photography. Film and video are without doubt the best suited techniques for they alone are capable of recording events uninterrupted. Financial pressures, easy handing and quick, ready accessibility have made the photo – a static and really inadequate medium – the most widely used means of documentation. To emphasize that such photos had a purely documentary function, it was an unwritten law to disregard all formal aesthetic considerations in making the exposure. The photos were supposed to be mere witnesses of processes which had taken place – pointers to order things; they themselves had no artistic relevance.

Soon after the “happening”, the first manifestation of pictorial art’s entry into actual movement and actual space, come actions and processes of the most varied kind. For example, the artist (with his audience) may not actually do anything himself (Action-art) but surrenders substances to biological, chemical, or physical law and allows them to react according to the particular conditions. He lets materials create (Process Art). Despite the photographic documentation of a happening being left more or less to chance, these documentation show the growing desire of the artist to give the documentation itself a set form, to structure it as whole by defining certain guidelines, for ex. The main reason for the change in attitude of the artists may be that they have realized that the documentation is, after all, the only thing that survives the action, and the manner in which it is presented may be crucial to any interlectual conclusions. And so Jan Dibbets for ex – one of the pioneers of temporal and spatial structuring methods, which still enjoy great popularity today – decides, in order to record the movement of a shaft of light coming through a particular window on the shortest day of 1972, to photograph the light from a fixed point in the room at regular twenty-minute intervals from sunrise to sunset. The series of chronologically ordered photos does not so much bring out just a temporally condensed movement which the eye could scarcely perceive in real time (minimum changes within long periods of time) but rather it shows a cohesive form which dominates any single photo. This effect in caused by the act each photo differs minimally from the next one.

Artists such as Ger Dekkers obtain similar results by spatially structuring a series of photos; that is to say they move the camera (by rotation or displacement) at spatially fixed intervals. One can often see structuring of time and content in photosequences and documentations of actions which centre around the human body. In constrast to Eadweard Muuydridge and the futurists, today’s artist is not interested in analyzing a movement, that is to say dividing as action into its minutest phases which the eye cannot perceive (chronophotography); he is interested in freezing movement with a particular aim in mind, subjecting it to quite strict conditions.
The first demonstrations made by Klaus Rinke can be taken as an ex of time and content structuring. By placing pictures showing various positions of the body next to each other, Rinke is suggesting not merely the course of the movements, but is also on presenting a multiplicity of possibilities for making experiences in time and space with particular parts of the body. His photoseries serve therefore both as documents of a train of events, and also as typologies of movement.
The creasing concentration of many artists on the way they document an action quite often leads them into a peculiar situation whereby they lend this process more weight than the actual happening. Here a reversal of cause and effect has taken place: in theses works it is not the action which triggers the documentation, but the need for documentation which triggers the action.
However, despite the fact that the photograph is indispensable as a “preserver” of artistic actions and processes, despite its capability of making tedious processes visible in a moment, the photodocument is not able to re-produce what the artist really intended to communicate; namely experiences which cannot be visualized like, say, the experience of movement in actual time and space. Even if it has lost the function of being pure documentation it can still serve to indicate phenomena which cannot be perceived visually. The photo and the statement it has to make are not identical, as conventional schools of thought on the function of photography so readily assume. It can only be “grasped” when seen within a particular context; a context with which we must be familiar before we can understand and judge the work of the artist in question.

Conceptual art
Photographs has progressed in visual art from having a documentary function to becoming pointers toward non-visual experiences. This development reaches its highest point, so it would seem, in the late sixties and early seventies with conceptual art, which consists of dematerializing the forms of art to a point where Joseph Kosouth is able to say: “All my work exists when it is conceived because the execution is irrelevant to the art.” Lawrence Weiner says of the works of that period: “The idea… is what is being exhibited, not any specific series.”
This is an art form therefore which aims at giving a perceptible form to phenomena which can only be experienced intellectually and not visibly. It occupies itself with things to which nothing concrete – apart from thoughts – can correspond ( Conceptualism). Here is the essence of what Wassily Kandinsky confirmed and prophesied in 1910, in his essay “ The intellectual content of art” : “The last thing I wanted to do was to call on reason, on the mind. This would have been a premature exercise today, but it will be the next important and demanding goal of artists as art develops.” The artist makes thought pictures. In the main words, sketches and photographs.
Douglas Huebler’s “Duration Piece No. 11” for example consists of twelve photographs and a text which explains that when the photos are ordered chronologically they show the appearance of a bush within a limited space of time. The photos are taken at regular intervals. What is important though is that the time steps are not shown up by putting the photos in order – they are inserted into the text at random. The observer therefore sees himself confronted by “variations” on a theme, and does not notice that these have come from the various stages of a continual process. The intellectual trick of reversing a process which is by nature irreversible gives to the observer the impression that scenes (which really occurred at different times) to all appearances happen simultaneously as he looks at the work. It is easy to see that the idea behind such a work has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the photos used. Furthermore, the more attractive and “meaningful” a photo used in the context is, the greater is the danger that we will be distracted from the artist’s message. In an effort to stress the purely indicative function of the photo and to avoid misunderstandings, exponents of conceptual art (like Action and Process artists before them) are eager to avoid any subjective tints, and even traditional aesthetics. It would therefore be a great mistake to judge these photos with a traditionally trained eye, thinking that one were doing justice to them.

Associative art
It seems that in the past few years we have changed the way we value photos artistically, and this again can only be explained by reference to the development of pictorial art in general. Thought as movement and as an intellectual activity, and the thought of motion and other abstract concepts are expounded in the “Picture Stories” of artists like Jean le Gac, Michael Badura, Jochen Gerz and Didier Bay (Narrative Art/ Story Art). Visually these works – which are mostly combinations of photos and text, or series of photo – differ only slightly from those of conceptual art. As far as content is concerned though, a considerable shift of accent has taken place: in contrast to conceptual art, the artist no longer gives sober, objective instructions for the intellectual realization of abstract phenomena, but he tells a story about things or people. He reports on events imagined or experienced. The contents of text and photo attain here a literary dimension. They have a new relationship to each other in so far as neither text nor picture alone can tell the whole story. This can only happen when the two are taken in conjunction with each other, and it is up to the observer to do this. Compared to the objective statements of conceptual art, many of these stories – though they are presented with a general, non-subjective content – have a personal value for their creators (Christian Boltanski for example reconstructs scenes from his childhood with the aid of imaginary “memory-jerkers”).
What is remarkable about many of these stories is that it is not the relation of actual events which predominates, but rather the portrayal and indication of things which happen beyond the visibly perceptible forms. The artist finds himself fascinated and occupied by the reality of associations, experiences and emotions, of memories, assumptions premonitions, expectations, moods and dreams. In these works fiction becomes reality and reality becomes fiction. Because it can very easily give an image of reality, the photograph is particularly well suited to emphasizing the air of reality about fictitious situations. The artist uses this characteristic to present to the observer his dreams emotions and thoughts as a piece of reality; that is to say he gives his world of dreams and musings the stamp of reality by using photography. The observer often appears of reality with which he is unfamiliar; it is a reality that has been “conjured up”.
It is a reality which does not exist, despite the fact that it is hinted at with the help of real objects.
In these works photography is still, as before, a pointer to things which exist beyond that which is visually perceptible. The emphasis has shifted though, and its position within the artistic context has changed. Even if action art can be carried out without the use of photographs, and the communication of idea in conceptual art is relatively independent of photographs, and still less of photographs of good quality, the narrative artist who abandons the text can only achieve his intention if his photos are capable of putting his idea across. The artistic message is one which is not easily deciphered, and whether it is accessible to the observer or not depends on the quality of the photographs used.

One who has become all eyes does not see
This saying, made by American artist Agnes Martin, could also apply when we come to evaluate the role photography has to play in pictorial art. For here the photograph’s meaning cannot speak for itself; one can indeed discover it only when one is familiar with the artistic context in which it appears. And because this context is forever changing, so too must the function of photography. But this change in function can only be appreciated by one who has grasped this shift of emphasis which has taken place within pictorial art.
If, because of the context, the content of many photographs strikes us as being banal and mundane rather than spectacular and unique, it is probably because this very contemplation of things plain and mundane, unspectacular and non-unique gives the observer the free room he needs in order to be able to nurture within himself those thoughts, associations, emotions and dreams which are opened up to him when he has unraveled the invisible message.
It is quite possible that this “new way of seeing” will one day result in new aesthetic standards of photography.
5tn. September 1977
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