This essay appears in Solomon-Godeau’s Photography At The Dock collection. It deals with a number of post-modern photographic artists, explaining their work, and situating it in opposition to the established canon of modernist art photography. It is deeply critical of many of the fundamental assumptions of modernist photography that would have been elaborated in the work of critics such as John Szarkowski.
Solomon-Godeau begins by noting the extent to which the use of pastiche, in the sense of the appropriation of previously existing styles and work, has become dominant in both the art world and in popular mass media. In tandem with this, much criticism has been leveled at previously sacrosanct notions of the value of originality and authorial autonomy, and many artists are using pastiche as a means of questioning and probing these issues. At the time of writing, not much of this had reached the art photography world though, where most work was still reliant on traditional modernist notions: a key one being that an art photograph functions as an expression of the photographer’s interior, a vehicle for his/her thoughts, feelings and so on. The reason for this can be thought of as an insecurity at the heart of art photography. It had only recently received full status as an art form, and having done so on the back of precisely those modernist notions that post-modern artists are currently questioning. It is therefore reluctant to abandon, or even question, those notions that were integral to the elevation to its current lofty status.
The key issue here is that art photography’s achievements are based largely on an aesthetic of the photographic – meaning that there are distinct inherent properties of the medium itself that give it value as an art-form, and the skilled practitioner can employ these properties in order to produce expressive work (this position is outlined in Szarkowski’s Introduction To The Photographer’s Eye).
In contrast to this, artists who began to use photography in the 1960s were not so interested in the aesthetic of the photographic as such – they were interested in the field of photography itself and what its role in culture and politics is. They were interested in probing how photographs are used to convey messages, how photography is related to consumerism, and how photography is employed to exert political control. While art photography eschewed functional and directly commercial applications of photography (e.g. snapshots, advertising) and defined itself in opposition to this, these photographers were interested in exploring and exploiting these aspects of the medium in order to propagate their own messages, and subvert those being propagated by the mass culture. Solomon-Godeau goes on to suggest that the repudiation of subjectivity and self-expression lies at the heart of the distinction between these photographic artists and traditional art photographers.
The remainder of her essay takes the work of a number of these artists in turn – Vikky Alexander, Barbara Kruger, Richard Prince and James Welling – and discusses how the work of each rejects many of the values of modernism. I won’t try and summarise Solomon-Godeau’s analysis of each of these, but confine it to one. Vikky Alexander’s work is based on a strategy of appropriation, where she re-uses existing images, mostly taken from fashion, advertising and so on. The aim is to analyse and expose how these images are employed and what messages they are used to convey. Solomon-Godeau’s way of putting it is that Alexander is “playing off” the field of the image.
Alexander’s work is an example of the post-modern rejection of modernist values for a number of reasons. Firstly, by employing a strategy of appropriation she is bringing into question the notion of the value of originality and authorship. Secondly, her work displays no interest in the photographic aesthetic – she is not trying to create images that conform to any preconceived notions of what is beautiful or what is a “good” picture, and she is not trying to employ elements of the photographic aesthetic as an expression of the artist’s interior world. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the images are questioning and commenting on photographic practice itself (in the case above the photographic practice employed in advertising) and using the very codes and conventions of that same practice to do so, or as Solomon-Godeau puts it – “to use the image (or images) against itself”.
Solomon-Godeau’s essay raises all sorts of issues for me – it manages to be both infuriating and thought-provoking at the same time. I find the rejection of the idea that photography can function as a means of subjectivity and self-expression to be slightly ludicrous. While I don’t have much truck with those who talk about how minute manipulations of tones on b&w prints are expressions of their “vision” or “feelings” about the subject, surely the choice of what to photograph, and how to photograph it, can function as a vehicle of subjective thought? If not, we might as well throw the bulk of photographic history in the bin. How is the choice of what the photograph all that different anyway to the choice of what to appropriate?
At the same time it does bring in to focus the need to employ a deeply critical analysis to how images are employed, particularly in the mass media, and her dissections of the work of Prince, Alexander, Welling et al. are illuminating in that they fill in a theoretical background that it is crucial to any understanding of what these artists are trying to do. Essentially they are engaging in photography about photography, or maybe image-making about the image. Rather than employing photography to look outwards, they are employing it to look in on itself. This has clear parallels with the documentary work that Maartje van den Heuvel writes about – documentary practice being used to analyze the practice of documentary.
Her conclusion states that (within this work) the “photographer’s personal vision, sensibility, or capacity for self-expression is assumed to be of interest only to his or her friends, families, lovers, or analysts”. She goes on to suggest that the “myth” of the “hero” artist is a myth propagated for entirely commercial reasons, and to engage in the sort practice she is describing requires only an “operator, a producer, a scriptor, or a pasticheur”. This would be a little easier to swallow were it not for the fact that the artists she is championing are themselves so deeply implicated within the commercial art world. For example, a quick perusal of Art Net reveals that the Richard Prince picture shown above is up for auction with a guide price of more than 80,000 dollars. I wonder if whoever purchases this regards it as simply the work of an “operator”? I suspect that on the contrary the purchaser fully buys into the notion of Prince as heroic artist – even if this is purely in the hope of increasing its value for a future sale.