Archive for December, 2009

Why Photography Matters As Art As Never BeforeI became interested in Michael Fried’s recent tome of photographic art criticism after reading an interview with him in Aperture magazine. I thought it would serve as good overview of the work of a whole assortment of contemporary  photographers. It certainly did that – and much more besides.

In 1967 Michael Fried published a controversial essay called ‘Art And Objecthood‘ where he trenchantly criticised the minimalist art of the time. His main concern was what he saw as the art world’s slide into theatricality. By this he meant the inclusion of the viewers experience of viewing an artwork into the meaning of the artwork itself – the explicit acknowledgment of the role and presence of the viewer (or beholder), and the shift in emphasis away from the intentions of the creator. Fried instead championed art (mostly Modernist and Abstract) which effectively ignored the role of the beholder, was complete in and of itself, and which functioned as a direct vehicle for the aesthetic concerns of the artist.

He went on to develop these ideas by way of a series of art history books which revealed the same concerns to be at the heart of developments in 18th century French painting. In particular, the anti-theatrical tradition sought to produce art which denied the presence of a beholder by producing work that portrayed people in states of absorption – turned away from the viewer and engrossed in some activity that demands their complete attention.



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Roland Barthes

This essay is a classic semiotic text where Roland Barthes analyses an advertising image and uses it as a means of teasing out how different messages are conveyed by a system of signs. The ad he uses is the Panzani advert, within which he finds a rich layering of meanings.

Barthes commences by remarking that the word image stems from a Latin term meaning ‘imitation’ and then poses the central question of his essay – can images truly function of conveyers of meaning given that they are essentially imitations (or direct analogical representations) of something else. Do they really constitute a language, and if they do, how does meaning work within this language? He uses an advertising image to analyze these questions, as advertising images clearly have intended meanings. The image used is the Panzani ad which is reproduced below.


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After finding aspects of Stuart Hall’s text difficult to grasp in parts I turned to a chapter from Photography: A Critical Introduction (edited by Liz Wells) to try and get a better handle on the relevance of psyschoanalytic theory to photography criticism. It explains Freud’s take on voyeurism and fetishism clearly and concisely.

Representations of the human body have become a central part of photographic practice and consequent critical discussion since the 1980s. Numerous issues have driven this – body politics, feminist challenges to the representation of the female body, the AIDS crisis, censorship struggles and the foregrounding of issues around gender and sexuality. Henning’s piece discusses how the human body is represented photographically, both in a historical and a contemporary context.

She commences with a description of some historical attemps to use photography to read the human body. Physiognomy and phrenology were employed from the mid 19th century onwards as a means of classifying people according to social and racial types, with photography acting as the key enabler of this. While these ideas have long been discredited, both John Tagg and Allan Sekula have pointed out that they continue to be used as a form of social control by way of photographic police archives. The implicit racism of these 19th Century ideas were later made explicit via Nazism, with its insistence on the moral superiority of certain races and classes. (more…)

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This entry discusses an extract from the book Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. In it, Stuart Hall examines stereotyping and how this practice is employed to construct negative representations of people and groups.

We routinely make sense of the world using types – broad categories of things with common characteristics. This allows us to categorise things in a meaningful way, and in turn draw conclusions and extrapolate information about something based on previous experience of things of the same, or similar, type. This is commonly done with people and is not by definition negative. For example, we assign certain traits to roles such as parent, businessperson, pensioner and so on. Stereotypes on the other hand, while classifying people in a similar manner, reduce the person to those simplified and exaggerated characteristics, admit no possibility of change, and insist that these characteristic are natural. Any complexity is ignored and denied, and it is implied that everything that is necessary to know about the person can be known by referring to the traits of the stereotype. In essence a stereotype declares “this is what you are, and this is all you are”.

Stereotyping also deploys a strategy of splitting – where those who do not fit society’s norms are excluded, and their exclusion is copper-fastened by fitting them to a set of stereotypes deemed unacceptable – the ‘Other’. This denies the possibility of any meaningful discourse about them or with them, and ensures their continued exclusion.  This proves most effective when gross inequalities of power allow the dominant group to employ the strategy without challenge. (more…)

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In this article Levi-Strauss writes about the relationship between aesthetics and politics in social documentary photography and essentially mounts a defence of the role of the aesthetic within this genre.

He starts by observing that the right in America have always recognised the subversive, and deeply political role, of the aesthetic in art and this explains their hostility to it. On the other hand, left-wing critics and theorists (Rosler et al.) have made ubiquitous a view that denies a central role for aesthetics in genres such as documentary. An example of this in mainstream writing would be Ingrid Sichy’s criticism of Sebastiao Salgado, which upbraids him on numerous fronts, but in particular accuses him of being more interested in the aesthetics of his images than in the plight of his subjects.

Levi-Strauss identifies the roots of this viewpoint to be the writings of Walter Benjamin in the 1930s but denies that Benjamin’s criticisms are applicable to contemporary photographers such as Salgado. His basis for this is that Benjamin had in mind a particular movement (New Objectivity) which explicitly presented poverty and political struggle as objects of “comfortable contemplation”, whereas Salgado’s work shows real solidarity with his subjects and aims to confront viewers with the reality of hunger, tragedy and suffering. (more…)

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