I 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.
Fried’s latest book is an examination of how he sees contemporary art photography as reflecting these concerns. Since the 1970s a new breed of art photographers have been making large photographic works that are designed to be viewed on the walls of galleries rather than in the pages of magazines or books – these include Jeff Wall, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Demand, Luc Delahaye, Thomas Struth and many more. This fundamentally changes the relationship between the viewer and the photograph – the viewer is encouraged to stand and contemplate the work at length, and the sheer scale, size and detail of the work implies a reward for such extended contemplation. Fried’s basic thesis is that since this work has a direct engagement with the beholder built into it in a fundamental way, all the debates about theatricality versus anti-theatricality which were present in French 18th century painting (and which Fried sees also as being central to developments in 1960s art) are once again to the fore. Furthermore, the very nature of the photographic medium brings new perspectives to this debate, and the disparate artists he considers in the book are all producing work that, consciously or unconsciously, elucidates and expands upon the issues that he has been concerned with for most of his career.
Jeff Wall emerges early on as a major figure in the book and Fried spends a lot of time offering detailed interpretations of some of his most well-known photographs. He identifies absorption as a recurrent motif throughout Wall’s work – often his pictures depict people engrossed in some activity, apparently completely oblivious to the presence of either the photographer, or the eventual beholder. Fried sees this as a deliberate echoing of the preoccupations of the anti-theatrical French painters (and cites both Wall’s writings and conversations with him as evidence of his awareness of this aspect of his work). But, why is absorption so important? Fried repeatedly refers to Susan Sontag’s assertion that there is something there in the face of a subject who is unaware of being photographed that is not there when they are. It is rare in real life for us to be able to contemplate at length a human face that is unaware of our gaze so, among other things, the absorptive tradition attempts to open a window into this world, and allow us to examine and reflect upon the apparently unobserved countenance. Photography offers new possibilities for this tradition and this has been explored at length by artists as diverse as Walker Evans, Luc Delahaye and Philip DiCorcia Lorca, all of whom have produced bodies of work based on photographing people who are unaware of being photographed.
Since Jeff Wall’s photographs are staged, it is of course the case that the subjects are aware of being photographed, so Wall is really simulating absorption rather than capturing it. However, as Fried describes, Jeff Wall employs elaborate working methods which involve shoots taking place over days, if not weeks. Such extended processes have the effect of making the subjects forget that they are being photographed and result in convincing simulations of the absorptive state.
A key concern running through the book is that of objecthood – something can be an object, but can also be a piece of art. Minimalism might take a pre-existing object, place it in a certain context (such as a gallery) that sets up some sort of relationship between it and the viewer, and maintain that the essence of the art-work lies in the viewer’s reaction to it. For Fried, this is an example of the theatricality he disapproves of – he would insist that a piece of art is an object constructed in such a way that it embodies or represents intentionality on the part of the creator. In these terms we might then consider whether a photograph is an object or a piece of art. The realist view of the photograph as an index, a trace of the real, would argue for its status as an object, as it is simply a reflection of some facet of reality that was apparent when the shutter was fired. Lee Friedlander talked of how photography was a ‘generous’ medium – meaning that often the most interesting parts of the photo are the parts that were not necessarily intentionally included by the photographer, but ended up in the frame simply because they were there in front of the camera as well as the ostensible subject. A similar idea motivates Barthes’ notion of punctum – the viewer (or beholder) can be struck deeply by elements of the image not regarded as of any consequence to the photographer. All of this would indicate that photography relies largely on the viewer constructing meaning for themselves when beholding the photograph, rather than it being a medium that carries intentionality on the part of the creator. One might assume from this that Fried would regard photography as inherently theatrical in nature and hence disapprove of it, however it becomes clear that the types of photography that Fried is interested in are those that go to enormous lengths to make sure that they do function as vehicles of intentionality. The staged photographs of Jeff Wall, for example, are meticulously planned and constructed – every element in the frame has been chosen by the photographer himself, presumably for specific reasons, and there is no room for the ‘generous’ accidents favoured by Friedlander. One of the common threads that links all of the photographers discussed in the book is this meticulous planning and care taken in the construction of their images.
This is taken to perhaps its greatest extreme in the work of Thomas Demand, who creates detailed photographs of miniature scale models that he builds himself, so that nothing in the image is pure object, everything depicted has been created by the artist. His models are recreations of real spaces – often spaces where uncomfortable or disturbing events have unfolded or been planned – such as, the hallway of Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment block, the archives of Nazi propagandist film-maker Leni Riefenstahl and so on.
Fried considers the work of numerous other photographers in his book and in each case seeks to relate their work to his themes of theatricality and objecthood. In some cases this is highly illuminating and successful (e.g. Wall and Demand), but in others it comes across as slightly forced and not entirely convincing. For example, he analyses Jean-Marc Bustamamente’s giant and somewhat banal images of landscapes taken in Northern Spain and concludes that the lack of a specific focal point or any of the other common tropes of landscape photography constitute a deliberate strategy of excluding the beholder and that this strategy stems from anti-theatrical considerations.
Similar difficulties arise with respect to the portrait photographs of Thomas Struth. It is difficult to see how any portrait photograph, taken with the full knowledge and co-operation of the subject, can be anything but (in Frieds terms) theatrical in nature as the subject is (in the case of Struth’s portaits) staring straight into the lens and hence, by extension, straight at the beholder. Fried describes the working methods that Struth uses to create his celebrated family portraits (planning and executing them over a long period of time, ensuring the sitters are comfortable with the process, removing himself as much as possible from the sitters field of view) but it seems unlikely that even these measures can avoid the inherent theatricality of the genre.
The book concludes with a chapter on Bernd and Hilla Becher, whose work Fried considers one of the major artistic achievements of the century. Along the way we also get an excellent chapter on Roland Barthes, discussions of numerous contemporary art photographers, and some frankly baffling (to this reader at least) philosophical digressions on the work of Wittgenstein, Hegel and Heidigger. However, in spite of its occasional obtuseness it’s never boring: Fried is an engaging writer with obvious enthusiasm for this subject and if the text get’s a little dense at times, there are always nice pictures to look at.