Like other steadily aggrandizing enterprises, photography has inspired its leading practitioners with a need to explain, again and again, what they are doing and why it is valuable. The era in which photography was widely attacked (as parricidal with respect to painting, predatory with respect to people) was a brief one. Painting of course did not expire with the advent of the camera in 1839, as one French painter hastily predicted; the finicky soon ceased to dismiss photography as menial copying; and by 1854 Delacroix graciously declared how much he regretted that “such an admirable discovery should have come so late.”
Nothing is more acceptable today than the photographic recycling of reality, acceptable as an everyday activity and as a branch of high art. Yet something about photography still keeps the first-rate professionals defensive and hortatory. And although virtually every important photographer, right up to the present, has written manifestoes and credos which expound photography’s moral and aesthetic mission, photographers give the most contradictory accounts of what kind of knowledge they possess and what kind of art they practice.
The disconcerting ease with which photographs can be taken, the inevitable even when inadvertent authority of the camera’s results, suggest a very tenuous relation to knowing. No one would dispute that photography gave a tremendous boost to the cognitive claims of sight, because—through close-up and remote sensing—it so greatly enlarged the realm of the visible. But about the ways in which any subject within the range of unaided vision is further known through a photograph or the extent to which, in order to get a “good” photograph, people need to know anything about what they are photographing, there is no agreement.
Picture-taking has been interpreted by its more reflective professionals in two entirely different ways: either as a lucid and precise act of knowing, of conscious intelligence, or as a preintellectual, intuitive encounter. Thus Nadar, speaking of his respectful, expressive pictures of Baudelaire, Doré, Michelet, Hugo, Berlioz, Sand, Delacroix, and other famous friends, said “the portrait I do best is of the person I know best,” while Avedon has observed that most of his good portraits are of people he met for the first time when photographing them.
In this century, the older generation of photographers described photography as a heroic effort of attention, an ascetic discipline, a mystic receptivity to the world which requires that the photographer pass through a cloud of unknowing. According to Minor White, “the state of mind of the photographer while creating is a blank…. When looking for pictures…the photographer projects himself into everything he sees, identifying himself with everything in order to know it and to feel it better.” Cartier-Bresson has likened himself to a Zen archer, who must become the target so as to be able to hit it. “Thinking should be done beforehand and afterwards,” he says, “never while actually taking a photograph.” Thought is regarded as clouding the transparency of the photographer’s consciousness, and as infringing on the autonomy of what is being photographed. Determined to prove that photographs could—and when they are “good,” always do—transcend literalness, many serious photographers have made of photography a noetic paradox. Photography is advanced as a form of knowing without knowing: a way of outwitting the world, instead of making a frontal attack on it.
But even when ambitious professionals disparage thinking—suspicion of the intellect being a recurrent theme in photographic apologetics—they usually want to assert how rigorous this permissive visualizing needs to be. “A photograph is not an accident—it is a concept,” Ansel Adams insists. “The ‘machine-gun’ approach to photography—by which many negatives are made with the hope that one will be good—is fatal to serious results.” To take a good photograph, runs the common claim, one must already see it. That is, the image must exist in the photographer’s mind at or before the moment when the negative is exposed. Justifying photography has for the most part precluded admitting that the scattershot method, especially as used by someone experienced, may yield a thoroughly satisfactory result. But despite their reluctance to say so, most photographers have always had—with good reason—an almost superstitious confidence in the lucky accident.
Lately, the secret is becoming avowable. As the defense of photography enters its present, retrospective phase, there is an increasing diffidence in its claims about the alert, knowing state of mind that accomplished picture-taking presumes. The anti-intellectual declarations of photographers, commonplaces of modernist thinking in the arts, have prepared the way for the gradual tilt of serious photography toward a skeptical investigation of its own powers, a commonplace of modernist practice in the arts. Photography as knowledge is succeeded by photography as—photography. Perhaps the most candid statement of photography’s currently fashionable skepticism about its older ideals of authoritative representation has been made by Garry Winogrand, one of the most influential of younger American photographers, who rejects any ambition to previsualize and states as the purpose of his work: “to find out what things look like when photographed.”
Where the claims of knowledge falter, the claims of creativity take up the slack. As if to refute the fact that many superb pictures are by photographers devoid of any serious or interesting intentions, the insistence that picture-taking is first of all the focusing of a temperament, only secondarily of a machine, has always been one of the main themes of the defense of photography. This is the theme stated so eloquently in the finest essay I know of in praise of photography, Paul Rosenfeld’s chapter on Stieglitz in Port of New York (1924). By using “his machinery”—as Rosenfeld puts it—“unmechanically,” Stieglitz shows that the camera not only “gave him an opportunity of expressing himself” but supplied images with a wider and “more delicate” gamut “than the hand can draw.”
Similarly, Edward Weston insists over and over that photography is a supreme opportunity for self-expression, far superior to that offered by painting. For photography to compete with painting means invoking originality as an important standard for appraising a photographer’s work, originality being equated with the stamp of a unique, forceful sensibility. What is exciting “are photographs that say something in a new manner,” Harry Callahan writes, “not for the sake of being different, but…because the individual is different and the individual expresses himself.” Paul Strand calls picture-taking “a record of your living,” warning photographers to resist “insidious other people’s ways” that “get between you and your own vision.” For Ansel Adams “a great photograph” has to be “a full expression of what one feels about what is being photographed in the deepest sense,” and “thereby, a true expression of what one feels about life in its entirety.”1
Even when it is hard to take the claims of photographers literally, these hyperbolic and often naïvely stated claims are interesting for the ways in which they recapitulate traditional attitudes which radically oppose the self and the world. Photography is seen as an acute manifestation of the individualized “I,” the homeless private self astray in an overwhelming world—mastering reality by a fast visual anthologizing of it. Or photography is seen as a means of finding a place in the world (still experienced as overwhelming, alien) by being able to relate to it with detachment—bypassing the interfering, insolent claims of the self. But between the defense of photography as a superior means of self-expression and the praise of photography as a superior way of putting the self at reality’s service there is not as much difference as might appear. Both presuppose that photography provides a unique system of disclosures: that it shows us reality as we had not seen it before.
The revelatory character of photography generally goes by the polemical name of realism. From Fox Talbot’s view that the camera produces “natural images” to Berenice Abbott’s denunciation of “pictorial” photography to Cartier-Bresson’s warning that “the thing to be feared most is the artificially contrived,” most of the contradictory declarations of photographers converge in pious avowals of respect for things-as-they-are. For a medium so often considered to be merely realistic, one would think photographers would not have to go on as they do, exhorting each other to stick to realism. But the exhortations continue—another instance of the need photographers have for making something mysterious and urgent of the process by which they appropriate the world.
To insist, as Abbott does, that realism is the very “essence” of photography does not, as it might seem, establish the superiority of one particular procedure or standard; does not necessarily mean that “photo-documents” (Abbott’s word) are better than “pictorial photographs.”2 Photography’s commitment to realism can accommodate any style, any approach to subject matter. Sometimes it will be defined more narrowly, as the making of images which resemble, and inform us about, the world. Interpreted more broadly, echoing the distrust of mere likeness which has inspired painting for more than a century, photographic realism can be—is more and more—defined not as what is “really” there but as what I “really” perceive.
While all modern forms of art claim some privileged relation to reality, photography’s claim seems to rest on particularly strong grounds. Yet photography has not, finally, been any more immune than painting has to the most characteristic modern doubts about any straightforward relation to reality—the inability to take for granted the world as observed. Even Abbott cannot help assuming a change in the very nature of reality: that it needs the selective, more acute eye of the camera, there being simply much more of it than ever before. “Today we are confronted with reality on the vastest scale mankind has known,” she declares; and this puts “a greater responsibility on the photographer.”
All that photography’s program of realism actually implies is the belief that reality is hidden. And, being hidden, is something to be unveiled. Whatever the camera records is a disclosure, whether it is imperceptible, fleeting parts of movement, an order that natural vision is incapable of perceiving, or a “heightened reality” (Moholy-Nagy’s phrase), or simply the elliptical way of seeing. When Stieglitz describes his “patient waiting for the moment of equilibrium” he makes the same assumption about the essential hiddenness of the real as Robert Frank does when he waits for the moment of revealing disequilibrium, to catch reality off-guard, in what he calls the “in-between moments.”
It is not necessary for photographers to point up the mystery of the hidden with exotic or exceptionally striking subjects. When Dorothea Lange urges her colleagues to concentrate on “the familiar,” it is with the understanding that the familiar, rendered by a sensitive use of the camera, will thereby become mysterious. Photography’s commitment to realism does not limit photography to certain subjects as more real than others, but rather illustrates the formalist understanding of what goes on in every work of art: reality is, in Viktor Shklovsky’s word, de-familiarized. What is being urged is an aggressive relation to all subjects. Armed with their machines, photographers are to make an assault on reality—which is perceived as recalcitrant, as only deceptively available, as unreal.
“The pictures have a reality for me that the people don’t,” Avedon has declared. “It is through the photographs that I know them.” To claim that photography must be realistic is not incompatible with opening up an even wider gap between image and reality, in which the mysteriously acquired knowledge (and the enhancement of reality) supplied by photographs presumes a prior alienation from or devaluation of reality.
As photographers describe it, picture-taking is both a limitless technique for appropriating the objective world and an unavoidably solipsistic expression of the singular self. Photographs depict realities that already exist, though only the camera can disclose them. And they depict an individual temperament, discovering itself through the camera’s cropping of reality. For Moholy-Nagy the genius of photography lies in its ability to render “an objective portrait: the individual to be photographed so that the photographic result shall not be encumbered with subjective intention.” For Dorothea Lange every portrait of another person is a “self-portrait” of the photographer, as for Minor White—promoting “self-discovery through a camera”—landscape photographs are really “inner landscapes.” The two ideals are antithetical: in so far as photography is (or should be) about the world, the photographer counts for little; but in so far as it is the instrument of intrepid, questing subjectivity, the photographer is all.
Moholy-Nagy’s demand for the photographer’s self-effacement follows from his appreciation of how edifying photography is: it retrains and upgrades our powers of observation, it brings about “a psychological transformation of our eyesight.” (In an essay published in 1936, he says that photography creates or enlarges eight distinct varieties of seeing: abstract, exact, rapid, slow, intensified, penetrative, simultaneous, and distorted.) But selfeffacement is also the demand behind quite different, antiscientific approaches to photography, such as that expressed in Robert Frank’s credo: “There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment.” In both views the photographer is proposed as a kind of ideal observer—for Moholy-Nagy, seeing with the detachment of a researcher; for Frank, seeing “simply, as through the eyes of the man in the street.”
One attraction of any view of the photographer as ideal observer—whether impersonal (Moholy-Nagy) or friendly (Frank)—is that it implicitly denies that picture-taking is in any way an aggressive act. That it can be so described makes most professionals extremely defensive. Cartier-Bresson and Avedon are among the very few to have talked honestly (if ruefully) about the exploitative aspect of the photographer’s activities. Usually photographers feel obliged to protest photography’s innocence, claiming that the predatory attitude is incompatible with a good picture, and hoping that a more affirmative vocabulary will put over their point. One of the more memorable examples of such verbiage is Ansel Adams’s description of the camera as an “instrument of love and revelation”; Adams also urges that we stop saying that we “take” a picture and always say we “make” one. Stieglitz’s name for the cloud studies he did in the late 1920s—“Equivalents,” that is, statements of his inner feelings—is another, soberer instance of the persistent effort of photographers to feature the benevolent character of picture-taking and discount its predatory implications.
What talented photographers do cannot of course be characterized either as simply predatory or as simply, and essentially, benevolent. Photography’s version of the ideology of realism seems inherently equivocal—sometimes it dictates an effacement of the self in relation to the world, sometimes it authorizes an aggressive relation to the world which celebrates the self. One side or the other of the connection is always being rediscovered and championed.
An important result of the coexistence of these two ideals is a recurrent ambivalence toward photography’s means. Whatever the claims for photography as a form of personal expression on a par with painting, it remains true that its originality is inextricably linked to the powers of a machine: no one can deny the informativeness and formal beauty of many photographs made possible by the steady growth of these powers, like Harold Edgerton’s high-speed photographs of a bullet hitting its target, of the swirls and eddies of a tennis stroke, or Lennart Nilsson’s endoscopic photographs of the interior of the human body. But as cameras get ever more sophisticated, more automated, more acute, some photographers are tempted to disarm themselves or to suggest that they are really not armed, and prefer to submit themselves to the limits imposed by a premodern camera technology—a cruder, less high-powered machine being thought to give more interesting or expressive results, to leave more room for the creative accident. Not using fancy equipment has been almost a point of honor for many photographers, including Weston, Bill Brandt, Walker Evans, Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank—some sticking with a battered camera of simple design and slow lens that they acquired early in their careers, some continuing to make their contact prints with nothing more elaborate than a few trays, a bottle of developer, and a bottle of hypo solution.
The camera is indeed the instrument of “fast seeing,” as one confident modernist, Alvin Langdon Coburn, declared in 1918, echoing the Futurist apotheosis of machines and speed. Photography’s present mood of doubt can be gauged by Cartier-Bresson’s recent statement that it may be too fast.3 The cult of the future (of faster and faster seeing) alternates with the wish to return to a more artisanal, purer past—when images still had a handmade quality, an aura. This nostalgia for some pristine state of the photographic enterprise underlies the current enthusiasm for daguerreotypes, stereograph cards, photographic cartes de visite, family snapshots, the work of forgotten nineteenth- and early twentieth-century provincial and commercial photographers. (Publishers are now turning out compilation after compilation of such “primitive” photographs.)
But the reluctance to use the newest high-powered equipment is not the only or indeed the most interesting way in which photographers express their attraction to photography’s past. The primitivist hankerings that inform current photographic taste are actually being aided by the ceaseless innovativeness of camera technology. For many of these advances not only enlarge the camera’s powers but also recapitulate—in a more ingenious, less cumbersome form—earlier, discarded possibilities of the medium.
Thus the development of photography hinges on the replacement of the daguerreotype process, direct positives on metal plates, by the positive-negative process, whereby from an original (negative) an unlimited number of prints (positives) can be made. (Although invented simultaneously in the late 1830s, it was Daguerre’s government-supported invention, announced in 1839 with great publicity, rather than Fox Talbot’s positive-negative process, that was the first photographic process in general use.) But now the camera could be said to be turning back upon itself. The Polaroid camera revives the principle of the daguerreotype camera: each print is a unique object. Not surprisingly, some of the most sophisticated photographers have been fascinated by this relatively crude image: Walker Evans in the last years before his death in 1975 was mainly taking color snapshots with the (then) new SX-70; Robert Frank, in his retreat in Nova Scotia, is reported to be working only with the Polaroid.
There are other examples of the inadvertent primitivism of photography’s latest technical advances. The hologram (three-dimensional images created with laser light) could be considered as a variant on the heliogram—the first, cameraless photographs made in the 1820s by Nicéphore Niépce. And the increasingly popular use of the camera to produce slides—images which cannot be displayed permanently or stored in wallets and albums, but can only be projected on walls or on paper (as aids for drawing)—goes back even further into the camera’s prehistory, for it amounts to using the photographic camera to do the work of the camera obscura.
“History is pushing us to the brink of a realistic age,” according to Abbott, who summons photographers to make the jump themselves. But while photographers are perpetually urging each other to be bolder, a doubt persists about reality and the value of realism which keeps them oscillating between simplicity and irony, between insisting on control and cultivating the unexpected, between the eagerness to take advantage of the complex evolution of the medium and the wish to reinvent photography from scratch. Photographers seem to need, periodically, to resist their own knowingness and to remystify what they do.
Questions about knowledge are not, historically, photography’s first line of defense. The earliest controversies all centered around the question whether photography’s fidelity to appearances and dependence on a machine did not prevent it from being a fine art—as distinct from a merely practical art, an arm of science, and a trade. (That photographs give useful and often startling kinds of information was obvious from the beginning. Photographers only started worrying about what they knew, and what kind of knowledge in a deeper sense a photograph supplies, after photography was accepted as an art.) For about a century the defense of photography was identical with the struggle to establish it as a fine art.
Against the charge that photography was a soulless, mechanical copying of reality, photographers asserted that it was a vanguard revolt against ordinary standards of seeing, no less worthy an art than painting. Now, photographers are choosier about what label they use. Since photography has become so entirely respectable a branch of the fine arts, they no longer seek the shelter that the notion of art has intermittently given the photographic enterprise.
Thus for all the important American photographers who have proudly identified their work with the aims of art (like Stieglitz, Minor White, Aaron Siskind, Harry Callahan, Dorothea Lange, Clarence John Laughlin), there are many more who disavow the question itself. Whether or not the camera’s “results come under the category of Art is irrelevant,” Strand wrote in the 1920s; and Moholy-Nagy declared it “quite unimportant whether the photographer produces ‘art’ or not.” Photographers who came to maturity in the 1940s or later are bolder, openly snubbing art, equating art with artiness. “Most of my photographs are compassionate, gentle, and personal,” Bruce Davidson has written. “They tend not to preach. And they tend not to pose as art.” Photographers today generally claim to be finding, recording, impartially observing, witnessing, exploring themselves—anything but making works of art.
The fact that important photographers are no longer willing to debate whether photography is or is not a fine art, except to proclaim that their work is not involved with art, shows the extent to which they simply take for granted the concept of art imposed by the triumph of modernism: the better the art, the more subversive it is of the traditional aims of art. And modernist taste has welcomed this unpretentious activity that can be consumed, almost in spite of itself, as high art.
Even in the nineteenth century, when photography was thought to be so evidently in need of defense as an art, the line of defense was far from stable. Julia Margaret Cameron’s claim that photography qualifies as an art because, like painting, it seeks the beautiful was succeeded by Henry Peach Robinson’s Wildean claim that photography is an art because it can lie. In the early twentieth century Alvin Langdon Coburn’s praise of photography as “the most modern of the arts,” because it is a fast, impersonal way of seeing, competed with Weston’s praise of photography as a new means of individual visual creation. In recent decades the notion of art has been exhausted as an instrument of polemic; indeed a good part of the immense prestige that photography has acquired as an art form comes from its declared ambivalence toward being an art. When photographers now deny that they are making works of art, it is because they think they are doing something better than that. Their disclaimers tell us more about the harried status of any notion of art than about whether photography is or isn’t one.
Despite the efforts of contemporary photographers to exorcise the specter of art, something lingers. For instance, when professionals object to having their photographs printed to the edge of the page in books or magazines, they are invoking the model inherited from another art: as paintings are put in frames, photographs should be framed in white space. Another instance: many photographers continue to prefer black-and-white images, which are felt to be more tactful, more decorous than color—or less voyeuristic and less sentimental or crudely lifelike. But the real basis for this preference is, once again, an implicit comparison with painting.
In the introduction to his book of photographs The Decisive Moment (1962), Cartier-Bresson justified his unwillingness to use color by citing technical limitations: the slow speed of color film which reduces the depth of focus. But with the rapid progress in color film technology during the last two decades—think of the tonal subtlety and high resolution of Helen Levitt’s photographs of Harlem, Leni Riefenstahl’s photographs of the Nuba, Stephen Shore’s photographs of Main Street wastelands—Cartier-Bresson has had to shift his ground, and now proposes that photographers renounce color as a matter of principle. In Cartier-Bresson’s version of that persistent myth according to which—following the camera’s invention—a division of territory took place between photography and painting, color belongs to painting. He enjoins photographers to resist temptation and keep up their side of the bargain.
Those still involved in defining photography as an art are always trying to hold some line. But any attempt to restrict photography to certain subjects or certain techniques, however fruitful these have proved to be, is bound to be challenged and to collapse. For it is in the very nature of photography that it be a promiscuous form of seeing and, in talented hands, an infallible medium of creation. (As John Szarkowski observes, “A skillful photographer can photograph anything well.”) Hence, its longstanding quarrel with art, which (until recently) meant the results of a discriminating or purified way of seeing, and a medium of creation governed by standards that made genuine achievement a rarity.
Understandably, photographers have been reluctant to give up the attempt to define more narrowly what “good” photography is. The history of photography is punctuated by a series of dualistic controversies—such as the straight print versus the doctored print, “pictorial” photography versus documentary photography—each of which proposes a different form of the debate about photography’s relation to art: how close it can get while still retaining its claim to unlimited visual acquisition. Recently, it has become common to maintain that all these controversies are now outmoded, which suggests that the debate has been settled. But it is unlikely that the defense of photography as art will ever completely subside. As long as photography is not only a voracious way of seeing but one which needs to claim that it is a special, distinctive way, photographers will continue to take shelter (if only covertly) in the defiled but still prestigious precincts of art.
Photographers who suppose they are getting away from the pretensions of art, as exemplified in painting, by taking pictures in fact remind us of those Abstract Expressionist painters who imagined they were getting away from art, or Art, by the act of painting (that is, by treating the canvas as a field of action rather than as an object). And much of the importance photography has recently acquired as an art is based on claims similar to those of more recent painting and sculpture. The seemingly insatiable appetite for photography in the 1970s expresses more than the pleasures of discovering and exploring a relatively neglected art form; it derives much of its fervor from the desire to reaffirm the dismissal of abstract art which was one of the messages of the pop taste of the 1960s. Paying more and more attention to photographs is a great relief to sensibilities tired of, or eager to avoid, the mental exertions demanded by abstract art. Classical modernist painting presupposes highly developed skills of looking; it requires that viewers be knowledgeable about art. Photography, like pop art, reassures viewers that art isn’t hard; it seems to be more about things than about art.
Photography is the most successful vehicle of modernist taste in its pop version, with its zeal for debunking the high culture of the past (focusing on shards, junk, odd stuff; excluding nothing); its conscientious courting of vulgarity; its affection for kitsch; its skill in reconciling vanguard ambitions with the rewards of commercialism; its pseudo-radical patronizing of “art” as reactionary, elitist, snobbish, insincere, artificial, out of touch with the broad truths of everyday life; its transformation of art into cultural document.
At the same time, photography has gradually acquired all the self-consciousness of a classic modernist art. Many professionals are now worried that this populist strategy is being carried too far, and that the public will forget that photography is, after all, a noble and exalted activity. In short, an art…. The modernist promotion of naïve art always contains a joker: that one continue to honor its hidden claim to sophistication.
It cannot be a coincidence that just about the time that photographers stopped discussing whether photography is an art it was acclaimed as one by the general public, and photography entered, in force, into the museum. The museum’s promotion of photography as art is the conclusive victory of the century-long campaign waged by modernist taste on behalf of an open-ended definition of art, photography offering a much more suitable terrain than painting for this effort. For the line between “amateur” and “professional,” “primitive” and “sophisticated” is not just harder to draw with photography than it is with painting—it has little meaning. Naïve or commercial or merely utilitarian photography is no different in kind from photography as practiced by the most gifted professionals: there are pictures taken by anonymous amateurs which are just as interesting, as complex formally, as representative of photography’s characteristic powers as a Stieglitz or a Walker Evans.
That all the different kinds of photography form one continuous tradition is the once startling, now obvious-seeming assumption which underpins Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, by John Szarkowski, the influential director of the museum’s department of photography. As Szarkowski formulated his “thesis” in The Photographer’s Eye, an earlier and more polemical anthology of photographs he published in 1966, “the medium’s ‘fine art’ tradition and its ‘functional’ tradition [are] intimately interdependent aspects of a single history.”
This thesis, which in the ensuing decade has become the ruling principle of contemporary photographic taste and authorizes the indefinite expansion of that taste, owes its plausibility mainly to the efforts of museum curators and to the ever-multiplying exhibition of photographs in museums and art galleries. What is most interesting about photography’s career in the museum is that no particular style is rewarded; photography is presented as a collection of simultaneous but widely differing intentions and styles, which are not perceived as in any way contradictory.
Szarkowski’s able and imaginative championing of photographic standards that reconcile functional and art photography has made him contemporary photography’s leading tastemaker. But while his enterprise has been a huge success with the public, the response of photography professionals is mixed. Even as they welcome photography’s new legitimacy, many of them feel threatened when the most ambitious images are discussed in direct continuity with all sorts of images, from photo-journalism to scientific photography to family snapshots. Recently some of the younger photography critics have accused Szarkowski of reducing photography to something trivial, vulgar, a mere craft.
The real problem with drawing functional photographs, photographs taken for a practical purpose, on commercial assignment, or as souvenirs, into the mainstream of photographic achievement is not that it demeans photography, considered as a fine art, but that the procedure contradicts the nature of most photographs. In most uses of the camera, the photograph’s naïve or descriptive function is paramount. But when viewed in the museum or gallery, photographs cease to be about their subjects in the same direct or primary way; they become studies in the possibilities of photography. Photography’s adoption by the museum makes photography itself seem problematic, in the way experienced only by a small number of self-conscious photographers whose work consists precisely in questioning the camera’s ability to grasp reality. The eclectic museum collections reinforce the arbitrariness, the subjectivity of all photographs, including the most straightforwardly descriptive ones.
Museums now feature shows of photographs much as they feature exhibitions by individual painters. But a photographer is not like a painter, the role of the photographer being recessive in much serious picture-taking and virtually irrelevant in all the ordinary (“vernacular”) uses. So far as we care about the subject photographed, we expect the photographer to be an extremely discreet presence. Thus the very success of photojournalism lies in the difficulty of distinguishing one superior photographer’s work from another’s, except in so far as he or she has monopolized a particular subject. The memorable photographs of Erich Salomon, Alfred Eisenstaedt, David Douglas Duncan, Robert Capa, Margaret Bourke-White, Marc Riboud, Edouard Boubat, Don McCullin, Inge Morath have their power as images (or copies) of interesting people and places, not of an individual artist’s consciousness. And in the vast majority of photographs which get taken—for scientific and industrial purposes, by the press, by the military and the police, by families—any trace of the personal vision of whoever is behind the camera interferes with the primary demand on the photograph: that it record, diagnose, inform.
It makes sense that a painting is signed but a photograph is not (or it seems bad taste if it is). The very nature of photography implies an equivocal relation to the photographer as auteur; and the bigger and more varied the work done by a talented photographer, the more it seems to acquire a kind of corporate rather than individual authorship. Many of the published photographs by photography’s greatest names seem like work that could have been done by any gifted professional of their period. It requires a formal conceit (like Todd Walker’s solarized photographs or Duane Michals’s narrative-sequence photographs) or a thematic obsession (like Thomas Eakins with the male nude or Clarence John Laughlin with the Old South) to make work easily recognizable.
For photographers who don’t so limit themselves, their “body” of work does not have the same integrity as does comparably varied work in other art forms. Even in those careers with the sharpest breaks of period and style—think of Picasso, of Stravinsky—one can perceive the unity of concerns that transcends these breaks and can (retrospectively) see the inner relation of one period to another. Knowing the whole body of work, one can see how the same composer could have written Le Sacre du printemps, the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto, and the late neo-Schoenbergian works; one recognizes Stravinsky’s hand in all these compositions. But there is no internal evidence for identifying as the work of Eadweard Muybridge his studies of human and animal motion, the documents he brought back from photo-expeditions in Central America, his government-sponsored camera surveys of Alaska and Yosemite, and the “Clouds” and “Trees” series. Even after knowing they were all taken by Muybridge one still can’t relate these series of pictures to each other (though each series has a coherent, recognizable style), any more than one could infer the way Atget photographed trees from the way he photographed Paris shop windows, or connect Roman Vishniac’s prewar portraits of Polish Jews with the scientific microphotographs he has been taking since 1945. In photography the subject matter always pushes through, with different subjects creating unbridgeable gaps between one period and another of a large body of work, confounding signature.
Indeed the very presence of a coherent photographic style—think of the white backgrounds and flat lighting of Avedon’s portraits, of the distinctive grisaille of Atget’s Paris street studies—seems to imply unified material. And subject matter seems to have the largest part in shaping a viewer’s preferences. Even when photographs are isolated from the practical context in which they may originally have been taken, and looked at as works of art, to prefer one photograph to another seldom means only that the photography is judged to be superior formally; it almost always means—as in more casual kinds of looking—that the viewer prefers that kind of mood, or respects that intention, or is intrigued by (or feels nostalgic about) that subject. The formalist approaches to photography cannot account for the power of what has been photographed, and the way that distance in time and cultural distance from the photograph increase our interest.
Still, it seems logical that contemporary photographic taste has taken a largely formalist direction. Although the natural or naïve status of subject matter in photography is more secure than in any other representational art, the very plurality of situations in which photographs are looked at complicates and eventually weakens the primacy of subject matter. The conflict of interest between objectivity and subjectivity, between demonstration and supposition, is unresolvable. While the authority of a photograph will always depend on the relation to a subject (that it is a photograph of something), all claims on behalf of photography as art must emphasize the subjectivity of seeing. There is an equivocation at the heart of all “aesthetic” evaluations of photographs; and this explains the chronic defensiveness and extreme mutability of photographic taste.
For a brief time—say, from Stieglitz through the reign of Weston—it appeared that a solid point of view had been established with which to evaluate photographs: impeccable lighting, skill of composition, clarity of subject, precision of focus, perfection of print quality. But this position, generally thought of as Westonian—essentially technical criteria for what makes a photograph good—is now bankrupt. (Weston’s deprecating appraisal of the great Atget as “not a fine technician” shows its limitations.) What position has replaced Weston’s? A much more inclusive one, with criteria which shift the center of judgment from the individual photograph, considered as a finished object, to the photograph considered as an example of “photographic seeing.”
What is meant by photographic seeing would hardly exclude Weston’s work but it would also include, as “an excellent example [of] pure photography,” the photograph from Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs that is reproduced on page 53 above: the “scrofulous little picture,” as he calls it, of a coachman and four people in a carriage, probably dating from the 1870s, taken by an unknown photographer. The composition of this picture, Szarkowski comments,
—or what would at the time be regarded as its lack of composition—is characteristic of the kind of image structure that resulted when photographers left their studios to work with subject matter that could not easily be posed. The seemingly arbitrary cropping of figures by the picture edge, the unexpected shapes created by overlapping forms, the asymmetrical and centrifugal patterning, the juxtaposition of busy and empty masses—these qualities constitute a visual definition of what is meant, in large part, by the phrase “photographic seeing.”
This new position, based on the notion of photographic seeing, aims to liberate photography, as art, from the oppressive standards of technical perfection; to liberate photography from beauty, too. It opens up the possibility of a global taste, in which no subject (or absence of subject), no technique (or absence of technique) disqualifies a photograph.
While in principle all subjects are worthy pretexts for exercising the photographic way of seeing, the convention has arisen that photographic seeing is clearest in off-beat or trivial subject matter. Subjects are chosen because they are boring or banal. Because we are indifferent to them, they best show up the ability of the camera to “see.”
“Today’s best photographers,” writes Szarkowski, “discover more and more within what would seem less and less.” Less is supposed to be More, but Less is also Less. Thus Szarkowski commends what Joel Meyerowitz can coax from subject matter that is so “profoundly banal.” (Meyerowitz, who was born in 1938, is the ninety-eighth of the hundred photographers in Szarkowski’s chronological arrangement; the book begins with two photographs from the 1840s.) When Irving Penn, known for his handsome photographs of celebrities and food for fashion magazines and ad agencies, was finally given a show at the Museum of Modern Art (in 1975), it was for a series of close-ups of cigarette butts. “One might guess,” Szarkowski commented, “that [Penn] has only rarely enjoyed more than a cursory interest in the nominal subjects of his pictures.”4
Photography’s adoption by the museum is now firmly associated with those important modernist conceits: the “nominal subject” and the “profoundly banal.” But this approach not only diminishes the importance of subject matter; it also loosens the photograph from its connection with a single photographer. The photographic way of seeing is far from exhaustively illustrated in the many one-photographer shows and retrospectives that museums now put on. Understanding an oeuvre is not the main point, for approaching photographs in this way must necessarily favor the new meanings that any one picture acquires when juxtaposed—in ideal anthologies, either on museum walls or in books—with the work of other photographers. Thus many of the pictures Szarkowski chose to include in Looking at Photographs are untypical of their author’s work. (For example, the Boubat photograph on page 153.) But it was never Szarkowski’s intention to educate his readers about the hundred photographers represented in this book. His compilation is meant to educate taste about photography in general; to teach a form of seeing which makes all subjects equivalent.
When Szarkowski describes gas stations, empty living rooms, and other bleak subjects as “patterns of random facts in the service of [the photographer’s] imagination,”5 what he really means is that these subjects are ideal for the camera. Szarkowski’s ostensibly formalist, neutral criteria seem powerfully judgmental about subjects and about styles. The revaluation of naïve or casual nineteenth-century photographs, particularly those which were taken as humble records, is partly due to their sharp-focus style—a pedagogic corrective to the “pictorial” soft focus which, from Cameron to Stieglitz, was associated with photography’s claim to be an art. Yet the standards of photographic seeing do not imply an unalterable commitment to sharp focus. Whenever serious photography is felt to have been purged of outmoded relations to art and to prettiness, it could just as well accommodate a taste for pictorial photography, for abstraction, for noble subjects rather than cigarette butts and gas stations and turned backs.
The language in which photographs are generally evaluated is extremely meager. Sometimes it is parasitical on the vocabulary of painting: composition, light, and so forth. More often it consists in the vaguest sort of judgments, as when photographs are praised for being subtle, or interesting, or powerful, or complex, or simple, or—a favorite—deceptively simple.
The reason the language is poor is not fortuitous: say, the absence of a rich tradition of photographic criticism. It is something inherent in photography itself, whenever it is viewed as an art. Photography proposes a process of imagination and an appeal to taste quite different from that of painting (at least as traditionally conceived). Indeed, the difference between a good photograph and a bad photograph is not at all like the difference between a good and a bad painting. The norms of aesthetic evaluation worked out for painting depend on criteria of authenticity (and falseness), and of craftsmanship—criteria that are more permissive or simply nonexistent for photography. And while the tasks of connoisseurship in painting invariably presume the organic relation of a painting to an individual body of work with its own integrity, and to schools and iconographical traditions, in photography a large individual body of work does not necessarily have an inner stylistic coherence, and an individual photographer’s relation to schools of photography is a much more superficial affair.
One criterion of evaluation which painting and photography do share is innovativeness; both paintings and photographs are often valued because they impose new formal schemes or changes in the visual language. Another criterion which they can share is the quality of uniqueness, of presence, which Walter Benjamin considered the defining characteristic of the work of art. This was not, of course, what Benjamin said about photographs. In his famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” he argued that precisely what distinguished a photograph from a painting was that a photograph, being a mechnically reproduced object, could not be authentic, could not have genuine presence. But it could be said that precisely the situation which now determines taste in photography, its exhibition in museums and galleries, has revealed to us that photographs do have a kind of authenticity. A daguerreotype from the mid-nineteenth century does have a “unique existence,” and even a photograph existing in many copies can be—to use Benjamin’s words—“testimony to the history which it has experienced.”
Furthermore, although it is true that no photograph is an “original” in the sense that a painting always is, there is a large qualitative difference between what could be called “originals”—prints made from the original negative at the time, that is, at the same moment in the technological evolution of photography, that the picture was taken—and subsequent generations of the same photograph. (What most people know of the famous photographs—in books, newspapers, magazines, and so forth—are no more than photographs of photographs; the originals, which one is likely to see only in a museum or a gallery, contain many visual pleasures which are not reproducible.) Technical reproduction, Benjamin says, “can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself.” But to the extent that an old painting can still be said to possess an aura in a museum display, where it too has been wrenched from its original setting and, like the photograph, “meets the beholder halfway”—in the strictest sense of Benjamin’s notion of the aura, it does not—then an Atget photograph, printed by him on the now unobtainable paper Atget used, can also be said to possess an aura.
The real difference between the aura that a photograph can have and that of a painting lies in the different relation to time. The depredations of time tend to work against paintings. But part of the built-in interest of photographs, and a major source of their aesthetic value, is precisely the transformations that time works upon them, the way they escape the intentions of their makers. Given enough time, many photographs do acquire an aura. (The fact that color photographs don’t age in the way black-and-white photographs do may partly explain the marginal status which color has had until very recently in serious photographic taste. The cold intimacy of color seems to seal off the photograph from patina.) For while paintings or poems do not necessarily get better, more attractive simply because they are older, most photographs seems interesting as well as touching if they are old enough. It is not altogether wrong to say that there is no such thing as a “bad” photograph—only less interesting, less relevant, less mysterious ones. Photography’s adoption by the museum only accelerates that process which time will bring about anyway: making all work valuable.
The role of the museum in forming contemporary photographic taste cannot be overestimated. Museums do not so much arbitrate what photographs are good or bad as offer new conditions for looking at all photographs. This procedure, which appears to be creating standards of evaluation, in fact abolishes them. The museum cannot be said to have created a secure canon for the photographic work of the past, as it has for painting. Even as it seems to be sponsoring a particular photographic taste the museum is undermining the very idea of normative taste. Its role is to show that there are no fixed standards of evaluation, that there is no canonical tradition of work. Under the museum’s attentions, the very idea of a canonical tradition is exposed as redundant.
That photography’s Great Tradition is always in flux, constantly being reshuffled, is not because photography is a new art and, therefore, somewhat insecure; it is part of what photographic taste is about. There is a more rapid sequence of rediscovery in photography than in any other art. According to that law of taste given its definitive formulation in Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” each important new work necessarily alters our perception of the heritage of the past. Thus, new photographs change how we look at past photographs. (For example, Diane Arbus’s work has made it easier to appreciate the greatness of the work of Lewis Hine, another photographer devoted to portraying the opaque dignity of victims.) But the swings in contemporary photographic taste do not only reflect such coherent and sequential processes of re-evaluation, whereby like enhances like. What they more commonly express is the complementarity and equal value of antithetical styles and themes.
For several decades American photography has been dominated by a reaction against “Westonism”—that is, against contemplative photography, photography considered as an independent visual exploration of the world with no evident social urgency. The technical perfection of Weston’s photographs, the calculated beauties of Minor White and Aaron Siskind, the poetic constructions of Frederick Sommer, the self-assured and elegant ironies of Cartier-Bresson—all these have been challenged by photography that is, at least programmatically, more naïve, more direct; that is hesitant, even awkward. But taste in photography is not that linear. Without any weakening of the current commitments to informal photography and to photography as social document, a perceptible revival of Weston is now taking place. For, with a certain distance of time, Weston’s work also looks naïve.
Finally, there is no reason to exclude any photographer from the canon. Right now there are mini-revivals of such long-despised pictorialists from another era as Oscar Gustav Rejlander, Henry Peach Robinson, and Robert Demachy. As photography takes the whole world as its subject, there is room for every kind of taste. Literary taste does exclude: the success of the modernist movement in poetry elevated Donne but diminished Dryden. With literature, one can be eclectic up to a point, but one can’t like everything. With photography, eclecticism has no limits. This is the real message of Szarkowski’s book, which contains every kind of photograph and photographic style, and praises them all. The plain photographs from the 1860s of abandoned children admitted to a London institution called Doctor Bernardo’s Home (taken as “records”) are as moving as David Octavius Hill’s brooding portraits of Scottish burghers (taken as “art”). The clean look of Weston’s classic modern style is not refuted by, say, Benno Friedman’s ingenious recent revival of pictorial blurriness.
This is not to deny that each viewer likes the work of some photographers more than that of others: for example, most cultivated viewers today prefer Atget to Weston. What it does mean is that, by the nature of photography, one is not really obliged to choose; and that preferences of that sort are, for the most part, merely reactive. Taste in photography tends to be, is perhaps necessarily, something global, eclectic, permissive, which means that in the end it must deny the difference between good taste and bad taste.
This is what makes the attempts of photography polemicists to erect a canon seem ingenuous or ignorant. For there is something fake about all photographic controversies—and the attentions of the museum have played a crucial role in making this clear. The museum levels upward all schools of photography. Indeed, it doesn’t make much sense even to speak of schools. In the history of painting, movements have a genuine life and function: painters are often much better understood as part of the school or movement to which they belonged. But movements in the history of photography are fleeting, adventitious, sometimes merely perfunctory, and no first-rate photographer is better understood as a member of a group. (Think of Stieglitz and Photo-Secession, Weston and f-64, Renger-Patzsch and the New Objectivity, Walker Evans and the Farm Security Administration project, Cartier-Bresson and Magnum.) To group photographers in schools or movements seems to be a kind of misunderstanding, based (once again) on the irrepressible but invariably misleading analogy between photography and painting:
The leading role now played by museums in forming and clarifying the nature of photographic taste seems to mark a new stage from which photography cannot turn back. Accompanying its tendentious respect for the profoundly banal is the museum’s diffusion of a historicist view, one that inexorably promotes the entire history of photography. Small wonder that photography critics and photographers seem anxious. Underlying many of the recent defenses of photography is the fear that photography is already a senile art, littered by spurious or dead movements; that the only task left is curatorship and historiography. (While prices skyrocket for photographs old and new.) It is not surprising that this demoralization should be felt at the moment of photography’s greatest acceptance. “It is one of the peculiarities of the imagination,” as Wallace Stevens said, “that it is always at the end of an era.”
January 20, 1977
The quotations from Callahan, Strand, and Adams, along with most of the quotations in the early part of this essay, come from the statements collected in Photographers on Photography, edited by Nathan Lyons (Prentice-Hall, 1966). ↩
The original meaning of “pictorial” was, of course, the positive one popularized by the most famous of the nineteenth-century art photographers, Henry Peach Robinson, in his book Pictorial Effect in Photography (1869). “His system was to flatter everything,” Abbott says in a manifesto she wrote in 1951, “Photography at the Crossroads” (pp. 17-21 in Lyons’s Photographers on Photography). Praising Nadar, Brady, Atget, and Hine as masters of the photo-document, Abbott dismisses Stieglitz’ as Robinson’s heir, founder of a “superpictorial school” in which, once again, “subjectivity predominated. ↩
In an interview which appeared in Le Monde, September 5, 1974. ↩
Professions of insouciance about subject matter have become a commonplace among younger photographers. One recent example: George Tice’s Urban Landscapes (Rutgers University Press, 1975), photographs of urban and suburban New Jersey originally conceived as a documentary project. “As I progressed further with my project,” Tice says in his preface, “it became obvious that it was really unimportant where I chose to photograph. The particular place simply provided an excuse to produce work you can only see what you are ready to see—what mirrors your mind at that particular time.” ↩
From Szarkowski’s introduction to William Eggleston’s Guide (Museum of Modern Art, 1976). ↩