part 1, exercise 2 – photography in the museum or in the gallery?

Read Rosalind Krauss’s essay, Photography’s Discursive Spaces: Landscape/View;  summarise Krauss’s key points in your learning log and add any comments or reflections.

– LSE Coursebook, p.31

When Krauss’s essay was published in 1982, various art institutions (particularly in the USA, and especially at New York’s Museum of Modern Art) were engaged in constructing a history of the early years of photography in a way that incorporated it into more general trends in Western Art.  ‘Central to this account is that type of photography, most of it topographical in character, originally undertaken for the purposes of exploration, expedition and survey‘. The early photographs’ suitability for display on the wall of a gallery  ‘matted, framed, labeled‘  as if they were part of the same movement as developments in 19th century painting. This activity can be seen to legitimise photography as an artistic endeavour rather than as… something else.

Krauss’ essay can be read as a questioning of this location of early photography of place within a fine-art frame of reference. It uses two instances of curation by MoMA staff   – Peter Galassi’s introduction to the 1981 exhibition Before photography and the series of four exhibitions of photographs by Eugéne Atget, organised by John Szarkowski in the early 1980s- as starting points for its argument.

fig.1: shapes floating in space – view, panorama or landscape?
It opens by looking at two images.
Timothy O’Sullivan’s 1868 photograph Tufa Domes, Pyramid Lake is contrasted with a lithograph made made from it to illustrate Clarence King’s Systematic Geology (1878), a product of one of the post-civil war surveys of the West which were carried out by the US government after the American civil war.

i – The photograph is strange with huge amounts of the rocks’ surface detail being recorded while they float, suspended against a luminous ground. It could be described and displayed (at MoMA) as a work of (landscape) art, although that was not why it was taken.

ii – The lithograph is banal, commonplace. The detail missing from the photograph’s location (due to limitations of the Collodion process?) have been filled back in, allowing the print to fulfil its role within the discourse of empirical science. Its purpose is to illustrate.

Krauss then describes the way the 19th century ‘aesthetic discourse […] organised itself increasingly around what could be called the space of exhibition’ (Krauss; p.312)  ie criticism used admission to (and display upon the wall of) the gallery as the way to define whether something was ‘Art’ or not.

The forms adopted by  post 1860 landscape painting illustrate this idea clearly: the illusion of depth created by traditional (synthetic) uses of perspective was replaced by a diagonal ordering of the picture’s surface (making it as much a representation of the gallery wall, and therefore a work of art, as it is a representation of a space characterised by use of  analytic perspective); landscapes (like Monet’s haystacks) started to be made in series, to be hung together, again on a gallery wall.

This – seen as one of the defining characteristics of Modernist art  – leads  pictures to be judged on their formal qualities, rather than their subject matter. Early landscape photographs – such as O’Sullivan’s – seem, from the perspective of the late twentieth century, to meet the criteria that would allow them to occupy this aesthetic space.

However, the question remains of whether O’Sullivan (and the other nineteenth century photographers who have been embraced as making fine art images, contemporary to the rise of modernism) should be classed as working within the artistic realm. Krauss thought not.

  1. O’Sullivan described what he was doing as making views (or ‘viewing’); he was employed by the US government to take  topographic studies to illustrate one of the post-Civil War surveys of the Western US.
  2. His photographs were not intended for the gallery, and most were not seen by the general public during his lifetime; if they did get wider circulation they were reworked as lithographs (like the Pyramid Lake image).
  3. Alongside the calotype photographs, O’Sullivan was making stereo (3-D) pictures of the same scenes. If academy painting was becoming about flatness, and suiting the gallery wall, stereo photography was its antithesis – images that were all about depth, designed (and often composed) to be seen with a ‘viewer.’
  4. These images did gain a wider circulation. There was a middle class craze for stereoscopic pictures, with individuals’ collections often being organised systematically into categories and stored in purpose-built cabinets.
fig.2:  St Saviour’s Church, Markhouse Road, Walthamstow

Krauss also makes the point that at the time O’Sullivan was active, the practice of photography located authorship (and more importantly, copyright) of the images with the publisher, who often kept a number of operators on the books to go out with a camera and make the – mostly stereoscopic images. O’Sullivan – who was employed by the survey the pictures discussed were the result of – started his photographic career during the American Civil War, working for William Brady. This does not fit with the post-Romantic idea of what an artist is and how he (and it almost always is a he) should behave. Krauss lists the telltale signs of The Artist:

  1. Vocation – implies ‘an apprenticeship […] a learning of the tradition of one’s craft, the gaining of an individuated view of that tradition that includes both success and failure.’ (Krauss: 315) Being an artist is much more than just a job.
  2. Career – A period of time (Krauss suggests many years), spent answering the artist’s calling. This causes problems when you consider the brevity of many of the early photographers’ – Roger Fenton, Gustave LeGray, Henri LeSeque are Krauss’ examples – engagement with the medium.
  3. Oeuvre – assumes that the body of work created over the course of a career, answering a vocation, ‘is the result of sustained intention […] organically related to the effort of its maker’ and that that body is coherent overall.

The essay moves from O’Sullivan to examine the case for making a proto-modernist artist out of the later (early twentieth Century) case of Eugéne Atget, a photographer central to  John Szarkowski’s long-term project to legitimise and raise the status of photography at MoMA in New York. Atget presents the opposite problem to early photographers whose engagement with the medium was too brief to be a career and whose output falls well short of what Krauss feels is necessary to constitute an oeuvre: at over 8,000 pictures, Atget’s output is too great (as well as too diverse in quality and subject matter) and his motivations too difficult to pin down, to justify his assimilation into the artistic photographic canon by Szarkowski and his assistants.

At the heart of this is the way that everyone – the surrealists, Walter Benjamin, the German ‘New Realists’ of the nineteen thirties –  seems to come up with a different thing to recognise and celebrate in Atget’s archive. No one – not even the Szarkowski – can reconcile them all to produce a unitary, proto-modernist photographic artist. Indeed, Szarkowski struggles to apply what Krauss describes as ‘the normal categories of description of aesthetic production‘ and instead ends with an idea that (in Szarkowski’s words) is ‘foreign to our understanding of artistic ambition‘ – work ‘in the service of something larger than self-expression‘.

Szarkowski wondered if that might be the – rather nebulous – ‘spirit of his [Atget’s] own culture‘; Krauss counters with the idea – already present in Szarkowski’s assistant, Maria Morris Hambourg’s doctoral dissertation on Atget’s system for numbering his photographs – of Atget working as  subject to 19th century classification and catalogue systems, very much like the photographers working for the surveys of the American west (whose stereoscopic ‘views’ were of course sorted into categories and stored in cabinets) or other European photographers cataloging antiquities and architecture in France and the middle east. Atget was not so much creating a personal body of work as following the imperatives of the categorising impulse to attempt to describe, well, everything, that was such a major preoccupation of Europe and the US during the nineteenth century. Atget was being directed by the needs of science, not art; his pictures had utility and value as records, but were not primarily intended to exhibit aesthetic qualities of their own.

The essay closes with a terse restatement of how Krauss viewed what MoMA was doing at the start of the eighties: ‘an attempt to dismantle […] the set of practices, institutions and relationships to which nineteenth-century photography originally belonged – and to reassemble it within the categories previously constituted by art and its history

Krauss was writing before the early-eighties MoMA cycle of four Atget Exhibitions (1981-85) was even half finished; Before Photography (Galassi’s exhibition whose catalogue essay is central to the first half of Krauss’s argument) took place at MoMA in 1981. The essay deals with contemporary thinking around photography’s relationship to art history and criticism. Why are we still reading it, and caring about the ideas contained in it, nearly forty years later?

Firstly, the people involved played important roles in the development of the way photography was viewed in the USA (and by extension in Europe) over the last half of the twentieth century.  John Szarkowsky was MoMA’s director of photography from 1962 til 1991; Peter Galassi and Maria Morris Hambourg were his assistant curators at the time Krauss wrote her essay; Galassi was Szarkowski’s successor at MoMA while Hambourg moved to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (in New York)  after the four Atget shows and set up its Department of Photography in 1992, heading it until 2004. Rosalind Krauss is an art historian and theorist, who has been active in American Academia since the early 1960s; she is credited with helping introduce European/French theories about art into US critical discourse.

The ideas put forward by Krauss and the people whom she takes issue with in this essay have done much to shape our idea(s) of what ‘photography’ was, is and can be. It is still easy to follow the path through 20th Century photography and photographers, signposted by the series of photographic exhibitions that took place at MoMA over the second half of the 20th century. Postmodernism may have come and gone in this time, but the arguments present in this essay are still being made, with different people using them to come to different conclusions.

Krauss’ essay is collected in the The contest of meaning (1992). In his introduction to the volume (Bolton: x) Richard Bolton writes: ‘The accepted version of photographic practice, forged for posterity in the 1950s and 1960s is a limited construction based in the formalist values of late modernism. Historians and curators during that time worked quite deliberately to narrow photography.’  Photography’s Discursive Spaces is an early attempt to open photography up again, and to consider purposes for it beyond art for art’s sake.

There are many things that don’t stand up in Krauss’ essay – Atget definitely has a place within the exhibition space, and pretty much anyone with a digital camera will have an oversized (curate’s?) oeuvre, bigger than the one he built and they will have made it over a much shorter timescale – but I am generally in sympathy with her argument. I may not be able to put my thumb on exactly why I keep pressing the shutter button of my camera, but there is definitely more going on than an impulse towards self-expression.

There is a mass of history and politics contained within the ideas discussed in Krauss’ essay. Late-Modernist art theory was not very good at either history or politics, trying instead to keep things specific to the medium in question.

An example: if Landscapes are about the artist making the picture, then Views are about the thing viewed; this thing can be viewed as ‘a singularity’, evidence – if you are so minded – of a creative force outside the photographer’s own. There are hints in Krauss’s essay that this can be linked to 19th century (Christian) religious thought, with implications for us today.

The form of Christianity (Puritanism) practised by the first, English settlers in North America (and which set the tone for a lot of what followed) maintained that God had given Adam stewardship over all other forms of life on Earth. More crudely, nature is there to be exploited by man as he (pronoun and tense used consciously) sees fit. In these terms, the nineteenth century surveys of the American West were largely about establishing what natural resources were there so they could be thoroughly exploited later. Which of course ties in neatly with the ‘E’ part of LPE…

I think this distinction between landscape and view, between the importance of the photographer and that of the subject, may become an important part of my work for this course.

There is a lot of further reading and research that can be done on the back of this essay. I have already tracked down Galassi’s introduction to the catalogue for Before Photography and written a post about his distinction between synthetic and analytic perspective. I know I should reread (re-reread) the chunks of Bates’ Photography – The Key Concepts dealing with Art Photography and with landscape. I must find my copy of Papageorge’s Core Curriculum and see what I think of his essay on Atget, a few years after I first read it. Likewise, it would be an idea to have another read of Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s essay on the canonisation of Atget by MoMA. In her wikipedia entry, Krauss is linked to Michael Fried; I should have a good look at his Why photography matters as art as never before. And so on. This could all form the basis for my critical essay for assignment 4.

I have been interested in the more ‘meta-‘ aspects of photography ever since I started playing with keywords to make my photographs more findable on Flickr in 2005; making a catalogue/archive and using it to prompt meaning and narrative played a large part of my work for Digital Image and Culture; I have a copy of Volume Three of the The Work of Atget, which  includes Maria Morris Hambourg’s essay The Structure of the Work, which Krauss uses in the essay as a ‘key’ to what Atget’s work actually is doing. While I’m at it, I should do some research around the photographs taken by Atget that are held by the V&A in London; the V&A – with its roots in the Great Exhibition of 1851 and concentration on craft and design  has – I think – a different position on photography to one taken by the Arts establishment. Wikipedia coordinates is an annual trawl for photographs of listed buildings (Wiki loves Monuments) which publishes a map of the locations of every eligible subject in the uk. There are quite a few of them within a one mile radius of where I live. This could form the kernel of my self-directed project for assignment 5. Let’s see…


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