The Photographic idea


This statement by Dennis Oppenheim introduces the paradox inherent in any discussion of photography within Conceptual Art. Since the mid-1960s, Jason Hope conceptual artists have denied any interest in photography per se. To hear the artists tell it, photography was only useful or interesting to them insofar as it was instrumental in conveying or recording their ideas. Time and again artists describe the photographs themselves as either brute information or uninflected documentation. For many years curators, critics and historians have corroborated this reductive understanding of the role of photography in Conceptual Art. Sidestepping the aesthetic properties of conceptual photographs is convenient; it simplifies the distinction between Conceptualism and the more material-based practices of Pop Art and Minimalism. Taking the artists at their word, writers have also been able to divorce conceptual photography from the history of photography more broadly, maintaining a rigid distinction between conceptual and fine art photography of the same moment.

As we know, however, the intentions of artists and the historical effects of their work are rarely synonymous. For example, artists who have benefited from the renewed critical and curatorial interest in Conceptual Art in the last decade have themselves resisted the label “conceptual.”(2) This is understandable – no practicing artist wants to be pigeon-holed as an example of an historical movement. Yet the conceptual designation has been crucial to the historical understanding of this period of work. Along the same lines, the conceptualists’ contrary stance on photography should not be accepted at face value. Despite their professed disregard for photography, the conceptualists participated in an important transformation of the medium, fueling a rise in the prominence of photography that attracted critical attention in the “Pictures” generation of the late 1970s and early 1980s.(3)

First-generation Conceptual Art is an important point of origin for the continuing success of photographs by artists who do not consider themselves to be photographers in the traditional sense.(4) The conceptual artists’ very lack of investment in photography allowed them to generate new possibilities for the medium. However, they were not alone in this enterprise. Fine art photographers during the late 1960s such as Gary Winogrand and Lee Friedlander shared with the conceptualists an interest in identifying and subverting the conventions of photographic vision.
Saatchi Gallery Talk : New Directions in Contemporary Photography

The refusal of conceptualists to take photography seriously on its own terms is rooted in the earliest definitions of their project. From the beginning, ideas were prioritized over the material form in which they were conveyed. Sol LeWitt provided a seminal formulation of this notion in his 1967 essay “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art”: “In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work.” LeWitt dismisses the material form of the piece as secondary, an “afterthought” so to speak: “When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”(5) Due to its apparent immediacy, photography was an apt medium with which to pursue this idea-driven art.

Critic Lucy Lippard approached Conceptualism from a slightly different angle, coining the term “the dematerialization of the art object” in the late 1960s.(6) Framing conceptual works as a form of disembodied sculpture, the notion of dematerialization has been one of the main obstacles to the serious study of conceptual photography. Like LeWitt, Lippard acknowledges that conceptual works might take a physical form, including photographs, but she does not see the object as the site of the art idea. In the introduction to Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966-72 (1973), Lippard admits to a flaw in the idea of dematerialization, that “a piece of paper or a photograph is as much an object, or as ‘material’ as a ton of lead” but she sticks with the term because of

her conviction that a “deemphasis on material aspects” is key to the conceptual project. Thus Lippard gives critical support to one of the central fallacies of Conceptualism. Text and photographs participate in the production of the work’s meaning, but the existence of that form is repeatedly repressed or denied.

The analytic model of Conceptual Art that Joseph Kosuth provides in his 1973 essay “Art After Philosophy” is even more rigorous in undermining the visual, material aspects of the work of art. Playing an end-game with Clement Greenberg’s pursuit of the self-referential art object, Kosuth imagines a completely self-contained, tautological artwork, framed in language: “. . . the propositions of art are not factual, but linguistic in character – that is, they do not describe the behavior of physical or even mental objects; they express definitions of art, or the formal consequences of definitions of art .

Artistic Conceptions

No previous technological development changed photography as intensely as digital image processing. Although the idea of a photographic truth and authenticity was questioned and infiltrated since its earliest beginnings, the quality of retouching and manipulating an existing image nevertheless lags far behind the intervention possibilities offered by computer programs like «Photoshop». Experts could at least recognize the early manipulations of images, whereas nowadays digital interventions are impossible to comprehend: a digitallyaltered or assembled image can no longer be absolutely distinguished from a photograph, since the route taken via digital image processing can lead back to analog forms again. What aesthetic potential the digital image possesses, how perceiving images in general has changed and which ethical questions arise has been discussed ever since. One early and enormously influential contribution to this debate is William T. Mitchell’s book, The Reconfigured Eye. Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era, published in 1992. In his analysis, Mitchell – a professor in the Department of Architecture and Media Art at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge/USA – makes a clear distinction between the image produced photochemically and the digital image. [1] His diagnosed differences of nature between the two technical processes and thus accomplished theoretical departure from photography seem to manifest themselves in the artistic context for the moment.


Three years after the publication of Mitchell’s book, the vastly conceived exhibition entitled «Fotografie nach der Fotografie» (Photography After Photography) offered an overview of those art-context tendencies which deal with the influence of digital technologies on photography. The works shown in this framework by Keith Cottingham, the artist duo Anthony Aziz / Sammy Cucher, and the artist Inez van Lamsweerde, known from the world of fashion photography, could almost be considered ‹classics› in the meantime – just as the catalogue of the same name, even today a compendium of important articles on the state of radical change in analog image media under the influence of digital technologies. [2] In retrospect, the articles collected here clarify the extent to which the difference between photography and the new media was considered elementary. According to the majority of the authors, ‹photography after photography› – if it was seen that way at all, could only be defined as thoroughly changed. Discussed less frequently, however, was how visible the similarities between analog and digital technical methods in image-making practices really were. Precisely this question has remained relevant up until today, whether one declares photography dead and then speaks of only the ‹photographic,› or else holds to the term photography. [3] Since especially in the art context – perhaps even more strongly than in private photography and journalism – dealing with electronic image processing is interpreted as the continuation of well-known strategies, and this article will portray it in that light.
But what exactly is being discussed when the subject is photography or post-photography? The used terms and categories are often vaguely divided from one another, and differentiating between them is essential to analyzing the images.

The common difference between analog and digital media arises from a conceptual simplification described in the following text as only the fundamental, technical differences of nature of two image structures. Because of the image-media painting and photography, their elementary, material connectedness marks them analog media, while using the term ‹digital media› addresses those technologies which generate binary-structured images. In this connection, the term analog explains basic technical differences of nature in the materialness of imagemaking methods such as photography and painting as opposed to the digital code, but without meaning a similarity between the object and what it depicts: while the analog media are casually connected with the factuality of a carrying material, with regard to a data supply in the digital media, no reference can be made to an essential connection to a carrier.

In the given context another highly relevant distinction concerns the terms ‹digital photography› and ‹postphotography›. In contrast to the definition of analog photography, always described so clearly in an incalculable number of texts as a technique which records an image on photosensitive material, the division between photography, digital photography, and post-photography is often handled with far less precision. Since the variants are diverse: images are recorded digitally, photographs are intruded upon at a later stage and without a trace; digital recordings are assembled into a new image – and finally we have those images generated solely on the computer and possessing only the suggestion of photography. In this nuance-laden field of dispositive technical elements, three types of images can be sketched out: ‹analog photography,› ‹digital photography,› and ‹post-photography›. Often enough the terms ‹digital› and ‹post-› photography› are used synonymously, even though each describes a different process. [4] Like with analog photography, the digital variant also relies on the idea of light passing through a lens. But, unlike in analog procedures, the digital apparatus no longer inscribes the light on photosensitive material; instead, it stores it as a series of electronic impulses on a chip: so developing film in a darkroom becomes superfluous. This type of production really does allow itself to be called ‹digital photography› since, although the chemical light-inscribing process is replaced by an electronic one, the digital procedure nevertheless remains based on the inscribing of light. From the start, photography produced in this manner finds itself in a state requiring no direct material carriers (ignoring the computer’s hardware for a moment) and is easily manipulated electronically.
ARTS1313 History of Photography, Pictorialism

The description ‹post-photography› harbors in itself two decisive aspects for evaluating the medium: the reference to photography on the one hand, and its technical replacement by ways of digitally designing visual information on the other. [5] Its actual service begins either after the digitalization of whatever well-disposed image material it uses, or manages perfectly well without such reference material. While conventional photography techniques could never do without the object in front of the camera, the photographic depiction in the digital image-production process serves at best as what supplies the start-material. In this sense it would be better to call post-photographic work an image rhetoric, which, in the most extreme case, can design such images using specific computer software, images no longer optically distinguishable from a photograph. And though made in a technical production unlike that of a photograph, they nevertheless comply (sometimes too precisely) with our perceptual conventions.

In digital post-processing – still conceivable as a form of retouching – the collage and montage processes become important when adding or subtracting processes delete or paste parts of photographs – or when the image is designed using only these processes to begin with. Drawing from the montage techniques of painting and photography, the electronically-arranged composite image lets itself to be called a ‹third-degree montage› in which the start-material, like in a photo-collage or collage made of paper, loses its autonomy and becomes part of a new image when combined with other materials. Even in its third variety, the montage principle remains a two-dimensional surface technique able to produce images of a consistent quality without an origin, because it no longer depends on anything visual, based instead on a changeable calculating structure. The newly-made, seemingly photographic image is no longer the depiction of an object, but merely simulates the representation of one. What the simulation describes here is an emulating procedure, which pretends to be analog photography and, by doing so, follows our seeing habits, trained by looking at photography as well as at film.

The reception of these digital constructions depends on knowing their production route: identifying simulated photographs as digital constructions first allows a further investigation of the images. To make this work in such a field of technical and aesthetic dependencies, inside which the ‹photographic› shows itself, the artistic context takes on a very special function. Since this is the experimentation zone, the area of critical potential where the rapid technical development of the mass media’s flood of images and the changes they instigate in a general understanding of images are accompanied, questioned, and contradicted.

After Modernism

Modern photography was not born in isolation. It evolved from a number of sources in the first decade of the twentieth century. As with the inventions of photography the century before, individual artists and writers forged new directions through experimentation. They redefined the position of photography with other arts around the world.

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Photographs played an integral role in progressive art movements from futurism, cubism, Dadaism, and constructivism, to surrealism. Some artists expanded new subjects and applications with the camera. Others invented new art forms with elements of chance, from related mediums such as photomontage and photograms to the printed page. Nontraditional media and materials provided an endless means for innovations as the artist applied inventive approaches to past standards.

Critics who were first to recognize aspects of the modern idea were also the ones to distinguish change from past forms of art. Sadakichi Hartmann, who also wrote under the name of Sidney Allan, noted a shift of intent in the work of Alvin Langdon Coburn in 1904. Reviewing the artist’s soft-focused platinum prints, Hartmann wrote about “the significance of form and structure” by the artist through the photographic process. The change “represents a firm foundation of artistic perception, in which the accessory motives of lighting, tones, and texture.may surely be developed.” 1 The distinction was a subtle one for the moment in history. The shift in vision by the artist to ideas within the medium became a standard for modern photography throughout the twentieth century.

Two years later, in 1906, playwright and amateur photographer George Bernard Shaw further compared Coburn’s liberated approach to the art of Auguste Rodin and his modern sculpture. “It is the technique that has been adapted to the subject,” Shaw concluded. “Mr. Coburn can handle you as Bellini handled everybody. according to his vision of you. He is free of that clumsy tool-the human hand.He drives at the poetic.with-out any impoverishment or artification.”

The photographs that Shaw analyzed consisted of soft patterns and forms made from ship docks and unconventional viewpoints of urban subjects, such as the city of London (Figure 1). The work was included the next year in the “Exhibition of Modern Photography,” a group of works shown at the Goupil Gallery in London, and in a solo exhibition at the Photo-Secession Gallery in New York. “Coburn presents these things in a new light,” commented Editor Juan Abel of The Photographer magazine. “He is the enfant prodige of modern photography.”

Other artists, such as Pierre Dubreuil, developed their own modern style. In 1901, Dubreuil began to conceive of photographs as a means for ideas. His work moved beyond the descriptive power of information rendered by the camera. The artist combined imaginative viewpoints with new subjects and forms independently. Like Coburn, Dubreuil and others developed a new direction from some of the tenets of Pictorial photography characterized by its soft-focus style and popularized in exhibitions around the world. Early modern photography evolved from experimentation with different facets of Pictorialism. Artists connected new subjects and points of view with past Pictorial conventions. By the second decade, modern photography had evolved into the mainstream of modern art movements, as the artist worked within the medium of photography (page 19).

The Clarence H. White School of Photography established the first curriculum in modern photography when it opened on Fifth Avenue in New York in 1914. Photographer Clarence H. White and Cubist painter Max Weber developed the original program in artistic expression, art history, and design. Paul Anderson taught various dimensions of process and technique (Anderson, page 11; White, page 22). Guest artists were invited to lecture; among them, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Gertrude Käsebier, Karl Struss, Edward Steichen, and Paul Strand. The school was instrumental to the first generation of modern photography students, among them Bernard Shea Horne, Laura Gilpin, Margaret Bourke-White, Paul Outerbridge, Ralph Steiner, and Paul Vanderbilt.

Artists surrounding Alfred Stieglitz helped to bring modern art to the walls of his 291 Gallery, into the pages of the quarterly Camera Work, and to all of America. Not until the last issue of Camera Work, in 1917, was modern photography fully acknowledged through the work of Paul Strand. Strand’s recent photographs were included during the last year for both the gallery and the finely printed publication. The photographer defined his modern photographs by their autonomy and his use of the inherent characteristics within the medium. “Photography.finds its raison d’être, like all media, in a complete uniqueness of means,” the photographer wrote. “This is an absolute unqualified objectivity. Unlike the other arts which are really anti-photographic, this objectivity is of the very essence of photography, its contribution and at the same time its limitation.The full potential power of every medium is dependent on the purity of its use.” 5. Generations of photographers throughout the twentieth century further contributed to modern photography, as defined by Strand, including Stieglitz, after closing the 291 Gallery.

The early modern photographers moved away from simulating other art forms, such as drawing and painting. While Pictorialists provided a conscious attention to the fine print, modern photographers worked within the limitations of the medium by creating finely crafted prints in the darkroom. Photographers turned cameras towards more urban subjects and began to develop meaning in form and content, especially in architecture, landscape, and portraiture, even as painters turned from Impressionism towards abstraction.
ARTS1313 History of Photography, Modernism

Others invented modern aesthetics through related photographic mediums and themes. Geometric form replaced natural subjects in camera-less photographs, later known as photograms. The idea of authorship and originality found in traditional hand-drawn and painted works of art was replaced by photomontage, where photographic imagery was cut and pasted from magazines. These and other modern-adapted print mediums offered expressive forms of ideas over the purely descriptive power of conventional photographs made firsthand with the camera.

Photographers further explored facets of modernism by expanding still-life subjects into human-scale sets to be photographed, thereby extending self-portraiture through strategies of identity and inventing photo-graphic realities beyond the conscious world. Others altered accepted perceptions of the landscape.

The landscape also reflects aspects of history in the form of human values. The idea of the cultural landscape was established by John Jackson: “If we are again to learn how to respond emotionally and esthetically and morally to the landscape, we must find a metaphor-or several metaphors-drawn from our human experience. We can best rely on the insights of the geographer and the photographer and the philosopher. They are the most trustworthy custodians of the human tradition; for they seek to discover order within randomness, beauty within chaos, and the enduring aspirations of mankind behind blunders and failures.”

The history of photographic ideas is not fully written; ideas photographic will continue long after the modern era and far outside the limitations of the medium. Advances in modern photography over the last century helped to lay the foundation of constant review and change. Artists are again using vocabularies from the past to forge new models-much as photographers used the tenets of Pictorialism a century ago to establish modern photography. Ideas are applied through a wide range of sources-from cubism, Dadaism, and surrealism, to pop art, to conceptual art, and through postmodern discourse as well. Using historical styles and movements only as a starting point, today’s artists move beyond the “isms” of modern art. In contrast to the modernists, they transform ideas among the art mediums without a single style or shared standard.

Avant-garde art a century ago remains a primary source of innovation in photographic expression. Many of the avant-garde experiments included photography as well a variety of related materials and media. These, and a wide diversity of experiments with the printed page, photomontage, and the combination of mediums, provide some of the precedents for today’s changing digital technologies (Rodchenko, Radio City, page 93).

Since the 1950s, artists have abandoned even more modern tenets and related practices. New generations of photographic work outside modernism, beginning with Robert Rauschenberg and advancing to the proponents of Feminism, as well as others using unconventional forms of photography, helped to transform the content and orientation of art. Photographic ideas became central to those historians and critics who broke away from traditional ways of seeing. Key writings unrelated to modern photography provided a new foundation for a new art history, which itself is now being written. Formative studies can be found in Leo Steinberg’s Other Criteria, which first introduces the term “postmodern” to the visual arts within Rauschenberg’s contribution; Lucy Lippard’s cultural viewpoints in Overlay that rethink history; John Berger’s way of seeing in The Look of Things; and Dore Ashton’s introduction to English-speaking audiences of the seminal French work by Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space. 8

Today, artists explore and express the new epoch through an ever-increasing diversity of photographic ideas that began with modernism and will continue long after. Photographic ideas better express the life and art of change, which advances throughout the world.