BOOKS AND ARTS OCTOBER 21, 2009
Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before
By Michael Fried (Yale University Press, 409 pp., $55)
Michael Fried,who shot to intellectual stardom in 1967 with an essay in Artforum called "Art and Objecthood," is an intimidating writer. He looks very closely. He has passionate feelings about what he sees. And he shapes his impressions into a theory that fits snugly with all the other theories he has ever had. Whatever his chosen subject--Diderot, Courbet, Manet, Kenneth Noland--he comes up with an interpretation that is as smoothly and tightly constructed as a stainless-steel box. His writing amounts to a set of matching stainless-steel boxes. He puts potential critics on notice that the best they can hope to do is leave a few fingerprints or scratches on these perfectly polished surfaces. And so many people back away. Fried wants us to feel that we could as easily demolish the Great Pyramid of Giza with a pick-axe as successfully question his interpretations of his chosen themes--which now include the art of the camera, in his new book, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before. This is Fried's first extended foray into photography, and although it was a subject of discussion in academic circles even before it appeared, it has not received the more general attention that it deserves. Fried brings audacious arguments to old controversies about the relationship between art and photography. I find the arguments troubling, even wrongheaded, but only a man with a bold, wide-ranging, and fearless mind could have dreamed such stuff up.
In order to come to terms with this book, we need to back up and see it as but one contribution--a striking one, to be sure--to a much wider discussion about the nature of photography. We tend to forget that photography is very young. While the 170 years that separate us from the medium's invention are an eternity in the history of technology, in the history of culture this is a relatively brief period of time. Photography's newness, and its ability, at least in technical terms, constantly to re-invent itself, is one key to its fascination: digitalization, which makes photographic truth seem more porous and changeable than ever before, is its most recent technical re-invention, and Fried discusses it. Then there are the numberless areas in life in which photography plays a role, ranging from family albums to evidence presented at criminal trials to the walls of art galleries and museums. In the years since the medium's inception, photography has been said to be classical, spiritual, mystical, straightforward, primitive, experimental, surreal, empirical, austere, reticent, impersonal, romantic, informal, reliable, unreliable, and downright misleading--and that is only the beginning.
Fried wants to set contemporary photography squarely within the high art traditions. While he is by no means the first writer to make a connection between photography and abstract painting, his theoretical assumptions will strike many as unexpected if not fairly incredible. His book, full of daring conceptual pyrotechnics, suggests an impatience with photography's wonderfully messy history--a desire to define the nature of photography once and for all, or at least the nature of the recent photographs that interest him. Perhaps this rage for order is inevitable, given all the attention that photography has been receiving in the marketplace, in the museums, and in the seminar rooms. There has been a growing sense that values need to be assigned and lineages need to be established. Photography, however, has a way of refusing to settle down. In Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, Fried is trying to contain all photography's unruly powers; but it is not easy--it is not possible--to lock photography in a conceptual stainless-steel box. Willfulness, which has always driven the modern adventure in the arts, meets its match in photography, a medium with a will of its own. There will never be a Mondrian of photography, because photography is inherently impure.
The strange thing about Michael Fried is that he ought to recognize the extent to which photography is utterly unlike painting, considering that he emerged in the late 1960s as an avatar of painterly purity with his strenuous defenses of Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, and Jules Olitski. Unfortunately, the man's pride in his own theoretical prowess may prevent him from seeing that other people have been here before. He appears oblivious to the fate of earlier efforts to develop a taxonomy of photography that would match the modern taxonomy of painting, which were encouraged by John Szarkowski, the legendary curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art from 1962 to 1991. The fascination of Szarkowski, who was himself a photographer and is sometimes now dismissed as a stiff-backed aesthete, was that for all his desire to set photography securely in an ivory tower adjacent to the one where Matisse and Mondrian dwell, he loved photography too much to overlook its incendiary impurity. Given how little is known about Atget, the early twentieth-century Parisian photographer whom Szarkowski worshipped, Szarkowski's encyclopedic studies of Atget's work had a way of almost inevitably shifting attention from the enigmatic photographer to the photographs themselves, and could thereby lead straight to postmodernism's obsession with the death, or at least the disappearance, of the author. The power of black and white photography to re-order reality is treasured by any antediluvian modernists who still happen to be kicking, but the unruliness of the world that photography reveals inspires postmodernists and post-postmodernists of every imaginable stripe.
Photography is not a medium that works in a single way or can be understood from one perspective. There are curators and critics who know this. Jeff Rosenheim's Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard (Steidl), the catalogue of a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, wreaks havoc with conventional ideas about the relationship between high and low, exploring the close similarities between Evans's austerely elegant street scenes and picture postcards, a sort of commercial folk art, which this revered modernist photographer collected. Richard Benson's The Printed Picture, the catalogue of a show at the Museum of Modern Art, plunges deep into the shifting character of photographic technologies, ranging from daguerreotypes and early paper prints to innumerable different photomechanical processes and digital prints of all kinds. What Benson presents is a dazzling demonstration of photography's mongrel nature. Photography is the most permissive medium. It is certainly more accommodating than painting when it comes to finding a place for humor, kitsch, and all manner of eccentricity. This is why, as Susan Sontag pointed out a generation ago in On Photography, "it is the one art that has managed to carry out the grandiose, century-old threats of a Surrealist takeover of the modern sensibility, while most of the pedigreed candidates have dropped out of the race.”
Anybody interested in this tangled story of dueling modernists and postmodernists would do well to begin by looking at Photography Theory (Routledge), an anthology edited by James Elkins that brings together essays and comments by many figures in the art-history world. There is a good deal of talk about the solidification of photography's status as an art in the 1960s, as if this were not a campaign that began deep in the nineteenth century. John Szarkowski is not exactly an admired figure here. Michael Fried is not neglected, although the spectacle of this old modernist, vintage 1970, giving photography renewed high-modern legitimacy does not quite fit the program, at least not as everybody sees it. What we do hear is a good deal of talk about the "indexicality" of photography, by which postmoderns and conceptualists mean to emphasize the status of the photograph as anti-artistic or extra-artistic, a mere copy or tracing of the world, subject mostly to social, psychological, and political analysis. There is even a word for people who persist in insisting on the freestanding vision of the photographer: they suffer from "indexophobia."
The knitting of photography into every aspect of our lives knows no end. Some of the contributors to Photography Theory admit to some difficulty in grappling with a medium that appears to have no fixed borders. Even the theorists can have a tough time theorizing photography, because it refuses to sit still. The snapshot, which just the other day was the most ubiquitous of photographic expressions-- and was the subject of an exhibition, "The Art of the American Snapshot," at the National Gallery--can now look old hat alongside the iPhone, where perpetual self-documentation comes in lavish color and sharp focus, the images as rich and vibrant as a photograph by Nan Goldin or Stephen Shore. Much of the enduring fascination of photography depends on the extent to which its function and its aesthetic remain undefined, and dependent, in spite of everything that has already been said, on competing arguments and apprehensions.
What other medium, after all, is of equal interest to criminologists, mall rats, grandparents, and aesthetes? And this multiplicity of audiences is in turn woven into photography's power. For a mandarin of modernism such as Walker Evans, the populism of photography provided access to a wider world. And among the curators who nowadays present photography in the museums, there is sometimes an assumption that the public will particularly favor galleries devoted to the products of the camera because they do not look entirely unlike the pictures that museumgoers take with their own digital equipment.
A central development in photography in the past decade has been the widespread success, commercial and critical, of extremely large formats. Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, Jeff Wall, and Thomas Demand are among the leading figures of this new gigantism. Well before the appearance of Fried's book, which includes discussions of each of these photographers, some critics and curators were suggesting that photography was in the process of eclipsing painting as an object of primary interest to visitors to galleries and museums. Of course it is true that large photographic works are hardly unprecedented. Romy Golan's new book, Muralnomad: The Paradox of Wall Painting, Europe 1927–1957 (Yale University Press), has much to say about the oversized photomurals that were produced in Europe, including works by Léger, Charlotte Perriand, Josep Renau, and others for the International Exposition in Paris in 1937. But these works, as Golan explains, were viewed as accompaniments to architecture and as educational and ideological tools, rather than as freestanding works of art. And it is precisely as freestanding works of art that Gursky, Struth, Wall, and Demand ask us to regard the enormous photographs--some of them well over eight feet wide--that they have been exhibiting in recent years.
Whatever one may think of the work of these men--I find Wall the only genuinely interesting figure in this company--their prominence marks a dramatic turn in the nature of photography as it is seen and understood. Until recently, photography, including the work of such avant-gardists as Robert Frank and Peter Hujar, was by and large intimate in size, designed for the kind of close-up looking associated with the graphic arts: its images were related to the scale of a book or a magazine page. But no more. Fried's book is essentially an explanation of why the work of Gursky or Struth deserves a place on the museum wall next to the canvases of Morris Louis and some other artists he admires.
The problem is that Fried does not deal with the most fundamental issues that his study raises. He tells us that he is interested in "the emergence of large-scale, tableau-sized photographs that by virtue of their size demand to be hung on gallery walls in the manner of easel paintings, and in other respects as well aspire to what might be loosely called the rhetorical, or beholder-addressing, significance of paintings." But he tends to confuse aspiration with realization. And he never really demonstrates why size, in and of itself, is somehow a characteristic of painting. Fried is a canny writer; he knows how to use suggestive language and the testimony of other writers to elide any problems with his argument. Much is made of something called the "tableau form," as if introducing a little bit of French will paper over any questions. But behind all the elegant footwork, what Fried's argument seems to come down to is comically simple. It is that a very big photograph in full color, when hung on the wall, is inherently like a painting, or at least has some of the qualities of a painting.
This is absurd. I do not see how somebody as sophisticated as Fried could possibly imagine that largeness is in any sense a particular quality of painting. If that were the case, billboards would by their very nature approach the condition of painting--a thought that might please James Rosenquist, but leaves me cold. Many great paintings--works by Van Eyck, Watteau, Chardin, and Corot--are no more than a couple of feet high or wide. The essential nature of painting has nothing to do with size and everything to do with internal scale, with the power that pictorial relationships have to hold the eye, and thus to establish the painting's significance on the wall. This quality of internal scale--what might be called pictorial monumentality--matters more than size in and of itself. And yet Fried, because he happens to admire some very large paintings by Morris Louis and others, falls into the trap of assuming that because a photograph is six feet high or six feet wide, it can begin to claim some of the characteristics of painting. I would argue that the opposite is more likely true. It is precisely because a photograph is not handmade that the essential character of scale in painting--the relationship of the brushstrokes or other marks to the parts of the picture and to the image as a whole--is absent. A large photograph cannot be experienced--not viscerally, anyway--in the way a large painting can.
The photographer Duane Michals, in a comic little book called Foto Follies: How Photography Lost its Virginity on the Way to the Bank (Steidl), says of the creators of these "giant faux tableaux" that they are "closet-size queens," and he is not far from the truth. Fried seems to have fallen for their act. Michals's little escapade, published in 2006, is hilariously funny, unabashedly politically incorrect, and deadly serious about the problems with the new photography. A mix of poetry, invective, and Michals's own remakes of works by Cindy Sherman, Gursky, the video artist Pipilotti Rist, and the painter Gerhard Richter, the book argues that what we have here is little more than a coarsening of older photographic conventions. "Never trust any photograph so large that it can only fit inside a museum," he writes. Of Gursky, he complains that "an eight-by-ten-inch photograph by Robert Frank can be heroic. An eight-by-ten-foot Gursky is just a billboard with pretensions." Some will say that this is just sour grapes, that Michals, a star in the photographic firmament, may now feel sidelined; and there is an irony in Michals--who exhibited for years at the Sidney Janis Gallery, known for its exhibits of Mondrian and Giacometti and the Abstract Expressionists--complaining about photographers elbowing into the art context. Yet Michals's deeper point is very important: photography as a form allows artists particular kinds of freedom and latitude.
Michals's own best work, designed as much for the pages of a book as for the gallery wall, uses the camera eye to create a mixture of storytelling, theater, and romantic obsession that is casual, unpredictable, always a little off-kilter. In two recent books--Salute, Walt Whitman and The Adventures of Constantine Cavafy--he honors the work of great poets with sequences of photographs that echo the themes of their poems or explore the poets' amorous emotions. In The Adventures of Constantine Cavafy, the poet is played by the actor Joel Grey, who is seen in a variety of situations, in a bedroom or a café, ogling or engaging with the men of his dreams. Michals likes to contrast a simplicity of means with an abundance of feeling. Grey is not just a model. He is used for his acting prowess. The photographs are as much a Grey performance as a Michals performance. Grey is there to put the beefcake side of these images into perspective.
For Michals, the photographs do not stand alone. In these beautifully produced books, done with Twin Palms Publishers--the reproductions are deep-toned, fine-grained--it is the unfolding of groups of photographs that counts, and their juxtaposition with pages of text, generally inscribed in Michals's own blocky handwriting. Perhaps the most striking image in the Cavafy book is in the epilogue, "The poet decorates his muse with verse." Here a young man, bare-chested, sits in a bed, his torso scattered with sheets of paper on which the poet's poems are inscribed. Is this picture-making, or story-telling, or some combination of the two? It is difficult to say. What Michals would probably say is that it is its own genre: photography, rather than "art."
The extent to which photography is unlike painting, and appears to derive from different traditions, is hard to deny. François Brunet's Photography and Literature (Reakation Books) is one of a number of recent studies that have explored the degree to which photography seems to satisfy many of the same appetites that are satisfied by works of reportage, history, and even fiction. In part, this is simply to say that the photograph is less closely related to painting than to the graphic arts, where the illustrative function is paramount. The relationship between the photograph and the book--and thus between the photograph and literary and narrative and illustrative conventions--was there from the very beginning. William Henry Fox Talbot, the inventor of the paper photographic print in England, devoted much of his energy to a photographically illustrated book called The Pencil of Nature (note that a pencil rather than a paintbrush is in the title). And it is extraordinary how many of the essential achievements in the history of photography are photographically illustrated books of one kind or another: Alexander Gardner's Photographic Sketchbook of the War (1866), Thomas Annan's The Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow (1872), John Thomson's Street Life in London (1878), Albert Renger-Patzsch's Die Welt ist Schön (1928), and Brassaï's Paris de Nuit (1933).
Brunet sees photography as related to an evolving romantic sensibility, with literature and photography developing "in solidarity rather than in opposition ... in the same large historical period, broadly identified as modern, driven by the same general Romantic aspiration to the emancipation of individual consciousness." And the romanticism of photography, in this definition, is by no means inconsistent with photography's scientific aspects.
Jeff Wall is surely the most interesting and significant artist among the new generation of photographers who work in huge formats, and he has explored the relationship between photography and literature in several works. It is a testament to the sensitivity of Fried's eye that in his new book he focuses on works by this gifted Canadian, whose photographs often evince an intellectual complexity that is engaging and inspiriting. Wall's images, frequently very large, are presented as transparencies backlit by light boxes, and they explore photography's divergent affinities for documentary truth, narrative elaboration, and fantastical surprise.
A magnificent avidity fuels the variety of Wall's achievement. He is interested in older artisanal practice, reflected in his study of an artist, Adrian Walker, in the act of drawing, and in the work called Restoration, which represents the conservation of a vast, nineteenth-century painted panorama. His re-imaginings of compositions by Delacroix, Manet, and Hokusai are playful and inventive riffs on older structural strategies. The pleasure of Wall's work lies in our encounters with an artistic imagination that is on overdrive, packed with ideas. I am excited by his excitement, which is more than I can say about most of the artists in Fried's book. Thomas Ruff's static, stagy, oversized photographic portraits are utterly inexplicable, as far as I am concerned. And Thomas Demand's vast studies of interiors, which are photographs not of real places but of paper models of real places, amount to an elaborate parlor trick, nothing more.
One of Wall's most appealing works is After "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue. When I first saw it at the Marian Goodman Gallery a few years ago, I felt I was responding not so much to a freestanding work of art, but to a marvelous commentary on Ellison's novel--a detailed photographic reconstruction of the narrator's retreat from the world into a basement illuminated by the 1,369 light bulbs that he powers by stealing wattage from the electric company. I cannot imagine a more interesting demonstration of the mysterious synergy between photography and literature. The obsessive detail that Wall has brought to his reconstruction of the narrator's subterranean home matches the intricacy of Ellison's fictional imagination. Something in the honey and mahogany tones of Wall's work is true to Ellison's dark, rich world.
The boldness of Wall's picture, which is close to eight feet wide, gives naturalism a mythic impact. Wall is attuned to the bewitching mix of allegory and realism that characterizes Ellison's singular exploration of mid-twentieth-century America. Although some would now suggest that the success of art photographers, especially Wall, in interpreting literary themes means that painters might as well avoid literary sources, I do not think that this is the case. Kitaj and Balthus responded to literature in recent years with magnificent results. And Balthus's grievously under-appreciated late work A Midsummer Night's Dream evinces a speculative and imaginative freedom quite different from Wall's encounter with Ellison. What is fascinating in Wall's case is that the anti-painterliness of photography pushes him into a particular kind of engagement, into something closer to commentary or exegesis than poetic response.
After "Invisible Man” is a considerable accomplishment, and I entirely concur with Fried's admiration. From what Fried says, he and Wall have in recent years formed a sort of mutual admiration society. I do not know either man, but I can see that they are both intensely curious and intelligent people, and their shared pleasure in the history of art and perception must be immense. It would be invigorating to listen in on a conversation between them. They share a fascination with early modern pictorial practices, which were the subject of Fried's influential book Absorption and Theatricality, published in 1980. And I can well understand Fried's excitement in watching Wall respond to the images of self-absorbed individuals in works by Chardin that interest Fried.
But alarm bells start to go off when Fried writes that "the connection between us is part of the argument of this book.” The problem is that Fried is constitutionally incapable of saying what he sees in or feels about a particular work of art or a particular artist and leaving it at that. He must proceed to demonstrate that his interest in this one thing fits perfectly with his interest in everything else--that his theories about art in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries turn out, lo and behold, to go perfectly with his theories about photography right now. Given Fried's intellectual prowess, the process has its fascinations. The man knows how to plot an argument. He has also written one of the strangest and most self-regarding books I have read. Has there ever been a book in which the author refers so insistently to his own previous essays, books, and ideas?
Fried is very clear about what he wants to do. He wants to present not only interpretations of individual works and artists, but also an "account of the larger project of much contemporary art photography.” And this project, or so Fried believes, turns out to be a magnificent affirmation of his own core convictions as a critic and a historian. Since the 1960s, Fried has been arguing that modern painting is characterized by an unto-itselfness, a turning away from overt appeals to the viewer. The intricacy of his arguments suggests the ritualized beliefs of a secret society. Among the initiates, little else matters. Among the unwashed public, none of it matters at all. For our purposes, it is enough to say that the catechism goes something like this. The "absorption” that characterizes certain eighteenth-century paintings gives way in Manet to something called "facingness,” a radical reversal, but also a continuation of this interest in keeping the viewer at a distance. As for works that set up a less clearly determined relationship with the viewer, they may be guilty of a deadly sin that Fried refers to as "theatricality.” He also has a great deal to say about something called "objecthood,” which is very bad.
My own feeling is that there is good theatricality in art and bad theatricality in art, and that there are masterpieces of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in which the figures in the paintings look away from us and masterpieces in which the figures confront us directly. True, there are Chardins in which the protagonists disregard us, but what of his late pastel portraits? And what could be more sublimely theatrical than one of Ingres's portraits of a Parisian society woman? And isn't there an element of objecthood--a sense of an object that we can encounter in a variety of ways--about Brancusi's perfectly crafted enigmas? I can already hear Fried groaning at my ignorance and obtuseness. I have been a bad, inattentive student. He will want to send me back for a tutorial. He wants to give everybody a tutorial, which is why he comes back to these arguments on almost every page of his book. In the eighteen-page concluding section, the title of his essay "Art and Objecthood” is mentioned, by my count, twelve times. (The book's index does not accurately reflect this.)
In the end, Fried's hair-raisingly elaborate arguments may come down to little more than the old and perfectly useful idea that modern art tends to be detached from the viewer, and to create its own freestanding laws and logic. Fried's bitter decades-old quarrel with the Minimalists, whom he accuses of endangering these ideas, need not concern us here. (Suffice it to say that, yes, Carl Andre makes stupid objects, but Donald Judd at his best is a rapturously convincing modernist.) In Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, Fried wants to convince us that the work of Gursky, Wall, Struth, Demand, and others is a re-affirmation of his preferred brand of modern art. When the figures in these photographs turn away from us, they are involved in "absorption,” thus re-affirming Fried's version of high modernism. When they face us, they turn out to be echoing Manet's "facingness,” which one might think is the reverse of absorption, but turns out to be a way to hold the viewer off through confrontation, so once again these photographers are re-affirming Fried's high modernism. There is an Alice in Wonderland aspect to this reasoning.
I would not want to belittle the sophistication of Fried's thought. But if you can wade through the bewildering intricacy of his approach, with its tortuous expositions of passages from Hegel, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger, the argument turns out to be rather mundane. Many people have seen in the new oversized photography echoes of mid-twentieth-century abstraction--of Pollock's drip paintings, when Gursky presents an image with lots of little figures; or of Newman's singular expanses of color, when a photograph by Gursky or Demand is pretty much all red or all yellow. I find these comparisons facile. I wonder if anybody who has actually looked at the intimacy of one of Pollock's painted surfaces could find any relationship with Gursky's sleek, graphic impersonality. But Fried is not troubled by such issues. He is too busy proving how the anti-theatricality and absorption of Wall and Gursky and Demand accord with his own view of the great tradition in modern painting, even as he is shooting poison darts at those who mistakenly believe that the new photography has something to do with Minimalism, Fried's old enemy.
Fried is prepared for what he calls "facile” criticism of his new book. He explains that he is indeed "preoccupied” with his own ideas, and "for the simple reason that they seem to me to hold the key to much ... in the pictorial arts of the past 250 years.” He goes on to say that "it would be useful if readers impatient with what I have done were to feel compelled to offer superior interpretations of their own.” OK, then. My answer is simple. I do not see the need for some "key” to the pictorial arts of the past two and a half centuries. And I do not see the need for an interpretation of recent photography that links it tightly to earlier developments in painting. It is a mistake to imagine that the finest thought is the most elaborate or labyrinthine thought. I have heard people who know a great deal about painting and who know that Fried's theories are suspect speak almost apologetically about their inability to get with his program. They worry that they are not smart enough to grapple with his ideas, when the truth may be that they are too smart to get tripped up by all his fancy footwork.
Behind Fried's account of modern art is the assumption that what artists do, or what the most important artists do, is a response to "problems” or "issues” in earlier art. In this sense he remains a disciple of Clement Greenberg, with whom he was closely associated early in his career. What Fried sets out to do in Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, from its title on, is to demonstrate that recent photography fits tightly into the history of painting, or at least into the view of the history of painting that Fried happens to favor. I do not understand why this matters. And I do not understand how Fried can be so unperturbed by the profound and fundamental difference between the two media--namely that painting is made by hand, inch by inch. (Fried writes admiringly of Gertrude Stein's wonderful essay "Pictures,” but completely misunderstands it.) When Fried attempts a comparison between a Jeff Wall photograph that he especially likes--Morning Cleaning, Mies van der Rohe Foundation--and the work of Morris Louis, this formalist critic can sound weirdly whimsical. Does Fried really imagine that there is some meaningful relationship "between the liquid flow of Louis's color rivulets and the washing of the windows in Morning Cleaning”?
Whatever value overarching ideas have for the history of painting, they are utterly unsuited to the history of photography, which is by its very nature promiscuous and outrageously pluralistic. Jeff Wall's best work, especially After "Invisible Man,” is remarkable precisely to the extent that it eludes all known genres, in painting and in photography. It defines its own idiosyncratic image world, rather like Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy defines its own idiosyncratic literary world. Why does Fried need to shove Wall's work into some known category? Isn't there something simpleminded about Fried, which is disguised by the intellectual bravado that pushes him to prove that everything fits neatly together?
When Fried writes toward the end of his book about the photographs of Bernd and Hilla Becher, whose studies of indigenous architectural forms have been made into a series of splendid picture books, he tortures us again with his old battles with the Minimalists, and once again rehearses his objections to "objecthood,” as if he were saving the Bechers from some threat that I cannot really see exists. Naturally, Fried wants to talk about the presentation of the Bechers' photographs in groupings in galleries, because that is how they most neatly fit into his obsessive concern with certain pictorial traditions. But aren't the Bechers' photographs most happily studied in the books that they have produced, where we are invited to explore their encyclopedic studies of building types, including water towers and cooling towers and timbered houses in various countries? Why this need for theory? Is it not obvious that the Bechers' work is a latter-day outgrowth of the New Objectivity that shaped German photography after World War I? Isn't their work best appreciated in that company, and compared with different but related works such as Albert Renger-Patzsch's Die Welt ist Schön and E. O. Hoppe's too little appreciated Deutsche Arbeit?
Michael Fried's desire to nail down the nature of photography, or at least of certain recent photographs, is essentially at odds with the spirit of photography, which encourages a blurring of distinctions and a multiplying of implications. Geoffrey Batchen's valuable book Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography, published a decade ago, finds these vitalizing confusions in the very beginnings of the medium, which he sees as a product of the Romantic mood of the early nineteenth century. Batchen quotes Coleridge--a friend of Thomas Wedgwood, one of the photographic pioneers--saying that all artistic endeavors are an effort "to make the external internal, the internal external, to make Nature thought and thought Nature.” Surely there is something in the delirious paradoxes of this remark that feels right for any period in the history of photography, which is always both a form of experience to which we respond viscerally and a form of knowledge from which we expect precise information.
The prolix nature of photography--the extent to which it can be high and low, public and private, romantic and realist--is the last thing one wants to lose sight of now, when photography is more admired in the museums and the universities than ever before. While Duane Michals is going a little too far when he bids us "never trust any photograph so large that it can only fit inside a museum,” there is reason to believe that the canonization of photography may well endanger the scrappy pragmatism that has always been photography's glory. The best way to read Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before is as a cautionary tale.
Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic.