The insistence on medium-specificity in the visual arts arose in the era of modernism has become associated with the art critic Clement Greenberg’s commitment to medium-specificity as a condition of artistic value. This was spelt out in the aesthetics essay in the Adelaide Art Photographers c1970-2000 book published by Moon Arrow Press (Adelaide, 2019). With postmodernism (1980-1990s) and the anti-aesthetic environment the idea of a specific medium became akin to toxic waste, and it was seen as just too ideologically loaded.
Yet photographers continue to make photos in the 21st century, and see themselves as working in a specific photographic medium. Is it then possible to still speak of photography as a medium after the demise of modernism? If so, how can we understand contemporary photography as a medium?
The concept of the artistic medium can be traced back to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s 1766 essay, Laocoon. Lessing dismantles Horace’s famous claim “ut pictura poesis” (as is painting, so is poetry), arguing that these media are inherently different, because while poetry unfolds in time, painting exists in space. He refers to the media as two equitable and friendly neighbours who should not overstep their respective domains. Lessing contended that an artwork, in order to be successful, needs to adhere to the specific stylistic properties of its own medium.
Clement Greenberg’s influential co-opting of Kant’s aesthetics to buttress modernism in the face of influence of Duchamp and the emergence of Pop, Minimalism and Conceptual Art picks Lessing’s idea of medium up and linked it to taste, aesthetic judgement and value. Modernism, for Greenberg, is a heightened tendency towards aesthetic value. He states that medium-specificity is a characteristic which distinguished Modern Art from the previous art forms. Modernism consists in the emancipation of art from its classical role of pure representation.
Greenberg then defends and celebrates abstract painting as achieving the perfect expression of medium-specificity and purity — purity being the ideal state of medium-specificity, the work as uncontaminated by the influence of other media. By escaping from the chains of recognizable subject matter, the abstract painter became free to focus on the materiality of the medium. Thus, painting became an autonomous force that communicated nothing outside of its own self-contained properties. Greenberg’s general idea is that it is by virtue of its medium that each art is unique and strictly itself, and that an artwork is defined by the qualities of the materials used.
I am in the process of working on a third newsletter and the third online exhibition, which is one on abstractions in photography. I am a bit behind schedule due to Light Paths.
Light Paths is currently under construction. It is a community orientated website for art photographers in South Australia. It is currently in ‘coming soon’ mode, but it should ‘go live’ sometime during October. It is premised around the idea of encouraging art photographers to publish their work in progress re the current project they are working on (initially on the blog and then in a gallery); to go on 2 field trips per year; and to have an annual exhibition based on the work produced on and around those field trips.
One of the notable tendencies in contemporary photography is a closing of the ranks in responses to the digital revolution that has transformed photography’s technology, seen digital photography undeniably become the pre-eminent means of imaging and photographers as a profession feeling beleaguered. Yhje response is the deployment of the frame that separates the inside from the outside.John Szarkowski, past director of photography at MOMA, defines the photographic frame as “the central act of photography”–the line that separates in from out. Framing, according to this reading, delimits, controls, and encases meaning.
Today the internet is filled with photos, the internet is the realm of every person. Photography is now a means of expression common to everyone and exclusive to no one, and we mostly view images on a computer screen. Self-printing (eg., Blurb) has become more viable, but it hits the mass distribution problem in getting the book available in the brick and mortar retail bookstores and on Amazon. The profession/industry is smaller and poorer.bThe photographic industry is beleaguered.
What emerges from feeling beleaguered is a tacit form of photographic gatekeeping in the form of a closing of ranks and the deployment of frames. This framing is most noticeable in the way the the art gallery encloses and displays. It cuts an inside from an outside, closing that inside on itself as pure interiority and surrounding it with value of art. The art Gallery—a museum?— as frame is thus the constitution of the space that constitutes art by excluding what remains as other, its heterogeneity reduced to the status of nonart. The canonicity of the art gallery’s collection is therefore haunted by a loss of what is excluded –the trace of its other. Art history is built on these exclusions.
However, what I also have in mind is a visual frame that takes the form of photographers keeping their cards and contacts close to their chest, and avoid sharing information with friends and colleagues for fear that someone else’s success might somehow come at their own expense. By doing this they are acting as gatekeepers within the diffuse and informal distribution of power of the networked and distributed nature of the photographic industry.
along Hall Creek Rd
You can see this gatekeeping around photographic festivals, as these are premised on inner and outer, core and fringe of photography as an art form. The competition is based on being on the inner or in the core. The means you have made it. You are successful. It’s good for your CV. Your career is on the up. The outer or the fringe is for the hacks and amateurs. This gatekeeping is understandable in the sense that art is a business and it has career potential. So you must maximise your profile and marketing brings in commissions. Gatekeeping is necessary to stay ahead of one’s competitors. Continue Reading…
I have never seen any copies of Doug Spowart’s Photo.Graph that was published in the 1990s or the earlier News Sheet apart from a post on the Brisbane Photography Scene 1993 written by Ian Poole on the wotwedid blog that Spowart runs with Victoria Cooper. It’s a pity because Photo.Graph was designed to fill a gap in the discussion, critique and commentary about a segment of the photography discipline within Australia.
Carl Warner, untitled, 1996/1997
Poole is a familiar figure in photographic culture because he is a cross over between an advertising /commercial photographer (20 years) and an exhibiting art photographer. Familiar in the sense that art photography in the 1970s and 1980s was kicked started by advertising /commercial photographer starting to teach at art schools and private photography schools. Athol Smith and John Cato in Melbourne are good examples of this figure. Poole is different to them in that he had a post-graduate degree in visual arts from Griffith University. So he is well placed to assess Brisbane photography in the early 1990s.
The article is starting point for a discussion about Queensland contemporary art photo practice and its a survey of events by the individual commercial and art photographers working in Brisbane and Queensland in 1993 –their exhibitions, travels, plans and books– just over a decade before the formation of the Queensland Centre of Photography. One of the photographers mentioned by Poole was Marion Drew. Others were Carl Warner and Richard Stringer. All are currently practising. What the article indicates is that photography was flourishing in the city of Brisbane in the early 1990s under the Labor government of Wayne Goss. The corruption that had gone on so long under a National Party Government of Bjelke-Petersen in the Moonlight State was in the past. Brisbane was no longer a big country town.
When I look back on my recent road trip to Ballarat, and viewing the various Core and Fringe exhibitions at the Ballarat International Foto Biennale 2015 (BIFB 15), what stands out for me is both my disappointment in a lot of the work exhibited in the Biennale’s Core, and my pleasure in beginning to scope the silo project.
I found that most of the work in the core programme, with a couple of exceptions (the work of Stephen DuPont and Jane Long’s Dancing with Costica) was over-produced in the sense of being overworked and almost candy like. Was it the heavy hand of commercial work that influenced the style of the work in the exhibitions? There were a large number of commercial photographers doing art photography at the Biennale –and the imagery was generally oversaturated, the colour hyped and the subject matter over-lit. An example of this over-processing is the Phillip Island: A Visual Memory’ by the Melbourne photographer Richard Millot. Surprisingly this work was done in the late 1980s using film technology.
Or is this hyper-reality a house-style of the contemporary photographic biennale’s these days? There is a growing trend in photography towards this kind of imagery. A good example was Pang Xiangliang’s Drilling Workers at the Daqing oilfield in China that was exhibited at the Trades Hall. The content was very powerful–some were stunning— but this was undercut by the way the images had been post processed. They were over-sharpened, and processed with what looked like HDR. The subject matter did not need this kind of post-processing, which sapped the life out of the images. Like others, I also found that the extra level of detail in tones that HDR creates for a digital visual file to be visually distracting. The overall effect this post-processing caused was that I bounced out of the images rather than went inside them. I just gave looking closely at all the images and looked at the photographic books instead.
The biennale is novel kind of cultural space, which has established itself beyond the university, but also largely outside of the art gallery. It presents itself as global, transnational and transcultural, thus claiming a universalist model of the exhibition and it gives the pivotal place to the curator for the exhibition. The Ballarat International Foto Biennale (BIFB), is now a member of both the Asia-Pacific PhotoForum and the world-wide photography festival grouping, the Festival de la Luz (Festival of Light). However, I haven’t seen much analysis of exhibitions in Biennales in connection with other exhibitions in Biennales—each Biennale tends to be treated singularly, as I am doing here.
silo, Talem Bend
Prior to seeing the core programme of the Biennale I was tossing up whether to do the silo project in colour using a 5×7 monorail or in black and white using an 8×10 Cambo. My experience of viewing the Biennale’s exhibitions has persuaded me to decide to do the silo project in black and white rather than colour, as the silos in colour in the early morning or late afternoon would look too candy like (too picture post cardy). Continue Reading…