McCaughey said that photographers should stop aspiring to be artists and instead embrace the essential properties of their medium: its ubiquity, accessibility and reproducibility. The more the photographer accepts his (sic) role as a photographer and the less concerned he (sic) is to prove himself as an artist, accepting the habits of artist, exhibiting as an artist and seeking a role and status akin painters sculptors, the better off photography is. Photographers should forget abstraction because it is not suited to the medium. Photography is always photography of something.
This was Greenberg’s position: photography’s essential properties were delimited according to the medium’s supposedly direct relationship to the external visual world and that what the medium is becomes deﬁned via what it is not. The determination of any given medium is partly through negation.
However McCaughey’s modernist purity position is one that says what counts as a medium is a given with determinable criteria thereby allowing him to identify a medium or judge its value in advance. Consequently, it dismisses abstraction in photography by definition, in spite of there being a tradition of abstract photography and that there is an expanding field in any medium.
An expanding ﬁeld in photography in the 1970s opens up the possibility of a whole range of new practices can each count as a photographic medium. It would also highlight different photographic practices moving away from traditional documentary and formalist modernism with the paradigm shift in the art world away from modernism.
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.
There is still some fine tuning to be done, but we expect the pdf to be sent to the printers towards mid-November, with the book printed by Xmas. It will be launched in early March 2020 at an exhibition of photos in the book at the Royal South Australian Society of Arts in Adelaide. Copies can be purchased earlier through Moon Arrow Press.
This is the revised front cover of Adelaide Art Photographers with its referencing the 35mm Kodak film strips of the 20th century without its flap:
The book is a companion volume to the previously published Abstract Photography (2017) by Moon Arrow Press in 2017. The Adelaide Art Photographers book is around 180 pages. There are 20 photographers who have 6 pages for their portfolios and 1 page for their profiles. There is also an essay on aesthetics, which is understood in terms of a critical philosophy of art in the cultural context of the anti-aesthetic. The latter understood aesthetics to mean judgements of taste about the formal beauty of art; with the modernist autonomy of art being understood as a (negative) freedom of art from social determination in a capitalist society.
The anti-aesthetic movement in this period was reacting against Greenberg’s modernist reinterpretation of aesthetic autonomy into the task of medium self-definition through purification. This was via the transposition of the concept of aesthetic autonomy into a linguistic register in literary modernism–with T. S. Elliot being the main influence on Greenberg here. This modernism rejects the past, established art forms and their typical ways of being practiced in favour of some new manner of art making; it affirm this new manner as the uniquely appropriate way, of practicing a kind of art expressive of the modern world.
It appears that the contemporary impetus and centre of the landscape genre of photography has shifted from Tasmania to Melbourne, Victoria. This is largely due to David Tatnall’s influence on nature conservation in Victoria through his landscape photographyand Ellie Young at Gold Street Studios in Trentham East, Victoria hosting the annual get together of large format photographers and offering the alternative process workshops.
Have the conceptual underpinnings of wilderness photography in Australia changed with this shift? In the Tasmanian version (eg., Olegas Truchanas, Peter Dombrovskis and others) of this tradition of wilderness photography was associated with Romanticism, nature as redeeming force, uninhabited places worthy of pilgrimage that are also difficult to access, the European aesthetic tradition of the picturesque and anti-development. Their ethos was that if people could see the beauty of Australia’s wild places then they may be moved to protect them: to save a valuable environment under threat.
One of the more noticeable characteristics of the contemporary photographic culture in Australia is the dearth of independent critical-writing or public criticism that endeavours to convince the wider public of the worth of art photography through the process of explicating, encouraging, elevating, supporting, critiquing. There is next to nothing icy way of photo criticism in Adelaide:—the Broadsheet Journal has closed down, whilst The Adelaide Review, Artlink and Tulpa basically overlook/ignore photographic exhibitions The consequence of this lack of cultural building blocks is that art photographers working on long term projects live in a critical vacuum, despite the shift online to a networked digital world.
Many traditional photographers would not be concerned about this vacuum in photography’s critical discourse as they have no real love for art criticism, but it is a depressing situation that we find ourselves in. Criticism is a crucial part of making and enabling a photographic culture, and photography has been at the centre of critical debates and themes throughout late twentieth and 21st century art photography’s and it has had a crucial impact on contemporary art in this period.
Royal Adelaide Hospital
This lack of a critical impulse and discourse about contemporary photography is reinforced by the lack of value around the arts in mainstream media and among the public more generally. The entire journalism industry has been going through a major phase of disruption, and arts coverage has been the first to go in the mainstream media. It has been decimated over the last decade, which makes the newspapers irrelevant.
The primary reason for this is that the arts are no longer a priority for the mainstream media that is still dependent on advertising and sales revenue. The shift to digital means that the emphasis is now all about what rates online in terms of the most clicks from readers. Since the reviews of exhibitions are not being read, other than by those immediately connected to them, so the media publishers stop publishing art reviews. As his well known, the advertising model is broken and people do not want to subscribe to the mainstream media. Arts coverage in the mainstream media is directly commensurate with the advertising dollars it brings in re the page’s profitability. This means that arts coverage is in its own silo – it survives off the strength of art-related advertisers only. Continue Reading…