Photography in the Post-Medium:
By Madeleine Rose Elliott, 2015
Since its conception, photography has struggled to be recognised equally on the same platform as other mediums of art, initially being used as a tool for documentation, aiding scientific studies and allowing us to see what the human eye could not. However, through developing art movements leading to post-modernism, photography began to be a critique of ‘the limits of representation’ (Fried, 2008), challenging individual perception and the narratives of society, history and culture. In parallel, during the rise of post-modernism and conceptual-based work (Slotkin, 2004) the theory of the ‘Post-Medium’ formed. This was in reaction to the approach of ‘Medium-Specificity’, in which the ‘unique and proper area of competence of each art’, meaning that each medium has traditions, techniques and materials that are ‘unique in the nature of its medium’ and should not overlap with others (Greenberg, 1982, p.5). Dissimilarly, in the ‘Post Medium’ condition focus became not on the material basis of a medium, but a search for the ‘essence of Art itself’ (Krauss, 2000, p.10). Today, many museums and galleries hold annual photography shows, with some galleries devoted specifically to photography, like the Photographer’s Gallery in London. The shows attract crowds, ‘particularly the young audiences they covet’ (Vogel, 2013); images have become part of our everyday language. With technological, conceptual and cultural advancements in photography, has the point now been reached in this post-medium condition where there could be no separate curatorial departments for photography in museums or galleries and photography can ‘confront other techniques without trying to define its identity’? (Bajac, 2013.)
Photography has endlessly been compared to other mediums of art. Painting being the most common and longstanding relation, a consequence of the way it is most commonly exhibited. This is challenged, however, in a more obscure yet fitting comparison in the essay Photographs and Fossils; ‘you do not need a fossil to make a painting of a fossil; you do need one to make a photograph of it’ (Michaels, 2013, p.447). Where the painter constructs an image from a blank canvas, the photographer begins with a scene and selects its representation. The mechanical production of photography suggests that human involvement is minimal, that it does not take the time and talent that painting or sculpture may: that it is just a fix of light. However, the full medium of photography cannot be dismissed this simply:
The photograph can somehow be taken as the object it is a photograph of… but because it cannot simply be taken as a picture of the object it is a photograph of… we do not experience the fossil as a trilobite, but we do not experience it as a picture of a trilobite either.
(Michaels, 2015, p.19)
A photograph is an imprint of reality: a trace of actuality. The dispute over the indexicality of the medium is what makes photography a uniquely specific form of art. With the influence of digital media and technological advances it is stated often that “anyone” can take a photograph. However, as declared by Jeff Wall: ‘I’m not sure any of us has made photographs as good as Evans’ (Wall in Fried, 2008, p.335). Even though photography is a tool used by most of the population, to take a good photograph is a complex challenge: the mechanisms of the camera are used, manipulated by the photographer and the moment is then independently chosen. Photography is a highly specific medium, so having a curatorial department that is dedicated to the subject means that it can be thoroughly explored historically, technologically and conceptually. This can be seen today, with exhibitions like Performing for the Camera (Tate, 2016) (See Fig. 1), in which the relationship between performance, documentation and photography is explored, presenting exclusively photographic work, yet considering it within the context of a wider culture of art.
On the other hand, the fact that photography can be placed into a wider context indicates, that it is not quite a wholly specific medium when relating to Greenberg’s definition of the subject: that art had to prove its value (so as to not be demeaned to just a form of entertainment) by exhibiting ‘what was unique and irreducible not only in art in general, but also in each particular art’ (Greenberg, 1982, p.5). But, has modern society not progressed past the point where photography still has to ‘define its identity’ (Bajac, 2013) in contemporary practice since the rise in popularity of photographic exhibitions and the art world’s attention to the medium? Thus, to dismiss the concept of medium specificity completely would mean to consider photography equally to all forms of art. The ideal of ‘pure’ art forms has become outdated in the postmodern age of contemporary art. Postmodernism was a reaction against the modernist movement and, although difficult to define, can be identified by ‘an eclectic mixing of different artistic and popular styles and media’ (Tate, 2016). However, the idea of a total art can be traced to as far back as 1849 in theoretical writings by Richard Wagner, in which he discusses his concept of Gesamtkunstwerk: to reunite the arts and ‘[elicit] emotional reactions, enhanced by the sensuality of accompanying gestures and dance’ (Wolfman, 2013). Although focused on music, theatre and dance, his ideology can be seen throughout the development of installation art: a mixed media form of art which aims to create immersive pieces of work to ‘heighten the viewer’s awareness of how objects are positioned (installed) in a space, and of our bodily response to this’ (Bishop, 2005, p.6) which is very correlative to Wagner’s concept. Similarly to postmodernist theory, it aims to create an experience that demands attention from all senses and consequently shock the viewer out of the balance of normality to intensify an awareness of one’s surroundings. To reject the specificity of photography in contemporary museums would mean to create a totality of art that is also ‘as open and fluid as the shapes of our everyday experience but does not simply imitate them’ (Kaprow, 1993). Photography has become such an integral part of our society that it flows within all aspects of life; therefore it can never be estranged. Art has evolved past isolated genres and should be appreciated as one.
Despite the modern acceptance of Photography and its distinct qualities, it was only in 2009 that Tate first advertised for a curator of photography, compared to the Museum of Modern Art in America, which had its first curator of photography in 1940 (O’Hagen, 2011). This, in part, is due to the rapid development of American life that could be captured and expressed through the mechanical based medium. In the UK, the Victoria & Albert museum were the first to collect photographic prints in 1852 and hold an exhibition in 1858; they now stand with a collection that ‘chronicles the history of photography from 1839’ (Victoria and Albert, 2016) (See Fig. 2). When compared to the Tate’s first major photographic show Cruel and Tender that
exhibited in 2003, these dates show a radical difference in the way photography has been viewed as a contemporary practice in comparison to historical. The most frequent exhibitions tended to focus on photography’s masters and celebrated the controversial and intriguing history of the medium. Yet, until a few years ago many shied away from looking to the contemporary. It is important to have historical exhibitions of photography so that the medium can be wholly explored and understood, this means that it may be necessary to have a separate department for photography in historical museums to be able to possess and utilise the full expertise of the subject. Whereas, in contemporary museums and galleries, as the Tate’s curator of photography explains:
We try to keep the photography displays integrated with all the other media, but also keep our ideas integrated. I’m always working on a broader context… The old distinctions between art photography and conceptual art are increasingly hard to maintain.
(Barker in O’Hagen, 2011)
Therefore, within the age of the post-medium, photography should be presented interlocking with all aspects of art and life. Meaning that contemporary museums may not have the need for separate curatorial departments for photography: demonstrated in recent shows at Tate, as highlighted earlier, in Performing for the Camera. On the other hand, an expertise in the subject is just as important when looking at the contemporary, as well as the historical. As the phrase by George Santayana says: ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ So if there is not the proper knowledge of the histories of photography, technical and conceptual, can the on-going narrative of photography be fully presented in exhibitions? Does the loss of a separate department correlate to a loss of knowledge?
Museums today are acknowledged as the home for art. They hold extensive collections that span over hundreds of centuries and diverse genres. However, no museums can bring together all these works of art into a single space. Andre Malraux’s notion of the Museum Without Walls (1947) is ‘a collection of all major works of art represented in our imagination’ (Milling, 2014), varying with each individual to create a dialogue between works of art. With photography’s potential of representation, this museum could now be created outside of the imagination, with each work exhibited equally (Fig. 3). Photography is not only its own artistic medium, but has an undeniable correlation to all other mediums because of its influence on representations. Museums are still a huge attraction today and they are a wholly individual experience:
We do not come to look at things. We simply enter, are surrounded, and become part of what surrounds us, passively or actively according to our talents for “engagement” … the sounds, the silences, and the spaces between them continue throughout the day with a random sequence or simultaneity that makes it possible to experience the whole exhibit differently at different times.
(Kaprow, 1993, p.11-12)
However, as Malraux writes, art has always stood in a separate reality from our own, a reality that could soon be created completely in a virtual world. In 2013, the online art market was estimated at about £40bn (Hudson, 2013) and increasing each year. Using the Internet is a way to escape the daunting elitism of the art market, as well as being an easier way for new artists to showcase and sell work. Google has already started this with their Art Project to create a ‘unique collaboration with some of the world’s most acclaimed art institutions’ (Google, 2013). With technological advancements, could there be a time when Malraux’s Museum Without Walls is created completely in virtual reality, where all mediums of art are presented together?
The implication of having separate curatorial departments for photography within contemporary museums is that the medium needs full attention, from both curators and the spectators. However, photography no longer needs to ‘[produce] an experience of [its] own necessity’ (Krauss, 2000). Quentin Bajac, curator of photography in the Museum of Modern Art, aims to form a more integrated collection to prevent the ‘fossilization of a history of photography as a specific art form’ (Bajac, 2013). There is not one narrative of photography; it weaves and crosses all forms of art and life, hence, it cannot be contained to its own specificity. Yet, as this narrative develops and transitions, a separate department presents photography with the focus needed, which will thus enable curators and spectators thorough exploration of the histories needed to inform, influence and reflect upon contemporary artistic practice.
No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.
(Eliot, 1997, p.44)
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