Extending Perimeters: (Of The Market)
By David Levi Strauss
Extending the Perimeters of Twentieth-Century Photography. Curated by Dorothy Vandersteel. San Francisco Museum of ModernArt. August 2 — October 6, 1985.
[The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. As part of the celebration, the Department of Photography, under the direction of Van Deren Coke, has been organizing a number of exhibitions featuring their permanent collection. In addition to a number of smaller shows highlighting "Facets of the Collection," two major exhibitions have been drawn from the museum's holdings, including recent acquisitions and promised gifts. Signs of theTimes: Some Recurring Motifs inTwentieth-Century Photography was guest-curated by Deborah Irmas and displayed during May and June. The second of these large shows is Extending the Perimeters of Twentieth-Century Photography, which was curated by Dorothy (Martinson) Vandersteel, the museum’s own Associate Curator of Photography.]
“The contradictory positionin which contemporary art photography nowfinds itself with respect to both self-definition and the institutional trappings of its newly acquired statusis nowhere better illustrated than in the head-scratching and ramblings ofmuseum curatorsconfronted with the task of constructing somekind of logical framework for theinclusions (and exclusions) of photography in the museum."1
— Abigail Solomon-Godeau
From its inception, photography has been an interrogative medium. It began by questioning the division of art from science and technology. It questioned perceptual and conceptual assumptions about time and memory, evidence and imagination, accuracy and illusion. It questioned the primacy of painting. In so doing, it attracted staunch advocates and virulent critics, who were called upon to defend at from this pretender; this "industrial process."2 Thus began the battle for photography's recognition as art. This was a battle having partly to do with property rights, and this part of the battle was recently won by photography. The victor stormed the marketplace. Another, ultimately more significant, aspect of this struggle has been ideological, and it rages on, now more than ever.
The practice of photography is often an active critique of "the conditions of commodification and fetishization that enfold and inform art production," in Solomon-Godeau's terms.3 It is not surprising that many of the claims currently being made for a postmodern art are balanced squarely on the practice of photography. "The purview of such [postmodern] practices are the realm of discursivity, ideology and representation, cultural and historical specificity, meaning and context, language and signification."4 Within these provisions, one could include much of the work in Extending the Perimetersof Twentieth-Century Photography.
The curatorial claims for this show, however, (as outlined in Vandersteel's catalog essay, which also appears on a panel in the exhibition) seem to have more to do with property values than with ideological ones.
The writer John Berger has noted that "Our mistake has been to categorize things asart by considering certain phases of the process of creation. But logically, this can make all man-made objects art. It is more useful to categorize art by what has become its social function. It functions asproperty. Accordingly, photographs are mostly outside the category."5
The choice of terms in the show's title istelling; according to The American Heritage Dictionary, "perimeter" has two possible meanings, one mathematical and one military. It is "a closed curve bounding a plane area," or "a fortified strip or boundary protecting a position." Reading Vandersteel's curatorial statement, one reaches the conclusion that the plane or position being protected and defended is that of conventional art photography. "Extending the Perimeters" seems to refer to an act of curatorial appropriation and absorption, rather than to an act of recognition of changes in a rapidly changing field.
It would be useful to question Vandersteel's use of the terms "conventional” and "traditional" as applied to photographic practice:
"A great deal of 20th century photography has been dominated by the aestheticof the conventionalblack and white print."3
"The photographs in this exhibition, however, are variations on the norm, having little in common with traditionalphotography."
Conventions do not "dominate." They have to do with agreement and convenience— conventional images are images of convenience. Conventions are time-specific. A conventional photograph of one historical period may be extremely unconventional in another period. This relation changes rapidly. Edward Weston did not make "conventional black and white prints."
Tradition is a very different process and alignment. Tradition refers to the "giving over" from one generation to another, "as a coherent body of precedent influencing the present."6The tradition is various and does not depend on agreement or convenience. There can be no real change without tradition.
Vandersteel writes: “The concept of the 'non-traditional' as used in this exhibition, encompasses works which are altered manually orthose ofa conceptual nature in addition to photograms, sequential works, multiple negative prints, montage and collage, large-scale works and work which incorporates the photographic image with graphic printing processes or uses modern technology such as office copier machines."
This definition of "non-traditional" would include the greater part of the actual history of photography. The Munich art critic Franz Roh (two ofwhose negative prints are included in Extending the Perimeters) described his book, MechanismandExpression, in this way: "our book does not only mean to say 'the world isbeautiful,' but also: the world is exciting, cruel and weird, therefore pictures were included that might shock aesthetes who stand aloof — there are fivekinds of applied photography: the reality-photo, the photogram, photomontage, photo with etching or painting, and photos in connection with typography."7 Roh's book appeared in 1929.
The actual intention of this show is to extend the perimeters ofart photography to include a bit more of the kind of work that has been going on for a very long time, an act similar to that of closing the barn door after the horses have fled.
It is becoming increasingly clear to a number of contemporary photographers (some of whom are in this show) and writers that the constricting perimeters of "art photography" (as recently created and defended by a small number of museum curators, collectors, and critics) are inadequate to contain the actual range and importance of photographic practice in our time.
Vandersteel's curatorial statement illustrates the difficulty of supporting an artificial and reductive art historical view of photography in the face of the actual tradition of photographic practice, which in this case literally surrounds and effectively contradicts her assertions.
Extending the Perimeters is laid out conventionally, with an anteroom or narthex containing "precursors and pioneers" to validate the art historical accuracy of the larger grouping. This room is more or less divided among the formal abstractions of Kepes, Struwe, Roszak, Man Ray, etc., images that use various photographic techniques to materialize oneiric visions and fantasies (Hugnet, Dora Maar,Pierre Boucher, Roh, Vak Telberg, etc.) and combinations of these two in Picasso's and Villers'
"Diurnes" collotypes and Kepes' intriguing "Landscape III".
The anteroom is dominated by surrealist works, including one of Hans Bellmer’s cubo-futurist collages and two remarkable photo collage works by Georges Hugnet, "Initiation preliminaire aux arcanes dela forét" (Preliminary Initiation to the Secrets of the Forest), 1936, and "Retourner álaSource" (To Return to the Source) 1937.8 Hugnet joined the surrealist group in Pans in 1932 and is primarily known as a poet, filmmaker ("La Perle"), and book artist. His many books of poetry were illustrated or embellished by fellow artists such as Duchamp Dali, Picasso Arp, Miro, and Bellmer. "Preliminary Initiation to the Secrets of Forest" is anamazing image which predicts a number of recent photographic works seen later in the show. Three black-hooded and robed figures "initiate" (or are initiated by) four identical blonde disrobed women as a huge yellow anemone begins to open behind them. This dark ritual takes place underground, in the belly of an industrial beast. Hugnet’s anemone, poised to burst into bloom, is the only spot of color in the otherwise all black and white anteroom.
Leaving the shrine room of images past, we run directly into an enormous Richard Avedon print. "Blue Cloud Wright, slaughterhouse worker, Omaha, Nebraska, 8/10/79" is anadvertisement for (among other things) Avedon's new In The American West book (Abrams) and major touring exhibition coming to SFMOMA in March. This particular print waspart of the museum's "Fund of the 80s Purchase." It isappropriate that a show concerned with "extending the perimeters" should feature Avedon, for Avedon is one of the very few contemporary photographers who have managed to make the practice of art photography alucrative business. Aside from this, it is difficult to understand how Avedon's images could be construed as being "non-traditional".
The signal image at the entrance to the next room of the North Wing is also appropriate — Andy Warhol, times six ("A Set of SixSelf Portraits, 1967"). The prominent inclusion of Warhol and Rauschenberg in this show recalls their use in John Szarkowski's Mirrors and Windows show at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1977. Then, they were "foxes m the henhouse."9 Now, they are welcomed as familiar, wealthy uncles.
The show is not all so transparent. One small room contains a useful gathering of investigations of narrative in serial photography. Barbara Jo Revelle's articulate four-image frame cuts across the narrative functions of her handwritten text. One of Duane Michal’s more interesting sequences, "Things Are Queer," 1972, succeeds on its conceptual clarity, as does-Robert Cumming's mock-evidential "Barrier Explosion," 1973.
Jim Goldberg's pictures make it apparent that the models for much word and image, "personal documentary" work comes not from art photography, but from popular and folk sources, like family albums. The subjects speak for themselves in Goldberg's San Francisco Hotel series (1979). Over the image, Mary writes, "We are always Very affectionate Together," and under this her son Wayne writes, "My Mom Looks Pretty I Look Scared. " Wayne, in fact, looks remarkably like the blond boy with a hand grenade in Central Park in Diane Arbus' photograph of 1962. I wonder where he will appear next.
Alex Traube's "Letters to My Father" (1976) stands in for the vast majority of work in this vein which is not made to hang on museum walls, but to circulate more freely in books and periodicals.
The show does include a number of works which directly question the assumptions of art photography, such as Les Krims' densely hilarious send-up of (among other things) the "directorial mode," " Marxist View; Bark Art; Art Bark (for ART PARK); Irving's Pens; a Chinese Entertainment; and Brooklyn: Another View: 1983," Alex Sweetman's "Photo-Realist Snap Shot, 1975," and Robert Heinecken's State of the Art/Computer Image Enhancement and Analysis/Polaroid/ Dec. 9, ‘76," all subversively funny.
Nancy Burson raises questions about portraiture, authority, and memory in her computer-generated portrait of “Mankind,” 1983.
In Lucas Samaras' SX-70 "Photo Transformation 11/22/73." only the extended hand is clear, while the human being behind the hand is literally effaced. In the same way, there are moments in this show when the face is lost behind the frantic manipulation of the image surface, when the medium obliterates the message. Against this tyranny of the "illusion of technique," one finds the inspired use of technique in Betty Hahn's ironic iconic Lone Ranger & Tonto against a blue silkscreen "New Mexico Sky," and Joan Lyons' exquisite crimson offset photo-lithograph from the portfolio "Presences."
The inclusion of single images by Sonia Landy Sheridan and Keith Smith does not do justice to their respective extensions of the boundaries of photography, Sheridan in her wealth of work over time in machine processes, and Smith in his ninety-six visual books. They remain outside Vandersteel's "perimeters."
In the midst of all this furious technical innovation, Ruth Thorne-Thomson's small silver-toned prints have a perversely intense appeal. Uelsmann’s quietly masterful montage seems quaint in this context.
Kenneth Shorr's huge neo-expressionist canvas, "A Life Without Pain” differs from Rauschenberg’s earlier investigations in the way that photographic information is foregrounded and asserted, rather than merely included as not-yet-meaningful detritus from the image culture.
In some other work in the show it is not at all clear why photography was employed at all, except perhaps as a sort of reverse aesthetic lag: "this is new — it includes photographic imagery” (as opposed to the empty message of some "manipulated" photographs: "this is art — it must be, it has paint on it.").
The question of appropriate technology implies a certain respect for materials. This is evident, for instance, in the work of Joel-
Peter Witkin. His images of deformity, depravity, and desire would lose their confrontational power if painted or drawn. They are effective because of their photographic relation to representation, and to the unconscious. After the show of Witkin's work at the Fraenkel Gallery in March, two different people told me they objected to the work because it offendedthe sanctity of the bodyafter death.
Extending the Perimetersof Twentieth-Century Photography includes the work of 126 artists. Though it will not necessarily tell you what is going on in contemporary photography, it will tell you what the museum is collecting.
The emphasis is on non-reproducibility. One-of-a-kind precious objects are saleable and will increase in value. One of the effects of this accommodation to the demands of art as property is to separate photography from common experience, the experience of having a camera and taking one’s own pictures. The visual literacy that comes from photography's operation as an “Art moyen" (Pierre Bourdieu's term), an art practiced by everyone, is antithetical to the kind of elite consumerism necessary to the art market as is. Anyone who has taken pictures can participate in an understanding of what Vandersteel calls "the aesthetic of the conventional black and white print" in a way that they cannot participate in that of many of the works in this show. This separation enhances the property value of the art object. As the perimeters are extended, photography loses some of its unique power to reach or act on the world.
1. Abigail Solomon-Godeau, "Photography After Art Photography," in Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, edited by Brian Wallis & Marcia Tucker (David Godine 1984)
2. Baudelaire’s term, “The Modern Public and Photography," reprinted in Classic Essays on Photography, edited by Alan Trachtenberg (Leete's Island Books, 1980). More than perhaps anyone else of his time, Baudelaire recognized (to his horror) the real potential of photography to utterly transform the terms of art.
3. Solomon-Godeau, "Photography After Art Photography.” 84. Ibid.
5. John Berger, "Understanding A Photograph," fromThe Look of Things (Viking, 1974), reprinted in Classic Essays on Photography.
6. American Heritage Dictionary.
7. Franz Roh, Mechanismand Expression (1929), excerpted inClassic Essays on Photography, 1980.
8. Eleven more Hugnet images are on their way to SFMOMA in December, intheexhibition L’Amour fou: Photography & Surrealism, which originated at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC. [see this pagefor an essay aboutthat exhibition]. In her catalog essay for this show, Rosalind Krauss writes: "... surrealism was interested in reality transformed in a very particular set of ways. Because it always begins with a piece of the real world, photography can achieve this transformation and did so, at times, with a startling economy that painting or sculpture — among the other visual arts — cannot approach." Krauss also notes: “Surrealist photography has been the consistently unwritten chapter in the history of that medium."
9. Solomon-Godeau, "Photography After Art Photography." "For like the proverbial foxes in the henhouse, the inclusion of these artists — and more specifically, the issues raised by their respective uses of photography — posed an explicit challenge to the brand of modernism enshrined in MOMA's Department of Photography."