Exercise 1.2: Photography in the museum or in the gallery?

Notes on Krauss (1):

  • photographs can occupy different discursive spaces i.e. perform different functions – e.g. science or art (described as the “aesthetic discourse”)
  • the gallery space is the location for the aesthetic discourse, and post 1860 imagery which sought to attain the status of “art” began to emulate the gallery space, flattening off perspective in favour of flatness, abstraction – “constitution of the work of art as a representation of its own space of exhibition” – this is the start of modernism
  • photography of this period, though it could be reconstructed as being within the aesthetic discourse, was actually about the “view” not “landscape”, about a topographical image, about the camera recreating almost objectively what is in front of it
  • 18th century photographers were not “artists” because they did not pursue the medium for long enough to call it a “career”, or in the case of Atget they produced a body of work too large for it to constitute an “oeuvre” – Atget’s work was a catalogue, ordered by standardised categories
  • trying to posthumously categorise photography within the aesthetic discourse leads to incoherence

The message from this article is clear – Krauss believes that 18th century photographers who are now being hailed as “artists” were in fact simply topographical surveyors who had no artistic sensibilities about their work. In some respects I have a lot of sympathy with this view – taking Atget as an example with which I am very familiar, his work does largely have the appearance of a survey, with some very beautiful images and many that are simply a picture of what was there. I have previously seen it suggested that the ability of photography to survey and reproduce the world in this manner is what led the “art world” towards modernism and increasing abstraction – painting had to find a new space, it had to become discursive rather than representational.

With this in mind, perhaps Krauss is correct that Atget and the like were not “artists”, they were more like anthropologists or naturalists. However I’m not sure that denying the maker the status of “artist” automatically equates to a denial of the status of “art” to the work they produce. By bringing this work into the gallery setting we are as Krauss says moving it to a new discursive space, but why is that a bad thing? Allowing a new conversation to evolve about the nature of the work can only be a positive step – just as contemporary artists are working with archives, bringing them to gallery spaces for which they were never intended. It allows us to consider the images afresh, not to look back at their original purpose but to look at what we can take from them today.

I see little point in making retrospective arguments about whether these images were or were not “art” at the time they were made, and I agree with Krauss to the limited extent that she criticises theorists who attempt to reconstruct the intentions of the original photographers within a contemporaneous artistic discourse. It matters little whether Atget was cataloging Paris or attempting to represent its underlying essence – what matters is what we make of the images in their modern context.

There is one distinction that Krauss makes which interested me – the distinction between “landscape” and “view”. She imbues the former with a manmade quality, a social creation as opposed to the indexical nature of the “view”. This made me think of “viewpoints” as marked on maps, those specific places from which the land appears at its best, selected for us by map-makers. Yet these “views” are manmade – they are selected just as a photograph is a selection of the possible perspectives on a place. Setting aside the fact that most of the British landscape is in fact the result of human intervention, I see no reason to distinguish between the selection of a view, and the selection of a “landscape” to paint. Perhaps this is merely semantics, but if there is a distinction to be made I think it is better made as between topographical and aesthetic endeavour rather than between “landscape” and “view”. Even then there is no clear dividing line – if I wish to chart the topographical nature of a site over time (for example the Transitions assignment), I may do so with artistic intent, in order to convey some meaning, rather than simply as a survey of the land. And even if my intent is simple, as discussed above others may repurpose my work for greater goals.

[Note to self – could it be interesting to photograph from “viewpoints” for the first assignment? Considering beauty as chosen by others.]

(1) Krauss, R, (1982), “Photography’s Discursive Spaces: Landscape/View” in Art Journal Vol 42, No. 4 pp 311-19

Featured image is Atget’s Hotel des Ambassadeurs de Hollande, 47 rue Vielle-du-Temple, 1900, accessed here: https://www.nga.gov/feature/atget/works_art.shtm

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