Saturday, February 4, 2012

Michael Fried: Introduction and Chapter One

Michael Fried

After reading the introduction and first chapter to Michael Fried's "Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before," I was curious what Fried looked like.  I know we have already discovered the futility in seeking meaning or truth in a photograph, but I was still compelled to look him up.  His writing felt distinctly male and distinctly academic, and focused on Jeff Wall to such an obsessive point that it almost seemed to hurt his arguments.

Martin Heidegger

I also felt compelled to look up Martin Heidegger, whose name he mentions throughout the introduction and whose words Fried uses as his epigraph.

From the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

"Heidegger’s main interest was ontology or the study of being. In his fundamental treatise, Being and Time, he attempted to access being (Sein) by means of phenomenological analysis of human existence (Dasein) in respect to its temporal and historical character. After the change of his thinking (“the turn”), Heidegger placed an emphasis on language as the vehicle through which the question of being can be unfolded."

And, from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

"Heidegger is against the modern tradition of philosophical “aesthetics” because he is for the true “work of art” which, he argues, the aesthetic approach to art eclipses. Heidegger's critique of aesthetics and his advocacy of art thus form a complementary whole."

In this regard, it seems that Heidegger's beliefs about art might be directly in contrast to Freid's. 

In the introduction, Fried states "beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, art photographs began to be made not only at large scale but also... for the wall," continuing, "such photography immediately inherited the entire problematic of beholding- of theatricality and antitheatricality- that had been central to [painting]."  (Fried, 2)

Fried used a number of determining factors to support his arguments.  One was that the size of a photograph dramatically affects how it is seen and engaged with by a viewer.  I agree with him completely on this count.  Experiencing a photograph in a magazine or in a book is a very intimate and personal experience, one that happens on an individual scale, where as viewing a photograph at a large size in an art institution changes the relationship of subject to viewer and eliminates the privacy of viewing.  He cites many examples of works made with the intention of being viewed large, including works by Jeff Wall and Thomas Ruff.  He claims that, in Wall's work, much of the detail would be lost if the photographs were printed at a smaller size, mentioning the tacks in the wall and the small pieces of jewelry in The Destroyed Room, which for him (and for art historian Ralph Ubl, as he mentions) are important elements in the reading of the photograph. 

Jeff Wall, The Destroyed Room, 1978

In Thomas Ruff's portraits, the viewing dynamic is altered dramatically when the subject becomes physically larger than the viewer.  Fried claims that Ruff's portraits were originally printed small and that Ruff was then influenced by Wall's work and decided to print them larger.  I am curious if Ruff was, in fact, influenced by Wall or if that is something Fried is assuming.  In any case, Fried claims that the images achieve "visual presence" only when printed large and hung on a wall.

He also addresses the artist's intention when making a photograph, relating contemporary, large-scale photography to painting by suggesting that the photographer is aware from the beginning that the work is intended to be hung large and on a wall, therefore dealing with questions of absorption versus theatricality.

Writing about Cindy Sherman's film stills, Fried starts deconstructing theatricality and performance in photography.  Fried acknowledges that Sherman's photographs are performative, but argues that they are not theatrical precisely because they acknowledge their own stagedness, a concept he will return to when writing about Jeff Wall's photograph Dead Troops Talk.  Sherman depicts characters "who appear absorbed in thought or feeling," though according to Sherman herself, she was careful not to over-perform her characters so her photographs would not appear "campy."

Of Sherman's film stills, Fried writes, "Sherman's Stills both individually (and even more explicitly) as a group present themselves as having been deliberately staged by the photographer- and is not 'stagedness' such as one finds in these images a marker of theatricality, not it's antithesis?"  Fried claims that the answer to this question is complex and will emerge throughout the book.

Just for fun, here's Annie Leibovitz's 1992 photograph of Cindy Sherman, which plays with the theatricality and stagedness of Sherman's career. 

Fried also makes an interesting juxtaposition between Hiroshi Sugimoto's photographs of empty movie theaters and Jeff Wall's photographs titled Movie Audience.  While Sugimoto shows us the theater with no audience, Wall shows us the audience with no movie.

Fried writes, "by claiming that Movie Audience is especially relevant to Sugimoto's Movie Theaters I mean that whereas the latter with their blank screens are in almost all cases completely devoid of an audience, Wall's Movie Audience purports to be a representation of members of such an audience (though we as viewers do not for a moment imagine that his personages are actually watching a movie under ordinary conditions)."  (Fried, 11-12)

Importantly, Fried continues, "Wall is struck by the fact that a movie audience (as one might say) 'loses itself' or, perhaps more accurately, 'forgets itself' in the experience of a movie, or rather is led or induced by the apparatus and the situation to seek and do so." (Fried, 12)

Wall hung these portraits particularly high, making them difficult to see and engage with on the part of the viewer, which is one of many examples Fried will give of Wall using distance and visual seduction simultaneously.  He ties the work of Sherman, Wall, and Sugimoto together by stating that their work is "responding in different ways to the problematic status of movies in this regard by making photographs which, although mobilizing one or another convention of movies (or the thought of movies), also provide a certain essentially photographic distance from the filmic experience, a distance by virtue of which the automaticity of the avoidance of theatricality...  is forestalled or undone."  (Fried, 13)

He is arguing that by referencing cinematic conventions but directly acknowledging their stagedness, all of these works are in fact more cinematic than cinema itself, which by its very nature attempts to hide its stagedness and encourage the viewer to believe in it fully. 

Fried's ideas regarding scale and intent did raise some questions for me, though.  While he acknowledges that work by earlier artists such as Steiglitz and Sander hold up perfectly well on a wall, he claims that this mode of exhibition was arbitrary and a product of museums and galleries needing to lend works a certain authority rather than the intended exhibition style of the artist.  I disagree that earlier artists who were working in smaller scales did not have a viewer in mind when they were making their work, or did not imagine their photograph eventually being seen, even at the time of making.  I think a Sander portrait has as much of a quality of "to-be-seenness" as a Wall photograph, if not more.  The scale is nowhere near as massive but the construction was just as deliberate, and Sander clearly intended his photographs to be seen by an audience, though perhaps one outside of a sanctified art establishment.  Perhaps the critical difference Fried is pointing out is in how the work is/was intended to be seen- as an aesthetic experience or as a depiction of something (which could also be political or a call to action of some kind). 

I immediately think of Hippolyte Bayard's Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man.  If there was ever a photograph intended to be seen, this is it.


Fried also made an interesting comparison between Jean-Marc Bustamante and Stephen Shore.  He argues that Bustamante's photographs are intentionally banal and quite large in size.  Taken at high noon, the lighting is not seductive or inviting- it flattens space rather than dramatizes it.  Bustamante claims that his images "move beyond the context in which they were made, the geographic setting and so on, and engage the viewer in a one-to-one relationship solely through their physical presence."  In this way, the giant, overly detailed photograph is being asked to return to the role of the smaller photograph, perhaps experienced in a book, through its lack of discernable subject matter or entrance point. 

One of Fried's critical concerns seems to be how photographs either repel the viewer or invite the viewer into the scene and how these functions elicit different responses, which is seemingly just another way of describing absorption versus theatricality.  He often references photographic detail as a distancing mechanism, writing about "the sheer density of visual information contained in each print, a factor that far from drawing the viewer 'into' the work tends to distance, in that sense to 'exclude' him or her by virtue of its mute, uninflected, unmetabolizable thereness."  (Fried, 21)

I found it interesting that Bustamante's goal was "to make the viewer become aware of his or her responsibility in what he or she is looking at."  In some ways, his photos are of nothing- is he asking the viewer to engage in a similar thought process around issues of theatricality versus absorption that Fried is interested in?  When I think of the viewer being implicated in the viewing of a photograph, I think of work by Susan Meiselas or even Robert Mapplethorpe, not so much large landscape work like the images pictures by Bustamante.  Someone like Laura McPhee interestingly combines both of these elements in her work River of No Return, showing environmental and human issues through beautiful photographs exhibited at a monumental scale. 

 Below are photographs of a Jean-Marc Bustamante exhibition from the Tate Britain in 1998/1999.

Whenever Fried speaks of detail or a density of information, I often think of medium or large-format photographers who seek as much detail as possible out of their images but whose work is meant to engage, not repel.  When I think of an abundance of detail and impenetrable space, the two images by Lee Friedlander come to mind, though I doubt these fit into what Fried is describing in his arguments: 

Fried goes on to point out how Stephen Shore's images, in contrast to Bustamante's, invite the viewer into them through the use of light and the depiction of space.

Stephen Shore, Holden Street, North Adams, Massachusetts, 1974

Fried's description of the story Adelaide is very telling in regard to how he thinks of the viewing of photography.  He tells the story of Adelaide, a woman who died after her husband, previously engaged in his religious activity, looks up and sees her show herself to him, and then looks back down and averts her gaze.  It seems that the conventional reading of the story would be that she died out of heartbreak or sadness from her husband's refusal to look at her.  However, Fried interprets this story visually, describing the pictures that the story creates, and argues that she dies because there is no discernable difference in the image of her husband before he is aware of her presence and after- the crisis that such a profoundly different moment could be occurring but could look identical.  He writes, "Adelaide dies, in this instance, because the absence of outward difference mentioned above is intolerable to her."  (Fried, 27)

He ties this idea into photography by writing, "the issue of 'truthfulness' versus 'falseness' in this connection already looks beyond stage drama, with respect to which it is essentially a matter of technique, and beyond painting, with respect to which it makes no sense to ask what a person in a canvas is 'actually' or 'truly' doing, thinking, or feeling, toward the mechanical reproduction of reality in photography, with respect to which such questions are inescapable."  (Fried, 28).

Ah, that old burden of depiction.

Fried addresses the issue of aestheticizing issues of pain and violence by referencing Susan Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others, where she questions the reasons and effects of showing images of pain, violence, suffering, and death.  Sontag writes, "transforming is what art does, but photography that bears witness to the calamitous and the reprehensible is much criticized if it seems 'aesthetic'; that is, too much like art.  The dual powers of photography- to generate documents and to create works of visual art- have produced some remarkable exaggerations about what photographers ought or ought not to do.  Lately, the most common exaggeration is the one that regards these powers as opposites.  Photographs that depict suffering shouldn't be beautiful as captions shouldn't moralize.  In this view, a beautiful photograph drains attention from the sobering subject and turns it toward the medium itself, thereby compromising the picture's status as a document.  The photograph gives mixed signals.  Stop this, it urges.  But it also exclaims, What a spectacle!"  (Sontag in Fried, 31)

Sontag raises questions about the purpose of viewing difficult photos, saying that it was previously thought that exhibiting them might raise attention or consciousness about difficult issues, but also warning that too much exposure creates a desensitized viewer.

I think of this work by Susan Meiselas from her body of work Nicaragua, which I saw in an exhibition at Dartmouth College and which had a profound effect on me in person, when I viewed it as an object on a wall.

Or this one:

Meiselas's work has an overtly political message and is/was often shown outside of the art world.  But what of photographers such as An-My Le and Claire Beckett, two photographers who deal with war in a way that is (in my opinion) almost entirely within the art world?

An-My Le

An-My Le

An-My Le

Claire Beckett

Claire Beckett

Claire Beckett

Sontag writes about how Jeff Wall's Dead Soldiers Talk functions in part because "these dead are supremely uninterested in the living; in those who took their lives; in witnesses- and in us.  Why should they seek our gaze?  What would they have to say to us?  'We'- this 'we' is everyone who has never experienced anything like what they went through- don't understand.  We don't get it.  We truly can't imagine what it was like.  We can't imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is; and how normal is becomes."  (Sontag in Fried, 33)

However, Sontag's point could extend to Jeff Wall, as the maker, as well as the majority of people who will eventually view his photograph.  Fried argues that because Dead Soldiers Talk is so obviously staged, it speaks of war without actually aestheticizing images of violence, creating a viewing experience similar to the previously mentioned work of Sherman or Wall- the viewers let themselves into the experience of viewing, or beholding, precisely because they can so obviously see the "stagedness" of the work, letting them off of the ethical hook of engagement or responsibility. 

Fried writes, "it is precisely Sontag's recognition that Dead Soldiers Talk is not a candid shot of an actual event but rather a work of deliberate and elaborate artifice that- together with the awareness that none of Wall's figures 'look out of the picture'- underwrites her admiration for his achievement.  We might say that the fact that Dead Soldiers Talk is transparently a work of high artifice saves it from the risk of 'aestheticization' which for Sontag constantly threatens non-art photographs such as the shots of lynchings or the other images of violence and oppression she considers."  (Fried, 35)

Fried concludes by saying that Sontag's views on Wall's Dead Soldiers Talk exemplifies his idea of "to-be-seenness," which will be a central idea in the chapters to come.

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