I don't like photography

Modern fine art is a democratic milieu, offering a space and a semi-mystical aura
to  any  loosely-defined  perception  presented  by  anyone  anywhere  who  is
interested  in  that place and  that aura. And what medium  to better occupy  that
space  than photography,  the most democratic and ubiquitous visual medium  in
the world, perhaps ever?  Indeed, photographic prints, matted and  framed, are
quickly becoming a dominant sector of the art market, in both volume and gross
sales, while  on  the  Internet,  every  photographer  has  a  direct  and  immediate
international platform to display his or her creations. And yet why is it that such
an egalitarian medium, and such an open discourse and market for fine art, have
come  together  in such a way  that  fine art photography  is so  frequently dull and
distasteful, so paralyzed by moribund subjects and forms?
This  is  like  the classic gag about how,  if sex movies are usually  funny, French
movies are usually funny, and comedies are usually funny, why is it that French
sex comedies are never funny? Well, in both cases, the unfunny answer is this:
too much  pressure.  And  in  the  case  of  photography,  the  key  anxiety  of  the
medium  is  its own  transparency,  the  sense of  constantly being an undressed
emperor. The anxiety  is narcissistic,  the uncanny otherworldly  familiarity of  the
mirror. Fine art is so hard to distinguish from anything else these days, and fine
art photographs are  so hard  to  sift out of  the ocean of photography,  that  the
signifiers are, by necessity, highly rigid – a rigidity the market richly rewards. So,
what are these signifiers of “photography as art?”
I see  fine art photography as hemmed  in by  three  ‘P’s: painting, poverty, and
Pentax.  From  its  inception,  photography  established  itself  as  art  by  trying  to
move into the space abandoned by painting. Examples? The great portaitists of
our  time are Dawoud Bey, Ben Gest, Carrie Mae Weems, Melanie Schiff, and
Jason Salavon, descended from Alfred Stieglitz and Robert Frank. For landscapewe  had  the  benighted  Ansel  Adams,  later  Edward  Burtynsky  and  Richard
Misrach and now Andrew Fladeboe, John Opera, and Anja Behrens. In the arena
of still-life we have Brian Ulrich, Jessica Labatte, Jason Lazarus, and Yosuke Ito.
And of course  the nudes—from Edward Weston on up  to Roe Etheridge, Katy
Grannan, and Dean Sameshima. At the fin-de-siecle, painting was moving away
from  these  genres,  and  becoming  preoccupied with  realizing  the  perceptual
immediacy  and  social  zeitgeist  of  the  ascendant middle  class  (Impressionist
liberalism)  and  depicting  mystical  animal  states  of  sex-induced  delirium
(Symbolist conservatism). So, exemplifying the crowded tableaux of Manet, but a
century post-flaneur, we have Jeff Wall and Wolfgang Tillmans, Thomas Struth
and  Andreas  Gursky.  As  for  semi-pornographic  hallucination,  a  la  Gustave
Moreau, we started off with Man Ray, and have ended up with Miwa Yanagi, and
Francesca Woodman, Anna Gaskell and Tierney Gearon. Painting went on to its
own  tightrope  walk  on  the  thin  line  of  cultural  relevance,  and  photography
seemingly  stuck  around  to  lap  up  painting’s  sloppy  seconds.  Painters  who
indulge in sumptuous outdoor scenes, quirky still-life images, bustling interiors, or
intimate  and  revealing  head  shots  (not  to mention  naked  chicks  turning  into
tigers)  get  to  be  the  slim  economic  hope  of  whatever  struggling  regional
metropolis  is  attempting  urban  renewal  through  monthly  gallery  walks.
Photographers who continue flogging those forms can wind up adorning the walls
of wealthy corporate offices and the pages of international art journals.
From Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange to Diane Arbus and Richard Avedon, to
contemporary  work  by  Paul  Graham,  Nan  Goldin,  Jesse  Kotler,  and  Chris
Verene,  there may be some mumbled apologia, but  the assumption  is  that we
are ennobled by  the  images of people whose bondage and suffering ultimately
undergirds our  liberty and  comfort – and whose misery deeply  fascinates us.
“Poverty” describes a voyeuristic urge to claim that the same authenticity that is
projected on to the anguish of a suffering face applies reciprocally to the image,
its maker, and its viewer. Of course images of injustice and struggle have been a
direct call  to action, but  this  is usually not art, as such, but widely  reproducedphotojournalism –  fraught with  ideological baggage all  the same, but generally
the macro-politics of policy outweigh  the micro-politics of viewership. But  then
again,  the  ideological  role of documentary photography’s nuanced and special
moments has been considerable in the soft borderless colonialism of the postwar
years. Whether appearing in Life, National Geographic, or Harper’s, this intrusive
intimacy and false familiarity needs to be challenged at the intuitive level at which
it operates, which has been happening in recent work by Alfredo Jaar and Renzo
Martens.  For  the most  part,  however, we  are  treated  to  an  endless minstrel
parade  of  homeless  veterans,  junkie  drag  queens,  sideshow  refugees,
depressed  suburban  loners,  trailer-park  residents,  and  various  other
contemporary mutants deemed undeserving of dignity.
And,  last but perhaps most widespread,  “Pentax” denotes  the  fetishization of
equipment,  techniques,  and  software,  everything  from  pinhole  cameras  and
photograms  to  clever Polaroid  processes  to  high-end  old-timey  analog  large-
format film cameras to elaborate exposures to messing with reality in Photoshop.
Not  that  these  aren’t  legitimate ways  to make  images,  but  the  same  kind  of
elevated cultural status is rarely claimed on behalf of a ceramicist, glassblower,
low-rider enthusiast, etc., whose skilled and/or ingenious approach to their craft
results in a remarkable decorative object (jazz is an interesting exception, but I’ll
leave music out of  it). Really,  this  is another aspect of  the obsessive quality of
photography—the desire to see and possess results in compulsive behavior. And
yet, depicting recognizable things in unusual ways does not on its own, perhaps,
equal a conceptual vision.
Certainly the technological bravura inherited from photography’s early days has
been  tempered  by many  critiques,  notably  that  of  Susan  Sontag.  Her  1977
treatise  On  Photography  informed  the  political  aspirations  not  only  of
photography, but also those of all consumer-grade mimetic media that followed,
via  the  rhetorical  device  of  the  constructed  image.  This  is  the  idea  that
photographs  are  to  be  acknowledged  as  human  creations,  like  anyrepresentation,  and  should  not  be  treated  as  if  they  contained  a  truth  value
beyond that of written language, paintings, etc. But, while the apparent paradigm
shift of postmodernism has led to more whimsical and elaborately staged work,
the rut has in some ways been dug yet deeper.
The  thing  is,  truth was never as  important an  ingredient of  fine art photography
as it has been made out to be. The issue was and continues to be transparency,
a  tantalizing  sense  of  access  to  virtual  experiences,  in  which  validity  is  not
singular and  transcendent, but universal and uniformly distributed— almost  like
the tools of photography. A founding obsession of photography and of modernity
generally  is  the  obliteration  of  enigmas,  like  those  hovering  around  sex  and
death.  Linda  Williams;  writing  on  the  transparency  of  women’s  bodies  in
pornography,  links  the  repetitive quality of adult cinema  to sadism, an analysis
that completely makes sense for the immodest eye of the still camera, a phallus
that claims as property everything its aperture can encompass. The devices that
have exposed  these enigmas have not made  them  less monotonous, but have
spurred  our  desires  for  them  immeasurably-  photography’s  obsession  with
endlessly repeating outdated tropes could be read as a sadistic fetishism of the
lens.  A  nauseous  and  unfettered  allure  characterizes  the  viewing  of  much
photography –  take  the work of Terry Richardson or Dash Snow  (please). The
abject capacity of photos to reach outside of their boundaries has certainly been
suggested by Snow’s recent passing.
Photography is unique. It is not like other art, because there is no step away from
mimesis. The image is not made of something clearly artificial, like paint, clay, or
even collage. There  is no embodiment. The print or screen quality  is merely a
certain kind of window. And, unlike the analogous media of film and video, there
is no  time, and  thus no sense of  the  third party –  the camera and  the subjects
being  part  of  a  distinct  event,  whether  explicitly  contrived  or  not.  What
photography then offers is a pure presence, a mirror that shows us what Lacan
contends  is at stake when we develop  in early childhood a sense of our ownobjective existence, by not just (mis)recognizing oneself in the mirror, but wanting
oneself. The  visual aspect of  the psyche gets  its own name  from Lacan–  the
Imaginary– and  it  is, coincidentally,  the area where our bottomless pit of desire
may be found. This is an area that photography has access to, without disturbing
either our sense of what we know (the Symbolic) and what we cannot know (the
Real). The Imaginary is part of language, but not precisely rational – it contains
the image of the chair we think of when we use the word ”chair,” but not the word
itself. This is why there is no question of truth in photography. This can make it
seem problematic, and apparently pointless – also a problem of  fine art  itself,
thus enforcing  the aforementioned discipline of rigidity. And, as with Foucault’s
sciencia  sexualis,  the  pleasure  that  comes with  observation  is  a  pleasure  in
control, so we will never  tire of dissecting and  reconstructing  the abyss of  the
desired object in all her glorious minutiae.
To  close,  I would  argue  that  two  giants  of  feminist  postmodern  photography,
Catherine Opie and Cindy Sherman, only succeed artistically in a rather qualified
and provisional  fashion—by ultimately helping  to bring about a more qualified
and provisional viewing experience, a compromise with  the post-metaphysical
world. The self-affirming visual  flourish of Opie’s  lesbian subjects makes  their
autonomous alterity merely  interesting,  just another  lifestyle  choice. To quote
aesthetic  philosopher  (and  celebrated  killjoy)  Theodor  Adorno,  “The  more
(modern  art)  aims  at  projecting  dignity,  the more  it  becomes  tangled  up  in
ideology.  In  order  to  exude  dignity, modern  art would  have  to  puff  itself  up,
posing as something other than what it is. Its gravity, on the contrary, demands
that it dissociate  itself  from the pretensions of dignity (…).” Yet, in an equal but
opposite  deconstructive  collapse,  the  deliberate  ugliness  and  artifice  of
Sherman’s portraits  ironically but clearly embroil  the critiques  themselves  in a
conundrum  of  projected  authenticity  far more  than  the  airbrushed  femininity
Sherman  is  engaged  in  critiquing.  For  both Opie  and  Sherman,  the market
rewards  them  based  on  their  academic  imprimatur  but  largely motivated  by
zoological  curiosity. At  the  same  time,  the  social power of  viewing and beingviewed on a mass scale that gives transparency its paranoid force, “surveillance,”
exposes and incinerates the private, special selfhood that these images attempt
humanistically to preserve.
Redemption  for Opie and Sherman may come  in  the back door,  through a  link
between femininity, technology, and the pleasure of language. In a sense we are
infantilized by photography – we are seeing something  like a waking dream, a
scene as both a memory and an object of desire, but not an event or a thing unto
itself. And, if there’s anything to that, the profusion of photography has perhaps
made  us  a  lot  less  psychoanalytically  grownup,  but,  by  that  logic,  a  lot  less
repressed. The spread of capitalism and the spread of photography on a grand
scale  has  meant,  on  the  scale  of  the  community,  the  deterioration  of
transcendent truths (such as patriarchy), and the spread of speaking and writing
– a key element of feminine sexual pleasure, jouissance, as described by Lacan.
Sherman and Opie signify  the  intention  to bestow phallic power on  themselves
and  their  subjects by using photographs as wordless  statements,  staged and
intentional semi-enunciations, sentences needing to be finished. The identities of
the subjects can perhaps, through force of will, occasionally merge slightly with
the  viewer  instead  of  melting  before  his  eyes.  Perhaps  this  is  the  best  a
narcissistic medium can do.
by Bert Stabler*