The Unreasonable Apple
Presentation at first MoMA Photography Forum, February 2010
This month I read a review in a leading US Art Magazine of a Jeff Wall survey book, praising how he had distinguished himself from previous art photography by:
“Carefully constructing his pictures as provocative often open ended vignettes, instead of just snapping his surroundings”
Anyone who cares about photography‘s unique and astonishing qualities as a medium should be insulted by such remarks, especially here, now, in 2010, in this country, in this city, which has embraced photography like no other.
Now this is maybe just an unthinking review, but what it does illustrate is how there remains a sizeable part of the art world that simply does not get photography. They get artists who use photography to illustrate their ideas, installations, performances and concepts, who deploy the medium as one of a range of artistic strategies to complete their work. But photography for and of itself -photographs taken from the world as it is– are misunderstood as a collection of random observations and lucky moments, or muddled up with photojournalism, or tarred with a semi-derogatory ‘documentary’ tag.
By Arthur C. Danto
This article appeared in the June 4, 2007 edition of The Nation.
May 17, 2007
While there is little question that photography is the central medium in Jeff Wall's arresting works, one would hardly consider him a photographer. For one thing, he makes use of certain strategies that derive from cinema, so that he describes his typical works explicitly as cinematographic, rather than documentary, photographs. For another, though the characters, as we may call the men and women he photographs, clearly belong to the same world his viewers do, their formal relationships to one another seem based on conventions of painting, especially nineteenth-century French painting. It is as if twenty-first-century men and women, wearing jeans and T-shirts and living in twenty-first-century rooms, are enacting, in tableaux vivants, scenes as they might have been composed by Degas or Manet. Wall, whose traveling retrospective was recently on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is an art historian as well as an artist, who has been a painter, a photographer and a filmmaker. He is also steeped in contemporary theory, though it is not necessary either to know his history or to interpret his works in light of the theories that underpin them. Still, one cannot penetrate very deeply into an exhibition of his work without realizing that some more complex aesthetics are involved than apply to the separate media he brings together in constructing his images. In this respect, his art is very much of the present moment, not only in subject but in mode of representation.