What Can We Do with Photography? Sarah James Proposes Ways in Which Photography Can Transform Aesthetics

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IN A WELL-RECYCLED QUOTATION FROM 1969, JEAN-LOUIS BOURGEOIS SUMMED UP THE PUBLIC'S POPULAR REACTION TO PHOTOGRAPHY EXHIBITIONS: 'GOING TO A GALLERY AND FINDING "ONLY" PHOTOGRAPHS IS A LITTLE LIKE GOING TO A WHOREHOUSE AND FINDING ONLY PORNOGRAPHY. YOU FEEL GYPPED.' Today's galleries must be veritable empires of porn and masters of dupe, so ubiquitous is the photograph within our art institutions' walls. Yet today the gallery-going public is more comfortable with the photograph--and its artistic status--than it has ever been. This does not mean, however, that there is not still a feeling of frustration, even deception, when it comes to the ways in which photographic art is presented, theorised and written about. And, amazingly, unlike the changing attitudes of the public to photography, the way in which the medium is considered by art theorists has not changed much since the 70s.

So what do we do with photography? What vocabulary can we use to give real form--and depth--to our experiences when we are confronted by a photographic work of art? One of our major problems with photography is that it still falls between that gap which looms at the intersection of philosophy and art history, and it gets the worst from both disciplines as a result. Philosophers might know how to engage in the aesthetics and ontology of the image, but often they do not know very much about art. The exploration of photographic art by the philosopher Diarmuid Costello is a case in point. Costello has many urgent things to say about photography and the problem of medium-specificity, but to illustrate his point he looks to the work of the arguably passe and over-theorised practitioners Gerhard Richter and Jeff Wall, reaching the radically philosophised conclusion that we can approach Wall as a painter and Richter as a photographer; something they themselves have declared--and have consequently been so interpreted--for decades. Recently, approaches to the problem of photography have been dominated by similar discussions exploring the shift from the conceptual photographic practices that characterised the 70s and 80s--such as Ed Ruscha or Sherrie Levine--to the rise of a new large-scale, spectacular, slick, digitally manipulated, pictorial museum photo-art, such as the work of Andreas Gursky or Thomas Struth. The emergence of this new monumental photography--and the monumental prices for which it now sells--has led to a theoretical engagement with photography's new proximity to the traditional arts, specifically painting. Thus, art historians--such as Michael Fried and his detractors (Costello included)--have preoccupied themselves with a rather boring debate, centring on rather boring photography. The relationship that recent photographic art--as typified by the Becher School--has with painting is a bogus theoretical preoccupation; it excludes a vast array of more interesting photographic practices and the questions they provoke, questions that have much more to do with the experiences and aesthetics specific to the photographic medium.

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There is a huge breadth of contemporary photographic practice that we are still incapable of talking about, a field of photographic art that escapes us because critical approaches to photography are still heavily dependent upon those that emerged in the late 70s and 80s, and we are incapable of even getting close to penetrating most contemporary photographic work. A roundtable discussion involving some of the most influential and, supposedly, interesting thinkers on photography was held in 2005 at University College, Cork to address this situation. This new engagement with the medium was meant to tackle the problem of the lack of new theorising on photography in general and the dependency of both artists and critics on older sources, notably Roland Barthes. Perversely, this was addressed in the main via a return to older sources--including Barthes--and through theorising on past theorising on photography. …