CAA in L.A.: Photography And/as/or Art

Article excerpt

The 65th Annual Meeting of the College Art Association (CAA) was held in Los Angeles, February 1-5. CAA met in conjunction with the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH) and the Women's Caucus for Art, and, to some extent, these sessions overlapped a meeting of the Art Libraries Society of North America. During all this activity, more than one person was overheard to comment on how wonderful it all was that photography has finally achieved respectability in art/art history circles, this conclusion being drawn from the fact that there were not one but two CAA sessions on photography. This "evidence" was somehow interpreted to mean that photography has, at last, "arrived" (A similar, but equally puzzling occurence, was reported by a curator who attended the "Photographer and the City" opening at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. He said that any number of people came up to him that evening to blurt out how wonderful it was that photography has, at long last, been accepted "as fine art.")

Wonderful or not, the first photography session at CAA, chaired by Robert Sobieszek of the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, was held Thursday morning. Sobieszek opened the session by relating some of his observations on reviewing the abstracts submitted for consideration for presentation at CAA. He announced two surprises: first, the number of abstracts of quality impressed him and, second, that the submissions were coming from unknown (unpublished) scholars in the field with very fine academic credentials. Furthermore, the subjects of the papers were, for the most part, deviations from well-trodden paths. In Sobieszek's opinion, this could be interpreted as a desirable state of affairs. In his closing remarks, he reiterated this point, welcoming the number and diversity of approaches to photographic research. There was even an admonishment that the audience should be grateful that no one on the panel gave a paper on Julia Margaret Cameron or Mathew Brady. This diversity, he suggested, could be attributed not only to the general, public appreciation of photography (citing the new "market" in photographs and the increase in photographic book publishing) but also the increasing number of colleges and universities that have absorbed photography into their art history curricula.

My subjective notes on the ritual reading of papers follows. The first speaker, Janet E. Buerger, delivered a paper entitled, "Adam-Salomon: Representational illusionism and Art in Mid-19th Century Photography," that attempted to elevate Adam-Salomon to the status of a master portraitist, a maker of objet d'art pictures. I thought I heard Panofsky's "concept of axiality" being invoked, but can't be sure.

Then, Van Deren Coke, who was introduced as the author of "basic reference books" on painting and photography, read a paper listed in the CAA brochure as "Giorgio Sommer: Neopolitan [sic] Views and Genre Subjects." Coke began by reminiscing about CAA 20 years past when photography aficionados would not even fill a single row of seats (approximately 20) in the conference room, let alone merit an entire session. (About 100 people attended this session, filling about a third to half the available space, with much traffic in and out of the room during the session. This movement was typical of the entire conference, however. One could hypothesize that the attention span of the average art historian is about 20 minutes. Interest in photography measured by attendance didn't even come close to panels on women's art or the artists' sessions, which were packed.) Coke compared Sommer to De Chirico (it's about time somebody pointed that out) and, if I read my notes correctly, suggested that the Sommer pictures were "not true records." Coke called attention to the calm-before-the-storm quality of the pictures - their capacity to make the viewer uneasy - even going so far as to say that the mood becomes more gripping than the subject. …