Nobody Can Commit Photography Alone: Early Photoconceptualism and the Limits of Information

By Diack, Heather | Afterimage, January-February 2011 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Nobody Can Commit Photography Alone: Early Photoconceptualism and the Limits of Information


Diack, Heather, Afterimage


"Positively, the effect of speeding up temporal sequence is to abolish time, much as the telegraph and cable abolished space. Of course the photograph docs both. It wipes out our national frontiers and cultural barriers, and involves us in The Family of Man, regardless of any particular point of view."--Marshall McLuhan (1)

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), Marshall McLuhan observed how automation and information could become forms of resistance under late capitalism. Correspondingly, conceptual art emerged at this time, just as the ''information economy" (2) was gaining in currency and momentum and the aesthetics of administration (as articulated by historians such as Benjamin Buchloh (3)) were becoming increasingly important modes of addressing the prevalence and systemic power of bureaucratic structures in everyday life. Amid this context of postindustrial logic and ideology, many photoconceptualists were preoccupied with investigating the camera's power as a social and economic agent. Kynaston McShine's 1970 "Information" show at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York was reflective of this context, and used photography to establish the contemporary ambivalence surrounding the concepts of "information" and "documentary," while ultimately underscoring photoconceptualism's emphasis on the contingency of meaning. Relying on a shared or public discourse in order to be read, work by artists such as John Baldessari, Dan Graham, Hans Haacke, Douglas Huebler, and N.E. Thing Co. advanced critiques of the logic of objectivity lied to the empirical notion of "information," as well as optimistic propositions for the Utopian potential of mass media. Looking for moments of countercultural activism in the works both as exhibited at the museum and in the catalog, and invoking McLuhan's theorization of the medium of photography as pointed out toward the world (linking artist and viewer) and thus taking into account their shared environment, this article argues for the inherent social meaning of media, or to quote McLuhan, the fact that "Nobody can commit photography alone." (4)

Reflecting the moment of their emergence, conceptual art practices were responses to, and manifestations of, an emerging globalism and an increasingly nomadic art world. Working during a period of intense aesthetic and political anxiety, conceptual art marked the first time photography took center stage as an artistic medium and an object of theoretical inquiry, in part clue to its uncanny ability to evade the categorical boundaries of medium specificity and borders. Photography purported an ease of transmission and access to direct information inextricably linked to the praxis of everyday life. Fascinated with the dynamics of perception and communication, conceptual artists were interested in exploring photography's ability to level all information onto a singular surface, while simultaneously extolling the sameness that could frame all difference. Envisioning these possibilities as inherently democratic, conceptualists saw photography as typified by its capacity to defy the edicts of conventional artistic media and modernist solipsism, and thus as uniquely positioned to engage with the role of the social subject through technological experimentation, hybrid methodologies, and a critical play on and with emerging fantasies of the global village.

"Information" exists as an elusive time capsule--both the concept and the landmark exhibition, The confusing omissions within the exhibition's archive and the catalog are but one example of its legacy of contradiction and experimentation. Standing on the edge of intense change, within the volatile social and political context of 1970, "Information" (according to the curator) sought not simply to document, but more importantly, to understand and intervene in those changes. Tellingly, the prevalent use of photography in the "Information" exhibition and catalog is one of its most striking features.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Nobody Can Commit Photography Alone: Early Photoconceptualism and the Limits of Information
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?