The Photographic Idea: Reconsidering Conceptual Photography

By Soutter, Lucy | Afterimage, March-April 1999 | Go to article overview

The Photographic Idea: Reconsidering Conceptual Photography


Soutter, Lucy, Afterimage


They were there simply to indicate a radical art that had already vanished. The photograph was necessary only as a residue for communication.

- Dennis Oppenheim on his use of photographs.(1)

This statement by Dennis Oppenheim introduces the paradox inherent in any discussion of photography within Conceptual Art. Since the mid-1960s, conceptual artists have denied any interest in photography per se. To hear the artists tell it, photography was only useful or interesting to them insofar as it was instrumental in conveying or recording their ideas. Time and again artists describe the photographs themselves as either brute information or uninflected documentation. For many years curators, critics and historians have corroborated this reductive understanding of the role of photography in Conceptual Art. Sidestepping the aesthetic properties of conceptual photographs is convenient; it simplifies the distinction between Conceptualism and the more material-based practices of Pop Art and Minimalism. Taking the artists at their word, writers have also been able to divorce conceptual photography from the history of photography more broadly, maintaining a rigid distinction between conceptual and fine art photography of the same moment.

As we know, however, the intentions of artists and the historical effects of their work are rarely synonymous. For example, artists who have benefited from the renewed critical and curatorial interest in Conceptual Art in the last decade have themselves resisted the label "conceptual."(2) This is understandable - no practicing artist wants to be pigeon-holed as an example of an historical movement. Yet the conceptual designation has been crucial to the historical understanding of this period of work. Along the same lines, the conceptualists' contrary stance on photography should not be accepted at face value. Despite their professed disregard for photography, the conceptualists participated in an important transformation of the medium, fueling a rise in the prominence of photography that attracted critical attention in the "Pictures" generation of the late 1970s and early 1980s.(3)

First-generation Conceptual Art is an important point of origin for the continuing success of photographs by artists who do not consider themselves to be photographers in the traditional sense.(4) The conceptual artists' very lack of investment in photography allowed them to generate new possibilities for the medium. However, they were not alone in this enterprise. Fine art photographers during the late 1960s such as Gary Winogrand and Lee Friedlander shared with the conceptualists an interest in identifying and subverting the conventions of photographic vision.

The refusal of conceptualists to take photography seriously on its own terms is rooted in the earliest definitions of their project. From the beginning, ideas were prioritized over the material form in which they were conveyed. Sol LeWitt provided a seminal formulation of this notion in his 1967 essay "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art": "In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work." LeWitt dismisses the material form of the piece as secondary, an "afterthought" so to speak: "When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art."(5) Due to its apparent immediacy, photography was an apt medium with which to pursue this idea-driven art.

Critic Lucy Lippard approached Conceptualism from a slightly different angle, coining the term "the dematerialization of the art object" in the late 1960s.(6) Framing conceptual works as a form of disembodied sculpture, the notion of dematerialization has been one of the main obstacles to the serious study of conceptual photography. Like LeWitt, Lippard acknowledges that conceptual works might take a physical form, including photographs, but she does not see the object as the site of the art idea.

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