History of Photography


History of Photography

A World History of Photography

The Story Behind the Pictures 1827-1991

Photographers' Dictionary



Chapter 12




CINDY SHERMAN (collection)
LAURIE SIMMONS  (collection)







The camera . . . on the one hand extends our comprehension of the necessities that rule our lives; on the other, it manages to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action.

Walter Benjamin, 1930



INTHE RECENT PAST there has been exceptional interest among photographers in creating images rather than documenting actuality. The emergence of a commercial market for artistic photography since the mid-1970s has meant that manipulative concepts in creative photography have attracted many more practitioners than at any previous time. Reflecting the experimentalist attitudes prevailing within contemporary art as a whole, photographers have invented images by directing the action of the subject before the lens, or by manipulating photographic processes, or by mixing graphic and photographic procedures, or by bypassing the camera entirely. As photographers have become more familiar with the medium's history (as a result of the increased literature in the field), they have become aware that manipulation has been a common practice since the 1920s. The fragmented and reconstituted "realities" visible on magazine pages, billboards, and eventually on television screens—which required constructing sets, directing models, cropping, retouching, and combining photographs—have served (consciously or not) as a pattern book of possibilities. An additional spur to the interest in photographic experimentalism has been the influence of art directors and photography teachers who have promoted to a wide spectrum of students the techniques and ideas used in advertising.

In the United States after the second World War, artists working with unconventional materials (industrial paint, steel, plastics) and trying out unusual techniques (pouring, staining, welding) tended to ignore time-honored distinctions between the various categories of visual expression. Mixed-media performances (part theatrical, part graphic, part photographic) and assemblages (agglomerations of seemingly unrelated elements) made it clear that painting, sculpture, printmaking, and photography should no longer be regarded as discrete processes. At the same time, photographers began to reevaluate their assumptions regarding the distinctions between pure and documentary photography and to consider new ways of expressing their own feelings and private dreamworlds as well as public realities. They adopted new means that ranged from die pairing and sequencing of straight camera images, to the invention of scenes to be photographed, to the manipulation of images either by manually reassembling portions of photographs or by intervening in optical and chemical processes.

Conceptualizing the Photograph

Conceptual photography is a recent approach that regards the medium as a way to make statements about itself rather than about the ostensible subject before the lens. It is based on the belief that photographs are, in essence, uninflected records of information rather than emotionally nuanced experiences or works of art. One way to suggest this idea is to present photographs in pairs or sequences. This presentation not only parallels the way that photographs are commonly shown in picture journals or in advertising but also serves to underline the point of view that how reality is framed in the camera depends on the inherent properties of the medium and on where the photographer is stationed. The photograph, some seem to be saying, is whatever the light reveals, the lens embraces, and the chemical substances make visible. It has little to do with ultimate truths; change the position of the camera, and another angle—just as truthful—will reveal itself. In presenting paired views of the same scene, Eve Sonneman (pi. no. 734) suggests that there is not just one "decisive moment" in documenting reality. With die passage of time or a shift in vantage point, the same situation will take on a different appearance—neither especially decisive.

Producing a series of uninflected images of objects of the same sort arranged in an arbitrary sequence—some-times called a "typology"—constitutes another approach that avoids making a personal comment about the subject matter at hand. Referring to a series of his deadpan photographs of parking lots in a book entitled Thirty-four Parking Lots in Los Angeles—exemplified by die single frame shown here (pi. no. 735)—the California painter-photographer Edward Ruscha claimed to be providing "a catalog of neutral objective facts." The images themselves—suggestive of attitudes implicit in the "new topographies" (see Chapter 11)—also bring to mind the repetition used in advertising photography to emphasize the abundance of material goods. Besides Ruscha, this approach has attracted the American photographers Judy Fiskin and Roger Mertin; the German photographers Thomas Struth and Bernd and Hilla Becher; and the Canadian Lynne Cohen. In addition to achieving their stated goal of description, many typological images are also appealing for their architectonic qualities, which relate them to the work of the Minimalists, who were engaged in producing serial, geometric paintings and sculpture during the 1960s.

Concentrating on size, shape, materials, and topography in their photographs of industrial structures in England, France, Germany, and the United States, the Bechers claim to be documenting similarities rather than celebrating distinctivencss (pi. no. 736). Moreover, their images, arranged in configurations that juxtapose from three to eight photographs and at times measure some six feet tall or wide, demonstrate that camera images can provide the kind of visual detail that the human eye might be able to take in only over a long period of familiarity with an object. The makers of such informational images, whether they be parking lots or cooling towers, disavow aesthetic intentions, but the appeal of these works undoubtedly is due to their artistic character radier than just to the information they provide.

In fact, it is doubtful that any two-dimensional translation (whether painting or photograph) of the complex interaction of space, volume, and atmosphere that constitutes an architectural experience can be accepted as accurate documentation. Despite the tact that the specialists who document architecture and interiors—notably Lizzie Himmel and Ezra Stoller—have taken views from various angles and in differing light conditions in order to re-create a sense of the actual space, the physical and psychological aspects of the architectural experience cannot be fully apprehended through a photograph. Perhaps that is why contemporary architectural photographers such as Judith Turner deal with the abstract beauty of geometric shapes and forms rather than with the actuality of spatial entities.

Photographers also use sequences, at times combined with texts of their own devising, as a way of communicating subjective experience or commenting on cultural attitudes. Like a significant number of other photographers who wish to reveal private realities, Duane Michals uses himself as model or directs others in staged, preconceived sequences such as Chance Meeting (pi. no. 737)—six visually unexceptional shots that use for private expressive ends the narrative technique common in photojournalism and advertising. Inspired by Surrealist ideas, in particular those of the Belgian painter Rene Magritte, and by the cool irony of Robert Frank's imagery, Michals emphasizes the primacy of subjective vision; his embrace of the sequential format has struck a sympathetic chord among many young photographers in the United States and Europe. A creator of fictions rather than of documents, in the mid-1970s Michals first began to write and then to paint on his photographs, thereby suggesting that the artist may have to go beyond what the camera lens sees in order to deal with phenomena such as chance and death.

Clarissa T. Sligh combines images and texts in her series of montages dealing with black childhood experiences (pi. no. 738). The texts she derives from Dick and Jane school readers, in conjunction with family snapshots of children at play, bring together concepts of innocence, deception, and falsehood. A seemingly unmanipulated but in fact artfully staged series of images by Carrie Mac Weems (pi. no. 739) includes key words in boldface type that bring to mind billboards. Their ironic messages commenting on black family relationships are aimed at putting in place "a new documentary" style that "champion[s] activism and change."

Other examples that exploit the replication made possible by photography are the sequential arrangements of figures favored by the German photographers Floris M. Neusiis, Klaus Rinke, and Manfred Willman and the grids assembled from landscape photographs by the Dutch graphic artist Ger Dekkers. An assemblage in grid format of 36 slightly different images of his own cast shadow by die Polish photographer Andrzej Lachowicz, entitled Myself As... (pi. no. 740), brings to mind the multiple images of the 19th-century carte-de-visite (pi. no. 59).

Many sequential works, which are considerably larger than traditional photographs, have been influenced by the expanded size of high-art canvases as well as by billboards and cinema screens. Working in large scale has attracted straight photographers as well as those involved with manipulation or directorial strategies. Over the last several decades,

as larger sheets of silver-emulsion printing paper became available, Richard Avedon, Robert Mapplethorpe, Cindy Sherman, and others have achieved effects that are more startling for having been realized on an expansive scale.

A large number of European photographer-artists have similarly expanded the size of their work and also share the conviction that by itself the single straight documentary photograph is not adequate for their expressive purposes. Employing a variety of formats and techniques, Gilbert and George in Britain (pi. no. 741), the Bechers and Joseph Beuys in Germany, Arnulf Rainer in Austria, and Ger van Elk in Holland (among many others) have all chosen to work in dimensions that range between four and nine teet. Conceptual photographers do not always work with sequential images. In staging his wry scenes that show a photograph within a photograph (pi. no. 742), the American photographer Kenneth Joscphson exemplifies those who comment on the supposed reality that the camera captures—which, in some cases, is just another camera picture. Investigating the relation of photograph to reality, which has become the central theme in such works, has antecedents in Alfred Stieglitz's 1889 image Sun's Rays— Paula, Berlin (pi. no. 401). In this seemingly descriptive scene, the photographer alluded to the characteristics and potentials of the medium by including a variety of camera pictures of the sitter made at other rimes and in different positions.

In the 1980s, the approach to art-making known as postmodernism evolved from the Conceptual art of the previous decade. In photography, this development represented, in part, an effort to counter the transformation of the photograph from document into aesthetic commodity. At the same time, it sought to formulate a new relationship between the camera image and social realities. Postmodernists claimed that camera images of real life could not claim uniqueness, in that (unlike one-of-a-kind handmade images) they appropriate—that is, replicate—something that already exists. Furthermore, they proposed that since neither photographer nor viewer could reach beyond the shared cultural patterns of their time to invest the camera image with a timeless aesthetic character or an emotional tone that would be invariably understood by all, the photographer should endeavor instead to provoke thought about current social phenomenal

Individuals taking this approach devised a number of different ways to express ironic attitudes toward cultural stereotypes in general and toward the particular claims of the photograph as a highly valued aesthetic object. Some-— including Sherrie Levine, who re-photographed well-known photographic images, and Richard Prince, whose subjects were camera images in slick magazines—sought to impugn the modernist idea of the artist-photographer as a charismatic figure with unique creative powers. Postmodern strategies ran a gamut from mimicking films stills and high-gloss advertising photographs, as in Cindy Sherman's portraits of herself in a variety of guises (pi. no. 743), to arranging scenes in which live models or dolls imitate photographic illustrations in consumer magazines or impersonate real-life situations, as in Laurie Simmons's tableaux (pi. no. 744).

Another postmodern approach, which recalls the idea of deforming the image prevalent during the Sate 1910s and the 1920s (see, for example, Hannah Hoch's Cut of the Kitchen Knife, pi. no. 486), endeavored to "deconstruct" the myths of contemporary society by using found photographs and attaching texts intended to make the viewer aware of attitudes implicit in the popular media, for example, the British artist Victor Burgin appended his own messages, set in type, to photographs of common scenes (pi. no. 745), which he then rephotographed. All of these photographic maneuvers were meant to reposition such imagery in the viewer's awareness, bringing to light underlying consumerist and sexist messages, rather than to appeal to feelings or a sense of beauty. They helped women photographers not only to investigate the ways in which their lives were being transformed into stereotypes in the commercial media but also to examine their own needs and roles. Barbara Kruger denounced cliches about women by adding her own captions, often composed of cutout letters, to large-scale images whose graininess mimicked that of newspaper ads (pi. no. 746). Autobiographical Stones, a semifictional series of images and texts by the French photographer Sophie Calie, is another visual exploration of a woman's life.

734. EVE SONNEMAN. Oranges,Manhattan, 1978.
Cibachrome (silver-dye bleach) print. Castelli Graphics, New York.

735. EDWARD RUSCHA. State Board of Equalization, 14601 Sherman Way, Van Nuys, California, c. 1967.
From Thirty-four Parking Lots in Los Angeles, 1967. Gelatin silver print;. Leo Castelli Gallery, New York.

736. BERND AND HILLA BECHER. Winding Towers (1976-82), 1983.
Gelatin silver prints. Sonnabend Gallery, New York.

737.DUANE MlCHALS. Chance Meeting, 1969.
Gelatin silver prints.

see collection: DUANE MlCHALS


738. CLARISSA T. SLIGH. What's Happening with Momma?.
Van Dyke Brown print.

739. CARRIE MAE WEEMS. Jim, If You Choose to Accept, the Mission Is to Land on Tour Own Two Feet, 1987.
Gelatin silver print. PPOW Inc., New York.

740. ANDRZEJ LACHOWICZ. Myself AS . . ., 1976.
Color (chromogenic development) transparency. International Center of Photography, New York.

741. GILBERT AND GEORGE. Eye, 1992.
Four-panel photo piece. Robert Miller Gallery, New York.

742. KENNETH JOSEPHSON. Drottningholm, Sweden, 1967.
Gelatin silver print.

743. CINDY SHERMAN. Untitled (156), 1985.
C-print. Courtesy Metro Pictures, New York.

CINDY SHERMAN  (see collection)

(b Glenn Ridge, NJ, 1954).

American photographer. While still growing up she was drawn to the television environment of the 1960s and fascinated by disguise and make-up. She studied art at Buffalo State College (1972–6), concentrating on photography, which she maintained is the appropriate medium of expression in our media-dominated civilization. Her photographs are portraits of herself in various scenarios that parody stereotypes of woman. A panoply of characters and settings is drawn from sources of popular culture: old movies, television soaps and pulp magazines. Sherman rapidly rose to celebrity status in the international art world during the early 1980s with the presentation of a series of untitled ‘film stills’ in various group and solo exhibitions across America and Europe. Among 130 ‘film stills’ taken between 1978 and 1980 are portraits of Sherman in the role of such screen idols as Sophia Loren and Marilyn Monroe. While the mood of Sherman’s early works ranges from quiet introspection to provocative sensuality, there are elements of horror and decay in the series from 1988–9. Studies from the early 1990s make pointed caricatures of characters depicted through art history, with Sherman appearing as a grotesque creature in period costume. Her approach forms an ironic message that creation is impossible without the use of prototypes; identity lies in appearance, not in reality. In this, the artist has assimilated, even while retaining a critical stance, the visual tyranny of television, advertising and magazines. Sherman’s work has been categorized with that of Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo and Richard Prince (b 1949). Works are held in the Tate Gallery, London, and the Corcoran Gallery, Washington, DC, as well as in the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan and Brooklyn museums, New York.

CINDY SHERMAN. Untitled #86, 1981


744. LAURIE SIMMONS. Pink Bathroom, 1984.
Cibachrome print. Courtesy Metro Pictures, New York.

LAURIE SIMMONS  (see collection)

Laurie Simmons was born on Long Island, New York, in 1949. She received a BFA from the Tyler School of Art, Philadelphia (1971). Simmons stages photographs and films with paper dolls, finger puppets, ventriloquist dummies, and costumed dancers as “living objects,” animating a dollhouse world suffused with nostalgia and colored by an adult’s memories, longings, and regrets. Simmons’s work blends psychological, political and conceptual approaches to art making, transforming photography’s propensity to objectify people, especially women, into a sustained critique of the medium. Mining childhood memories and media constructions of gender roles, her photographs are charged with an eerie, dreamlike quality. On first glance her works often appear whimsical, but there is a disquieting aspect to Simmons’s child’s play as her characters struggle over identity in an environment in which the value placed on consumption, designer objects, and domestic space is inflated to absurd proportions. Simmons’s first film, “The Music of Regret” (2006), extends her photographic practice to performance, incorporating musicians, professional puppeteers, Alvin Ailey dancers, Hollywood cinematographer Ed Lachman, and actress Meryl Streep. She has received many awards, including the Roy Lichtenstein Residency in the Visual Arts at the American Academy in Rome (2005); and fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation (1997) and the National Endowment for the Arts (1984). She has had major exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (2006); Baltimore Museum of Art (1997); San Jose Museum of Art, California (1990); Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (1987); and has participated in two Whitney Biennials (1985, 1991). Simmons lives and works in New York.

The Boxes (Ardis Vinklers) Ballroom II


745. VICTOR BURGIN. Four Word Looking from U.S. 77, 1977.
Gelatin silver print. John Weber Gallery, New York.

746. BARBARA KRUGER. Untitled (Ton Get Away with Murder), 1987.
Dye-coupler print with silkscreen lettering. The Hallmark Photographic Collection, Kansas City, Mo.
Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery, New York.


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