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By Mark Durden
PhaidonCopyright © 2014 Mark Durden
All rights reserved.
The Copy: Authorship and Reproduction
Copying and reproduction raise various considerations in terms of photography's identity and status as art. Photography played a key role in the transformation of American painting in relation to Pop art in the 1960s, and also had a central role to play in the experiments of Conceptual art in the 1960s and 1970s, when it provided artists with a medium to fulfil their desire to break with the objecthood, materiality and expressivity of art. Such relationships are particularly telling about how photographs are valued and used beyond the narrower confines of an exclusively photographic history. Indeed, it was in relationship to both Conceptual art and Pop art that photography became accepted as an avant-garde art form.
Conceptualism led to appropriation art, a practice involving re-photographing photographs. This practice, which has often been identified as postmodern, had repercussions beyond its defining moment in the 1980s. Meanwhile, the school of photography that emerged in Düsseldorf was valued for objectivity and neutrality, but remained predicated on the value of photography as art: authored, distinctive and big in scale.
A relationship between photography and painting recurs throughout this first chapter. It becomes important to the work of Sherrie Levine when she photographs reproductions of nineteenth-century paintings and continues in both Andreas Gursky's and Thomas Struth's photographs of art on display in museums, which involves them deliberately positioning their own photographs alongside and in relationship to a tradition of great painting.
Robert Rauschenberg began adding photographs and found reproductions to the surfaces of his paintings as early as 1951, and in 1954 he coined the term 'combine paintings', or simply 'combines', to describe his paintings and assemblages. He used mostly found images or reproductions cut from newspapers, but sometimes also used old family photographs or his own photographs. Collaged onto the picture surface along with objects – including brooms, pillows, clothing – the photographs realized the artist's expressed desire to work in the gap between art and life.
Photographic reproduction also enabled Rauschenberg to demonstrate the inimitable nature of the gestural painted mark in his repeat combines Factum I and Factum II (1957) in which non-identical drips of paint were played off against the ability of mechanically reproduced photographs and prints to appear identical in each painting. Rauschenberg worked on the canvases together and was, he said, interested in how different two paintings would be that looked that much alike. In a subtle reiteration of the perceptual games going on between the two paintings, the reproduced images used for each painting themselves contain pictorial repetitions and doublings. The repeated photographs depicting twin trees, show similar but not identical natural forms, and the double-frame Daily News images at the bottom of each canvas represent the same burning buildings, but from different distances and moments. Differences also emerge with the two Eisenhower portraits at the top right of each canvas, differences in terms of how they are cut from newspapers and the variations in paint markings on the images' surfaces. Photography is introduced as a medium for repetition and duplication, but at the same time this identity and role begins to stutter and waver.
Having discovered the technique on a visit to Andy Warhol's studio in 1962, Rauschenberg introduced the photo silkscreen into his work, enabling him to vary the size of his reproductions. Appropriating images from magazines and newspapers, the silkscreen paintings collided specific media images of historical and political events with more banal subjects derived from photographs taken by Rauschenberg himself. Gestural painted marks variously enhanced, denied or played against the illusory and insubstantial photo-silkscreen images. The silkscreen itself was used expressively. The images were not screened uniformly: Rauschenberg varied the amount of ink, so some images would be dense and others ghostlike.
Rauschenberg later remarked about this work that he was 'bombarded with TV sets and magazines, by the refuse, by the excess of the world'. Critic Brian O'Doherty related the work to a distinctly urban effect, allying the impact of Rauschenberg's layered and discordant imagery with the indiscriminate, wandering attention we have in the street. Rauschenberg's silkscreen paintings replaced the 'art audience's stare' with what O'Doherty calls the 'vernacular glance'.
Rauschenberg used photography to disrupt painting; smears and drips might break the photographs' illusionism, reducing them to surfaces, but photography's overriding significance was to bring into his paintings something from life and the everyday, similar to the objects he incorporates into his work. Photography transformed painting as a result, moving it away from ritual and aura, but in terms of the relationship between painting and photography, Rauschenberg never vanquished pictorial and painterly elements. It was only with Andy Warhol that art fully gave itself over to the serial reproductive capacity of photography. Warhol took the effect of photography on painting to an extreme as he abandoned collage aesthetics for isolated, centralized representations, displayed as single or multi units.
William Klein's Life is Good & Good For You in New York: Trance Witness Revels began as a commission for a feature on New York City for American Vogue, but the pictures he took during an intensive period of six months were rejected as too crude and anti-American. Klein failed to find a publisher in the United States and the pictures were only published as a book in France by Éditions du Seuil in 1956, and then only because of the influence of the filmmaker Chris Marker, who threatened to resign as editor of the publishing house if they did not publish Klein's book.
A New Yorker, Klein had returned to his home city from a position of exile, having spent eight years in Paris, where he had studied painting under the French artist Fernand Léger. His pictures of his home city were intended to convey what he referred to as 'the kinetic quality of New York – the kids, dirt, madness'. He felt the city needed 'a kick in the balls'. The title of the book, a bit like a jingle from an advertisment, was of course deeply ironic. The more engimatic subtitle, 'Trance Witness Revels', as well as being a possible word play on a tabloid headline, 'Chance Witness Reveals', might also suggest the street photographer's spellbound absorption as he revels in the city. Printed in rotorgravure with a high contrast range and with a dynamic and varied layout that Klein was able to develop using the state-of-the-art Photostat machine in Vogue's offices, the book is in many senses a savage and brutal portrayal of a city choking with signs and bereft of humanity.
Klein's response to the city frequently played upon a collision of different kinds of pictures and messages, through a constantly varying arrangement of photographs across the book's pages and a recurrent fascination with spectacle and display: there are pictures of advertisements, window displays, neon lights, movie houses, movie posters, graffiti, homemade signs, parades, crowds and protests. Klein exploits the difference between the book as a form from the picture on the museum wall. There is a kinetic quality to the photography in the book: the reader does not just scan the surface but moves back and forth between pictures. In this respect the book could be seen to extend the kind of looking associated with the street that Brian O'Doherty raises in relationship to Robert Rauschenberg's silkscreens, the sense of a roving and mobile gaze. The book's glut of signs is played out against a predominantly bleak and fractured portrayal of humanity, cued by an opening image that shows us a tight close-up of four heads from a crowd, four very different individuals, all looking away from each other. People often show or parade themselves to camera, are very much on display. Some, like the zombiefied, bespectacled man pictured delicately holding the end of a banner's pole are just not with it; they are detached, not part of the passion and excitement of the public event. Klein's pictures of women can be harsh, like the puffy-faced saleswoman at a Woolworth's store counter selling a new spot-removing product, whose gesture and look provide a sad echo of the youthful beauty on the product's promotional image. Klein makes a lot of comparisons and juxtapositions: women shoppers with their trolleys at the checkout in a Broadway supermarket and elderly folk dressed up for an Easter parade set against a following double-spread of fashion shots of cover girls, or the laughing young women in their party frocks, uncannily alike, cruelly paired against a close-up showing saucy cartoons of women decorating men's fancy ties.
The book format allows Klein to deploy words and signs effectively. In one remarkable double-page spread a cryptic message taken from an advertising hoarding – Brenda; HAVE YOU SEEN CROSLEY SUPER-V WITH THE "NEW LOOK"? – runs as a horizontal strip across the full width of the open pages, cutting up Klein's view of New York City. In the caption booklet attached by a string to the original book (with dynamic graphics and cut-out news stories, headlines and ads), Klein comically explains how: 'Brenda is for snob appeal. The Super-V is probably uranium-plated. Anyway, there is something terrifying about this phrase written on the face of the city. Who asks this question that echoed through the sky?' Klein has said he saw the book like 'a monster big-city Daily Bugle with its scandals and scoops that you'd find blowing the streets at three in the morning'. He photographed a fan-like spread of tabloid newspapers on display in a newsstand. Presented as a half-page image, with the facing page left blank, it offers a relatively rare caesura in the book; denoting a shift in subject matter, the section is given the simple heading 'Gun' in the book's table of contents. The close-up of newspapers plays with the repetitive details of the headline 'GUNMAN', a word which, like the front-page picture of cops and a corpse, is broken up and replayed over and over. The photograph plays out a numb and repetitive fascination with a sensational violent culture. It also introduces the play of toy-gun-toting children in two following spreads, beginning with the aggressive and confrontational dynamic of one kid thrusting his gun straight at the camera.
The repeated, broken details of tabloid newspapers Klein photographed might in some senses be seen as a precursor to Andy Warhol's fascination with repeated disaster images of car crashes and suicides culled from press photographs.
In the 1950s, Andy Warhol was among one of New York's most successful commercial artists. Moving into the sphere of high art from the field of advertising design, his work radically overhauled traditional cultural and aesthetic distinctions. His art alerts us to the way in which the images and objects of consumer culture have taken over public experience. Sex-goddesses of the cinema screen provided new ersatz icons: in one famous version of his Marilyn Monroe pictures, Gold Marilyn Monroe (1962), the star's face adorns a gilded tondo formerly associated with sacred paintings of the Madonna and Child.
Warhol has been seen as reaching the threshold of painting's abolition. He takes art uncomfortably close to both the vulgarities and the glamour of mass culture. As a result, his relationship to mass culture remains ambiguous. Are we to see his art as one of detachment and disengagement, a depthless blank mirroring of aspects of the culture industry? Or are we to read a critical commentary in the way his art collides the aura of stars and celebrities with the macabre voyeuristic horror show of car accidents and suicides? In one tragic sense the anonymous deaths replayed over and over in the 'Disaster' series also parallel Warhol's portraits of stars, with the artist highlighting, as one writer has put it, 'the flash of fame that these little-known victims achieve in death, as their pictures are repeated in thousands of copies of newspapers'.
Death also marks Warhol's celebrity portraits. He began producing his silkscreen portraits of Marilyn Monroe shortly after her suicide in 1962. The art historian Thomas Crow has suggested that Marilyn Diptych (1962) sets out a tension between presence and absence, life and death, initially signalled by the stripping of colour from one panel to the next. But if we then see the unevenly registered blocks of monchrome portraits evoking the material of film, with Marilyn's memory being 'most vividly carried in the flickering passage of film exposures', this transition from life to death could also be seen to reverse itself, as she is seen to be more alive in the monochrome filmic portraits. As portraiture, Warhol's Marilyn paintings radically undermine the genre. There is no sense of somebody outside the portrait, just the bland hollow mask of the star's eternally smiling face.
Influenced by both William Klein and Andy Warhol, Daido Moriyama exploits photography's identity as a reproducible medium, pushing it to the limits of all coherence, sense and meaning in his book Sashin yo Sayonara (Bye Bye Photography) (1972), one of the most inventive, daring and experimental photography books ever published. For Moriyama 'My photographs are made complete on the printed page', and publication was more important than the display of pictures on the museum wall. What is striking about Sashin yo Sayonara is its formlessness, and the dominance of the processes of reproduction. Everything collapses into an intense and overwhelming succession of seemingly undifferentiated representations, where appropriated images readily blur and confuse with those snatched – for the sense here is of photography done quickly – from life.
The book takes us to a limit point of photography, giving us pictures of nothingness, black and blank white frames, and scratched and grainy fields of static. The photographer Nobuyoshi Araki went so far to say that the book 'suggests the total negation of all former styles of photography'. There is a sense that the viewer is not sure what he or she is seeing; there are so many images they begin to merge into each other. The book consists of 137 double-page spreads, the majority of which feature full-bleed single images although on occasions two or more images are spread out across the pages. In terms of sequencing, Moriyama has said that the 'layout was one continuous sequence'. He handed his prints to two editors and 'let them do what they wanted'.
When he was making the prints he did 'a lot of trimming, using one part of a negative or those of other people ... using whatever negatives had fallen on the darkroom floor.' The aesthetic here is very much to do with the materiality of analogue photography and the meshes, dots and grain of mechanical reproduction. It is very hard to get a sense of what is pictured. Often a murky darkness and greyness obscures the images, we are too close up to faces, or there are shots of the floor or feet and the backs of people. Prints run into whiteness as light leaks onto the negative and we get partial images of a naked human form. A woman's lower back and bottom emerge from the sheets only to be lost in the whiteness of a negative as it is flooded by light, the very process here signalling that flesh and beauty are mortal. A preceding double-page photograph has introduced death through an image showing the white-draped corpse of a road accident victim.
The impact of the book is memorable and unforgettable. One double spread looks like the grainy black-and-white enlargement at the core of Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 film, Blow-Up. Centred on interferences and breakdowns in communication and understanding, it is a film that is close to Moriyama's art. The pictures in Sashin yo Sayonara are like a radio transmission drifting in and out of tune. A similar quality has been identified as characterizing Robert Rauschenberg's silkscreens; the critic Leo Steinberg, for example, referred to their 'optical noise'.
It is hard to get a sense of a subject or vision in Moriyama's book, a seemingly unedited photography, grabbing from anywhere. Much as there is a loss of faith in form and coherence, viewed over thirty years later the book does now have a particular beauty, caught up with a certain nostalgia for the processes of chemical-based photography, of pictures with dust motes, hairs, chemical stains, scratches and grain. A few spreads carry particular affinities to Warhol: displays of commodities, stacks of Jolly Green Giant cans and washing detergent, products that have become unappetizing in their grainy and smudgy rendition. There is also the close-up of a commercial smile that has turned sour through its degraded copy in a blow-up of halftone newsprint. The vacuity at the heart of a commodity-driven culture, discernible in Klein's portrait of the heart of capitalism, is also evident in such pictures.
Excerpted from Photography Today by Mark Durden. Copyright © 2014 Mark Durden. Excerpted by permission of Phaidon.
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Table of Contents
ContentsChapter One The Copy: Authorship and Reproduction, 10,
Chapter Two The Face: The Pose and the Mask, 58,
Chapter Three Colour: Surface and Depth, 92,
Chapter Four The Street: Discord and Harmony, 136,
Chapter Five Landscapes: Nature, Culture and Power, 174,
Chapter Six History: Witnessing Atrocity, 224,
Chapter Seven The Body: Ideal and Real, 262,
Chapter Eight Documentary: Engagement and Exploitation, 298,
Chapter Nine Self: Looking In and Acting Out, 348,
Chapter Ten Constructions: Signs, Fantasy and The Tableau Form, 384,
Chapter Eleven Photography Tomorrow, 434,
Photographers' Biographies, 452,