Part 2 Reading

BAPhot

[1Jan22 p.77] We are directed to David Campany’s essay Almost the same thing: some thoughts on the collector-photographer in Dexter, E. & Weski, T. ( eds.) (2003) Cruel and Tender: The Real in the Twentieth-Century Photograph. London: Tate Publishing.
Available through Campany’s website : https://davidcampany.com/almost-the-same-thing-some-thoughts-on-the-photographer-as-collector/. [Accessed 30 December 2021]

The Campany essay was written for the Tate exhibition Cruel and Tender (2003) which largely comprised “straight photography” (Tate, 2003): Campany describes straight photography as “clear, frontal and rectilinear” (Campany, 2003). The other major aspect of the show was that it comprised image series (often originally published as books) and this is the main subject of Campany’s essay.

He traces the historic progression that has given rise to modern photo-books, beginning with the pictorialists who concentrated on single images replaced in the 1920 by the modernists who favoured both straight photography and sequences of related images (Campany relates this to industrialisation and mass production without mentioning the 1935 Walter Benjamin essay † which rather stands against his point).

The accumulations of image sequences, especially in books, overcomes the inherent artlessness of straight photography and Campany sees this as a form of montage.

The next development is the move away from straight photography to a more vernacular mode, as in the case of Robert Frank’s The Americans (1958/59) which he describes as “subjective reportage modelled on the snapshot” and later, “[whereas] the calculated straight image tends to describe things or people, the snapshot dramatises the instance of the picture making event – a photography not just of the lens but of the lens and shutter combined.”

Campany regards this change as gradually replacing the influence of Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment: “Frank’s model of twitchy outsiderism was highly influential. Yet the ‘photographic moment’, which as recently as thirty years ago seemed to be the essence of the medium, has all but vanished from contemporary practice, ceding the momentary to the video freeze-frame. Photography has again become a slow medium attuned more to describing things than instants. “

Perhaps the most insightful section of the essay, certainly the most resonant with this writer, is a quote from Garry Winogrand in the final footnote to the essay,

People who use the term [snapshot] don’t even know the meaning. They use it to refer to pictures they believe are loosely organised, or casually made, whatever you want to call it. Whatever terms you like. The fact is when they’re talking about snapshots they’re talking about the family album picture which is one of the most precisely made photographs. Everybody’s fifteen feet away and smiling. The sun is over the viewer’s shoulder, that’s when the picture is taken. Always. It’s one of the most carefully made photographs that ever happened.
Interview with Garry Winogrand in Barbaralee Diamonstein (ed) Visions and Images: Photographers on Photography (London: Travelling Light 1981) 180

Garry Winogrand, quoted in Campany, 2003

Lewis Baltz, writing in 1988 on the development of photo-books states,

Long constrained by the preciosity of the ‘master’ print and dismayed by the informational limitations of the single image, many photographers chose to work in groups of serial or sequential images, often narrative but many times not. These photographers came to regard the single print as an element of a larger entity: the series, sequence or group, which was, rather than the individual photography, the indivisible unit. Further, many of these photographers were coming to resent the reduction of the photograph to commodity status, costly and rare, and preferred to make their ideas and images available at a low cost to the widest possible audience. At the same time they were wary of the magazine as a means of dissemination, being all too aware of the dubious role played by editors in ‘mediating’ the photographers intent1ons. The self-published book seemed an appropriate vehicle.

Baltz, 2012, pp.58-9.

† Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935) dealt with how the mass production of imagery devalues the unique individuality of works of art.


“The process of photographing and collecting can also, in itself, be seen as a symbolic act of possession and control.
See Sontag, S . (1979) On Photography. London: Penguin, pp.12-16.

I cannot find this in my edition, nor in the several online PDFs available, but let’s look at it anyway.

Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe (1929) seeks to demonstrate that a painting of an item is not the item itself. By the same token a photograph is only a visual sample of its object. There are anecdotal tales of “primitive tribes” avoiding being photographed for fear of losing part of their identity — a notion which has contemporary resonance with online identify theft, but historically is subject to doubt and interpretation, as reported by Strother (2013) in “A Photograph Steals the Soul”: The History of an Idea. Yet in Barthes’ view, “the referent adheres” (1980, p.6).

So when (or if) Sontag writes that a photograph can symbolise “possession and control”, either in creation or possession of the image, there are precedents to argue this case both ways.

Unless directed otherwhere by commerce ‡, the photographer will tend to point their lens at objects or processes of interest and in doing so vests the image with personal feeling. Correspondingly, given free rein, the viewer, where the appropriate or available medium is the photograph, will choose to look at images of interest.
Subjectivity is at play on both sides of the transaction.

Sontag also writes of photographs as an aid to masturbation (1973, p.16, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux edition) and here the collector is using images as a visual substitute for an unobtainable responsive and physical “object”. In the case of pornography, the images would also be filtered through the cumulative (often male) gazes of photographer, editor and channel owner/controller, each of which is likely to reinforce the viewer’s visual prejudice.

Sontag was writing at a time before the photography marketplace boom began, when photographs were often collected and exchanged for personal and subjective reasons (ranging from family memories to erotic interest and all points between) rather than venal, financial ones. It was reasonable, then, to suggest that viewers would choose depictions of personal interest and while the motivations in some cases might be unpleasant, many would also be benign and well-founded.

Lewis Baltz, writing in 1988 (the same essay as quoted above regarding the Campany piece) on the subject of generalist art critics turning their attention to photography says that “[f]ew retired from the field with their reputations untarnished; many were in tatters.” He continues,

The most egregious example was Susan Sontag’s On Photography, an edited anthology of articles written for the New York Review of Books in the early 1970s.4 One critic was unkind enough to remark that since Sontag could no longer think nor write she should consider not publishing the results of her losing struggle. Though perhaps too harsh a judgment, there is little doubt that On Photography, with its unsupported assertions, poorly reasoned arguments, and internal contradictions, is not Sontag’s finest work. Nevertheless the book became the nearest thing to a bestseller that photographic criticism had yet enjoyed, and most right-thinking American readers believed that they could learn everything necessary about photography, both as a cultural artefact and as a form of aberrant behaviour, in the pages of this simplistic book.

Baltz, 2012, pp.60.

‡ The most obvious instances of commercial direction are photojournalism, following a story (although sometimes the photographer may be personally interested in the story) and advertising photography. At the other extreme, family photographs are entirely subjectively engaging for the participants – photographers, subjects and viewers. The recent rise of online social photography is a complex sub-category as it can be driven by pressures from peers, influencers, advertisers and personal anxieties.
Sitting between these two extremes Lewis Baltz is a convenient example of a successful artist-photographer whose early success was based on a subject of personal interest.


References

Alexander, J, Conroy, A, Hughes, A, & Lundy, G (2019) Landscape, Place and Environment [LPE]. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

Baltz, L. (ed.), 2012, Lewis Baltz Texts, Göttingen: Steidl.

Barthes, R. (1980) Camera Lucida. London: Random House.

Campany, D. (2003) Almost the same thing: some thoughts on the collector-photographer [online]. davidcampany.com. Available from https://davidcampany.com/almost-the-same-thing-some-thoughts-on-the-photographer-as-collector/ [Accessed 1 January 2021].

Sontag, S. (1973) On photography. NY: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.

Strother, ZSA Photograph Steals the Soul: The History of an Idea 2013, in Peffer, J. and Cameron, EL. (eds.), Portraiture & Photography in Africa, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, pp. 177-212.

Tate (2003) Press Release Cruel and Tender: The Real in the Twentieth-Century Photograph [online]. tate.org.uk. Available from https://www.tate.org.uk/press/press-releases/cruel-and-tender-real-twentieth-century-photograph [Accessed 1 January 2021].