PART 1: THE BEAUTY AND THE SUBLIME

Exercise 1.2: Photography in the museum or in the gallery?

Read Rosalind Krauss’s essay ‘Photography’s Discursive Spaces: Landscape/View’. Summarise Krauss’s key points in your learning log (in note form) and add any comments or reflections. The essay was first published in 1982 in Art Journal Vol. 42, No. 4, pp. 311–19 but you’ll find it at: http://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/lklichfall13t/files/2013/09/Krauss.pdf

Summary:

The essay begins with a comparison of two images of the same subject, one shot in 1868 by a landscape photographer and the other a lithograph copy of the first produced for a geology book in 1878. The first lacks clarity and the second shows details. These are given as examples of how a photograph is made to fit its purpose and audience as the lithograph produced for a scientific book has had the detail restored to it, whilst the landscape photograph operates in the discursive space of the aesthetic, “the space of exhibition” a 19th century concept of a displays of art, a signifier of inclusion and also a ground for criticism.

Krauss essay

After 1860 landscape transformed into a “flattened and compressed experience of space” spread across a lateral surface, a modernist concept. This was devoid of perspective, with sharp value contrast which converted depth into a diagonal ordering of the surface, such as lines of trees, often hung in series the size of walls in galleries. The essay moves on to discuss how landscape photography was legitimised in the western pictorial tradition, such as in Galassi’s Museum of Modern art exhibition Before Photography made this point. He wanted to prove that the prominent perspective in 19th century outdoor photography which flattens and fragments was developed earlier in painting, and that therefore photography is aesthetic rather than of a technical tradition. He showed landscape pictures to prove that two dimensional order can give as powerful tone, texture and depth as pictures, and that photography is intended as art.

Krauss asks as O’Sullivan’s photographs were stereographic views and not accessible to the public, were they art? I now understand the differences between a 9×12 plate camera and the camera for stereoscopic views. Stereoscopic space is perspectival space raised to a higher power, organised as tunnel vision as the viewer’s space is masked by the instrument and the image thus appears multi layered and the eyes have to refocus as they move through the photograph, this is different to the scanning of a painting. The exaggerated depth and focus isolates objects that are viewed, becoming the centre of attention, a singularity. Krauss settles on these stereoscopic views being separate from aesthetic landscapes.

I have learnt that it is the museum that organised the representation of art and as 19th century photography belonged in museums scholars decided that images there are landscapes rather than views and attribute to them the notion of the concept artist and oeuvre. Krauss questions whether these terms should be applied to such work, particularly the terms artist and oeuvre, was the work necessarily sustained and their own bodies of work? Giving as examples Francis Frith and Matthew Brady whose work was mostly their employees. The work of Eugene Atget as is art is also examined, Szarkowski notes how Aget’s changed from having complete discrete objects, frontally lit to objects cut by the photographic frame asymmetrically positioned but is still undecided on his intentions behind his 10,000 plates. Interestingly Krauss assigns him the post of artist retrospectively.

These are all attempts to dismantle the 19th century photographic archive, to analysis the sets of practices, institutions and relationships to which 19th century photography originally belonged to reassemble it within categories previously constituted by art and history. Krauss concludes that “subject” is the fulcrum in deciding whether photographs were intended and created or simply catalogues.

My thoughts:

I have learnt about the beginnings of landscape photography, stereoscopic photography but most of all have been given much to consider as I go forward:

  • I have not yet immersed or done enough research to produce a well-informed response but my gut instinct is to ask why do we need to know what the artist’s original intention was to decide whether something is a work of art or not, surely it should be the viewer’s response to it that decides if it is a work of art.
  • I do feel it is wrong to classify something as a work of art because it sits in a gallery.
  • I also struggle with the concept of an artist where there has to be a process and development of the artist and work into a body of work or an oeuvre and will seek to find actual exceptions to this though I can’t give any examples immediately.

Questions that I will consider when viewing landscape photographs are:

  • Is it a landscape photograph a view or a landscape?
  • Is an artist only and artist if they have developed a body of work?
  • What makes a photograph of the aesthetic category or not?
  • Is every piece of work in a gallery art?