PRINT November 1972

Digressions on the Photographic Agony

“This is the end of art. I am glad I have had my day.”
—J.M.W. Turner, 1839/40

I BEGAN WITH A FANTASTIC case: the recent discovery of an imaginary relic.

A tanker returning to Arabia, running blind in a fog at night, collides with an uncharted object. The morning light reveals, instead of the expected crag, an enormous sphere floating in the sea, covered in barnacles and corrosion: it is nearly 1000 feet in diameter. Investigators at the scene determine that the thing is metallic and hollow, a colossal bubble, within which the most sensitive devices fail to detect any activity whatsoever.

A tabloid columnist hints that the menace to navigation may be a product of intelligence. His speculation prospers, and the sphere is towed ponderously up the Thames to the Isle of Dogs, to be beached where, more than a century be fore, I. K. Brunel built and launched the Great Eastern. In a fury of sandblasters and jackhammers, workmen swarm over the riveted hulk. The first square yard scraped clean reveals, in indubitable relief, the single word: ATLANTIS. Screaming headlines proclaim the Lost Continent found.

A small contingent of heavily armed Commandos escorting three specialists—a mountaineer, a photographer, and a psychiatrist—descends through a manhole found at the zenith of the sphere. Hours later, the whole party emerges unharmed. Dazed, grimy, their faces frozen in the hornswoggled look of men lost in a perfect ecstasy of boredom, they explain that they have found . . . nothing. Or, rather, less than nothing: they have found only photographs.

Of a hundred decks within the structure, the bottom dozen or so are awash in bilge; the remainder are piled high with photographs of every sort and condition. Some are immaculately preserved, others eroded and dog-eared and faded nearly past recognition. They are boxed, or tipped into albums, or rolled into cylinders that crack at a touch, or strewn in loose stacks on shelves or underfoot. Some few bear signatures, or captions, or dates. Most are on paper, but a few images adhere to metal, or glass; very occasionally, a picture adorns an otherwise undistinguished mug or platter. Interspersed throughout the mass are verbal oddments: manuscript pages, pamphlets, articles torn bodily from magazines, a few books. And that’s all. The most pitiless search turns up nothing of value.

Once the find is established as utterly worthless, there remains the problem of disposal. Respectable institutions flatly refuse to have anything to do with the dusty mess; finally, a few indigent archives of technological incunabula are persuaded to trundle away a portion of the stuff. The rest is given out to the middle classes, as a sort of perverse ballast for their attics, or else it just disappears.

Time intercedes with its familiar mercies. A generation passes. And then an obscure doctoral candidate stumbles upon an hypothesis that electrifies the scholarly world. Kneeling in the gloom of a subcellar in Rochester, New York, leafing through a crate of Atlantis’ leavings, the young man glimpses a pattern of coherence in its contents, and leaps to an insight that startles him half out of his wits.

Reasoning from an imperfect analogy with the mysterious culture of porpoises and whales, who abandoned the encumbrance of physical objects when they returned to the sea, and embraced instead a bodiless oral tradition of music, literature, and argumentation, our scholar postulates an Atlantis civilization that expended its entire energy in the making of photographs. During its palmiest days, the whole citizenry united in the execution of a great project, much as the medieval towns had built their cathedrals, or the men of Tsin their Great Wall. But the Supreme Artifact of Atlantis was vaster than either . . . and incomparably more sophisticated.

Briefly described, it consisted in nothing less than the synthesis, through photographic representation, of an entire imaginary civilization, together with its every inhabitant, edifice, custom, utensil, animal. Great cities were built, in full scale and complete to the minutest detail, by generations of craftsmen who dedicated their skills to the perfection of verisimilitude: these cities existed only to be photographed. But the ambitions of Atlantis went far beyond this concern for mise en scène. Patient research establishes a deliberate fourfold complication in the plan.

In the first place, the imaginary culture is depicted as passing through time . . . the total apparent span amounting to about eighty years. This necessitated endless further effort: walls had to be gradually dirtied and effaced; buildings demolished or burned, repaired, rebuilt. Illusory machines were gradually refined. Celebrities were made to age. A sprinkling of wars, natural disasters, and social upheavals were staged with the utmost care.

Secondly—and this was a masterstroke—the people of the fictitious culture itself were represented as the makers of the Artifact. It is remarkable that, in the whole work, no faintest trace of Atlantis proper is visible anywhere, nor has any Atlantic technician left a shred of evidence from which his own existence might be inferred. It is the creatures of illusion who are avid photographers.

An unexpected corollary provides that these illusions have, on the whole, no uniform concern for their photographs. Some few are treasured in museums, their delicacy guarded in unseen vaults; far more are treated as expendable, and survive according to chance, there being no apparent qualitative difference between what is saved and what is discarded.

And finally, as a crowning touch, the Atlantic masters fabricated a critical tradition to accompany the images: a puzzling collection of writings that is gathered into the so-called Atlantic Codex. It is precisely the opposite of its subject: the photographs are everywhere copious, exact, assured; the Codex is unrelievedly sparse, vague, and defensive.

Following immediately upon the revelation in the Rochester basement, scholars undertake an Inventory (of uncertain completeness), which is succeeded by a somewhat shaky Grundriss. Monographs, synopses, and festschrifte proliferate; at this writing, in fact, they still continue to multiply.

Every researcher finds himself first hypnotized and then exasperated by the Artifact’s most striking quality: through some freak of clairvoyance, the illusion that emerges from the endless photographs bears an uncanny resemblance to our own 19th century, or, more precisely, the years 1835 to 1917. By further miraculous coincidence, the Codex is written largely in what appears to be semiliterate dialects of English and French—although the text often lapses into nonsense.

What is the meaning of the Artifact? And why did the people of Atlantis go to such lengths in making it? Hope seems to be waning that the riddle will be solved. The answer rests, finally, upon the decipherment of two words, both hopelessly ambiguous, that appear on nearly every page of the Codex. Barring the chance discovery of a Rosetta Stone, we may never understand them, since they defy contextual analysis.

The first of these is: “science.” And the second is: “art.”

WHOEVER ONCE NOTICES EARLY PHOTOGRAPHY, soon finds it bulking large as a continent . . . what in this world that continent recalls is hard to say. Viewed as a body of innocent document, only our reflex acquiescence to the plausibility of the photographic image contradicts what that same image so poignantly enforces: a sense of times and places altogether lost, and thus irretrievably alien: an Atlantis. Analytic criticism finds it an Antarctica: clearly marked boundaries mostly filled with the white that cartographers use to designate unexplored wilderness. Excavating for the remains of the responsible parties—the photographers themselves—yields us a gallery of hybrid monsters long extinct: half-astronomer, half-painter, half-mathematician, half-showman, and so on . . . a kind of esthetic Gondwanaland.

It is a continent bounded in time. Landfall occurs in August of 1835, at Lacock Abbey, Chippenham, where William Henry Fox Talbot made the first paper negative; the farther coast is reached in June, 1907, aboard the liner Kaiser Wilhelm II, where Alfred Stieglitz made The Steerage . . . through shoals and reefs extend through the days of “291” and on into the First World War.

Whatever sort of place early photography is, there have been repeated attempts to map it. Two such attempts are the occasion of this article. Both partake a little of the quaintness of old maps of America, which are as likely to show local fauna or minerals as they are major landmarks.

The first is called “Masterpiece,” and is subtitled “Treasures from the Collection of The Royal Photographic Society.” (This map shows us where the gold is.) The second is called“‘From today painting is dead,’ ” and is subtitled “The Beginnings of Photography.” (This map shows us where the animals are, along with a great deal else.) Both exhibitions appeared under the auspices of The Arts Council of Great Britain; both, I believe, owed their very existence to the extraordinary energy and perseverance of Dr. Joanna Drew. Both proceed from very different assumptions, and it is these assumptions that I shall have to examine at some length.

“Masterpiece” allots its small space with scrupulous fairness. Six or seven prints apiece represent 13 photographers. Since they are masters (Q.E.D.), it matters what their names are. They are, in order of their dates of birth: David Octavius Hill, 1802–70 (with Robert Adamson, 1820–48); Oscar Gustav Rejlander, 1813–75; Julia Margaret Cameron, 1813–79; Roger Fenton, 1819–69; Henry Peach Robinson, 1830–1901; Frederick Henry Evans, 1852–1943; Peter Henry Emerson, 1856–1936; Frank Meadows Sutcliffe, 1859–1940; Alfred Stieglitz, 1864–1946; Richard Polak, 1870–1957; Clarence White, 1871–1925; Edward Steichen, 1879–; Alvin Langdon Coburn, 1882–1966. (The history of photography is compressed: I am obliged to notice that fully half these names belong to men still alive during my own lifetime.)

The list reads like a roll of honor, openly courting the customary blasts and blesses of the reviewer. One is ritually grateful for Rejlander’s The Two Ways of Life; one questions, ritually, the inclusion of Evans, whose oeuvre is small and specialized (cathedrals, plus Aubrey Beardsley) in a notably copious and variegated company; one ritually grits one’s teeth at the ritual inclusion of Steichen, whose work certainly has been blessed sufficiently, by this time. One is ritually astonished at Polak’s Old Dutch interiors, made in 1913–17 (presumably in obeisance to Burlington House) in the very teeth of Vorticism, not to mention the Armory show and God knows what else. But one is not invited to question the assumption implicit in the title of the show.

If the roster of contributors is unimpeachable, it nevertheless strongly suggests a Little Golden Book of Photography. We have all seen the same thing done to painting: the sort of kid stuff that begins with Raphael (adroitly side-stepping Giotto), gum-shoes its way through Leonardo AND Bosch AND Velasquez AND Gainsborough, omits Turner, coyly assents to Gauguin, captures Juan Gris en passant, and ends with a haughty nod at Klee. Our objections to such crude anthologies are twofold: they avoid ‘difficult’ artists, certainly; and, disingenuously, they avoid ‘difficult’ works by their chosen exemplars. Pedagogy alone protects such non choices, with arguments as unanswerable as Jehovah’s.

And pedagogy is the tacit pretext for “Masterpiece.” The show was designed to tour England (where photography is a national pastime second only to gardening); in other words, it was packaged for the provinces . . . ever so neatly packaged, in modular panels, behind wavy plexiglas that drowned the images in ambient reflections. When I saw it (at Portsmouth) the provinces seemed to be receiving the package with customary thanks: five days after the scheduled opening, the panels were still propped at random around the walls.

I had been lured to England by a catalogue which implied (without ever promising it) great amplitude; the disappointing impression was instead one of paucity—and moreover, of downright preciousness, as of ambrosia being dispensed a drop at a time. In the midst of gratitude for much of what was shown, was a titillating sense of seeing “samples,” rather than fully representative segments from 13 bodies of work. In a word, photography, which had been the unacknowledged staple protein of Western visual sensibility for more than a century, was finally being served up in the eggshell teacups of Art. The very title, “Masterpiece,” had been lifted bodily from the assumptions surrounding painting.

Now I do not deny the existence of masterpieces, so long as that word is understood to connote seminal force rather than mere luster. But the term brings to mind an image of discrete monuments, arrayed with perpetual care in the cemetery of Culture, evaluated by a boom-or-bust criticism that would prefer every candidate to be named Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mt. Rushmore. What engrosses us more readily, I believe, is the patterned perceptual energy displayed in the work of a lifetime; for a photographer that work nearly always amounts to many hundreds of images, and may run much higher (Edward Weston left 60,000 negatives). Comparatively slow and expensive procedures like painting fragment sensibility into the massive precipitates called masterpieces. Cheapness, and rapidity of execution, are fundamental conditions of photography; they facilitate continuous entrainment of sensibility; so that it is probably more precise to say that in photography there are Masters, who are likely at any instant to make an image that will teach, or move, or delight us.

But behind this flooding of the photographic continent to produce from its peaks an archipelago. of masterpieces, there lies more than mere esthetic confusion, or a good-natured attempt to put photographs over as High Art by pretending that they’re paintings. An official of the Royal Photographic Society has contributed a catalogue preface in which she points out (in the midst of a mouth-watering enumeration of the Society’s holdings) that rare, old photographs (aliter, “masterpieces”) are now worth MONEY. In fact, the sum of sixty-eight thousand quid is mentioned, and deprecated as “too low a figure.” The vexing old question of archival permanence is deftly tied to money (right where it belongs). It is intimated that, before the collection may be made available to scholars, the Society must get more money. Such indeed, folks, are the facts of life. I question whether the front pages of an exhibition catalogue are the most appropriate place to have one’s nose rubbed in them. The space might better have been given over to an introductory essay by Aaron Scharf, who wrote the very serviceable notes.

FAR FROM THE OPALESCENT HUSH of “Masterpiece,” another sort of show entirely, “‘From today painting is dead,’ ” closed at the Victoria and Albert Museum a few days before I arrived in London; I was privileged to see the photographs (but none of the apparatus that made up a substantial part of the more than 900 items exhibited) after they had been taken down for return to scores of public and private lenders in England and France. I must stress the word, privileged, for I don’t expect ever to see most of them again. It is unfortunate that some museum—any museum, no matter of what kind—did not bring this exhibition to the United States, since we haven’t the resources, on this side of the Atlantic, to put together anything even remotely like it. All that is left is a catalogue that should become a model of its kind.

“‘From today painting is dead’” troubles itself not at all about the dignity of art (though its contributors do, often enough), but assumes instead that photography is a technology, designed for making whatever image the user pleases, without excessive fuss: the motive is presumed to differ from one photographer to the next.

The show details, at lucid length, the invention of the magical contraption of optics and chemistry, and then sails cheerfully into the ebullient free for all that photography has been since its first moments. And yet every image seems directly linked to every other, like a neuron in the racial memory that is the chief social function of photography.

The most astounding things, it seems, have.. been photographed: the great and famous, of course, by others who somehow became great and famous in the act of photographing them. But here too are anonymous images of the descendants of the Bounty mutineers; and archaeological excavations undertaken by Isaac Newton; and men on the barricades in the rue de Flandre, during the Paris Commune; and tiny I. K. Brunel in top hat, standing beside the surrealistically enormous anchor-chains of the Great Eastern; and . . . the list IS endless.

Literally everything has been photographed . . . that is, since 1835. In case this observation seems drearily obvious, I would point out simply that we know (whether we want to or not) what Ulysses Grant looked like, and the Crystal Palace; the same thing cannot be said, with any conviction, for Aristotle, or the Alexandrian library. In the course of a few generations, the past has taken on much of the substantiality of the present, most of which we only experience indirectly—that is, through photographs—anyway.

The instantaneous mnemonic process works with perfect precision, no matter who presses the button. In every early discussion of photography as an art, it is that single fact that seems to cause the most trouble.

POINTS DEFINE A PERIPHERY. Three points define a triangle; but it is well to remember that the same three points may also determine a unique circle. A collection of points, if sufficiently large, delimits the boundary of a continent—provided only that we know where each point stands in relation to every other one. Call each point a work of art: the task of criticism may be understood as the location of points in relation to others. Normally, that task is facilitated by the emergence of axes that gradually crystallize from a saturated solution in which the ingredients are expectedly tedescan—inventory, Grundriss, synopsis, monograph, Festschrifte—and the solvent, long contemplation.

There is no substitute for critical tradition: a continuum of understanding, early commenced. Remy de Gourmont surmised that the Iliad discovered today in the ruins of Herculaneum “would produce only some archaeological sensations” . . . illustrative of some vanished civilization. Precisely because William Blake’s contemporaries did not know what to make of him, we do not know either, though critic after critic appeases our sense of obligation to his genius by reinventing him . . . In the 1920’s, on the other hand, something was immediately made of Ulysses and The Waste Land, and our comfort with both works after 50 years, including our ease at allowing for their age, seems derivable from the fact that they have never been ignored.1

Thus the critic Hugh Kenner, on a problem in contemporary literature. He might as well be writing about photography during the embryonic period under discussion; only the least shift in conjectural emphasis is required. For a kind of mute Iliad has been dug up, from the ruins of one and another collection, and fairly vibrates with the urge to produce more than “archeological sensations.” And neither “Masterpiece” nor “‘From today painting is dead’” make of the photographs anything more than their contemporaries did: on the one hand, photography is uncomfortably treated as an Art (that is, a branch of painting, seen strictly as an image-making craft); on the other, it is viewed as a Science (or technology—the two were scarcely dissociated during the extended annus mirabilis that begat photography), a way to ordered knowledge.

And around the 1920s, something was immediately made of work by the generation of Strand and Weston. In fact, they were themselves finally able to make something coherent of it, to found a “continuum of understanding.” The question of whether photography was a Science had evaporated by then, since photographic technology had already assimilated the hard sciences: astronomer, radiologist, high-energy physicist, physical chemist, molecular biologist were (and remain, in the operational sense) photographers; fistsful of hybrid technologies had sprung up as well. But the hoary question remained to bedevil the men of “291”: is photography an art?

Polemically, they annihilated it. Paul Strand exhorted young photographers to “forget about art” (recommending “honesty” as a more useful mantram); Weston flatly refused to be called an artist in print. The posture solidified, and it is characteristic of most photographers today that they couldn’t care less.

But the question dogged the photographer’s every step for six or seven decades, splintering into a one-sided catechism: is photography an art? if the answer is “yes,” what sort of art is it? is it like painting? how is it unlike painting? if the answer is “no,” then what is it anyway? and so on, ad nauseam. An agonized confusion came of the effort to cover every imaginable bet; the effort to resolve that confusion has engendered transvaluations that have yet to run their full course in the visual arts (although, admittedly, still photography itself has not occupied the main arena for a long time).

For the photographer willing to adopt a fixed perceptual distance from his pretext (to become a “stylist”) Art offered a workable recourse and rationale; and the century gestated a phalanx of memorable stylists. Of these, Julia Margaret Cameron can serve as the perfect type; sitters recall in their diaries Procrustean ordeals in the back garden of an obsessive, dumpy woman exhaling hypo. The results were images of oneiric force: but one cannot help asking whether the eyes of Herschel, Tennyson, and Darwin could all have been haunted in precisely the same way.

But for more restless spirits, the pattern became intricate to the point of disjunction or of self-interference. The portraitist Nadar began as a newspaper caricaturist: his portraits hint, rather than betray, such beginnings; and then he ascended in a hot-air balloon and became the first aerial photographer of Paris. And then he made a blandly ironic self-portrait, posed in a balloon’s basket, inside his studio, against a painted backdrop derived from one of his own aerial photographs.

Roger Fenton’s reputation is based upon his photographs of the Crimean War: a subset within his body of work that is strictly comparable to that of the corporate fiction we call “Matthew Brady.” In Fenton’s time the painterly categories were fairly rigid. Ontologically handcuffed as he was to the prior existence of a “subject,” he should have waited for the next war. But no; a catalogue note tells us: “. . . [his] activities extended to . . . a striking set of informal photographs of the Royal family, with landscape and architectural views, still lifes, city and river views and exotic ‘orientalist’ costume pieces.”

In 1857, O. G. Rejlander composed (the verb is deliberate) The Two Ways of Life, a monumentally campy and insipid moral tableau,‘inspired’ by a currently influential treatise on painting. Amid murmurs of indecency, the work was certified as Art when Prince Albert bought a print. What is remarkable about it is that it was synthesized from more than thirty separate negatives; a dimensionless stasis fabricated from an armload of negatives shot during long months. The same invention generated a series of “composite photographs” that prefigure images that we associate, eidetically, with the ’20s and ’30s. of this century. In 1860, Rejlander publicly repudiated art, but continued his experiments on the sly. What did he do for a living all this time? Seemingly at the other end of the spectrum, he made candid, pathetic views of street life. His photographs of children interested Charles Darwin, who used them in preference to drawings to illustrate (with the required accuracy) his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872).

At 30 years of age, Peter Henry Emerson abandoned a medical career for photography. Three years later, in 1889, he published Naturalistic Photography, a defense of photography as an art, basing his arguments firmly (and rather grotesquely) upon Helmholtz’s Physiological Optics, a book that also interested painters of Emerson’s generation, just as Goethe’s treatise on optics had polarized Turner’s thought nearly a century earlier. The book aroused controversy, in the midst of which, only one year later (following upon an interview with “a famous painter”) he published The Death of Naturalistic Photography, and proceeded to buy up and destroy copies of the earlier work, denouncing photography as an art. In 1899, Emerson published an “expurgated and expanded” third edition of Naturalistic Photography. And during the whole time, his style suffered little change beyond a gradual refinement.

Clearly, we are in the presence of minds experiencing a serious confusion. The speed and ease and economy of their process traps that confusion, as if in amber . . . without explicating it.

Consider the preposterous case of a contemporary painter who invents, within a period of five years, the mature styles of, say Willem de Kooning, Frank Stella, and James Rosenquist and then denounces painting. We should be obliged to consider such a person a little crazy, or else a naive opportunist; alternately, we might think of him as a critic.

But the latter evaluation would necessarily rest upon our reflex tendency to examine axioms, rather than corollaries, to seek the energy of thought among the deliberately held assumptions of a work . . . seen alongside that work’s denumerable traits, in a kind of stereoscopy.

And the 19th century was not noticeably given to examining its assumptions. In most disciplines, the more pressing game of consolidating holdings was afoot. They scarcely seemed to imagine that there is such a thing as an assumption: Locke and Newton had bequeathed them Laws, instead. Hence our perpetual temptation to suspect that they couldn’t think their way out of a paper bag.

And because they couldn’t, it quite often happens that we can’t either.

‘FROM TODAY PAINTING IS DEAD,’ we are told, in a moment of bravado dating to the early 1840s. The remark (It is apocryphal. Of course.) is attributed to one Paul Delaroche, himself a re formed painter, who ran a prosperous school and studio in Paris.

Behind the assertion lies an explicit assumption about painting that painters themselves had already begun to question: that the inescapable condition of painting was representation, spatial and tactile illusion—“imitation,” in the narrowest possible sense. And the invention of photography made it forcibly obvious that representation was a task to which painting had never been very well suited. For those with a need to make images, painting had simply sufficed, as a ‘technology’ . . . there being none other available.

William Henry Fox Talbot, who invented the negative-positive process that has become synonymous with photography, is the first person in whom we find, fully dissociated from the painter’s legendary object-making and surface-marking needs, the need to make images. Talbot was an amateur scientist. His first published paper was called On the properties of a certain curve derived from the equilateral hyperbola: a curve is the image of an equation. He writes of tracing images on the camera obscura:

This led me to reflect on the inimitable beauty of nature’s painting which the glass lens of the Camera throws upon the paper in its focus . . . creatures of a moment, and destined as rapidly to fade away . . . how charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably, and remain fixed upon the paper!2

Nature itself is seen as a succession of fugitive images (‘paintings’!); Talbot explicitly withdraws the artist’s hand from the making process (though it is hidden there anyway, since opticians assume Renaissance perspective when they grind their lenses). The images are to fix themselves, durably outside time. The notion of the apparently self-generated work, sufficient in its own immanence and only nominally connected to an invisible or anonymous maker, has haunted art ever since.

But along with the obvious representational assumptions about painting, early photographers unconsciously adopted others less obvious, and it is here that they confounded themselves.

Painting “assumes” architecture: walls, floors, ceilings. The illusionist painting itself may be seen as a window or doorway. And painting in the Occident, like architecture, is “built” from the ground up and a brick or gesture at a time. Indeed the metaphor of “building,” of composition, has underpinned our choice of what is respectable in art for a long time. But of course there have always been works of art that are simply “made,” emerging from nowhere in particular, through the mediumship of the artist, like Pallas from the brow of Zeus, in seeming defiance of ordinary gestation.

“Built” art and “made” art have never inhabited watertight compartments; rather, each has glanced wistfully over its shoulder at the advantages of the other . . . has, on occasion, worn the mask of the other. But those who build have tended to scorn those who make, for the air of naked utterance in which the made work so often wraps it self. Gertrude Stein, the most obvious aspect of whose work is its appearance of having been built up from small pieces, quotes herself scolding a protegé: “Hemingway, remarks are not literature.”

Early photographers accepted the axiom that True Art must be built, and mined it faithfully. But their image-making process, instantaneous and indivisible, did not lend itself to analysis into successive painterly gestures, so photographers adopted a different strategy: they made ‘arrangements,’ substituting persons and things for the painter’s brushstrokes and washes. And the results were, as often as not, ludicrous. An hilarious case in point is the oldest surviving specimen of photographic pornography, a “mythological subject” dating from 1842. At his obscenity trial, the photographer proposed to justify the picture as art by pointing out the careful inclusion of Doric columns and a potted palm.

By the mid-1850s, Rejlander and H. P. Robinson had made this process of construction, from literal image pieces seamlessly joined, absolutely synonymous with photographic Art: for they had not merely pressed the button . . . demonstrably, they had performed skilled labor, had Done Something. Where most photographs seemed to exist by suspicionable fiat, they had manufactured an Object. And objectmaking is a second assumption, brought over from painting, that has confounded photography.

Paintings are traditionally built by a process we might call dubitative—in other words, the painter fiddles around with the picture till it looks right. At its least coherent, the painting process recalls Anton Webern’s description of modulation in tonal music: “I go out into the hall to hammer in a nail. On my way there I decide that I’d rather go out. I act on impulse, get into a tram, come to a railroad station, go on traveling, and finally end up—in America! That’s modulation!”3 Such objects respond well to a critical approach that derives from Cartesian doubt: criticism has typically made discoveries about painting, representational or otherwise, by pretending that it does not know what it is looking at.

But photographs do not respond at all gratefully to this sort of examination: their illusions are too carnally potent to remain submerged for long in matter. Considered as objects, photographic images are quite unprepossessing—flat, anonymous sheets of paper, sensually unrewarding aside from their modulation of light—and often completely insubstantial: the projected photograph (which subsumes the whole of the cinema) simply has no physical existence at all.

Nor does the survival of the photographic work of art seem to depend very firmly upon its casual materiality: photographs withstand the grossest attrition, remaining plausible illusions so long as the least shred of an image lasts. (The Last Supper, or the papyrus fragments of Sappho, are objects of veneration from which we infer works of art; but they ceased to be a painting and some poems a long time ago.) Attempts on the part of photographers themselves to treat the image as an object have ultimately degenerated into an insistent shibboleth called “print quality,” the sole pursuit of which virtually assures slow death in that same Sahara where every art ends up, that identifies itself with its own mechanics. The photographic process is normative. Perfect adequacy is always good enough.

I seem to be saying of photographers that they toil not, and neither do they spin. But in fact the photographer does make something; and what that is, is easy enough to say, if I may be permitted a homely simile. A butcher, using only a knife, reduces a raw carcass to edible meat. He does not make the meat, of course, because that was always in the carcass; he makes “cuts” (dimensionless entities) that section flesh and separate it from bone.

The photographic act is a complex “cut” in space and time, dimensionless, in itself, as the intersections and figures in Euclid’s Elements . . . and, in the mind, precisely as real.

Certain photographs, through the justice of their cutting, even seem to share a privileged identity with their subjects. Every visitor to Mount Rushmore, the Grand Canyon, the Pyramids, the Parthenon, hastens to bring home precisely the image he has already seen, hundreds of times—in photographs; he thereby makes his own clichés that were at one time vistas newly decreed, imaginary lines laid out in projective space by the first photographers who saw them, acts of making more durable than stone, and nearer to geomancy than bricklaying.

Through such acts, endlessly renewed, we have learned to recognize all the appearances of the world; through such acts, from its very beginnings, photography reasserts art’s most ancient and permanent function: the didactic.

Hollis Frampton



1. Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era, 1972.

2. W. H. Fox Talbot, The Pencil of Nature, 1844.

3. Anton Webern, The Path to the New Music. The remark is from the lecture dated February 4, 1933.