PRINT September 1976

The Anti-Photographers

THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN ART and photography, historically fraught with anxieties, has ceased to be one of definition; nevertheless, it continues to bug us. Though the post-modernist revolution has (as in many other disciplines) eradicated traditional boundaries and brought about a tremendous increase in “esthetic mobility,” photography’s status in the art world remains problematic. For every photographer who clamors to make it as an artist, there is an artist running a grave risk of turning into a photographer. The level of absurdity to which such maneuvering can descend is exemplified, perhaps, by the importance placed on the image of the surroundings in which one exhibits. A gallery’s reputation often has as much to do with sealing the fate of a work as does the character of the art itself. Nowhere are such hierarchies more clearly visible than at the galleries Castelli, where photographs are shown Downstairs Uptown, with the prints, but very much Upstairs Downtown (in the front parlor, that is)—if they come properly introduced as conceptual art.

Oddly enough, conceptual art has never been plagued with accusations that it belongs on photography’s side of the tracks, yet the condition in which much of it could or would exist without photography is open to question. Photographs are crucial to the exposure (if not to the making) of—practically every manifestation of conceptual-type art—Earthworks, process and narrative pieces, Body Art, etc.1 Their first function is, of course, documentation; but it can be argued that photography offers certain specific qualities and possibilities that have done much to inform and channel artistic strategies and to nurture the development of idea-oriented art. Despite its dependence on photography, however, conceptual art exhibits little photographic self-consciousness, setting itself apart from so-called serious photography by a snapshot-like amateurism and nonchalance that would raise the hackles of any earnest professional. In fact, many conceptual artists consider it irrelevant whether or not they take their own pictures. Some do it themselves, of course. Others, Eleanor Antin, for instance, employ someone else. Photos of Body Art, where the artist himself is the subject of the picture, have to be taken by other people. It would be interesting to know how many of such images may actually be the work of aspiring art photographers!

The artistic success of these anonymous and technically unremarkable pictures provides, perhaps, a clue to the root of photography’s difficulties. Over half a century ago, Alfred Stieglitz conducted a massive p.r. campaign for photography’s acceptance as art within an emerging climate of modernism which he himself did much to foster. He translated the self-referentiality of the modernist position in painting into a self-consciousness about photography for photography’s sake. Much was made of the importance of the unique photographic print. Abstract formal values were, as in painting, given high priority, heavily influencing the photographer’s choice of subject, as well as his compositional tactics. Ironically, a medium which started out as an image recorder and replicator came to look on itself as a producer of sacred objects. But the strength of photographs lies in their unique ability to gather, preserve and present outside information, not to “make art.” Thus the contents of a photograph are inherently extra-photographic; a fact which, though not profitably reconcilable with modernism, offers considerable potential of its own. The extent to which Stieglitz may have been unwittingly responsible for stifling that potential remains to be explored elsewhere. Conceptual artists, however, in espousing photography for expedient recordmaking purposes, have begun to extend its ideological potential.

Conceptual art’s Duchampian underpinnings strip the photograph of its artistic pretensions, changing it from a mirror into a window. What it reveals becomes important, not what it is. It doesn’t matter to conceptual art whether the photographic prints that testify to its occurrence come from a fancy darkroom or the drugstore; the view’s the same. Nor does it matter if they’re reproductions, thus opening up the whole area of publications as possible territory for art. Seth Siegelaub has made this distinction:

When art does not any longer depend upon its physical presence, when it becomes an abstraction, it is not distorted and altered by its reproduction in books. It becomes PRIMARY information, while the reproduction of conventional art in books and catalogues is necessarily (distorted) “SECONDARY” information. When information is PRIMARY, the catalogue can become the exhibition.2

Photographers’ photographs, of course, also become “secondary” information when reproduced in books. Conceptual artists’ do not. In fact, the final form of the work may well be its publication. Robert Smithson’s Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan, for example, documents nine “Mirror Displacements” placed in various locations, photographed, then packed up and moved to the next place. Smithson published the photographs in Artforum, along with an extensive commentary, as the completed work.3 Ed Ruscha has a similar attitude toward the final form of his work and the printed reproduction of photos:

Mine are simply reproductions of photos. Thus [Twenty-six Gasoline Stations] is not a book to house a collection of art photographs—they are technical data like industrial photography._4

Eleanor Antin’s 100 Boots series took the form of industrially printed postcard reproductions; certainly in this case the production and distribution of the cards was as integral a part of the work as the antics of the boots themselves.

Art that does not depend, as Siegelaub says, on its physical presence relies heavily on photography for its credibility. Though few make the pilgrimage necessary to see Earthworks firsthand, or preside over the machinations that comprise Body Art, photographic reports from the front tell it like it was to all the (art) world. And though the photographs started out as documentation, once the act is over, they acquire eyewitness status, becoming, in a sense, the art itself. A grayish close-up of the teeth-marks on Vito Acconci’s arm (Trademarks, 1970) or the barely distinguishable figure of Chris Burden sitting in a dark boiler-room (The Visitation, 1974) is hardly the photographer’s idea of a masterpiece.. And yet, we may ask ourselves, how much of such art would continue to be made were it not for photography’s flawless credibility record in swearing to the truth of such occurrences?

Photos also allow artists to carry over Duchamp’s Readymade esthetic into the realm of conceptual art. Richard Long and Hamish Fulton stake artistic claim to various sections of landscape by photographing it—Long according to predetermined systems (“walking a 10-mile line, filming every half mile out and back, 42 shots”), Fulton by isolating certain memorable moments, also on lengthy walks. With both artists, the act of photographing is as much a part of the work as the resulting images. In Long’s case, it determines the conceptual structure of the piece; with Fulton, it enables him to “charge” the landscape esthetically.

Smithson’s Monuments of Passaic, in which he photographed, among other things, a rotating railroad bridge and dubbed it “Monument of Dislocated Directions,” is another instance of art status being conferred on a nonart place by an artist’s act of selection and photography.5 The photo itself, taken with an Instamatic, is predictably banal, and does not even show the bridge in action, though its swivelling function is what actually grants it admission to Smithson’s repertory of “monuments.”

If photography makes it possible to confer Ready-made status on otherwise untransportable places and deposit them in one’s oeuvre (or gallery), it also expedites the collection of such material for later artification by juxtaposition, group presentation or serial publication. Bernd and Hilla Becher ignore the architectural or engineering achievements of the buildings that make up their work, photographing them so as to categorize types, compare similar formal elements, and arrange them in sequences (or pseudo-sequences) that suppress the structures’ individual characteristics in favor of what they call “typologies.” The conceptual precision of their enterprise would be impossible without photography because, as Carl Andre has pointed out, it allows them to equalize the proportions of buildings that are not the same size, for purposes of presentation.6 The Bechers claim not to care whether or not the resulting grids of images are works of art; nevertheless, their relevance to current art ideas is inescapable.

Ed Ruscha’s photographic gatherings, though deliberately trivial in subject matter, undergo similar transformations when placed between the covers of his enigmatic small books. He is not interested in a formal comparison of structures, though Twentysix Gasoline Stations and 64 Parking Lots, when viewed together, offer provocative visual commentary. But the presentation itself, with each image isolated on a separate page, indicates that Ruscha’s choices stem from other ideas. Just what those ideas are remains problematic. Colored People (16 color photos of cactuses) and A Few Palm Trees (annotated with their locations) manage to convey an uncannily anthropomorphic sense of presence which is very amusing; but, as is often the case with humor, the easy access which it grants to the work is deceptive. (The same can be said of John Baldessari and William Wegman, whose surface levity masks a more complex content.)

The idea of art through selection, harking back to Duchamp and vastly enlarged in scope through the use of photos, is gently parodied by Baldessari in his Choosing series. Here photographs of the artist’s finger pointing to one of three similar items (green beans, chocolates, etc.) call attention to the process involved in making choices.

In addition to being a means of gathering information, photography offers a number of structural strategies which play a greater part in the conception of many works than they are usually given credit for. An important, if obvious, difference between traditional photography and art comprised of or documented by photos is the use of several pictures rather than a single image. This immediately alters the sort of content possible within the overall work, offering the chance for a conceptual complexity rarely found in a single picture. The artist has a number of options—photos can be serial, sequential, in suites; they can be narrative, documentary, even components of abstractions. Usually any given group of photos serves several of these functions simultaneously.7

In documenting gestures and processes, the photograph allows the artist to eliminate the problem of duration, either by isolating a specific moment or by presenting a linear sequence without having to endure the possible monotony of a film or videotape of the actual event. This absence of real time is often compensated for by notations as to how long the process took, the distance covered, the size of intervals, number of occurrences, etc. Unlike a performance, theatrical or otherwise, in which the only way to see it is actually to be there in person from beginning to end (likewise a film or video), a process piece takes on its final public form in its documentation and is experienced by the viewer as a more or less simultaneous whole, in the same way that one would confront a painting or sculpture. This submergence of the temporal in favor of the visual is possible only with still photographs, which punctuate action and hand back the concept of the work edited of its durational aspects. Even, as in large series of photographs, when it is impossible to take in the whole work at once, our sense of ongoing time remains negligible.

If photography can eliminate the duration of process, it can also telescope distance, allowing one to relate isolated situations or events that derive their conceptual strength from juxtaposition and comparison. Eleanor Antin’s ubiquitous 100 Boots seem ubiquitous precisely because their getting from place to place has been edited out. Smithson’s “Mirror Displacements” can’t exist as a unit except in photos, since their enabling rationale was that each should occur in a different location. Thus it can be argued that this work’s final structure is photos, unlike an Earthwork in a single location which, though dependent on photos as records, could (though won’t, by most people) be seen “in the flesh.” The “Mirror Displacements” cannot be, any more than can, say, Dennis Oppenheim’s Parallel Stress, where the artist positioned his body in a V-shaped pose that conformed to two different locations. The final form of this work becomes the juxtaposition of the two photographs. Much of Douglas Huebler’s work also relies on juxtaposing isolated instances. Variable Piece 1A relates the facial expressions of eight people in five different countries upon being told, as we learn in an accompanying statement, that they have beautiful/special/remarkable faces. (This piece, incidentally, was distributed in an Art & Project bulletin, another case of the art taking its final form as a publication.)

Photographs can constitute physical as well as conceptual structure, as in the work of Jan Dibbets and Jared Bark. Both use sequences of photos artificially juxtaposed to produce nature-defying fantasies. Dibbets’ Dutch Mountain series, where photos of the horizon are successively tipped to give the illusion of a hill, comment on that country’s characteristic flatness. Bark, who uses the most banal form of photography imaginable—the subway photo booth—collages pictures of various parts of his body in elaborate series to form trees, animals, etc. In one respect they are reminiscent of certain 17th-century portraits by Archimboldo—grotesqueries where faces are composed entirely of vegetables.

If photography’s widespread acceptance as the currency of conceptual art has had an effect on the structure of such art, it has also opened new possibilities for many who consider themselves primarily photographers. The sequence-serial-narrative issue deserves further consideration in this respect, for photographers have been drawing on its didactic capacities for the extra-photographic content which they are increasingly interested in incorporating into their work. Some manipulate the characteristics of narrative or sequence, juxtaposing presentational formats that are habitually read in certain ways (left to right, top to bottom) with photographed information that does not necessarily relate accordingly. Jan Groover’s photographs of cars and trucks passing specific points along streets and highways are presented horizontally so that one first assumes they represent the passage of time. In fact, their order is established purely visually within the overall composition, making space their primary concern. Bernd and Hilla Becher’s use of the grid format produces a similar disruption of traditional expectations; usual readings of objects arranged in grids, with their implied serial progressions and relationships, do not apply.

Sequences do not need to progress horizontally; Duane Michals reverses photography’s usual method of showing an overall view and details of varying closeness, gradually dispensing additional information about his subject by moving farther and farther away. Tableaux which at first appear to contain bizarre discrepancies in scale reveal their true identities as the camera recedes, clarifying by degrees the structure of the scene. Al Sousa has also done series which play on this idea of photographic depth. He starts with a small object, photographs it, photographs the resulting photo, etc., exhibiting them in sequence together with the original object. The resulting series shifts scale in a sort of photographic perspective, as well as offering damning evidence of the inaccuracies of color film, which are compounded as the series progresses.

Collecting for conceptual purposes is also gaining appeal for photographers. Louis Baltz’s photographs of industrial parks, for instance, though perhaps more closely related to Minimalism in their frontality and sparse geometry, converge with Ruscha’s gas stations in their banal subject matter and with the Bechers in their structural comparisons. And Bill Owens’ Suburbia, a collection of photographs of middle-class America, is as deliberate a social commentary as any of Hans Haacke’s slumlord documentaries. Both Baltz and Owens, along with numerous others (see Colin L. Westerbeck’s article on page 40), have gone in for publishing such collections, indicating, perhaps, that they are less interested in the autonomy of the original photograph than in its capacity to transmit ideas.

Over the past few years, as photographers have experimented with conceptual tactics, artists have begun to be seduced by the technical capacities of the photographic process. Baldessari, for example, has concentrated increasingly on the professional quality of his photographs. What was once presented in standard-sized polaroid snapshots has begun to appear in larger, much slicker form. A recent strobe series recording the motion of objects required a much higher degree of technical skill than the casualness of his earlier work. And Hamish Fulton’s photographs, extremely large in size and meticulously framed and matted, exploit the graininess which photographers often rely upon for special effects; they also allude to the romanticism which Ansel Adams, for instance, seeks in his landscapes. Even in the work of such artists as Ben Vautier, Peter Hutchinson, Jean Le Gac, Bill Beckley, etc., which I have not considered in detail as its narrative is essentially verbal rather than visual, the accompanying photographs that serve as punctuation to the texts have shown a tendency to become more professional in quality.

On the purely documentary side of things, perhaps the quintessential example of heightened attention to technical quality would be the elaborate photographic records and resulting coffee-table book that attest to Christo’s Valley Curtain. It’s ironic that an art whose generating impulse was the urge to break away from the collectible object (and hence the gallery/collector/artbook syndrome) might, through an obsession with the extent and quality of its documentation, have come full circle.

Photography obviously cannot claim sole credit for the rise of the prevailing ephemeral art styles; nor is it fair to say that conceptual art is produced purely to be photographed. It isn’t. But there can be little doubt that photography’s role has extended far beyond its original archival function, entering into dialogue with artistic ideas in mutually reinforcing ways. Certainly the production of impermanent works is encouraged by the status accorded the photographic stand-in. Works don’t have to locate themselves in remote places, self-destruct in five seconds, or cease to exist at the end of a gesture to benefit from a photographic after-life. Even ephemeral gallery-installation exhibitions, a recent but ever more common phenomenon, owe the luxury of their three-week fling to the reassurance that there’ll always be the photos. (Walter de Maria’s gallery full of dirt, a key installation gesture, has become famous through its photographs.)

If photography has encouraged such transitory indulgences, it has also, in many cases, helped shape their character. The extent to which the two have become inseparable was noted by Robert Morris in a conceptual/photographic/publication piece of his own, where he invented three artists and discussed their work (accompanied by drawings and, of course, photos) in Artforum. One of the “artists,” Marvin Blaine, had dug an elaborate cave which, though suspiciously prophetic of Alice Aycock’s recent burrowings, he insisted was not art and would not allow to be photographed:

Blaine simply said that the cave was a private thing and he was consciously removing these private efforts from his mind as art. The easiest way to remove the efforts from being taken as art by others was to have no photographic memory exist.

Nancy Foote



1. Photographs are also involved in the making of many other types of art—photo-Realist paintings, Samaras’s Photo-transformations. Warhol’s silkscreens and Rauschenberg’s collages, to list a few. I am concerned here only with its documentary or notational functions.

2. Ursula Meyer, Conceptual Art (New York, 1972) p. xix.

3. Robert Smithson, “Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan,” Artforum, September 1969, pp. 28–33.

4. John Coplans, “Concerning Various Small Fires: Edward Ruscha Discusses his Perplexing Publications,” Artforum, February, 1965, p. 25.

5. Robert Smithson, “The Monuments of Passaic,” Artforum, December 1967, pp. 48–51.

6. Carl Andre, “A Note on Bernd and Hilla Becher,” Artforum, December 1972. p. 59.

7. In the Catalogue for an exhibition of sequenced photographs (photo)(photo)2 . . . (photo)n, University of Maryland Art Gallery, Feb. 26–March 25, 1975) David Bourdon touched upon these distinctions in establishing the criteria for inclusion in the shows. He differentiates between a sequence and a suite, and on those grounds eliminates Ed Ruscha but includes the Bechers and Jan Dibbets. A sequence however, implies linear continuity, a progressional order which the Bechers’ work lacks, falling more in the category of collections. Dibbets is even more problematic for though he arranges the photos in an order, it relates on to his final abstract construction and not to the subjects of the photos. Such inconsistencies, far from being intended as a criticism of Bourdon’s choices, underline the very blurriness of the whole question, and emphasize the depth which photography can bring to such work.

8. Robert Morris, “The Art of Existence: Three Extra-Visual Artists: Works in Process,” Artforum, January 1971, p. 30.