PRINT September 1979



To the Editor:

I am surprised that a serious publication such as Artforum would find it appropriate to publish a diatribe in the vein of “What’s All This About Photography?” (Artforum, May 1979). For those of us who are not inclined to Mr. Hennessy’s taste patterns, his arguments are especially disappointing because significant issues in need of examination are glossed over with layers of baroque mystification.

Why is it that the protagonist of one form of visual expression feels the need to attack a different form in such virulent and ungenerous terms? Nowhere, for example, does Mr. Hennessy acknowledge that his preferred artists, de Kooning and Dubuffet, paint in styles which need not describe rational space largely because photography has long since assumed that function, freeing painters to pursue other avenues of expression much more intrinsic to their craft tools.

It would serve little purpose to rebut point by point Mr. Hennessy’s overheated rhetoric with terms equally loaded. In fact he has been tardy in his defense; it seems too late now to hope that photography can be evicted, or rescued if you wish, from the pantheon of Fine Art. Nor are the arguments he employs especially fresh. His attack on photography’s tools, images and relationship to the physical world might have been cribbed directly from the debate begun in 1889 with the publication of Naturalistic Photography, in which P.H. Emerson forcefully raised the claim for photography as a fine art. Barely a year later he recanted, having been dissuaded by conversations with a “great artist,” researches into the psychology of vision and his own confirmation of the discovery that photographic emulsions react in a predictable and controllable manner to the actions of light and chemicals. Although Emerson despised those photographers who attempted “painterly” effects and continued to believe that photographs could be more beautiful than paintings, he maintained that photographs could not be art because once having selected a view, nothing the photographer could do would significantly alter the scene to express his intention, for example by editing a feature or changing the order of tones. This indeed is a photographic problem, as anyone who has attempted to use a camera expressively knows: the world often refuses to come up with your goods and seems to deliver a worm with each apple. Underlying this entire line of reasoning is alogical fallacy which Mr. Hennessy has resurrected—that a new art form must necessarily be validated in comparison with traditional forms and the values expressed in them. With this line of reasoning, baseball stands a better chance than photography of being declared a fine art. The level of photographic awareness among serious observers has risen to the point where it is widely, though certainly not universally, understood that the medium’s supposed defects—grain, focus, distortion, accident and so forth—constitute a unique esthetic, a palette of significant choices. Central to this radically altered understanding is the photographer’s collaboration with time and circumstance which places him or her in a complex, less omnipotent relationship to the direct experience of the world. No longer can the artist simply assemble and create from a fixed position but is forced to incorporate flow and change into an esthetic, to become the observer inside the event. Naturally most photographs fail esthetically under the pressure of this dual tension of control and accident, veering either to-ward manipulation or diffuseness but when the forces come into balance (and some can balance extraordinary amounts of these qualities) the photograph obtains the power to alter and direct the viewer’s sense of reality. Thus photography creates a bias toward engagement in the world as painting traditionally creates the opposite bias.

In the end Mr. Hennessy’s case against photography and recent modern art movements rests on the claims of sheer elitist connoisseurship. By his choice of terms, metaphors and examples he reveals himself to be an esthetic, if not a political, royalist; and, significantly, photography is one of the most democratic, even anarchic esthetic forms available. Not only does it undercut the precious hand-made-object standard of value, but it does so without on the other hand becoming a mass market commodity. The mental fix behind Mr. Hennessy’s tautology that photography cannot be great art because there are no great photographers (in his opinion) is that in an art world weaned on unique hand-made objects and esthetic territorialism it is sometimes hard to escape the suspicion that a photograph however powerful has been merely serendipitous. This repeats the fallacy of placing the subject above the expression it serves and if the photograph appears to be effortless, or the photographer “transparent” so that the viewer is brought into the sensation of direct participation in the event, is this not the art which conceals art? For in the end, though the naif with a camera may accidentally or unconsciously create images of great interest and beauty, as children regularly do in finger paint and crayons, photography yields its deepest and most powerful expression only with the continuous application of energy, intelligence and passionate commitment to the interchange it makes possible.

—Timothy W. Volk
Madison, N.J.

To the Editor:

For this painter, who insists on lushness, Richard Hennessy’s article “What’s All This About Photography” (Artforum, May 1979) treated me to a walk—an uncautious walk—through the rainforest, where everything grows without undernourished restraint. Often an uninhabited place. Thanks.

—Lois diCosola

To the Editor:

Lickable paintings? C’mon. I’d rather have a chocolate ice-cream cone. I stopped eating paintings when I was four.

All of a sudden, photography is being used as an excuse to attack modern art. Is Richard Hennessy (Artforum, May 1979) willing to deny the importance of an artist like Rauschenberg, who uses photographic imagery?

An ugly elitism resides in Mr. Hennessy’s arguments. To counter, I prefer Atget or Sander in any list that includes Proust or Eliot, or for that matter, Japanese pottery or African sculpture to most of Picasso.

—Bevan Davies
New York, N.Y.

To the Editor:

Richard Hennessy’s “What’s All This About Photography,” May ’79, was a most grueling test of my forbearance. I can not believe that people who are writing in the nineteenth century are getting away with it in Artforum.

—William Paris
Rochester, N.Y.