PRINT February 1998


Remember the early arguments about how photography was not an art, the insistence that it would destroy painting, etc.? Photography’s dissenters (Baudelaire among them) were right, but mostly for the wrong reasons. Photography isn’t an art. Or, for the medium to accomplish what only it can do—disrupt a simple reproduction of reality—it should not be treated as one.

Remember Atget. His odd photographic cataloguing of a seemingly empty Paris, its interiors and environs, was too quickly mistaken for art, rather than understood to be, as Molly Nesbit concludes in Atget’s Seven Albums, 1994, work by someone who ignored art’s intentions: “This was the legacy of the seven albums. The denying document. The production of ignorance. Silence.”

Jeff Burton inherits Atget’s legacy without seeming to. Like Atget, he never condescends to his surroundings. No matter how rigorous or austere his look can be, Burton adores Los Angeles, a city structured by denial (of aging, inclement weather) and continually transforming the production of ignorance into a kind of sunshine awe. Often documents of bodies doing things with other bodies, in rooms and among objects as crucial to the work as those bodies, his photographs are more like life than they are like art, which is not to say that they are not particular and formal. Some of them he shoots on the porn-movie sets where he also works as a still photographer. (In others he turns to the daffy, forlorn landscapes of Southern California.) He observes casual, unstaged groupings of bodies arrayed around pools or lounging between takes, and the blank terrains (desert lots, motel rooms, housing developments) where such goings-on are always possible. But the fact that the work may not be art has everything to do with the fact that it is photography, and nothing to do with the fact that in it Burton sometimes employs the various real bodies, fictive drives, and lush and louche sites of the porn industry, sites that are often only someone’s home rented out for a morning, an afternoon.

The photographs have the capacity to be used by historians of the outré machinations of Hollywood interior and set designers, as well as archivists of pornography’s making, and those just seeking pleasure or release. The entire project resists narrative and its comforting affect. In his shots of exteriors (a rooftop supporting abandoned LA signage; a panda floating skyward among green treetops), Burton focuses on the things that make up a landscape—but he also knows how quickly most viewers furnish a landscape with private feeling (the pathetic fallacy), and is interested in thwarting such presumption and allowing anyone to see that a panda hiding behind trees against a blue, blue sky is simply as sad as it is ridiculous—or is neither.

Photographs do not allow an experience of what really went on; what they do is capture where and when we are no longer, what goes on after (or between) the acts. Photographs tell what they tell only by explaining nothing, which is part of the reason they produce, as Nesbit says, ignorance, silence. Burton returns to the stuff of the world—the banal, intractable, nude world—so perhaps what is in order is a grammar of the photograph, particularly because what he does is reveal the light and almost philosophical specificity of life with the unobtrusive formality of a grammar.

See and consider: Sconce, candlesticks, mirror, body, pectorals, potted plant, molding, inflatable panda, trees, harpsichord, ormolu, light, buttocks, flowers, sky, abandoned billboards, atmosphere, flesh, blueness, whiteness, recessed lighting, blondness, reflection, reality, fantasy, sneaker.

While Burton’s photographs capture certain predicative actions (to decorate, to perform, to fuck, to look, to wait, etc.), and even make us conscious of their status as actions, what holds attention is his insistence on the nominative, on the many chance details that assemble into a life. A photograph of an interior bleached by light, the bright white light of sight before it intensifies to nonrecognition, situates a mood. Longing? Tedium? The nouns (harpsichord, bodies) lazily comply with the verb (to wait). By allowing light, an unusual soporific, to overwhelm the interior—light pausing buttocks, pausing gender, just long enough for them to begin to fade away—Burton attenuates apocalypse, or the possible fading away of everything, to an afterthought.

Some guy’s leg with sock and sneaker is raised, is always raised, about to be raised, another guy gets ready to pleasure him or is already pleasuring him, faking it, and all of this happens in a mirror. The sneaker, like the sconce in the foreground, calls attention at once away from and toward the acts taking place (having taken place, about to take place), as well as the guys reflected in the mirror, and that there’s someone there seeing it all who becomes a stand—in for the crew and future consumers. Burton meditates on this mediation, on the distances within seemingly intimate proximity: sex mediated by the possibility of the performance of sex, the mirror mediating that mediation, the entire scene mediated by the erotic life of the household objects in the frame.

A mediation of a mediation of a mediation of a mediation sounds like a lot of mediation—so much distance between what is and what is represented—but it is really only an example of the daily intrusions opening between any two bodies, trying and failing, trying again to get closer. All this effort is almost funny, until the pause when mortality rushes in like a raptor, talons ready.

Or else it’s just a document of two guys going at it, for real—or not.

Bruce Hainley is a contributing editor of Artforum.