PRINT January 2004


I begin with an admission of animosity: As long as I have been aware of it, I have been prejudiced against the big photograph. Some of the reasons for my bias are personal. I tend to be drawn to the quieter, domestic-inflected nuance of the lower genres, the lesser media, the small statement, and the quirky, offbeat artist who doesn’t fit within the major categories and heroic lineages. I tend to feel some remove from, if not an upwelling of sheer contrariety in the face of, the herculean and the grandiose, the large-scale enterprise of playing ball with the Olympian big boys. Others of my reasons for distrusting the big photograph are more specifically photographic and have to do with my sense of the photograph as somehow an innately small medium: something the scale of the quarter-size daguerreotype plate and the Kodak snapshot, something that could be held in the hands, placed in an album or a drawer, or reproduced in a book, a scrap of copper or tin or a jaundiced and friable bit of paper, something not singular but multiple, not valuable but cheap, not epic-proportioned but idiosyncratic and uncanny, having to do not with grand narratives but with small details and happenstance conjunctions, not with invention but with the aleatory, not with permanence and posterity but with the small frisson and delicate shudder, the poignance of the passing of time. My sense of the photograph, in short, is regressive: the nineteenth-century “fairy picture.” And to me the photograph is a medium with a fragile chemical surface marked by its indexical ties to the objects, moments, and faces that it records; its material surface and medium-specificity, which slip so easily through the fingers as it is, seem utterly voided in the trend toward the big photograph.

What I thought, regardless of what the artists who participated in the trend (from Jeff Wall to Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky, and Rineke Dijkstra) had in mind, was this: The big photograph took that which was worst in photography’s history, that which was least faithful to its peculiarity, and blew it up large. The inability to see the photograph itself instead of its subject matter; the putative transparency of the surface of the medium; its mass-mediated, headlined, and advertising-manipulated aspects and its attachment to the culture of celebrity; its plastic Toys “R” Us colorism; and its simultaneous yearnings to be Art with a capital A, pompous and expensive, to be singular, original, canon-enshrined and museum-dignified, to be faux painting, in short. These seemed to me the increasingly vacuous sides of the medium and its history that the big photograph wrote large. And though the big photograph would seem to shout spectacular technical skill and ostentatious artfulness, its voiding of its own surface in light and flash and size seemed merely the flip side of the much-vaunted enterprise of deskilling, which in turn has yielded the Babel of the already deskilled and inevitably the bravura of the blissfully unskilled. And all the while the school of the big photograph has trumpeted its deadpan critical credentials, its participation in the ongoing mission of the avant-garde, neo-neo as could be.

These were my feelings about the big photograph, until I saw Craigie Horsfield’s big black-and-white works, to which I came late and in a roundabout way. The New York–based artist, who will be included in this year’s Whitney Biennial, had turned to the big photograph in the ’70s and ’80s; in fact, he did so earliest on. Like some others, he was goaded in that direction, at least in part, by the mass-media dimensions of the twentieth-century photograph. But Horsfield’s strategy was to wait to print his negatives, and wait again. And rather than to inflate, his choice was to dilate: the time as well as the surface, the skin, as he calls it, of the photograph. Moreover, his option was to care about his materials and his process, to literally take time, and in that sense to make the medium in which he worked matter, but matter against its own grain, in what I would call the dialectic of the countermedium.

Let me explain what I mean by medium. I have a fondness for the Oxford English Dictionary, so let’s hear what it has to say on the subject. According to the OED, “medium” is

Any intervening substance through which a force acts on objects at a distance or through which impressions are conveyed to the senses: applied . . . to . . . any substance considered with regard to its properties as a vehicle of light or sound. . . . pervading or enveloping substance; the substance or “element” in which an organism lives . . . An intermediate agency, means, instrument, or channel . . . Painting. Any liquid “vehicle” (as oil, water, albumen, etc.) with which pigments are mixed. . . . Medium, the menstruum, or liquid vehicle, with which the dry pigments are ground and made ready for the artist’s use.

I favor this physical definition of “medium” over its more abstract, essentialist usage in modernist discourse, which is so familiar to us. Moreover, the linkage between the environmental and technical definitions of the term “medium” is suggestive for what I want to say about Horsfield’s countermedium approach to the big photograph.

And that is this. Horsfield first takes the silver-emulsion palimpsest of the black-and-white photographic negative, be it of the wrinkled hide of a rhinoceros, a piece of a woman’s nightdress as it flows over her chest, a neglected bit of street side, a Van der Weyden–like face, a couple at home, or a group of nighttime café revelers in Poland. He then generally delays its printing anywhere from a few months to a decade or two, waiting for print technology to provide him with the means of his material vision; and then he goes to work on the photograph in the darkroom, making it once and never again (or in very small “editions” that consist of slight variations rather than exact-duplicate multiples of the same image), making it large across days and days, if not weeks, of laborious labor, so that its skin is stretched, the pupil widened in the dark, and the moment slowed and opened up, not to the marmoreal eternity of the mausoleum but to the densely somatic duration of the extended pause, in which the stillness of the “still” photograph yields the epiphanic slow motion of an island in time.

Such procedures belong to a strategy of dilation, not inflation, for their operation is internal, not external, to the substance of the image, an opening up from within the heart of its matter. They involve a material and temporal enlargement that connects (instead of severing) the photographic and the pictorial, the modern and the antemodern, the then and the now, the thee and the I, the medium and the message, rather than simply hyperbolize the subject matter, scale, canonical esteem, and market value of the photographic commodity. Theirs is a trancelike slowing of the famous fast time of modernity and instantaneity of the photograph until they yield their opposite, turning the hare into the tortoise. (Horsfield has long played the tortoise to his big-picture brethren, running at his snail’s pace until his photographs simply outlast theirs in the longue durée.) The dilation practiced in Horsfield’s large black-and-white work is a magnification of the reduced minutiae of the photograph until they pass through the looking glass and take on the breadth of the shadowy wall, the support surface on which pictures, including photographs, are suspended in time. And this dilation is an extension and maximization of the equivalence between the surfaces of silver-coated paper and animal hide, fabric fiber, skin grain, not to mention the viscosity of the human gaze, to the point that the transparency of the photograph gives way, not to a single, reductive opacity, but to an expansive meeting between materialities. This meeting is at once ineluctably physical and stunningly, quietly social, as when we are eye to eye with a presence that is, as all acquaintances and intimates are to each other, simultaneously companion and stranger. In the process both the notorious mechanicalness of the craft and the to-be-reproduced status of the photograph are not negated—but simply mooted. And the metallic, surgical cold of the black-and-white tonal scale is warmed, somehow, to something velvety like the temperature of the living tissue with which the light that made it came into contact, in the liminal space between touch and sight. Here is a true understanding of the material surface of the medium: as something that comes between, something that is at once boundary and threshold, that both limits and permits communication and relation, something that is as inherently social as it is inescapably corporeal. In short, the skin of the photograph, like the skin of you and me and all the surfaces that surround us, is a meeting place, the place where it/we meet(s) the world. This is the dialectical sense in which medium quite palpably matters in Horsfield’s work.

Yet though Horsfield’s big photographs, dating from the ’70s to the present, have an inarguably photographic base, I’m still not sure they feel like photographs to me. Neither do the much smaller nature morte dry prints recently exhibited in London, which for many people familiar with Horsfield’s work may look like a drastic turnaround, if not a retrograde return to the pictorialist, the decorative, the unregenerately beautiful. Horsfield calls the series “Irresponsible Drawings,” 2003, as if to signal both qualities: their unphotographicness and their departure from a severer mission—their ignoring of the rules and taboos of the avant-garde game, principally the rule about being of one’s time, and the taboo against the comely, the breathtakingly gorgeous, the almost painfully exquisite. I am tempted to call the latter taboo a phallic one, not just because it is a law of the father, but also because that which is forbidden so closely skirts the feminine—from the famous femininity of color to the distaff side of still life, not to mention the speculum of dilation, the derivation in the word Mater (mother/matter) of Horsfield’s particular brand of materialism, and the “sex which is not one” of his declared irresponsibility to a single, monologic standard of period and medium. That, however, will have to await another time and place for its development.

Most of these “irresponsible drawings” are digital prints; some—those to which pigment has been added by hand—are what used to be called “manipulated.” Some of them are color and some are black-and-white, and many seem to lie somewhere in between. Some are made in camera and some are made without the camera, by contact with a botanical specimen. Many of them resonate with a long history of still life in painting even more than in photography—from Zurbarán to Manet, not necessarily in that order. Almost all, with their glinting silver and gaping orange fish, dusty wine bottles, fat, lusciously hued melons, desiccated roses, sprouting root vegetables, rotting peppers, and empurpled cabbages, are achingly lovely in the vividness of the death and decay that they record, in keeping with the durable meanings of nature morte, or “dead nature.” With this difference: that they are concerned to show the vitality of morbidity, the cyclical changingness of all matter—whether dead or alive, animate or inanimate, mineral, vegetal, or animal—which they extend to cover the materiality of the medium itself, built on chemical reaction and combination, whether of light-sensitive emulsion, printerly inks, and/or hand-applied pigments. Theirs, finally, is a beauty that does not expend itself quickly; they invite a slow, close looking that retards itself, almost, to the gradual pace of the organic change that they record. Last but not least, a lot of them make you wonder, if you look closely and slowly enough, how they were made. And they go on making you wonder that, even after you know.

The short answer is that they were all made photographically. Which is to say that at some point they all derive from a light-made trace of the things in the world that they represent; they all began as “photogenic drawings,” to use an archaic term for the photograph. Indeed, the black-and-white “photograms” among them, those cameraless images of ferns and leaves and the like, harken back to the very beginnings of photography and to that short moment before the phrase “photogenic drawing,” coined by the inventor of the paper photograph, William Henry Fox Talbot, gave way to the term we recognize, the “photograph,” itself a compromise between Talbot’s original coinage and his friend Sir John Herschel’s “heliograph,” or sun drawing. At the same time, almost all of the rest of them employ the most up-to-date printing technology; they are so-called dry prints, prints made not in the blind, wet space of the darkroom but first by digital scanning and then by the colored inks of the ink-jet printer, which when combined with matte paper have greater painterly potential than emulsified color. (This is another instance of the artist waiting until technology could do what he wanted it to do; he has remained faithful to the black-and-white photograph not because he thought there was anything necessarily primary about it or because of its firmer fine-art credentials but because of his dislike of the “milky” qualities of color emulsion. He was waiting, in color, for photography to more fully rejoin its printerly base.) The dry print then offers possibilities of further pigmentation, not to mention of inhabiting the space between black-and-white and color, that return us, in some way, to the earliest hand-tinted brown photographs, as well as to the threshold-cum-boundary between drawing, painting, and photography. That these still-life photographs remind us of pictorialist autochromes as well as a long history of still-life paintings, then, just as the large black-and-white portraits look something like Nadar’s glass-plate luminaries blown up to Manet and Velázquez size and effect, speaks not so much of retrograde aestheticism as of a rejection of the linear time of avant-garde conceptions of forward-moving-ness and medium definition. For Horsfield time and medium move not only slowly but also in a widening circle.

But the charge of aestheticism will be made and must be met. These new photographs, which don’t look new, do look embarrassingly beautiful. Their painterliness is as compellingly attractive as the colored oil medium of Chardin’s still-life pictures, say; and the only thing distinguishing them from that medium—the only thing announcing the fact of their having been made in a camera at the start—is the one quality that brings them, paradoxically, closest to the effect of oil painting, namely, their in-and-out-of-focus-ness (the result, in these instances, of the camera’s optics). As much as this looks like an irresponsibility, however—to some, perhaps, an unforgivable indulgence—I would argue for its bravery instead. For to me they suggest a much-needed corrective to the contemporary morass of erratic anti-aestheticism, all stirred up as it is with an equally confused spectacularism (found especially in the currently prevalent art of the multimedia, within and against which Horsfield’s own installations work).

New and old alike, Horsfield’s photographs propose that we consider anew the humanity, even the responsibility of aesthetic response; they remind us of the term’s most fundamental meaning. Here is the OED again; the following is the history of the meaning and degradation of the word “aesthetic”:

Of or pertaining to . . . things perceptible by the senses, things material (as opposed
to . . . things thinkable or immaterial), also “perceptive, sharp in the senses”; . . . “feel, apprehend by the senses.” Applied in Germ. by Baumgarten (1750–58,
Aesthetica) to “criticism of taste” considered as a science or philosophy; against which, as a misuse of the word found in German only, protest was made by Kant (1781, Crit. R.V. 21), who applied the name, in accordance with the ancient distinction . . . to “the science which treats of the conditions of sensuous perception,” a sense retained in the Kantian philosophy, and found in English c. 1800. But Baumgarten’s use of aesthetik found popular acceptance, and appeared in Eng. after 1830, though its adoption was long opposed. . . . Recent extravagances in the adoption of a sentimental archaism as the ideal of beauty have still further removed aesthetic and its derivatives from their etymological and purely philosophical meaning.

We have, of late, come to assume the degraded, evacuated meaning of “aesthetic,” to the further point that it, like “beauty,” is understood as the frivolous sign of bad conscience—of the corrupt, effeminate, and backward-looking elitism of commodity culture, the opiate not only of the effete but of capitalism itself and its reified emptiness. But what if we returned to (Kant’s rendition of) the original Greek word, minus everything we might think about Kantianism and minus the OED’s black-and-white opposition between “things material” and “things thinkable” (which Kant himself, when he was treating aesthetics, never made quite so black-and-white)? That is, what if we again decided to take seriously the matter of “sensuous” apprehension, as a defining preoccupation of human being, of consciousness itself? What if we decided that paying attention in Horsfield’s close and careful way was a more significant act than the issuing of prohibitions? That affection toward, attraction to, and immersion in the bodily world we inhabit constituted a more serious attitude than the combination that presently rules of ambition, negation, and the oedipal one-upmanship of the avant-garde model of patrilineal descent? That the mode of dilated awareness that I have described above was of more consequence than stadium-size games of artistic competition?

This is a lot to load onto some exquisite, medium-size pictures of “dead nature,” which treat the once-policed boundaries between media as thresholds to cross with care. But if I began with a diatribe, I have to end with a confession: I found myself disconcertingly moved by these not so very large photographs, and I wanted to know why—not only why I was moved, but why it was so disturbing to be thus moved. I haven’t an answer at hand yet, but I’m grateful to this one artist—who will go on making his big black-and-white photographs, his film installations, sound works, and social projects (photographic, filmic, and text conversations within and about various communities; this is the core of his work), as well as his “irresponsible drawings”—for making the question occur, for turning the “cool” of the perpetual avant-garde game into the warmth of something that matters, for making matter matter to the mind again. Let us hope it is a question that will go on occurring, in his work as well as elsewhere. For it might turn out to be a better antidote to the carelessness of our current culture than the fetishism of the commodified and spectacularized anticommodity that has reigned for so many decades now.

Carol Armstrong is Doris Stevens Professor of Women’s Studies and professor of art and archaeology at Princeton University.