PRINT March 2005


In anticipation of the first major American survey of the work of THOMAS DEMAND—which opens at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on March 4—art historian MICHAEL FRIED reflects on the German photographer’s disquietingly uninflected pictures.

Thomas Demand’s procedure is well known. As Roxana Marcoci, who organized MoMA’s current survey of the photographer’s work, writes in her catalogue essay, “As a rule, Demand begins with an image, usually, although not exclusively, from a photograph culled from the media, which he translates into a three-dimensional life-size paper model. Then he takes a picture of the model with a Swiss-made Sinar, a large-format camera with telescopic lens for enhanced resolution and heightened verisimilitude. Contributing to the overall illusion of reality, his large-scale photographs are laminated behind Plexiglas and displayed without a frame. . . . Thus, his photographs are triply removed from the scenes or objects they depict.”1 A standard description of the viewer’s response to Demand’s photographs (and one to which Marcoci subscribes) is that initially he or she takes them for images of the real thing—the actual scene—but within a few moments a certain strangeness comes to the fore and the viewer then realizes that such is not the case. Marcoci continues: “Yet, despite their illusionism, Demand’s staged tableaux reveal the mechanisms of their making. Minute imperfections—a pencil mark here, an exposed edge there, a wrinkle in the paper—are deliberately left visible. The lack of detail and cool, uniform lighting expose the whole as a construction. Once they have been photographed, the models are destroyed. The resulting pictures are convincingly real and strangely artificial.”2

Among the subjects Demand has exploited, one recurrent type has been described by various commentators as the scene of a crime (loosely speaking). So, for example, Room, 1994, looks back to a photo of Hitler’s headquarters at Rastenburg, East Prussia, after the failed bomb attempt on his life of July 20, 1944; Corridor, 1995, one of Demand’s best-known works—unfortunately, not in the present show—is based on a hallway in the Milwaukee apartment house where the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer lived (and murdered); Archive, 1995, alludes to Leni Riefenstahl’s film archive, Riefenstahl having been the maker of Triumph of the Will, the notorious propaganda film about the Nazi Party’s 1934 Nuremberg rally; Office, 1995, with scattered papers everywhere, is based on images of looted Stasi offices following the collapse of the German Democratic Republic in 1989; Bathroom, 1997, another well-known image, reproduces a news photograph of the bathtub in a Geneva hotel in which a prominent German politician was found dead under mysterious circumstances in 1987; Podium, 2000, refers to Slobodan Milošević’s inflammatory speech on June 28, 1989, the six-hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo; Model, 2000, is taken from a photo of Hitler and his favorite architect, Albert Speer, looking at a model of the German pavilion designed by Speer for the International Exposition in Paris in 1937; Poll, 2001, depicts the Emergency Operations Center in West Palm Beach, Florida, where a manual recount of some 425,000 ballots took place in 2000 in hopes of (legitimately) determining whether Al Gore or George W. Bush would be president of the United States; and Kitchen, 2004, is based on a photo of Saddam Hussein’s hideout in Tikrit. Other specific locales reconstructed and then photographed include the dorm room in which Bill Gates created his first computer operating system (Corner, 1996); the hotel room in which L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, wrote Dianetics (Room, 1996); the office where the rebuilding of the city of Munich was planned after World War II (Drafting Room, 1996); and the barn on Long Island where Hans Namuth photographed Jackson Pollock making one of his all-over drip paintings (Barn, 1997). In addition, there are works based on more or less straightforward architectural motifs—for example, Staircase, 1995—and photographs that fit none of the above categories, such as Studio, 1997, which for a German audience recalls the set of the popular TV show Was bin ich? (What’s My Line?); Laboratory, 2000, imaging an anechoic chamber, used in the motor industry for testing engine noise levels; Collection, 2001, based on photos of the singer Engelbert Humperdinck’s collection of gold records; and Space Simulator, 2003, a roughly ten-by-fourteen-foot image of the device used for training American astronauts. Finally, there are photos based on simulacra of grass (Lawn, 1998), and of thick foliage with light filtering through it (Clearing, 2003).

Now, as various writers have recognized, Demand’s project amounts to an assault on, or at least a reimagining of, the traditional link between photographs and indexicality. “Every photograph is the result of a physical imprint transferred by light reflections onto a sensitive surface,” Rosalind Krauss writes in “Notes on the Index.” “The photograph is thus a type of icon, or visual likeness, which bears an indexical relationship to its object.”3 In an obvious sense this is also true of Demand’s images: They bear an indexical relationship to the paper models Demand made, carefully lit, and equally carefully photographed (more on this shortly). But the models themselves differ from their original (i.e., premediatized) real-world sources in that, by virtue of having been reconstructed in paper, and also because the terms of that reconstruction are, in crucial respects, radically incomplete, they have been divested of every hint of indexicality pertaining to those sources—every mark of use, every trace of human presence and action, which also means of the least suggestion of pastness, of historicity, of the “that-has-been” in which Barthes saw the “noeme” of photography.4 (By “radically incomplete” I mean that we are routinely shown sheets of paper without writing on them; books without titles on their bindings; boxes, bottles, and tubes without logos; telephones without buttons or numbers; ballots without names or markings; light switches without on-off mechanisms; etc.) Put slightly differently, Demand’s photographs depict places and things absolutely devoid, indeed systematically purged, of all traces other than those pertaining to the physical making of the models of those places and things by the artist. And, of course, such an aim is made all the more salient (and all the more puzzling) by the repeated choice of scenes of crimes or other notable events, scenes that in their original manifestations inevitably bore traces of the history of those events on their surfaces (indeed, a redevelopment agency in Milwaukee finally had the apartment house in which Dahmer had lived torn down, to prevent curiosity seekers from going there and keeping the monstrosity of what he had done alive). The question, however, is why Demand has sought to do this—what the point of so labor-intensive and in obvious respects so bizarre an endeavor has been. Insisting on the importance of the fact that Demand started out his artistic life as a sculptor doesn’t provide an answer; nor, to my mind, do statements such as Marcoci’s “Demand’s Bathroom points to the evasions and ultimately to the failure of photography’s attempt to understand the violence behind the apparent ambiguity of political life,” or her final sentence in the catalogue essay to the effect that “Demand ensures that photography becomes a vehicle of consciousness as much as a form of testimony to seeing anew.”5 I propose a different account of what Demand has been up to during the past dozen years.

This will involve a brief detour back to my 1967 essay “Art and Objecthood,” in which I drew a sharp distinction between modernist painting and sculpture and the work and writings of the Minimalists, or, as I mainly called them, literalists—Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Carl Andre, and Tony Smith (among others). To the literalists, what mattered or ought to matter was not the relationships within a work of art, as in modernist painting and sculpture, but the relationship between the literalist work and the beholder, as the beholder was invited to activate (and in effect to produce) that relationship over time by entering the space of exhibition, approaching or moving away from the work (or in the case of Andre’s floor pieces, literally walking on them), comparing changing views of the work with an intellectual comprehension of its basic form, and so on. What mattered, in other words, was the beholder’s experience of the work, or rather of the total situation in which the work was encountered, a situation that, as I put it, “virtually by definition, includes the beholder6—which is also to say that to refer to the relationship in question as lying “between” the work and the beholder doesn’t quite capture the literalist idea (nor does “beholder” quite fit the case). The literalist work, in other words, was incomplete without the experiencing subject, which is what I meant by characterizing such work as theatrical in the pejorative sense of the term. Modernist paintings and sculptures, in contrast, I claimed, were fundamentally antitheatrical in that (to speak only somewhat metaphorically) they took no notice of the beholder, who was left to come to terms with them—to make sense of the relationships they comprised—as best he or she could. (That modernist paintings like Morris Louis’s “Unfurleds,” 1960–61, may be said to face the beholder with extraordinary directness only makes their structural indifference to his or her actual presence before them that much more perspicuous.) A further contrast, which in “Art and Objecthood” remains largely implicit, concerns the fact that, whereas in modernist paintings and sculptures the constituent relationships were intended to be what they are by the artist,7 the relationship between the literalist work and the beholder, although conditioned in a general way by the circumstances of exhibition, was understood by the literalists themselves as emphatically not determined by the work itself and therefore as not intended as such by its maker. On the contrary, the primacy of experience in the sense stated above meant that meaning in literalism was essentially indeterminate, every subject’s necessarily unique response to a given work-in-a-situation standing on an equal footing with every other’s.8

Viewed against this background, Demand’s project in his photographs comes into intellectual focus. Simply put, he aims above all to replace the original scene of evidentiary traces and marks of human use—the historical world in all its layeredness and compositeness—with images of sheer authorial intention, as though the very bizarreness of the fact that the scenes and objects in the photographs, despite their initial appearance of quotidian “reality,” have all been constructed by the artist throws into conceptual relief the determining force (also the inscrutability, one might almost say the opacity) of the intention behind it. Moreover, it seems perfectly clear—though precisely why this should be true is a deep question that goes beyond the scope of the present article—that Demand’s photographs foreground the topos of intention far more powerfully than the actual models could hope to do. An intuition of this, I suggest, is what led Demand to photograph his “sculptural” models in the first place, and it is also why, in an inter- view with the curator François Quintin in 2000, he was moved to say, “At this point [when the photograph is taken], the sculpture is no longer that important, but nor is the photograph. . . . I have never thought in terms of my work culminating in pure photography.”9 What is important to Demand is a highly specific ontological project, which the taking of the photograph simply brings to a conclusion. (Or not so simply. A larger claim, involving other ambitious contemporary photographers, such as Bernd and Hilla Becher, Jeff Wall, Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, and others, is that ontological issues loom large in their work as well. At any rate, this is the thesis of a book on recent photography that I am currently writing.) I deliberately leave open the further question as to whether Demand’s work is to be understood as a delayed reaction against the literalist—and, more broadly, postmodernist—assertion of the indeterminacy of meaning. But nothing could be plainer than that his project is fundamentally, not to say hyperbolically, opposed to the literalist attitude.

A final dimension of that project comes into view when it is borne in mind that photography as a medium has traditionally been seen as “weak in intentionality,” in John Berger’s phrase.10 More precisely, it has always been recognized that in the making of photographs there is “an irreducible discrepancy between intention and effect,”11 which is to say that a photographer doesn’t know exactly what he or she has done until a photograph is developed. Once upon a time this was considered to pose a dire problem for “art” photography, on the grounds that a work of art should be wholly the product of the maker’s intentions. In the course of the twentieth century this ceased to be an issue, and, of course, with the advent of digitalization it has become possible to make photographic images that invite their being seen as wholly intended on the plane of representation, thus eliminating all taint of “weakness” in the sense mentioned above. Gursky is perhaps the figure who, more than any other, emblematizes this development. But it is also plainly at work in the art of younger artists like Beate Gütschow, who uses digital means to combine various landscape photos in a single image that at first appears seamless but on closer view reveals internal disparities that signal to the viewer the constructedness of the whole.

But, of course, Demand’s photographs are not digitalized—indeed the ultimate effect of his work depends on the viewer’s conviction, once he or she has had time to arrive at it, that the photos are “straight” depictions of scenes and objects that actually existed and that in fact were constructed by the artist. In that sense his work at once relates closely to that of Gursky, Gütschow, and others who share their approach and stands apart from it in its insistence on the importance of the referent—in his art, as in all traditional photography, the referent “adheres,” to use Barthes’s term.12 The question, then, is how to understand the significance of that difference, and perhaps the best that can be said is that Demand seeks to make pictures that thematize or indeed allegorize intendedness as such, not simply assert the intendedness of the representation, and that this turns out to require working against the grain of the “weakness” of the traditional photographic image in the latter regard. Seen in this light, Poll emerges as a kind of limit work, in that what took place in the Emergency Operations Center was ostensibly a days-long attempt by the election authorities to determine the intentions of a substantial number of Florida’s voters by the close study of paper ballots that were assumed to bear the traces of those intentions, in however dubious a form (the notorious “hanging chads” and the like). But in Demand’s picture the ballots are not just pristine but also devoid of text, which is to say that they—like the telephones, flashlights, folders, Post-its, and, indeed, the tablelike surfaces on which all these rest and before which there is no place for workers to sit—are manifestly the bearers of no intentions other than the artist’s own.

Michael Fried is J. R. Herbert Boone Professor of Humanities and director of the Humanities Center at the John Hopkins University in Baltimore.


1. Roxana Marcoci, “Paper Moon,” in Thomas Demand, exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2005), 9–10.

2. Ibid., 10.

3. Rosalind E. Krauss, “Notes on the Index: Part I,” in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, MA, and London: MIT Press, 1985), 203.

4. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 77.

5. Marcoci, “Paper Moon,” 21 and 27.

6. Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” in Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 153. Walter Benn Michaels comments on this statement as follows: “The ‘virtually’ here is a little misleading because, as Fried goes on to say, although the ‘object, not the beholder, must remain the center or focus of the situation,’ ‘the situation itself belongs to the beholder—it is his situation.’ The presence of the beholder is structural rather than empirical, since without him there is no situation and therefore no literalist art. The point here is not a kind of general idealism, not the idea that the object comes into existence only when the beholder encounters it and therefore that there is some sense in which he creates it. Although this position will quickly emerge as central to certain forms of literary theory, in Fried’s account of Minimalism, the object exists on its own all right; what depends on the beholder is only the experience. But, of course, the experience is everything—it is the experience instead of the object that Minimalism values” (The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History [Princeton, NJ, and Oxford, UK: Princeton University Press, 2004], 89). Michaels’s book is a wide-ranging critique of recent theoretical and fictional texts, all of which make the analogous error of “think[ing] of literature in terms of the experience of the reader rather than the intention of the author, and [of substituting] the question of who people are for the question of what they believe” (from the book jacket).

7. Probably this is made most nearly explicit in certain remarks about the work of the British sculptor Anthony Caro. For example: “It is as though Caro’s sculptures essentialize meaningfulness as such—as though the possibility of meaning what we say and do alone makes his sculpture possible. All this, it is hardly necessary to add, makes Caro’s art a fountainhead of antiliteralist and antitheatrical sensibility” (Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” 162).

8. More strongly, each subject’s experience or response just was the meaning of the work. On the logical connection between literalism and indeterminacy, see Jennifer Ashton, “‘Rose is a Rose’: Gertrude Stein and the Critique of Indeterminacy,” Modernism/modernity 9, no. 4 (2002): 581–604; and Ashton, “Modernism’s ‘New’ Literalism,” Modernism/modernity 10, no. 2 (2003): 381–90.

9. Thomas Demand, interview by François Quintin, “There Is No Innocent Room,” in Thomas Demand, exh. cat. (Paris: Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain, Paris, 2000), 46.

10. John Berger and Jean Mohr, Another Way of Telling (New York: Pantheon, 1982), 90. Cited in Walter Benn Michaels, “Action and Accident: Photography and Writing,” in The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1987), 236–37.

11. Walter Benn Michaels, “Action and Accident,” 230. This is said in the course of a discussion of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, but Michaels’s point is that the issue of such discrepancy also lies at the heart of the discourse of photography. Cf. Diane Arbus on “the gap between intention and effect” in Diane Arbus (1972; New York: Aperture Foundation, 1997), 2.

12. Barthes, Camera Lucida, 6.