Exercise: The photographic activity of postmodernism

Thoughts after reading Douglas Crimp’s essay ‘The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism’ :

Thoughts on essay

A recurring theme in the essay is the notion of ‘presence’, and its partner ‘absence’.

It occurs in the idea that most creative art has the ‘aura’ of the artist; the original touch of brush marks for example, in the single unique ‘original’. The artist’s presence. Quoting Walter Benjamin, Crimp argues that modernism found it necessary repress photography’s overturning of art’s ‘judgement-seat’ – ‘it is a fetishstic, fundamentally anti-technical notion of art with which theorists of photography have tusseled …’ (Benjamin from a short history of photography). There seems to be a desire in some practitioners of photography for the presence of aura, a dissatisfaction with work perceived as mechanical and untouched by the hand. This is seen in the use of textures to overlay photographs alluding to the canvas of hand created works. It is also seen in the use of legacy techniques such a cyanotypes, which are more akin to print-making than contemporary photography practices. It seems to deny the identity of the medium.

Crimp’s main theme is postmodernism being about art’s plurality – the plurality of copies, and notions of presence and absence. He thinks of presence in three ways:

  • Being there – in front of.
  • A presence that is not there – a ghost for example.
  • A performer with presence – more than just being there.

Crimp suggests that representation through photography gives a ‘peculiar presence … through absence, through its unbridgeable distance from the original …’. It is this photographic activity that he calls postmodernist.

Returning to the concept of the absent aura in photography, Crimp observes that Benjamin was not disappointed by this but saw it as liberating. Of Atget, Benjamin noted that he ‘liberated the object from the aura … the remarkable thing about his pictures is their emptiness’. (ibid, p113). He goes onto consider how connoisseurs sought to reclaim the aura of photography, using the ‘machinery of art history and museology’, for example through identifying vintage prints. This activity is of course closely related to the market place for art and attributing a value to works that are unique (or limited to some extent) – the possession of something beyond reach of others. Crimp refers to this as the ‘subjectivisation of photography’ – how the “spark of chance” is converted to connoisseurship of style.

© Richard Prince. Source: guggenheim.org

Crimp argues that the photographic activity of postmodernism operates to displace the aura – ‘to show that it too is now only an aspect of the copy, not the original’. He contextualises this with the works of Sherrie Levine (rephotographing the works of Edward Weston and others). This was in turn duplicated by Michael Mandiberg . Crimp also mentions Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Stills with ‘her self … understood as contingent of the possibilities provided by the culture in which Sherman participates’. And that of Richard Prince, with his use of images from mass advertising (directorial photography disguised as a form of documentary) – Crimp observes that by manipulating the images and recontextualising them, the commodities become a function of absence, acting as clues to ‘their invasion by these ghosts of fiction’.

Crimps conclusion is that ‘in our time, the aura has become only a presence, which is to say, a ghost’. This resonates in the idea of an absent referrent in postmodern images, or the hyper-real.

Relation to my own practice

My current practice sits at the straight photograph end of Crimp’s spectrum of photography-art (the other end being directional – ‘self-consciously composed, manipulated and fictionalised’). Mine is the kind of photography that relies on my presence and attention for the moment where I am and my eye for visualising a frame that might have visual interest when photographed. It relies on what is present in a place, rather than what is added later through manipulation. It is quiet in its absence of manipulation.

Presence is a psychological idea that interests me – our own presence in a moment, mindful and without distraction. It is connected with the psychogeographical genre. With photography mirroring that presence and, in the case of the canal, the water mirroring its changing environment. The water reflects the image, the camera catches reflected light, the mind reflects upon meanings extracted from reflections – some long past, others that are imagined and may not even materialise.

On an unrelated thought – there is perhaps a mystification of ‘aura’ to avoid using overtly commercial language in the context of art. So the value of a painting could be justified by because the ‘aura’ of a famous artist is in the work. More straightforwardly, its value is in its scarcity and marketability as an attractive object (like a diamond perhaps). Similarly, photographers hoping to make their work valuable, must limit its supply.