POSTMODERNISM IN PHOTOGRAPHY
Photography became the postmodern art form par excellence, taking the place of painting when the Modernist precepts of European art became exhausted by the 1960s. Unlike painting, photography did not have to grapple with and overcome a high art past, nor was it touched by high art theories. Because photography was, as Pierre Bourdieu would say, The Middle Brow Art, it was ideally suited for Postmodernism to occupy the practice. Even in its virginal state, photography was also impacted by the fact of the “Image World.” As Guy Debord explained it in The Society of the Spectacle,the world had become a “spectacle.”
In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation… The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images. The spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual excess produced by mass-media technologies. It is a worldview that has actually been materialized, a view of a world that has become objective.
Therefore, contemporary visual culture was, by definition, a spectacle disseminated though photographic forms, reproductions of reproductions, simulacra of a reality that never existed. Through photography, visual culture had become part of the spectacle of popular culture that fascinated its audience and hypnotized them from critiquing society and created a certain kind of social relation. As Debord said, “In a world that is really upside down, the true is a moment of the false.” When Debord’s influential book was published in France in 1967, the vernacular photography of Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, and Lee Friedlander had exhausted itself. The innocence that had allowed photographer or the audience to assume that direct photography was a reliable form of “truth” was crumbling on the disillusionment of the Viet Nam War.
In an Image World overflowing with images and stuffed with history, it is impossible to “take” pictures with a fresh and innocent eye: all pictures are seen only through other pictures–pictorial intertextuality. Photography is no longer about capturing realism, as it was in the days of Robert Frank and his followers, but was concerned with re-creating images of images. Without the possibility of reality, postmodern photographers are not photographers in the historical sense and they cannot photograph objects in the traditional sense. They can only fabricate simulacra or record the hyperreal of the Postmodern world. It would be correct to question the term “photography” in the context of Postmodernism. “Photography,” as a direct and immediate capturing of reality takes a certain amount of naïvité, no longer available in the Postmodern era. All photography has already been done. The term “re-photography” would be more precise to describe Postmodern photography.
By the 1970s, photographers were beginning to explore three issues in the discipline. First, “straight photography” and its corollary documentary photography were played out. Second, the “truth” value of photography had been undermined and the role the medium was playing in constructing a particular kind of society—of spectacle and of complacent citizens—was becoming clear. Third, it “straight photography” could be manipulative of society then it would seem that it was once again permissible to manipulate photography. Postmodern photographers would confront these particular conditions during the eighties in a knowing and often highly theoretical fashion.
Photography as a discipline began to participate in the favorite Postmodern pastime–that of devising strategies and creating tactics that would allow the artist to make art in a world where everything had already been done. Photography became photography about photography–a form of conceptual photography. The Rephotographic Survey beginning in the 1970s is an example of the postmodern attitude towards the act of photographing by rephotographing the already photographed. The artists participating in this project, Mark Klett, Rick Dingus and Linda Conner, meticulously followed in the footsteps of 19th century photographers of the West, re-photographing the famous photographs: photography about photography. Part of the research of this group was to revisit famous sites in the West, first photographed on Survey excursions by Timothy O’Sullivan and William Henry Jackson, was to take note of the changes over the century. But in the process they discovered that the supposed documentation was actually manipulated by O’Sullivan who produced near abstract images through cropping his prints and/or tilting his camera.
Postmodernism is characterized by self-conscious and deliberate intertextuality. One of the best-known photographers who played with simulacra is Cindy Sherman. Sherman should be termed a performance artist who restages images from mass media. Concentrating on how women were represented by movies, she had herself photographed in a series of small black and white photographs called “Film Stills” during the late 1970s. None of these theatrical re-presentations can be traced back to any actual movie but all remind the viewer of movies they have seen or have heard of and evoke the construction of women in the 1940s and 1950s. Sherman is what can be called a “post-feminist,” or an artist who takes up feminist concerns, not from a political and activist perspective but from a theoretical stance. Because society manipulates the social being who is proved to be infinitely malleable, Postmodernism no longer believes in the Modernist possibility of evolution towards a goal. There is only arbitrary change, determined by the dominant class for its own purposes.
All Postmodern theory can do is to point out that gender is constructed by the culture and by mass media. Unlike early feminism of the 1970s, post-feminism is not essentialist but is constructivist, maintaining that there is no such thing as a “women” only an image that is created by ideology and is named “woman” by the culture. Sherman’s Film Stills are pure simulacra: there is no “woman,” there is only the image of woman. A film is an image of an image of a woman. A film still is an image of a woman of an image of a woman of an image of a woman. Simulacra is a “third order” of “reality,” meaning that a simulacra is three moves away from a reality that never existed in the first place. Because Sherman performs a variety of female roles, playing the woman for a male audience, she should be considered a performance artist who photographs her work, rather than as a traditional photographer.
Sherman was not the only photographer to stress the importance of performance and artifice in Modernism, present in Western art since Édouard Manet. Like Sherman, Jeff Wall uses intertextuality by reenacting significant “major monuments” of Modernist art through the Postmodern art of manipulated photography. One of the early users of computer manipulation, Wall, like Sherman, is less a “photographer” in the classical sense, and actually works in the “directorial mode.” His actors perform for Wall in staged photographs representations Manet and Degas and Cézanne. His recreations are subtle. For example The Destroyed Room refers to Delacroix’s The Death of Sardanapalus and After Ralph Ellison, showing an African-American man, his back turned to the viewer, is lit by hundreds of lightbulbs, but he remains invisible. Because he is referring to invented works of art, in addition to staging and directing, Wall must manipulate photography. In A Sudden Gust of Wind, Wall uses the computer to throw white sheets of paper into the stiff breeze, combining postmodern technology with the past. Like most Postmodern artists, Postmodern photographers re-explore the past and revisit history. As Wall said in 2010:
In the nineteenth century, with Manet and the others, there was such a high level of pictorial invention, such an interesting take on the now. They created something that is still very important to anyone concerned with pictures, and so, I’m keeping in touch with that, but not in an exclusive way, not as a model for my own work. My work derives from photography also, that is, photography as photography, and from other art forms. But it also comes from things that I’m experiencing directly. So, I’m trying to use the nineteenth century, in a way, as one of the frames of reference for a pictorial practice. We could say that, in many ways, we are still experiencing the nineteenth century in art.
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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.