Painters come in different guises - traditional, folk, avant-garde, amateur, good, bad - but a painter is always, by dint of his medium, an artist. For a photographer this isn't necessarily so. Consider the arena of 'unauthored' photography - that is, photography never considered by its maker as 'art' or designed for public exhibition, but conceived to satisfy a practical purpose or private need. To discuss this realm is not to rehearse the hoary debates about whether photography qualifies as art, but to speculate about whether photography's different identities can illuminate the limits - and perhaps even the limitations - of art itself. The question then, is not: 'Is photography art?' but 'Can photography show us something that art isn't?' For photography, in escaping or exceeding definitions of art, may, in certain instances, challenge the insularity of art's discourses.
Why do certain bodies of vernacular photography enthral us sufficiently to become retrospectively authored and revered, and in so doing, earn their place in the artistic canon? Are they merely accidental art, photographic 'ready-mades' dependent on the passage of time and a careful edit, or do they possess singular, peculiar qualities? It's an interesting question because this kind of photography reveals that artistic intentionality - pace Marcel Duchamp - is not a sufficient, nor even a necessary, condition for a visual artefact to be accepted as art. Obviously not all such photography achieves this transition: for every Weegee there are hundreds of news photographers who remain anonymous; for every Eugène Atget there are many, probably technically more proficient, commercial photographers of the city who have disappeared; for every Mike Disfarmer there are thousands of studio photographers languishing forgotten. Clearly it is not the documentary value of photography alone, nor the medium's superior poetics in summoning either the past or the specifics of a present moment, that accounts for the particular charge - the 'aura', if you like - of some unauthored work, since this is a property common to all photography, and not all photography becomes embraced as 'art'. What do we call the something 'additional' that this photography possesses, and is it possible to try to define or generalize about its quality?
For Roland Barthes the diminished presence - or more precisely, the studied absence - of the photographer-as-author, a certain lack of self-conscious aestheticizing and of overt desire to communicate, is a prerequisite if the photograph is to move or compel us in any way. Writing of social documentary photographs in The Eiffel Tower (1979), Barthes said: 'Most of the photographs exhibited to shock us have no effect at all, precisely because the photographer has too generously substituted himself for us in the formation of his subject: he has almost always overconstructed the horror he is proposing, adding to the fact, by contrasts or parallels, the intentional language of horror [...] the perfect legibility of the scene, its formulation dispenses us from receiving the image in all its scandal; reduced to the state of pure language, the photograph does not disorganize us.' The subdued presence of the photographer in the photograph, then, is more likely to create the conditions for 'the fact, surprised, [to] explode in all its stubbornness, its literality, in the very obviousness of its obtuse nature'. Their visual facts may have been clearly recorded, but in the kinds of photograph admired by Barthes there's something more to be discovered, a residue of meaning, beyond the photographer's obvious intention and not reducible to language: thus such images offer an imaginative space for the viewer to 'elaborate himself without being encumbered by the demiurgic presence of the photographer'. Barthes would undoubtedly have been struck by the images of Enrique Metinides, a Mexican photographer whose 50-year career at the newspaper La Prensa concentrated on documenting catastrophe and disaster. In Metinides' images Barthes' 'fact' almost literally explodes, uncluttered by the aesthetic strategies or the political messaging of humanist social documentarians. Metinides' images show us death in all its brutal exigency, yet they transcend the specific circumstance to speak metaphorically about all human life: its smallness, its frailties, its desolations.
Thirty years before Barthes, Walter Benjamin was also fascinated more by qualities within the subject of the photograph than by the artistry of its author. For Benjamin it is a sudden and uncontrollable intrusion of reality that gives certain photographs their peculiar charge. He called it 'the tiny spark of chance, of the Here and Now, with which reality has, as it were, seared the character of the picture.' 1 Benjamin thought Atget great because he had stripped his subjects bare of all pictorialist pretension to the point where they achieved a certain 'emptiness'. When, reviewing Atget's first monograph in 1931, Benjamin famously remarked that 'not for nothing have Atget's photographs been likened to those of the scene of a crime', he was pointing to a sense of mystery at the heart of Atget's images, a feeling of incompletion, a feeling that the image's narrative potential had been prematurely terminated or only half-evolved. Arguably Atget's mysterious 'emptiness' emanates from the very odd status of his photographs: it could be described as a function of their inherent multi-functionality.
Atget was emphatically not an artist, yet he photographed incessantly for 40 years, and left behind some 10,000 photographs. 'Don't put my name on it, these are simply documents I make', he said towards the end of his life, when resisting Man Ray's attempts to credit him in La Révolution Surréaliste in 1926. Atget's 'documents' were mostly conceived in anticipation of how someone else might put them to future use: builders, decorators, ornament designers, metalworkers, architects, stage designers, cartoonists, illustrators, painters, antiquarians, librarians, archivists, the State. The clientele was varied and variously demanding.
Sometimes his pictures tried to kill several birds with one stone: a wrought-iron balcony for the decorative metalworker's notebook, set in an ancien régime quartier to aid the antiquarian establish the truth of the past, encompassing a complex façade so that the architect could note its particular plays of proportion. For painters, at one franc apiece (plus an extra 25 centimes if he'd had to take the train) Atget's 'documents' offered a cheap, practical and time-efficient alternative to going out and sketching for themselves a landscape, a backdrop or a group of figures. In a sense unfinished, Atget's photographs always had another job to do, another role to play. And where most architectural photographers strove for perfect symmetries and even lighting, Atget tended to break the rules. His camera often found itself distracted from the requisite fully frontal view, and on occasion pointed into the sun rather than away from it. Where his clients demanded an uninterrupted, airbrushed rendition of the architectural patrimoine, Atget found it impossible to suppress the messy details of everyday life - fly-posters slapped on to ancient buildings, the early delivery of milk churns unattended on the pavement, an untidy pile of horse manure, an unfortunately positioned puddle - and of course, those 'ghosts' (which so endeared Atget to the Surrealists) flitting through the pictures, those people who were supposed to have followed the script and have long since moved off-stage. Many of his images are charged with these Benjamin-esque moments of irrupting reality, and it is this, in combination with their indeterminacy of meaning - the 'emptiness' that becomes retrospectively endowed with metaphoric possibility - that has ensured Atget's entry into the artistic fold.
It is a similar quality that tempts artists to appropriate anonymous photography in the elaboration of artworks. From the Dadaists through to contemporary artists such as Tacita Dean, Thomas Ruff, Hans-Peter Feldman and Christian Boltanski the found photograph injects the artwork with a useful shot of the real, without dimming its poetic potential or committing it to conclusive meaning. It is significant that, of the genres of vernacular photography, it is those in which the author is diminished in favour of the subject, where visual evidence is prioritized over style, that are most commonly used by artists. Fashion, advertising, design and architectural photography are too sure of their aesthetics and too specific in their function to be further adapted; unlike, for example, pornography, newspaper reportage, scene-of-the-crime photographs and medical pictures. These are images designed to answer every possible question asked of them (and thus tend to be brightly lit from all sides, so that every feature of the scene is illuminated), in order to fulfil as broadly as possible their allotted jobs of titillation, diagnosis or analysis. Similarly, that artistic stock-in-trade the found family photograph appeals because it shows much while telling nothing, of either its subject or its author. Seared with unknowable emotions and irretrievable truths, other people's pictures lend an aura of intense enigma when corralled into the service of art. Like Atget, they lack something, significant, at their heart. The doubled anonymity of subject and author is a feature too, of one of the most perplexing bodies of non-art photographs in the history of the medium, and one that has also slowly found its way into the artistic pantheon.
E. J. Bellocq (1873 - 1949) was, like Atget, a commercial photographer, working for a shipbuilding company documenting boat and machine parts. No one knows much about him. Bellocq appears to have been a social misfit, owing in the main to his unfortunate physical appearance: he was extremely short and suffered from an abnormally misshapen head, probably as a result of hydroencephalitis. What is known is that around 1912 he made 89 extraordinary portraits of prostitutes in Storyville, the red light district of New Orleans. With Atget the function of the pictures is multifarious: with Bellocq it is simply indeterminate. Here the mysterious identities of the photographer and his sitters are intensified in relation to the inexplicable purpose of the photographs themselves. Some say that the portraits were made on commercial assignment, as publicity shots for working girls seeking to market their services more widely (and that the notoriously, violently defaced faces of several were, rather than being the mark of some later moral outrage or warped sexuality, made simply to distinguish the departure of one of the whores from the back catalogue). 2 Others imagine the images to have satisfied Bellocq's frustrated scopophiliac longings. Yet neither theory entirely accords with the pictures. They don't display the salacious jollity of commercial erotica, nor do they seem marked with the sexual urges of a lonely voyeur. In many images the women are clothed, sometimes demurely so. And in many they appear unposed and unselfconscious to the point that they could be alone in the room, regarding themselves in a mirror. In the strange interaction between photographer and prostitute Bellocq's barely registered presence haunts the portraits, while creating a huge space for our own imaginings.
Many artists have drawn on photography's vernacular forms and explored the medium's particular characteristics - its descriptive precision, its serial nature, its stylistic neutrality and authorial impersonality - for Conceptual ends. In the 1960s, with Ed Ruscha's 17 photography books and Dan Graham's magazine spreads, the functionality of photography was recruited into a Conceptual assault on the auratic and commodified artwork. More recently (and leaving aside the Bechers, who, in their passionate engagement with their subject matter, have a much closer affinity to the spirit of Atget and Sander than to the Conceptual camp in which art history has placed them) an artist such as Thomas Ruff has systematically co-opted the imagery and technology of vernacular photography - press and passport pictures, night surveillance cameras, Internet pornography - in order to probe the limits of what photography can do and mean. For Ruff photography ultimately lacks narrative and metaphoric depth, revealing nothing but itself: 'I don't think my portraits can present actual personalities [...] I believe that photography can only reproduce the surface of a thing.' 3 What is depicted is thus, in some sense, arbitrary. With Ruff the autonomy of the depiction is, in Modernist fashion, more important than what is depicted. Conversely, the photography of figures such as Atget, Bellocq and Metinides, in shifting the focus from the artist as the source of meaning, stands for the pure value of what is depicted, of what is there to be uncovered in the picture. Their photography shares a particular blend of factual precision, restrained artistry and semantic obtuseness, which opens up a generous space for the viewer to elaborate other interpretations and metaphoric possibilities. This quality distinguishes them as much from the myriad of purely informational, non-artistic photographs in the world - those images too tautological with visual reality to trigger any interpretative or imaginative speculation - as it does from other end of the photographic spectrum - 'auteur' or directed photography - where the author is everywhere, the artistry is perfectly legible and the real rarely irrupts to 'disorganize' us in any way.
1. Walter Benjamin, A Small History of Photography, 1931.
2. A theory advanced by Paul Wombell in his talk on Bellocq at the Photographers' Gallery, London, 25 June 2002.
3. Thomas Ruff, interviewed by Marie Luise Syring and Christiane Vielhaber in BiNationale: German Art of the Late 1980s, Kunstverein, Kunsthalle and Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf.