BY Christy Lange in Opinion | 01 MAY 10
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Issue 131

Snap Shot

What a ten-year-old issue of frieze reveals about the rapidly transforming role of photography in both art and popular culture

BY Christy Lange in Opinion | 01 MAY 10

Almost halfway through 2010, you might wonder why frieze hasn’t yet published an article looking back on the art of the decade we’ve just left behind. It’s hard to know when enough time has passed to start historicizing. In December, New York magazine bravely took stock of the ‘naughties’, giving Jerry Saltz the unenviable task of naming the ‘art work of the decade’ – an honour he bestowed upon Jeff Koons’ Puppy (2000). If Saltz is wrong about this work, it will be up to the art-historical machine to reverse his decision. Consider the Puppy bronzed.

How soon is too soon to know that we were right or wrong about an artist? How do we take stock of the years that have only just passed? I thought it might be instructive to look back on the issue of frieze published ten years ago this month. Some personal context: in May 2000 I was one year out of college and this was one of the first issues of frieze that I ever bought. Its cover features William Eggleston’s photograph Memphis, Tennessee (c. 1969–70), his iconic image of a woman sitting on a curb looking disarmingly into the lens. It’s telling that the picture is not contemporary – her bouffant hairdo and dress give the picture’s date away, and the rust-coloured frieze logo pays homage to retro colours of the 1970s.

But Issue 52 is not as much of a time capsule as I expected. Some things seem quaintly antiquated – the announcement of Victoria Miro’s move to Wharf Road or an article about the ‘ invasion’. But for every artist’s name that has fallen off the radar, there are many more who seem to have never left us: Dan Graham, Roni Horn, Sharon Lockhart, Ed Ruscha. The May 2000 issue features two small advertisements for gallery shows by Rudolf Stingel; this May 2010 issue includes a feature on Stingel, on the occasion of a major institutional show. But what’s most revealing of the time that’s elapsed are the articles on photography. Could it be that photography is the medium that has undergone the biggest transformation in the first decade of the 21st century? (It would make sense, given how closely it’s linked to technology.) And if photography has changed so dramatically, why does the discourse about the medium always seem to lag so far behind its current production? And why has this discussion been so largely dependent upon the same names – Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag, Jeff Wall?

Page 53 of the ten-year-old frieze features Ralph Rugoff’s review of Gary Lee Boas’ 1999 book of celebrity snapshots, Starstruck: Photographs from a Fan. Looking at Boas’ obsessive shots today, when websites like TMZ provide an ample forum for such images, they no longer seem as singular or remarkable. But Rugoff was prescient when he observed, ‘[Boas’] endeavour is potentially an endless one, and perhaps also a quest for endlessness.’ The ‘fetishistic value’, as Rugoff terms it, of this brand of photography may be more widely distributed and propagated now, but it is not going away soon.
A few pages later, in Bruce Hainley’s look at contemporary photography outside of the art world, he claims the most interesting photos being taken in 2000 are in magazine editorials or fashion advertisements, citing a Prada advertisement and two exhibitions of press and paparazzi photographs of Michael Jackson. ‘Few involved or interested in the production or consumption of “new photography” (or critical thinking about it),’ writes Hainley, ‘embrace expanding the parameters of where photography might appear, by considering it as it occurs in magazines and wherever else.’ While I’m not sure many would make the same claim about fashion spreads today (possibly due to the demise or decline of magazines like The Face and i-D who championed them), the second part of Hainley’s claim still rings true – the art world-at-large is still reluctant to acknowledge what’s happening in photography outside of galleries and institutions.

Only in the last year, with the publication of Michael Fried’s Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, has an attempt to formulate a coherent theory of recent photography been made. Ironically, Fried’s book looks at the medium in terms of painting and his own 1967 theory on sculpture and has consequently been roundly criticized. When it’s not being compared to other media, photography today is measured in terms of the market, as in the first chapter of Isabelle Graw’s 2009 book, High Price: Art Between the Market and Celebrity Culture, which claims the commercial success of Andreas Gursky’s photographs has been ‘confused with artistic achievement’. A spate of recent articles about abstract photography suggest a new movement in contemporary photography, while several recent re-stagings of old exhibitions devoted to photography reveal nostalgia for the implied authenticity of analogue photography.

And now, in this context, curiously, a third strand of discussion has arisen. An upcoming symposium organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and set to take place as this issue goes to print, is entitled ‘Is Photography Over?’. It seems ironic that the medium’s discourse is being revived now, only in terms of its own death. In the participants’ online texts published in anticipation of the conference, curator Corey Keller responds: ‘It is photography’s nagging relationship to the real world that has always been the stumbling block for art critics from Charles Baudelaire to Michael Fried. Photography is, however, different from most other forms of image making […] it has always had a rich and vigorous life outside the narrow confines of the art world.’

Judging from statements by Keller and others, the conference might conclude that photography isn’t over, it’s just not what we thought it was. Similarly, what Rugoff and Hainley seemed to sense ten years ago, long before Facebook or Flickr came along, is photography’s ‘second life’ in social media and its continued importance outside the realm of art. Photography’s ‘fetishistic value’, at least, will persist in pornography and in shots by paparazzi. And if Eggleston’s long-sustained career is any indication, there will always be photography because there will always be photographers, who believe that ‘you can take a good picture of anything’, as Eggleston declared in his interview in Issue 52. He was speaking as one of the first ‘colour photographers’. (Today they no longer make the film he used to take those pictures). Back then, he just ‘made it up’, and that’s what photographers – and anyone with a camera – continue to do. And, inevitably, the discourse will come limping along behind them, still asking: ‘Is it over yet?’

Christy Lange is programme director of Tactical Tech and a contributing editor of frieze. She lives in Berlin, Germany.