The Body of the Photograph

© Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey
From http://organicgreenroots.wordpress.com/2011/11/29/photosynthesis-growing-photography/

Jonathan Jones of The Guardian took photographic conversation with him on a time machine this month by revisiting a position that was already irrelevant sixty years ago, declaring, "Photography is not an art. It is a technology." His comment is innocuous because it's inane; Sean O'Hagan wrote a reply argument that suffices although I'm not sure replying to that particular comment by Jones was worth the effort.

I'm generally not much of a conspiracist, but the conversation is so ridiculous that I started to wonder in all honesty if Jones and O'Hagan set this up for publicity. But then, however, I remember that O'Hagan is a reasonable and respectable critic and that Jones, in broader strokes, has taken other positions just as extreme and lazy that are also founded in bad logic with arguments based neither in history nor context.

Such as, for example, another of his posts from November I would like to briefly respond to, one that O'Hagan also briefly mentions in his post, which was called, "Flat, soulless and stupid: why photographs don't work in art galleries."

Here I'll start with a look at Jones' "argument," then I will try to take something positive out of all this by turning the conversation into a look at how the print and installation decisions combine to form the "body" of the photograph, that is to say its presence in space, and at how the body of a photograph is fundamental to its meaning.

I'll also add before starting that this essay is part of a loose series of posts, hereherehere, here, here and here and also referenced in the text below, that serve something of an educational purpose for students (which ties into the site's microgrants and mission and my past as an educator). I am aware that some of these points are somewhat basic math for experienced photographers. That being said, it's amazing how often even otherwise lovable and reasonable photographers will say something like, "Well, if you can't see the show, the same work is in my book/on my site." While it may be the only way to see the work, it's not the same work. I hope reading through, then, will serve as an introduction for some and a reminder for others.

Jones writes that photography on the page or screen is fascinating. On display in a gallery or museum, however, it is not: "It just looks stupid when a photograph is framed or backlit and displayed vertically in an exhibition, in the way paintings have traditionally been shown. A photograph in a gallery is a flat, soulless, superficial substitute for painting." He goes on to suggest curators provide us iPads to scroll through a digital gallery instead. That, he adds, "would easily be as beautiful and compelling as the expensive prints."

He goes on to back up his argument by exploring the inherent physical differences between the two formats which lead him to conclude that painting just for the sake of being a painting offers a richer spatial engagement with the established traditional gallery format and also...nah, he doesn't do any of that. 

Photography isn't art because, to his eyes, it doesn't look so great on a wall like a real good painting which takes time to make. That's the entire argument.

He gives us insight into where the intellectual roots of his misthinking are planted in two off-hand comments in the article. First, "It's amazing how long some people can look at a photograph. I observed the observers, rapt before illuminated images that I really can't look at for more than a few seconds," and later, "A photograph, however well lit, however cleverly set it up, only has one layer of content. It is all there on the surface. You see it, you've got it."

The problem here is clear: the belief that you look at a photograph and you've got it, that's all and that takes less than a few seconds. In strong photography, this is obviously not the case. Sorry chap, but you have to look for more than a few seconds and once you've seen it and taken in the basic visual elements involved, that's when art begins to work and when you, especially as a critic, but it applies to any observer, begin to engage with it. You have to - apologies, really - consider how the visual elements you are looking at might feed into themes, look for dialogue between the photographs themselves in the gallery and at the conversations between the photographs and history, culture and other photographers. You have to use your conclusions to build ideas of what the photographer is up to and begin to construct arguments about its meaning. (We talked about this stuff at more length in a post from a couple months back.)

The alternative is the equivalent of skimming Crime and Punishment in an hour and finishing not knowing the characters names. It's watching The Godfather on 16x and concluding it's about the mafia, yes, the Irish mafia. It's reading the summary in the program of a six-hour Wagner opera while sitting at the theatre's bar with a whiskey instead of actually going in, which, now that I type it, I realize is actually a better idea so scratch that last example.

To be fair, the quote about looking for a few seconds was talking specifically about a wildlife photography exhibit which I can't look at for more than a few seconds either (OK, unless they are your cats, Joerg). Jones places his comment, however, in the context of arguing for photography as painting's sad sibling, so I think it's also fair to believe he doesn't look at other photography for more than a few seconds either. This take is supported by his comment that with photography, "You see it, you’ve got it."

Photography struggled at its beginning to separate its identity from painting. Once people got sick of the Pictorialists and tableau photographers, however, and started doing more with the camera than try to imitate painting a century ago, photography began to fight different battles, branch off into separate conversations and evolve its own aesthetic vocabulary. It was born a second time, this time as its own medium. The early photographic anxiety of being stuck in the shadow of painting remains in the collective photographer's memory, however, which is why Jones' post hits a particular nerve for a lot of photographers, but also another way we can understand the datedness of his thoughts, and how irrelevant they are to contemporary conversation.

Exhibition view © Thomas Ruff
From http://camlux.blogspot.com/2012_05_01_archive.html

So let's make the rest of this post a more productive one that goes beyond kicking Jones in the shins repeatedly. Comments here complement a post from last year called "Considering a Photograph." Let's discuss the photographic print and the gallery installation which combine to create the "body" of the photograph.

The decisions we make in regards to how we present work affect how people will see it and how they will understand it, making the print and installation inseparable from the meaning of the photographic project. We'll begin by talking a little bit about the print first. The various qualities of the print impact how we understand the photograph itself. Here variables include size, reflectivity, temperature, weight and texture. Let's discuss size in a little more depth, and then more quickly mention the others once the general point is made.

The size of a physical print is an important tool in terms of establishing an understanding of the intended meaning of the photograph. If you see a photograph of a head six feet tall, it radically alters the meaning of the photograph compared to seeing it printed two inches tall. In the prior case we could say that we are more likely to feel imposed on, looked down on, minimized. The grand scale also memorializes and indicates significance. In the later case, we are placed in a position of power and the photograph hands us references to passports, identity photographs, high school portraits and other similar small photographs of heads.

Installation view © Karl Baden
From http://camlux.blogspot.com/2012_05_01_archive.html

Size affects the narrative of our visual experience of the photograph as well. A landscape print eight feet long is something we enter and move through, a landscape print eight inches long is something we consider from outside, as if looking at it through a window. We are also more likely to see large prints in parts, while a smaller print we are more likely to take in all at once. A large print increases the physical distance between parts, and creates air and space in a way a small print does not. It opens up, it "breathes." A large print also enables an engagement with and exploration of details not rendered in small prints.

In addition to print size, the decisions a photographer makes on paper and printing process also shift meaning. Reflectivity, temperature and texture are three basic paper elements. To cite a couple examples from Jones' beloved painting that show how important they are as artistic properties, Mark Rothko's paintings function in large part through reflectivity and he was keenly aware of the nuances of his surfaces. Albert Pinkham Ryder poured varnish over his paintings before visitors arrived because he wanted them to shine for them. The photographer has a predetermined but important range of options in reflectivity that they need to know and consider actively because they shift the experience of the observer of the image. Glossy and matte completely change the look not just of the blacks, but relationships with the image such as the possibility of entrance - glossy, for example, often seems to have a shiny veil that prohibits the world of the photograph from being our world by reflecting (repelling?) light. In some printing processes, such as black and white fiber printing, the image is embedded in the paper and in others, such as inkjet printing, the ink sits on the surface of the paper. This changes the feel of the print through the different sensations of depth and tonal richness.

The tones and gamut of color in a print vary from developer to developer and printer to printer. The temperature of a print also affects its sense of spatial presence. In general terms, cool papers seem to recede and warm papers advance.  Weight and texture come into play as well in this conversation: the same image printed on newsprint and also printed on the latest heavyweight, matte, semi-rough Hahnemühle paper puts the observer in two different visual conversations: the first is fragile, temporal and references the press and cheaper printing histories and markets, the second is solid, relatively unchanging and very squarely engages the traditional expectations of maximizing fidelity of color, sharpness, tonality and other hallmarks of classic print making.

This is by no means a complete breakdown, but rather a starting point to bring home the point that Jones' suggested iPad digital gallery strips the artist of all of these possibilities and pushes the photograph to a singular homogenized scale, loses a sense of reflectivity, eliminates the sensibilities of different papers and inks, reduces tonal and color range and does away with textural subtleties - it's a reduction of the factors for viewing an image that was originally intended to be a physical object. It is, in fact, a completely distinct work of art. In short, digital presentations can do amazing things and thankfully more and more work is being designed specifically for the screen, but the printed photograph offers another range of variables that give us as photographers an entirely different set of levers to play with to shape the meaning of our work. To disregard that reality is to cut the photographer off from a vast range of expressive possibilities.

In addition to the physical properties of the print, the installation of photographs in a gallery provides a second set of variables that the photographer can work with to tweak meaning.

Jones said that a photograph looks "stupid" displayed vertically in an exhibition as paintings traditionally have been. Starting with this very limited consideration of how to use the gallery as a vehicle for exhibiting the photograph - vertical installation - let's consider how different decisions made in the gallery context impact meaning and provide a wide range of visual options unique to this forum for showing imagery.

All physical objects in space have a relationship with our body. We sense pressure inside an elevator, the distance a person maintains when they talk to us and the football a split second before it hits us in the groin. We saw how that can impact the experience of physical photographs earlier when we talked about the size of the print. This basic fact creates an extensive range of variables that serve the artist.

© Paul Graham
From http://whitehotmagazine.com/articles/paul-graham-present-pace-gallery/2541

First, let's talk about the single photograph on a wall, then let's talk about groups of photographs. How high or low a photograph is hung establishes a basic point of reference and a power relationship, similar to how print size works as we have already talked about, but also mimicking the same types of relationships established in a composition by standing, for example, over a subject or pointing the camera up towards them from below.

Frame materials (or the decision not to frame) also influence the reading of a photograph: a heavy frame can weigh on an image or, alternatively, reinforce its geometry, depending on an image and how the framing is done. Images tacked to a wall have less considered formality. Look no farther than heavy golden frames to find an example of how a frame can change the way we look at the photograph – we immediately typecast it, doubt the "taste." Paul Graham's recent show at Pace, "Does Yellow Run Forever?" attempts to play with that expectation surrounding the gold frame and surprise us by its use. Matting a photograph more and more references a classicism in presentation as it falls out of fashion. The size of the matte relative to the image also affects the sense of scale of the image and its activation/passivity, to name just two variables it impacts. A thin, pinched matte (see the image below) can give a photograph activity in relation to the frame, a wide matte can separate it from the frame completely. The distance the image comes off the wall in its framing is a primary part of its presentation of itself as an object as well. That distance can say to us, alternately, "hello" or "HELLO THERE!" and suggest a sense of aggressiveness, solidity and/or strength.

This is not a complete list, but it's enough to show that even in a simple vertical arrangement, installation decisions such as placement, frame materials, matting and relief from the wall are crucial to the meaning of the photograph and unique to this installation context.

Peacock, 2011 © Appau Junior Boakye-Yiadom
From https://chloenelkin.wordpress.com/2011/07/01/ooops-i-love-it-again-peacock-trousers-at-josh-lilley/

Above image Photoshopped

Now that we've talked about installation decisions of the single photograph, let's move on to talk about the group of photographs on a wall. A group of objects in space also have relationships not just with the observer as discussed above, but between each other – look at the bottles in the paintings of Giorgio Morandi or the still lives of Jan Groover, for example, to get a sense of how objects can communicate social relationships. In the two images above, the density of hanging of the top group leads to an understanding of them as intimate and connected together as one work while the (quickly) Photosopped second image gives a sense of a more melancholic, distanced, cooler relationship between the images and a definitive sense of them as two separate objects. 

Density, rhythm and pattern are three words off the top of the head that dominate installation decisions of the group of photographs. Look at these following images. The first shows a density that encourages a reading of the whole before the parts, a modest undulating rhythm and a pattern of squares that plays off a basic grid. In the bottom version of this image, I lined up the breaks between tops and bottoms of images in Photoshop to show an example of how crucial small decisions are to the experience of groups of images on the wall. All of a sudden we read left to right much more easily, perhaps just as easily as up and down. There is more horizontal movement, more democracy in the Photoshopped image. In the original, top image, we tend to see horizontal columns and more hierarchy, little Modernist towers, perhaps, that reinforce the other Modernist decisions of black and white image with a proportional white matte and a thin black frame.

Installation at Pier 24
From https://haikuforphotography.wordpress.com/2011/08/28/vast-empires-and-discrete-objects-and-good-installations/

Above image Photoshopped

In the image below, we see density that dissipates as well as a centrally-based grouping of images, bringing in ideas of the cosmos and expansion. The rhythm is staccato and reduces in speed as we spiral out from the center. The small prints and x-y axis installation pattern recall pixels. Here we have started a completely different conversation from the conversation above using strictly the old "stupid" vertical wall layout.

© Masao Yamamoto
From http://www.jacksonfineart.com/artist_exhibit.php?id=117&exhibitid=30

Another image, below, takes us to our final point. The density is moderate, the rhythm fairly uniform and the pattern is set into a sort of system of triangles and groupings of images (as I've outlined in red).

© Julien Lanoo
Installation by © Joris De Schepper and Thomas De Ridder
From http://www.dezeen.com/2010/11/13/inside-installations-by-joris-de-schepper-and-thomas-de-ridder/

Most importantly, the print leaves the vertical layout (and Jones' conversation along with it) and begins to explore the myriad of possibilities for photography in the gallery space. Here one could argue that photography is actually MORE suited to the gallery because, more so than painting, it lends itself to innovations of installation, rooted in its basic essence as a reproducible object. This, in turn, results in the type of use of image we would be harder pressed to imagine with painting. The volume of photographs it is possible to produce and the ability to treat them as potentially less precious objects, placing them on the floor, using adhesive to mount them, reprinting the same photograph multiple times – all of this translates into the types of explorations seen in the images below, all of which work with themes that would be harder to realize - probably impossible in some cases - with painting.

The specifics of viewing images in galleries - the ability to see multiple images in different spatial points at once, leading the visitor through a space, the involvement of peripheral vision, etc. would be a whole other section that I think is best to leave unopened for now, but is another consideration left aside by Jones' vision of digital iPad galleries. In conclusion, then, the print and installation come together to form the photograph's "body," its presence in space. It's fascinating to see how we can manipulate the body to our advantage as photographers through a knowledge of how decisions about the print and installation, even small details, can deeply impact their reception and, therefore, their meaning. This is the entire second part of photography, the part that comes after the making of the image and it has as much to bear, I believe, on meaning as the image itself. Jones, with his digital iPad gallery, would deny us the photographic body and by doing so, he radically minimizes the medium in the process.

Layer Drawing - Tokyo Sunrise © Nobuhiro Nakanishi
From http://www.kashyahildebrand.org/zurich/nakanishi/nakanishi_exhibition004.html

© Annette Messager
From http://theculturetrip.com/europe/france/articles/annette-messager-fragmented-bodies-divided-identities/
still and moving (I), photo installation, 1998 © Jurgita Remeikyte
From http://fototapeta.art.pl/2003/jrmge.php

© Erik Kessels
From http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2061763/Artist-Erik-Kessels-places-1m-Flickr-images-single-room-Foam-gallery-Amsterdam.html

© Jan Smaga
From http://thepassengertimes.com/2012/05/11/c-jan-smaga/