The Conceptional Void of Art Photography

evan patrick
Oct 29, 2012 4:26AM

Going to a museum hungry is not a good idea.  Your brain is about to be pushed into codifying abstraction, creating personal narratives and navigating someone else's emotional terrain.  It should be clear and open, unencumbered by everyday thoughts of work, bills or…food.  But getting off the escalator on the 2nd floor of MoMA, hunger was indeed the main topic discussed by my synapses.  I had not eaten anything in a few hours and the hunger fatigue had become ever-present.  So I really needed some work in the New Photography 2012 show to take me away from my body's sustenance-deprived condition.  Unfortunately, the rampant conceptualism plaguing contemporary "art photography" (more on that in a minute) was very much in evidence at the show, and there was very little to visually devour.

From the overly reflexive to the coldly formal to the post-millennial fetish of image "saturation" and "self-documentation" (as stated in the exhibition description of the artist collective Birdhead), the show was an unfortunate success in showing how ideas about photography have trumped the need to actually make compelling photographs.  To help me understand this frustrating phenomena, my photographer friend Amani Willett suggested I read an essay about photography in the contemporary art world. The author (and photographer) Paul Graham, very astutely observes

"…there remains a sizeable part of the art world that simply does not get photography. They get artists who use photography to illustrate their ideas, installations, performances and concepts, who 'deploy' the medium as one of a range of artistic strategies to complete their work.  But photography for and of itself -photographs taken from the world as it is– are misunderstood as a collection of random observations and lucky moments, or muddled up with photojournalism, or tarred with a semi-derogatory ‘documentary’ tag." 

Graham is absolutely right.  Photographers must (unfairly) demonstrate and articulate a conceptually-based methodology in order to be included in the art establishment as "art photography".  The result of this criteria is two-fold: it excludes an enormous group of photographers who use more traditional methods/styles of presentation and also celebrates photographic work that may have very little visual impact. 

With the exception of Anne Collier's "Clouds" and a triptych of odd hand portraits by Michelle Abeles, the artist descriptions in New Photography 2012 were much more interesting than the actual work.  Reading about (among other things) the creation of depth through multiple exposures of an image, the use of models as props for collage, and the re-contextualization of misogynistic imagery in 1970s photo advertising was all very engaging.  But looking at the works that sprung from these techniques and ideas was the opposite.  Which isn't to say that conceptual art photography is inherently flawed, but simply that there seems to be a void between the ideas and execution.

evan patrick