PHOTOGRAPHY NO_ON PHOTOGRAPHY – Medium Photographie
2018 | HSD – Hochschule Düsseldorf
Der Vortrag von Mareike Foecking eröffnete die Konferenz “photography no_on photography”, er betrachtete die Ausstellung “Medium Fotografie”, die 1973 im Museum Morsbroich in Leverkusen stattfand. Die Ausstellung war ein Versuch Fotografie schon damals als selbstverständliches Medium bildender Künstler zu etablieren und darzustellen. Ausgehend von dieser Ausstellung und den dort gezeigten Positionen wurden diese mit der Bedeutung der Dokumentarphotographie in den zwanziger Jahren und auch den Siebziger Jahren kontextualisiert, die damals als Möglichkeit gesehen wurde, anhand der betrachteten Bilder zu politischem Handeln zu bewegen.
Good morning and a very warm welcome to everyone.
I’m really looking forward to spending these next two days with you discussing photography and images.
Although, sometimes I wonder if there hasn’t already been enough discussion about photography and do we really need any more festivals.
Perhaps it’s not necessary to have any further discussions about what type of photography does or doesn’t constitute art. Indeed, do we have to talk about these issues anymore and why?
Yet, for me, personally, photography is something that is
never boring- keeps on surprising me.
I find it challenging and annoying – It makes me happy but, above all,
I just can’t stop engaging with it.
Photography enables to merge with the images.
As Garry Winogrand once said „I get totally out of myself – photographing ist the closest I can get to not-existing“.
It’s a language that can translate what you can’t say but can only feel.
You can think with it and in it.
Vilem Flusser in his book ’Towards a Philosophy of Photography’ summarised his thoughts very well:
„A philosophy of photography must reveal the fact that there is no place for human freedom within the area of automated programmed and programming apparatuses , in order finally to show a way in which it is nevertheless possible to open up a space for freedom.
The task of a philosophy of photography is to reflect upon this possibility of freedom – and thus its significance – in a world dominated by apparatuses; to reflect upon the way in which , despite everything , it is possible for human beings to give significance to their lives in face of the chance necessity of death.
Such a philosophy is necessary because it is the only revolution left open to us.“
I would like us to unleash a revolution of thinking about images. That’s what brought us all here together today in the first place.
While art history is being made today, there are many histories that are being played out all at the same time. While one story tends to grab the headlines, it’s only much later that we re-discover those stories that were neglected and thus forgotten. At this conference we don’t just want to focus on ways of working with photography in the present time but we want to think more generally about images in the past, in the present and hopefully also in the future.
We are here in Düsseldorf and the history of photography in this city is inextricably bound up with the history of Bernd and Hilla Becher and the Becher class – the so-called Düsseldorfer Schule.
We can’t deny this history and indeed we shouldn’t. Nevertheless, we should put it in context.
That’s why I’d like to talk about an exhibition that took place right here in the Rhineland BEFORE the Bechers and their students achieved international fame. The exhibition was called ….it was curated by Klaus Wedewer and it first opened at the Museum Morsbroich (not very far from here). Subsequently, it travelled to Münster and other German cities. The exhibition was an attempt to establish photography as a natural medium for fine artists. This exhibition was not the only attempt to engage with the photographic medium. In subsequent years there were other shows that stressed different aspects. For example, Klaus Honnef’s exhibition of 1979 „In Deutschland – Aspekte gegenwärtiger Dokumentarphotographie“. or, once again, Wedewer „Vorstellungen und Wirklichkeit. 7 Aspekte subjektiver Photographie“.or at the Kunstverein Hannover „Kunst aus Fotografie“ (Art from Photography).If we go back to that first exhibition curated by Wedewer, here’s what Klaus Honnef had to say about it after he visited it (this is an extract from his diary) :
„Medium Fotografie in Leverkusen, a most interesting exhibition. I’m going to bring this to Münster in 2 years time. It includes soley works of artists who’ve explored the medium of photography. Fred Jahn und Klaus Wedewer have put together some amazing material. Not a good show but certainly an interesting one.
It’s particularly illuminating because it doesn’t try to cover up how helpless and clueless are even the most famous artists when it came to dealing with the medium of photography.
Vordemberge Gildewart, for example, surely an excellent and original constructivist didn’t know what else to do with the photographic medium other than to stupidly repeat the shapes he used in his paintings in a photographic manner.
By contrast, Heartfield who thought about the rules of the medium and fully mastered them and through this gave his works the necessary sharpness.“
If we look at the list of the shown artists the variety of artistic and technical approaches is amazing. The fact that artists use the medium of photography to realise other concepts for their own purposes beyond the usual categories of artistic expression is nothing new.
in wedewers catalogue text. According to Wedewer: “Photography has now been accepted as ‘art possible’.“ In his catalogue text he points to a huge gap in engaging with photography caused by the war and the NS regime. Now, starting in the 1960s there is great and renewed interest in the medium. The exhibits were not just originals but, in many cases, also facsimilies and reproductions.
Now we have in photography museum copies which is why photography can be shown in many places at the same time.
We found some exhibition views by the Leverkusen-based press phototographers Holger Schmitt /Herbert Beyer.
It is quite interesting to see how the photography way presented and installed at that time for example Man Rays portrait of Tristan Tzara ca. 1921
or Cigarettes a Rayographie 1924 and Marcel Duchamps „porte II., rue lares“, Paris 1927.
Here we have Mieczyslaw Berman – a political artist and Hans Bellmer and Paul Citroen. Already here you see the big variety of technical approaches that were presented. There is Raoul Hausmann and John Heartfield – a more a visual political acitivist – and Hanna Höch. Wedewer combined old and new works by this artisit Pablo Picasso and Alexander Rodtchenko or Luigi Veronesi who was very much interested and influenced by constructivism and Friedrich Vordemberge Gildewart. The then younger generation started with for example Lothar Baumgarten, Christian Boltanski, Marcel Broodthaers and Jan Dibbets who Wedewer sees as a very important artists working with photography. And there are Hamish Fulton, Gilbert & George, Jörg Immendorff and Wolf Knebel later known as Imi Knebel, Ingrid Kohleöfen and A.R.Penck, Sigmar Polke and Arnulf Rainer, Gerhard Richter, Edward Ruscha, Katharina Sieverding and surprisingly Jack Smith. The international mixture or artists shows how Wedewer and Jahn really tried to create a big picture. It was not that easy to find information material on the show
but we found reviews from the local newspapers. One review in a local newspaper said that: “These are photographic works by artists who, to a large extent, became famous for their work in other mediums. Unfortunately, there is no possibility to make a direct comparison with the other creative fields and so visitors have to rely on their own knowledge. For most visitors this can only be assumed in the case of, for example, Picasso or Heartfield. This is an exhibition for those who would like to become acquainted with developments in this special field. These works do not depict a beautiful world where everything is sunny but, instead, a world of atomic mushroom clouds and grey walls with broken objects and revolting grimaces. For those who wish to look at pretty pictures a visit to the castle will be in vain!“ Are photographs by artists art ?
„through his images one artist rails against German fascism – not very convincing as there are stronger artistic expressions of disgust.“
Subjective photography attempts this in an artistic way. The artists are now attempting to do this in the form of a documentary. They want a real and verifiable image of reality, a real one.Doubts should be allowed – even a photo can be manipulated.“
And another Quote :„The photographs in the exhibitions are by ‚Nichtberufsphoptographen‘ non-professional photographers. They are by artists who actually have other means of expression.
Question: so why don’t they use these to express themselves?“ Wedewer himself sees
„Questions about the medium of photography in relation to art
in its entirety as a particular aspect of the general question about the comtemporary and possible relationship between art and society, about reality and those who portray it and who are interested in more than just duplicating it mechanically.“
He sees photography as a possibility to overcome the increasing abstraction between art and society and, at the same time, sees the risk that by using the medium of photography an arrogant aesthetisation without any consequences could be pushed forward.
I was surprised by the international range of works that were showcased. There was a real attempt to show the breadth of the very different approaches to work with the medium.
When the exhibition opened in Münster an accompanying symposium was organised, too.
Here’s the programme.
I found it striking that Gisele Freund was the only woman. She came as a photographer who also wrote about photography.
The talks were about a wide range of themes and subjects as thoughts about new objectivity, the role of photography in mass media, german portrait photography from 1918 until 1922, an interesting talk by Wolfgang Kemp on the problems of the medium of photography, and photography as a medium in fine arts.
The write-up of the symposium was never completed or published.
Later some of the monographs were published in „Beiträge zur Geschichte und Ästhetik der Fotografie“.
An interesting feature here is that the same photo by Kertesz is used twice – once on the front cover and once in an advert on the back cover.
Thinking about which subject to look at closer for our conference I decided to focus on the issue of documentary photography as when I was preparing the talk I read an interview with Tracey Rose in the magazine Elephant and this is what she said
„I find the art of this century so far is so didactic and immersed in documentary photography, which is not fucking art !“
The medium of photography, as I see it, is on its way to becoming a didactic medium. The prerequisites for this already exist or are emerging. There is no other medium, which is technically facilitated, where the proportions between practical and receptive use are so favourable. Moreover, for this one medium there are indications of something in all its fields of production that could help learning to progress from being just a re-enactment towards an authentic experience and, beyond that, to the production of reality.
That photography should no longer be about capturing the docile (families, landscapes, still lifes, etc.), or random manipulation (with the help of shots and lab technology), or the narcissism of the medium but rather about work on and in the system of resistance that we call reality.
Therefor I’d like to talk about and present Winfried Ranke’s monograph on social documentary photography at around 1900. In this he quotes Georges Latin-German dictionary that explained that the Latin term documentum means„ everything through which you can learn something, see, or conclude or protect yourself…proof, a warning, a lesson, trial“.
You cannot assume that the photograph is authentic because in photography as in all media that produce images an identity between the reason for expression and the expression itself is not always there.
The question that needs to be asked about documentary photography is why did someone want to do this and to what extent he succeeded in documenting his reasons.
Gartenlaube was a magazine. A quote says:
„Artistic sensitivity is not a quality that everybody possesses. Those who lack it should not attempt to create artistic images but put their photographic ability at the service of science and make strict and lifelike copies of nature.“
At that time a lot of documentary photographers concentrated on architectural photography of run-down buildings for restoration purpose, microsopic photography, zoological photography, war photograpy, disasters, criminology / criminal files / show things authentically.
Ranke points out documentary photographers started off by imitating genre paintings to document for example village/country life. So to document not for a certain purpose like to show war or for a criminal archive – photographers were imitating paintings or edgings
so the first documentary photography was more an imitation of painting or edgings
later, for example, with L.W. Hine, the nature of documentary photography changed.
„I wanted to show things so that they could be put right, e.g. poor people, child labour.“
The changed technical conditions with smaller cameras were of course part of these visual changes and photographic approaches.
Zille didn’t take photographs but collected views and fragments. All these photographers acted out of moral conviction rather than political beliefs and therefore had little effect.
According to Ranke apparently the medium of photography is not able to generate, by itself, its own appropriate manner for communicating but this – as everything else – is determined by conditions of the system in which it develops.
Lets look at documentary photography a little later than 1900
In the 1920s there were high expectations of documentary photography – “if you want to change the world then you have to photograph it“ was a statement in a text in the magazine ‘der Arbeiterfotograf’.
The language of photography and the making and deciphering of images was, for example, encouraged through education in schools. Cameras were seen as machines that viewed things objectively.
From this arose the concept of the so-called ‘workers’ photography’, It was supposed to empower workers to have a view on their own lives through the availability of the machine/camera. The photos were frequently published anonymously.
Photography was believed to offer revolutionary powers like a sort of weapon to change society.“.
The utopia that photography could be a socially-relevant and politically active medium gained new relevance in the 1960s and 1970s. There was a magazine that was called ‚Arbeiterfotografie‘.
There were texts to accompany the images that reflected on the process of photographing and what could be viewed in the image as well as the photographer. Quote : „Here we see the worker Oskar. who took photos of his wife doing the housework. He says :“These photos that I’ve taken, you won’t find them in any normal newspapers. My parents-in-law have all sorts of magazines and we looked through all of them. When these photos are published in „Arbeiterfotografie“ it’s quite clear that women – and maybe even the men, too – will think about their position in the household, and even in life perhaps.“
In terms of content, it’s long way from these images, which were supposed to have a socio-political agenda, to images that do actually change the behaviour of people and entire societies. This is the case with mobile devices, permanently available cameras and social platforms.
Many of the current social media platforms and apps, such as Facebook and primarily instagram, are based, in particular, on communicating through images.
Images are now the triggers and rewards that again lead to taking more photographs and sending or posting and spending as much time as possible online with the device.
Frequently, the aim is not to decipher the images and to reflect on them, but above all, to make them, to post them and to like them.
Of course, in this process, many exciting things emerge, like memes, funny and critical ways to deal with selfies, the possibility to become politically active, as was the case during the Arab spring etc. However, I am more interested in a phenomenon that you can observe with Snapchat.
In this case, the permanent use is no longer about what the images show or how they are composed, wether they are good or interesting photos but primarily that they exist so that it’s possible to post them so that the energy flow of sending and receiving is not interrupted.
To keep the flame streak going for the snap flame not to die.
As it can be quite complicated to always produce an interesting image to keep the flame going not to end the flame streak and you don’t often find yourself in situations where such images can be produced, then anything will do.
These Apps are rarely being hacked or used on ones own terms – they are used in the way they are supposed to be used – the way they have been programmed.
The new imagery comes from the device and from the logic of the App.
I raised a number of issues in my presentation – I have not drawn any conclusions as it was supposed to be an introductory talk.
All of you who came to present something talk about some of the many questions I have which is why I inivited you and I am curious to hear all your thoughts.
Which is the role of documentary photography in art and in general ?
Which is the system photography developes in now ?
Which new technologies change images and our perception of and reflections on images today and how ?
Do people need images of reality and what is reality today ?
Especially in a time where virtual reality is on the rise and reality in itself is questioned
and what people experience in there cant be photographed or documented – it can just be documented how they experience it mechanically.
Or will maybe especially because of this a new way to deal and work with photography will emerge ? Of course there are many more questions I have but lets stop here for now.