Jeff Wall, “‘Marks of Indifference’: Aspects of Photography in, or as, Conceptual Art”

by breavman99

I wanted to re-read art historian and photographer Jeff Wall’s essay on the impact of photography on Conceptual Art (and vice-versa) before my end-of-semester review, mostly because during my presentation and influences talk in the Group Studio course, I was called out for suggesting that my photography is influenced by Conceptual photographic practices, and at that point I wasn’t familiar enough with Wall’s argument to respond coherently. But as I started reading this morning, I realized that since Wall’s essay is on the list of reading for my comprehensive examinations, I was beginning to read for those as well—not what I had expected to be doing today. I was thinking about blogging about that reading, and so here I am, writing something that is mostly for me, but that others may (or may not) find of interest as well.

Wall’s thesis appears very early in his short but dense (to me, anyway) essay: “Conceptual art played an important role in the transformation of the terms and conditions within which established photography defined itself and its relationships with other arts, a transformation which established photography as an institutionalized modernist form evolving explicitly through the dynamics of its auto-critique” (32). For Wall, art photography had to go through the same processes of “autodethronement, or deconstruction” (32), that other art forms had experienced during the twentieth century. For painting and sculpture, that process meant moving away from depiction, but that is difficult for photography, since depiction is part of its physical nature. Nevertheless, Wall writes, “In order to participate in the kind of reflexivity made mandatory for modernist art, photography can put into play only its own necessary conditions of being a depiction-which-constitutes-an-object” (32). In other words, Wall is interested in the development of avant-garde definitions of photography, and Conceptualism was one of the important stages in that development.

The first half of Wall’s essay traces the aesthetic developments of photography during the twentieth century: from Pictorialism at the turn of the century, through a shift to the “immediacy [and] instantaneity” of the capturing of the “evanescent moment of pictorial value” that was characteristic of the “art-concept of photojournalism” (33), through the challenge that Conceptual practices posed for the reportage that was characteristic of the artistic version of photojournalism. Wall’s discussion of reportage as something “inherent in the nature of the medium, and the evolution of equipment,” is a useful way of thinking about the photography of, to take one example, Walker Evans. “Reportage, or the spontaneous, fleeting aspect of the photographic image, appears simultaneously with the pictorial, tableau-like aspect at the origins of photography; its traces can be seen in the blurred elements of Daguerre’s first street scenes. Reportage evolves in the pursuit of the blurred parts of pictures” (33). However, the critique of photography articulated by such reportage was too simple, generating only a social validity: “the picture’s success as reportage per se” (34). “What was necessary,” Wall continues, “was that the picture not only succeed as reportage and be socially effective, but that it succeed in putting forward a new proposition or model of the Picture” (34). Reportage alone could not accomplish this dual aesthetic task. 

Conceptualism, Wall argues, was a fusion of aspects of what he calls “art-photography” with its critique, which was “aimed at foreclosing any further aestheticization or ‘artification’ of the medium” (35). One way of accomplishing this fusion was through a parody of reportage (36), an “introversion or subjectivization” that was manifested in two important directions: through staged or posed pictures, and through concepts of performance (36). Another way was through “the inscription of photography into a nexus of experimental practices [that] led to a direct but distantiated parodic relationship with the art-concept of photojournalism” (36). The photography of Richard Long and Bruce Nauman represent examples of the first direction; the photography of Dan Graham, Douglas Huebler, and Robert Smithson represent examples of the second. Huebler’s work is a particularly powerful example of a critique of previous modes of photography, according to Wall, because “[e]very element that could make the pictures ‘interesting’ or ‘good’ in terms derived from art-photography is systematically and rigorously excluded” (38). This exclusion “displays all the limited qualities identified with photoconceptualism’s de-skilled, amateurist sense of itself” (38).

That de-skilling is an important part of the story Wall tells in this essay. All of the arts, he writes, had to become modernist in part “through a critique of their own legitimacy, in which the techniques and abilities most intimately identified with them were placed in question” (39). Painting and sculpture could abandon depiction in an act of renunciation of skill, but photography cannot, because it is a mechanical process already. In the 1960s, however, artists “appropriated photography, turned their attention away from auteurist versions of its practice, and forcibly subjected the medium to a full-scale immersion in the logic of reductivism”—the logic of the process of abandoning skill as a criteria of art-making (40). Wall quotes Adorno on the need for art to become “anti-art” (41). In the case of photography, the renunciation or reductivism involved in this turn meant an embrace of amateurism, which “becomes visible as the photographic modality or style which, in itself, signifies the detachment of photography from three great norms of the Western pictorial tradition—the formal, the technical, and the one relating to the range of subject-matter” (42). For Wall, the work of Andy Warhol violates all three of these norms simultaneously (42). “It became a subversive creative act for a talented and skilled artist to imitate a person of limited abilities,” Wall argues. “It was a new experience, one which ran counter to all accepted ideas and standards of art, and was one of the last gestures which could produce avant-gardist shock” (43). The work of Edward Ruscha is paradigmatic of this subversive act for Wall, and he uses Ruscha’s 1963 book Twentysix Gasoline Stations as his example: “Only an idiot would take pictures of nothing but the filling stations, and the existence of a book of just those pictures is a kind of proof of the existence of such a person” (43-44). Wall concludes, “In photoconceptualism, photography posits its escape from the criteria of art-photography through the artist’s performance as a non-artist who, despite being a non-artist, is nevertheless compelled to make photographs. These photographs lose their status as Representations before the eyes of their audience: they are ‘dull,’ ‘boring,’ and ‘insignificant.’ Only by being so could they accomplish the intellectual mandate of reductivism at the heart of the enterprise of Conceptual art” (44). That enterprise failed, but its failure was able “to free the medium from its peculiar distanced relationship with artistic radicalism and from its ties to the Western Picture,” and it thereby “revolutionized our concept of the Picture and created the conditions for the restoration of that concept as a central category of contemporary art” (44).

Now, after that lengthy summary, one might legitimately ask the question I was asked during my presentation in Group Studio: what makes you think your photography is influenced by photoconceptualism? Notice that I said “influenced”: I’m not claiming to be a Conceptualist photographer, a claim that would put me 50 years behind the times. I have two reasons for making this claim. The first concerns my own amateurism as a photographer. During Wood Mountain Walk, I took pictures quickly, framing and shooting each photograph in no more than 30 seconds. The photographs were intended to document an experience, rather than being carefully composed photographs in their own right. For that reason, many of them were simply terrible: back-lit embarrassments with crooked horizons (very noticeable on the flat prairies). Moreover, my camera was on automatic exposure and focus settings throughout the walk. I may not be able to claim to be an artist performing amateurism, but as a photographer, I’m not a professional. I lack skills and even though I have acquired more knowledge and skill this semester, my intention is still to document an experience quickly, rather than to stop and carefully capture an image of the Saskatchewan landscape.

The second reason that I would argue that my practice as a photographer is influenced by what Walls calls “photoconceptualism” is something he doesn’t mention explicitly: the importance of the series in my work. Ruscha also worked in series: it’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations, and Every Building on the Sunset Strip, not just the gas stations or buildings he thought were particularly interesting. I did something similar during Wood Mountain Walk: as part of documenting that work, I took photographs ever 30 minutes or so, so that after nine days of walking, I had accumulated some 500 images. When I display those images—or the 20 or so that aren’t too embarrassingly amateurish—I display them as a series. I don’t think they have much meaning outside of that context. When I submitted work to the exhibition organized by members of the Group Studio course, I couldn’t show the entire series—that would have taken up too much space in an exhibition that was intended to show representative samples of the work of a dozen people—so I had to choose two. I framed those images, which added to their separation from the rest. I was very dissatisfied with the result. Moreover, the images themselves repeat a motif: the road, mostly from the perspective of the left-hand shoulder, the place where I was walking. I took photographs of the road and what was in front of me and the horizon in the distance deliberately, as a way of generating a series of similar photographs and articulating the experience of walking through that landscape. For those reasons—my lack of skill as a photographer and my intention to create a series of pictures—I would consider my photography to be influenced by photoconceptualism. There: now I can answer that question should it arise during my review—and I’m sure it will. 

Work Cited

Wall, Jeff. “‘Marks of Indifference’: Aspects of Photography in, or as, Conceptual Art.” Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965-1975, eds. Ann Goldstein and Anne Rorimer, LA MOCA/MIT Press, 1995, pp. 32-44.