To the European sentiment, indistinguishably woven with history as with every progressive notion of culture emerging from it, the directness that spirits the American sense of art has often seemed, in a word, inscrutable. It is emblematic of art practice — after all, it conforms to known practices in two-dimensional as well as plastic arts — but has often appeared more purposeful or functional than work contemporaneously produced in other continents. Photography, as one medium whose evolution can be said to have followed equal pace in several continents, can make the case for this difference.
One half-century vexation that dogged photography’s quest for legitimacy as art relates precisely to the ambiguity with which photographs like Alfred Stieglitz’s were first read. Street views during the first decade of the twentieth century, while innocuously aesthetic to modern view, signaled a major departure from the posed obduracy of studio portrait tradition, and through this impulse his work surely materialized as more documentary in nature and closer to Muybridge’s own physiological studies than to the hauntingly alluring images of Atget’s Paris throughways, images structured and angled through desolation’s purity of appearance.
The model of Stieglitz’s own evolution in imagery as something that simultaneously describes and explains is not unique; photography in the hands of many American artists marks the change in the status of the photograph from object to statement, through a change effected variously, including what has imprecisely become much discussed as the copy. To confer the status of original to a work indicates the bestowal of uniqueness both to it and to the concept underlying the work itself. The copy is, necessarily then, more than a case of reproduction of the object, it is an assault to its status as original, so that when, more contemporaneously, Richard Prince speaks of his appropriation of the models portrayed in cigarette and magazine commercials by the practice of the rephotograph, he is decidedly not suggestion the production of a copy, but rather interrogating, in a wholly original manner, the status of an image we have already seen but whose function we must subsequently reconsider:
More images than portraits of people, the rephotographs that comprise the Untitled (Couple) series look like they belong in the luxury goods section. These are people who have been placed at the service of the commodity. They have been given the vampire treatment, had the blood sucked out of them by capital to become vampires themselves. 1
Prince’s most recognizable rephotograph, which Michael Newman calls a stolen image, is in every sense a doble entendre that argues the transition toward photographic statement, not offered as the chronicle of journalistic exposition, but within the analogic web of aesthetic production. In this double nature, the photographer enacts the role of visual ventriloquist appropriating not object but statement, that is, not the original but its function, causing what exists for one stilted and fictive use (in the vernacular of advertising) to speak in another, which is to say, disputing itself reflectively, self-critically, stepping out of its fictive frame out to the domain of factual critique on the condition of advertising’s collusion in the hallucination of distractive consumption. And through this critique, we work backward to the original image’s function, to discover that it is itself a copy, an imitation of the archetypal duality, the perfect human pair, a hoax given to the consuming public, whose engagement with its seductive allure will translate into targeted consumption. To orchestrate the image as an object is to orchestrate desire, but to view it as a statement of such manipulation is to question the illusion that the object projects, and to detach it from its source in lustful aspiration. It is a rationale where, in every ultimate sense, the copy as a statement cannot truly exist, since, as with Jung’s archetype, this Baudrillardian simulacrum’s ontological origin cannot be located. Or more properly, the statement, framed between two photographic objects, is the only unique.
From this purity of fashion’s mise en scéne, where style becomes substance, Prince has molded an argument for the discipline of photography that appears thoroughly modernist, that is, to rely, as Greenberg claimed memorably of modernism, on “the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence”. Except that there is no critique of photography here; Prince’s work instead advances a necessary dissection of the fashion system and, by association, the complete visual semiotics of the consumption function. Prince’s move transforms the image into a statement, something not evident in his European counterparts. In each of Helmut Newton’s images, for example, the stunning perfection of each model is presented as a thoroughly photographic object without irony or contradiction. Conversely, even Prince’s critique is itself ironic, standing over a backdrop of the artist’s own collaboration in designing handbags and other retail items for Louis Vuitton at the same time that his own Overseas Nurse painting has recently sold at Sotheby’s London for almost $8.5M and set a new auction record. This incongruity proves, if nothing else, that in its ephemeral category, photography can say things that painting cannot. That no photograph will ever sell for eight million dollars guarantees the integrity of the medium, whose inability to produce a unique object prevents it from being entirely co-opted into mercantile art.
But this inability to engender the unique object, does not obviate its capacity to speak with, to create, the unique statement, through what we might term functions of the medium. That is, the age of reproduction does not prevent photography from fully serving out a highly functional role, in fact, it is in that role that it finds its unassailable integrity. And what is that function? As Stieglitz knew, the ability to document critically is photography’s hegemonic capacity over any art medium. And its use as a critical statement, an American discovery, is historically borne in the simultaneity of purpose in the ambiguous portrait-as-factual-chronicle/portrait-as-artistic-image of early European artisans of the medium like Julia Cameron.
This promotion, up from original object — the value that inheres to canonical art forms — to original, and critical, statement in the face of an impossible original — the condition of photography, points to one summit that electronic art and literature have yet to fully claim, although it is a perhaps inevitable moment of development for a medium whose objecthood is as contingent to it as it has been for photography itself.
1Newman, Michael. Richard Prince, Untitled (Couple). London: Afterall Books, 2006. p. 51.