Photography’s Evolution from Duchamp to Ruscha
19 March 2013
“You know exactly how I feel about photography. I would like to see it make people despise painting until something else will make photography unbearable.”1 __ Marcel Duchamp
“If Marcel Duchamp hadn’t come along, we would have needed to invent him.”2 __ Ed Ruscha
In The Photographic Idea: Reconsidering Conceptual Photography, Lucy Soutter argues that Conceptual artists’ lack of investment in photography allowed for “a transformation of the medium, fueling a rise in the prominence of photography that attracted critical attention in the “Pictures” generation of the late 1970s and early 1980s.”3 Most critics such as Benjamin Buchloh and Rosalind Krauss agree, as well as artists such as Jeff Wall, who acknowledged the role Conceptual art played in “the transformation of the terms and conditions within which established photography defined itself and its relationship to other arts.”4 This transformation, however, had been instigated at the turn of the 20th century, and Duchamp’s plan to negate painting by photography was the starting point. When the art world was ready for a revolution, Avant-garde art ignited the spark.
By focusing on the works of Ed Ruscha, this article seeks to examine how the Conceptualists carried on the legacy of the Avant-garde artists, sparking their own revolution differently. In light of Marcel Duchamp’s aforementioned quote, where he calls for two negations, the first being the negation of painting by photography, I argue that despite the recent return to pictorial traditions of Western art, best exemplified by Jeff Wall’s photographic tableaux, the success of this movement lies in fulfilling the second anticipated negation: negating photography by photography itself. Duchamp’s statement, addressed to Alfred Stieglitz in 1922, reflected the Avant-garde’s politicized agenda that aimed to extricate art from aestheticism and formalism – the attributes of ‘autonomous’ art the Pictorialists tried to achieved by mimicking painting.5 But his expressed antagonism is not to be taken literally against painting as a medium, but rather against its representational dimension. It is not a call to replace one art form for another, nor to invent a new device that would outdo the camera. It is to be read as a call for photography to escape its technical nature and challenge its intrinsic mimetic qualities; it is to be read as an aphorism through which artists express their quest to produce non-autonomous work that negates depiction at a time where photography was used as a means of representation of reality, rather than its interpretation. Man Ray, working with Duchamp, was among the first to enact the first negation, that of painting by photography. Whether in Rrose Selavy or Dust Breeding, Avant-garde artists were challenging the medium already in their own way. They did not only present a critique of Aestheticism, “but also re-established Aestheticism as a permanent issue through its intense problematization of it,” as Wall noted.6 Irritated by photography’s connection to modernist art and distance from the “intellectual drama of Avant-gardism,” which impeded photography to become “Avant-garde” in 1960 or 1965, the Conceptualists resorted to their predecessors’ auto-critique to challenge the medium even further.7Against Clement Greenberg’s medium-specificity, artists reacted with what we might call ‘idea-specificity’, which gives preference to the idea before the object, by using its specificity as a medium. Because the medium has become inconsequential, it didn’t seem justifiable for artists to give much importance to the camera and its technicalities. While Avant-garde artists were negating Stieglitz’ Pictorialism, Conceptualists were negating Szarkowski’s Formalism. Bresson’s decisive moment, as exemplified later by the writings of Szarkowski and the works of Winogrand for example, is of no use because Conceptualists don’t wander the streets waiting to capture it, relying on the camera to snap the right picture at the right time.8 While it was thought that “the photograph’s success resides in its creation of a visual anecdote out of unrelated elements in the world,” relying “upon a perceptual error to give the picture meaning,” with Conceptualism, this is gone.9 Instead, as Sol LeWitt explains, “all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair.”10 And so we witness the shift from visual anecdote to deadpan.
But how exactly did Photo-Conceptualism challenge the photographic conventions differently from the Avant-garde bringing about the fulfillment of the second negation?
“All my work in the period before the Nude was visual painting. Then I came to the idea…”11 Marcel Duchamp
Many investigations were generated in the 60s by different artists, from Sol LeWitt, Mel Bochner, Joseph Kosuth, and Donald Judd, to Robert Smithson, Ed Ruscha, Doug Huebler, Dan Graham, etc…; and all sought to privilege the idea over the medium – as epitomized in Kosuth’s formula “Art-as-Idea-as-Idea”12. Duchamp’s quote reflects his approach to negate painting by the idea, which the Conceptualists later expanded to a project, Smithson being one of the first. He researched his subject first and photographed later. The medium came last, after all decisions, planning, and research had been made.
Repetition and series, the vernacular and the ugly, amateurism and deadpan; these ‘conceptual’ elements were deployed in these projects – from idea conception and production to dissemination and reception. In Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions’, Buchloh presents Conceptual art as an attempt to assault the object’s status by challenging the notion of authorship – questioning the role of the author and hoping for his death [to achieve style-less representations] – and also receivership and the role of the spectator. Most importantly, he explains how Conceptual artists re-enacted the first negation by shedding light on the aesthetic quality of their work, the aesthetic of administration, which differentiates them from the Avant-garde artists.13
Buchloh uses Ed Ruscha’s early book works as an illustrative example of the listed tendencies or strategies of Conceptual art, explaining the effectiveness and resonance of such works in terms of the subject matter, authorship, receivership, mode of production and dissemination. He lists three main criteria. The first is the reference to vernacular architecture (influenced by the Bechers’ photography), the second is the systematic use of photography, and the third is the mode of distribution that Ruscha resorted to: “the commercially produced book as opposed to the traditionally crafted livre d’artiste14.”
In what follows, I will highlight these conceptual strategies through Ed Ruscha’s Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations (1963) in light of Benjamin Buchloh’s Aesthetic of Administration.
Ed Ruscha’s strategy
“The spirit of Duchamp’s work is stronger in my books than anything else.”15 Ed Ruscha
Ruscha’s Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations, a book of 26 ‘utilitarian’ black-and-white photographs of gas stations taken along US Route 66 (Arizona, California, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas). To produce this book, Ruscha followed a predetermined route in his car and systematically recorded the gas stations on his journey: instruction – car – route – camera. The predetermined title set the instructions the artist will follow.16 This systematic use of the camera, Buchloh’s second criteria, is what Margaret Iversen referred to as auto-maticity, which relies on photography’s mechanicity and depictive quality.17 When asked about the intention behind his choice of gasoline stations, Ruscha simply answered: “There’s an endless number of possibilities […]. I don’t know why I picked gas stations, except that they had been unreported.”18
For this reason, Buchloh classifies Rucha’s approach as “random sampling and aleatory choice from an infinity of possible objects [which] would soon become essential strategies of the aesthetic of Conceptual art.”19 But his choice was quite conscious of the fact that the subject had been unreported by common photographic practices. And so what Ruscha did was to shift the focus away from the ‘beautiful’ to the ‘ugly’ – and hence ignored.
But besides his choice of subject, the mode of depiction renders his project all the more effective. He sought to remove all traces of style and individuality, mimicking how ‘people’ take photographs, ignoring issues such as lighting and cropping. Through amateurish mimesis, as Wall notes, Ruscha gives us “a hilarious performance,” but without having a dramatic or shocking effect to the audience – what Avant-garde called for, a point which I will come back to later.20
What is most interesting about Ruscha’s works was the seriality he applied to all his books. His choice of twenty-six gasoline stations or nine swimming pools or thirty-four parking lots, etc… reflects his intention to remove the aura of the image by placing it in a group of images. While this seriality might intrigue the viewer to closely re-examine each image in the hope of finding the traces of its aura, to find what is so special about this photograph that propelled the artist to include it in the book, it is simultaneously preventing the viewer to look at them individually but rather as a series of dull and boring images; one gas station after the other.
But even his choice of production was meant to be subversive. “Ruscha exercised control over each step of the bookmaking process and with the use of inexpensive offset printing, standard paper, and simple, paperback bindings, he created a new genre of art book designed for commercial distributors rather than art galleries.”21 The seemingly objective, boring, documentary, hence administrative style was partly influenced by the books of Bernd and Hilla Becher, but it was also referring to the books of Walker Evans and Robert Frank. The collision of both distant influences in the works of Ruscha produced a new genre of art book, and Larry Sultan’s and Mike Mandel’s later work (such as Evidence, 1977) stands as an example of such influence in its nonsensical seriality and banal Conceptualism.22 By using mass production techniques, Ruscha’s works stands out amongst the work of other artists. While Pop artists, such as Andy Warhol, were using commercial images on the canvas, Ruscha was doing the opposite: using photography in a commercial context. Quoting Victor Burgin, Buchloh concludes in his essay: “One of the things Conceptual art attempted was the dismantling of the hierarchy of media, according to which painting is assumed inherently superior to, most notably, photography.”23
Ruscha is an artist performing as non-artist; he is an anthropologist whose fascination by the American landscape and passion for the road-trip sent him on a journey to document what is deemed as dull or boring and not worth documenting. But while this amateurish mimesis is reminiscent of Avant-garde techniques, Wall argues, it does not produce the Avant-garde shock effect.24 Margaret Iversen disagrees and offers a different reading of Ruscha’s work. She argues that his detached and affectless use of the camera comes as the outcome of rule-governed performance, which invites us to look at his strategy not as amateurish mimesis as Wall suggested, but rather as pervasive auto-maticity, which is “clearly not the language of an amateur ‘everyman’ or even a parodic version of one. It is rather the idiom of an artist who has discovered a new medium and is busy unfolding its implications in a particularly systematic way.”25 Looking at his work as parody does not do it justice, but rather as a list of preset and systematically applied rules. Iversen quotes Rosalind Krauss to demonstrate her point: “for him medium has less to do with the physicality of the support rather than the system of ‘rules’”.26 It is in this light that the effect of Ruscha’s works becomes discernible. His photographs can be seen as shocking, I think, as they deviate from artistic norms, in all stages of production (from choosing the subject and taking the pictures, to producing and distributing the books). But I partly agree with Wall’s argument because it implicitly highlights a shortcoming on the part of Conceptual art.
The Dual Influence of Photo-Conceptualism
The influence of Conceptual artists can be discerned both positively and negatively. The artist’s works allowed for a distinction between what a picture is made of and what it is about, which, as Jenkins noted, influenced the works featured in the 1975 New Topographics. “Ruscha’s pictures of gasoline stations are not about gasoline stations but about a set of aesthetic issues”. John Schott summarized the position neatly: “… they [Ruscha’s pictures] are not statements about the world through art, they are a statement about art through the world.”27 Ruscha’s seriality has influenced the work of Stephen Shore, as uttered by Schmidtt-Wullfen in the text written for Uncommon Places (1982): “The serial principle not only changes the traditional concept of the autonomous work; each individual photo loses its aura and content, becoming an indexical element that makes sense only in relation to its neighbor.”28
However, Photo-Conceptualism, ironically enough, temporarily brought back what it had been trying to eradicate: pictorialism and formalism. Photography, Wall argues, had to pass through this revolutionary phase though because it was its inevitable task to reject and deviate from Conceptual art.29 Costello and Iversen concur with Wall on the Conceptualists’ inability to negate artistic traditions. “Despite appearing to fulfill Duchamp’s hope that photography would render painting ‘despicable’, the most prominent outcome of photography’s success turns out to be, ironically, the emergence of photography as a bona fide mainstream fine art medium through which to reinvigorate the Western tradition of picture-making.”30 But these arguments ignored what Conceptual artists have actually achieved.
A shift in terminology
Conceptualists used photographs as masquerade, as means not ends. We can look at the history of photography as a shift in process, from making (exemplified by Pictorialism), to taking (exemplified by Szarkowski’s formalism), to using (exemplified by the conceptualists’ aesthetics of administration). Take could signify mechanic and automatic– exemplified by Kodak’s famous slogan ‘”you press the button, we do the rest” – while make could signify creativity and skill. This distinction was crucial for Pictorialists: while amateur photos were taken, professional photos were made. In The Photographer’s Eye (1969), Szarkowski makes this distinction between painting and photography: while pictures were made31, photographs were taken. However, Conceptual artists aimed to obliterate this distinction, relying heavily on the mechanic character of the camera but not in order to take photographs but to use them. In Conceptualism a photograph is used, signifying the administrative qualities of the social structures it represents. Conceptualism was able to enact the second negation through the aesthetics of administration and hence enabling Conceptual artists to negate photography by photography, relying on its iconic indexicality. Rosalind Krauss in Reinventing the Medium rephrases this negation by offering that “by the 1960s photography had left behind its identity as a historical or an aesthetic object to become a theoretical object instead.”32 So what negated photography as an aesthetic object was photography as a theoretical one; and it is this theoretical object that made photography unbearable, especially to the ones who proclaim the failure of Photo-Conceptualism. Wall’s censure against Ruscha’s work contradicts his own argument specifically because it exemplifies his own exacerbation when he wrote “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 person.”33
It is perhaps in Photo-Conceptualism’s advantage to be looked at as temporary; or rather as an attempt at a certain point in time to fuel up the spark ignited earlier by Avant-garde art. Their agenda is in conjunction with the long debate of the dichotomies of pictorial/conceptual, aesthetic/anti-aesthetic; a debate that still stands today, while experimental processes keep changing. What I find most intriguing about Photo-Conceptualism is the way it changed our perception of photography. Their strategies allowed, or were rather intended to make us look at their works as three-dimensional works of art holding an idea that is for us to formulate through our engagement with the immanent photographic representations, making us also let the medium come last.
However, I think we need not only give credit to Conceptualism through Ruscha or Avant-gardism through Duchamp, or any later artistic movement and artists to come. What opened up all these possibilities of experimentation is the medium itself first and foremost. What makes it special is its lack of specialism, remarks David Campany. “In recent art no other medium has been taken up in such a variety of ways. In what might now have become a post-medium condition for art, photography is so often the medium of choice.”34 From the late 19th century until this day, photography has always proven its creative adaptability to the choice of its user, and many times of its subject – this is the genius of photography.