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Seeing the many facets of photography as a form of fine art

By Mary Warner Marien / September 9, 1987



Photography and Art: Interactions Since 1949, by Andy Grundberg and Kathleen McCarthy Gauss. New York: Abbeville Press. 112 illustrations. 256 pp. $45. The plain truth can be as stubbornly unmetaphoric as a mud pie. Albert Camus observed that ``in art the more prosaic the reality chosen as one's subject matter, the more difficult it is to transfigure.'' Andy Grundberg and Kathleen Gauss have collected the photographic work of American postwar Surrealists, symbolists, abstractionists, theoreticians, visual poets, colorists, experimentalists, and collagemakers, all of whom have been disinterested in the raw look of the world.

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What the authors have tried to do is illustrate that there are more and more artists who use photography in a plethora of ways, and who call the result art. But Grundberg and Gauss have gotten into trouble by excluding all the photographic-record makers from their survey of interactions.

The authors implicitly suggest that the convergence of art and photography has not had significant impact on the landscapists and the documentary photographers, the photojournalists, and the advertising photographers. Yet these record keepers often breathe the same air as artists. Their mutual intellectual and commercial exchanges have increased in the postwar period.

The book's over-determined organizing principle needlessly reinforces the arbitrary and shifting division between art photography and documentary photography that has haunted the medium from its inception. Evidence of the camera's inherent distortions has not eroded faith in the truth of the photographic image and in the photographer's responsibility to the real. To many, the use of photography to convey subjective matters seems a gross denial of the medium's authentic employment.

Alfred Stieglitz, of course, attempted to make photography an expressive medium, but not at the expense of documentary work. Almost a decade ago, John Szarkowski, director of the department of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, articulated a major shift in the argument. Szarkowski contended that photography in the postwar period had failed ``to explain large public issues,'' and he implied that it could no longer do so. He noted that the medium was moving away from making windows on the world to mirroring subjective concerns. His words excited the debate about what is truly photographic.

The absence of documentary work from this handsomely produced catalog for an exhibition now traveling the country may fuel that furor. The book could get so mired in philosophical issues that it denies the general reader a look at some exciting photographs.

The energy, vitality, invention, and rich variety of contemporary art photography are startling. The book begins by recalling art photography's roots in the sensibilities of Minor White and the severe abstraction of the Bauhaus. It ends with a report on Post-Modernism. In between, one finds gleaming color work, sure-footed Surrealism, lots of Pop and Conceptual art, and plenty of multisyllabic experiments, all helpfully introduced with historical essays.

Grundberg muses that ``the future direction of photography may be less clear than at times in the past.'' The future is never clear, but the present would be more discernible if we could start thinking about many photographies, just as we think about many kinds of writing. We have used words to make stop signs and ``Moby Dick.'' We have used photographs to construct drivers' licenses and national tragedies. Some uses are undoubtedly more prosaic, but no use is innately more correct than another.

Mary Warner Marien teaches in the Fine Arts Department at Syracuse University.