Pumping and Dumping (the Art Marketplace)

Postmodern theory has proposed that all the questions that thoughtful photographers had begun to ask in the late 1950s and early 1960s — about the non-neutrality of photography, about lens-based observation and photographic seeing, about the tension in a photograph between its transcriptive, descriptive, translative, and interpretive aspects — were insignificant, and had in any case been answered satisfactorily.

T'ain't so, methinks. Those questions endure, still open, and such answers as we have for them — in the work of of Arbus, Friedlander, and Winogrand, among many others, along with the theories of Szarkowski and some of his successors — remain provisional, as perhaps they always will. Now that, in effect, all of those individuals have gained admission to the pantheon and all the results of their theory and practice have entered the canon, we stand poised at a particular moment of stasis: the pause between several generations that grew up with this work and its makers as living entities and those generations now to come, who will treat them as a distinct chapter in the medium's history and exemplars of an established tradition to either draw from or ignore. What they had to say to the last third of the twentieth century is in any case indelibly inscribed on the record. Let's see what the next century makes of them.

AMERICANSUBURB X: THEORY: A. D. Coleman, "Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander & Garry Winogrand at Century's End (2000)"

Coming of age as a photographer in the late 70s/early 80s, I was railed against postmodern critics such as Andy Grundberg and Peter Galassi (still do, in some respects). A.D. Coleman was a breath of fresh air, and reading his constant columns in Photo Metro and elsewhere, I had the feeling that I wasn’t completely alone in appreciating both a rich tradition and new frontiers for photography. I met Coleman at an SPE conference a few years ago, though, and I wondered how he could be so consistently luddite and backward about the future of photographic education. Mainly, judging from his web presence, I really don't feel like he "gets" the internets.

Coleman was hawking a subscription based service for scholars that sought to profit from the formative documents/writings of photography rather than making them open access. I find locking up the past behind a firewall is abhorrent, and I just couldn’t convince him (in a brief conversation at least) that the future should be open and accessible repositories. The problem, of course, is what sort of funding model you use. I’ve never been able to get interested in the subscription model and I sincerely believe that it is the responsibility of institutions (government, museums, schools, even corporations) to feed into a public commons to further the public good. Monetized knowledge is suspect, for me at least—I don’t buy it.

That’s why I was immediately drawn to Akma’s proposals for the Disseminary and University of Blogaria way back in the dark ages, and am continually inspired by his willingness to share his knowledge with the public without attempting to extract payment, or feed a “business model.” [I really want to steal part of his clear thinking about exegesis as a point of departure for another post, another day.]

Akma gets the internets. While someone needs to pay for these pursuits, and I feel strongly that it is the place of institutions to grant people like Akma a pulpit to work from; insistence on strict adherence to a business model erodes the public good. The internet neither supplants nor supports insitututions— institutions must be, and for the most part mission-driven. For example, the focus of health care should be health, not profit—just as the point of teaching is skill/knowledge, not money. Those interested in money should look elsewhere, I think. If the mission is to promote the public good (whether arts, church, or education) the business model shouldn't be the core.

But that irritation aside, I was inspired to see that Coleman did doctoral study in communication. Few photographic critics have, to my knowledge. This goes a long way towards explaining my affinity for his writing, even if I cannot support his business practices.

What I find interesting in this snippet is Coleman’s taxonomy of photographic aspects: “transcriptive, descriptive, translative, and interpretive” — it leads me to another area I want to explore in writing. I am fascinated by the different methods used to describe the “identity,” “spirit,” “genius,” or “essence,” etc. of photography. The severest postmodern critique of photography by critics like John Tagg insists that there is no such thing—no workable scheme or framework to make sense of photographic practice beyond its deployment by institutions.

DLK Collection recently summarized four constant “stories” in photography, and the first on the list pertains directly to this problem:

1.) The Continual Reordering and Reevaluation of the Photographic Hierarchy: Virtually every gallery/museum show that is organized and every photography book that is published is in the end making a case for the merits of a single artist or group in the grand sweep of the medium’s history. For photography, the overall hierarchy is remarkably fluid, with artists going in and out of favor perhaps more rapidly than in other mediums. Most of the voices in the community are directly or indirectly influencing the location of artists on the ladder. Some of the underlying stories include:

  • The rising stature of certain artists/photographers and the picking of “winners” and “losers”
  • The rediscovery of forgotten artists/bodies of work and the incorporation of this work into the overall historical narrative
  • The categorization of new work into common styles and movements
  • New curatorial approaches that reconsider/reinterpret historical “truths”

Each curatorial approach always begins from a taxonomy/hierarchy. I would like to discuss a few of these in an upcoming post, with special attention to the taxonomy applied by Stephen Shore in The Nature of Photographs. Shore’s taxonomy is derived from the curatorial problem, but is completely separate because it is intended to assist making rather than analyzing photographs. Shore’s book is intended to teach, not “pump and dump” artistic commodities fueling the artistic stock market’s business model. I’ve digressed to far here to regain my momentum, so I’ll let this stand as is. Stay tuned for more later.


May 31, 2009 1:19 PM


Jeff Ward said:

Comments on this entry have long been closed, but I feel it necessary to add for the benefit of any AD Coleman readers who locate this fragment that nowhere in this post did I claim that "I want his writing to be free." I simply want historical material pertaining to photography (such as Fox Talbot's writings) to be freely accessible. Any writing over a hundred years old should be in the public domain, not re-monetized behind a firewall. Contemporary writers should be patronized and paid for their labors. I never suggested otherwise.