Historical Misappropriation

I much prefer the outlook of Nan Goldin, from this same series.

One of my concerns as a researcher is differentiating between “historical reconstruction” and “contemporary appropriation.” This is a major problem in photographic scholarship, where it leads to appalling mistakes such as those evidenced in the Peter Galassi video above. His observations are, to put it mildly, embarrassing. When watching the BBC series “The Genius of Photography”, I was so put off I failed to watch the rest of the series for a long time afterward. Never mind that it has its brilliant (and accurate) moments from Geoffrey Batchen and others, but this pompous diatribe from Galassi grates on me like fingernails on a chalkboard.

The increasing interest in the new century on amateur photography is certainly warranted. We live in an age where the number of people experimenting with photographic imagery is in ascendance, much like the turn of the twentieth. But does examining this constitute a “true history” of photography? I suspect not—it’s simply a different history. Nonetheless, if it is a “history” it is better served if it follows something more than mercurial curatorial interest. As Alan Gross observed regarding the redeployment of Aristotle’s Rhetoric by contemporary critics, “Though these two activities are distinct and equally useful, historical reconstruction is logically prior: to know that we are deviating from past theorists, and in what ways, we must know what those theorists intended” (“What Aristotle Meant by Rhetoric,” in Rereading Aristotle’s Rhetoric, 2000 p. 25).

The pictorialists were not “self-appointed elites” any greater or lesser extent than a typical women’s club or Flickr group. They were people brought together by a certain organized theory of picture making—based primarily on optical and/or emotional theories about a way of making pictures. Far from a “dead end,” the pictorialists provided a point of departure for commercial photography (via Edward Steichen), documentary photography (via Laura Gilpin and Doris Ullman), modernist/symbolist photography (via Alvin Langdon Coburn) as well as more traditional “Art” photography (via Alfred Stieglitz). Pictorialist theories, like all theories, were rapidly replaced by other, newer theories.

Galassi is just plain wrong. But this raises an interesting issue—just what legitimates “art” as a meaningful term for discussing photography? In Galassi’s portrayal, the clueless amateurs rise up against the art fag dilettantes who want to label photography “art” to reveal the true history of the medium, by making mistakes and learning from them. The BBC series goes on to compare a photograph by Walker Evans with an anonymous snapshot, suggesting that he learned his technique by studying snapshots. Nothing could be further from the truth. It wasn’t snapshots that obsessed Evans so much as vernacular examples of photography (generally produced by “professionals”) such as postcards and posters. Evans wrote at length, and in error, about early portraitists such as Brady wishing to rediscover their aesthetic of simplicity and directness. This is of course, totally outside the current curatorial interest in snapshots and thus irrelevant for contemporary appropriation.

Lately, I’ve been returning to the class of activities that Aristotle used repeatedly to characterize rhetoric—it is a techné. Often translated as “art” this term bears little resemblance to what we consider as the fine arts. Succinctly stated techné is an activity focused on making rather than acting, and making with a clear reasoning toward a certain end or product. Gross places the emphasis on this productive aspect—the product of rhetoric is generally “speech” and to classify such speech as “artful” or technic then means that it follows general principles or archai. Exploring the parallel then, the product of photography is the photograph (physical object or cluster of electrons on a screen). To be technic, then the photograph must follow a reasonable set of general principles, otherwise it is simply given, random or atechnic.

Gross suggests that it is erroneous to attribute activities such as deliberation to rhetoric (at least in the Aristotelian definition) because that instead involves practical wisdom, phronesis, rather than rhetoric per se. Thus, if I consider photography as a techné analogous to rhetoric then it would be improper to speak of contemplative analysis of the photograph (in specific instances) as an example of visual rhetoric. Rhetoric is uniquely concerned with production, but one of the interesting confusions here is that while rhetoric is a techné, not all rhetoric is technic. Or, reapplied to photography with the vernacular terms: Photography is an art, but not all photography is artistic.

Returning to Galassi’s opening remarks that “the art of photography is created without theories,” it seems that this sort of “art” would be atechnic if there are no general principles. Nonetheless, the assertion that the amateur “has a chance to anticipate how it might behave” through the habitual practice of photography returns me squarely to photography as a techné. Aristotle actually assumes this sort of dual practice in his opening to Rhetoric:

1. Rhetoric is the antistrophos to dialectic; for both are concerned with such things as are, to a certain extent, within the knowledge of all people and belong to no separately defined science. A result is that all people, in some way, share in both; for all, to some extent, try to both test and maintain an argument [as in dialectic] and to defend themselves and attack [others, as in rhetoric]. 2. Now among the general public, some do these things randomly and others through an ability acquired by habit, but since both ways are possible, it is clear that it would also be possible to do the same by [following] a path; for it is possible to observe the cause why some succeed by habit and others accidentally, and all would at once agree that such observation is the activity of an art [techné].

Galassi’s observation that amateurs learn by habit does not preclude the possibility of others operating from generalized principles being as effective. The difference being that the pictorialist operated less pragmatically, working both from observation and newly emergent scientific (idealized) principles of vision. The striking thing for me is that Aristotle admits the possibility that an amateur rhetorician/dialectician can succeed, even if they lack habitual ability. There is the possibility of accidental rhetoric. Interestingly, Chuck Close observes in this same episode that there are no accidental masterpieces in painting, but there are accidental masterpieces in photography. The affinity between rhetoric and photography seems solid to me.

While I seem to recall that Aristotle specifically disallows the visual (though I may be remembering Plato), it seems to me that a neo-Aristotelian visual rhetoric has great promise. That is, if it is grounded in historical fact rather than wishful thinking and artificially constructed historical straw-men.