Late twentieth-century photography has been an extraordinary explosion of disparate visions, so much so that any attempt at definitive taxonomy at this point is a daunting effort. We move into the twenty-first century, still glancing over our shoulders to try to understand how we got here and where we may be headed.
I approached the organization of this catalog and the exhibition and their curatorial demands not as an art critic or historian, but rather as a photographer who himself has been immersed for (forty) years in this remarkable creative flux. I have no agenda to drive here except to further, as I can, a wider, more genuine public appreciation of the photographic work of the past four decades.
Critical debate swirls around just what has happened during these years, hampered in part by the absence of a serviceable vocabulary that might be more responsive to a new group of photographic practitioners whose ideas were informed by Pictorialism, nineteenth-century aesthetics and early twentieth-century modernism.
The work of these practitioners, who would so willingly shed their old artistic skins in order to develop new visual systems, has created interpretive problems for critics and observers alike. If the continuous reinvention of the artist is the sign of the contemporary artist, so critics and observers too have had to reinvent themselves, and it has not been altogether an easy task. The appreciation of current photographic arts demands an imaginative leap beyond a critical language anchored in descriptive modes born out of modernist photographic analysis, simply because the images created over the past forty years defy these older methods of analysis. During this period photography has abandoned what once was its central function: to document, to vivify reality, and to authenticate what was there. We can no longer rely on the old assumption underpinning this central function-that photographers take photographs; they do not make them.
To begin where the exhibition and the catalog do, we must imagine someone in 1912 seeing for the first time Alvin Langdon Coburn's view of a New York cityscape, looking directly down onto a flattened and compressed space. This image-radical for its time-heralded a new visual language, unlike the Pictorialist agenda that assured the viewer of his traditional place within a landscape where beauty and nature reigned supreme. Coburn's proto-modern photograph anticipates the new century's romance with abstractionism and at the same time announces that photography will no longer bear the burden of its youthful servitude to the ancient art of painting.
Coburn's photograph anticipates other things as well. From the 1960s to the end of the century, relentless experimentation in all the arts, but perhaps especially in photography, led to the creation of an aesthetically disturbing commingling of the artist and the audience. Photographers began asking in their images what was "real" and what was fictive. When the photographers asked this question, an ambiguity arose that involved the audience in unprecedented ways. So, when we view the photographs in this exhibition and experience once again for ourselves the artist's purposeful ambiguity, we participate anew in a revolution in consciousness almost a century in the making.
Add to this yeasty ferment an additional element unique to the period-the influence of collectors and dealers whose ambitions are so clearly at the center of an escalating market for contemporary photography. This too has altered the way photographs are viewed and for what purposes. Photographs have expanded applications, uses as varied as political propaganda, environmental and ecological information, scientific illustration, ethnographic documentation, and the creation of a historical consciousness. And to that list add the photographers' daring incorporation of other mediums-drawing, painting, sculpture, printmaking, and text-into their work in ways once imagined by Coburn when he explored some of these diverse mediums. These successive and increasingly sophisticated incorporations become yet another challenge for the critics who must assess the principles employed and their durable achievements. Viewers also must surrender certain conventions or principles, some they may not have even known they harbored, if they are to appreciate such advances.
With such a multi-faceted history rocketing across the span of the twentieth century, it is hardly surprising that we are experiencing a quiet, but nonetheless significant, crisis of aesthetic and critical confidence. Too often we fail to trust our own interpretations, ceding that ground to the professional arbiters of taste-and power- unsure in this new world of our own vision. And sadly this is as true of practicing artists as it is of viewers. Deprived of the fond, old standards of judgment, we look to others to supply us with new ones, which, as often as not, are derived from spurious values having little enough to do with the intrinsic merits of the works themselves. The abdication of critical responsibility is just that, an abdication, and it remains for us-photographic artists and viewers alike-to directly confront the history that is there before us, and to make our assessment on that basis.
To some extent, I speak here as an outsider, born in another country and originally a stranger to the great American god of the marketplace. In another, more intimate sense, I am the ultimate insider, one who has taught and studied photographic history and the artistic trends of the late twentieth century. I am an active participant in the making of the chaotic, woolly, exciting history on view in Idea Photographic: After Moderism.
Artistic theories and timelines form logical patterns, from figuration through abstraction to abstract expressionism, pop art, minimalism, performance, and site work. Such schemata satisfy some need for a clear, progressive model. But this form of visual history, while it is a kind of guide, is often a substitute for the more demanding labor that is required, that of a personal investigation of the recondite and often disenfranchised bodies of work that do not fit within the models.
The task we have undertaken in this exhibition requires the imaginative cooperation of the audience. Bringing viewer participation into play in this reexamination of modern history and observation on which direction photography may take next is the challenge of this exhibition. This spectacular, heterogeneous body of work demands that we take the time to explore, analyze, consider, and even predict, and by doing so become at ease with this new photographic vocabulary. This is rich territory to which we must prove equal.