Vicki Goldberg is an award-winning author of several books on still photography. In 1997, the prestigious Infinity Award, created by The International Center of Photography, was hers. I almost made it to the ICP my last visit to New York, but I stayed in Upper to Middle Manhattan. The mighty Aperture Foundation, also dedicated to still photography, published the 22 x 15 cm paper book of 248 pages with a quick count of 28 b&w still photographs. Light Matters: Writings On [still] Photography, (2005) maintains the status quo embedded throughout New York City. At the bottom of the copyright page is a little humor, perhaps an insider’s joke. “The purpose of Aperture Foundation, a non-profit organization, is to advance photography in all its forms and to foster the exchange of ideas among audiences worldwide.” Amen. I have contacted them several times about my anti-still photography. They responded with silence. In practice, they are just not into, all forms of photography.
With a somewhat comprehensive book such as this, the first thing I check is the index for the word Abstract. It was not there. Top listing went to Abbott, Berenice followed in second place by Adams, Ansel. Under E no Experimental reared its ugly head. At the other end of the book, plastered on the front cover, at 1/16 its original size, is Andreas Gursky’s Shanghai, 2000. This still photograph reeks of commercialism, not art. From Wiki -- Shanghai, assembled from 4 negatives, is a panoramic composition of the monumental atrium of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Shanghai, China’s biggest city and a global financial hub. This highly detailed and pin-sharp architectural view follows the same pattern that runs through the artist’s work in the 1990s. The inability to place oneself within the space and the loss of physical references seem to connect to a contemporary “sublime”, as defined by Fredric Jameson on the basis of the unimaginable accumulation of global capital. Fredric Jameson is an American literary critic and Marxist political theorist. He is best known for his analysis of [some] contemporary cultural trends.
Shanghi, along with Gursky’s Rhine II photograph ($4.3 million) are all about form. They give us a sense of abstraction. Online there are hundreds, maybe thousands of still photographs of architecture that fill the category of abstraction in Gursky’s style. Gursky was obviously not trying to give us an interesting still photograph. Devoid of scale, tradition, direction, people and landmarks, it hangs on the museum’s wall like a nearby fire extinguisher. There are hundreds of interiors of old castles online that are visually more stimulating and enjoyable. Gursky’s image was not meant to fill those roles. He wanted an empty picture of reflected light, and he achieved that perfectly.
His image is golden (money), an interior of a modern building (a cave owned by someone) and with curved repeating patterns (ribs, or the interior of the New York Guggenheim Museum x 10). Shanghai is 2.5 by 1.6 meters. It represents wealth and power repeated over and over in each generation. At the other end of the equation are still photographs of nature, landscapes, wildlife, etc, places with their flora and fauna destroyed to acquire the raw materials to build monuments in our own image, and for Gursky to photograph as he travels the world using fossil fuels while adding to the waste and pollution, which we now know are of no consequence to the planet. Ansel Adams would shudder at the sight and price of Gursky’s image. But I shouldn’t think of Gursky’s degrading actions, only the beauty of his images. That’s really what matters. That’s what MoMA concentrates on and everyone involved in the arts must bow to the curatorial opinion flowing from MoMA, NY.
I can interpret the repeating curved pattern as ribs of a wooden boat built along the shores of Newfoundland by someone who has possibly never been on an airplane, let alone to Shanghai. Gursky’s still picture of a building depends on the early acceptance of pictures of exteriors of small businesses in small towns by Walker Evans, as legitimate art. Many other still photographers have reveled in small interiors of human dwellings, such as Chauncey Hare, and institutional interiors for Lynne Cohen. Whenever an art museum hires a well-know architect [a person I’ve never heard of] to build an addition to their existing structure, a still photograph appears on their website to announce and show how modern their thinking is. In the end, it is a dwelling built to hold humans, as were caves in a hillside not very long ago. As a species we certainly have come a long way, paying a few thousand dollars or more to sleep in comfort for one night, or is it security we pay for, or a clean toilet?
Vicki Goldberg writes very well and with insight into the medium and its many still characteristics. After the preface, she introduces us to 18 (only 4 women) still photographers [how were they chosen?], some unknown to me, for example Daido Moriyama and Bastienne Schmidt. One still b&w photograph is presented for each image maker, ranging from Cher’s ass in 1991, to the exterior of a photo studio in 1934, to a sitting dog holding a long bare branch in its mouth in 1971, to a newborn human in a crib 1950s, to Untitled [a naked woman] in 1980.
On page 163 Goldberg “The art world has declared that ideas of exclusion are infra dig, [beneath them] that art must embrace all comers.” A wonderful sentence for a world or book of fiction. If you take in a still photography show at MoMA or the Guggenheim in NYC, or in any capital of any country, chances are you will view still photographs which are probably not the most radical or avant-garde on the planet. Humans running major Art Museums (caves with indoor plumbing) are slow to accept the new. Humans living in 1650 and in 2017 have never sought change. All that separates still photographers in Goldberg’s book are subject matter, each with their own compositional styles. None of the photos were taken at ground level. When we learned to walk upright (not so long ago) it was our duty to hold the camera at eye level, to position the image as close as possible to the height at which we view the world. It is our truth, sensibility, and right. A still photograph is not just any picture of the world, the still pictures are taken, edited, and belong to us. We like to photograph each other, dead or alive.
As with Susan Sontag’s On Photography (1976), Vicki Goldberg’s Light Matters, Writings On Photography (2005) is well worth a visit to the library.
Tom Reaume’s new 93-page photo ebook, Photography Traditions, is free at trart.ca