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Re: Rodchenko at the Hayward

From:     blp
Category: Art
Date:     25 March 2008
Time:     07:52 PM


Eva: How can you say “the photograph becomes, hey, just a way of recording information, honest”? I know
you’re being sarcastic, 

Me: Yes, I'm being sarcastic. 

Eva: obviously, so what I mean is how can you say you think that other people
(contemporary society, critical theory, whatever) say that? 

Me: Didn't I say that about what it became under Stalin? I can't imagine I said it about
contemporary photography, but if I did, I was wrong. It's hard to check back over everything on this

Eva: All that’s happened is that the means by
which the constructions of photography are understood and communicated have changed – the
conversation’s moved on. 

Me: I'm saying it looks to me - from the work itself - as if the conversation's gone backwards and
then ended. Almost in a kind of (spurious) 'end of history' way. 

Eva: That’s not to say that some people don’t still believe that a photograph is
a carrier of some inherent ‘Truth’ but less people are of that belief now than when Ryman or Goddard
were active. 

Me: That's a big claim! And surely not provable.  And it does sound a little like saying we're in a
post-ideological moment (bear with me. I admit it. I'm obsessed. I'm just going to have to ride this
one out). But, first, this seems like a red herring because I'm not sure I'm really concerned with
what people believe or don't about truth in photography then or now. You'll have noted that Ryman
and Godard aren't photographers. I was saying that I loved the Rodchenko photos (and they shocked me
a bit) because they were so overridingly designed and that wasn't something I felt I'd seen anywhere
else at all, so, by the sixties, when Godard and Ryman were fighting the good formalist fight, there
wasn't anyone doing that kind of photography anyway. 

Eva: That’s exactly the point. To show the camera tracking an actress at the beginning of a
movie, to show the stretcher supporting the canvas – it’s not a gestalt shift anymore. An
acknowledgement of the death of the author, of subjective positioning in relation to fiction is a
blink away – so obvious it’s boring to keep saying it. It’s permeated the medium good and proper,
fetishised even through 80s postmodernism, and 90s movies by Lars Von Triers et al (hey, Dogma, not
ideology). As for Tillmans, he’s a static Von Triers suggesting that Kate Moss is more ‘real’ for
being snapped with a disposable camera. The artifice of the shaky camera school of realism is as
discussed and acknowledged as Rodchenko or Vertov’s work. 

Me: I'm with you half the way. There's no point doing the same thing's over and over. Even Godard
himself looks lost after the sixties. But it's assuming too much to say that's what I was asking
for, especially since I wasn't talking about film, but photography, where, to reiterate, there
hasn't been that much formalism and the whole discourse looks even more confused to me. Then, when
you say, it's permeated the medium good and proper, you seem to be saying that shaky camera veritée,
however spurious and however much people are aware of its paucity of verity, *is* the legacy of
Godard, which means either you or the shaky cameraists have badly misunderstood Godard. The artifice
of the shaky camera school may be acknowledged, but not by the shaky camera work itself, which is a
big difference. It's more like sentimentalism, as your comment about Tillmans above (more real for
being shot snapped with a disposable camera) indicates. I mean, come on, surely it's obvious that
this claim of Tillmans' to be more 'real' is absolutely antithetical to Godard? And it's exactly
what I don't like about it. 

Eva: Conceptualism, that’s another kettle of fish. Related, sure, but a different strand of the
You say “conceptual photography, which was always supposed to just represent the idea”. I’m not sure
this is the case. ‘The idea’ exists visually and conceptual art that is visual is working in the
entire terrain of the visual otherwise it’s an essay. But even if it was ‘supposed to just represent
the idea’ (as if an idea does not represent the world), how does that relate to Tillmans? He’s not a
conceptual artist. Or are you saying because Conceptual art used a lot of photography all
photography subsequently was conceptual art? Obviously that’s bad logic. 

Me: I'm not quite following you here, but it may be me who confused things.  I meant that
photography in early conceptual art was a method of recording the art rather than, in most
instances, being the art itself. Do you need examples? There might be a few John Hilliards that
exceptionally prove the rule. Otherwise, it's Bas Jan Ader riding his bike into the canal, Adrien
Piper walking down an NY street with a wet paint sign around her neck, Hans Haack's photos of
tenements etc. Or there was Kosuth using photos of things to talk about the things and our methods
of representing them to ourselves, but not aesthetically. No, clearly, Tillmans isn't a conceptual
artist. Nor am I saying that all photography after conceptual art is conceptual art. Were these
serious questions? Because I'm not quite sure how you could have got that impression from what I
said. What I'm saying, I'm just going to repeat the idea and try extra hard to explain, is that
photography becomes a big thing in the art world at the moment when painting is allegedly dying.
Yet, despite the predictions when photography first came along, it's not, apparently, because
photography's greater mimetic capability has made painting irrelevant. What actually happens is that
painting dies (or appears to die) even though it's gone as far from figuration as it can, while
photography gets in unassumingly, claiming not to be the art work itself at first at all, but just
to represent the art work. The thing is, though, right away it has a visual appeal in itself and
after a while, the art world's resistance to its seductions breaks downs without anyone caring and
all the things that aren't supposed to be allowed or matter anymore in painting come back via
photography, like some cheeky little return of the repressed: technical ability, pretty colours,
representations you can identify with etc. And then we get Tillmans, this arch sentimentalist, and,
no, again, no, he's not a conceptual artist, but his work is a kind of big colour version of that
scruffy conceptual look and he exists in a space opened up by conceptualism. 

Eva: Finally, you say “the whole trajectory of this photographic history”. What photographic history? 

 Me: That one, above your question. 

Eva: The
Conceptualism one that you think begins with Rodchenko and ends with Tillmans (I don’t agree) or do
you think there’s one history? 

Me: I didn't say it began with Rodchenko and I wouldn't because I don't think it did!

Eva: Maybe I'm being pedantic. I get your overriding point, it’s just I can’t agree with the
generalisations it requires. I can’t agree with the initial premise of “the loss of the acknowledged
absence of truth”, 

Me: Since you mention film, all I'll say for now is that I have a big problem with precisely that
loss in film. But that's clearly another debate. 

Eva: “this idea of the photographic object not mattering”. I don’t like Tillmans' work
either but my reasons are not because he is the end point of a process that somehow started with
Stalin. I have to go shopping now but maybe later I’ll try to pin down an alternative reason why
Tillmans is rubbish.  Although ultimately why I think he's rubbish has little to do with this

Me: Shopping? Why you dupe of late capitalist...I'm joking. Yes, perhaps your reasons are quite
different, but I do feel you've misunderstood this conversation, so who knows? I'm not arguing that
Stalin is responsible for Wolfgang Tillmans (for christ's sake);  I was trying to say that Rodchenko
looks like an antidote to a problem I have with photography all the time, it had helped me, via this
ideology thing, understand what that was, and Tillmans was absolutely emblematic of that problem. 

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