Review: ‘Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before’
Why Photography Matters as Art as Never BeforeBy Michael FriedEdition: illustratedPublished by Yale University Press, 2009ISBN 0300136846, 9780300136845320 pages
Today it was raining outside— perfect weather for picking up a book and reading it straight through. And I did just that, choosing Michael Fried’s new book, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before.
In Why Photography Matters… Fried argues for photography’s relevance in the world of art. The argument is initially rooted in the idea of scale. As the French critic Jean-Francoise Chevrier was the first to point out, in the late 1970s and 1980s, art photographs began to be made not only at large scale, but also were made expressly for displaying on walls. Fried goes on to base his thesis in theories of antitheatricality, absorption, and objecthood. The triumph of post-modernism holds the center of the advanced photographic practice that Fried studies.
One of the book’s strengths is its examination of the philosophically deep conflicts ingrained in the medium of photography. Using readings of Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Hegel, Sontag, Greenberg, and Stein, Fried organizes a system for interpreting photographs as art within the framework of early conceptualism, minimalism, and post-modernism.
Jeff Wall emerges as Fried’s clear favourite, with multiple chapters dedicated to close readings of his work. Though Fried gives interesting arguments for Wall’s singular ability to voice the highest desires of contemporary photography, the dependency on Wall’s work overshadows many of the books strengths. Fried writes beautifully about new art photography which has found itself compelled to do a certain amount of what he considers ontological work.
The general feeling of the book is a struggle with pictorialism and Fried’s desire for all photographs to evoke literary pictures. He is clearly preoccupied with narrative subjects, as the list of featured photographers would suggest: Jeff Wall, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Cindy Sherman, Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff, Andreas Gursky, Luc Delahaye, Rineke Dijkstra, Patrick Faigenbaum, Roland Fischer, Thomas Demand, Candida Höfer, Beat Streuli, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno, James Welling, and Bernd and Hilla Becher. In the midst of all these narrative works, Fried neglects to comment thoughtfully on the potential for abstraction in art photography— he would rather meditate on the question of “thingness.”
The greatest weaknesses in Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before are rooted in both the neglect of abstraction as well as the heavy reliance on philosophical texts. In re-reading my notes, it is difficult to divorce Fried’s thoughts from those of Heidegger and Barthes (though I must say I found the chapter on re-reading Barthes’ Camera Lucida to be the most interesting part of the book. But this is perhaps because I enjoy Camera Lucida, not Fried’s reading of it).
The debate about the ontology of contemporary photography may have been decisively rooted in Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, though many fundamental questions remain. Fried raises questions about the limits and validity of critiquing pictorial representation, though readers may leave the text with more questions than answers.