The Anxiety of Photography, captured at the Aspen Art Museum
June 24, 2011
ASPEN – From its earliest times, photography has produced no small amount of uneasiness. According to Matthew Thompson, associate curator of the Aspen Art Museum, Oliver Wendell Holmes, a justice of the Supreme Court, fretted about the severe impact that photography would have on travel: If people could see a photographic reproduction of an object or place, then why would they schlep halfway around the world, or even across town, to see the genuine article? French philosopher Roland Barthes likened photography to death, a theory that has been often repeated: “Looking at an old photograph, this moment that’s been frozen in time, reminds you of your own mortality,” Thompson said, summarizing Barthes’ view.
Thompson isn’t looking to put viewers in mind of death, or cause them to worry about airline stock prices. But neither is he looking to put people’s minds at ease. The current Aspen Art Museum group exhibition, The Anxiety of Photography, curated by Thompson, is, in a way, intended to raise the anxiety level – or at least take viewers out of the comfort zone that has developed around photography.
Thompson notes that some 80 percent of American adults have camera phones; on an average day, each of these produces one photograph. In the realest sense, then, photography has become an everyday activity. But there is a vast difference between a snapshot of the kids with a visiting relative, for example, and the works included in the Art Museum exhibition. Thompson says the Anxiety of Photography is intended to shake viewers out of the way they typically look at a photo – a quick look at a quickly created image, with little thought given to how the image was made, or why.
“People are so good, so facile at processing photographic images. You’ve seen so many in so many different ways, you know how it’s meant to function – an advertisement, a school photograph,” Thompson said. “I think a lot of the artists in this exhibition are actively trying to frustrate that quick identification. They’re saying, ‘No. Stop. Look. Think about what you’re seeing and why you’re making those judgments.’
“It upsets their normative experience. They’re used to processing photographic images quickly. And when there’s something unsettling about it, it provokes anxiety. It’s about stopping and thinking about the life of photographs.”
When viewers do take such time to process the art, mostly what they will observe is that the images in the exhibition are not standard photographs of objects. They are, on the whole, far more fabricated than that. David Benjamin Sherry’s “Birth in Futurereverse,” for instance, is a highly constructed (and humorous and eye-catching) image of a nude figure, with polka dots. Several of the images – including two works apiece by Matt Saunders and Sara Greenberger Rafferty – are more painterly than photo-like. And a handful of the pieces – Sara VanDerBeek’s “Streamers,” two works by Brendan Fowler – involve elements of sculpture.
The Anxiety of Photography might cause some discomfort for those who believe that the rise of digital has made photography a less material medium, emphasizing pixels over print. Thompson argues that even a tiny image on an iPhone screen is material: “That is an object. There is still a material experience,” he said. “But it’s different. It’s a constrained material experience, restricted.” But many of the images in the exhibition have a no-doubt-about-it physicality to them, suggesting (or even containing) dimensions, textures, materiality.
“They’re intersecting with physical objects. And there’s a return to the studio,” Thompson said.
Which leads to another sort of anxiety – on the part of the artists themselves. Thompson said that many of the 18 artists represented in the exhibition, most of them on the younger side, don’t identify themselves as photographers, or not as strictly photographers, or not as art photographers. Matt Saunders trained as a painter, and his work involves painting as much as photography, even if the end result is technically a photograph. Roe Ethridge works as a fashion photographer; his exhibition piece, “Thanksgiving 1984,” is an outtake from a fashion shoot.
“There’s an anxiety in the artists: ‘How do I put these things together?'” Thompson said. Regarding Ethridge’s work, he said, “You can ask, Is that a fashion photograph? An art photograph? And you can say it’s both. And neither.” About Saunders’ pieces, Thompson said, “Is it a photograph? A painting? To me, in this exhibition, that’s the wrong question, or not the most interesting question. Thinking about it being both, that’s the most interesting thing.”
Thompson points out that institutions have long had a difficult time with photography, manifested in an uncertainty over where to place it. “It’s been accepted. But it’s put in a box,” he said. “They have separate departments for photography. In terms of thinking about a lineage, the discussion of photography has always been a separate discussion outside of what we think of as a mainstream discussion. I think a lot of curators – myself included – would be uncomfortable doing a photography show without being a photography curator.”
Thompson concludes that the anxieties caused by photography likely stem from the tricky nature of the medium. There is a certain amount of belief that photography conveys the truth – that it is a medium simply meant to record and convey a moment of reality. Over time, though, there is a recognition that all photographs are taken for a purpose, and to achieve that purpose they can be doctored or presented in a misleading context.
In a way, the photograph is meant to play tricks. And that can be a source of much nervousness and uncertainty.
“It’s something peculiar about photography,” Thompson said. “And I think it’s got to do with the fact that a still photograph is going to put two things in direct contrast – stillness and time. You know that behind every photograph there is a flow of time. And at some point, that flow was arrested.
“It’s a problematic co-existence.”