Unreal Nature

January 14, 2015

What It Reveals / What It Evades

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:49 am

… They questioned the very nature of what the photograph reveals about the world and what it evades in order to define their positions regarding the possibilities — or limitations — of the photographic document …

This is from the Preface to The Last Photographic Heroes: American Photographers of the Sixties and Seventies by Gilles Mora (2007):

… Every hero must have his or her quest. For the photographers of the sixties and seventies, and for the critics, curators, gallery owners, and collectors who supported their rise, the quest was for an autonomous photographic language, derived from their belief in a medium with boundless possibilities. These artists devoted themselves to invigorating photography to the point of exhausting it. The era’s guiding figures, who founded an authentic community, turned their artistic practice into a joyous cause, a definitive affirmation of the idea of photography as a wholly independent aesthetic that had driven the art form since Alfred Stieglitz and the advent of Modernism. From the first decade of the twentieth century to the end of the 1970s, American photography charted an ascending curve — with the occasional intriguing bump, notably during the late 1960s — and perfected the notion of aesthetic of the instant perception. Photography triumphed.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] By 1975, it had won its autonomy in the United States and appeared to have overtaken the other forms of visual expression. This culmination was the fruit of new economic trends in the professional and amateur markets; broad-based enthusiasm for the medium on the part of the general public, universities, and museums; editorial and media consensus regarding the mythical figure of the photographer; and a unique artistic and professional environment. The brief twenty-year period that is the focus of this book represents an unprecedented era of artistic effervescence. We are just beginning to understand its effects on our daily use of images and our response to them. Today we are drawn to this period of photography because, for the first time, we can appreciate it in the context of a historical era that we are now beginning to view, retrospectively, in a more profound, complex way.

… By means of an incredibly varied range of experimentation, many artists explored the tensions between objectivity, subjectivity, neutrality, and realist illusion specific to the photographic medium. They questioned the very nature of what the photograph reveals about the world and what it evades in order to define their positions regarding the possibilities — or limitations — of the photographic document, especially when free of its photojournalistic or strictly commercial ambitions.

… Although frequently underestimated, confrontations constantly arose between the purist vision evoked here and the positive effects of exploding traditional photographic practices contaminated by the broader experiences of the era’s impetuous art world. Clearly, the heroism I refer to is also the heroism of a struggle, however questionable that struggle might be. Our hindsight probably amplifies the stakes; we know what survived the period, and for what reasons. During the course of its most decisive decades, American photography closed many doors, but threw a few others wide open.

… What? Nothing about Pop Art photographers? No room for Andy Warhol? Well, no, not this time: and my choice is deliberate, nearly methodological; it is no oversight due to ignorance or disdain. For the most part, the photographers on whom I have focused, though largely attentive to the artistic currents of their generation, functioned on a different level of photographic experience. While preparing this book, combing the archives of American photographers and looking at the images they produced, I was struck by their extraordinary poetry. It is a far cry from the poetry of their European predecessors and contemporaries, particularly because it developed on such a wide scale.

[line break added] The dreamlike quality in the work of Ralph Eugene Meatyard or Ralph Gibson; the irrepressible power of street photography as renewed by Garry Winogrand or Lee Friedlander; the emotional brutality of the urban scenes captured by Tod Papageorge, Charles Traub, or Charles Harbutt; the Rimbaud-inspired adolescent wanderings of Larry Clark; the refined austerity of some of the New Topographers; the uncanny beauty of the snapshot aesthetic; the astounding creations of a few wildly inspired surrealists such as Arthur Tress or Les Krims; the experimental freedom of working with color or the medium itself (Robert Heinecken, an absolute master, yet so underappreciated) — have few equivalents in such a brief time span during any stage in the history of photography, except for European photography between the two world wars.

-Julie

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