… It cannot provide the experience of the negation of experience …
… The slogan “painting is dead” had been heard from the avant-garde since 1920; it means that it was no longer necessary to separate oneself from the people through the acquisition of skills and sensibilities rooted in craft-guild exclusivity and secrecy; in fact, it was absolutely necessary not to do so, but rather to animate with radical imagination those common techniques and abilities made available by modernity itself. First among those was photography.
The radicals’ problem with photography was, as we have seen, its evolution into an art photography. Unable to imagine anything better, photography lapsed into an imitation of high art and uncritically recreated its esoteric worlds of technique and “quality.” The instability of the concept of art photography, its tendency to become reflexive and to exist at the boundary line of the utilitarian, was muffled in the process of its “artification.”
[line break added] The criteria of deconstructive radicalism — expressed in ideas like “the conditions of no art,” and “every man is an artist” — could be applied to photography primarily if not exclusively through the imitation of amateur picture-making. This was no arbitrary decision. A popular system of photography based on a minimal level of skill was instituted by George Eastman in 1888, with the Kodak slogan “you press the button; we do the rest.” Jean-Luc Godard debunked his own creativity with the comment that “Kodak does 98 percent.”
… Amateurism is a radical reductivist methodology insofar as it is the form of an impersonation. In photoconceptualism, photography posits its escape from the criteria of art-photography through the artist’s performance as a non-artist who, despite being a non-artist, is nevertheless compelled to make photographs.
[line break added] These photographs lose their status as Representations before the eyes of their audience: they are “dull,” “boring,” and “insignificant.” Only by being so could they accomplish the intellectual mandate of reductivism at the heart of the enterprise of Conceptual art. The reduction fo art to the condition of an intellectual concept of itself was an aim which cast doubt upon any given notion of the sensuous experience of art.
[line break added] Yet the loss of the sensuous was a state which itself had to be experienced. Replacing a work with a theoretical essay which could hang in its place was the most direct means toward this end; it was conceptualism’s most celebrated action, a gesture of usurpation of the predominant position of all the intellectual organizers who controlled and defined the Institution of Art.
… But, dragging its heavy burden of depiction, photography could not follow pure, or linguistic, conceptualism all the way to the frontier. It cannot provide the experience of the negation of experience, but must continue to provide the experience of depiction, of the Picture. It is possible that the fundamental shock that photography caused was to have provided a depiction which could be experienced more the way the visible world is experienced than had ever been possible previously. A photograph therefore shows its subject by means of showing what experience is like; in that sense it provides “an experience of experience,” and it defines this as the significance of depiction.
In this light, it could be said that it was photography’s role and task to turn away from Conceptual art, away from reductivism and its aggressions. Photoconceptualism was then the last moment of the prehistory of photography as art, the end of the old regime, the most sustained and sophisticated attempt to free the medium from its peculiar distanced relationship with artistic radicalism and from its ties to the Western Picture. In its failure to do so, it revolutionized our concept of the Picture and created the conditions for the restoration of that concept as a central category of contemporary art by around 1974.