Unreal Nature

August 10, 2017

Not Pleasure, But Knowledge

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:54 am

Stieglitz would come to discover and exploit the way in which photography could reveal what he firmly believed were objective truths and yet strip them of their specificity and render them not as literal descriptions but symbols.

This is from Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries by Sarah Greenough (2000):

… If painting and photography were dialectical opposites, and if painting in this new age had to be anti-photographic, then it stood to reason, as de Zayas clearly articulated in a series of articles written in 1913 and expanded in 1915, that photography had to be non-painterly. Positioning photography firmly at the center of the intellectual and aesthetic discourse he envisioned would occur in the twentieth century, de Zayas argued that photography was a vehicle not for aesthetic pleasure but truth because it provides “the plastic verification of fact.”

[line break added] Whereas art, and especially abstract art, is subjective and strives to present emotional truths, what de Zayas came to call “pure” photography was, or could, be objective. De Zayas suggested that the “artistic-photographer,” like Steichen, “uses nature to express his individuality,” whereas the “pure” photographer, like Stieglitz, “puts himself in front of nature, and without preconceptions … [ and] with the method of an experimentalist, tries to get out of her a true state of conditions, “to arrive at “a comprehension of the object.”

[line break added] Proclaiming that “Photography is not Art. It is not even an art,” de Zayas suggested that the medium “escapes through the tangent of the circle,” circumventing traditional artistic methods, and thus it reveals “a new way to progress in the comprehension of form.” Moreover, he predicted that because all art expresses the spirit of its time and because the religion of the modern age was science, photography would “surpass art,” for it would provide this scientific age with the “material truth of form” that it so clearly demanded.

By 1914 Stieglitz had spent more than twenty years struggling to have photography accepted as an art, and only a few years earlier he had strenuously defended the photographer’s creative individuality, applauding those photographers and critics like Charles Caffin who recognized that a pictorial photograph aims “to be beautiful. It will record facts, but not as facts.”

[line break added] Nevertheless, he enthusiastically embraced de Zayas‘ ideas, telling one correspondent that with the publication of his articles “the meaning of photography as a medium of expression is finally getting its place”; he even took credit for their formulation, noting that they were “one of the blossoms of the seed sown by me.”

[line break added] While he never extracted himself from his photographs, as de Zayas suggested, the idea that photography could not only surpass art but reveal fundamental, perhaps even objective truths, that it could impart not pleasure, but knowledge, proved to be far more appealing to Stieglitz than the symbolist evocations of many of the pictorial photographers he had previously supported. Moreover, Stieglitz would come to discover and exploit the way in which photography could reveal what he firmly believed were objective truths and yet strip them of their specificity and render them not as literal descriptions but symbols.

Recent scholarship has shown that almost every one of the major European artists exhibited at 291 actively explored how photography could be used in the construction or dissemination of their art. Rodin, for example, recognizing photography’s ability to control information, carefully supervised photographs made of his sculpture, while Constantin Brancusi, who was exhibited at 291 in 1914, became so concerned with the ways in which photographs informed interpretations and revealed or concealed the works’ essence that he learned to make his own photographs.

[line break added] Exploiting photography’s commercial applications, Rodin and Matisse frequently allowed photographs of their [other works of] art to be exhibited alongside originals, as they often were at 291, thus allowing visitors and potential purchasers to view many more works than could otherwise be accommodated in a single venue. Seizing on photography’s ability to provide an easily accessible visual encyclopedia, almost all of these artists collected photographs of works of art by present and past masters and thus entered into a dialogue with art from all time and all continents.

[line break added] Several, Rodin and Picasso in particular, used the photographs they or others took of their own work in progress, to reevaluate formal, tonal, and compositional relationships within their canvases or sculpture by examining them in the limited black-and-white tonal range; to explore alternative paths by drawing, cutting, or pasting photographs together; and at times to merge what had previously been two or more separate pieces into one new work in a photographic collage.

My most recent previous post from Greenough’s book is here.

-Julie

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