By Christopher Bedford, Words Without Pictures
With medium specificity a passé historical concern confined chiefly to the pages of art history, it may seem prosaic and anachronistic to question the position and relative validity of a single medium—photography—within the world of contemporary art. In addition, the same question may seem patently irrelevant to those who might justifiably point out that many of the most eminent, critically lauded, and well-collected artists of the twentieth century—Thomas Demand, Jeff Wall, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Cindy Sherman, and Andreas Gursky, to name a few—all use the camera as their primary instrument. Furthermore, the status of photography as art is rarely drawn into question, and the market currency of the medium is beyond dispute. But does it necessarily follow that the fundamental ontology of photography as a practice has been fully interrogated, understood, and integrated into the discourse of contemporary art, assuming its rightful place alongside traditional media like painting, sculpture, and drawing, as well as new media such as installation and video? In other words, does photography exist as photography in art history and criticism today? And if not, why not? Is photography—and by derivation photography criticism—all it can be?
Featured Comment by Michel Hardy-Vallée: "All right, since we're tackling the hardcore questions of medium and ontology, why not have a look at David Davies' Art As Performance and Gregory Currie's Ontology of Art [OOP —MJ] instead of academic bloggers?
"The fundamental problem in the discussion of medium with respect to photography is that nobody makes the distinction between vehicular medium and artistic medium.
"Vehicular medium is the manifest substrate of a work, oil paint for instance, whereas the artistic medium is the system in which the physical medium is purposefully organized, for instance by articulating lights and shadows in the case of a painting.
"That definition comes mostly from Joseph Margolis, but Davies reuses it a lot.
"The point is that these concepts help to make sense of the weird uses that contemporary art makes of photography. In an near-absurdist manner, you can argue that Jeff Wall's works are made in the vehicular medium of photography, but function within the artistic medium of painting because it borrows so much from it.
"Various artistic media have developed around the vehicular medium of photography, and people often wrongly believe that because someone uses photography that their works must conform to certain canons, and anything else is a bastard form. For instance, look at the way ƒ/64 people looked at Pictorialists: the latter were seen as traitors to the ideal of photography. The fact of the matter is that they were functioning in different artistic media, even when they were using exactly the same vehicular medium. The latter does not entail the former.
"As to the problems of photography critique, I'd like to direct the dedicated readers to two great little books of relevance published by Routledge, Art History Versus Aesthetics and Photography Theory edited by James Elkins."