By John Camp
There's a high-end art bookstore in Santa Monica that, whenever I'm passing through Santa Monica, I can't stay out of. I tell my friend, "Just a couple of minutes." I'm gone for an hour and it feels like a couple of minutes. Anyway, there's one whole wall of painting monographs, and another partial wall devoted to photography—and these are big walls. So I was in today, browsing the painting, and I found a bunch of books by Gregory Crewdson and another bunch by Jeff Wall amongst the painting books.
When I was paying for my purchases, I said to the guy behind the counter, "I don't know if you care, but there are a bunch of photography books in on the painting shelves."
He asked, "Really? Which ones?"
"A bunch by Gregory Crewdson and another bunch by Jeff Wall."
"Oh, we know that," he said. "A number of people have pointed it out—but we made a conscious decision to include them among the artists, rather than the photographers. I can't really explain why...."
I blurted out, "Oh, I think I know."
He said, "Yeah, there you are. We're talking about moving Cindy Sherman over there."
I said, "Mmm, I don't know about Cindy. She photographs about photographs, if you know what I mean."
He said, "Yeah, we're still thinking about it."
Walking down the street with my two tons of books, I started thinking more about the conversation. Are most art photographers "photographers" but not "artists?" Why is it so easy to put Crewdson and Wall in with the painters? Why do I so easily accept that, but not Cindy Sherman? Is the essence of photography sharply different than the essence of painting? Should some painting books be placed in the photography section? Will Ctein ever shave? Will the Packers beat the Vikings again?
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Slobodan Blagojevic: "For me, there is a profound difference between artists who just happen to be using photography as a medium, and photographers trying to create art."
Featured Comment by Michel Hardy-Vallée: "Here's the kind of questions that warrant (and must suffer from its deflating dryness) an academic response. I recommend heartily the book Photography Theory, edited by James Elkins (Art Institute of Chicago), as part of the Art Seminar series. The AS series is a collection of actual seminars between academics transcribed into book form on important topics of art theory.
"In Photography Theory, there's an interesting section called 'Jeff Wall as a Painter' (not written by Elkins, but I don't have the table of contents with me) which argues for exactly what your bookstore did, in other words that Jeff Wall is a painter using the materials of photography.
"It's the kind of argument that sound like an absurdist version of making one point clear (cf. Jorge Luis Borges' short story 'Pierre Ménard'), but the important point here is that we should not think of medium as strictly material. An artistic medium is a set of conventions, a set of codes and methods of production and appreciation, that is supported by an actual, material (or 'vehicular') medium. Just like you can make a drawing out of dry noodles when you're a kid.
"That kind of distinction was mostly championed by Joseph Margolis, currently at Temple University in 'Art and Philosophy' (Humanities Press, 1980), and taken up recently in a more elaborated form by David Davies from McGill University in Art as Performance (Blackwell, 2004)."
Featured Comment by Clay Olmstead: "Since the painting books have photographs of paintings, they're all essentially photography books. What you get is the experience of looking at a photograph of a painting, which can be very different from standing in front of the original."
Featured Comment by Kalli: "After a long time thinking my local library had a very meagre selection of photography books I finally struck gold. I was going to borrow Gerry Johansson's Sverige again but somehow got him mixed up with Lars Tunbjörk. That's how I found out the library had two books by Tunbjörk, Country Beside Itself and I Love Borås, neither of which was kept in the photography section. The former was filed under biography and the latter under geography. All the while Johansson's Sverige was filed under photography.
"Being absolutely baffled, and probably a bit annoyed, I asked the librarian why things were done this way. The funniest part of her explanation was that Johansson's book contained more technical photography than Tunbjörk's books. Johansson's book is, in my view, more 'geographical' than Tunbjörk's books, which, to those unfamiliar, might be crudely described at somewhat Martin Parr-esque street/documentary works. I might have somewhat understood it if they had been filed under sociology, but geography and biography?
"The problem seems to be on the mend now, though, with a shelf in one corner of the library nearly dominated by books on photography. Haven't seen Johansson's Sverige there, though. His 'technical' photos must have consigned his book to lie among the how-to books."
Mike replies: I know what you mean, Kalli. In both bookstores and libraries I've come across what I would consider photography books imaginatively filed. I'm surprised no one has mentioned in response to John's post that the salient feature for a bookstore to consider is not really how the clerks think of the artists, but where the customer is most likely to go look for the books. Of course, I would not look for Szarkowski's The Idea of Louis Sullivan under "Architecture," and yet I can acknowledge that that's probably where it belongs. But Lee Friedlander Photographs Frederick Law Olmstead Landscapes in "Gardening"? No.