Reality Check

Idea for a series of art photographs: Attractive girls with empty stares that look somehow profound, very rich people at parties, very poor people living in squalor, bohemian-looking types at parties, mostly young people standing around, empty spaces where nothing's happening but might be, nice clothes, young children, adolescents, some of them naked, teenagers at parties taking drugs, weird scenarios, some featuring attractive, possibly rich-looking girls, and boys, maybe naked children also, dirty modern cityscapes that look romantic, suburban idylls that look sinister, some scenes that look like snapshots, other that look like paintings...

If this all seems a bit familiar, it's because you may have seen something like it in among the glut of art photography over the past year or so. A steadily booming art market, hungry for more than the limits of painting and sculpture, and a culture press baying at the readership potential of contemporary art, have accelerated and honed a new mainstream of contemporary 'art' photography, one that slips happily from the gallery wall, to the coffee-table monograph and onwards to the presses of the Sunday supplements.

Recent exhibitions such as 'I am a Camera' at the Saatchi gallery, and 'Settings & Players' at White Cube2 have reaffirmed photography's commercial viability within the art world, whilst the Citibank Prize held yearly at the Photographers' Gallery has comfortably established itself as a credible survey of photography's mainstream respectability. And with Wolfgang Tillman's success at last year's Turner Prize, photography has become a dynamic medium between contemporary art and the preoccupations and interests of the broader cultural sphere. It's little surprise to find art photography flirting wildly with other genres and their attendant contexts, notably photojournalism, fashion photography, and digital simulation: Looking spontaneous, looking staged, and looking synthetic are the mutually exclusive, but co-dependent poles of the contemporary photographic idiom.

At face value, this would appear to be a welcome return to the real. After more than a decade of post-structuralist and psychoanalytical interrogation photography has reopened its interest in the documentary authenticity of the unmediated photograph. Not that this is something peculiar to photography; the revival of techniques that affirm the authenticity of the artist's intention, and the integration of material from the common experiences of everyday culture into artistic practice, are changes that have taken place across the board, from painting and drawing to sculpture and video. Whilst the work of such 'post-modern' artist-photographers such as Cindy Sherman or Richard Prince were preoccupied with 'constructing' the photographic image with a view to revealing the already constructed nature of the photographic 'message', this was often at the cost of repressing photography's potential for escaping such construction and manipulation. This is the legacy of postmodernism's fiercely critical, yet hopelessly isolated attack on what it saw as the dominant sphere of commercial mass culture, and the photograph's pre-eminent position within it. The unsustainable contradiction within this posture was that whilst critically coherent, it could achieve little effective transformation in that sphere of the real world it chose to attack. But a broader problem was that whilst the institutional forms and habits of art persisted, the attempt to dismantle the theoretical boundaries between art and the rest of culture were quite successful. The result was, for a time, an art that whilst no longer recognising the legitimacy of its past, couldn't develop a practical response to the marginal conditions of its place in the wider culture, of which it was critical but with which it nevertheless wished to integrate.

It might be argued that post-modernism's unsustainably mismatched impulses towards both integration and criticism were in fact responsible for clearing the ground for the changes in attitude and content that photography has recently undergone. In a sense, the emergence of a strong documentary impulse, as well as an equally pronounced interest in the uncanny and the fantastic, both lead from the problems that the post-modern photograph had left unresolved, albeit with wildly different motives and consequences. In the case of the new documentary styles of photography, there is a strong belief in the photograph's always-potential and privileged access to the real; the success of the kind of images produced by photographers such as Tillmans, Richard Billingham, Corrine Day and Boris Mikhailov suggests a willing acceptance of the photograph's informal and spontaneous verité. The reality on offer is however always of a limited nature; the authenticity of the autobiographical mode is always invoked, and it's rarely the case that the documentary mode extends beyond the artist's immediate surrounds. What's more, the display of the biographical authentic tends towards the revelation of the most excessively 'real'. Artists such as Billingham, Mikhailov and Day have been feted for their unsparing representation of the reality of their personal lives and those around them; dysfunction and dirty pants have never been worn with more pride. This again is not peculiar to photography, as a similar combination of verité and abjection is widely present in cinema, notably in the films of Dogme adherents. It's a common feature of the documentary mode that what is held up as most real is often that which is most excessive, whether in its destitution or luxury: At 'I am a Camera', Richard Billingham's images of his family's domestic squalor were set at opposite ends to the loaded opulence of Jessica Craig-Martin's pictures of American high society.

The biographical-documentary mode in contemporary photography does however have the advantage of intersecting comfortably with the concerns of the lifestyle media. Significantly, the emergence of the vast array of style and fashion publications has given rise to a kind of photography that incorporates the same sensibility towards both immediacy and marginality apparent elsewhere in 'art' photography, creating one of those paradoxes so loved by cultural commentators; whilst the representation of' real life is used to sell fashion, that's what real life looks like anyway. Matthew Collings, sounding off in his sarcastic Modern Painters diary, is right to complain that at exhibitions of photography 'the subject is always some anaemic looking people in youth-fashion gear standing around. Or a variation is the same thing only with a suggestion of a fragmented narrative.' It's no surprise that the work of Wolfgang Tilmans should find such an appreciative audience; his mix of nonchalant biographical informality and underlying pictorial sensitivity, brought to bear of the urban reality and alternative lifestyles of the young and the beautiful, makes him a perfect representative for the happy crossover between documentary, lifestyle, fashion and art.

It would be easy to view the other tendency in contemporary photography- the staged, psychologically charged and fantastical mise-en-scene- as a separate development. Yet perhaps here also, one finds that what's at stake is an altered conception of the question of representing reality; if the psychoanalytical dimension of postmodernism had any lasting influence on visual culture, it was in the way it established the 'real' as the psychological life of the subject, its desires and impulses, and applied itself to the revelation of this reality at the level of visual representations. In the present context however, stripped of the political motivations that drove psychoanalytical criticism, contemporary photography retains a fascination with the theatre of psychological symbolism, of the fragmentary narrative, the unexplained and the uncanny, as a space in which common assumptions about subjective reality can be endlessly be rehearsed without ever being resolved.

Maybe this explains the almost interchangeable success of those artists who appear to address the world of the infant and the adolescent. The work of Hannah Starkey, Rineke Dijkstra, Sarah Jones, Anna Gaskell and the recently notorious work of Teirney Gearon, mine a lucrative seam of variation that emphasises the pre-adult otherness of their subjects. This has become something of a conventional vehicle by which the frisson of infantile naughtiness and the teenage loss of innocence can be constantly played out to a psychologically literate contemporary audience. But whether you're taken by this kind of work or if, like Matthew Collings, all you see are 'some anaemic looking people in youth-fashion gear standing around', this kind of work depends on the assumption that the inner reality of the subject can be made manifest visually through gesture and expression. Or, given that one tautologically recognises the presence of an 'inner world' through an outward look of 'introspection', it has become conventional to acknowledge that if outwardly not much is going on, it must mean that something is going on.

That 'something is going on' can even extend to scenes where there is clearly nothing going on at all, such as the urban scenes of Rut Blees Luxemburg and Dan Holdsworth, shows how accustomed we've become to those technical devices that photographers use to lend the literal nature of their subjects a sense of defamiliarisation and anxiety. Yet here it's of interest to note that even with the various tricks of long exposure and over-saturation that lend an air of the uncanny to otherwise straightforward subjects, these images nevertheless trade on the underlying facticity of the subject depicted. In effect, the various displacements that occur may be read as 'revelatory' of a 'hidden reality', though these hidden realities just as often turn out to be the interpretative consensus of received opinion: So a long exposure of some empty street in overwrought lighting can reveal the underlying paranoia of suburban life (as if that were sufficient description), or a blank stare on a well-dressed model might reveal the dislocation of wealth and looks and inner happiness. As the real is now often understood through this cod-psychological model of latent and manifest, this has a somewhat corrosive effect on the traditional distinction between the fictional and the documentary; since everything that appears documentary may, through some small shift in register, reveal another, hidden reality, then even the most carefully staged set-piece may, in its turn document the reality of some subject's 'true' inner life.

The peculiar contradiction of much contemporary photography lies in its slavish acceptance of the immediacy of the photographic real, though the nature of the real on display can be any of a wide range of mutually exclusive preoccupations particular to each artist. It's no coincidence that montage and artifice are remarkably absent from the current photography; when it does appear, as in the digital simulations and trompe-l'oeil models of Andreas Gursky and Thomas Demand, it becomes apologetic, as if the game were anyway to reassert our belief in the technically authentic photograph's privileged access to the real. But the real is anyway always 'going on' in the photograph, or perhaps more correctly behind it. As the old realist Georg Lukacs once pointed out, reality is always richer and more complex in its manifestations than a work of art. The point isn't that art should expect to mechanically reproduce the appearance of the real, merely to reveal it, but that in the anyway synthetic organisation of its forms it should seek to reflect and enact a similar complexity, one which nevertheless offers an intelligible experience of what may not be immediately apparent. But this relies on a conception of a real that is both multi-faceted and integrated, rather than broken down and compartmentalised into so many marketable fragments.

The irony of much contemporary photography is not that it presents an excess of reality, but rather that in fetishising the substance of its many discrete aspects, it hardly ever gets near.



Published in Art Monthly no247, June 2001 back to top


all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated