In the 'Anti-Photography’ exhibition, curated by Duncan Wooldridge at the Focal Point Gallery, we find an account of conceptual photography as ‘anti-aesthetic’ or ‘deskilled’ photography that refers back to, and reworks, Nancy Foote’s 1976 Artforum text ‘The Anti-Photographers’.
This text refers to an anti-aesthetic’ or ‘deskilled’ photography (ie., Ed Ruscha and the Bechers) that is outside the orthodoxy of conventional photography, by which Foote means Stieglitz’s conception of modernist photography, namely the focus on ‘the unique photographic print’ and ‘abstract formal values’. The anti-photographers set themselves 'apart from this so-called serious modernist photography through a snapshot-like amateurism and nonchalance that would raise the hackles of any earnest professional.'
One of the defining features of the ‘anti-photographers’, argued Foote, was the Duchampian underpinnings strip the photograph of its artistic pretensions. Their utilitarian approach is a kind of anti-aesthetic that wrenches itself purposefully away from the glossy, good-looking gallery print, with the aim, in her words, of transforming the photograph from ‘a mirror to a window. What it reveals becomes important, not what it is.’
The Becher’s typologies are a window with Duchampian underpinnings that have little photographic self-consciousness? The Duchampianlink is there as their first monograph Anonyme Skulpturen (Anonymous Sculptures), made an implicit nod to the legacy of Duchamp’s readymade. Surely, they are making photographic forms---typologies, series and grids-- that extend beyond documentation.
They engaged with the language of photography as their work invoolved frontal views of industrial architectural forms seen from fixed vantage points against a cloudless sky and without expressive effects. this linked back to the German tradition of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) and the photography of August Sander, Karl Blossfeldt, and Albert Renger-Patzsch. The Bechers work was initially dismissed as completely inartistic.
During this period debates around the photographic, and the relation of the history of photography to the history of art intersect with the dematerialisation of the art object. The photograph was seen to be a way to subvert the notion of an art object by operating in the margins of documentation.
That was then. Now we can have photographers for whom ‘what it is’ is extremely important and who also create glossy, good-looking (conceptual) work. This suggests that contemporary art photography that could be called conceptual is unlike the conceptualist photography of the 60s and 70s.
Today conceptual art is more about images that are preconceived and explore a pre-existing idea or plan than snapshot-like amateurism