along Depledge Rd

There is an interesting issue of the journal Art History  on Photography after conceptual art (Volume 32, Issue 5),  which was then published by Wiley as a book  edited  by Diarmuid Costello and Margaret Iversen. This body of academic work emerges out of an AHRC Research Project entitled Aesthetics after Photography.

Contemporary photography (after conceptual art) can be categorised as either pictorial or conceptual. On the one hand demand,  we have  highly aestheticised pictorial image concerned to  ensure  the autonomy of photography as art.  This has already been established.

On the other hand, we have  the  purely conceptual where the photograph is incidental to the idea and disregarded as a medium via its incorporation into divergent practices. This  treats the photograph as a document of transparent information.

Herein lies a tension between photography’s aesthetic uptake as an autonomous  pictorial art being  compromised by it apparently being too closely and easily connected to empirical reality.

One interpretation of art history holds that in  the 1970s and 1980s, photography in art was aligned with a variety of radical avant-garde practices that sought to disrupt traditional modes of aesthetic appreciation.  This post conceptual strand  drew on Walter Benjamin's influential view that the mechanization of image-production undermined many of the values traditionally associated with fine art--eg., its aura.

Art photography in the early 21st century  has shifted from being  an anti-aesthetic artistic medium  to spectacular, large-scale, pictorial museum pieces, as exemplified in the work of Jeff Wall and Thomas Struth. 

This tension  or problem between the two strands opens  the door to the exploration of the photography’s aesthetic possibilities in terms of a merging of the conceptual and the pictorial.

photography after conceptual art

Ian Burn finishes his  essay 'Conceptual Art as Art' in  his book Dialogue: Writing in Art History thus:

In conclusion, one could separate the analytic or strict Conceptual Art from the work which is a conceptual appearance by stating that the intention of the former is to devise a functional change in art, whereas the latter is concerned with changes in the appearance of the art. 

Post conceptual photography  in Australia in the 1980s was deemed to be postmodern in both theory and practice.  This was the judgement of Isobel Crombie and Sandra Byron's, Twenty Contemporary Australian Photographers: From the Hallmark Cards Australian Photographic Collection at the National Gallery of Victoria (1990).  Helen Ennis in her exhibition catalogue Australian Photography: The 1980s concured.   What was unclear from thes exhibitions, and the Blair French and Daniel Palmer text, Twelve Australian Photo Artists,  was the link between the allegorical impluse and the qualities of nonidentity, rupture, disjunction, distance, and fragmentation. 

It questioned the modernist traditions and conventions that had previously come to define photography---small-scale finely worked black and white photographs. This gave way to large, colour, stage-managed studio images that were exhibited in the art gallery system. This shift  was often framed  in  terms of the  traditional  art historical explicatory device of stylistic exhaustion and Oedipal reaction.   

This Australian postmodernism  in photographic culture was part of a broader global movement of what Douglas Crimp termed oppositional postmodernism  that was interested in representation and photography's function in an image culture; photography's role in the construction of (female) subjectivity; and the questioning of the assumptions underpinning  photography's indexical relation to the world.  

It was  an oppositional postmodernism in that it was a critique of the foundations of modernist asethetics such as form, originality, authenticity, and individual creativity. It also made an analysis of the art galleries/museum as an "institution of confinement";  and a critique of high modernism's antipathy to, and eradication of,  metaphor that allowed them to assert medium against meaning, likeness or literary values.    

In the photography after conceptual art  in Australia there was some questioning  of the conservative  landscape tradition in Australian painting,  and its construction of an essential Australian aesthetic, national narratives and settler Australia's relation to the land. This Anglocentric version of the social imaginary of Australia as a nation of well-intentioned, hardworking British settlers downplayed both the colonial forms of violence and subjugation of aboriginal Australians and  the destruction of the environment. 

This questioning of this cultural expression of national identity and its mythology raised the idea of the landscape both as a site of  historical conflict  and change, and the ways that we represent our relationships to the environment. 

By and large however,  though there has been a rich history of photographing the landscape, art photography with the land, landscape, nature as its subject  has declined  in Australia  and lost its currency. It has become sidelined as sophisticated chocolate box photography.  Two exceptions that come to mind  are  Debra Phillips 2001  landscapes of Lake George in New South Wale (The world as a puzzle 1 and 11) and David Stephenson's images of environmental destruction in Tasmania.  

turning back to Ed Ruscha

Though it is well known that the early conceptual artists used photography in ways that went far beyond its modernist definitions as a medium – and succeeded thereby in breaking down the boundaries of all mediums in modernist art--- there is still an  absence in art history discourse that evaluates the  known conceptual photography in Australia. What liitle writing there is--eg., Anne Marsh in Look: Contemporary Australian Photography since 1980--suggests that it is a turn to  the dumb aesthetic of amateur images and  street photography  to undermine a modernist aesthetic. 

To gain an understanding  on conceptual art and photography (photoconceptual activity) we can turn back to America in 1962, where  the California painter Ed Ruscha used the principle of statement and performance  to create the book Twentysix Gasoline Stations. According to the art historians Ruscha first came up with the title, then proceeded to photograph the subject on one of his road trips from Oklahoma City (his hometown) to Los Angeles, his adopted city.

The work of art was to be the book itself, simply but carefully designed, whereas the photographs inside showed no traces of aesthetic decision making at all, as if the artist had merely pointed the camera out the car window in order to fulfill the requirements of the textual phrase.

Ruscha's book was  inextricably tied to its status as an article in a mass-produced and circulated publication. This idea of attaching the work of art directly to the channels of distribution and publicity that constituted its inevitable fate as a commodity transgressed the presentation of the single photography on the white walls of the art gallery. 

Ruscha produced sixteen books from the early 1960s to th late 1970s and some the  books in this instructional and perfomative  mode based around repetition  included Thirty Four Parking Lots in Los Angeles (1967)  and Nine Swimming Pools and a Broken Glass (1968). The conceptual basis of these works---following a rule or instruction in the spirit of experimentation-- is an alternative to the  anti-aesthetic interpretation  that is based on  the mimicing of non-autonomous photography, such as amateur snapshots or  photojournalism.

It  enables us to  link Ruscha's work back to the radical impulse in the European avant garde, that had been excluded by the Greenbergian canon;  and to see it  as a pathway that reconfigures photography away from the ontology of  high formalist modernism, which was secured by  the medium specific characteristics as outlined by Clement Greenberg, John Szarkowski and Michael Fried.   

This formalist modernism insisted on a division between high and low art, made a distinction between the popular vernacular and the avant-garde and highlighted the differences between a radical  avant-garde and the conservative fine art tradition.  It is what is currently defended by cultural conservatives in order to defuse the critical edge of art. 

conceptual art and photography

On a strict art historical reading, the expression ‘conceptual art’ refers to the artistic movement that reached its pinnacle between 1966 and 1972 ] Amongst its most famous adherents at its early stage we find artists such as Joseph Kosuth, Robert Morris, Joseph Beuys,  Mel Ramsden and Ian Burns in Australia.

Whilst conceptual art on this interpretation  might arguably be limited to works produced during these five or six years nearly half a century ago, it seems overly narrow – certainly from a philosophical perspective – to limit our inquiry to works produced during that period alone. The reason is that  conceptual art, historically speaking,  sets out to question  our traditional conceptions of what an art object should be made of and what it should look like. The artwork is a process rather than a material thing or object.

Australian photographic art historians –eg., Helen Ennis and Gael Newton— make little or no reference to conceptual art, and its core idea that the locus of the work was deemed to be the idea or statement with the work being a performance of that statement. Do we infer that, unlike the US and elsewhere,  there was no conceptual photography produced by art photographers in the late 20th century?

There were. I can recall  Robert Ronney's Holden Park 1+2 (1970); Virginia Coventry's Service Road (1976-77); Ian North's Canberra Suite (1980-81). There may well be others.This photography was lo fi and it  was used to destablize the formalist aesthetic that was hegemonic in the  art galleries, such as the Australian Centre for Photography and the Australian National Gallery. 

A  example of a statement  or idea is ‘Walk down a country road on the Fleurieu Peninsula and take twenty  photographs of a tree (a pink gum or wattle)  and a Xanthorrhoea’. The process is walking down the country road,  and it is contrasted to the modernist idea of  photography as a  separate and definable “medium” distinct from painting, sculpture, printmaking etc. 

On this interpretation of conceptual art,  process matters more than physical material, and because art should be about intellectual inquiry and reflection rather than beauty or  aesthetic pleasure, the work of art is said to be the idea at the heart of the piece in question. The inference is that there is a critical edge to conceptual art towards the art tradition and institution.

Hence the idea of an oppositional photography that establishes a critical distance from cultural conservatism; a cultural conservatism that has traditionally defined how we look at, and understand,  the Australian  landscape.