Michael Fried, Why Photograph Matters

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Snap judgment

Michael Fried offers an engaging reading of contemporary art photography


January 31, 2009


By Michael Fried

Yale University Press, 410 pages, $73.50

It is still a pretty rare thing to find a scholarly book in the humanities that trades in qualitative judgments. George Eliot over Dostoyevsky? Rachmaninoff truly better than, or merely different from, Radiohead? The contests may be raised here and there, but outright victors are seldom declared. So when a major scholar of Western painting titles his most recent work Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, well, one takes note of the staked claim before asking: Who does this guy think he is?

Print Edition – Section Front

The Globe and Mail

But for anyone familiar with Michael Fried’s 40-plus-year career as a scholar and critic, the declarative tenor of his latest title is not all that surprising (even if the title may still strike the ear as somewhat unctuous and grandiose). What is perhaps surprising is Fried’s turn to photography following a series of thematically linked books devoted mostly to 18th- and 19th-century painting, all the while remaining largely mute on 20th-century art. Largely, that is, since the publication of several pieces of criticism about contemporary painting and sculpture during the 1960s and ’70s. Fried gained renown early – he was still a graduate student at Harvard writing a dissertation on Manet – when he published an essay titled Art and Objecthood in a 1967 issue of Artforum. Very quickly, the essay became a flashpoint in discussions about the state of contemporary art practice and, rather amazingly for the product of a relatively young mind, continues to generate responses and to be applied to art practice and theory today.

The claims Fried makes in Art and Objecthood, claims that in a modified form bleed into his subsequent scholarship on painting’s history, are deeply relevant, too, to the book under review. For what Fried offers in this book is an engaging, though not always successful, reading of a range of contemporary art photography (by photographers active from the mid-1970s onward) through the lens, as it were, of his own well-known interpretation of painting. Thus, Why Photography Matters is in a sense as much a book about photography’s present luminaries – Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Thomas Ruff and Jeff Wall, among others – as it is about Michael Fried.

It’s a good thing, then, that Fried’s conception of what lies at the heart of much art-making for the past 250 years is such an interesting one. In Art and Objecthood, he railed against what he saw as a baleful tendency in late-1960s art toward “theatricality,” by which he meant works that overtly depended for their effect not on their own internal relations (their shape, colour etc.), but on their external situatedness in a gallery, as objects intended to be beheld.

To Fried, such works rarely transcended their objecthood; in fact, they often intentionally embraced this status. They confronted the beholder and conscripted him or her in a kind of self-conscious relationship that Fried found to be boundless and without satisfying closure. What was superior for Fried was “art” that seemed internally complete and that the beholder experienced in a flash of immediate plenitude and present-ness. While the dominant strain in art-making from the late 1960s and onward (in short, postmodernism) went against Fried’s preferred mode, he mostly set aside his critical judgment of the art scene and concentrated his efforts on explaining the art of the past.

Beginning with 18th-century France and painters such as Chardin, and carrying on through Courbet and Manet, Fried discerned a repeating, though evolving, motif: painting’s desire to overcome theatricality. So though it would be strange indeed to suggest that paintings did not ask to be looked at, Fried noted that in a painter such as Chardin (with his scenes of engrossed figures making tea, playing cards etc.), the absorption of his figures had the effect of denying the presence of the beholder in front of the canvas. Looking at a Chardin was like looking in on a scene that was unfolding as though not for you, and thus, somehow – or so thought people like Chardin’s contemporary Denis Diderot – this bestowed upon it a note of supreme sincerity and convincing heft.

This was, of course, a conceit, and like all conceits that become widely emulated, it eventually lost its ability to be convincing; it, too, became false (it has become even more hackneyed in photography). But the impetus to overcome a potential feeling of falseness between canvas and beholder remained, and Fried saw it take new forms in the differing strategies of Courbet and then Manet.

Fried has gone on to trace this lineage in other 19th-century painters outside of the French tradition. What unites these studies is Fried’s general philosophical attunement to how artworks go about making painterly articulations of some of the most basic, though often allusive, habits of being. Art and Objecthood thus marked not a direct continuation of this story, but a distinct version of it. And photography, beginning in the mid-1970s, marked yet another. Because Fried insists upon the central relevance of his own interpretive line to the works of “the leading photographers of our time,” the success of his book rises or falls to the degree that this frame is convincingly applied across the esteemed cadre of photographers he has selected for analysis. Thus, photography matters as art as never before in the restricted sense of what Fried counts as the issues most central to art.

Though it is not possible to provide a full scorecard here, a few points might be raised. It seems undeniable that when the new generation of photographers began to produce their works on a large scale (150 x 200 centimetres and larger in many cases) for the express purpose of mounting them on a wall, and thereby intending them to be looked at like paintings, rather than up close as had been typical of previous art photography by people like Stieglitz, Evans, Weston and so on, that this move incurred the “problematic of beholding” in a new way. Fried makes canny use of discussions he has had with several of the photographers, as well as selected comments they have made in other interviews and writings, to bulwark his case while also implying that there was a kind of in-the-air Friedian ethos at work among many of them.

His commentary on Thomas Struth’s photos of museum-goers engaged – or often not engaged – in looking at various masterpieces in places like the Louvre is particularly brilliant in capturing the issues at stake in his book as a whole. His chapter on the fascinating photographs of Thomas Demand, a photographer who goes to extreme lengths to short-circuit any potential feelings of attachment between beholder and image, is rife with rich insights.

However, Fried has the habit of recruiting passages from philosophers such as Hegel, Wittgenstein and Heidegger to make points that, while occasionally highly suggestive, are often so compacted and selective as to seem arbitrary. For example, his use of a brief section of Hegel’s Science of Logic as a key to unlocking Bernd and Hilla Becher’s seminal photographs of outmoded industrial buildings comes off as notably strained.

In his lengthy, multi-chapter discussions of Vancouver’s Jeff Wall (Wall emerges as Fried’s hero in this book), several of Wall’s painstakingly choreographed photographs of disused mops, garbage-strewn alleys, nautical ropes, domestic interiors and the like are insightfully matched with clearly explained notions of “use” and “thing-hood” and the “everyday” as borrowed from various philosophers in combination with Fried’s own artillery of absorption and objecthood. A substantial case for Wall’s importance emerges (though that’s hardly needed), but we also know from Wall’s own copious writings that there are other philosophical inflections important to Wall – Walter Benjamin, for one – that get short shrift in Fried’s approach.

In any case, despite the book’s rigour, it would be a shame to leave the impression that it is best left to readers of Hegel and his ilk. While Fried’s work is clearly more academic than, say, Geoff Dyer’s recent and lauded rumination on photography, The Ongoing Moment, the sheer breadth of premier contemporary art photography under consideration in Why Photography Matters makes it a volume to treasure for this reason alone. Photograph after photograph is testament to the tremendous vitality and profound meditation in recent art photography. Graced with the touch that comes from years of talking about art to students and to the museum public, Fried is a master at explaining what he sees in a picture. Caveats aside, his idiosyncratic book must now count as a major contribution to the field.

Brian Hurley is writing a dissertation on time and aesthetic experience at Rutgers University. He lives in Toronto.


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