1. Introduction

For this blog, I will address a number of ideas about the contemporary role of photography within digital culture and artistic practice. With the photographic image having become firmly established as the predominant form of online image, photography is now an increasingly pervasive mode of cultural production. As a result, it is important to explore the role of digital photography within the context of photography as both an artistic medium and a specialized field that has emerged over the course of the last two centuries.

Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalent, 1926 Gelatin silver print; 4 5/8 x 3 5/8 in. (11.8 x 9.2 cm) Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949 (49.55.29) http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/49.55.29

Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalent, 1926
Gelatin silver print; 4 5/8 x 3 5/8 in. (11.8 x 9.2 cm)
Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949 (49.55.29)
http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/49.55.29

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V. Beyond Paul Strand: What Can Radical Photography Be?

I started this blog by posing some questions about the arbitrariness of dividing Paul Strand’s career into a late period of political subject matter and activism and an early period that seemed devoted primarily to formal concerns. Certainly, this is something of a straw man, because most of us would agree that the visual arts are inherently about shaping matter, with all its inherent recalcitrance, into form, regardless of the desired or received “meaning” of that shaped form. The other problem is, of course, what we intend by the terms, “political subjects” or “political art.” The gathering together of any people into a governing unit begins to constitute the body politic, so that virtually all social life in some sense can be read as “political.” However, historically we distinguish “political art”—art that is intentionally made to express a political party line or promote a particular government or policy position—from art that can be read as confirming a location within conflicting ideologies (which may cut across formal party platforms or regimes).  This latter sense of art as functioning politically and representing certain values that can be decoded has driven much of the social history of art in the past fifty years and is what I was striving to uncover in Strand’s enigmatic urban views. Read More »

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4. Rear Windows: Strand’s Backyards

In 1916, the same year that Paul Strand made his remarkable studies of lower-class types caught unawares by a disguised camera lens, he moved away from New York’s crowded streets to capture backyards visible from a bird’s-eye perspective.

Paul Strand, New York, 1916, Vintage photogravure from Camera Work 48

Paul Strand, New York, 1916, Vintage photogravure from Camera Work 48, 1916

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3. The Politics of Urban Planning: Strand at Midtown

The same year that Strand shot City Hall Park he took another, somewhat similar picture in a second prominent location, Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, New York. Still perched above his subject but physically closer than he was in the courthouse north of City Hall Park, Strand was shooting from the second-floor window of Marius de Zayas’s Modern Gallery at 500 Fifth Avenue. The building is now gone, but from photographs it seems that he had to be behind a window (was it opened?) using a lens that radically compressed the width of Fifth Avenue and brought him nearer street traffic while catching a bit of a unfocused cornice in the lower left. Read More »

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2. Reading Strand’s New York Photographs: City Hall Park

In my last post, I suggested that we should rethink how we might read “politics” into the works of Paul Strand.  I put “politics” advisedly into quotes, because few photographs can translate specific political tenets or party lines into form. Apart from a unique photograph called “Skeleton and Swastika, Connecticut” contrived in 1938-39, Strand was no John Heartfield and never directly attacked scowling financiers or aggrandized noble workers in the fields in his still photographs. He remained above all an artist with a distinct social point of view, who recognized that the power to shift the public’s attention by forcing it to visually engage with the overlooked was his greatest gift.

Paul Strand: City Hall Park, New York, 1915 Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Paul Strand Retrospective Collection, gift of the artist, 1972-147-1

Paul Strand: City Hall Park, New York, 1915
Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Paul Strand Retrospective Collection, gift of the artist, 1972-147-1

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1. The Problematic Politics of Paul Strand

The recent retrospective exhibition of Paul Strand’s photographs, organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art to celebrate its purchase of more than 3000 prints and lantern slides from the Paul Strand Archive at the Aperture Foundation and coming to the Fotomuseum Winterthur in March, provides an ideal moment to think about Strand’s contribution and how he has been fashioned as a master of “modernist” photography (if not the slippery status of not-for-profit institutions that sell donated works to raise funds, perhaps the subject of another blog). More particularly, my interest derives from the ongoing debates about Strand’s politics and its importance to his work. At the heart of these debates, I would argue, are critical assumptions not only about what “political photography” looks like, but about how we have defined the winners and losers in our efforts to write a history of avant-garde, twentieth-century photography. Read More »

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V. Photography versus Contemporary Art: What’s Next?

We have reviewed several aspects of the highly competitive—even love/hate—relationship between contemporary art and photography. Is there anything left to say? Perhaps something about the future of both. They will hardly be able to avoid each other. Read More »

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IV. Photographers versus Contemporary Artists: Whose Crisis Is Deeper?

Photography and contemporary art are engaged in an entangled relationship with unresolved issues of power. Essentially, photography is one of art’s media, while art is one of photography’s applications. Exactly this is immersing both in an endless chicken-versus-egg causality dispute. Indeed, even if photography is obviously younger than art as such, contemporary art might still be younger than photography—it depends on what we define as the former’s beginning. Read More »

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