George Baker: "First, is photography a medium? Or a form of media? An art?"
In 2018 in the IST Publishing series Small Run Books there was presented a collection of essays Photography’s Expanded Field by American art-critic and photography researcher George Baker (transl. into Ukrainian by Roksolana Sviato).
Texts, published in various books and journals, and written throughout author’s career, are gathered in this book. This publication has already caused a discussion in the Ukrainian art field, which can be summarized with such a question: “What role does photography theory plays in artists’ practice?”
In order to shed some light on this and other comments, the book editor Anastasiia Leonova talked with George Baker about photography’s situation today, backgrounds of the “expanded field”, methodology of Baker as a researcher, and his attitude towards “pure images”.
Anastasiia Leonova: Photography has an important place in your research interests. Could you tell us a little bit more about specific approaches to dealing with and researching this medium?
George Baker: The history of photography has always posed the most intractable problems for the history of art. First, is photography a medium? Or a form of media? An art? Or a technology? Is it best confronted as an aesthetic phenomenon? Or a social practice? How could a methodology formed in relation to the fresco cycle or the easel painting confront an archive of 10,000 or 40,000 photographs? Which methodology already at play in the history of art should come to bear on a history of photography? Usually, one has to admit to a syncretic approach, a hybrid cobbling together of different philosophical and theoretical approaches.
AL: What is your approach?
GB: In different ways, and for a variety of reasons, my own approach to photography has been to exacerbate this methodological wildness. For example: In a recent essay, I have looked at the contemporary artist Paul Sietsema’s paintings and his films, and found there a deep meditation on the photographic negative, the old analogue model in photography of visual inversion and image replication. I am writing currently about the work of Tacita Dean, known also as a key contemporary film artist; but again, I see the work primarily as a meditation in film on ideas and concepts that color what we can call the “photographic.” In such work, photography is being treated as a “medium” that has come loose from its former object forms, and has extended its key dynamics into other artistic domains. From a longer historical perspective, the problem might be to see the ways in which this has almost always been the case — the different modes in which photography has challenged other art forms, migrated into other means of expression, and expanded ways of practicing art.
AL: “Photography’s Expanded Field” was written in 2005, when photography, as you claimed, went through serious transformations and a crisis. How can we assess its situation today? Is this crisis over or is photography facing other, more complex, problems?
GB: Yes, it was first published in 2005 and has been republished a few times since, including in 2008. Its writing began even earlier, in 2002 or 2003, as I was working on an anthology of essays by other critics on the work of the Irish conceptual artist James Coleman, whose work since the 1970s has taken the form primarily of the “slide tape,” photographic slide projections with recorded voice-overs — a form that Coleman “borrowed” from now-outmoded advertising techniques. And its conceptualization surely began in the 1990s, as I reacted as a New York-based critic to a series of new figures and new work.
The project for criticism as I saw it then was to connect the new photographic and cinematic forms emergent in contemporary art since the 1990s to the shifts and changes of postmodernism a generation earlier. Postmodernism — at least as written about in the US in the 1970s and early 1980s — had been theorized as a “photographic event,” and understood largely in terms of photographic work, the projects of specific artists ranging from Cindy Sherman to Louise Lawler to Barbara Kruger to Jeff Wall.
But the postmodern concept of an “expanded field” for artistic practice had been devised in relation to debates about sculpture, and in the aftermath of developments of minimalist and postminimalist art. I am referring to Rosalind Krauss’s essay from 1979, Sculpture in the Expanded Field. It struck me that the “expanded field” model had not been extended to photographic practices in the 1970s in any thorough-going way, which seemed an odd lacuna given the crucial position that critics claimed photography played in the larger panoply of postmodernist ideas — the notion that art should critique “originality,” for example, and model itself on appropriation and the copy. That mapping of new photographic possibilities in the 1970s and 1980s would have to occur. But it also struck me that this deep meditation on photographic ideas in art criticism and art practice was no longer as evident today, it was no longer felt as necessary, twenty years or thirty years later. Reconnecting contemporary art to a set of dynamics that had first emerged during the reckoning with postmodernism would thus be an important critical act — an act of salvage and also of exacerbation, allowing a dynamic to be clarified and perhaps newly understood. It would connect myriad and potentially confusing contemporary art forms to a lineage and a specific moment of transformation, helping us to see that a larger cultural dynamic was indeed at play.
Now, as I’ve just implied, part of my idea of extending the postmodernist and sculptural model of the “expanded field” to photography was about claiming an exacerbation of earlier shifts and changes, the postmodern shifts and changes around art and photography. It was about claiming that art had indeed faced a moment of crisis and reckoning with photography, and this moment’s ramifications were not over. Rather than our facing a dissipation of photographic energies and critical impulses, such shifts could be seen as deepening in contemporary art all around — I looked to artists from Gerard Byrne to Zoe Leonard to Sam Taylor-Wood to Joachim Koester to Nancy Davenport to Gabriel Orozco to Tacita Dean to Douglas Gordon to Sharon Lockhart, and many others besides.
So it has been crucial to my larger project that the “expansion” of photography be seen as an ongoing process, one that is not confined to a specific moment alone, to a set of or a generation of artists only, a movement or a period term
It is, precisely, an historical and conceptual process — and while such expansion of forms may have stages or dynamics that belong to different moments, the process should be seen as ongoing.
You will note by now, I hope, that the technological shifts that have dominated recent debate on photography — an epochal transition from the analogue photograph to the digital or electronic image — do not amount to the central crisis that my writing on photography has surveyed. Surely this technological shift has been a crisis for photography. Surely it has been, too, a force driving so many new experiences and inventions.
But the technological change — as massive as it may be — should not be seen, in my view, as determinant. Technology never really is. The transformation of photography in contemporary art answers to a much deeper conceptual logic.
AL: Does the photograph’s “expansion” remain a relevant problem for you personally? In other words, how did your views on your own article change over the past ten years?
GB: For me, the problem of the expansion of photography — the expansion of a medium or a form — has become an ethical issue. It is a political issue. This is implicit in the emergence of the rhetoric of expansion within postmodernism, where you might see Krauss’s essay Sculpture in the Expanded Field alongside an earlier text like Gene Youngblood’s Expanded Cinema (1970). Krauss’ model of the structural or logical expansion of a medium, the structuralist ambition to “remake the object,” needs to be connected once more to the ideas and figures to whom she was already surely responding, such as Youngblood’s countercultural concern with the expansion of consciousness and subjectivity. These are the two torn halves of an historical dialectic to which my recent work hopes to respond.
The expansion of photography, in other words, often functions allegorically for me, as a figure of expansion in other, much broader senses — the expansion of subjectivity, desire, politics
In Photography’s Expanded Field, I signal at the essay’s end that there is no single direction in which the expansion of the photograph must travel. My own recent work hopes to model such a claim, and it has itself followed sometimes contradictory trajectories. One fruit of the essay will be the book I am now completing — it has been an admittedly sporadic ten-year project — to be entitled Lateness and Longing: On the Afterlife of Photography. Here, the photograph’s expansion in specific bodies of work--a group of artists who are all women, and all of the generation emerging in the 1990s — follows less implicitly utopian dynamics than the structuralist rhetoric of re-inventing or reconstructing the object embraced in Photography’s Expanded Field.
I trace now instead how forms and photographs can be altered in the confrontation with processes of devastation, destruction, death
I confront the expansion of a form that can emerge from its internal fragmentation, its dissipation, and the recombination of these historical shards — inspired by the writings of Theodor Adorno on “late style.” You can guess that the project of course responds in a way to the massive decimation of traditional photography that the technological shift to the digital image has involved. But again, this technological shift is not determinant. That the condition of lateness might be productively harnessed to describe contemporary photography “after photography,” or in the wake of the analogue — this has been the current project. It came from an ongoing dialog that I have had with the artist Paul Chan — he is always confronting Adorno, and after I wrote about Chan’s work a decade ago, for his exhibition of a series of projections called the 7 Lights dealing with silhouettes and other photographic qualities, Chan suggested Adorno’s ideas on lateness to me. This has been a curse and a blessing. But the book is almost complete.
In a rather different vein, I also wrote in the last few years a rather speculative series of short texts for an online platform, with a title that rhymes with Photography’s Expanded Field, but also transforms it — I called this intervention The Relational Field of Photography . Here, my thinking on contemporary photography does not travel alone, and I was deeply inspired (as I always am) by the recent work of Kaja Silverman, specifically her theorization of the experience of “analogy” in the face of the more limited claims usually made for “analogue” photography. Photography is usually conceived as an engine of fragmentation, separation, and visual isolation (framing and cropping). But in contemporary engagements with the photographic, an inversion of this modern understanding of photography instead emerges.
Photography has become a tool of relationality, of connection, of coupling (the erotic metaphor is intended).
In part, my intervention was a call for a theory of spectatorship to emerge in the study of photography — how do we relate to and see photographs? How are gazes intersecting and multiplied here? We have had prior theoretical engagement with this domain — I would say Roland Barthes’ canonical and essential text, Camera Lucida, is primarily a theory of spectatorship, a phenomenology of photography. But this relational aspect of photography, the study of how we relate to photography and how photography supports relationality, needs to go much further and much deeper. My series of texts hoped to raise some of the major future questions.
AL: Could you please elaborate on the topic of photography’s binary logic, its existence between two extremes? Do we understand it correctly that, having taken binary oppositions as a basis, we still have to go beyond, cross these borders?
GB: We always need to cross the borders. We always need to go beyond them. This is an endless imperative (ethical, political, philosophical). Photography may be one engine of this imperative, today more than ever.
AL: Lev Manovich, referring to William J.Mitchell, claims: “In theory digital photography is a radical shift, but in practice there are continuities.” If we continue that dialogue between theory and practice, could we say that today’s theory of photography has a significant impact on artists and influences a lot their artistic practice?
GB: I would like to believe this. Theory and practice should always be intertwined. When they are not, we face a lack of imagination and rigor on both sides of the equation — critics and artists both. But we have much less of a consensus today on what matters as the “theory of photography” than we did a generation ago. Who are the major voices of this theorization? What are the major interventions philosophically and theoretically that would drive responses from contemporary artists? Is Michael Fried, with his massive tome on contemporary art photography (Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before), driving contemporary artistic practice? Well, for some artists, that is surely the case, but they have mostly not been my canon and my preferred figures, and the “pictorialist” triumph that book describes is a digital effect that I consider quite paltry. Is Roland Barthes the last great theorist of the photograph, in a lineage that stretches from Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer to André Bazin, Susan Sontag, Allan Sekula? One would hope not, given his last writing on the subject being from forty years ago — even if this writing continues to inspire new turns in contemporary photographic practice, such as the work of Zoe Leonard and Moyra Davey. Why has Vilém Flusser been reclaimed as a key figure for rethinking photography for so many artists now (I am thinking, for example, of the artist Walead Beshty)? Why have Bauhaus understandings of the photograph emerged anew? Are writers like Carol Armstrong, Kaja Silverman, Edouardo Cadava, or Ariella Azoulay the figures that artists now turn to in their practice? Or artist-theorists of the image such as Hito Steyerl? There is much incoherence and inconsistency in the names I’ve just thrown out. But perhaps, optimistically, this is the sign of a turn in the project of theorizing photography itself, and a canon of thought not yet settled. We are in a moment, as I’ve been saying, of deep transition and change.
AL: Do you find it in any way dangerous that photography is getting more and more conceptual and even scientific? Will there be soon any place for a “pure image,” say, of documentary or street photography?
GB: I don’t believe in “pure images.”
In photography, surely, no such thing has ever existed. But you are referring to classic tropes of art photography, and classic functions of the cultural practice of photography. Since the 1970s, since the moment that I have described as the onset of photography’s expansion, the point for many photographers or artists using photography has been not to destroy documentary but to “reinvent” it. (This was Allan Sekula’s explicit project, for example.). Currently, in Los Angeles, we have on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art the major retrospective of the artist Zoe Leonard. In it, art photography and its central forms return, and we see everywhere again the gelatin silver print, and the modes of embracing chance and “bad technique” characteristic of the long-ago New York School photographers (Sid Grossman, Helen Levitt, Lisette Model, Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus).
Street photography is everywhere. It is what Leonard still “does.” She persists. But there are also sculptures that signify in photographic ways, “photographs” that are no longer photographs at all —made of found suitcases and postcards and books and dead trees. And then there are photographs of photographs, images made by Leonard of her mother’s photographs, her family’s photographs — so many re-photographed amateur photographs, pointing to the former life of documentary and street photography in the artist’s own biography, her subjectivity. The entire exhibition is a deep meditation on violence and political domination and power, in artwork after artwork — it is a deeply painful exhibition, and difficult truly to see. But everywhere that political dimension of Leonard’s work builds upon the old and classical language of photography that once functioned in such political ways, the tradition of documenting things though photographs. None of this has gone away. But it has been deeply transformed. And hopefully, through this transformation, it has been made more powerful.
 George Baker, “The Relational Field of Photography,” Still Searching, blog of the Fotomuseum Winterthur, accessed at https://www.fotomuseum.ch/en/explore/still-searching/series/27035_photographic_relationality