Tableaux Mourants

by Barry Schwabsky

How we look at networked photography and collected copies.

"Tableaux Mourants" was produced by Triple Canopy as part of its Research Work project area, supported in part by the Brown Foundation, Inc. of Houston.

THE ART PHOTOGRAPHY OF THE PAST two decades has been marked by the appearance of color photographs on a monumental scale, works conceived and produced to address the public rather than an intimate audience. This work, for instance that of Jeff Wall or Andreas Gursky, embodies what the critic Jean-François Chevrier called, in 1989, the “tableau form,” a term subsequently taken up by Michael Fried. Even to those of us who remain skeptical of Fried’s claim that this development accounts for “why photography matters as art as never before” (to quote the unwieldy title of his 2008 book), it is clear that the form has given us works of extraordinary artistic quality. It has also changed photography’s relation to the art market by providing the kind of “trophy” pieces on which collectors dote. To some extent, the museumization and marketization of photography through changes in scale parallels replacement of monitor-based video works with mural-size video projections during the same period.

Jeff Wall, A ventriloquist at a birthday party in October 1947, transparency in lightbox, 90 x 138 inches, 1990.

But the apparent triumph of photographic imagery (and video) for gallery presentation could well turn out to be something of a swan song. Behind the back of the tableau form, photography has discovered the potential of a new, antimonumental, dematerialized (or inframaterialized) relation to the public via the Internet and social networking. (The ubiquity of Flickr and Facebook is well known; Color, a new smartphone app, eliminates the private origin of photos altogether, enabling users to see all images captured by strangers within 150 feet. “Essentially, everybody is sharing one lens,” says the president of the company, which will own the photos and store them on its servers.) These not only seem to be cannibalizing the entire existing heritage of still and moving photographic imagery but are also eliciting a vast quantity of new production. An artist can make tableau photographs only in limited quantities, under professional conditions; their production depends on the market or the support of enlightened patronage. By contrast, the Internet promotes the widespread public circulation of images taken and collected by nonartists, most of which are generated for reasons untouched by the likelihood of profit. (We see something similar happening, even more clearly, in music, where the development has elicited howls of protest from professional musicians and the music industry, whose livelihoods are eroding as a result, though the actual effect on music has been mostly salutary.)

Corporate logo for Color™
The new photographic aesthetic arises from a vernacular engagement with everyday technology that barely existed a decade ago.

Of course the digital image can always (at least temporarily) be captured by the museum (though not so far by the art market). Take, for instance, Wolfgang Staehle’s Empire 24/7, in which stills of the Empire State Building were sent continuously by live feed to ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, in 1999. But the point is that the place of the digital image cannot be fixed within the museum; its presence there represents a new permeability of the institution, which is suddenly networked with places beyond its walls. Boris Groys astutely reminds us in Art Power that even under these conditions the aura of uniqueness granted to the image is in principle salvaged (and therefore so is the raison d’être of the art museum): While “the digital image is a copy”—a duplication of a file that in itself has no pictorial content, that is “invisible,” as he puts it—“the event of its visualization is an original event.”

STILL, THERE'S VISUALIZATION and visualization. When I look at a digital image on my phone, or on my computer, or on the screen of the camera or phone with which it was taken, I am not making any particular decisions about how to visualize the image file. I am simply taking it as it comes. So it’s not quite the case that, as Groys claims, with this visualization “the figure of the curator arises again.” The main decisions have already been made by whoever produced the hardware and software I’m using. The curating happens, rather, when I save the image, when I create an archive of digital files. But what’s different about my relation to these saved images is that I will never print most of them. They are not meant to take on a materialized form, but only to be seen (or, better, to have been seen) on-screen. And this is true not only of people like me, who desultorily accumulate pictures that others have taken and hardly ever take a picture themselves, but also of many people who take pictures incessantly. The taking, archiving, and circulating of these images is emblematic of the new mode of visualization and takes precedence over their contemplation.

But that isn’t to say there is no artistic intention behind these images, compared with grand-scale tableau photographs. The flip side of the Wall/Gursky aesthetic is represented by Gerhard Richter’s Atlas, a compendium of the artist’s source material but also a work in its own right; the books of Hans-Peter Feldmann, which are constituted by the collecting and recontextualizing of reams of images; and also, in a different way, the work of Garry Winogrand, who at his death left twenty-five hundred undeveloped rolls of film and three hundred thousand unedited images. Winogrand’s hyperproductivity had become nonproductivity; his photographic activity had become unmoored from the goal of arriving at a finished work, an individual image of paradigmatic significance. Similarly, Winogrand’s contemporary Vivian Maier, a remarkable but unknown Chicago street photographer, shot one hundred thousand negatives, only a few of which were ever printed. The posthumous printing and exhibition of those images is arguably a distortion of her work, which was only ever the archive itself.

On film, Winogrand’s late work, like Maier’s, was essentially inaccessible, even to the photographer himself. In digital form, on Flickr or a photo blog, those images could have been open to the world. The new photographic aesthetic in formation, arising from a vernacular engagement with everyday technology that barely existed a decade ago (and which artists are approaching with the same innocence and fascination as everyone else), will have less in common with the monumentality of the tableau form than with the compulsive image collecting of Richter and Feldmann and image producing of Winogrand and Maier. What new technologies have made possible is the public manifestation of activities that were previously mostly private. The artistic intent of those who make, collect, and disseminate these image constellations is becoming less important than the aesthetic uses to which any given viewer puts them, and the ephemeral appearance and disappearance of images on-screen, phenomenologically removed as it may be from what we previously recognized as embodying the art of photography, is as worthy of our consideration as the printed photograph.