Exercise 1.2 Photography in the museum or in the gallery

Photography’s Discursive Spaces: Landscape/View by Rosalind Krauss

At the start, Krauss considers two versions of the same image (Tufa Domes, Pyramid Lake), one being an original photograph taken in 1868 by Timothy O’Sullivan; the second being a photolithograph copy of the first. She writes in a very complimentary fashion about the photograph “a model of the mysterious, silent beauty” and contrasts this with the lithograph which she describes as ”an object of insistent visual banality”.

She then goes on to explain her view of why the images are different; the lithograph “belongs to the discourse of geology and, thus, of empirical science”. Whereas she believes the original photograph within one aesthetic discourse demonstrates “exhibitionality”, the potential for display within an art setting.

She then describes the “trans formation of landscape after 1860 into a flattened and compressed experience of space spreading laterally across the surface”. She discusses the role this has in the view of photography as an aesthetic medium. But she then goes on to question whether the interpretation of O’Sullivan’s photo of tufa domes she made earlier was “a retrospective construction designed to secure it as art”. She notes that the images were originally stereoscopic photos and that O’Sullivan himself referred to them as Views and not Landscapes.

She considers an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, organised by Peter Galassi, called “Before Photography”. Galassi was attempting to legitimise photography as an aesthetic tradition in its own right. This legitimisation did not depend on “photographers had pretensions to be artists”. His argument was that “the perspective so prominent in 19th-century outdoor photography – a perspective that tends to flatten, to fragment, to generate ambiguous overlap …. was fully developed by the late 18th century within the discipline of painting”.

Krauss then considers this distinction particularly in relation to the works of Eugene Atget. Is his huge catalogue (oeuvre) of work within the aesthetic or scientific mode? And why – or why not?

I think the Krauss’s argument distils to a consideration of whether a photograph of a landscape can fulfil the criteria needed to allocate it to an aesthetic genre as opposed to an empirical or scientific classification of an image which simply records or catalogues something. She also argues that because on image meets the criteria of exhibitionality it does not mean that all work within that catalogue can be considered of the same aesthetic intent. She critiques some of the arguments for an art historical view of early photography “Having decided that nineteenth-century photography belongs in a museum, having decided that the genres of aesthetic discourse are applicable to it, having decided that the art historical model will map nicely onto this material, recent scholars of photography have decided (ahead of time) quite a lot”.

I found that the use of the two images of tufa domes at the start of the essay and enlightening introduction to the concept of “aesthetic” and “empirical” classification of images. The way in which she built the argument for certain photographs to inhabit the “aesthetic space” was interesting and persuasive.

There is an excellent summary of the article at https://mycourses.aalto.fi/pluginfile.php/444931/mod_folder/content/0/krauss%20tagg.pdf?forcedownload=1