Of Time and the Camera

An art critic and historian turns his attention to contemporary photography

Why Photography Matters Now as Art as Never Before, by Michael Fried, Yale University Press, 408 pp., $55

Critic and art historian Michael Fried made his reputation with the 1967 essay “Art and Objecthood,” one of the most notorious bad bets in the history of art criticism. In that essay he defended art that adhered to the critic Clement Greenberg’s formalist agenda (think Frank Stella’s shaped paintings or Anthony Caro’s ad hoc metal sculptures) against what he called “literalist art”—or what is better known today as minimalism. His complaint against minimalism was summed up in the now-famous Fried dictum: “Art degenerates as it ap­proaches the condition of theater.”

Theatricality, to Fried, was a matter of art’s relationship to its audience. If an artwork required the viewer’s presence, like a performance, or made itself “anthropomorphic” by being roughly human-sized, or occurred over time, then it was insufficiently self-sufficient and thus theatrical. Fried threw all his critical chips into this pot, but his hand was called. By the early 1970s the vanguard of contemporary art had left behind both formalism and minimalism in favor of conceptual art, performance art, body art, earth art, and any manner of hybrid new forms that invoked theater, including video art and photography. These last lens-based mediums were around on the fringes when Fried was writing, but he failed to mention them in “Art and Objecthood.”

Fried soon retreated from assaying contemporary art and devoted himself to the historical, producing books such as Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot, Courbet’s Realism, and Manet’s Modernism. In these scholarly but argumentative volumes about painting and its critical reception, he continued to hone his idea about the difference between art’s autonomy (absorption) and its need to address the viewer (theatricality), with only a passing nod to art of the current day. The central argument of these books, in his own words, is that “starting in the mid-1750s in France a new conception of painting came to the fore that required that the personages depicted in a canvas appear genuinely absorbed in whatever they were doing, thinking, and feeling.”

It seems paradoxical and somewhat perverse, then, that Fried in the last 10 years has devoted most of his energies to promoting a vein of contemporary photography that on the face of it is explicitly theatrical, at least in the sense of being staged or stagy. In Why Photography Matters Now as Art as Never Before, he addresses the work of a dozen artists who make photographs and who have come to considerable prominence in the art world since the 1990s: Thomas Demand, Luc Delahaye, Rineke Djikstra, Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Jeff Wall, and James Wel­ling. He also discusses the work and influence of Bernd and Hilla Becher, the German photographers who taught Gursky, Höfer, Ruff, and Struth at the Düsseldorf art academy.


For anyone conversant with the art of our time, this is an all-star list (Gursky and Wall, for example, have had major retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art in New York). It is also distinctly cosmopolitan, since in the list above only Welling is American; and it is admirably diverse: Demand and Wall specialize in large-scale, constructed images, Djikstra, Ruff, and Struth are known for portraits, Gursky and Delahaye fashion their pictures in part via the computer, and Welling’s relatively small photographs could be said to examine photography itself. But Fried, now a professor and chairman of the Humanities Center at Johns Hopkins University, sees them as having something in common: as “tableau” pictures they compete with painting, and they “thematiz[e] an antitheatrical relation be­tween image and viewer.”

Explaining how this theme is manifest in each of the artists’ work takes up the bulk of Why Photography Matters, as Fried attempts to tie a knot between his art-historical arguments located in the 18th and 19th centuries and his formalist view in “Art and Objecthood.” One result is that he seems to be constantly circling back on himself. Struth’s well-known photographs of museum visitors staring at paintings, he says, “have mainly to do with the core arguments of my Absorption and Theatricality,” while “Wall’s interest in absorption and antitheatricality links his work with the Diderotian tradition as I have presented it in my books on 18th- and 19th-century French painting.” While one can presume that these sophisticated artists have read the essay “Art and Objecthood” (it is a favorite staple of art-school courses), their work is much more complicated than a simple confirmation of Fried’s dichotomous worldview.

Having studiously avoided the impact of photography as a medium of contemporary art for most of his life, Fried is on somewhat shaky ground writing as an art historian here. To take one example, he gives credit to the French critic Jean-François Chevrier for applying the term tableau to photography in 1989. I have in my library a 1981 issue of Picture magazine devoted to the theme of tableau photography. Nor does he give much shrift to A. D. Coleman’s 1976 Artforum article, “The Directorial Mode,” which took up the theme historically. Fried might argue that this is splitting hairs, since in these cases the idea of “tableau” meant staged photography, while he uses the term to denote scale. True enough, but any account of the onset in the 1970s of photography intended to compete in size with painting should mention the work of artists like Harry Bowers, David Haxton, and Leland Rice. Fried’s cited friendship with Jeff Wall leads him to give Wall all the credit for producing “works far larger than previous art photographs had been.”

At other times Fried might be found guilty of attempting to sound like Roland Barthes. His ontological preoccupations with the medium lead him to invoke existential philosophy in general, Heidegger’s notion of Dasein (“being there”) in particular, and the novels of the late Japanese writer Yukio Mishima for good measure. His hyphenated term to describe the presentation of people who appear in certain photographs, “to-be-seenness,” is a semantic echo of Barthes’ formulation of photography’s essence, “having-­been- there,” but even less useful.

All these shortcomings do not make the book a complete disappointment, fortunately. Fried fares far better as a pragmatic critic, which is to say when he selects particular pictures to address and teases out the ways in which their meanings are created and transmitted. In these cases his writing is engaging, intriguing, and often delightfully paradoxical. For example, while in Absorption and Theatricality he insisted, “I have always disliked enormous constructions in painting and in poetry,” he is more than fond of the “enormous constructions” made by Demand and Wall.


Moreover, there is an important subtext to Fried’s overt discussion of antitheatricality that bears more attention: photography’s relation to history. While discussing Wall’s picture “Morning Cleaning, Mies van der Rohe Foundation, Barcelona” (1999), for example, the critic notes the poignancy of the building as a historical artifact:

Mies designed the Pavilion on commission from the Weimar government, partly as an architectural statement of the political principles the latter represented. Within five years the republic was dead, the National Socialists were in power, and Mies found it necessary to leave Germany for the United States.

This could be seen as a remarkable diversion, part political and part biographical, for a critic whose devotion to formalism is as legendary as it is retardataire, or as an assertion that photography is, in a formalist sense, a medium not so much of paper and emulsion as it is of temporality. Of another Wall work, “Fieldwork” (2003), Fried says, “As for Fieldwork’s larger meanings, I suggest that it is above all an attempt to represent, to make visible, the historicalness of the everyday.”

Fried raises a tantalizing question by suggesting that “historicalness” plays a role in the spectrum of photography that he finds engaging. If photography engages with time as part of its essential nature (something asserted long ago by another advocate of contemporary photography, John Szarkowski), which would force us to enlarge our notions of what formalist criticism should be far beyond the prescriptions of Clement Greenberg, then it cannot escape its temporality. And if temporality is an essential aspect of Fried’s notion of “objecthood” and thus of theatricality, which it appears to be, then the distinction between art and objecthood that Fried still insists on is less than—or, better yet, more than—black and white.

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Andy Grundberg is an art critic and the author, most recently, of How Photography Became Contemporary Art.


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