Histories of History
Histories of photography and critical essays on the medium have traditionally taken an art-historical approach and made little mention of the use of images outside the realm of artistic practice. With the passage of time, the status and value of many photographs have been substantially modified. Once scattered throughout the various departments of archives and libraries, today they are brought together under a single rubric: Photography. This phenomenon was analyzed by Douglas Crimp in 1981:
Julia van Haaften . . . is director of the New York Public Library's Photographic Collections Documentation Project, an interim step on the way to the creation of a new division to be called Art, Prints, and Photographs, which will consolidate the old Art and Architecture Division with the Prints Division, adding to them photographic materials culled from all other library departments. These materials are thus to be reclassified according to their newly acquired value, the value that is now attached to the "artists" who made the photographs. Thus, what was once housed in the Jewish Division under the classification "Jerusalem" will eventually be found in Art, Prints, and Photographs under the classification "August Salzmann." What was Egypt will become Beato, or du Camp, or Frith; Pre-Columbian Middle America will be Désiré Charnay; the American Civil War, Alexander Gardner and Timothy O'Sullivan; the cathedrals of France will be Henri LeSecq; the Swiss Alps, the Bisson Frères; the horse in motion is now Muybridge; the flight of birds, Marey; and the expression of emotions forgets Darwin to become Guillaume Duchêne de Boulogne.
Representative of a current within photographic criticism, Crimp assumed a cautious stance before this profound reevaluation of photography and expressed his reservations about the relocation and reclassification of images according to aestheticizing criteria. By "ghettoizing" photography, we often lose sight of its primary motivations and true impact. It distorts the intentions of photographers, attributing to them an "artistic eye" when, in fact, many were simply pragmatic camera operators. This does not mean that they lacked ingenuity, subtlety, and, in some cases, talent. These qualities, however, were subjugated to the necessities of legibility and verisimilitude, not to mention those of an ever more competitive market.
"Photography was invented in 1839; it was only discovered in the 1960s and 1970s," notes Crimp. Within the history of aesthetic forms, this recent "discovery" began in the departments of photography in major museums. In this respect, the work done by the Department of Photography of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York—the first to mount important exhibitions of "photographic artists" such as Ansel Adams, Paul Strand, and Eliot Porter—firmly established the criteria for evaluating the aesthetic quality of photographic images. This reevaluation of photographic practice was quickly extended to a series of individuals who might never have imagined that their works would one day be included in the holdings of an art museum. Once discovered, certain photographers who were identified as "artists" in the line first established by Alfred Stieglitz were duly selected to receive the same treatment.
As "orchestrators of meaning," the various directors of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art have transformed the reading of images. Beaumont Newhall, curator of a 1937 exhibit at that institution commemorating the first centennial of photography, and the author of one of the most complete histories of the medium, broadened the criteria for appreciation of images and "located two main traditions of aesthetic satisfaction in photography: from the optical side, the detail, and from the chemical side, tonal fidelity." Using these criteria, Newhall undertook the validation of a group of photographers who, at the time, were almost completely unknown. Among these were the nineteenth-century "photographers of the Frontier" (Carleton Watkins, William Henry Jackson) and their twentieth-century successors (beginning with Ansel Adams). This recovery and reappraisal was inconsistent with the positions of Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand, who emphasized the "poetry" of the photographic image. In time, Newhall came to emphasize "notions of rarity, authenticity, and personal expression" (employing what Christopher Phillips calls "erudite vocabulary") to evaluate photographic images. These criteria were further developed and defined by John Szarkowski, who introduced the idea of the "exclusively photographic," thus differentiating photographic practice from that of the other graphic arts. According to Phillips:
Szarkowski's ambitious program for establishing photography in its own aesthetic realm has been set forth explicitly in no single work, but arrived at piecemeal in a series of slender essays over the last twenty years. His project has followed, I think, three main lines. These include: (1) the introduction of a formalist vocabulary theoretically capable of comprehending the visual structure (the "carpentry") of any existing photograph; (2) the isolation of a modernist visual "poetics" supposedly inherent to the photographic image, and (3) the routing of photography's "main attraction" away from the (exhausted) Stieglitz/Weston line of high modernism and toward sources formerly seen as peripheral to art photography.
One of the earliest and most obvious examples of this new focus concerns the photojournalistic works of Lewis Hine, Bill Brandt, and photographers such as Dorothea Lange who were employed by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) to document rural social conditions and government programs under Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal. Initially intended for publication in government reports or the popular press, their images assumed new functions and status when, removed from their original supports and printed on luxurious papers, they were transformed into works of art. Having already lost their character as news through the simple passage of time, they now lost their character as historical documents. Later, the photographs of a number of "amateurs" were rediscovered. Most of these photographers were scientists of one sort or another, who used the medium to document their research. More recently, a new wave of "artistic" interest has arisen around the (often quite arid) work of nineteenth-century studio portraitists whom the history of art had previously ignored, considering their works repetitious and, for the most part, unoriginal.
The formulation of this new phenomenology of the photographic image occurred at precisely the same time that other media—particularly television—began to dominate the field of communications and the development of "live" technologies relegated photographic communication to the rank and level of the newspaper editorial. In effect, the extreme speed, if not immediacy, of the transmission of visual information removes photography from the field of action. This has been demonstrated during recent events: the U.S. military invasions of Granada and Panama, the 1989 demonstrations in China, and the Gulf War of 1991. Another example involves a photograph of the funeral of the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1988 showing the corpse being knocked from its bier by the pressure of the fanatical crowd. Taken by an amateur, the photograph did not arrive in editorial offices until ten days after the fact, resuscitating the memory of an event that was no longer considered news. This phenomenon has become even more pronounced: Mexican photojournalist Luis Humberto González, for example, was unable to cover the U.S. intervention in Panama during the 1989 Christmas holidays, partly due to the censorship imposed on the press by the invading army, but also because the news coverage was immediately monopolized by television.
The impact of these technological changes has not been stressed enough, in my judgment. Yet it explains many of the complaints of photographers today concerning their gradual alienation from the events they depict (and from the ideological discussions that this engenders in the case of photojournalism), as well as such ambiguous tendencies as the aesthetic revaluation of historical images and narrow formal studies that restore to photography its original preciousness as a unique object, what Walter Benjamin called its lost aura.
Although more apparent in the United States and Europe, this absorption of the history of photography by aesthetic history has its parallel in Latin American countries: Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Peru, and Mexico have already constructed their own histories of photography, at times in conflict with those proposed by the Museum of Modern Art in New York or the George Eastman House in Rochester. In Mexico, this epistemological break—opening the way for an eventual new understanding of photography—was made possible by the archive of Agustín Víctor Casasola.
The photographs compiled by Casasola for the first two decades of the twentieth century were published in the form of a book entitled Album histórico gráfico in 1921. Early on, powerful historical and ideological connotations were conferred upon this body of work: as a "collective memory" that proposed a unified view of the Mexican Revolution. But the Album histórico gráfico was not an immediate success. It was published during President Álvaro Obregón's program of "national reconciliation" (1921-1924), when Mexicans wanted to forget the cruel years of bloody struggle. In the end, only the first five albums of the sixteen originally planned were published. In marked contrast to this earlier reception, the later Historia gráfica de la Revolución mexicana, published by Casasola's eldest son, Ismael, in 1942, was a resounding popular success.
If in the first years of turmoil following the Revolution these photographs were viewed with fear and repugnance, the weight of institutionality and the desire to grasp the meaning of the struggles [eventually] transformed the Casasola Archive into a space of metamorphosis and irrefutable interpretations. Reproduced, commented upon—one could almost say "imprinted on the collective unconscious"—the photographs selected demonstrate that their interest does not reside primarily in the examination of popular violence but, rather, in the mythologizing aestheticization of the revolutionary process.
From the aestheticization of the content (the Revolution) to the aestheticization of the container (the photograph) is but a small step. Carlos Monsiváis closed this gap at the end of the seventies in his prologues to two volumes of selected images from the Casasola Archive, published in Mexico by Larousse and the Librería Francesa with the assistance of the photographer's family. From that time on, the photographs attributed to Casasola (which had previously been very poorly reproduced) began to appear in finely printed, limited edition art books. They also appeared in government propaganda, in movies and on television, and decorated the walls of tourist restaurants specializing in "distinctively Mexican atmosphere." In 1979, the Mexican government acquired the archive and, building on this foundation, established the premier repository of photographic materials in the country: the Fototeca del INAH (Photo Archives of the National Institute of Anthropology and History) in Pachuca, Hidalgo, one hour's drive from Mexico City.
In the seventies, this phenomenon—in which historical photographs were simultaneously aestheticized and made to function as vehicles of ideology—became more widespread, driven by the actions of a number of photographers "in crisis": a crisis of photographic representation characterized by a commitment to ideological values, on one hand, and, on the other, a search for what John Szarkowski called "the photograph itself," an exclusively photographic language without reference to other visual arts.