Last week, the Clark Center hosted a one-day symposium at the Arts Club of Chicago that aimed to “reflect on the models we currently have for discussing photographs as art.” Organized by Matt Witkovksy, the curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, “Photography as Model?” drew its inspiration from art critic Yves-Alain Bois’s 1990 book Painting as Model and asked six speakers—mostly art historians—to think about how the frameworks we use to examine photographs might shape the ways that scholars approach modern and contemporary art in general.
In this sense, the aims of the symposium were ambitious. To convincingly argue that photography studies might provide a model for art history as a discipline, or that individual photographs might model new approaches for seeing, is no small task. Especially when, as Victor Burgin has so aptly put it, “photography theory has no methodology peculiarly its own.” It often feels like photography theory has been cobbled together from several disciplines outside of art history, including cultural studies, film studies, feminist and queer studies, semiotics, and post-colonial studies. This flexibility is one of the things I’ve always liked about photography studies, but it can also make the discipline feel a bit nebulous: a feeling that’s compounded by the difficulties in even defining what a photograph is, especially with the advent of digital technologies (see David Campbell’s excellent post on just this problem over at his blog).
But I think these can be productive problems to have, and the papers that resulted from Witkovsky’s prompt to think about the productive disunity that characterizes photography as a field of inquiry bore out some of this potential. In his opening remarks, for instance, Witkovsky offered detailed readings of two very different kinds of photographs. The first was a spare, conceptual series of photographs of “‘hyper-banal’ subjects” by American artist Lewis Baltz; the second a group of four nearly-anonymous photographs taken clandestinely by members of the Sonderkommando unit at Auschwitz during the Holocaust. While the first is the product of an individual artist’s time-consuming process and is meant to be exhibited in a fine art context, the second is a group-authored image taken under life-threatening circumstances that was never guaranteed an audience of viewers (indeed, Claude Lanzmann has argued these photographs should not be shown). By offering these two examples, Witkovksy hoped to ask whether we could create a field of photography studies where these two kinds of images could be adequately accounted for within one broad and general history, a comparison he described as a “travesty” under the current theoretical models used in art history which would insist on separating these two series of photographs based on the identity of their producers and audiences.