by Joan Bowlen

“Be very sure that this man…has an aim loftier than that of a mere flánuer, an aim more general, something other than the figurative pleasure of circumstance.  He is looking for that quality that you must allow me to call ‘modernity’…He makes it his business to extract from fashion whatever element it may contain of poetry within history, to distill the eternal from the transitory…By ‘modernity’ I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable.  Every old master has his own modernity; the great majority of fine portraits that have come down to us from former generations are clothed in the costume of their own period”[1]

And thus begins Baudelaire in his 1863 essay “The Painter of Modern Life”.  In this essay he propounds the need for artists to dramatize the issues of their contemporary world through their respective media and to render such work in a way that could be considered timelessly beautiful.  Baudelaire’s conception of quality art required an artist to feel the pulse of the surrounding environment and distill the social ingredients through the artist’s own personal viewpoint in order to create an image which was both unmistakably current and unmistakably original.  Such a sense of socially conscious originality informed directly the Modernist ideal and the ideal’s utilization of photography.  The introduction of the camera allowed artists to produce near-instantaneous images of any given object; the medium thus imposed as modern an aesthetic as the environment surrounding the photographer supported.

From this sensibility of contemporary imagery, Modernist photographers such as Moholy-Nagy, Atget, Edward Weston, and Walker Evans developed portfolios which displayed their ability to render specific environments in a very Modern light.  Their photographs emphasized the importance of the photographer’s determination of the camera’s position both in terms of angle and focal length; such emphasize highlights the importance of the individual photographer as the original conceiver of the image.  Both of these artistically technical decisions created a sense of intentional composition in the work of these artists, causing a viewer to discern the formal analytical process used to select the relevant components of a photograph, while recognizing the immediacy of the action captured on the film.  Such a recognition underlines the fact that the photographer was present at the moment in which the photograph was taken.  This statement may seem self-evident, but this certainty of the photographer’s existence at that moment in that exact place bears great significance for the development of photography.

These artists photographed figures and environments which existed beyond the photographer’s ability to focus and crop their image into a negative-sized frame.  In the case of Walker Evans, the Burroughs family would still be examples of poor, rural tenant farmers without the presence of Evans in Hale County, 1933, but their faces would not register all the iconic potency which has been attributed to the family through their inclusion in generations of American textbooks and other educational material as Walker Evans images.  Evan’s photographic depictions of this family have come to stand in for the by-gone actuality of Great Depression-era Alabama and these images have been utilized to construct a historical simulation of America during a specific period of time based solely on the “truth” of Evan’s photograph.  But how truthful are these images?

The answer to this question can be found in the artistic and highly photographic movement of Postmodernism.  Proponents of this later movement drew away from the Modernist preoccupation with the “artist as genius”, turning rather to the removal of artistic delineations.  Through photographic appropriation, artists such as Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince, Louise Lawler, and Barbara Kruger deconstructed the concept of specific authorship, originality, and subjective representation of the institutional misogynist ego-centric modernist art.  This decomposition opposed the aura-riddled works of mainstream artistic renditions, especially in the case of the highly commercial and photographic works.

In the cases of Sherry Levine, her photographic artistic commentaries were built around the simulations of prior simulations, creating multidimensional tableaux which questioned directly the comprehensiveness of Modernist photography and representation.  Through her direct photographic simulation of a preexisting photograph, Levine underlined the qualities of what Barthes would call an image’s photographicity, or “the belief that the art of photography resides in its self-referentiality…its revelation of the internal formal properties (“norms”) intrinsic to the medium, its own history and tradition”[2].  Her image established a reflective relationship between the signifier and the signified in which her image provided a referent for the entire evolution of art history while also assuming each past work’s reference to her own.  Levin’s appropriations of male photographer’s images create a kind of virtual stage for the viewer on which is placed the iconic Modernist photograph and all of the references leading up to its appearance within art history.

Thus a single image contains a never ending line of historic image appropriation all the while exuding a sense of stillness and immobility.  Levine/Evans’ photograph of the Burroughs family outside of their Hale County home continues to impart that sense of timeless indexicality that resides in the photographic medium.  Levine’s simulation has lost none of the potency of Evan’s first unintentionally simulated representation of reality, but Levine has heightened the naturally empty nature of photography.  Her further displacement from the flesh-and-blood figures of the Burroughs family emphasizes the fact that photography is a depiction to be manipulated by the wants and desires of the artistic hand.  The medium is not the free agent of truth which Modernists proclaimed the camera to be, it is yet another induced simulation of human existence.

“The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth-it is the truth which conceals that there is none.  The simulacrum is true.” -Ecclesiastes


[1] Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life,” in Francis Frascina’s Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology, pp. 23[2] Abigail Solomon-Godeau, “Canon Fodder: Authoring Eugène Atget,” in Photography at the Dock: Essays on Photographic History, Institutions, and Practices (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1991, pp.44).


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