Robert Demachy vs. Sherrie Levine

February 2, 2009 |  Tagged , , , , , , | Comments Off on Robert Demachy vs. Sherrie Levine

by Peter Zimmerman

I came across this passage by Robert Demachy while reading for the modern/contemporary photography seminar Joan and I are auditing at VCU. It is from 1907, so while the difference in years may seem to bar any real connection to postmodernism, I found it interesting how similar one of his assertions was in respect to Sherrie Levine’s photographic work of the late 1970s.

In the essay “On the Straight Print,” (1907) Demachy responds to an attack on Photorealist photography made by Sadakichi Hartmann in his 1904 essay “A Plea for Straight Photography.” According to Hartmann, the development of the gum bichromate technology and the glycerine process forever changed the medium of photography because they allowed so-called artists the freedom to put true “intention” and “expression” into their work through clear marks of the artists’ hand. An example of this would be Robert Demachy’s work Struggle, 1904“Struggle.” (1904) Many would have problems calling this work a “photograph;” rather, the sweeping curves, streaks from a brush, and receding away of value into white absence lends itself to be more painterly than any photograph before seen. This introduction of qualities of painting was seen by Hartmann to not only threaten the medium of photography but also push it beyond its limits and therefore collapse the integrity of the art. Thus was born his essay, whose title clearly delineates his affinity for straight photography. As Hartmann writes, “The whole pictorial effect of a photographic print should be gained by photographic technique, pure and simple, and not merely a part of it… Rely on your camera, on your eye, one your good taste and your knowledge of composition, consider every fluctuation of color, light and shade, study lines and values ad space division, patiently wait until the scenre or object of your pictured vision reveals itself in its supremest moment of beauty.”(1) Sadakichi Hartmann was an earlier version of Paul Strand, believing in the power of the artist’s eye and the execution of a photograph as being perfect when eye and good judgment met at the camera’s shutter.

Demachy counters Hartmann three years later with his manifesto for the Pictorial effect as championed by Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. One of the main tenets of his support for pictorialism was in the employment of art as a term for individual expression. He writes, “A work of art must be a transcription, not a copy, of nature… In other words, there is not a particle of art in the most beautiful scene of nature. The art is man’s alone, it is subject not objective.”(2) While this may appear at first to echo the beliefs of Hartmann, it is markedly different because of Demachy’s esteem for the introduction of the artist’s hand to the photographic print. Otherwise, at least to the Pictorialists, the picture would clearly hold nothing except a frame, and this was not enough to qualify it to be art. It was only art when it was made, developed, and manipulated by man. And as he claims, the process is not always perfect, but without it art can never be achieved. He states, “Meddling with a gum print may or may not add the vital spark, though without the meddling there will surely be no spark whatsoever.”(3)

So how, then, does Robert Demachy premeditate the early works of Sherrie Levine? It comes later in the essay, when he attempts to tease out the argument in favor of straight photography and therefore expose the glaring problems with this notion. He sets up a scenario in which an artist is accompanied by a terrible amateur, both attempting to make photographs of the same sort of scene. I think it best to let Demachy’s writing stand for its own:

“Choose the man whom you consider the very first landscape artist photographer in the world; suppose he has, thanks to his artistic nature and visual training, chosen the hour and spot, of all others. Imagine him shadowed by some atrocious photographic bounder furnished with the same plates and lens as the master. Imagine this plagiarist setting his tripod in the actual dents left by the artist’s machine and taking the same picture with the same exposure. Now, suppose that both are straight printers? Who will be able later on to tell which is the artist’s and which is the other one’s picture? But figure to yourself the artist printing his negative, selectively, by the gum bichromate or the oil process, or developing his platinotype print with glycerine. Even if the other man has used the same printing method one print will have the artist’s signature all over it from the sky to the ground, the other will be a meaningless muddle. For the man has intervened in both bases. One has made a work of art out of a simply beautiful picture, the other has probably spoiled its beauty and certainly has introduced no art. The moral of this fable is twofold. It shows that a beautiful straight print may be made by a man incapable of producing a work of art, and that a straight print can not possibly be a work of art even when its author is an artist, since it may be identical to that taken by a man who is no artist.”(4)

Demachy seems to have called out Sherrie Levine seventy years before her “After” series of photograhs (Evans, Weston, Porter) would come to fruition. For while Levine did not stand directly next to Walker Evans in 1936 while he made his seminal photographs in Hale County, Alabama, she stood in the footsteps of the viewer when she re-photographed his works out of a catalog. She still identifies with the “atrocious photographic bounder” as created by Demachy, and knowing her deep knowledge of Modern Art rhetoric, I would not be surprised if Levine laughed when reading this section. What seems compelling to ask at this point is whether or not Levine really is just an atrocious photographic bounder, jumping on the bandwagon of the master and parading around with his mask.

After Walker Evans, 1981What complicates this question are obviously the implications of Demachy’s assertion. His writing is deeply rooted in the ideals of Modernism: the concept of the individual, the genius, the master, and the important of the specific work of art over an endless repetition of copies. After Postmodernism, this type of rhetoric has been welcomed to a half-baked renaissance, but the fact of the matter is one can no longer claim genius status without there being a tremendous amount of red tape to suffer through. And even then, I am not convinced that the assertion is either warranted or deserved.

So, then, we reach the end of this line of questioning: is Sherrie Levine an artist? It seems that this question, though, really is not fair in light of Demachy’s writing, because it is unwilling to imagine the idea of an artist as being anything less than the master/genius. It seems to me that he would not even be able to see the artist-ness within the tableau settings of Jeff Wall or the beyond-intricate scenes of Thomas Demand, but rather claim that they’re softcore Harmann devotees.

How useful, then, is Demachy’s rhetoric? Quite. It opens up the dialogue about authorship and authenticity, and this is the exact playing field where Sherrie Levine steps in to make her own bold assertions. I think one of the most intriguing parts about photography is the implicit dilemmas of the location of the artist within the print– if one uses “straight” photography as advocated by Hartmann and Strand (and later Steichen and Stieglist, interestingly enough), is there a point where the photograph is merely a technical reproduction of a moment in time, rather than acting as a statement about metaphysical ideas and concepts?

I am interested in exploring the ways in which we may allow for the photograph to be meaningless. Perhaps by granting this allowance, meaning is not only permissible but also possible. Through absence, presence.

1 Sadakichi Hartmann, “A Plea for Straight Photography” in A Photographic Vision: Pictorial Photography 1889-1923 (Peregrine Smith Inc: Salt Lake City, 1980) 150.
2 Robert Demachy, “On the Straight Print” in A Photographic Vision: Pictorial Photography 1889-1923 (Peregrine Smith Inc: Salt Lake City, 1980) 172.
3 Demachy, 172.
4 Demachy, 173.


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