Perspectives on Evidence
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
November 9, 2014–March 22, 2015
For most of the now-fading twentieth century, artists, critics, and theorists who posited photography’s value as art did so on the basis of its commonalities with painting, the canonical measure of depictive art. Philosophers and critics alike were generally willing to consider photography as art in direct proportion to the overt intentionality somehow proven to be involved in the process. Art was measured by its origins, and photography’s origins were seen as constrained to the realm of a chemical reaction induced by light and a lens. A photograph could not record the mental state of the photographer, nor express its maker’s thoughts about its subject. Artistic expression and the recording mechanism of the camera were seen as interlocked in a kind of zero sum game.
One of the most influential and rigorous expressions of this view is by André Bazin, writing in 1946:
Originality in photography as distinct from originality in painting lies in the essentially objective character of photography. For the first time, between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only the instrumentality of a nonliving agent. …The personality of the photographer enters into the proceedings only in his selection of the object to be photographed and by way of the purpose he has in mind. Although the final result may reflect something of his personality, this does not play the same role as is played by that of the painter. …Photography affects us like a phenomenon in nature, like a flower or a snowflake whose vegetable or earthly origins are an inseparable part of their beauty.1
In Bazin’s view, photography has great creative power, but this power is essentially negative, demolishing, consisting in its ability to strip away preconceptions.
One of the problems with such an account is that its notion of intentionality seems meager and inadequate to the complexities of the real world. Intentions are not always self-conscious and certainly not always verbally articulated or recorded in writing. These intentions shape the visual form of a photographic image, not just that of its caption, title or explanation. Conversely, such an account seems too generous in its assumptions with respect to painting’s intentionality. Painters, even the most rigorous, do not occupy a world in which every move is premeditated, every reaction is anticipated, and every implication is planned. Philosophically speaking, being the agent of an action plainly does not entail intending all of its consequences.
Today the institutional situation as experienced by Bazin has reversed: photography, much of it large in scale, fills art galleries and museums, and much if not the majority of the most vital contemporary discourse surrounds practices that are, in one way or another, photographic. Yet while critics and historians have thoroughly inventoried this shift and marked its outcome at intervals, synoptic explanations of how and why this shift occurred are surprisingly few. Many contemporary commentators seem content to observe that large color prints are at last able to visually compete with the scale of mid-twentieth-century painting. But since the technology for large color prints has been around for several decades, long before the vogue for them, this explanation lacks historical specificity.
Significantly, one of the most compelling elucidations of photography’s radically transformed status has come not from professional critics, curators, or historians, but from artists, particularly Allan Sekula and Jeff Wall. In this influential account, it was conceptual art of the 1960s that broke the longstanding logjam of inherited ideas about photography’s relationship to authorship.2 It did so not by arguing for the artistic qualities of photography or photographic practice, as so many pictorialists and expressionists had done, but by doing the very opposite: adopting photography’s presumed anti-authorial, automatic character as a kind of exalted, ironic deliverance from the self.3 Photography broke through not by special pleading, but by an ironic image/text reductio ad absurdum, in the wake of which narrowly automatist accounts of photography no longer seemed tenable. Just as painted abstraction is widely judged to have developed in the wake of photography’s usurpation of the tasks of representation, so Conceptualism paradoxically inaugurated an antithetical onslaught of depictive representational art in the artistic mainstream.
The implication of these developments for the practice and theory of photography, both folk and serious, was not immediate. A long period of fragmentation ensued, lasting well into the 2000s, in which photographic art, criticism, and philosophy appeared to go their separate ways. Analytic philosophers discussing photography retained their old habits of restricting their paradigm cases to that of the snapshot, while critics tended to work the old turf of demonstrating the artistic choices involved in an expressive or antique photograph, the house literature of the art museum’s top floor (or basement) photography department. The immediate term of the 1970s, which has sometimes been called a “post-conceptual” phase, was a fertile period of generational overlap, in which the spawn of avant-garde conceptualism began to reconsider what it might learn from the old guard. In California, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, and Garry Winogrand were still working, alongside the young structuralists, ironists, alternative-process chemists, nouvelle vaguers, and storytellers of the new photography. This scene coincided with the beginning of a new commercialization of photography proper, and a then-unprecedented competitiveness.
A fine token of the times is Mike Mandel’s The Baseball Photographer Trading Cards (1975), a set of 134 baseball-style cards featuring contemporaneous photographers in baseball garb, hamming it up in action poses or posing stoically. The cards were distributed in randomized packages of ten, complete with a stick of Topps bubble gum. Of course, many of its characters are artistic heroes now, and the trickle of money and collector attention that it lovingly ironized has turned into an untamed tsunami of cash, coupled with the beginnings of a long-overdue institutional reappraisal of the work of the period.
I’m recapitulating this increasingly agreed-upon narrative to set the stage for Evidence (1977), an artists’ book self-published by Mandel and Larry Sultan. Evidence is currently on view as a book object and an installation of wall-hanging prints at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in a fine career retrospective of Sultan’s work, organized by Rebecca Morse. Evidence is one of the pivotal works of its era, and it should be seen as one of the crucial points of inflection in the late twentieth-century process of the reevaluation of photography’s relationship to artistic agency, a point at which the very notion of intention itself can be metaphorically observed to be loosened from the physical and chemical materials of the photographic apparatus, as laid out by authors like Bazin, and relocated to the social and aesthetic space of presentation and of the viewer.
The title Evidence is ironic. The book contains photographs that provide an evidentiary record of only the most obscure fragments of institutional— mostly high-technological—culture, a soup of floating signifiers that many commentators have found at once funny and melancholic. The project began in 1975, when Mandel and Sultan, fresh out of graduate school at the San Francisco Art Institute, started poking around in public and private institutional photographic archives. They visited NASA’s Ames Research Laboratory, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Lockheed Aircraft, and other engineering and high technology companies within striking distance of their homes in northern California. Two years, an NEA grant, seventy-seven archives, and close to two million photographs later, they had a collection of approximately 2000 prints. They edited these down to an archive of sixty-one images.
The Sultan/Mandel collaboration spanned nineteen projects and twelve years, and it is unusual for resisting the emergence of defined roles, perhaps because the two artists had a lot in common. Both grew up in solidly middle class homes in the San Fernando Valley. Both were fascinated by photography, yet bored by traditionalist approaches to the medium. (Sultan dropped out of RISD, having studied with Aaron Siskind for just a month.) Both were also highly articulate speakers and writers. Sultan emerges in the partnership as the more literary, brooding, and possibly suggestible of the two. In his uproariously funny “baseball” card in Mandel’s trading cards project, he appears as a dreamy eyed, somewhat crestfallen altar boy, crammed into a jersey that he has outgrown, cupping a baseball as if it were a chalice. Whether by nature or by circumstance, Mandel’s creative personality appears to be the more analytic, philosophical, political, and ironic. In Mandel’s (self-) portrait on his own baseball card, he has just released a wicked curveball. While in the early days some people seem to have been under the misimpression that Sultan was simply helping out Mandel with some of his projects, it was in fact a true partnership.
As a book object, Evidence evokes a deliberate language of authority. The clothbound cover bears its official-looking foil-stamped title. But inside are surely some of the most obtuse photographs ever made, images that are all the more obtuse for being clearly lit, focused, developed, and printed. The images are a highly unlikely fusion of Ruscha’s deadpan style and a photo-printerly expressivity that could be traced to San Francisco’s f64 group of the 1930s.4 At the time, the approaches were viewed as profoundly antithetical.5 The poetic mixture of the obscure and the obvious invented a new photographic genre, the found-image book, of which it is still widely acknowledged to be the preeminent example.
Evidence depicts a world that is overwhelmingly male and occupied with measurement and instrumentation. Rulers, measuring tapes, grids, scopes, and dials appear again and again, but always without any sense of what they are there to measure, or to what purpose. Some of the images are uproariously funny, and these are perhaps the easiest to talk about. Some examples:
A man in a space suit does a push-up on an office rug. But the suit is heavy—he can’t quite lift himself! Wait, is there even a person inside the space suit at all?
A group of men confront a vast landscape full of waist deep foam. They are prepared to wade into it, though: they’ve got hardhats! One fellow lingers back, cautiously.
Nine square-looking middle-aged white men wearing sport coats and sunglasses stand on the ridge of a hill. Some are gesticulating to the left, others to the right, watching something, or rather two different things, intently, beyond the edges of the frame. Together, they look like the Apostles of Lockheed Martin.
Other images seem to reference contemporaneous art culture:
A woman holds another woman in mid-air, wrapped sideways around her back, as another man appears to correct their poses. They stand in an open field, with some commercial buildings visible in the distance. Behind them, a raw sheet of plywood is mysteriously propped up by a single two-by-four, creating an impromptu stage flat. The contortions and grouping are reminiscent of the work of Pina Bausch, but no one is dressed for modern dance.
A mustachioed gentleman in long underwear stands in what might be a doctor’s office. He has tubes and electrodes hooked up to him, leading up out of the picture. He gazes impassively to one side. The wires are taut, and at an angle, so that he cannot sit without the wires being torn off. The photographs of Chris Burden’s contemporaneous performances, and their theatrical testing of the body, come to mind.
Several objects and environments have distinctly sculptural overtones. A view of a tall, narrow metal plate welded into the corner of a room evokes the early process-driven sculptures of Richard Serra. A ten-foot deep notch dug into the ground (measured by a man above holding a measuring tape) looks like a utility worker’s version of one of Michael Heizer’s negative excavations. A field of scrubby grass with strange pyramid-topped poles planted in it looks like a daffy Walter de Maria land art outtake.
A recurring indoor/outdoor motif faintly references the nascent concept of ecology. A group of workmen seen in silhouette appear to be constructing a greenhouse or shelter around a tree. A soaring landscape of ocean, sky, and what looks like a nuclear power plant turns out to be a large model, with two office elevators visible behind, just above the backdrop. Three hospital beds sit at angles on an enormous lawn, with two fire extinguishers mysteriously at the ready and three figures sitting on park benches at the edge of the frame.
Last but not least are the explosions and fires. These are at once real-life accounts of spectacular destruction and also art historical knock-knock jokes. A burning car distantly evokes Warhol’s car crashes and Ruscha’s various flame-jobs. The explosions in particular can seem like coy parodies of contemporaneous blockbuster action movies. (The first Star Wars film came out in 1977.)
But these are threads in the work, not themes. Indeed, what is peculiar about the images is not how they tally into categories in the manner of serial photography or riff upon a particular reference but rather how their meanings inhere, demanding individual scrutiny. While the sequencing shapes the experience, there is no impression that a dogmatic or provocative polemic has been imposed. Meaning appears to flow conventionally, from the inside out, and yet those meanings remain a struggle to articulate. All these years later, Evidence lies in the unusual position of being widely acknowledged and endlessly cited, but somehow under-discussed.6
Evidence is sometimes described by casual commentators as proving the point that context matters for the interpretation of images. Indeed, this seed was planted by the original San Francisco Museum of Modern Art press release, which tells us “their project’s purpose was to demonstrate how the meaning of a photograph is conditioned by the context in which it is seen.”7 But this finger-wagging lesson is by itself unhelpful, and possibly even misleading. Surely, ever since the polemical montages of John Heartfield, the collaged provocations of the Surrealists, and even nineteenth-century photo albums, it isn’t news that any image or experience, aesthetic or otherwise, can be recontextualized.8 This simplistic talk fails to account for the nuance of Evidence’s relationship to notions of context, and mainly serves to underscore the productive philosophical uncertainty generated around the reception of the piece.
The photographer Robert Heinecken, Sultan and Mandel’s friend and sometimes mentor, engaged Evidence in an appreciation originally written to be the book’s afterword, but rejected by the artists for being too literal. Heinecken’s text was instead published separately in the journal Afterimage as a book review. It is written in typical Heinecken prose, a signature mixture of cantankerous intellect and serious observation peppered with throwaway jokes. Heinecken’s response is positive, if in retrospect slightly tepid, perhaps because Heinecken, an appropriationist himself, was generationally and temperamentally much closer to Dada and Surrealism. To my knowledge this review has never been reprinted, and is thus worth quoting at length:
It seems to me that the above sequence of listed expositions [an inventory of projects by Sultan and/or Mandel] indicates an acceleration toward certain choices: mass production, the use of anonymous pictorial material, public visibility, the undermining of “establishment ideas,” collaboration (in various forms), a sense of the bizarre, and finally, social conscience. Some of these may seem to overlap curatorial ideas a little, but in the main it seems not to resemble serious museum work. I sense, then, that they are not telling us what art is, or what they feel it should look like, but are responding in a unique way to their personal and particular milieu, and externalizing those concerns. In short—who they are.
What we have here might be viewed as an extension of the basic premise behind all camera photographs of a personal nature. By putting a lenticular image in a rectangle, we abstract it and recontextualize it. One must simply understand that Evidence uses found circumstances instead of observed ones, and the book edge instead of the frame edge.9
This passage is problematic not only for its vagueness (Which “establishment ideas”? What exactly do we learn about their personal milieu?) but also for its carefree distinction between the “found” and the “observed.” Clearly Sultan and Mandel observed these found photographs. We can even speculate that they have probably observed them more carefully than the camera operators who focused the ground glass and clicked the shutter. Indeed, one of the philosophical features of Evidence’s production is its deft commingling, indeed virtual collapse, of the categories of the found and observed. All observation involves some sort of finding, and finding cannot be done without observation.
An earlier passage in Heinecken’s review suggests another possible context, that of Duchamp:
“Even photographs taken for strictly utilitarian purposes may have extraordinary intrinsic beauty.” This quotation is Beaumont Newhall’s writing in Airborne Camera, but of course we have Marcel Duchamp to thank for initially setting that particular stage in 1915. Introducing Duchamp into the discussion here raises the impertinent question of whether Evidence is a complex expressive act or simply curatorial work. Asking or answering the differences between Duchamp and Steichen may be a path too obviously marked to remain interesting.10
Again, to the contemporary mind these categories do not appear mutually exclusive. The best curatorial work today certainly seems to qualify as a “complex expressive act.” Heinecken’s evasion of the question of the readymade in this passage feels like a dodge, especially coming from an artist who spent a great deal of time on “obviously marked” paths, often to great effect. It’s impossible to accept this trailing-off at face value.
One problem with designating any photography project as a readymade is that if we accept, as many recently have, the contemporary commingling of photography and painting within the more general category of depiction, then, strictly speaking, no photograph can be considered a readymade. If we accept that all photographs are depictions, and all depictions are art, there can be no question of a photograph becoming art, because it is art already. It may be applied art, or institutional art, or bad art, but it does not satisfy Duchamp’s condition of a readymade, which is that the object initially be non-art.11 (It is useful to remember that none of the articles Duchamp nominated as readymades were paintings or photographs.) In addition, there is something about the formal strength of the individual compositions in Evidence that sits uneasily with the affectless ethos of the readymade concept. Duchamp’s requirement that a Readymade be purely utilitarian in its origins does not sit perfectly with the images of Evidence, whose perversely archeological images skirt the hinterlands between utility and non-utility.
Stepping away from the question of the readymade, a more fruitful context for Evidence comes from the world of anthropology, specifically the work of John Collier, Sultan’s teacher at the San Francisco Art Institute. Little known today in the mainstream commercial art world, Collier had an unusually colorful early career. After serving as a guide to Paul Strand in the 1930s in New Mexico and doing a brief stint as a painter, he became a photographer for the Farm Securities Administration in 1941 under Roy Stryker, and later served in the Merchant Marine, only to discover his true calling as a world-traveling anthropologist, ethnographer, and teacher. His classic textbook Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Method (1967, revised 1986) defined and codified a science of observation that was at once rigorous and highly adaptive to its cultural context. The book emphasizes photography’s exploratory dimensions and rejects theorization as the goal of visual record making. In it, Collier describes various techniques, including that of the photo-interview (“photo-elicitation”), in which documentary photographs of a culture are shown to members of that culture in order to elicit their viewpoints, feedback, and sometimes even their participation in making new photographs. This pioneering technique of putting his human subjects in the position of the viewer, and having them behold and evaluate photographs of their material surroundings rather than those surroundings themselves, has an unmistakable affinity with Evidence’s working method of viewer as author.
While an early generation of ethnographers could be accused of sometimes using photographs to buttress conclusions or theories that they had already preemptively reached, Collier emphasizes photography as an inductive tool, one that could gather evidence whose meanings were as yet unclear. He deeply values the “rich intangibles” of photographic research in a way that stops just short of aestheticism:
Many anthropologists have attempted to use the bouquet of culture which is felt to be present in photographs. The common experience has been that this photographic conglomeration defies validation by any of the controlled systems by which other humanistic data can be evaluated. When this uncontrollability is discovered the tendency is not to use photographic data. Possibly this rejection would not take place if the open-ended quality of photographic opportunity were exploited for this very character. …Do we not value the “sense” that the anthropologist accumulates about the character of each culture with which he works? This is a subjective and intuitive sense, and is uncontrolled and unvalidated only to the extent that it necessarily goes beyond the consideration of factors that can be controlled and verified.12
The parallels with the vocabulary of Evidence are striking. The terms of this discussion, with “control” and “measurement” being asked to yield to “uncontrollability” and the “bouquet of culture,” closely parallel Evidence’s universe of aromatic grids and absurdist hyper-rationality. Indeed, the very dissemination of Evidence might be seen as a kind of extended Collieresque research experiment in an inverted form, one in which Western subjects are asked to interpret bizarrely fragmented views of their own technocratic culture and ironically treated to a taste of their own methodological medicine.
Reread in this context, Sultan and Mandel’s published statement on Evidence, reproduced in the 1977 SFMOMA press release, takes on an implicitly anthropological aspect:
By definition these images are records and by implication they are cultural artifacts. This is not a compilation of photographs that define any specific place in time but rather a poetic exploration upon the restructuring of imagery. It is difficult to pinpoint the subject matter of these pictures: human contact with mechanical apparatus, bits and pieces of industrial environments that depict a world separate from our everyday experience where the process of technology is tested and recorded, tension and explosion, and above all, a carefully designed invitation to participate in the closure of the meanings of the images.
In the tradition of Collier then, Evidence is perhaps more productively read not as an anthropological study of scientific culture but of the receiving culture-at-large and its notions about scientific objectivity. It seems significant that within their previous project, a series of public billboards called Oranges on Fire (1975), Sultan and Mandel posed as newsmen (or was it anthropologists?) to tape-record public interviews with man-on-the-street viewers of the billboards, asking their opinions about what the work was trying to communicate, without revealing their status as the makers of the image.13 While Sultan and Mandel didn’t, as far as I know, take the step of interviewing audiences about their reactions to Evidence, their proposition that the audience would participate in completing the work has an affinity with Collier’s method, made in full awareness that the response would be conditioned by how “carefully designed” the presentation of the “artifacts” is.
In the 1970s, it was anthropology, not art criticism, that most clearly problematized the relationship between photographic literacy and the ability of language to condition cognition. In this period, the half-baked humanist notion that photography constitutes some sort of language, today plainly false to anyone with the slightest exposure to linguistics, was just beginning to crumble. But if photography wasn’t a language, then what was it? In the wake of the collapse of the verbalist model, a concern arose for whether or not non-Western cultures were able to interpret photographs correctly unaided. There were practical needs for cross-cultural communication, but there was also a grander theoretical question at stake: Is photography’s utilization of perspective natural (and thus universal) or is it an acculturated set of conventions?
Field research on this topic was contradictory. One the one hand, some authors reported great difficulty in getting non-Western subjects to interpret even the most simplistic images. Perhaps most famously, in Werner Herzog’s film The Flying Doctors of East Africa (1969), one of the most traditionally documentary of all of Herzog’s productions, villagers in remote Tanzania are not able to interpret straightforward drawings of body parts, people, and animals. Herzog’s own description, written later, conveys the events as he understood them, and their apparent implications:
The most interesting scenes stemmed from my interest in vision and perception. One of the doctors in the film talks about showing a poster of a fly to the villagers. They would say, “We don’t have that problem, our flies aren’t that large,” a response that really fascinated me. We decided to take some of the posters…to a coffee plantation to experiment. One was of a man, one of a huge human eye, another a hut, another a bowl and the fifth—which was hung upside down—of some people and animals. We asked people which poster was upside down and which was of an eye. Nearly half could not tell which was upside down and two-thirds did not recognize the eye. …For the locals these five objects apparently just looked like abstract compositions of colors. It was clear their brains were processing images in a different way. …[A]fter making The Flying Doctors it became clear to me that perception is in some way culturally conditioned and in different societies functions in different ways.14
This episode, and others like it recorded within academic literature, suggested that the referentiality of visual signs, in this case highly realistic drawings, was culturally relative at the most fundamental level.
On the other hand was the experience of ethnographers, including Collier, who found that virtually all of his anthropological subjects had little difficulty deciphering photographs. In one tale from Visual Anthropology, Collier recounts an interview with Hosteen Greyhills, a Navajo farmer, who analyzes a panoramic photograph and correctly discerns numerous details about its subject matter that Collier and his associates had either failed to notice or misread:
We are dealing with a phenomenon having nothing to do with modern acculturation—exposure to movies and weekly reading of Life Magazine—but with the sensory perception of a pre-literate culture in which a man must survive by astute visual analysis of the clues of his total ecology. …We surmised that people living close to nature have to be specialists in natural phenomena to survive. Hence, Navajos read our photographs in the same way, reading each common clue, and coming to a shared consensus of what was happening. The Western observer in urban culture is usually a specialist in a single field. Outside this area, modern urban man tends to be visually illiterate.15
There is much to question in this account, not least that a twentieth-century Navajo could be counted as a non-Western person. But the significant trope for this context is the implicit relativization, not to say reversal of power and control implicit in the concluding sentence, which argues that modern urbanized Western subjects are limited in their (photographic) interpretive skills, outside of a certain narrow field of experience.
Evidence mobilizes the anxieties surrounding this reversal of power in a condensed, abstracted form. The viewer of Evidence is, in both a real and metaphorical sense, put in the compromised position of a test subject of an anthropological study, one who is implicitly asked to interpret images of things with which he or she has no meaningful experience. Evidence can thus be seen as a kind of anthropological archive of modern Western aesthetic culture, particularly that of California, one that takes Collierist methodology to a ludic extreme. Hyperbolizing and inverting the cultural target of anthropology’s traditional claims to knowledge and power, Evidence invokes a satirical realm in which hyper-specialized knowledge has yielded a mute visual illiteracy.
The afterword that was ultimately included in Evidence was not by Heinecken, but by Robert F. Forth, then the dean of the California College of Arts and Crafts. Forth’s three-page text is a rambling, disjunctive pastiche of personal anecdotes, quoted verse, shaggy dog tales, pop philosophy, non sequiturs, evolutionary psychology, and just plain mumbo-jumbo. It is a masterpiece of deliberate indirection. One paragraph, however, shines forth with uncharacteristic clarity:
Early in the history of UNESCO a medical field group was inoculating peoples of the Congo region of Africa. They had been preceded by an information group: the information folk showed a movie on a field projector to each village which explained how diseases were contracted and what inoculation was about, and then they answered questions. Soon they found that villages which were literate got the message from the movie immediately, but the questions asked were about details which the movie had explained but somehow the people had missed. In villages which were non-literate, the information group found that the people had missed the “story line,” the very point of the movie’s explanation of cause related to effect, but they astounded the information group by remembering details in such great number that the information folk had to run the movie for themselves to check on these observations made by the non-literate!16
This is not the space to investigate the anthropological truth of these claims. The point is that Evidence occupied and marked a historical moment and a discursive realm shaped by understandings of anthropology in which both the intellectual priority of Western social science as a privileged observer and the positive correlation between visual cognition and abilities of verbal description and interpretation were no longer assured.
With Evidence, the metaphor of the world as a book that can be read—the “book of nature” that was so crucial to Renaissance thought—is refigured as a real life image archive, a vast file system from which individual tokens can be checked out and returned. Only in this system, the archive has grown so large and its history so tangled that there is now a surplus of images whose referents have eroded, and thus must be reinvented if the images are not to lose their status as signs and simply become mute objects. Made at the moment when archives were just beginning to become digital (the Apple II, the first popular personal computer, was released in 1977, also in Northern California), Evidence’s relationship to the aesthetics of information overload feels premonitory.
By hyperbolically socially separating the image production process into two phases, one of camera work and the other of editing, Evidence radically amplifies and extends the Conceptualist reductio ad absurdum with respect to automatist notions of photography, withering those notions into obsolescence. The old complaint against art photography—that it looks like things that already look like art photography—misses its mark here, not because the photographs aren’t “arty” but because the pre-photographed nature of the imagery serves to incorporate this criticism as one of its very premises. The artists cannot be epistemically aligned with the “original” subject matter of the photographs because they themselves almost certainly did not know the answers to the banal questions these photographs were certain to raise: “Whose leg is that next to the burn-marks on the stoop of that house?” Indeed one of the conundrums that appropriationist photography raises for traditionalist accounts of photographic intentionality is the discomforting notion that the appropriated image could somehow be more intentional than the original photograph, a step onto a slippery slope that leads steeply to the complete separation of intentionality and physical authorship. This is a step that one senses an author like Bazin would have been loath to take. In this sense, Evidence’s true subject is the gap between intention and consequence.
Sultan was essentially a book artist. His two most successful projects, Evidence and Pictures From Home (1992), were initially conceived as codices, with all the intimacy, interactivity, and narrative that the reiterated two-page spread form implies. Evidence has, since its inception, also doubled as wall-hanging gallery art, then and now the traditional space in which mainstream artistic legitimacy is conferred. In both cases the intertwining of these two forms, the book and gallery wall, has the potential to create a crosstalk of forms and interpretations that is, at its best, productively reciprocal. As viewers we can carry the graphic and narrative complexities of the book over into the purely pictorial zone of the prints in the strolling-space of the gallery, and vice-versa.
The problems with this doubling, however, are manifold. On the one hand is the potential for the forgivable but incorrect assumption that the books exist simply as a kind of commentary or catalog on the corresponding wall work. Viewers who fall into this assumption will almost certainly form judgments based on an incomplete experience. Conversely, there is the potential for the wall works to appear heteronomous, as appendages or extensions of the book. The risk is of them looking like arbitrary enlargements of a smaller original that reveal nothing new except possibly a greater coloristic sensuality. Lastly, a dark halo of modernist bias remains around work that takes two distinct forms. Which, after all, is “the work,” the book or the prints on the wall? This prejudice has possibly expired for the most dedicated art public but the difficulty, sometimes unspoken, lingers on.
As a gallery work, Evidence addresses these issues with an explicit installation program:
The [Center for Creative Photography] and the organizing artists, Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan, request that the following instructions be followed in hanging the exhibit “Evidence”: …The 79 photographs are carefully sequenced into five groupings, each with its own particular mood and logic that best presents the work as a whole. …It is important that group A is the first group presented and that the exhibit ends with group E. Sequences B, C, and D can be placed in an order which works best with the exhibition space. There are 79 photographs to be exhibited. When preparing the layout of the exhibit, please allow ample space between each group as to clearly set one group off from another. If space permits, please exhibit the photographs in a linear presentation without stacking.17
The episodic grouping allows room for the images to operate individually, while creating a loose narrative that defines the rhythm of the work. The footprints in the first image resonate with the casting of the open palm in the second; both are different types of body traces. There is a sequence of four images that all occur in an open field. Another micro-sequence contains contorted human and animal bodies. The flaming car comes as a kind of climax, toward the end, surrounding by pictures of tangles of roots and tangles of wires.
LACMA’s installation of Evidence differs. It groups all images into two stacks that wrap around the gallery walls. The prints are hung in a wrap-around sequencing, in which the project skips back on itself midway, across a wall, as if the two bands of prints would be read left to right like lines of English text. The first print is hung directly above the middle print. This experiment doesn’t quite work. The stacked hanging creates an additional layer of sequential ambiguity that risks overloading the viewer with irrelevant navigational questions. The lack of spacing between groups makes the project feel cramped. Evidence feels like overstock from the vaults, possibly another project’s source material, and not a carefully culled and formalized sequence. For a project in which structure, context, and sequencing are especially crucial, this is particularly unfortunate. Evidence deserves its own room and has no trouble operating within the expanded scale of the twenty-first-century contemporary art museum.
I’ve dwelt on the subject of Evidence because I think it deserves special attention, but I want to touch on Pictures From Home, to my mind Sultan’s other great work. Evidence was basically an unrepeatable project. There could be no Evidence 2. It consumed all of the oxygen in its space. This is part of its brilliance. In the years immediately following Evidence, Sultan went on to make some expressionistic, very painterly images of swimmers photographed underwater, also on view at LACMA. They’re very pretty but somewhat directionless. Sultan himself has grinningly looked back on the project as somewhat “ill-conceived.” In hindsight, it’s obviously a transitional project.
Prompted by the experience of his father’s home movies and the depth of his own response to their evocations of suburban utopia, his next project would consume a dozen years of work. The resulting book work, Pictures From Home, was a new thing at the time, a kind of mass market artist’s book that drew upon image/text strategies of 1970s photography publishing, but at a much higher, quasi-literary level of textual complexity.18 The book combines stills taken from his father’s home movies and Sultan’s choreographed “art” photographs of his parents in their retirement in Palm Springs. The texts consist of autobiographical reminiscences, quotations in his mother’s and father’s voices, and what appear to be transcribed records of conversations about life, memories, and the photographs in the book themselves. In a broad sense, the subjects of the book are Sultan’s deep love for his parents, his desire to preserve them through photography, how he negotiates his acceptance of their choices, and how he explores his own awareness that he, as a dad himself, is in the process of becoming his own father.
Many of the medium- and large-format view-camera photographs in Pictures From Home are stiff and ponderous. They have the strange over-articulated quality that staged photographs so often take on, a forced or stilted aspect that modernist art photographers from Cartier-Bresson to Winogrand were so keen to avoid. Approaching these images, the viewer’s hyperawareness of being shown something can interfere with an authentic feeling of visual discovery. In this respect, Pictures From Home (and indeed all of Sultan’s subsequent work, including The Valley [1997–2003] and Homeland [2006–9]) superficially resembles the work of so many visual artists who began working in the so-called “directorial” mode in the 1990s, producing staged large format photographic tableaux. This isn’t a bad thing. If Evidence was slightly ahead of its time, possibly to its own critical detriment, Pictures From Home seems to have been exactly contemporary upon its release.
What radically distinguishes Pictures From Home from contemporaneous staged photography is its unusually acute critical examination of the nature of posing as it plays out within photographs, especially family photographs. Sultan initially arrived at participatory choreography not through theater, theory, or a superficial desire to loudly affirm the intentionality of his work, but through his divided emotional response to his own family’s self-depictions. It is the very staged-ness of family photographs that interests him, not just as a presentational element in the work, but also as its core subject. Sultan is aware that the pictures he sees in his father’s home movies are poses. He knows that they are an oversimplified vision of marriage and family. But he is less interested in removing this façade and laying bare his parent’s faults than in examining its practical and emotional underpinnings. He wants to mine the expressions and poses that his parents reflexively fall into whenever he turns his camera upon them, and he does this both through explicit staging and, crucially, through the accompanying text.
However, just as in a Collier-esque photo-elicitation, the subject gets to have his say, and Sultan’s parents vehemently object to their depiction in a dozen different ways. Sultan, with great candor and grace, accepts their objections but suggests that the photographic results nevertheless reveal a deeper truth. The parents reject that “truth” as Sultan’s own projection. Sultan objects to his parents’ forced expressions. The parents respond that he makes them feel that way. Echoing the sociologist Erving Goffman, Sultan traces his mother’s poses for photographs by his father to the gendered vocabulary of advertising imagery, an influence Sultan implicitly rejects. The mutual second-guessing telescopes several layers deep, destabilizing the accompanying images in a way that resists easy summary, but that anyone who has a family will probably instantly recognize. Much of the text is a brutal, quasi-confessional critique of the images and what they seem to express, or leave out. It’s a family argument founded on a fathomless emotional history of minor power struggles, in which there can be no victory, only a truce.
The new pigment prints of Pictures From Home, made specifically for this exhibition, are technically perfect by contemporary standards, with rich, saturated colors and brilliant whites. The prints are large—larger than life in some cases—but still modest by contemporary standards, maxing out around 50 inches wide, the traditional limit of the old-school large-format enlarger. In a terrific talking-head video in the show’s reading room, Sultan discusses how these prints were designed to operate forthrightly within the traditional scale of nineteenth-century landscape painting. These pictures are aesthetic in the most conventional sense, that is, the space defined historically by painting. They possess pleasantly balanced compositions, a rhythmic contrast of hues across the picture plane, artfully defined visual counterpoint between primary and secondary subjects, and vivid but varied color. They’re very attractive objects.
The nagging issue with Pictures From Home as a gallery installation is that the gallery is simply ill-suited to the textual complexity of the work, not through any fault of exhibition design, but simply because the exhibition isn’t the book. Viewers who are familiar with the book may find themselves trying to supply the missing information to their viewing companions. Vinyl wall texts excerpt short segments from the book (some of the zingers) but it’s not enough, and it’s hard to see how it could be. The depth of candor in his parents’ voices and the sustained roughness of their criticisms—one of the defining elements of the project—is muffled. Instead of strained reconciliation, we get an only lightly contaminated nostalgia. It’s not a false emotion, but it under-represents the aching complexity of the work. Hopefully this ambitious traveling exhibition will lead new audiences to the masterful books.
Benjamin Lord is an artist based in Los Angeles.
- André Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” in What Is Cinema? trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley: University of California, 1967), 13.↵
- See Jeff Wall, “Marks of Indifference: Aspects of Photography in, or as Conceptual Art,” Jeff Wall: Selected Essays and Interviews (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2007), 143–68.↵
- Conceptualism in its earliest, purely verbal forms had occasionally enlisted the use of photography, not because Conceptualism’s argument concerned photography in any essential fashion but because inaesthetic, dull-witted documentary photography offered a parodistically withered satire of depiction itself, Conceptualism’s true object of critique. The work of Douglas Huebler is exemplary in this regard.↵
- In the video interview at the end of the LACMA show, Sultan describes Evidence as a fusion of the styles of Ruscha and Minor White.↵
- The book’s offset lithographs were printed by the now-defunct George Waters Lithography, the same San Francisco printer that printed Ansel Adam’s genre-defining, bar-raising duotones.↵
- This situation has historical roots in the critical discussion. For over thirty years, the standard theoretical account of the advent of appropriationist photography has been an essay by Douglas Crimp that (I would suggest strategically) makes no mention of Evidence. It is useful in this context to remember that October at the time had a very large readership. See Douglas Crimp, “The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism,” October 15 (Winter 1980), 91–101.↵
- San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Press Release for Evidence, 1977, 1.↵
- For a litany of examples of photographic recontextualization, see Terry Barrett, “Photography and Contexts,” Journal of Aesthetic Education 19.3 (Autumn 1985), 51–64.↵
- Robert Heinecken, “Open and Shut Case,” Afterimage (May–June 1977), 6.↵
- For a full exposition of this viewpoint that builds on the framework laid out in “Marks of Indifference,” see Jeff Wall, “Conceptual, Postconceptual, Nonconceptual: Photography and the Depictive Arts,” Critical Inquiry 38.4 (Summer 2012), 700.↵
- John Collier, Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Method (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967), 74.↵
- This anecdote is recounted in Charlotte Cotton, “Two Guys from Van Nuys,” in Larry Sultan et al., Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel (Cologne: Walter König, 2012), 17.↵
- Werner Herzog, Herzog on Herzog (New York: Faber & Faber, 2002), 45–46.↵
- Collier, 54.↵
- The entire essay is photographically reproduced in the catalog associated with the show: Larry Sultan: Here and Home (New York: DelMonico Books/Prestel, 2014), 146.↵
- Center for Creative Photography, Instruction for the installation of the traveling exhibition “Evidence” (Tucson: Center for Creative Photography, 1977), 1.↵
- In the early 1980s, Sultan clearly saw his own turn to personal subject matter in self-consciously historical terms: “I would make a prediction that in the next five years you are going to see the exact opposite of what [Mike] just said. You are going to find some people who are dealing very much with human dilemma[s], spiritual and political phenomena. The honeymoon is over with photography. I’m talking about having my ear to the rail in terms of what students are doing. …What is interesting is that in the schools I find more people photographing their family. I find myself photographing my family. I wonder if there is a collective phenomenon that is running through us all. Sometimes that doesn’t show itself unless in retrospect.” From an interview with Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan conducted by Louise Katzman for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA, November 1981. Interviews of California Photographers, June 18–November 20, 1981, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Reel 3197. Quote appears on pages 25–26 of the accompanying transcription.↵