The Last Photographic Heroes
(This review originally appeared in Rain Taxi Review of Books,
In the 1960s and ’70s, photographers were almost always photographers only, exploring their medium the same way painters did in the era of modernism. By the end of the 1970s, however, the art world had shifted into postmodernism: rather than investigate the nature of their individual mediums, artists felt free to employ whichever medium, or mixture thereof, suited their needs. The artists represented in Gilles Mora’s The Last Photographic Heroes, then, are those stalwarts of the modernist influence who struggled to clarify photography’s limitations and individuality from other artistic mediums.
Mora defines the photographic hero as “someone who has devoted body and soul to his cause”; that cause is the unique language that separates photography from other classical mediums. Regarding Mora’s ideas about photography having a “wholly independent aesthetic,” however, objections can be made. The earliest photographers were influenced by the classical arts, particularly painting. Looking at the photographs of Ansel Adams, for example, one can clearly see the influences of the American Sublime painters (1820–1880), who also traveled West, exploring and representing the virgin landscape, creating idealized images of the natural landscape. Mora himself states, “To his last picture, Ansel Adams never stopped fighting to preserve the illusion of a natural landscape safe from the harsh environmental changes it suffered in the wake of the postwar economic boom.”
In his classic essay, “Towards a Newer Laocoön,” critic Clement Greenberg wrote about abstract art as the quintessential modernist activity of investigating the nature of the medium: “purity in art consists in the acceptance, willing acceptance, of the limitations of the medium of the specific art.” He developed his idea of purity in art out of the observation of mediums imitating each other.
This is the case in photography trying to imitate painting, first with the idealization of subject matter (as with Ansel Adams), then with attempts at abstraction, like the works of Minor White and Walter Chappell. Despite his full-hearted support of abstract art at this particular moment, Greenberg realized abstraction could not offer “the only valid standards through eternity.” He went on to write, “Abstract art cannot be disposed of by a simple-minded evasion. Or by negation. We can only dispose of abstract art by assimilating it, by fighting our way through it.”
While not offering a reason, he explains that the need for fighting is where society is at, with resistance being futile, but if artists work through abstraction they will eventually find the other side. Similarly, this is what photographers in the 1960s and ’70s were doing; they worked through the limitations of the medium so that postmodern artists could use this tool effectively.
The purest form of this modernist take on photography may be the advent of street photography — first briefly appearing in the 1940s, then further developed with regular use in the 1960s and ’70s. Mora attributes this development to the influences of painters like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, as he describes the “aesthetic of the instant perception,” which involves the automatic capture of “what randomly, or suddenly, appears in front of the camera, in the viewfinder, without premonition, and the camera often preset.”
Street photography of the 1960s and ’70s recognized the limitations of photography by removing as much of the artist’s influence as possible, so as to avoid painterly traditions such as framing, composition, and balance, while accepting the limitations of the medium that come with focus and exposure.
But even modernism’s obsession with the medium could never be complete because, unlike nonobjective painting, photography will always have a subject — no matter how abstracted, something will always be represented, as it has that element of “that which has been” (Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida). This problem of the subject always distracts from the medium itself, causing photography to imitate literature, a chronic problem in painting prior to modernism, according to Greenberg.
Mora writes, “Maybe these really were the last photographic heroes: postmodernism tells us that their cause no longer has a reason to exist. After them, the photographic exploration of the real would no longer be a central concern, giving way to the interpretation or reinterpretation — of photographic reality, that is to say, of the photograph itself.”
However, photography could never achieve the modernist goal of medium specificity the way painters like Newman and Rothko did, not only because of the unavoidable, ever-present subject, but also because of the artist’s single perspective. Whether in framing or editing, there is always a singular perspective, so the truth-value of the photographic medium can never be truly achieved. The achievement of the modernist goal would be an image taken first without an artist (even with street photography the artist chooses the location to work), and secondly without a subject, because the subject will always overpower the medium in interpretation and reception.
Mora claims there are no more photographic heroes, but by his own definition there are still photographers who have devoted body and soul to their cause. It’s just that the cause has changed. No longer is it the modernist cause of the medium, but rather the postmodern cause of the message. A contemporary example would be Renee Cox, a photographer who uses the medium to express the African American woman’s identity in society.
Still, despite the questionable premise of “last photographic heroes,” Mora’s book does offer a wonderful history of the primary influences in American photography of the ’60s and ’70s, and allows the reader to experience some of the greatest artistic explorations into the purity of the medium.