Bolton on Szarkowski

I’m starting to look at some more “scholarly” works on photography and its critique. Eventually I might find some works from after 2006, but I’m not holding my breath.

The accepted version of photographic practice, forged for posterity in the 1950s and 1960s, is a limited construction based in the formalist values of late modernism. Historians and curators during that time worked quite deliberately to narrow photography. They emphasized the autonomy of the image and set about to define the “norms” of the medium, the intrinsic technological and visual properties of the photograph. They selected a common set of characteristics from a diverse set of images and brought scores of conflicting photographers and photographs under the jurisdiction of a universal history. The social and political issues raised by industrial application and plebeian function were ignored – it was instead given to art photography to provide an unsullied articulation of photography’s common characteristics. One recalls John Szarkowski’s famous list of these norms in his book The Photographer’s Eye; his introduction, which summarized the basic agenda of late-modern formalism in photography, was also succinct: “This book is an investigation of what photographs look like, and why they look that way. It is concerned with photographic style and with photographic tradition” (emphasis added). Through Szarkowski’s book and other like-minded efforts, the late-modern art photograph was elevated to a universal type, its ontogeny supposedly recapitulating the phylogeny of all photographic production.

Richard Bolton, The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography, 1992, MIT Press, Cambridge MA., p. x

So far, and I haven’t done more than skim a few essay books, it seems very inward-focused and continually discusses the same photos, the same artists, the same historians, and the same theorists. I suppose this is how “discourse in the humanities” happens, but I really do wonder if there’s anything new happening, or is it all just about rehashing the old?