The Photographic Activity of Post-modernism – Douglas Crimp. 5 January I was relieved to find that this essay was not about. The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism . attribute to the kind of photographic activity I call postmodernist. .. Douglas Crimp, “Pictures,” October, no. Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR’s Terms and Conditions of Use, available at.

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Review of ‘The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism (), Douglas Crimp | Major Project

The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism Author s: JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, xctivity students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of fouglas. For they sought nothing beyond acquiring cre- dentials for the photographerfrom the judgment-seat which he had already overturned.

Postmodernismcan only be understood as a specificbreach with modernism,with those institutionswhich are the preconditionsforand which shape the discourseof modernism.

These institutionscan be named at theoutset: Postmodernismis about art’s dispersal,its plurality,by which I certainlydo not mean pluralism. Pluralismis, as we know,thatfantasythatartis free,freeofother discourses,institutions,free,above all, of history. And thisfantasyof freedomcan be maintained because everywork of art is held oostmodernism be absolutely unique and original. Against this pluralism of originals, I want to speak of the pluralityof phtoographic.

Post- modernism”sponsoredby Parachute in Montreal,October This activiry downloaded from I wroteat thattimethattheaestheticmode that was exemplaryduring the seventieswas performance,all those works that wereconstitutedin a specificsituationand fora specificduration;worksforwhich it could be said literallythatyou had to be there;works,thatis, whichassumed the presence of a spectatorin frontof the work as the work took place, thereby privilegingthe spectatorinstead of the artist.

In my attemptto continue the logic of the developmentI was outlining,I came eventuallyto a stumblingblock. What I wanted to explain was how to get fromthisconditionof presence-the being therenecessitatedbyperformance-to thatkind of presencethatis possible only throughtheabsence thatwe know to be theconditionofrepresentation. For what I was writingabout was workwhich had takenon, afternearlya centuryof its repression,thequestion of representation.

I effectedthat transitionwith a kind of fudge,an epigraph quotation suspended betweentwo sectionsof thetext. The quotation, takenfromone of theghosttales of Henry James, was a false tautology,which played on the double, indeed antithetical,meaning of the word presence: In orderto do so, I want to add a thirddefinitionto theword presence.

To thatnotion of douglaas is about beingthere,being in frontof, and that notion crim; presence that Henry James uses in his ghost stories,the presencewhich is a ghost and therefore reallyan absence, the presencewhich is not there,I want to add the notion of presenceas a kind of incrementto being there,a ghostlyaspect of presencethatis itsexcess,itssupplement.

This notion of presenceis what we mean when we say, forexample, thatLaurie Andersonis a performerwith presence. We mean by such a statementnot simply that she is there,in frontofus, but thatshe is morethan there,thatin addition to being there, she has presence. And ifwe thinkof Laurie Andersonin thisway,it mayseema bit odd, because Laurie Anderson’sparticularpresenceis effected throughtheuse of reproductivetechnologieswhich reallymake herquite absent,or only thereas the kind of presencethatHenryJamesmeantwhen he said, “The presencebeforehim was a presence.

These photogrphic werelittle else thanpresences,performedtableaux thatweretherein thespectator’sspace but which appeared ethereal,absent. They had that odd quality of holograms,very 1. Goldsteinand Longo are artistswhose work, togetherwith that of a great number of their contemporaries,approaches thequestion ofrepresentationthroughphotographic modes, particularly all those aspects of photography that have to do with reproduction,with copies, and copies of copies.


The extraordinarypresenceof theirworkis effected throughabsence,throughitsunbridgeabledistancefromthe original,fromeven thepossibilityof an original. Such presenceis what I attribute to the kind of photographicactivityI call postmodernist. This quality of presencewould seem to be just theopposite of what Walter Benjamin had in mind when he introducedinto the language of criticismthe notion of the aura.

For the aura has to do with thepresenceof theoriginal,with authenticity, with theunique existenceof theworkof artin theplace in which it happens to be. It is thataspect of thework thatcan be put to the testof chemical analysis or of connoisseurship,thataspect which the discipline of art history,at least in its guise as Kunstwissenschaft, is able to prove or disprove,and thatas- pect, therefore, which eitheradmits the work of art into, or banishes it from,the museum.

For themuseum has no truckwithfakesor copies or reproductions. The presence of the artistin the work must be detectable;that is how the museum knows it has photograpihc. But it is this veryauthenticity,Benjamin tells us, thatis inevitablydepre- ciated throughmechanical reproduction,diminishedthroughtheproliferationof copies.

It is not somethinga handmade work has that a mechanically-madework does not have. In Benjamin’s view,certainphotographshad an aura, while evena painting by Photobraphic itsaura in theage ofmechanicalreproduction.

The withering away of the aura, the dissociationof the work fromthe fabricof tradition,is an inevitableoutcome of mechanical reproduction.

This is somethingwe have all experienced. We know, forexample, the ot experiencingtheaura of such a pictureas the Mona Lisa as we stand beforeit at the Louvre. Its aura has been utterlydepletedby thethousandsof timeswe’ve seen itsreproduction,and no degreeof concentrationwill restoreits uniqueness forus.

It would seem,though,thatifthewitheringaway of theaura is an inevitable factof our time,thenequally inevitableare all postmodernksm recuperateit, to pretendthat theoriginal and theunique are still possible and desirable.

And this is nowheremore apparent than in thefieldof photographyitself,theveryculprit of mechanical reproduction. Benjamin granted a presence or aura to only a very limited number of photographs. These werephotographsof theso-calledprimitivephase, theperiod 2. He said, forexample, that the people in theseearlyphotographs “had an aura about them,a medium which mingled with theirmanner of looking and gave them a plenitude and security.

Ratherit is thepresenceof thesubject,ofwhat is photographed,”the tiny spark of chance, of thehereand now, with which realityhas, as itwere,searedthe characterof the picture. And thatis perhaps why it seemed to him so misguided thatphotographersbegan, afterthe commercializationof the medium,to simulate thelostaura throughtheapplication of techniquesimitative of those of painting.

His example was the gum bichromateprocess used in pictorial photography. Althoughit mayat first seem thatBenjamin lamentedtheloss of theaura, the contraryis in fact true.

Thoughts on Douglas Crimp’s essay The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism – Amano Level Three

Reproduction’s “social significance,particularlyin its most positive form,is inconceivable,”wroteBenjamin, “withoutits destructive, catharticaspect,its liquidation of the traditionalvalue of theculturalheritage. From themultiplicationofsilkscreenedphotographicimagesin theworks of Rauschenbergand Warhol to theindustriallymanufactured,repeti- tivelystructuredworks of the minimal sculptors,everythingin radical artistic practiceseemed to conspire in thatliquidation of traditionalculturalvalues that 3.

Benjamin, “Work of Art,”p. And because the museum is that institutionwhich was foundedupon just thosevalues,whose job it is to sustainthosevalues,it has faced a crisis of considerableproportions. One symptomof that crisis is the way in which our museums,one afteranother,around ,abdicatedtheirresponsibil- itytowardcontemporaryartisticpracticeand turnedwithnostalgia to theartthat had previouslybeen relegated to theirstorerooms.

Revisionistart historysoon began to be vindicatedby “revelations”of the achievementsof academic artists and minor figuresof all postmoddrnism. By the midsanother,more serious lhotographic the museum’s crisis appeared, theone I have alreadymentioned: These attemptsare manifest in two, contradictoryphenomena: The museum has embracedboth of thesephenomena with equal enthusiasm,not to say voraciousness.

Little, I think,needs to be phktographic about the returnto a painting of personal expression. We see it everywherewe turn. The marketplaceis gluttedwith it. It comes in all guises-pattern painting, new-imagepainting, neoconstructivism, neoexpressionism;it is pluralist to be poetmodernism. But within its individualism, this painting is utterlyconformiston one point: Writinga manifesto-liketextfor the catalogue of her AmericanPainting: The Eighties- thatoracular exhibitionstaged in the fall of to demonstratethemiraculous resurrectionof painting-Barbara Rose told us: The serious painters of the eighties are an extremelyheterogeneous group-some abstract,some representational.


But theyare unitedon a sufficientnumberof criticalissues thatit is possible to isolatethemas a group. They are, in the firstplace, dedicated to the preservationof painting as a transcendentalhigh art, and an art of photogrwphic as opposed to local or topical significance. Their aesthetic,which synthe- sizes tactile with optical qualities, definesitselfin conscious opposi- tion to photographyand all formsof mechanical reproductionwhich seek to deprive the art work of its unique “aura.

But in thiscase it is also symptomaticofa morelimitedand internecinethreat: But how is it thatphotographyhas suddenlyhad conferredupon itan aura? How has the plenitude of phofographic been reduced to the scarcityof originals? And how do we know the authenticfromits reproduction? But not theconnoisseurofphotography,ofwhom the type is Walter Benjamin, or, closer to us, Roland Barthes. NeitherBenjamin’s “sparkof chance” nor Barthes’s”thirdmeaning” would guaranteephotography’s place in themuseum.

The connoisseurneeded forthisjob is theold-fashionedart historianwith his chemical analysesand, more importantly, his stylisticanalyses. To authenticatephotography requires all the machineryof art history and museology,with a fewadditions,and more than a fewsleightsofhand.


To begin, there is, of course, the incontestablerarityof age, the vintage print. Certain techniques,paper types,and chemicalshave passed out ofuse and thustheage ofa print can easily be established.

But this kind of certifiablerarityis not what interestsme, nor its parallel in contemporaryphotographicpractice,thelimited edition. What interestsme is the subjectivizationof photography,the ways in which the connoisseurshipof the photograph’s “spark of chance” is converted into a connoisseurshipof thephotograph’sstyle.

For now, it seems,we can detect the photographer’shand afterall, except of course thatit is his eye,his unique vision. Althoughit can also be his hand; one need only listento thepartisansof photographicsubjectivitydescribethemysticalritualperformedby thephotogra- pher in his darkroom.

I realize of course thatin raising thequestion of subjectivityI am reviving thecentraldebatein photography’saesthetichistory,thatbetweenthestraightand themanipulated print,or the many variationson thattheme. But I do so herein orderto point out thattherecuperationof theaura forphotographywould in fact subsume under the banner of subjectivityall of photography,the photography whose source is thehuman mind and thephotographywhose source is theworld around us, the most thoroughlymanipulatedphotographicfictionsand themost faithfultranscriptions of thereal, thedirectorialand thedocumentary,themirrors and the windows, Camera Work in its infancy,Life in its heyday.

But theseare only thetermsof styleand mode of theagreed-uponspectrumofphotography-as- art. The restorationof theaura, theconsequentcollectingand exhibiting,does not stop there. It is extendedto the carte-de-visite, the fashionplate, the advertising shot,theanonymoussnap or polaroid.

At the originofeveryone thereis an Artist and therefore each can finditsplace on thespectrumof subjectivity. For it has long been a commonplace of art historythat realism and expressionismare only mattersof degree,matters,thatis, of style. The photographicactivityof postmodernismoperates,as we mightexpect, The urgencyof these questions firstbecame clear to me as I read the editorial preparedby AnnetteMichelson forOctober,no.

And it does so preciselyin relation to the aura, not, however,to recuperateit, but to displace it, to show that it too is now only an aspect of the copy, not the original. A group of young artistsworking with photographyhave addressedphotography’sclaims to originality,showing those claims forthefictiontheyare,showingphotographyto be alwaysa representation, always-already-seen. Their images are purloined, confiscated,appropriated, stolen. In theirwork,the original cannot be located, is always deferred; even the selfwhich mighthave generatedan original is shown to be itselfa copy.