Significantly, this tendency has found often nuanced expression in elaborate photographic constructs that foreground their status as pictures and not documents, and which are often interpreted as a resurgent modernism in photographic art. In the art institution Jeff Wall acts as a model for the characterization of the staged character of these works.
The genre, following Michael Fried’s Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, is the ‘photographic tableau’. It combines large scale with high production values in the self-conscious design of photographs for the gallery wall and adopts modes of visual address that are more traditionally associated with paintings. This effect of this museum photography with its ties to the art market is to assure the status of its object of study for the museum and the canon.
So where does that leave a more modest photography that does not reject photograph’s traditional representational claim on an external reality, is not deeply invested in the essential singularity of the photographic artwork, and which is other to the instrumentalized form of mass culture?
Why not a photography of nature structured around seriality and abstraction, rather than a concern for single autonomous pictures and their claim on art? One that explores
abstraction’s on-going association with photography; an association that is a complex web.
After all the above photographs are an abstraction from the perceptual form of things that we see our coastal walks. There is also a long history of variations on a desire to turn photography to the production of non-representation and non-figuration — ie., to free photography from representation and to reduce photography to its essentials. Formalist modernism, foregrounds surface and pattern, tonal contrast, apparent depth relations, blur and sharpness and the manner in which these results stand in relation to one another on the bounded surface of the image-object. Gottfried Jäger is a good example.
Photography today is a networked digital image and so it is quite different to the pre-digital photograph whose ontology was grounded in a particular and privileged object or relation– eg., in the material substrate of the negative. In contrast, the materiality of the networked digital image is spread across its different and changeable sites of distribution. It is an abstraction as it is composed of data, metadata, and code — a grid of pixels — that has been coded to visually appear as a photograph.
This new ontology opens up ways to consider abstraction’s on-going association with photography outside a formalist modernism: one whose referentiality has little to do with exact resemblances between depicted objects. Despite their flat surface photos point beyond our ‘actual life’ and so are multilayered. They would remain within the realm of representation while at the same time also transgressing it.