Sunday, January 30, 2005

Gerhard Richter on What Pictures Really Want*

In the 1960's, Gerhard Richter began a series of paintings copied from photographic snapshots (to see a few, do a search in the previous link for "ordinary life" images). Richter liked snapshots as sources because, as he says "there was no style, no composition, no judgment." I think we get more use out of Richter's sentiment if we take him to be saying that personal snapshots lacked—were free from—the modes of style, composition and judgment that painters, like himself, who had been trained in strict painterly tradition, learned to (couldn't help but) recognise and deploy. Snapshots were free from that which he felt hindered his painting, free from painterly devices and institutionalised modes of viewing.

Of course, Richter's ideas about what snapshot photography lacks are condescending, as if to say artists are the only people for whom visual concepts like style and composition are legible or relevant. His comments seem especially silly now, in light of the compositional, stylistic and formal awareness to be found in the photoblog world. For instance, check out the comment-box discussions on chromasia (with whom I'll be IM-ing tomorrow).

But Richter's paintings can happily exist apart from Richter's expressed interest in them. Let's let them.

To create his images, Richter mechanically traces a photograph which is itself a tracing from nature (William Henry Fox Talbot called photography the "the pencil of nature.") Of course, technology intervenes no less in Richter's process than it does in a snapshot photo, just as intention, artistry, and artifice intervene no less in snapshot photography than in Richter's images. No less, but differently. More to the point, in the viewing of images, we ascribe different roles to different actors in the process in order to make those images legible. Some of the familiar actors are: context (gallery, photo album or web?), image-maker ("artist" or anonymous snap-shooter?), iconography (composed or askew or compositionally askew, in focus or out, high resolution or low?), technology (Hasselblad, disposable camera or digital camera?). In order to make snapshot photography legible as such, we tend to privilege image content as sentiment and/or memory, and in doing so, ignore cues like authorship, photographic process and viewing context (these are tendencies, not rules). In Richter's images, probably we privilege something like the exact converse: authorship, process and context over some unrefracted sentiment that we might find resident in the photographic image had it not been re-rendered by Richter. Which is to say, whatever content we find meaningful in the photographic image itself (wherever that is), we take to be refracted through dominant cues like authorship, process and context, a product of them. This is how Richter's images become legible as Gerhard Richter images.

(Not to draw a categorical distinction between blog photography and any other kind of photography, but rather, to start to distinguish some practices for reading images...) A lot of blog photography draws attention to the image maker (e.g. it sits on a blog which is identified with the image-maker) without quite ceding to the maker absolute control over the image and its effects (e.g. it's quite possible on Flickr, for instance, to view images not according to who made them, but according to catergorising meta-tags). They draw a lot of attention to context without thereby generating contexts which are as homogenisable as gallery spaces (e.g. hard not to be aware that one is looking at a photoblog at the same time one is aware of looking at particular photographs, but equally hard, I'd say, to generalise successfully about blogs as contexts for viewing photography). And they persistently highlight process (how the photograph was arrived at, where it was taken, in what event, over how many beers, etc.) without suturing that process to any notion of authorship (as we might in looking at Richter's images, i.e. we say: that is Richter's unique process, that is how he gets those results).

In drawing attention to the institutionalised aspects of painting (explicitly, but also via the images themselves) Richter seems to encourage exactly these sorts of delineations in our practices of looking. Blog photography might do the same thing, might encourage carefully specified looking, if our instincts for which images deserve the respect of such looking weren't so inveterately tied to the art-image.

* WJT Mitchell "What Do Pictures Really Want?" October 77 (Summer, 1996).
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