[Kenneth Josephson, page from
'The Bread Book' 1974]

Visual Criticism in Photography

Jno Cook, Nit & Wit Magazine, November 1981

Photography is somewhat different from the other visual arts. Much of what has passed as photo-criticism in the last one hundred and forty years, and there has been very little of it, has been written by photographers. This has been so because, historically, photography represented more of a guild community, and therefore fell upon its own membership to formulate a critique. There were no objective outsiders who took any interest in the field, and few of the insiders have been articulate. Additionally, that photo community had little awareness of its own history, a condition that prevailed into the sixties, and photography's status as art was not firmly established until the seventies.

But at that point in time we not only see a rise in the volume of literature dealing with photography, but for the first time we start to see what might be understood as a criticism that is expressed in the same medium. It is photographic work done by photographers which deals with the work of other photographers. But there is little of it, and it is often inconclusive. The sparsity of work is in some ways difficult to understand, for when it comes to turning out work the photographic process has much greater possibilities for less of an investment than, for example, painting. More likely it stems from the discomfort many photographers must feel in attempting critical work. Because it is mostly absent or goes unrecognized, there is no clear legitimacy for photographic criticism done photographically, for work that forms a reaction, a condensation, or an understanding of the work of others. I am not speaking here of simply the art-historical allusion, references to the medium, or of conceptual explorations. And I'm not speaking of influences or derivative work. I'm speaking of genuine reactions, direct responses. Let me give two examples.

As a first example, consider the work done by a number of photographers which has had a clear reference to the work of the nineteenth century photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who in 1887 published some 800 motion studies under the title, Animal Locomotion. Muybridge had demonstrated in 1877 what a galloping horse looked like, and specifically that all four feet were off the ground at some point. But the studies of 1887 went far beyond his initial effort. Animal Locomotion showed the gaits of elephants and camels and other animals borrowed from the Philadelphia zoo, as well as humans, most often in the nude, in every type of activity. The colotype prints of these activities generally showed a dozen or more consecutive frames, and often simultaneous views were shown from the front, the side, and obliquely. Bound into books, the studies represented eleven volumes.

In 1974, Jim Snitzer spoofed the Muybridge efforts with a series of prints titled "Animal Crackers." Within the consecutive frames of each print animal crackers were being transformed, perhaps by being eaten. At about the same time, Marion Faller and Hollis Frampton produced a set of 16 prints under the label "Vegetable Locomotion," which did similar things with vegetables. Significant of the date -- 1974, 1975 -- is the fact that this seems to be the earliest time at which this type of activity is allowed while simultaneously the requirement is made of the viewer that it be taken seriously. It needed to be taken seriously, to the extent that that was possible, because all three of these persons were students in an art curriculum at the time. Snitzer was at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Faller and Frampton were at the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester.

But what kind of activity is this? How are we supposed to react to this work? Despite the fact that both of these series are the products of working artists, there seems to be little or nothing we can clearly label as art. The work does not deal with personal concerns or larger social issues. None of it calls up an emotional response, nor is any of it important as an appeal to its inherent sensual quality. To understand how this work functions one has to recognize the use of humor, parody, the historical allusion, and the exuberant display of imagination as intellectual activities, and realize that when the allusion becomes the primary reference of the work we are simply dealing with criticism. The legitimacy of an intellectual basis for work was, of course, firmly established in the other visual arts, but in photography it was tolerated much less. Photographers have always had problems in not dealing with real subject matter. This may explain the hesitancy with which these ventures are undertaken, and the fact that they fall short of their goal. For, although both of these studies can be understood as a reflective critique of Muybridge's Animal Locomotion, both miss the central reality of Muybridge's work: its in credible compulsiveness and exhaustiveness. It is this, after all, that makes Muybridge stand out as an exemplary figure in the history of photography. Those 800 studies were produced over the span of three or four years, and who can tell how much additional work was never published. A dozen prints, therefore, do not adequately address Muybridge's work or personality in scope or essence. A portfolio of a hundred prints would have been more to the point. Neither Snitzer nor Faller and Frapton, for example, blow up their subjects with a stick of dynamite as Muybridge did with a turkey, or use deformed vegetables as subjects.

Another example of criticism within the media is found in the work of Kenneth Josephson. Josephson teaches photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and much of his work over the years has dealt with an analytical exploration of photography in itself. Among his works, for example, is a continuing series dealing exclusively with allusion to the history of photography. Josephson is facile and at ease witht his type of work, and it is therefore no surprise that he was able to shift to a piece of work that was decidedly more critical than conceptual; the 1973 production of The Bread Book. The Bread Book is a small booklet of ten leaves, that is, twenty pages if the covers are counted, printed in offset. At first glance it might seem like yet another conceptual statement. Starting with the front cover which shows, besides the title, the cap of a loaf of bread, each sheet progressively shows the front and back of all ten slices of a small loaf of bread. The back cover therefore shows the other end of the loaf. It is easily dismissable unless some thought is given to what is being presented here, and how that is being accomplished. And it gains considerable significance if one knows that Josephson created this in direct response to the photo story sequences that were being created and published by Duane Michals at about that time.

"If you look at a Duane Michals book you see it and you get it, and you never look at it again," Josephson said. "With The Bread Book there is nothing to get. You can even look at it backwards." Josephson is notorious for the understatement. He does not make mention, for example, what must be obvious after a moment's reflection, that the bread book incorporates the physical aspects of a loaf of bread. It not only records the bread in detai1, but the form of the book is the plan and layout for the reconstruction of the loaf. When you stand the book on end it becomes a sliced loaf of bread again. And like the building plans for a house, it has been condensed to a thickness of a mere eighth of an inch. Similar to other books of instructions with similar deadpan titles which appeared in the seventies -- books The Dome Book, The Massage Book -- Josephson's book seems to hold the same promise of completeness and no-nonsense authenticity. And it is. It's all there, the whole loaf. The slices are even reproduced full-size.

The Bread Book also comments on art and the making of art, and especially on the lack of taste or intelligence that goes into the preferences of the buying public. Duane Michal's work was selling. By 1974 Michals would have an exhibit at LIGHT gallery in NewYork. But for Josephson's bread book, the possibility of monetary rewards seemed limited, for the book sold for only two dollars and fifty cents. But that was the point of it. For Josephson, who normally dealt in single photographic prints, matted and signed, there was a gesture in the inexpensiveness of The Bread Book just as there was in its availability. "I have quite a few left," Josephson remarked recently.

I have to admit that I had to struggle with The Bread Book when I first saw it. Its most significant aspect at first was the clever way in which the paradigm of subject and object had been retained. The book not only duplicated a loaf of bread, but any loaf of bread now became a model for The Bread Book. That is the sort of thing that makes Siskind's photograph of a discarded glove work in the same way that a photograph of a shoe wouldn't work -- for gloves, or hands, exist in the vertical, but a shoe on the wall would have been an absurdity.

What next became obvious is that I was here dealing with a book, and would tend to look at it with those presumptions which we nornally have about books. We immediately assume a narrative character, a progression from front to back, and a content that starts and completes itself within the covers -- not, as with this book, on the Covers.

We even assume that serial images are located in time. The Bread Book satisfied none of these requirements. Instructive as this might be in enlightening our ignorance, just as we might delight in those parallels that are being shown between books and bread, all of this make much more sense when seen in the context of Josephson's purpose. Compare The Bread Book now with the books of Duane Michals which play with space and physical transformations, but which are always located in time, always meant to be read from left to right, always assume a narrative unfolding.

As I mentioned above, efforts such as these seldom occur in photography, and when they happen they often fall short. Direct critical work is often reduced to a display of humour, and does not involve the requisite activities of amassing data, of analytic comparisons, or even of expressing a complete response to the work of others. The two critiques of Muybridge are obviously incomplete. Josephson's book, too, is inconclusive in that he never revealed his target publicly. But then, Josephson never deals in specific subject matter. For him the concepts incorporated in the book are more important than a specific reference to Duane Michals would have been. Josephson was wise enough to choose a small loaf -- there are only ten slices -- not only apropos for a small book, but perhaps also for a single roll of film, and at any rate just enough to establish it as a toss-off. His target, Josephson might have suggested, didn't require any more comment than that.