We are the words of others.Jean-Luc Godard, La Chinoise, 1967
1. In the Street
2. In the Frame
“Good” art, according to Fried, is grasped, like a picture, all at once, instantaneously and as a whole.9 It was not painting but the picture that mattered; what mattered, in other words, was the desire for seamlessness—for art’s “perpetual creation of itself.” “[M]y ambivalence about the matter of the telos of art persists,” Rosler explains in her recounting of her decision to virtually stop painting. “The question,” she continues, “was to what degree art was required to pose another space of understanding as opposed to exposing another, truer narrative of social-political reality” (Rosler  2004, p. 353). Agitational work activates and recognizes what calls for presentness necessarily repress: bodies moving in space, in the gallery as well as the street—bodies becoming and being social.It is this continuous and entire presentness, amounting, as it were, to the perpetual creation of itself, that one experiences as a kind of instantaneousness, as though if only one were infinitely more acute, a single infinitely brief instant would be long enough to see everything, to experience the work in all its depth and fullness, to be forever convinced by it.(Fried  1998, p. 167; emphasis in the original)
New Documents certainly privileged the personal and private over the social. Or, as Rosler argues in an essay she penned in 1975 on Friedlander’s work and the histories of modernism that the work was being made to frame, the exhibition celebrated photography that is “disinterested” (Rosler  2004, p. 114).10 Surely a reference to Immanuel Kant’s aesthetics or to the neo-Kantianism propping up Greenberg’s strident and celebrated critique of bodily presence, Rosler sums up her account, which was also published in the pages of Artforum, as follows: Friedlander is present in his photography, but his photographs do not take time. “Art making here,” she writes,In the past decade a new generation of photographers has redirected the documentary approach toward more personal ends. Their aim has been not to reform life, but to know it. Their work betrays a sympathy—almost an affection—for the imperfections and frailties of society. They like the real world, in spite of its terrors, as the source of all wonder and fascination and value—no less precious for being irrational.
In Friedlander’s work, Rosler contends, there is nothing but a relay of frames: mirrors and windows, reflections and shadows and so forth (Figure 3). Photography’s double is doubled. This, Rosler suggests, is an example of modernism’s self-reflectivity, its grasping for autonomy, perversely canonized through the most social of art forms: photography.entails a removal from temporal events, even though the act of recording requires a physical presence, often duly noted. Friedlander records himself passing through in a car, standing with eye to camera, and so on, in widely separated locations, always a nonparticipant.
3. On the Screen
The war in Vietnam, Rosler notes, was not only lived with at home—flipped through in the pages of magazines and seen on the television screen. It was slotted into the rhythms of the working day, into the temporal routines of those not physically on the front. Media or mediation, in other words, not only made the war appear as if it was taking place far away, in an unfamiliar place. It made it easy to consume, day after day after day. As the British media theorist Stuart Hall argues in his now-influential discussion of the organization, dissemination and production of the news as news, news photographs are not designed to provide new knowledge. They are designed to provide readers of the news with the means to recognize the world as they “have already learned to appropriate it” (Hall 1972, p. 82). The news is printed so that it can be slotted into place, so that it can corroborate those narratives that, as Rosler puts it, made the war in Vietnam—or any war, for that matter—seem “accidental.” After all, the “image of war” sutured into a gilded frame in the photomontage now known as First Lady (Pat Nixon) is not in fact a photograph from the front (Figure 9). Pulled from the pages of a Life exposé on Arthur Penn’s much-heralded gangster film Bonnie and Clyde (1967), it simply reads as such. In this frame, the bullet-ridden body of Bonnie Parker, played by Faye Dunaway, appears to be—comes to represent—a Vietnamese woman.26I remember dawdling in bed one morning and hearing the news that General Westmoreland wanted to increase troop strength in Vietnam to five hundred thousand men. “That’s a half million men! A real invasion!” I said out loud. I was startled even to imagine it. By then the war was not only being discussed on the radio and television news; the war, complete with battlefield film, was also broadcast on TV at dinner hour. Critics began to refer to the war as the first “living-room war,” though to me it was the dinnertime war.
My point here is not—or not simply—that a critical history of photography emerges out of or through the film screen. Walter Benjamin argues this in the early 1930s, with his nod to the generalizations at work in the films of Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin (Benjamin  1979, pp. 251–52). My point is that this origin story has yet to be written into photography’s history, despite, in fact, the many nods to Benjamin’s call for a “little history” of photography in the writing of photography’s history since the 1980s.32 Benjamin’s writing has been used to kill American modernism, not, as was the goal of the work of Rosler and her contemporaries, to “dismantle” it (Sekula  1984).33 This is the protest: work on history. Do not simply debunk it. A critical history of photography must acknowledge photography’s role in the writing of history, in the telling of stories of origins and accidents. Even Szarkowski understood that the story was everything.Photography was, the art world told us a lesser order, mired in temporality, as opposed to the transcendent world of painting. So you could deal with it as a practice less mediated, more immediate, than the one the art world has mulled over so intensively. It was accessible and vernacular, and it was low key…as far as I knew then, photography had no critical history.
4. Against Time
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In her writing and interviews, Rosler often makes note of the simplicity of her montage technique. In her words, “By using collage as simple as that taught in grade school, I wanted to suggest to the viewer that this was all well within their reach and that maybe they ought to make some work like this themselves” (Rosler 2019, p. 352). See as well Rosler’s discussion of this aspect of her work in (Buchloh 1998, p. 31, 54–55). See also (Volpato 2019).
In Rosler’s words, “At the time, in the 1960s, it seemed imperative not to show these works … in an art context. To show anti-war agitation in such a setting verged on obscene, for the site seemed properly the ‘street’ or the underground press, where such material could help marshal the troops, and that is where they appeared” (Rosler  2004, p. 355). For reproductions of the twenty photomontages making up the House Beautiful series, see (Gilbert 2009, pp. 49–72).
This essay was completed in the summer of 2020, in the midst of the waves of protests that erupted in numerous cities across the US and around the world in response to the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25, 2020.
The phrase was coined by John Jacobs, a member of the Weatherman faction of Students for a Democratic Society. A pithy condensation of Lenin’s thesis on imperialism, it was eventually adopted as a protest chant or slogan in the late 1960s, during the “Days of Rage.” On the phrase and its history, see (Varon 2004).
Conversation with the author, December 17, 2019. See (Alberro 1998, p. 75) for a brief discussion of Rosler’s paintings.
For a study of American modernism shaped by and through critiques of formalism as well as the war in Vietnam, see (Bryan-Wilson 2009). See as well Rosler’s feminist critique of American formalism in (Rosler 2004). Though not the focus of the argument I am making here, the feminism of Rosler’s photomontage and her protest cannot be ignored. Importantly, it is evidenced not only by her attention to the media’s framing of domestic spaces as gendered but also by the heterodoxy of the work. There is, as she puts it, little sense of “mastery” in the “simple” act of montage. Rosler discusses her feminism along these lines in (Buchloh 1998, pp. 51–54). For a feminist reading of the photomontages, see (Deutsche 2018).
The literature on Fried’s thesis is vast. It builds in conjunction with studies of the rise (and fall) of American formalism and the late writings of Clement Greenberg, including, most notably, his 1960 essay “Modernist Painting.” See (Greenberg  1995) and the studies of those writing histories of American modernism through and against Greenberg’s formalism, including (Franscina 1985; Bois 1990; Krauss 1993). See also Pamela Lee’s study of American formalism as a problem of time in (Lee 2004).
As is noted in several of the contributions to this special issue, Rosler’s critique of Szarkowski’s modernism also persisted. It frames much of her writing about photography in the 1980s and 1990s, including her seminal critique of the ways in which documentary had been poorly historicized since the 1960s: “In, around and afterthoughts (on documentary photography).” See (Rosler  2006, pp. 61–93). On Rosler’s critique of Szarkowski and street photography, in particular, see (Bussard 2014, pp. 99–137).
For Greenberg’s contribution to the story modernism’s need to shed narrative or the “dominance of literarature,” see (Greenberg  1986, p. 28).
Images à la sauvette and The Decisive Moment were published simultaneously in 1952. On the publication history, see (Chéroux 2014a).
For a reading of “the decisive moment” in these terms and in the context of the shoring up of modernism in the 1950s, see (Stimson 2008).
The dialogue with Friedlander is apparent. He, too, as Rosler notes in the above-quoted essay, shot his photographs through a car window. However, according to Rosler, for Friedlander, the window served as a means to track or record himself, to confirm his presence, albeit as a shadow or a reflection, not as a further means of mediation.
For this history, see (Schwartz 2020).
See the Press Release for Atget (Museum of Modern Art 1969, p. 2). Szarkowski is quoted for hailing Atgets’s work as a record of his “interior life.”
See “Checklist,” Protest Photographs [MoMA Exh. #929, May 23–June 2, 1970], Department of Photography Records, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Eighteen of the fifty-seven photographs included in the exhibition were by Winogrand, and the majority were by photographers working for Magnum, including Burk Uzzle and Charles Harbutt. Notably, Filo’s photograph was privileged. It was displayed alone, separated from the other double rows of photographs lining the gallery walls and as the culmination of the exhibition. The exhibition—and protest—crescendoed in death and outrage repackaged as a singular, iconic shot.
As part of the strike, several museums closed for the day; others offered free entry. On the Art Strike and related protests, see (Bryan-Wilson 2009, pp. 112–21).
This was also the curatorial conceit of Szarkowski’s 1973 exhibition From the Picture Press. Produced with the assistance of Diane Arbus and Carole Kismaric, the photo editor of Time-Life Books, as well as editors of the New York Daily News, this exhibition pulled photographs from their pages, stripped them of editorial and historical context, and presented them as representative of “enduring human issues.” All of the photographs were exhibited without captions. See (Szarkowski 1973). See as well the curatorial statement for an earlier exhibition of news photographs, The Photo Essay (1965). Though in this exhibition, Szarkowski kept the pages intact, displaying the photographs as they had appeared on the page, albeit on a much larger scale, the exhibition was designed with the following statement in mind: “Today … some essay photographers are questioning the premise of the picture story and suggesting that perhaps the picture should be judged for its intrinsic meaning and not just as one element in a unified statement” (Museum of Modern Art 1965, p. 2).
The literature on photomontage is extensive. Much of it attends to claims for the truth or fallacy of photography and the news. For an overview of these debates, see (Kriebel 2014). My concerns are otherwise. I am interested in the making of the news as well as in Rosler’s engagement with how the news is made. For one seminal account of the American formation of photomontage and its attention to codes of mediation, see (Stein 1981).
Conversation with the author, December 18, 2019.
As Rosler notes with regard to First Lady (Pat Nixon), “Most viewers see this [the photograph] as a Vietnamese woman, but it is the actress Faye Dunaway in Arthur Penn’s fad movie of the era Bonnie and Clyde” (Rosler 1994, p. 69).
See, for example, Susan Sontag’s reading of the film in the opening pages of On Photography (Sontag  2002, p. 3).
In his account of Godard’s war films, Niels Niessen insists that the exclusion of images from the war in Vietnam makes Les Carabiniers “all the more a film about Vietnam” (Niessen 2013, p. 16).
Rosler’s discussion of the seams or joins is worth quoting in full. She writes, “I wanted tableaux more than action shots. Some aren’t all that rational as space, while other have no military subjects. But still, they stitch together those figures and grounds into one visual field, although the joins are often visible—not to mention the lettering peeking through from the backs of the magazine pages. I aimed to undercut any suggestion that the scenes were meant to seem ‘real,’ to show clearly that no high-handed moves were going on here” (Rosler 2019, p. 352).
Laura Cottingham makes note of the similarity in her important essay on Rosler’s photomontages and their attention to the spatial codes of mediation. See (Cottingham 1993, n.p.).
In the 1980s, Benjamin’s writing on photography helped to establish the framework for postmodernism’s critique of modernism: of its claims for originality, authenticity, and mastery. See (Phillips 1982). In this context, photography, I am suggesting, found its history through and against a modernist theory of art, not Benjamin’s historical materialism.
Though Sekula authored this essay, it was a collaborative work. Speaking of her time in San Diego, working with Sekula, Lonidier, and Steinmetz as well as David and Eleanor Antin, Rosler notes, “‘Dismantling Modernism’ was one of our oft-stated intentions. I even went so far as to assign my students short questionnaires on what modernism was and on their relationship to it” (Ribalta 2015, p. 80).
This includes the technologies of capture and making. Though made by hand, by cutting and pasting the print news, the photomontages making up the New Series were printed digitally. In 2008, as Rosler continued to work on the series, she began using Photoshop to “cut” and “paste.” “I went,” she explains, “for a somewhat slicker image, to fit better with improved magazine and newspaper printing techniques, as well as the glossier people and their props” (Gilbert 2009, p. 200).
Though not discussed explicitly with regard to her decision to exhibit the photomontages, Rosler is alluding to the Reagan administration’s attack on the National Endowment for the Arts and the “culture wars” that followed. Rosler writes about these wars extensively in two essays: “Theses on Defunding” and “The Suppression Agenda for Art.” See (Rosler  2004; Rosler  2004), respectively.
On this corrective to the canonical reading of the first line of The Communist Manifesto, see (Tomba 2012, pp. 35–59).
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