Review: Michael Fried, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before

Published in Discipline, Issue 1

Whenever I pick up a new book on the aesthetics and ontology of photography, I’m reminded of a scene in Annie Hall (1977). Alvy (Woody Allen) and Annie (Diane Keaton) are standing on a balcony overlooking New York and flirting. Insecure, older Alvy compliments Annie on her photographs and then says: ‘Photography is interesting, because it’s a new art form and a set of aesthetic criteria has not emerged yet.’ It’s a funny shot because beneath the image is Alvy’s thought: ‘I wonder what she looks like naked?’ As well as being slyly humorous, I think this moment reveals Allen’s acuity about what was happening in theory and criticism in the late-1970s. In the same year as Annie Hall was released, Susan Sontag published On Photography, and in its wake came an explosion of writing on photography — including, in 1980, Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, which remains one of the best-loved texts on photography. As self-professed ‘scholarly gatecrasher’ Geoff Dyer points out, Barthes’s book became an example of how one might meld theory, creativity and personal memory to describe an art form that was many things to many people.[i] Camera Lucida is almost like a poem about photography, lyrical, divergent and surprising, so I was curious to find a chapter devoted to it in Michael Fried’s Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before. Michael Fried is an art-historian with a penchant for taxonomy, famous for his bristling 1967 Artforum essay ‘Art and Objecthood’, which antagonistically dismissed Minimalist art on account of its ‘theatricality’.  He approaches Camera Lucida with a similarly analytic set of mind, and after a thorough critique of each section determines that Barthes’s inklings about photography are unsubstantiated. This rejection of Barthes’s emotional investment in his personal photographs points to a deeper issue in Fried’s work.  Barthes’s relationship to photography is one of the heart, and Fried’s analysis of works of staged art photography, comes from the head.

In the opening paragraphs of Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, Fried states: ‘my motivation for writing about recent art photography has everything to do with my belief that issues [of anti-theatricality and theatricality] that might have seemed … forever invalidated by the eclipse of high modernism and the triumph of postmodernism both artistically and theoretically in the 1970s and ’80s have returned … to the very centre of advanced photographic practice.’[ii] (My ellipses give you an idea of how long-winded Fried’s sentences can be.) In short, photography matters for Fried because he sees in the work of several recent art photographers a chance for modernist concerns to re-assert themselves. I suspect Fried is aware that the battle between modernity and postmodernity has not only been played out, but that artistic discourse has since (one could argue as a result of postmodernism) become engaged with exploring specific rather than general ideas — affect theory, the tracing of technology in art, the style of small groups of artists etc. — but here, with analyses of a selection contemporary photographers including Jeff Wall, Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky, Hiroshi Sugimoto and Bernd and Hilla Becher to support him, he stubbornly attempts to resurrect these fading concerns.   

Every image in Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before is tested against the positions of absorption and theatricality initially laid out in Fried’s book on Diderot and late-eighteenth-century painting, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (1980). Judged according to this criteria, artworks that seek to jolt, amuse and commune with their audience are found wanting in comparison with works that wear their awareness lightly. Although I know Fried has a longstanding interest in photography, it nevertheless surprises me that he has chosen to reassert these arguments in relation to a medium that is so firmly rooted in the happenstance aesthetics of the postmodern era. Unlike other mediums, photography moves gracefully between the public and private spheres, art and advertising, past and present, technical brilliance and lo-fi aesthetics and the extremes of presentation — bold billboards on the one hand and modest albums and Flickr pages on the other. Because of its close links to technology, I think of photography as inherently spectacular, a medium of wonder. I can see traces of photography’s errant history in the images presented in this book, but the quietness of many of the works — empty rooms, unaware people, unrecognizable landscapes — and the fact that they were made to be shown in art galleries has clearly drawn Fried in. Here — in direct contrast to recent theoretical developments like relational aesthetics, inaesthetics and installation art — are figurative pictures, hung like nineteenth-century paintings on bare white walls.

It was in ‘Art and Objecthood’ that Fried first introduced his idea of theatricality. In an evaluation of the then very new work of minimalist (what Fried then referred to as ‘literalist’, a term he still prefers) artists Robert Morris, Donald Judd and Tony Smith, Fried decries their experiments with form and space as showy and hollow, incapable of ‘the seriousness … established by the finest painting and sculpture of the recent past’.[iii] These performative works disrupted the previously well defined space of the gallery and gave the viewer an experience, pulling into focus not only the work itself, but the entire space of the gallery and the spectator’s position in it. For Fried, big gestures bear a small message and this blatant attempt to affect the audience felt to him like compensation for a lack of depth. Although absorption, a term Fried acquired from Diderot, was initially theatricality’s counterpoint, in Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, Fried asserts that both absorptive and theatrical (here often called ‘facing-ness’) works are essentially closed to their audience. He introduces this idea early in the book, with a brief discussion of Jean-Marc Bustamante’s tableaus. In Fried’s interpretation of these distant landscapes, the audience is excluded from the space of the image by not being able to see what is happening in the photograph, by not being able to work out what the photograph is of. For Fried, the photos are silent and it is this silence that gives them their depth.    

Fried’s reading of this silence between art and audience is most decisively, and perhaps most unconvincingly, expressed in the chapter on Thomas Struth’s Museum Photographs (1989-1992). These large prints of people in museums, taken first of real visitors in open gallery spaces and later set up with actors posing as gallery visitors, quite naturally raise questions about the interaction between visitor and gallery. Although I see in some of Struth’s museum pictures a critique of traditional gallery presentation, Fried avoids mentioning recent debates about gallery-audience or inter-audience interactivity. The inescapable concept of ‘relational aesthetics’, as presented by Nicolas Bourriaud in his 2002 book Relational Aesthetics, is in many ways the full-blown conclusion to Tony Smith’s desire to give the spectator the type of experience that Fried condemned in ‘Art and Objecthood’. In Bourriaud’s view, the enacting of an interactive experience is political. In works like Felix Gonzales-Torres’s piles of candy he sees a desire to reinstate the gesture of collaboration that was once a part of everyday life, but that has recently been diminished as human contacts are replaced with virtual ones. There is room here for Fried to engage with Bourriaud’s ideas to his own advantage — after all, the whole idea of re-creating the gallery space through interactivity relies on having an audience that is engaged with the debate in the first place, and rather than encouraging people to play, works like Bianca Hester’s recent Please leave these windows open overnight to enable the fans to draw in cool air during the early hours of the morning at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art actually often confuse and deter people.

Rather than engage with such ideas, Fried instead makes his point through repeated examples of works that impair engagement. Sometimes he gets it right.  Andreas Gursky’s Untitled XII (I) (1999), a large photograph of what looks like a page of a book but on closer inspection turns out to be several unconnected sentences taken from Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities (1930–42) retyped and set to look like a printed page, clearly plays with the notion of communication. But other photographs, such as those by Struth, sit less comfortably with Fried’s premise that art and audience occupy separate spaces. Of Art Institute of Chicago 2 (1990), an image of a woman looking at Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street (1877), he writes,

Struth’s photograph makes it especially clear that such permeability [the oozing of life into art] is nothing more than pictorial fiction — that far from visually subsuming the woman standing before it, the painting in the photograph is not only closed to her but in the end almost actively indifferent to her very existence.[iv]

I’m not convinced. Struth’s photograph shows a woman with a stroller looking into the painting from the space in the lower left area of the frame. The couple walking in the painting appear to come toward the woman in the photograph, as she, her back foot raised slightly, looks as though she is about to step into the painting. The painted couple’s eyeline creates a diagonal line that meets with the photographed woman’s head. For me, the forward-backward movement creates an impression of the two spaces folding into each other, alluding to a physical sensation of falling-into-the-canvas.

This incongruity between Fried’s argument and the pictures used to support it is even more pronounced in the chapters on Jeff Wall’s large lightboxes of people absorbed in everyday tasks. As the author is at pains to point out, Wall and Fried became friends through a mutual appreciation of each other’s work, and Wall’s images have been directly influenced by Fried’s writing on absorption and theatricality. But what at first seems to be a mutual understanding strikes me as a misunderstanding. For a start, Wall’s process and presentation — his images are digitally put together from hundreds of shots to get the perfect lighting and smooth tonal range before being mounted in lightboxes — draws attention to itself through its impressive detail and tonal range. The first time I saw one of Wall’s lightboxes, I was unfamiliar with his process, but the clarity and impossible depth of field made me want to know how he made them. The spectacle of technology, emphasised by the lightbox presentation, drew me into the image. Fried acknowledges the central place of technology in Wall’s lightboxes but, curiously, does not explore its effect on the beholder nor interrogate the implications of digitality for the presentation of absorption. James Heffernan, academic and author of Cultivating Picturacy, a study of painting and language, notes: ‘in showing how Wall — by his own account — meticulously stages his photographs of absorption, Fried prompts us to wonder if Wall thereby deconstructs the wall that Fried himself has erected … between absorption and theatricality.’[v] Furthermore, since audiences today are so familiar with back-of-the-head shots from cinema and video games, I feel the absorbed gestures that Wall’s actors engage in do not actually exclude the viewer, as Fried contends, but instead beckon them into the image. This is emphasised particularly in the photographs inspired by literature. In Wall’s melancholy After Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima, Chapter 34 (2000-2005), for instance, the delicate way the woman stretches forward with her shoe in one hand directs the viewer’s eye into the picture, and the careless wave of her purse loop on the padded seat leads our attention to the weight and texture of the leather. With its suggestion of narrative the image is like a shot from a film, luring the spectator into the world within the frame.

No doubt Fried would be horrified by this suggestion. After all, his main argument here is that all great artworks are unknowable. On this he is incessant and single-minded. Reading Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before is like falling down a rabbit hole, tumbling away from a joyful conversation with art into a gallery that is dark and silent and cold. Of course, this demonstrates his point. Fried does not want art to be inclusive. He seems to feel that for art to meet its audience head on and engage their whole bodies in a collaboration means to diminish the space for reflection and the accumulation of depth. This is where I think he is fundamentally mistaken about audiences. I don’t think someone is more likely to reflect on a conventionally hung photograph or painting than on an interactive installation, video work or game. Some people will reflect and others won’t. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that the art is there for the people who seek it out and for those who stumble across it and are captivated, moved and inspired. Art has always been, in the words of Jeff Wall, ‘for anyone, but not for everyone’. And despite Fried’s insistence that art and life occupy irreconcilable spaces, I still agree with Barnett Newman when he said, of looking at art, ‘it’s no different really, from meeting another person’.


[i] Geoff Dyer, ‘Camera Lucida in the Age of Chimping’, in The Believer, Vol. 74, September 2010, p. 21.

[ii] Michael Fried, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008, p. 2.

[iii] Michael Fried, Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1998, p. 155.

[iv] Fried, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, p. 120.

[v] James AW Heffernan, ‘Staging Absorption and Transmuting the Everyday: A Response to Michael Fried’, in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 34, No. 4, 2008, p. 818–34.