The Judgement Seat of Photography

Notes on Christopher Phillips ‘The Judgement Seat of Photography’

Phillips, C (s.d.) The Judgement Seat of Photography in Bolton, R. (1989) The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography (The MIT Press). (New Ed edition) (s.l.): MIT Press.

Walter Benjamin suggested mechanical reproduction means veneration of photography as art is no longer applicable. Theodor Adorno disagreed, suggesting Benjamin is naïve to think it is as clear cut as that

Alfred J. Barr and Beaumont Newhall help MoMA become the main influence in shaping ‘aesthetic theory of museum management’. Newhall propounds the aesthetic merit of photography as the primary means of judgement. MoMA (and by extension other U.S. photographic exhibitions) begins to emulate other art museums.

Ansel Adams worked with Newhall  ’60 Photographs: A Survey of Camera Esthetics’ , which reinforces the idea of rarity and authenticity. Adams also introduces the idea, later reinforced by Szarkowski, of reinterpreting past photographs and photographers, to apply an art aesthetic to work that was never intended that way. The civil war and western expansion work of O’Sullivan, Brady and Watkins were all reinterpreted in art terms.

Edward Steichen retreats from Newhall and Adams position and applies his own aesthetic, by refuting the autonomy of the photographer and staging exhibitions that applied his own artistic judgment onto everything.  Photography is no longer a theme but simply a medium. Steichen was prepared to re-crop, alter captions, and reprint on different materials, in order to support his own ideas.  Photographer Irving Penn said that at the time he and other photographers were more inclined towards print as a medium rather than exhibitions, as MoMA had effectively turned exhibition spaces into the equivalent of a magazine spread. Phillips says of Steichen’s approach that it aims for ‘emotional immediacy, graphic inventiveness, avoidance of difficulty’ (Phillips,s.d. : 33).

This is when MoMA became effectively the controlling influence in the role of art in photography. Younger photographers – Frank, Callahan – took against Steichen’s position was reversed by John Szarkowski, who more closely favoured Newhall’s approach. Rather than Newhall’s separation of a distinct ‘high art’ photography, Szarkowski wanted to reclaim photography altogether from mass culture. He set out a framework, a vocabulary, that allowed photography to exist as a separate art space from other media.  

Szarkowski ‘s position is that photography arises as both a direct descendent of painting, and a brand new modernist toolset. Phillips regards this as trying to have it both ways, and that Szarkowski simply allows photographic history to be rewritten over time

Key Texts

Walter Benjamin – ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’

Beaumont Newhall  – ‘Photography: A Short Critical History’

John Szarkowski – ‘The Photographer’s Eye’

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