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Arni Haraldsson Friedʼs Turn Michael Fried, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008 In Michael Friedʼs latest book, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before (2008), the chapter titled “Barthesʼs Punctum” is engaging for its complex and intricate reading of sections of Roland Barthesʼs Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (1981). As such, it stands quite apart from the other nine chapters—devoted primarily to various internationally renowned contemporary art photographers such as Jeff Wall, Thomas Demand, Thomas Struth, and others—which are also engaging, but in different ways. Prior to its publication, anticipation had begun to build up around Friedʼs new book, with large portions of the text appearing in publications such as Critical Inquiry and Artforum and as lectures in various places over the past few years. Not surprisingly, Friedʼs tendency toward self-quotation has been pointed out, which prompted him to “preempt” queries regarding too narrow a focus: …the chapters that follow constantly refer to my own earlier writings; I declare this up front, to preempt the facile criticism that I am excessively preoccupied with my own ideas.“1”:#note1 Fried has also been criticized as a conservative provocateur—for failing to address media spectacle and globalization and, perhaps most notably, for not engaging in issues of social critique but primarily in issues of ontological perspicacity. For a somewhat timely counter to Why Photography Matters—although it was not intended as such—one would do well to examine Ariella Azoulayʼs The Civil Contract of Photography, a book certainly not without its faults, also published in 2008, that addresses the various instrumental applications of photography. Azoulay places in abeyance the constructed image and makes a significant contribution to the re-emergence of documentary photography as a vital component of political culture. In this sense, photography does matter, but not, as with Fried, strictly as art or a means of serving a particular agenda; it may well be that photography also matters more than ever because it is in some respects over—that is to say, over but only as weʼve known it since 1839. Friedʼs title conveys an immediacy, but its urgency fades to leave us wondering how and why the echoes of eighteenth-century pictorial rhetoric should matter for contemporary art photography as never before. Such lack or doubt, however, we neednʼt construe as a failure on Friedʼs part since, to employ an old adage, it is not only the destination but also the journey that is of interest here. Friedʼs hauteur aside, his so-called turn to photography, we learn, occurred in the mid 1990s, when he became interested in certain works of contemporary photography (Wall in particular) that impressed him as reviving and extending what Fried himself had earlier termed the “antitheatrical tradition” and whose lineage he had traced to the surfacing of absorptive motifs within the pictorial rhetoric of eighteenth-century French painting. (See his trilogy on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French painting: Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot [1980], Courbetʼs Realism [1990], and Manetʼs Modernism: Or, the Face of Painting in the 1860s [1996]).

navigating Fried within a discipline that is still relatively new to him. The discussion around Andreas Gursky is especially revealing in its suggestion of a slight wavering on Friedʼs behalf. we learn that art photography came to inherit the entire problematic of beholding as Fried had earlier defined it. too large. is identified as self-contained and self-sufficient. or selfimportant posing and provocation. Fried seems to suggest nothing less than the need for a re-aestheticization of photography. since it has increasingly come to be the place where a certain crisis of the picture inaugurated in the late 1960s and early 1970s has played out in an especially productive way. Fried informs us. as when a work addresses the beholder and declares itself before an anticipated audience. unlike in painting. as transcending the restrictions and limitations of Modernism. when. its embrace of theatricality. with “antitheatricality. and their seeming contrivance produces problems especially unique to the medium— problems that Barthes speculated on in some depth in Camera Lucida. too tweaked. too black-white—may I say too theatrical?—to be really compelling”. but he does not directly say so. Despite Friedʼs statement that he is not interested in developing “an ontology of photography. as it were. “Art and Objecthood. Although issues of inclusion and exclusion seem almost by default unavoidable. was overcome with the appearance of the tableau in the late 1970s. or world within the picture. or Craigie Horsfield. however.” recently indexicality—the notion that the medium contains the physical traces of the thing it represents—has come to assign photography the task of overcoming its seeming belonging to the world of objects. But the difficulty of achieving redemptive absorption in photographic surface. arguing that serious and important art continues to be made and experienced under a version of the “Diderotian regime or dispensation. for example. At times. one does detect the faint echo of a managerial voice. the lack of diversity among the photographers Fried discusses does prompt one to wonder how a theoretical reading of arguably the most significant image regime of the past hundred years could be so utterly singular in its assessment. This transformation that also concerns the mediumʼs digitization is. as explicated in his controversial. allowing Fried to not only further exercise his career-long animosity toward what he perceived as the shortcoming of Minimalism—namely. the antithesis of absorption for Fried is theatricality. career defining essay.” and “beholding. if not a reconfigured periodization. however inadequately outlined here in its brevity. in the work of Jean-Marc Bustamante and Thomas Ruff. more than ever before. to conveniently rehearse and extend his particular reading of the “antitheatrical tradition” (as trilogy becomes quartet). perhaps a collectivity of guiding voices in the background. Petra Wunderlich. photography began to be made specifically for the wall. Axel Hütte. was made to believe that the figures depicted are so completely engaged within the scene of the painting. among others. too reconstructed. in part. however.” etc. that they are totally unaware of being beheld. what has drawn Fried to a reconsideration of . one might infer that Fried implies as much. Such an account. To be clear.The beholder of such work. on the other hand. tend to appear staged.” “to-be-seenness.2 In this sense. an absorbed work. hence his re-assessment in 2009 of Gurskyʼs new work as recently exhibited in Basel: “…they were simply.” originally published in 1967 in _Artforum_—but more importantly. does form a rather suspiciously neat fit. To be fair. Motifs of absorption in photography. as Jean-Francois Chevrier has pointed out.3 It may well be that photography really does matter for Fried. evidenced by the predictable absence of.” Throughout. Fried argued.

I am suggesting. By further suggesting to what extent Barthes himself may have been unaware of “the ultimate implications of his own argument. or at the level of remembrance.5 The first two sentences are the most pertinent here: “Certain details may ʻprickʼ me. thus. as more than anything else this speaks to the singularity of Friedʼs agenda. He begins by drawing our attention to section 20 of Camera Lucida. as if direct vision oriented its language wrongly. elide or otherwise get round the photographerʼs intentions. I may know better a photograph I remember than a photograph I am looking at. much to his credit. Perhaps one need take heed here. however. it is doubtless because the photographer has put them there intentionally”. specifically a single page of print that for Fried.9 Indeed. with its ensuing transformation of the ontology of the photograph. and this despite his curious relegation of digitization to parentheses. Barthes does claim in Camera Lucida that the punctum may also be of the mind. functions as that guarantee”. is operating at the level of the literalist work. since that would be to fail to recognize “the depth and pervasiveness of his ʻantitheatricalʼ commitments”. seems curious at best. engaging it in an effort of description which will always miss its point of effect. fails to grasp what ultimately is at stake in Barthesʼs central distinction between studium and punctum.” an element of the punctum. This. Fried recognizes the truly aporetic nature of the punctum when he points to certain affinities between the literalist work of the Minimalists and the punctum.“10”:#note10 suggesting that meaning in literalism was essentially indeterminate. to prick.11 Although Fried is here back to proclaiming Barthes as partaking of the “antitheatrical” tradition. he generously acknowledges that Camera Lucida ultimately reveals the extent to which it is impossible to construct a radically . A truly “antitheatrical” photograph for Barthes. Friedʼs prime objective with “Barthesʼs Punctum” is to correct what he perceives to be a purely subjective response to the punctum on the part of the viewer. “embodies a radical shift in perspective”. this amounts to an “antitheatrical” claim on Barthesʼs part and thus conveniently allows him to identify Camera Lucida as being “everywhere driven by an unacknowledged anitheatricalism”.“7”:#note7 that therefore bears a close relationship to his larger argument as outlined in the absorption trilogy/quartet.The punctum. or. who. is not to identify Barthesʼs position as literalist tout court. whereby the Minimalists understood the relationship between the literalist work and the beholder as “emphatically not determined by the work itself”. the punctum”. however.6 For Fried. If they do not. Ostensibly. the punctum is a most difficult thing to pin down.photography. when the photograph is no longer in front of me and I think back on it. That Barthesʼs statement—that a given detail that strikes him as a punctum could not do so had it been intended as such by the photographer—is ultimately to be understood as “antitheatrical” should alert the reader to the profound elasticity of Friedʼs terminology. Fried informs us.”“4”:#note4 Fried prepares the ground for his particular re-reading of Barthesʼs punctum. “must somehow carry within it an ontological guarantee that it was not intended to be so by the photographer…. With regard to Barthes and his constant imperative in Camera Lucida “to evade. He identifies Barthesʼs “little book” as something of a swan song for an artifact on the brink of fundamental change brought about by two material alterations taking place at that time: digitization and the gradual increase in the physical size of art photographs. That the latter alteration should take precedence over the advent of digitization. he reminds us. rather than strictly “in” or “of” the image: “…the punctum (is) revealed only after the fact. should one say.8 Curiously. Fried suggests.

2003). Ibid. not unlike certain artist-photographers Fried discusses in his book. 95. 3. 10. 03. Notes 01. 53. Why Photography Matters As Art As Never Before (Yale University Press.” trans. 02.12 Perhaps. 1981).“anitheatrical” theory of photography. (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center. See Jean Francois-Chevrier. initiated one of the most insightful rereadings of Camera Lucida while simultaneously having performed a most reductive rewriting of that text as an “antitheatrical” animus. his revision seems too much a rehabilitation of the “late” Barthes. . Rather. 2. cat. exh. New Haven and London. Barthesʼs “little book” “is” and “is not” about photography since it is also a hybrid text. over time. somewhere between essay and fiction. 345. even in unforeseen ways. uses photography to facilitate a meditation on mourning (the death of his mother)—one might say on how mourning becomes the image. 2008). wherever relevant. 05. 08. Ibid. Michael Fried. having allowed Barthes to exercise his notion of the “third text..” Barthes. 09. 1960–82. 539–74. Michael Gilson. To be sure. the discourse around them”. “Barthesʼs Punctum” is a slightly revised version of the original published under the same title in Critical Inquiry 31 (Spring 2005). Why Photography Matters. but as regards Barthes. in The Last Picture Show: Artists Using Photography. Let it be understood that Fried himself is not being faulted here for daring to tamper with some sacred text—not at all. This and the following brief quotation appear on page 573 of that initial publication. On occasion throughout Why Photography Matters. too insistent on prescribing a future course for photography that may well be antithetical to the spirit of Camera Lucida.. 116. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. trans. 84. Ibid. 07. 11. on the one hand. Why Photography Matters. 102. Arni Haraldsson is Associate Professor of Photography at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. “The Adventures of the Picture Form in the History of Photography (1989).. In a similar vain. Roland Barthes. Fried declares his intention “to bring the entire question of antitheatricality in contemporary art photography into the open as regards both the works themselves and. 06. Friedʼs forging of “antitheatricality” with contemporary art photography ultimately fails to fully take into account the possibility of artʼs total transformation. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang. Ibid. one cannot help but feel that Fried has. “Why Photography Matters As Art As Never Before: Michael Fried in Conversation with James Welling. About this Article Friedʼs Turn was first published in Fillip 11 in Spring 2010. 04. 98.” Aperture 195 (Summer 2009).

or is published with permission of the copyright holders. artists. No part of this site may be reproduced.12. editors. All content appearing on this website is copyright to the authors. copied. 344. . and the Projectile Publishing Society. Ibid. The views expressed in Fillip are not necessarily those of the editorial board or the Projectile Publishing Society.. or transmitted in any form or by any means without express written permission.

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