It’s official. Big productions, casts of dozens, staged scenarios, the photographer as director—this is what fine art photography is now. The New York Times says so, in two features on photographers, one on Jeff Wall, which is the cover story of today’s NYT Magazine, the other on Justine Kurland in the Arts section.
You could take meaning from Wall’s work in two ways. One, considering his background in art history, is that his work is grounded in the messages and reach of the great historical epochs of painting, and he has been a major figure in catapaulting photography to major league status in the art world. The other, less charitable view, is how urgent it is for an ambitious artist to be attentive to current thinking in art theory and criticism, and to swim with the current. I don’t mean this as a criticism of Wall’s work, which I think is remarkable, mostly, it’s aimed at the Dusseldorf movement imitators and the Gregory Crewdson wannabes. There seems a lot of self-consciously ponderous, highly produced, didactic imagery out there.
The other artist anointed by the NYT is Justine Kurland in a fetchingly titled piece, "So They All Get Naked and Play, Like Mom Did." Not surprisingly, she’s a former Crewdson assistant, though the fantasy life she creates for her photographs is a lot more appealing than his. Crewdson photographs scenarios of alienation and despair. She puts tribes of naked women in the wilderness. The work is consciously referential to landscape and genre painting of the 18th and 19th century.
I am of at least two minds, maybe more, about these developments in the photography art world. It seems like a kind of return to the Pictorialist era of the turn of the last century, where photography tried to shoehorn its way into the art canon by imitating the art that was already there. Yet I applaud work that is, at the least, informed by art history and has an urgent, contemporary meaning. But the trends are not looking good for the work I do—deeply grounded in an earlier era, the mid 20th century, primarily about the photographic encounter with the world as it is found, and exhibiting an individual vision from that encounter. This is old school formalism, and it is way out of style. So says the New York Times. Oh well. Hasn’t stopped me yet.