when I was 19 and started taking pictures it was the hard light of the southern California desert that interest me. The ephemeral nature of light â€“ that was the underlying subject, photography as a way to notate landscape and light.
I was introduced to the images of Gary Winograd, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Robert Capra, Cartier=Bresson, Jacques Henri Lartique, Lee Freelinder., Eugene Meatyard... These were the photographers I saw for the first time at my Harvard summer school class taught by Ben Lifson.
These photographers either worked in the reportage mode or meet with subjects and with their consent took their pictures.
Simultaneously conceptual artists in the seventies began to use photography in a much more deadpan, casual and documentary way. Robert Smithson uses photography to document, Spiral Jetty, or Robert Long his walks in the country side in England. It some sense this follows the action and happening painters using the canvas to capture a larger event. At the same time with the advent of video, artist like Dan Graham, Barry Leva, Gary Hill, Bruce Nauman, Michael Snow become interested in the body in space, recording, presence, real time.
This is to say that artists distinct from photographers and filmmakers were not interested in the image as a privileged instant or decisive moment, for them the camera did not imitate painting in terms of framing, light, composition, depth, all those things that have to do with exposing and realizing an image, all those things you see in the history of photography that come out of the history of painting.
Photography soon enough responds to the use of its medium by artists and in turn photography becomes more conceptual, more self=interrogating. I remember Ben Lifson showing us a Gary Winograd black and white photograph of a steer set off to the side in a barn. There was nothing remarkable about the picture. Just that kind of off center axis that you see in many Winograd photos. Lifson told us that Winograd paid to take this picture. That the picture was staged. The casual ness of the photo and the fact of it being paid for and staged really threw me. It placed the photograph into an entirely different realm, in fact at that very moment it placed all photographs in this other realm. It was no longer about the image, but the image as event of its own construction. Even an event of the camera itself.
For some time I could not go on taking pictures because that was what photography was. Taking pictures. Framing images. But was it what photography is?
Years later I was reading Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida and was struck by the color polaroid image in the first few pages of the book, an image looking on from inside a dimly back lit, floor to ceiling blue green curtain, that opened, slightly at the bottom near the floor to into a kind of small V-shape, to an undefined outside. I took my camera out and photographed it. Perhaps it was this slight opening in the curtain in the image, this dabbled light that unconsciously compelled me. Like the punctum, Barthes talks about in the book, it is what I add to the photograph that is nonetheless already there, this â€˜Vâ€™ brought on a Proustian Madeline like event which had everything to do with photography.
Photographing this image again and again was to use photography to capture photography, to recreate the moment of seeing of photography in the context of a book on photography. It was my redoubling of the instant of the Polaroid instamatic, me indexing â€˜a photographâ€™. The thought of that stayed with me a very long time. Such that I was compelled at times to take out the book and my camera and photograph the image again. Sometimes I would just look at it through the viewfinder and move the viewfinder about it. This was an image I could make again and again. I simply had to pick up the book, open it and photograph the photograph.
In this instant what was photography doing? Photography was a fact of mechanical seeing. A construct of recording. The photograph was making something seen. Seen again. Seen in a photograph. Abstracted from its source into the world of image. Yes images live in their own world as much as they do ours. This moment for me was seeing the seeing of photography.