Brief of notes on The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism

Essay by Douglas Crimp, October, Vol 15, (Winter, 1980) 91-101

Published by MIT Press

Link: (Accessed 29/05/16)

Hangout with Peter Haveland, Doug Bell (UVC), Carol Street (UCV) and me – 5pm 29/05/16

Peter asked us if we researched the writers of essays we read, and although I usually do, I had not looked up Crimp probably because his name is becoming familiar as I make my way around some of the articles and books and I’ve been looking through recently.  Good reminder not to become complacent.

I think I first became properly aware of him when I was looking at Mary Kelly’s work for A2 and referred to some of their conversation included in a book dedicated to Kelly’s work. (Mary Kelly, Phaidon, 1997, London: 8-30).  (I am interested in the connections I am making  – having read an interesting interview with Nan Goldin recently who concentrates on her relationships with the many people who died from AIDS in the 80s in it. And I know Crimp is very involved with the same issues, along with Felix Gonzalez-Torres and David Wojnarowicz, who I wrote about in varying degrees in A2.  This seems to be a key element within the art movement in NY through the 80s…) Crimp is an important critic regarding Post Modernism and integral force as curator of artists from  The Pictures Generation (Wikipedia).  He was editor of October from 1977 to 1990.

October is a critical art magazine – the online blurb states:

“At the forefront of art criticism and theory, October focuses critical attention on the contemporary arts—film, painting, music, media, photography, performance, sculpture, and literature—and their various contexts of interpretation.

Examining relationships between the arts and their critical and social contexts, October addresses a broad range of readers. Original, innovative, provocative, each issue presents the best, most current texts by and about today’s artistic, intellectual, and critical vanguard.” (MIT Press Journals website – accessed 30/05/16)

In this essay Crimp looks at photography’s relationship with the institutions that judge it as an art, accept it or don’t, and how it is situated within the umbrella term of “Post Modernism”.  What is interesting for us now is to read it in retrospect, having moved away from the era of Post Modernism into a new era which has yet to be defined, and think about photography’s role in the world generally, and as medium used by artists.

Some keys sentences for me: (Personal thoughts in response to the essay are in orange)

“a fantasy that art is free, free of other discourses, institutions, free above all, of history.” (93)

“…the kind of presence that is possible only by representation… (94) “The presence before him was a presence” (Henry James)” an absence being a presence

this presence, one that is affected by absence is what Crimp sees as Post Modernist

“This is the opposite of what Benjamin had in mind when he introduced the concept of Aura – Aura has to do with the presence of an original.”

“The museum has no truck with fakes or copies or reproductions.  The presence of the artists in the work must be detectable; that is how the museum knows it has something authentic”

“This authenticity is what is depreciated through reproduction” Mona Lisa used as an example. “the withering away of the aura is inevitable fact of our time, then equally  inevitable are all those projects to recuperate it, to pretend that the original and the unique are still possible and desirable. ….no where more apparent than in the field of photography… culprit of reproduction”

Benjamin suggested the only photographs that carried aura were those made prior to its 1850s commercialisation.  ( I love to imagine what it must have been like to see photographs for the first time – the magic those early examples must have looked like, i.e. the possibility of capturing a moment of perceived reality in a box)

Aura to Benjamin in those early examples were transmitted by the perceived skills of the photographer, the status of the sitters – early examples of bourgeoisie, and suggests “the tiny spark of chance, of the here and now, with which reality has, as it were, seared the character of the picture” (Crimp uses this quote from Benjamin’s writings) (95) (I think this ‘tiny spark of chance’ is still what we look for in a photograph even when the image is entirely constructed and in the making of it everything has been done to avoid any spark of chance from being present.  Painting, no matter how skilful, photo-centric, or abstract*, simply does not have that as a possibility – perhaps we humans, despite our conscious acceptance of photography as a cultural norm cannot get over the possibility of a tiny spark of chance being evident – even though the ‘decisive moment’ is now considered passe and old hat by some. I wonder if the images described by Elkins as ‘kitschy’ and ‘tedious’ become rendered so – if indeed one thinks they are – because any hope of a ‘tiny spark of chance’ has been utterly obliterated from their being by the ‘kitschy’ and ‘tedious’ decisions in their making? *Abstract painting – is the sort where artists throw paint at the canvas and see what ‘chance’ offers up a contradiction?  I think it is a demonstration of looking for chance rather than a tiny spark of chance being represented – but I also feel out of my depth as I write this!)

“Although it may seem Benjamin lamented their loss of aura, the contrary is true…” This I covered in an earlier project when we looked at art in the age of mechanical production  –See School of Chicago post (useful)  

“Depletion of the aura… accelerated and intensified” – “liquididation of cultural values”  -Museums are charged with sustaining values so faced with a challenge (96)

By the mid 1970s the museum has tried to recuperate the ‘auratic’  – resurgence of expressionist painting + triumph of photography as art

The painting at that time has a hatred of photography (however it it is styled)  – they see mechanical reproduction as the enemy (And in my mind, I don’t blame them – these older more established forms simply can’t compete with the magic of photography, no matter how hard they try. This may seem like a bold statement and probably needs qualifying so perhaps I should say ‘can’t compete with the magic of photography on its terms‘. I certainly love Frank Auerbach’s paintings and drawings and do not say any photography is ‘better’ but those portraits will never have something photography has, ‘the tiny spark’ – whereas, I think photography can have something of those paintings, regardless of whether one personally likes the varying styles on offer. “Like” may be a strange or less-than-helpful word to use when discussing some art? During the hangout we talked about the future of photography, which seems to be the big discussion in the ether right now, and were told that photography may well become just another medium within a host of other mediums all used together in an installation, for instance – and I do see this happening, but my love of photography as a means to itself tells me that pure photography still has a very real future – perhaps I’m ignorant and deluded)

How has photography now (70s) been conferred aura? Neither Benjamin’s “spark of chance” or Barthes “third meaning” can guarantee photography’s place in the museum? Museum expert needed to verify chemical and style – “to authenticate photography requires all the machinery of art history and museology, and more than a few sleights of hand” “incontestable rarity of age, the vintage print.”

This is not what interests Crimp. Instead..”the ways in which the connoisseurship of the photograph’s “spark of chance” is converted into a connoisseurship of the photographer’s style”.  (Is the word ‘style’ misleading nowadays as it promotes a superficial adopting of a ‘look’, an attempt to copy or concentrate on aesthetics by fledgling and more experienced photographers, which can at times get in the way of searching for ways of expressing something personal and particular, and that funny little word which seems to upset some people – authentic.)

Crimp admits that his use of the word subjectivity plays into my above question. But says that at the “origin  of ALL photography is an Artist and therefore each can find its place on the spectrum of subjectivity” (which is perhaps a bit more generous that Elkins’ position. – see my TAOP blog of What Photography is here; baring in mind I wrote it nearly two years a year ago and have learnt a great deal since)

Crimp goes on to talk about The Picture Generation who were just beginning their projects at that time – and about how they question the institutional claims about originally and aura, displacing it, subverting it (98) “These images are purloined, confiscated, appropriated, stolen.  In their work the original cannot be located, is always differed:”

He uses Levine’s appropriated images by Weston of his son Neil and points to the Greek style, subject, he has relied on, and so indicates the possibility of seeing issues copyright, originality and authorship as absurd and irrelevant. (I will talk about this in my reflection regarding my feedback for A2).

Finally Crimp suggest that aura has been replaced by presence – i.e. a ghost. (trace, indexical signification? – whereas Aura was symbolic? Not sure – think I might be confusing things here – Trying to get to grips with these terms)

“In our time, the aura has become only a presence,  which is to say, a ghost”


The talk last night during the hang out was really useful, and I was very glad to have joined and grateful to Peter for his time. It helped me to see the words and concepts surrounding ‘presence’ and ‘aura’ more clearly.  It helped me to see how institutional motivations inform the way in which our understanding of art is influenced, and how we perceive it. The essay has been useful to read and continues to inform my understanding of Post Modernism, and triggered more questions about ‘appropriation’.  I have things to say in my feedback reflection about this so won’t dwell here.



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