Most people would probably agree with the premise that photography is an art form. But just what makes a photograph a work of art is more ambiguous.
For a certain kind of purist, the landscapes of Ansel Adams set a standard: beautifully composed and gorgeously printed. For another, a vivid street scene or a carefully planned portrait translates into a distinguished image. But in the late 1960s, when John Baldessari created grainy black-and-white images of the drab sights along the streets of National City (a town just south of the San Diego city limits), it’s a safe bet that few would have thought this was a significant use of photography. As it turns out, it was, not because they set a new tone for artfulness but because they raised new ideas about how to think about photography, combining image with text and challenging ideas about the role of the artist.
From its earliest years, the art department at the University of California, San Diego — established in 1967 — brought in artists who were inclined to think this way about the role of the artist. Baldessari, a key California conceptual artist, was an early hire — though he left in 1970 for California Institute of the Arts. Allan Kaprow, inventor of the genre-busting form called the “Happening,” was another. Poet and highly regarded critic David Antin also came on board and, shortly thereafter, so did his wife Eleanor Antin, a seminal feminist and multimedia artist.
As Jill Dawsey, a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, sees it, photography became a connective thread in their disparate works. And one group of early MFA students made it front and center with their desire to push this experimentation in the direction of social and political issues. To tell this history, she has assembled a large scale exhibition and catalog, “The Uses of Photography: Art, Politics, and the Reinvention of a Medium.”
The exhibition and book have examples from the full range of artists at UCSD who employed photography, video and filmmaking in conceptual ways from the late 1960s to the early 1980s: Eleanor Antin, Baldessari, Kaprow, Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison, Louis Hock and Babette Mangold, among them. But it is a particular group — Martha Rosler, Allan Sekula, Phel Steinmetz and Fred Lonidier — who provided the core focus of this project. They took a doubtful view of the notion of photography as a form of visual truth, images that persuaded you that they were lifted from life itself, as in the documentary tradition — whose major figures included Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. They were nothing if not ambitious.
Proof of that determination: the title alone of Sekula’s often anthologized 1978 essay, “Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary.” Dawsey’s title for the exhibition and book alludes to his with its use of “reinvention.”
“They were not a movement, but they were clustered, so I prefer to call them a constellation,” Dawsey said.
For her, it all began with a chapter in her doctoral dissertation on Rosler, the incisive and innovative feminist video and multimedia artist, who has had a five-decade history of exhibitions and writings. Rosler’s formative work was done while studying at UCSD. And in learning about Rosler’s cohorts at UCSD while doing her research for the dissertation, Dawsey thought there was surely an exhibition worth doing about the group.
“They just deserved more art historical attention,” Dawsey asserted, explaining her motivations for the show.
All of these then emerging artists, in different ways, sought to make the viewer aware of photography as one information system among others. And all of them would have likely agreed with key points of Sekula’s essay, when he argued for “an art that refers to something beyond itself, “and for an art that “exposed the myth that accompanies the label” of documentary.
Rosler’s photomontages from this time — some prominently featured in the landmark exhibition “Wack!: Art and the Feminist Revolution” (2007) — were an incisive critique of fashion photography and it’s use of female beauty as a sales tool. The entire series, “Body Beautiful or Beauty Knows No Pain” (1966-1972), have a witty in-your-face quality. They use photomontage to create images like “Cargo Cult,” with its stack of containers that become frames for women’s faces from various advertisements on the deck of a ship, as if ready for shipping.
Rosler also found an effective way to play street images off of text to suggest how neither really get to the heart of a social problem. In “The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems” (1974-75), each black and white picture has a companion panel with phrases. The words evoke people who are never there: an image of a bottle in front of a storefront is accompanied by “stewed/boiled/potted/corned/pickled” and so on. Another image of liquor bottles piled along a fence is accompanied by a panel that reads: “dead soldiers/dead marines.” Rosler asks us to make whatever meaning we want from the pair of inadequate systems of information.
As much as Rosler and the others were always using photography, Dawsey pointed out, “it was not about the technical skills of the medium.”
Artists had learned from Edward Ruscha and his books like “Twentysix Gasoline Stations” (1963) and “Thirtyfour Parking Lots in Los Angeles” (1967) that it was about the impact of the concept as presented through pictures. No one would have missed the connection between what Ruscha was doing with Lonidier’s “29 Arrests: Headquarters of the 11th Naval District, May 4, 1972” (1972). The deadpan presentation of imagery was similar: instead of one parking lot per frame there was one antiwar protestor posing for a camera. And it wasn’t Lonidier’s camera they were posting for, it turned out, but the official military police photographer. He was shooting behind him. Still, his choice of subject was more charged than Ruscha’s, and implicitly political.
The work least known to Dawsey before beginning her research for the exhibition were Steinmetz’s photographs, many of which he had assembled into books. He had remained at UCSD, joining the faculty, but he simply had not exhibited all that much. For Dawsey, his work was something of a revelation. (Steinmetz died in 2013.)
“He was an astonishingly good photographer and he is beginning to get some attention recently,” Dawsey said.
For the book “Oil, Profit, Control” (1973), he photographed shuttered gas stations against the backdrop of an oil embargo that had led to their demise. He also included news clippings about the oil companies’ role in the shortages. In his series “Landscrapes” (1977), Steinmetz revealed a keen eye for the way development was yielding stark tracts of houses and non-descript apartment buildings.
His presence was also a vivid example of what Dawsey meant when she said “influence in the group went in multiple directions.”
While Lonidier and Sekula heightened his sense of photography as a tool of social criticism, Steinmetz taught Lonidier some of the skills he needed to make a series like “29 Arrests.” Moreover, Steinmetz was the photographer on Eleanor Antin’s seminal quasi-narrative series of postcards, “100 Boots” (1972) and aided her on many subsequent projects.
Another revelation for Dawsey was just how pivotal UCSD’s art department had been for Carrie Mae Weems, who went on to become a widely recognized narrative photographer, video and installation artist whose work looks to illuminate a broad range of African-American culture. She came later to the program, in the early 1980s, inspired by encouragement from Lonidier and from the storytelling ideas of David and Eleanor Antin. The series “S.E. San Diego” (1982-83) consisted of environmental portraits coupled with text rooted in interviews Weems had done with her subjects. Dawsey was struck by the beauty of Weems’ project. And for the first time, the entire series is on view in the exhibition.
The work in “The Uses of Photography,” as a whole, “feels relevant” to art being made now and to the current political climate. And if its emergence revolved around UCSD, it would be a mistake to see it as regional.
“Its impact and influence is much bigger than that,” Dawsey said.
Exhibition "Photography: Art, Politics, and the Reinvention of a Medium" runs through January 2, 2017 at MCASD La Jolla.
Top image: Babette Mangolte, "There? Where?," 1979. 16mm color film transferred to DVD. 10 min. | Courtesy of the artist