In Michael Fried’s latest book, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before (2008), the chapter titled “Barthes’s Punctum” is engaging for its complex and intricate reading of sections of Roland Barthes’s 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 Fried’s 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, Fried’s 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 Azoulay’s 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 we’ve known it since 1839. Fried’s 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 needn’t construe as a failure on Fried’s part since, to employ an old adage, it is not only the destination but also the journey that is of interest here.
Fried’s 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 , Courbet’s Realism , and Manet’s Modernism: Or, the Face of Painting in the 1860s ). The beholder of such work, Fried argued, was made to believe that the figures depicted are so completely engaged within the scene of the painting, or world within the picture, that they are totally unaware of being beheld. To be clear, the antithesis of absorption for Fried is theatricality, or self-important posing and provocation, as when a work addresses the beholder and declares itself before an anticipated audience; an absorbed work, on the other hand, is identified as self-contained and self-sufficient. Motifs of absorption in photography, however, unlike in painting, tend to appear staged, and their seeming contrivance produces problems especially unique to the medium—problems that Barthes speculated on in some depth in Camera Lucida. But the difficulty of achieving redemptive absorption in photographic surface, Fried informs us, was overcome with the appearance of the tableau in the late 1970s, in the work of Jean-Marc Bustamante and Thomas Ruff, among others, when, as Jean-Francois Chevrier has pointed out, photography began to be made specifically for the wall.2 In this sense, we learn that art photography came to inherit the entire problematic of beholding as Fried had earlier defined it.
Such an account, however inadequately outlined here in its brevity, does form a rather suspiciously neat fit, allowing Fried to not only further exercise his career-long animosity toward what he perceived as the shortcoming of Minimalism—namely, its embrace of theatricality, as explicated in his controversial, career defining essay, “Art and Objecthood,” originally published in 1967 in _Artforum_—but more importantly, to conveniently rehearse and extend his particular reading of the “antitheatrical tradition” (as trilogy becomes quartet), arguing that serious and important art continues to be made and experienced under a version of the “Diderotian regime or dispensation.” Throughout, Fried seems to suggest nothing less than the need for a re-aestheticization of photography, if not a reconfigured periodization, with “antitheatricality,” “to-be-seenness,” and “beholding,” etc. as transcending the restrictions and limitations of Modernism. To be fair, one might infer that Fried implies as much, but he does not directly say so. At times, however, one does detect the faint echo of a managerial voice, perhaps a collectivity of guiding voices in the background, navigating Fried within a discipline that is still relatively new to him, evidenced by the predictable absence of, for example, Axel Hütte, Petra Wunderlich, or Craigie Horsfield. Although issues of inclusion and exclusion seem almost by default unavoidable, 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. The discussion around Andreas Gursky is especially revealing in its suggestion of a slight wavering on Fried’s behalf; hence his re-assessment in 2009 of Gursky’s new work as recently exhibited in Basel: “...they were simply, as it were, too large, too reconstructed, too tweaked, too black-white—may I say too theatrical?—to be really compelling”.3
It may well be that photography really does matter for Fried, more than ever before, 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. Despite Fried’s statement that he is not interested in developing “an ontology of photography,” 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. This transformation that also concerns the medium’s digitization is, in part, what has drawn Fried to a reconsideration of photography, and this despite his curious relegation of digitization to parentheses. He identifies Barthes’s “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, with its ensuing transformation of the ontology of the photograph, seems curious at best. Perhaps one need take heed here, as more than anything else this speaks to the singularity of Fried’s agenda.
Ostensibly, Fried’s prime objective with “Barthes’s Punctum” is to correct what he perceives to be a purely subjective response to the punctum on the part of the viewer, who, thus, fails to grasp what ultimately is at stake in Barthes’s central distinction between studium and punctum. By further suggesting to what extent Barthes himself may have been unaware of “the ultimate implications of his own argument,”“4”:#note4 Fried prepares the ground for his particular re-reading of Barthes’s punctum. He begins by drawing our attention to section 20 of Camera Lucida, specifically a single page of print that for Fried, “embodies a radical shift in perspective”.5 The first two sentences are the most pertinent here: “Certain details may ‘prick’ me. If they do not, it is doubtless because the photographer has put them there intentionally”.6 For Fried, this amounts to an “antitheatrical” claim on Barthes’s 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. That Barthes’s 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 Fried’s terminology.
A truly “antitheatrical” photograph for Barthes, Fried informs us, “must somehow carry within it an ontological guarantee that it was not intended to be so by the photographer....The punctum, I am suggesting, functions as that guarantee”.8 Curiously, however, Barthes does claim in Camera Lucida that the punctum may also be of the mind, or at the level of remembrance, rather than strictly “in” or “of” the image: “...the punctum (is) revealed only after the fact, when the photograph is no longer in front of me and I think back on it. I may know better a photograph I remember than a photograph I am looking at, as if direct vision oriented its language wrongly, engaging it in an effort of description which will always miss its point of effect, the punctum”.9 Indeed, the punctum is a most difficult thing to pin down, or, should one say, to prick. 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, whereby the Minimalists understood the relationship between the literalist work and the beholder as “emphatically not determined by the work itself”,“10”:#note10 suggesting that meaning in literalism was essentially indeterminate. With regard to Barthes and his constant imperative in Camera Lucida “to evade, elide or otherwise get round the photographer’s intentions,” an element of the punctum, Fried suggests, is operating at the level of the literalist work. This, however, he reminds us, is not to identify Barthes’s position as literalist tout court, since that would be to fail to recognize “the depth and pervasiveness of his ‘antitheatrical’ commitments”.11 Although Fried is here back to proclaiming Barthes as partaking of the “antitheatrical” tradition, much to his credit, he generously acknowledges that Camera Lucida ultimately reveals the extent to which it is impossible to construct a radically “anitheatrical” theory of photography.
On occasion throughout Why Photography Matters, 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, wherever relevant, the discourse around them”.12 Perhaps, but as regards Barthes, one cannot help but feel that Fried has, on the one hand, 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. To be sure, Barthes’s “little book” “is” and “is not” about photography since it is also a hybrid text, somewhere between essay and fiction, having allowed Barthes to exercise his notion of the “third text.” Barthes, not unlike certain artist-photographers Fried discusses in his book, uses photography to facilitate a meditation on mourning (the death of his mother)—one might say on how mourning becomes the image. Let it be understood that Fried himself is not being faulted here for daring to tamper with some sacred text—not at all. Rather, his revision seems too much a rehabilitation of the “late” Barthes, too insistent on prescribing a future course for photography that may well be antithetical to the spirit of Camera Lucida. In a similar vain, Fried’s forging of “antitheatricality” with contemporary art photography ultimately fails to fully take into account the possibility of art’s total transformation, even in unforeseen ways, over time.
- Michael Fried, Why Photography Matters As Art As Never Before (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2008), 2.
- See Jean Francois-Chevrier, “The Adventures of the Picture Form in the History of Photography (1989),” trans. Michael Gilson, in The Last Picture Show: Artists Using Photography, 1960–82, exh. cat. (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2003), 116.
- “Why Photography Matters As Art As Never Before: Michael Fried in Conversation with James Welling,” Aperture 195 (Summer 2009), 84.
- Why Photography Matters, 95.
- Ibid., 98.
- Ibid., 3.
- Ibid., 102.
- Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 53.
- “Barthes’s Punctum” is a slightly revised version of the original published under the same title in Critical Inquiry 31 (Spring 2005), 539–74. This and the following brief quotation appear on page 573 of that initial publication.
- Why Photography Matters, 345.
- Ibid., 344.
About the Author
Arni Haraldsson is Associate Professor of Photography at Emily Carr University of Art and Design.