The Photography Reading group met yesterday in a hangout, and five of us were present. The text for discussion was Solomon-Godeau, A. (1991) ‘Canon Fodder: Authoring Eugène Atget’ in Photography in the Dock. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp. 28-51 and the essay itself was written in 1986.
After a rather slow start and after getting used to SG’s hugely academic and complex style of writing, this text turned out to be about
- authorship, and who decides it
- who are the decision makers about what constitutes the accepted canon of photography, and what motivates them
- the perceived importance of a singular style
- whether the subject can be the photographer rather than his work.
SG used Berenice Abbott’s marketing of Atget’s vast oeuvre to the American arts institutes as a vehicle for discussing the enormous power that the gatekeepers in those ‘hallowed halls’ have to both make or break the careers of individual photographers and also to dictate what work the public should be told is important (the canon). She goes into some detail about John Szarkowski’s hold on the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and his commitment to making the previously unknown work of Atget an acknowledged part of the photographic canon and to bringing his work to the attention of the world through four separate exhibitions. In some ways, this trajectory to fame had much in common with the more recent ‘discovery’ of Vivien Maier’s work – the hidden genius making vast numbers of superb images that are only discovered later, and which make vast sums of money for the people who promote them.
All this was a precursor to asking questions about whether a singular view – the personal voice – is essential for work to be recognised by the establishment, whether the acknowledged canon of the history of photography is static or changes over time, and whether alternative histories using different photographers as examples are equally valid. With regard to the first of these, one of the issues with Atget was his great variety of styles which made pigeonholing him difficult, when the fashion in the 20th century was to focus on artists with a very specific, easily recognisable style. Although still very prevalent, there is an encouraging trend more recently towards accepting photographers such as Thomas Ruff and Wolfgang Tillmans, whose style is less important than the themes they explore. SG makes a good case for questioning the solidity of the accepted canon, offering several examples of previously lauded photographers whose work has almost completely disappeared from public discourse, while suggesting that a different establishment/ different gatekeepers would come up with a variety of alternative lists depending on their own interests and fashions within their own circles of influence.
The reading group then went on to discuss the effect of funding realities on decisions about what art is promoted to the public, and how current interest in the ethics of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) can affect those decisions. Also, the bottom line that exhibitions need to make money and bring prestige to the organisations which stage them and that means making hard decisions about what the public would like to see, as well as what is currently viewed as ‘the best work’.
We talked about curation and how it is a subjective process which cannot escape the prevailing public discourse and the curator’s own interests, and how different curators would produce different representations of any artist’s work. (An interesting sideline from this is the idea of giving a group of people the same archive and asking them each to produce their own interpretation of it, which I think would be fascinating).
Finally, I very much enjoyed SG’s subliminal message in this essay. Without making any direct mention of it, I realised that almost all the photographers she referenced were women, and Berenice Abbott’s image came before Eugène Atget’s in the text, despite Atget being its ostensible subject. Abbott’s role and motives in the raising of Atget’s work was also discussed briefly, but without coming to any specific conclusion.
Overall, an interesting read and subsequent discussion, as always.