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Pictorial Photography

ENGL 790.401
Tuesdays 1:30-4:30 pm

This course is about pictorial photography: large-format analogue and digital images that look “scenic” or “staged,” require a prolonged and attentive viewing, and are destined for the wall of a museum.  Until quite recently, most of us associated this kind of  photography with the 70s, 80s and early 90s, i.e., with poststructuralist theory and the aesthetics of postmodernism. It seemed a perfect illustration of the axiom that a photograph is only a representation—or, better yet, a representation of a representation, since everything is a cultural construction. But not only has pictorial photography continued unabated, it has gained more and more momentum. It has also proven resistant to all of our attempts to derealize it—to treat it as a tool, a commodity, a fiction or any other kind of human artefact.  Something else is happening here, something big and important, and we need to figure out what it is. As everyone with a theoretical interest in contemporary art already knows, in 1977 Douglas Crimp organized an exhibition called “Pictures,” and thirty-three years later Michael Fried published a book on pictorial photography.  These two events are oppositionally connected; Crimp defined his show against Fried’s “Art and Objecthood,” and Fried reasserts the argument he makes in “Art and Objecthood” through his readings of pictorial photography. But Crimp’s exhibition and Fried’s book are more than two arrows moving in slow, motion across a three-decade divide. There are also many other players in this drama, some of whom offer very different accounts of pictorial photography, but all of whom seem to think that it is more than a blip on the screen of art history. This is, I believe, because the stakes are not just aesthetic, intellectual and political, they are also ontological. Pictorial photography is an important chapter within a larger narrative—one that began with the first pinhole camera, and will end only when we do. This narrative is the story of our relationship to the world. Since this chapter of the narrative begins with Pictorialism and Camera Work, that is also where we will begin.

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