Author: Michael Fried
Publisher: Yale University Press
Review by Conrad J. Obregon
Cutting to the conclusion, the answer to the question posed by the author in the title is that now photography has provided the author with the work of more photographers that the author can bend to fit within a pet theory that he has developed over the years.
Michael Fried is the author of books like Absorption and Theatricality and Art and Objecthood which, he tells the reader throughout this book, are important works if one is to understand much of modern art. The author analyzes the work of many modern photographers, some of whom at first glance might appear to have nothing in common, including Jeff Wall, Thomas Ruff, Jean-Marc Bustamante, Cindy Sherman, Thomas Struth, Andreas Gurski, Luc Delahaye, Rineke Dijkstra, Thomas Demand, Hiroshi Sugimoto and even Bernd and Hilla Becher. For many viewers, the images of these photographers have been difficult to understand so that a global explanation of their work would certainly be welcome. As far as I can deduce, Frieds thesis is that the photographers, while creating works that are clearly meant to be seen, are at the same time trying to be antitheatrical, which in the authors lexicon means creating the illusion that the subjects are unaware of the photographer. I must confess that for many of the artists this was an easy to accept proposition that did not require so many pages for such a simple idea. However, even when I accepted this, I wondered how this aspect of form explicated the content of the pictures.
I was confused by Frieds lengthy incorporations of ideas presented by Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Barthes, and Hegel. There is no doubt in my mind that the branch of philosophy known as aesthetics can help us to understand the works of some modern art photographers. Unfortunately Frieds explanations often obscured the help that aesthetics might provide rather then clarifying the matter. During these discussions I regularly wondered how an aesthetician like Arthur C. Danto might have explained the thoughts of the same philosophers.
I was also reminded of the saying that, to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When Fried explained the antitheatrical, using photographs that showed live subjects behaving as if they did not know of the presence of the photographers, even though they must have, it made clear sense to me. On the other hand I had a hard time finding the antitheatrical in Ruffs portraits of individuals staring deadpan at the camera or Struths family portraits that show whole families looking at the camera (and seeming to my mind to look like many other well exposed pictures of people at a family gathering). It was even harder for me to understand how the typologies of the Bechers, consisting of groups of pictures of, say, water towers, were concerned with the antitheatrical rather then an explanation of the nature of ideal forms.
I was left with the same feeling on finishing this book that I am left with when I look at Walls photographs. There is something important being said here that I can’t grasp. Perhaps if the author were to rework the book, spending less time praising his own prior accomplishments and more time trying to clarify the common thread that he sees in these photographs in accessible language, he will have created a book that would allow people to understand the photographs being discussed rather then adding to the confusion.