Michael Fried loves Jeff Wall as much as John Madden loves Brett Favre.

Michael Fried’s Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before and Ariella Azoulay’s The Civil Contract of Photography address the role of the spectator and how images implicate the viewer. The two questions they attempt to answer are: “What does it mean to look at a photograph? What is our role as spectators and how are we to perform it?” Fried’s approach is about aesthetics over viewer response, this spectatorial relationship, and distance (physical and experiential). Azoulay’s approach counteracts and supplements Susan Sontag’s viewpoint in Regarding the Pain of Others of viewer’s responsibility.

Photography shifted in the 1970s from images that established a “one-to-one relationship with the viewer to a much more public and explicitly ‘artistic’ form.” Photographs went from being created for a book to being designed for the wall; from window-matted 8×10 prints to ‘tableau’ painting size. Scale changes the function of the photograph. This shift altered the ‘relationship between the photograph and the viewer standing before it.” Details of the photographs are prioritized over the viewer experience. In this sense, the details are the experience, used as a distancing tool, so the viewer cannot place himself or herself within the image. Fried “favors a reading of the image in terms of the viewer’s ‘feeling of remaining wholly outside the proceedings the picture depicts’.

The main criticism of Fried is that he did not consider or address the context, in terms of time frame, when the images were made. Fried makes a choice to exclude images of difficult subjects, for example, violence or politically charged, in order to avoid the controversy since transparency and aesthetics the priority. This problem does arise when Fried addresses the works of Luc Delahaye and Rineke Dijkstra. When the issue of ethics, specifically in Dijkstra’s work that deals with adolescence enters, it complicates the ‘purely’ aesthetic stance.

Ariella Azoulay’s focus is on viewers’ responsibility, expanding on Susan Sontag, who asked to regard the pain of others, show sympathy to their suffering. “What are they looking at me?” versus. Fried aesthetics – confront the viewer only in order to withdraw.

Azoulay wishes to examine just these dynamics of the viewer’s responsibility to what they see…Azoulay begins to illustrate the dynamic and reciprocal relations that constitute the photograph as a civil space, organized by an unwritten yet clearly identifiable contract between its participants.

The spectator can no longer be a passive beholder. The viewer is implicated and becomes integral to the reading of the photograph. The viewer activates the images to answer this call for action. The question that I want to address when we get to the Azoulay readings is, How does this ‘contract’ function outside this realm of images? The criticism for Azoulay is that her book expands on Sontag’s point, but fails in regards of addressing or that point of being overwhelmed and desensitized to images. Azoulay and Fried’s two functions contrast each other; however, they coexist and address the deliberate tactic of how to activate a spectator of a photograph.

Fried’s interest or urgency, as he put it, in photographs came about when he saw photographs related directly to painting, ie Jeff Wall. The artist’s Fried chose to address “belong to a single photograph regime” the represent a “single complex structure of themes, concerns, and representational strategies.” Also examines the relationship between the photograph and the viewer standing before it.

Fried sets up ‘three beginnings’, three concepts that will be explored later. First idea, is the use of the cinema, cinematic language, also the terms anti-theatricality and theatricality. Fried uses three series to illustrate these tactics:  Hiroshi Sugimoto’s “Theatres”, Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills”, and Jeff Wall’s “Movie Audience.”

“theatricality”, when a picture looks deliberately outwards and declares itself to an anticipated audience, and “anti-theatricality”, when the elements of a picture are constructed without any visible concession being made to an audience, or even to the idea of an audience, and the figures within the image belong to a world of their own – in other words, when the work does not require the audience’s participation to make it complete.

Second concept addresses the works of Jeff Wall, Thomas Ruff, and Jean-Marc Bustamante, who lived in different places and concurrently began making work that: challenged the established photographic conventions regarding scale. Size had become an arbitrary decision. The larger than “appropriate” scale addresses, What a life-size image does? Details became crucial to content and also “visual presence” of a close to life-size. Second concept also addresses photographs that are made for the ‘Wall’, the introduction ‘new’ photo idea of the ‘tableau form’ as coined by Jean-François Chevrier.  At this new scale, they are considered in a similar context as painting; also another marking point that photography is an established art form. The distinction is made that not all work in “new” photo can utilize the tableau form. “Documentary lives in books, made for books not the wall.” There is now this “one-to-one relationship solely through their physical presence.” The details, color attracts and repels. There is too much to take in, therefore, creating a distance and “exclusion” of the beholder as a photographic strategy.

The third beginning uses 3 texts, Adelaide, ou la femme morte d’amour (the woman who died from love), Yukio Mishima’s, The Temple of Doom, and Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, addresses the “construction of the new relationship between photographs and beholder voyeurism.”

A voyeur is “present but hidden from a place of scrutiny”, forgotten, “functionally absent.” “Being seen by absolutely no one and being unaware of being seen, yet basically different.”

Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before expands on previous ideas Fried has in his 1967 essay, Art and Objecthood and Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (1980). The idea of the beholder or beholding is approached in both Fried and Azoulay’s writing. Fried states that photography inherited “the entire problematic of beholding.”

A beholder is an observer: someone who gains awareness of things through the senses, especially sight. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then the person who is observing gets to decide what is beautiful. A common saying is “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” which means beauty doesn’t exist on its own but is created by observers. That famous quote can help you remember that a beholder is someone who sees or otherwise experiences things, becoming aware of them. To be a beholder, you have to pay attention. Different beholders might take in different aspects of the same event, like witnesses to a crime.

Absorption – the process or action by which one thing absorbs or is absorbed by another; absorbed – to take in and make part of an existent whole.

The problem is between the theatricality and anti-theatricality. Theatricality requires participation and anti-theatricality does not require precipitation. Fried addresses these two concepts and how different artists employ them.

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 Arne Svenson – The Neighbors

Considering the concepts of aesthetics, voyeurism, theatricality, anti-theatricality, and the beholder, I remembered this series by Arne Svenson The Neighbors from last year that caused controversies. The images are aesthetically pleasing and have this color palette and composition that mimic art history painting masters. The question of ethics specifically pertaining to privacy and the relationship between the photographer and those being photographed, without their consent. There is a complicated play between aesthetics, the position of the beholder (active and passive), audience, and between theatricality (participation) and anti-theatricality (non-participation). I am still trying to weigh if this project is successful because of this complication and how it could fit within Michael Fried’s arguments. I see in the complicated realm of the criticism that was pointed out in the review similar to the work of Rineke Dijkstra. When focus is placed on a particular person, ethic issues arise and complicates the relationship of the viewer. Can they still be passive, even though aesthetics is the priority? 


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