When the medium becomes the message - an example


General Photography

Sonnabend is probably the gallery that most closely resembles an actual photography museum in (New York’s) Chelsea. Whenever I’m in town I go to see their shows, especially since almost inevitably it’s one of the usual German suspects (and even just a glimpse of, say, one of Elger Esser’s large photographs, often - and sadly enough - makes the whole trip to Chelsea worthwhile).

Just a few weeks ago, I went again. It has become a bit of a tradition for me to go with my brother in law J., who likes modern art and photography (he has a degree from RISD) and who, I suspect, likes the prospect of having someone who not only will happily pick shows to go to in advance but who also is somewhat in the know about the shows. I remember I got excited about the prospect of seeing that they were showing new work by Clifford Ross whose hurricane photographs I was familiar with.

This time, Sonnabend showed a whole bunch of very large images, all of which contained the same photograph as a basis - a photograph, which, the more often I saw it, got less and less interesting. In fact, it wasn’t even such an interesting image to begin with. Some lake with some big mountain. Needless to say, in situations like this one, J. likes to ask me about what we are actually looking at and what I was thinking of it, the answer to the former I remember to be “I don’t really know”, and the answer to the latter of which it would be somewhat rude to quote here (hint: it contained a lot of sounds that you can also find in German).

I was making some guesses as to what we were seeing, but at the end of the day I was struck by what simply looked like someone being in love with Photoshop (J. advanced that theory if I remember correctly). Of course, the whole commercial photography sector is in love with Photoshop, but when you see it at Sonnabend it does make you wonder.

Just a few days ago, I finally found the answer on Harlan Erskine’s blog (I could have found it on Clifford Ross’ website, too - but somehow the work had been too literally forgettable for that option). Quoting from the NY Times, his entry noted that “Mr. Ross has taken photographs on 9-by-18-inch negatives that when slowly processed by hand and digitally scanned contain 100 times as much data as the average professional digital camera.”

There we go: A basic case of when the medium becomes the message. In principle, the camera could be used for all kinds of interesting purposes. But taking a photo of some mountain and then messing with it in Photoshop doesn’t really look like one.

Contrast this with Andreas Gursky’s approach, who produces equally large and involved images (please don’t email me to start arguments about whether or not those are “Gigapixel” or “What-have-you-pixel”!), using Photoshop (or whatever else), but whose images are vastly more interesting. Seriously.

Granted, Clifford Ross’ Mountain Redux looks “artier” - or maybe that’s the problem with it. I don’t know. But it’s such a prime example for my complaint about photography where someone appears to be so much in awe of some process that the photography/art produced at the end automatically is assumed to be great. It simply isn’t.