Published  07/07/2008

Book review: Photo Art: The New World of Photography

Photo Art: The New World of Photography

Edited by Uta Grosenick and Thomas Seelig
London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, 2008

This work, which originated with the Cologne publisher DuMont Buchverlag in 2007, is an invaluable aid to historians of contemporary art and photography. Some 120 international artists who have helped to define the parameters of photography are included, backed up on average with four pages each of high-resolution reproduction. One might, as many will, question the selection, but this is an inevitable response in a field where every enthusiast has his or her own choices. For example, this writer would want to include Bill Henson and, perhaps in homage, Peter Hujar (d.1987), who in 1975 brought Susan Sontag to us all. Prominent amongst the photographers chosen here is the remarkable work of Tacita Dean. Taiji Matsue's landscapes, angled and stark, offer a reprise on the whole concept of aerial photography, taking us back to the balloon-based views of the Italian Futurist Giacomo Balla of the 'Roman Coliseum' (1908). In comparison, the aerial cityscapes of Olivo Barbero reflect the frenzied movement of humanity, ant-like from 1,500 feet, through traffic intersections as uncompromising, as was Balla's 'Coliseum'. Aglaia Konrad also makes aerial views, but these, from a similar height, seem drone-taken, frozen in time. The enigmatically sublime 'staged' photographs of the Finn-Elina Brotherhus are impeccably reproduced. It is interesting to compare the scene of picture-viewing with that in the work of Luc Delahaye. Examples are taken from his Baghdad and Kabul Road images. Michael Wesely had the good fortune to be selected earlier by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, to photograph its own building project. The image shown seems to reflect Wesely's scepticism, but he carefully veils such sentiments in respect for the accompanying self-esteem of the institution. The poetry seems drained out. This could be the independence of the photographer-artist speaking, averse to any pre-set agenda. Two landscapes are also included, recapturing more purely the rejection of Surrealism evident in the works of Barnett Newman.

The book is well-organised, as it needs to be for such a massive survey, and has a succinct essay on each artist. However equally useful, especially to the relative newcomer to the field, is the introductory essay on the aesthetics of photography, by Paolo Bianchi, from the Hochschule der Künste in Zurich. Bianchi ranges sectionally from 'The Photography of the Imagination', to 'Of Emotion', 'Of Memory', 'Of Association', 'Of Sensation', and recognises that sharp-eyed vision has to be the driving force of perception. The manually created landscapes of Sonja Braas indicate a commitment to the German romantic tradition, but she explores contemporary yet timeless nature further towards a climatic doom. Marine Hugonnier depicts horizons sublimely. The female portrait image, is a recurrent subject of contemporary photographers. Dirk Braeckman produces a haunting but expressionless kiss. Ruud Van Empel succeeds in creating a supremely innocent doll out of a seven-year-old girl. And Zbigniew Libera shows a curious retake of the famous image of a Vietnamese girl running down a road in distress; Yet this time, there is a similar posture, but the more mature girl is laughing along with her companions.

The depiction of void, in various formats, seems to emerge as a repeating theme for photographers, whether intentionally or not. Such a device can be achieved as evinced in this book through the work of numerous artists, or else denied meaning. Usually the photographer intrudes, his or her recognition, of whatever meaning has not been drained away. What Bianchi describes as the typology of places can yield emotionally charged backgrounds such as Dutch marshlands or Japanese cherry trees. The work of Tacita Dean undoubtedly stands out: she is a theorist able to back up her ideas with her own images. Her image of a great tree is resonant with time and ecology, yet curiously human.

Throughout this book, the qualities of human vulnerability and surviving innocence seem to enhance the possibilities for survival from global catastrophe. A work such as this, replete with human detritus and natural beauty serves to encourage artists towards a realistic future. It helps us to recognise that the art of the photographer, or the photograph as medium, have never been as central and as important to culture as they are today.


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