Collecting photography is an odd pursuit. As a collector myself, I can avow the constant need to perceive the way in which the condition of a photograph from its birth of production through its time spent gesticulating through time until it lands in my hands presents a conundrum of sorts about how to register its new or aged state and its value of meaning. In defining the image’s “right” to representation, or rather to rally fully against it as I believe is the honest answer, the collector is left with a series of loose guidelines as to a photographers value, production, importance, historicity and its overall will towards communicable meaning. Vernacular photography-which is not limited to, but can include documents, records, press images and the passport photo for example presents a different qualification for advancement into the annals of historic importance. Though many of the documents themselves are of important events in history as is the case with press photography, the image itself and its value and re-purposing of use can only be calibrated from the future point of its excavation within the photographic record. We consider a photographs function when describing its category.
Historic images and what we call “Vernacular Photography” present a series of different propositions when the collector begins his or her quest to delineate a response to them. Sometimes the trigger for associative magpie tendency is simply a metanymic hustle for what fetish the collector may already have. I know collectors who like images of crowds for example. I know collectors (several) who have a fetish for people posed with their backs to the camera. I know people who buy images with the photographer’s shadow placed over the subject. These collectors may also be interested in an early Cindy Sherman Film still, a Lee Friedlander nude (not sure why, actually) and they may be interested in hustling a nice Gustave Le Gray sea scape or a lucky non-blotchy (good luck) Atget print not featured in the Nesbit books but all in, the fascination with vernacular photography e.g. photography that was once used to serve a quotidian purpose such as press images; images that were not intended to be collectible at the time of production and that were not considered artistic by any means become totems of collectability as time passes and their relevance within the history of art becomes different or more clear. For example, Andy Warhol or Gerhard Richter’s use of vernacular material is deeply culturally impactful, and thus the vernacular image becomes something “more” and even finds a market (often dubiously elevated) that has weight and such as the case with this year’s quest for Moon Photography, the atomic image, or more roundly perhaps, images of Notre Dame that have become fashionable for various reasons such as anniversaries and tragedy alike. On the latter, its still hard to believe that we could have really appreciated the career of Henri Le Secq in its entirety without the terrible incidents of this year’s events in Paris-very few people want to admit that Le Secq was not that gifted, the washing of his prints lacking and his seemingly impoverished use of gold to stabilize salts being an ineffective measure to even procure his legacy of poor image-making. Yawn.
Regarding the use of the press image in the Post-Warholian and over-mediatized age, collectors have seen a rise in their desirability in the market place. What was once an item impossible for press agencies and newspapers to unload at the dump when digitizing is now slowly turning a corner in which the use of such images is not simply about the news itself, but rather about the circumstantial information that surrounds it-quality of an image being a decisive factor in its retrograde ascension to art status. With press images, their earliest means of production was quite straightforward. Before photographs came to be printed, picture agencies such as G.C. Bain in New York (later taken over by Culver) and Acme would have prints made from negatives in which try could then copy and reduce to a printable matrix thus allowing for an image to be set in block and printed on the press with text for newspapers. In theory, this mechanism for image-distribution would be as important as the making of the printing press by Gutenberg. The ability to disseminate information via photographic images, no matter their actual content, will to representation, or state of factual existence has provided us with what we are currently experiencing in contemporary times as media language and the post-truth image. We are now communicating a relativity with image-acquisition and understanding that is so overly systemic and inundating that we are even considering to call it “language”. I want to disavow this notion. There are no rules or grounds as such, no rules that would govern the incorporation how we receive photographic images, relativity and assumption be damned.
In the course of examining press images, a few things about quality become clear. Many images are what I would refer to as “unstable”-they lack a clarity of detail and have often been copied leading to questions of authorship, detail and communication-related concerns. Photographers sending prints via mail for publication would often have their prints re-photographed presenting a loss of detail that precluded a necessity to definition. It was acceptable to have an image that was fuzzy, but that retained the overall “idea of the image”. A fuzzy picture of a flood is still a picture of a flood sans a few light ripples, allegedly. With the rise of technological means of distributing images over electronic pulse such as “wire photos”, press agencies would have access to images faster and from further abroad. Do not ask me to explain the technology as it is still a mystery to myself and others and I prefer this method of alchemical contrivance for the sake of mystery and magic. The images, fed through a machine at one end of the world could be reduced and copied, their surfaces examined and re-transmitted by light to the other side of the world in which a drum scanner/printer of sorts could spit out the resulting image that was printed very much like a normal photograph, but instead of images being beamed through an enlarger and negative, the source of “negative” would be the copy of light on the surface of a photograph at one end of the wire and its production would commence on the other end by a drum machine being able to read and reproduce the same image, if a bit fuzzy on the other side of the world-the loss of detail attributed to the inexactitude of the machine.
When you see the results of the technological fuzz or mistake after looking at thousands or tens of thousands of press prints as no doubt some of us collectors have, you begin to see the extraordinary lack of detail associated with these “wire photos” as they are known. You can see wavy lines, incongruent facial features of world leaders and what looks like a “sway” to the image itself from not being fed properly into the machine. A sort of magic happens in response to looking at these images-we see a mourning Jackie O, face out of calibration with her veil or similarily, we can see a fuzzy nearly impossible-to-read plume of smoke from any one of the atomic tests trying to pass itself off as Cold War propaganda. Its quite an alluring feat to try to decipher such images when they are really distorted-they become images unto themselves and lack the clear representation that we wish to associate with the news document. It is no different in times of war with dogs wagged by their tails, serviceably poor images have been used to create conflict as poor quality propaganda. Aerial photography, fuzzy digital embers showing weapons cache’s of WMDs from glitchy satellite feed are in near memory. Drone footage and abstract metronomic features collude into data that the average citizen is compelled to believe represents the truth of going to war or at least a play by play casualty-free image library of it.
In David Pace and Stephen Wirtz’s Images in Transition: Wirephotos 1938-1945, we are given the first real testament to the proficiency or rather lack thereof of news photography’s reliance on observable abstraction to speak on incredibly serious matters of war, particularly WWII. Though slightly fetishized for the timeframe it represents, we are left with questions as collectors, but also general audience about how we perceive the status of these objects-are they now art? Are they trash, ungoverned by need? Or, do we still desire their ability to promote logical information distribution even when we have corrected our knowledge of their imperfections with better systems of technology and better reproductions?
In the case of Andy Warhol, the use of these sorts of images was to speak on media itself. It was a way in which he could respond to culture at large, but also a response about how we use photographic fascination of this material and re-shape it into an art form unto itself through appropriation and repetition. Warhol was a master of using the press image. He challenged the validity of culture and its production of its own image and assumed a new authorship when using their base to make his art. His shadow looms large over the medium and this publication in particular as do a few other notable artists for whom press imagery and collective memory could be used as a jarring way to produce images that speak about history, photography, and the relative distortions these concepts and mediums can produce when purposefully engaged to deceptively illiterate assumptions of representational value.
” ….(Warhol)…. His shadow looms large over the medium and this publication in particular as do a few other notable artists for whom press imagery and collective memory could be used as a jarring way to produce images that speak about history, photography, and the relative distortions these concepts and mediums can produce….”
Gerhard Richter would probably understand this book differently than Warhol. As a baby of the final days of WWII, Richter would go on to paint events such as the RAF suicides from mediatized press images which would factor into his work over the 70s and 80s in particular, a time also in transition from the beginnings of the digital age’s hoarse impending whisper. Richter above all saw the way in which press images such as collated in this book were a distortion of fact and governed by subjective representations reflecting on cultural conditions, anxieties and so forth. As a German living through the post-war years, Richter could not help but be skeptical if not cynical about the use of press images in his early career. Memory is an abstraction, but the memory of an image even more so.
Pace and Wirtz have not produced the first book about press photography collecting. I believe Stanley Burns produced a similar tome about the re-touched press image with a larger timeframe, but in its precise era, the book Pace and Wirtz have put together resonates a bit more deeply in the age of never-ending warfare. We are also in the age in which we question the image more and more and yet, still seem serviceably indebted to its use. This book serves to look at the historic precedent of such matters and perhaps questions more the “whys” of how we still consume images in a manner that is detrimental to our lives and the service of truth. I do not see it as an “eye-opener” but rather a necessary case of of questioning through historical means the post-truth complicities we continually wade through with deep fakes and deeper untruth just reaching our discussions currently.
In conclusion, the book is a necessary reflection on the economy of image and truth and instead of looking to be a “first” it rather upholds the questions we should continually be associating with press imagery such as their intrinsic value or what we may ascribe as the anti-thesis of that statement. I have not spoken much about the beauty of these images as to do so, though I could would be to limit the actual atrocity that underpins their will to form. I thoroughly suggest this book, along with the Gerault De Prangey catalogue are the two most important historical photobooks of the year so far and to miss out on them would be shame. Highly recommended.
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm. Images @ David Pace and Stephen Wirtz.)