William J. Simmons
Performing for the Camera: Postmodernism, Antimodernism, and the Performative Photograph
It is the goal of this volume to reconsider the variety of photographic methodologies that have proliferated since 1990. What critics and historians often forget, however, is that central to any understanding of the most contemporary methods, even what has been deemed “post-internet” art, cannot be understood without first reinventing the wheel a little bit. The fact of the matter is that the wheel, even though it has remained conceptually the same in the history of photography since the late 1970s, is caught in a rut. “Postmodernism” is no longer a useful tool for the discussion of photography. Even though conceptual photographers – such as Laurie Simmons, Sarah Charlesworth, Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, and Sherrie Levine – have been central to the creation of postmodernism as a term, there are discrepancies that need to be, at long last, entirely revised. There were and continue to be central flaws to the formulation of postmodernism’s relationship to poststructuralism and to the arts, which I will, by way of introduction, loosely center around three components: formalism, diversity, and historicism. Things have not changed much since the late 1970s, and the most contemporary mandate of art criticism right now is to refashion the art historical methodologies that have led us to a trite and repetitious 21st century photographic discourse.
Returning to the genesis of postmodernism, while taxing perhaps, is essential, especially in this volume, because it is often forgotten that this dogma was actually created in direct response to the performativity of minimalism, and by extension, the performativity of the photograph. Douglas Crimp elaborates on his follow up essay to “Pictures” at Artist’s Space in 1977,
What I wanted to explain was how to get from this condition of presence – the being there necessitated by performance – to that kind of presence that is possible only through the absence that we know to be the precondition of representation.2
Photographic history, then, must always contend with performance – not since 1977, however, but rather from its very inception, and in order to create new knowledge about contemporary photography, we must consider the performative impulse of photography in its many iterations.
Returning to the first of my three points, with the advent of what has been deemed postmodern photography, critics and historians heralded the destruction of the material supports of the photograph. The anti-formalist move associated with photo-conceptualism was indeed an attempt to remove the exclusionary aura of authenticity and truth from the image, but what Crimp and likeminded critics actually accomplished was the delineation of a generation of artists (largely women artists – despite the fact that philosophers like Sara Ahmed have pointed out the inherent sexism/transphobia of postmodernism)3 who were not allowed to identify as photographers, but only as “artists using photography.” Crimp’s explanation of the problem of authenticity is indeed correct,
The presence of the artist in the work must be detectable; that is how the museum knows it has something authentic. But it is this very authenticity, Benjamin tells us, that is inevitably depreciated through mechanical reproduction, diminished through the proliferation of copies.4
And what better media to enact the destruction of authenticity than photography and film? They are by their very nature reproducible, and by extension, performative, for the only truth of any narrative is that it can be retold again and again. Crimp’s original goal, drawing on Roland Barthes, was to deflate the master narrative begotten by the masculinist desire for originality and the concomitant medium specificity that heralded high modernism. This is especially true in the history specific to photography, in which technical innovations drove the wonder at and interest in the relatively newfound process, even though “postmodern” painting was also of peripheral interest as well.
This was an admirable goal to be sure, but what can be said for artists who never had access to the master narrative, to authorship, at all? For them, the death of the author was a death of something that had already been foreclosed. The end of medium specificity was a conceptual move that only has relevance if one is granted access to the introspective aesthetic turn of the mid-to-late 19th century. If Carrie Mae Weems’s watershed project From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried (1995) taught us anything, it is that the history of photography has been predicated – even more forcefully than painting – on the active elimination of subjectivity for non-white individuals. Weems makes clear that postmodernism’s rejection of the author and the formal qualities of the photograph only apply to those for whom authorship was an option.
Moreover, Weems and her contemporaries, such as Lorna Simpson and Glenn Ligon, remind us that the performance of identity is itself a privilege, something that Stacey Tyrell certainly suggests in works like The Great White Hope. Drawing on the precedent set by Weems, Simpson, Ligon, and others, many artists in the 2010s are taking up this issue as well – such as Tommy Kha, Hank Willis Thomas, Jonathan Gardenhire, and Mickalene Thomas. If postmodernism is predicated upon the performance of identity and the reproducibility of the subject and the art object, we must contend with the entire history of an enormous swath of American society who were not allowed to be anything other than the color of their skin. In a racist, heterosexist world, race and gender are forced onto bodies with no option of being able to perform that identity. As Zora Neale Hurston said, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”5 The philosopher Frantz Fanon makes a similar point. As he recounts in the seminal Black Skin, White Masks, in his naming by a passing child with the phrase “Look, a Negro,” he becomes aware of his own separateness, of the category that has been created for him and exteriorized on his body.6 The medium is connected to identity in a manner with which scholars have not contended – a poetic concretization of Tyrell’s Skin White Cream (2011), in which the stuff of whiteness is a mixture akin to photographic chemicals.
Performativity is thus always, always contingent upon race, gender, and class. Crimp enunciated the predominant reading of Cindy Sherman’s work already in 1980, and it has changed little since then,
Her self is therefore understood as contingent upon the possibilities provided by the culture in which Sherman participates, not by some inner impulse. As such, her photographs reverse the terms of art and autobiography. They use art not to reveal the artist’s true self, but to show the self as an imaginary construct.7
The formulation of self-as-construct was useful inasmuch as it caused the staid art world to realize that feminism and queer theory are viable modes of inquiry, and that, as had been expressed over the prior decades, the personal is indeed political. This creates an ever-oscillating condition of concept and body, formlessness and the flesh, not unlike Lilly McElroy’s attempt to grasp light itself in I Control the Sun (2015).
What happens, however, when a facile understanding of this art historical re-reading of poststructuralist theory results in a 21st century condition wherein gender-as-performance has become, perversely, a post-gender climate? And what can be said for developing understandings of transgender theory, wherein the individual chooses a gender, gender identity, physical gender, or gender expression, meaning that such categories cannot fall apart into relativistic nothingness? Thanks to the advancements of transgender theory, it is apparent that the body is not entirely immaterial as some would mistakenly believe, again, a result of the misreading of theory, this time queer theory).
There is an element of selfhood that, although it is not immune to critique, retains an element of individuality, of personal choice, and a radical desire to inhabit a body or to not inhabit it. Judith Butler’s thought has evolved with the times, but the same cannot be said for art historians,
If “queer” means that we are generally people whose gender and sexuality is “unfixed” then what room is there in a queer movement for those who understand themselves as requiring – and wanting – a clear gender category within a binary frame? Or what room is there for people who require a gender designation that is more or less unequivocal in order to function well and to be relieved of certain forms of social ostracism? Many people with intersexed conditions want to be categorized within a binary system and do not want to be romanticized as existing “beyond all categories.”8
The fact that not everything can be reduced purely to critique or construction or irony means that we must also consider the ethics of postmodernism without resorting to relativism. Romain Mader’s Ekaterina (2014) is a prime example, wherein we must think about whether or not the artist’s inclusion of his own body within the constructed image mitigates larger questions of sexism, sexual violence, compulsory heterosexuality, and sexual tourism. Does being a deconstructive act make a photograph inherently critical?
A parallel problem is the expectation of the subaltern to be the only entities who speak for “diversity” or “deconstruction.” To consider postmodern photography to be nothing more than the mingling of constructed selves and visages, as postmodern dogma would be content repeating in perpetuity, is to reinforce the visual elusiveness of whiteness. Why do we, as critics and historians, look only to black bodies as sites of racial critique, or gender nonconforming bodies as sites of queer critique? We are afraid to do violence to ourselves, so we reposition that violence onto non-white bodies, thereby allowing poststructuralist “democratization” to actually reproduce and strengthen the functions of racism by pardoning whiteness from ever having to deal with sociopolitical realities. That job, it has become clear, has been left to those who have already been marginalized. We get to deconstruct Them, and They provide the tools and labor for experimentation and intellectual gain; our art historical apparatus is nothing more than a reinvigoration of imperialism and forced migration. It is therefore prescient that Homi Bhabha notes, “The colonized population is then deemed to be both the cause and effect of the system, imprisoned in the circle of interpretation.”9 This sentiment connects to the compelling photographs by Ou Zhihang, whose compositions connect nationalist sentiment with his own body and records both with the camera, creating a loop of imagery that many seek to repress or police.
In order to amplify the resonance of practitioners who have pushed the limits of the medium since 1990, we should consider those accomplishments within the expanded realm of a new kind of historicism. The final downfall of postmodernism is its entrapment in an ultimately useless historicism. The creation of a postmodern “break” has effectively denied artists associated with photo-conceptualism (or the Pictures Generation, if you will) any historical backing, as if their interventions are entirely new and generationally/circumstantially derived. Crimp describes Sherman, Richard Prince, and Sherrie Levine as an entirely new movement,
A group of young artists working with photography have addressed photography’s claims to originality, showing those claims for the fiction they are, showing photography to be always a representation, always-already-seen. Their images are purloined, confiscated, appropriated, stolen … Even the self which might have generated an original is shown to be itself a copy.10
From Crimp to Douglas Eklund’s laudable survey of the Pictures Generation (in which he claims that Pictures is the last art movement of contemporary times), postwar photographers have been seen as a Baby Boomer phenomenon whose practice was influenced by circumstantial factors alone, like the availability of televisions in every home (again, this is a regional and elitist assumption, for many people in the United States cannot afford a television or the internet).
The problem that results is that no one considers, for example, Laurie Simmons in the trajectory of Surrealism, or Martha Rosler or in the trajectory of Dada, or Glenn Ligon or Lucas Michael in the lineage of oppressive literature, or Edgar Arceneaux within the history of Minimalism. When we think about the historical precedents of contemporary photographic formulations of influence, we see the conceptual and historical plenitude of the best contemporary photographers. We might this see Surrealist theater in Jaimie Warren’s tableaux, film noir in the subtle psychodramas by Cynthia Talmadge, or the Impressionist photo-painting oscillation in Melissa Gordon’s work. This is not to say that we need to revive these master narratives, but rather we must engage productively with them in order to unearth the true richness of photo-conceptualist performance as a historical and contemporary phenomenon. Moreover, this is also not a call for anti-modernism or post-post-modernism in photography. The establishment of another conceptual moniker would do us little good. What must be undertaken is a wholesale reappraisal of the conceptual and art historical methodologies and practices that have led us to this moment of great promise in photography.
The first step to understanding the current status of performance in photography is considering the fact that the photograph has been understood as performative being ever since its inception, despite the prevailing notion that pre-conceptual photography was purely documentary-based. The Open Door (c. 1844) by William Henry Fox Talbot, for instance, represented a conscious effort on the part of the photographer to emulate genre painting. Even more important, however, was the more fundamental connection between the act of photographing, and the act of placing, or staging.11 Such is the basis, in many ways, of Laurie Simmons’s and James Casebere’s use of miniatures, especially Simmons’s Walking Objects (1987–1991) or Casebere’s rarely-exhibited Fork in the Refrigerator (1975). And in the age of Photoshop, Eva Stenram has taken the act of placement to its logical conclusion, wherein she actually replaces bodies with digitized scenery in Drape (2011–).
And how could we possibly forget the fabulous Victorian tableaux of Julia Margaret Cameron, who certainly provided the backdrop for Claude Cahun, Cindy Sherman, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Sue de Beer, and certainly Magsamen + Hillerbrand? Photographs such as Vivien and Merlin (1874) could be considered a mere narrative illustration, but when viewing Cameron’s output as a whole, we can see a penchant for the performativity of identity, as well as the performativity of the medium. Often fraught with errors, Cameron’s prints, it could be argued, reveled in the unpredictability of their emulsions, which created narratives as compelling as those offered by her human subjects. Even in photography’s infancy, Cameron understood that the new technology represented a confluence of mechanical and creative ends, “When focussing [sic] and coming to something which, to my eye, was very beautiful, I stopped there instead of screwing on the lens to the more definite focus which all other photographers insist upon.”12 Cameron viewed this as a fault, but there is little doubt that this theatrical relationship to the camera, as early as the 19th century, provided a roadmap for contemporary titans of performative photography like Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Catherine Opie, Jimmy DeSana, Tina Barney, and Alex Prager.
Reconsidering the Avant-Garde and Performance
In many ways, the relationship between the photo-conceptualism and Surrealism has been entirely forgotten, possibly as a result of the desire to position the former as a seamless product of postmodernism. It is important to remember firstly that, as art history has developed since the 1970s, poststructuralism is the theory, and postmodernism is the practice – at least insofar as critics and historians have formulated postwar photography. This reflects less the facts of history than a desire to connect a certain brand of academic aesthetics with contemporary praxis. Nowhere is this clearer than in the foundational writings on Surrealist photography, which ran parallel to but did not intersect the discourse on photo-conceptualism, to the detriment of both.
In her formative, though distinctly anti-feminist and anti-queer, assessment of Surrealist photography, Rosalind Krauss attempts to draw parallels between the photographic work of two avant-gardes: the Surrealists and the Dadaists. She comes to the conclusion that, although Surrealist photography was often manipulated, it is “straight” photography insofar as it is not photomontage. However, through its use of distancing, spacing, framing, and doubling, Surrealist photography actually becomes a sort of montage, “Now this is the move that lies at the very heart of surrealist thinking, for it is precisely this experience of reality as representation that constitutes the notion of the Marvelous or of Convulsive Beauty – the key concepts of surrealism.”13 This is to say, the photograph, because of formal operations enacted by the Surrealists, becomes a performance of the very process of representation, the moment at the border between writing, psyche, and image.
What Krauss neglects, however, and this is likely why the Surrealist lineage has been denied to other artists working in this vein, is an investigation of the nature of this performance, indeed that it is a bodily, sexually, racially-inflected performance at all. Her entirely anti-feminist reading of Florence Henri’s Self-Portrait (1928) and Man Ray’s Monument to de Sade (1933) is not retrograde because of its reliance on psychoanalysis, which does not necessarily have to exist as a sexist operation.14 It is her inability to contend with identity politics that comes through in statements like this:
The lighting of the buttocks and thighs of the subject is such that physical density drains off the body as it moves from the center of the image, so that by the time one’s gaze approaches the margins, flesh has become so generalized and flattened as to be assimilated to printed page.15
Krauss’s active subsuming of the (preyed-upon) female body into pure formalism is troubling. Why can’t they exist in productive collaboration, as queer or feminist formalism? Need formal flesh trump bodily flesh? Krauss goes on,
[The conditions of framing] can be generalized way beyond the specifics of sexual imagery to a structural logic that subsumes this particular image and accounts for a wide number of decisions made by photographers of this time, both with regard to subject and to form.16
Within the foundational texts of criticism surrounding Surrealist photography, there is little interest in the importance of gender, race, and sexuality – but what if we utilized Jimmy DeSana, Joan Jonas, and Eva Stenram, for instance, as neo-Surrealists who can enliven Krauss’s tired structuralism, to the benefit of all involved?
DeSana’s 1980 Coat Hanger, for instance, is clearly in line with Surrealist photographers like Hans Bellmer, but DeSana adds a contemporary touch with his characteristically punk use of dramatically lurid and sexy colors. The central focus of DeSana’s act of doubling (to use Krauss’s terminology) is an fact a real object, meaning that the connection between the two bodies is both literal and formal – at the level of both skin and composition.
Likewise, Joan Jonas’s photo-performance Mirror Piece I (1969) produces a mandate to consider postwar photography within the context of Surrealism, and vice versa. The subject holds up the mirror and effaces her identity, unlike the conscious legibility of Henri’s Self-Portrait, and in the mirror’s place are legs that extend impossibly into deep space, as if they are penetrating the act of reflection and distancing and becoming a united force with those formal operations. Also in this lineage is Laurel Nakadate’s Lucky Tiger series (2009), in which fingerprints on the artist’s self-portraits engender a mirror operation that reveals the act of beholding the photographs, as well as the act of taking them. We might also consider K8 Hardy’s recent Instagram series and film Outfitumentary (2016), in which Hardy makes a montage of fashion photography’s competing gazes. It might be possible and necessary, then, to understand the historical avant-garde through the methodologies that have been limited to the “postmodern” era.
High Modernism: Before the Backlash
There is perhaps nowhere in photographic history less considered a part of the avant-garde lineage than the landscape and still life photography of Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Ansel Adams, or Frederick Sommer. Though frequently understood as everything that postmodernism fought against, with their investment in a masculinist originality and fetishization of the unique print, one can see that such a simplistic reading does not allow us to make productive connections to contemporary photography.
Sommer’s photographs of dead animals, for instance, are deeply complimentary to Crimp’s initial confluence of performance and photography. In fact, Sommer’s photographs of chicken heads reflect a very interesting brand of medium-specific performativity that could provide an important lens with which to discuss 21st century practice. One might assume that The Anatomy of a Chicken (1939) is merely an illustration of modernist positivism that has long been associated with photography as a document or scientific tool. If this is the case, how can we reconcile this journalistic quality of the photograph with what is clearly “artful” compositional strategies? Consider the
harmonious combination of horizontals and verticals, the careful cropping, and the placement of the chicken’s eye in its own mouth. More important than the humorous, if grim, placement is the fact that the eye is the center of the composition, not unlike earlier Constructivist and Neue Sachlichkeit images, like El Lissitsky’s 1924 Self- Portrait (The Constructor) – itself an obvious performance of a Marxist artistic identity. Sommer performs the association of photography with categorization, detail, collage, and piecemeal snapshots with a cheeky flair that inserts his own subjectivity into an otherwise humorless photograph. Michael Marcelle’s manipulated photographs have a similarly dour, but comical edge, especially his Third Skin series (2014).
When we combine this understanding with a closer look at Sommer’s photographs of decaying animals, such as Jack Rabbit (1942), we can see that a performative vision of documentary photography is indeed possible. Once again, there is a conscious element of framing, with the rabbit’s tail and ears marking the edges of the print, which would be in line with what could be understood as a modernist fetishization of the medium. However, what Sommer pictures is an act of decomposition, as if to point to the reproducibility or denigration of the photograph over time, almost the antithesis to Eadweard Muybridge’s studies of motion. Sommer only implies motion, which is perhaps the most “performative” act of all, because it creates a heightened, and almost erotic, desire for reanimation, like the moment when the curtains close before intermission.
We can thus make better sense of the role of performance in the work of contemporary “straight” or “traditional” photographers like Sally Mann and David Benjamin Sherry. Mann, in her continued use of the 8 x 10 format, has been frequently criticized for adhering to an outmoded desire for preciousness; that is, she is not “postmodern” enough. The fact that many of her photographs contain performative acts aside, we could look at her Body Farm (2000–2001) – a documentation of the process of human decomposition – series in line with Sommer’s similar interest in photographic and literal decay. It would be moreover worthwhile to consider Sherry’s color-saturated refusal of the digital to be a performance of the way historians understand modernist photography. By bringing flamboyant, otherworldly colors to the masculinist realm of black-and-white landscape photography, it becomes clear that a variety of non-normative identities can use the “straight” photograph as their stage.
Things become a little trickier as we move into the 1960s and early 1970s in the United States, wherein photographic culture underwent a major upheaval because of the epochal shift to color ushered in by Eggleston with his retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1976. The break between “history of photography” and “art history” in the United States has been exemplified by the sidelining of the documentary- performances of diCorcia, Stephen Shore, and Eggleston from the lineage of “critical art.” While commercially and in photo-history circles, these names remain
quite forceful, they have nevertheless been replaced in an academic context with the artists associated with the Pictures Generation who rose to prominence in the following decade. However, artists like Laurie Simmons have time and again cited Eggleston’s exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art to be a foundational moment in their development as artists.
One can see in the press release for William Eggleston’s Guide that his color photographs were actually seen, at least in 1976, as having many of the characteristics later assigned to the Pictures Generation in terms of the performance of individual and collective representation,
Eggleston has made his pictures a deeply felt expression of self, of his vision and intentions. In Szarkowski’s estimation, these photographs are perfect: ‘irreducible surrogates for the experience they pretend to record, visual analogues for the quality of one life, collectively a paradigm of a private view, a view one would have thought ineffable, described here with clarity, fullness, and elegance.17
In this enormous shift in the art world, wherein color was previously considered all but tacky, one can see that the curators were thinking about how photography can speak to both the private qualities of the self and the medium, as well as larger historical and conceptual shifts.
Though it may sound anti-postmodern to describe images as “irreducible surrogates,” the fact that surrogacy was an operative term is worthy of note, especially when one recalls Allan McCollum’s Plaster Surrogates. Both point to the potential end points of the image as a document or a performance, even in the legacy of Minimalism that was contemporaneous to the color revolution, as can be evidenced by Sara VanDerBeek, Jessica Eaton, Adam Putnam, Josiah McElheny, and the later work of Sarah Charlesworth.
Conclusion: Against Contemporary Art History
It is my hope, while taking this somewhat winding rehashing of the history of photography, that it has become clear that any assessment of photography since 1990 has a hefty job before it can move forward. There is an enormous conceptual weight placed upon practitioners of photo-conceptualism (especially minority artists) that limits the analytical possibilities when interpreting their oeuvres. This is not laziness on the part of artists, but rather of historians and critics with institutional lines to toe. The artists in this chapter have all created wonderfully contemporary works that speak to the complexities of the 21st century; however, in order to investigate the multifaceted nature of these interventions, one must keep in mind the larger debates within photography and performance that have shaped their reception. It is our duty to approach the work of these young artists with both empathy and intellectual rigor, and to understand their trans-historical and trans-political implications. This is the first step to arriving at a more equitable history of photography, one in which the complexity of the medium and the complexity of its practitioners are given their due.
1 This paper has greatly benefitted from discussions with Brendan Wattenberg, Anthony
Iacono, Margot Norton, and recent interviews with Stephen Shore and Lorna Simpson.
2 Crimp, Douglas. “The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism.” October 15 (1980):
3 See Ahmed, Sara. Differences That Matter: Feminist Theory and Postmodernism. Cambridge,
UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
4 Crimp, 94.
5 Walker, Alice, ed. I Love Myself When I Am Laughing ... and Then Again When I Am Looking
Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader. Old Westbury, NY: The Feminist Press,
6 Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Translated by Charles Lam Markmann. London:
Pluto Press, 2008. 82.
7 Crimp 99. The relationship between Cindy Sherman’s work and questions of race is part
of an essay in progress entitled “Cindy Sherman and Racial Performance.”
8 Ahmed, Sara. “Interview with Judith Butler.” Sexualities 19, no. 4 (June 1, 2016): 482–492.
9 Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. Routledge Classics. London; New York:
Routledge, 2004. 119.
10 Crimp 98
11 I owe this point to a course taken at Harvard College by Professor Robin Kelsey and
12 Cameron, Julia Margaret “Annals of My Glass House” in Goldberg, Vicki. Photography in
Print: Writings from 1816 to the Present. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981. 182.
13 Krauss, Rosalind. “The Photographic Conditions of Surrealism.” October 19 (1981): 3–34.
14 Further see Salamon, Gayle. Assuming a Body: Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality. New
York: Columbia University Press, 2010.
15 Krauss, Rosalind. “The Photographic Conditions of Surrealism.” October 19 (1981):
16 Krauss, 7.