I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be a photographer in the age of photo-representational painting. With so many of the top artists painting directly from appropriated advertising and editorial imagery, how do we define the fine-art photograph? It seems like the photographer’s response has been to create bodies of work that focus on color, compositional strategies, or conceptual projects – not subject matter. There is also a trend to photograph the ‘other’ – by artists from non-first world countries. The question for photography is – with artists like Elizabeth Peyton and Richard Phillips, how does one make a portrait? I think in some ways it is a very open and interesting time to be making photo-based art, but it is also very difficult to make ‘straight photography.’ Alec Soth’s runaway success has largely been based on his ability to make straight photography, while employing just enough conceptual ‘twist’ to set himself apart from the Joel Sternfeld, Steven Shore tradition.
Richard Phillips painting’s are especially interesting to me – in the context of portraiture. I am still not sure how I feel about using exploitative images of women to represent other forms of political or cultural exploitation. I have to say, reading his artist statement below & interview from his gallery White Cube, he is very intelligent and his work is extremely informed. Lisa Yuskavage has also borrowed from the porn aesthetic, but somehow her images deny the viewer the expected pleasure. I think that photography & painting are always in dialog, either playing off each other and in a slightly aggressive competition. The generation of painters coming up, seem to be moving toward illustration and abstraction.I certainly am not an expert on all of this, but I feel in making work, I have to resolve my own relationship with painting. For me, photography has the ability to capture things that are a part of our current culture, and elevate, explore, critique, evaluate or reflect on it. How I visually represent them in my work, is like painting, in the sense that I can create an image that will be infused with my interpretation of that object, person or place.
Photography does seem to be making a shift, much like painting experienced during the impressionism. With photoshop and digital imaging, artists are free from the high modernist idea of the photographic document. But unlike the work of the 1980’s it does not have to be a collage or a complete deconstruction of the image, it can merely be a revised version of reality. Robert Polidori’s “After The Flood’ images, were not changed in the sense that cars were added or houses were digitally destroyed, but they were enhanced enough to create a heightened view of the devastation. I believe this is where photography is now operates. In this sense the technological and mechanical nature of the photograph sets it apart from painting. There are many photographer’s exploring technology to make portraits. Some successful, many of them not. There has still not been anything as genius as Rineke Dijkstra‘s use of time. Her ‘serials,’ which capture how experience changes a person – are still the most moving and effective use of conceptual device in portraiture I have seen. But I am excited to see how the fine-art portrait is reconciled with the digital age.
Over the last decade, Phillips has developed a striking signature style that derives its tension from a selective use of lurid popular images from that he subjects to the technical, value-laden refinements of academic painting. As a self-conscious American painter weaned on postmodern appropriation strategies…
R.P. In the late eighties and early nineties, appropriation in art often sought to critique society and culture by turning the images of power directly against their source, in an effort to expose the corrupt agendas of larger political entities. There was a decisive separation of the depicted subject from its form in the service of a directed message that, while devaluing the image, attempted to usher in superior ideals. At this stage painting was generally relegated to entertainment/media status, where representations of once expressive styles were seen as a conceptual social critique. The so-called painting emergency sought nothing other than the perpetuation of itself as a still-born medium trading on sympathies of initiated well-wishers. Painting as a medium was seen as an illustrative form, which sacrificed its physical and visual power to an idealistic end. Yet it is precisely the texture of these commingled relationships between times, efforts, irreconcilable differences, and hypocrisies which painting now has the power to meditate on and possess, unleashing new gestures from a position where these delusions can be seen as a control in our present social experiment, where power infused into the visual and physical reality of painting can reflect this, our alienated and fallible state of humanity. (from 2002 interview)