The judgment seat of photography

The judgment seat of photograph

‘One of the foremost tasks of art has always been the creation of a demand which could be fully satisfied only later’ (Benjamin, 1935)

-Research materials in bold.

In outline of the essay by Phillips (The judgment seat of photography) an examination of the process of photography is presented starting with the references by Benjamin on the originality and cultural significance of works of art. Benjamin’s discussion on the ‘dissolution’ of the ‘aura’ of original works began, according to his extended account of the topic, with the ‘mechanical age of reproduction‘ i.e the proliferation of works of art in copied forms or the mass production and dissemination of photos, in this case. A distinction in the discussion by Philips is drawn out, in reference to Benjamin’s initial study of the distinction between art that has cult value and that which has exhibition value. The later, according to Theodor Adorno, is inextricably tied up with capitalist monetising tendencies. The monetising and capitalising tendency is then set against the exhibition gallery space where it is considered to be largely the domain of the wealthy, resourced and powerful. The purchasing power of works of art then gives credence and condones implicitly the value of the ‘object’. Not only this, continues Hand, but the ‘quality of the work does not really become an issue for the market…’ (Hand, 2000)

Onto the discussion then that follows in the text. Then come onto the scene, in the discussion, some of the main characters in photographic history at the time when photography is going through cultural and social adaptation via one of the main influencers in the United States: MoMA. Lincoln Kirstein was one of the first to exhibit at the MoMA with: Murals by American painters and photographers (1932). One of protagonist involved in the process of mounting the exhibition and subsequently developing the photographic side of MoMA was Steichen. Newhall, the then librarian in MoMA, placed an exhibition on entitled: Photography 1939-37; a series of didactic presentations. Shortly after and around that time also were exhibited: Barr’s Cubism and Abstract art, Fantastic Art, Dada and surrealism and the retrospective Bahaus 1919-1928 (1938).

Newell, from his Photography 1839-37, ushered in the the established modernist perspective on photography, as supported by the likes of Stieglitz. The decisive moving away aware from the previous epoch of photography with its predominantly aesthetic concerns to a more ‘creative’ and expressive photography was yet to come with Szarkowski after the epoch of Newhall as head of MoMA’s photography department. This seems to me to be a pivotal moment in the grand scheme of photographic development that perhaps we sometimes take for granted as modern day practitioners still very much influenced by this approach to photographic practice.

Moholy Nagy’s view of photography, the ‘fotokunst’ was more in line with Newall’s form of photographic vision. Behind Newhall in the establishing of the department were two acolytes who were willing to support Newhall namely: David Hunter a collector and Ansel Adams.  McAlpine, from wealthy stock, was able to give aid to Newhall in his endeavours by being groomed as photography collector by him. In Newhall’s tome of photography: The history of photography from 1939 he writes of documentary:’ While each of these qualities is contained within documentary, none of them conveys the deep respect for fact and the desire to create active interpretations of the world…’ (Newhall, 1949:186.) I see then that the attitude expressed above in the commentators narrative about Newhall and in reading his attitude that seems more liberal as somewhat conflicting. To me it seems that Newhall has a more open minded overview of photography than perhaps Philips suggests, as in general Newhall surveys a broad range of practice quite impartially.

Bringing the project of MoMA into a new era, we see Newhall moving on as director of photography and Steichen moving in as the new head of the department. With him he brings the new vision aesthetic which radically transforms the previous period of more modernist and formalist aesthetics. The approach by Stiechen is more in line with that of publications and the new vision philosophy of Bayer; this view being one of bringing the exhibitions closer to the the viewer, as it were, in the face and up front, rather than at a cool contemplative distance behind glass on the wall. It is interesting to discover the conditions that gave rise to these different exhibition modalities as sometimes I tend to credit them to more contemporary developments in the art world. It would seem that many exhibitions still use a combination fo these established protocols for exhibiting artwork in the gallery.

Steichen brought with him all of the know how of a good ‘PR consultant’, combined with the mass media perspective that the photo was to be communicated at large in order to have an effect on the populace. This resonates with Benjamin’s pronouncements about photography and works of art as losing the cultural and ‘aura’ based values as it opened up to the masses. Could it be that the more broadly a message is communicated the more generalised it becomes, and therefore less important?

Some of the exhibitions undertaken in Steichen’s time were: The impact of war (1951), The road to Victory, The family of man and The bitter years (1962). Diogenes with a camera is purported to be one of the best known exhibitions set up by Steichen.

Next enters Szarkowski on the scene. He moves back towards a more formalist aesthetic in terms of the museum space and aims to revive the notion of ‘cult value’ of art work, moving in stark contrast to the previous period of Steichen the mass publicist. ‘I want to make pictures possessing qualities of poise, clarity of purpose and natural beauty…’ (Szarkowski, cited in Bolten 1992: 35.) Szarkowski in: The photographers eye (1964) begins to outline a begins to outline a new and distinct photographic aesthetic that departs of from traditional modes of viewing photographs i.e the modernist/formalist aesthetic. This is indeed an important period in the evolution photography that has had repercussions I believe throughout the world. What is interesting about Szarkowski’s position on photography, and it is one that I personally struggle with and even disagree with, is that the image does not contain a narrative as such but merely a general sense of a scene. Whilst I agree with the fact that photography, unlike film does not provide a sequential narrative, it can still provide a strong narration of events if places clearly in context. I think the key here is the context counts.

To later day conclusion based upon Szarkowski’s and Peter Galassi (curator at MoMA) then we turn. We are left with the view that photography is somehow an offshoot of modernist painting and largely the act of the camera. The author of this article finishes with a somewhat unsatisfactory but salient message that the ‘Dual sentence’ (Bolton, 1992:41) spelled out in this study is that photography appears to sit in a ambiguous place. Deemed to be free to get in with its own form of communication and creation, in reading this, I feel that the story has been left unclear. For myself, I find that I do not practice photography in the view that Szarkowski eludes.

I personally see photography as a method of utilising symbols and metaphors which, if placed well in a context can very much initiate a more connotative exploration of the subject matter in a photo frame. Not least of all because I have imagination and imagination is what drive me to pick up a camera and ‘investigate’ my world.


Benjamin, W. Art in the age of mechanical reproduction (1935)

Bolton, R. The contest of meaning, critical histories of photography (1992:41) MIT press, Cambridge Massachusetts, London England.

Bolton, R. (1992:35) The contest of meaning, Jonh Szarkowski.

Hand, B. The audience as producers (2000) [online] Circa No. 94 (Winter, 2000), pp. 32-36 (5 pages) Published by: Circa Art Magazine [accessed, September 2020]

Newhall, B. A history of photography, from 1939 to the present day (1949) The museum of modern art, distributed by Simon and Shuster, New York.

Published by Truevisionphotography

I'm a student photographer studying through the OCA a UK based arts university. I'm in the foundation year of my studies and enjoying it immensely. I'm also a yoga teacher and co-founder of Bodhiyoga a buddhism based yoga teacher training program that runs in the UK and Spain each year. As a photographer I'm interested in all forms of fine art. I find the arts really important in my life. I love nature and aim to be in the outdoors as much as I can. Generally I think that all the different strands of my life are flowing to towards self development in the greatest sense of the term. The arts, buddhist practice yoga and meditation are all tools to that end. I feel committed to communication the these values in the world both through the visual arts as well as teaching.

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