Photography and Art
Documents and Dreams
Marina Vaizey & Anne Blood
Cv/Visual Arts Research Series, 154
Hampton Wick (Surrey): Cv Publications, 2013
Paperback. 71 p. 18 black-and-white images. ISBN 978-1908419408. £16.90
Reviewed by Jae Emerling
University of North Carolina
Photography and Art : Documents and Dreams by Marina Vaizey and Anne Blood is a difficult text to review because after reading it one remains unsure of its intended use. It is a short text (71 pages) comprised of two essays, one by each author. Vaizey offers us “Documents and Dreams : A Critic’s Choice” and Blood pens “Photography and the Everyday : A History.” In a curious self-endorsement on the back cover, Vaizey asserts that the intention of the text is not to be “a history of photography” but rather “to try and define the photographers whose work has migrated beyond magazines, newspapers” and “into the great museum collections.” It is best to begin here as this text is certainly not a history of photography. While each essayist does, in fact, offer cursory comments on the complex and still quite contested histories of photographic practice, it is done in such an introductory manner and with such indifference to the complexities of the subject that one is left with the impression that these are two subjective, curatorial essays. In short, a “critic’s choice” of which photographers are deemed best to illustrate each essay’s subject: portraiture in the former, everyday life in the latter. The problem remains that the photographers selected have already clearly been established as canonical for the entire history of photography, let alone these particular subjects. In avoiding any attempt to offer an alternative history or even a selection of photographers not commonly thought to exemplify the best of photographic portraiture or the quotidian, one remains nonplussed about the intended use and audience for this text.
It is best considered as an introductory set of essays that could perhaps supplement a standard art historical survey text on the history of photography. However, there is currently taking place a renaissance of sorts in the study of photography. New histories and theoretical texts have appeared in the past two decades that have revitalized and intensified the discourse on the aesthetic and epistemic effects of photographic images. Unfortunately, all of that vitality is absent from Vaizey and Blood’s text. Not only are these new works and ideas not mentioned at all, but the authors seem content to present “the conjunctions and variations where document and dream intermingle” without acknowledging any of the work or the arguments that have created new, innovative ways in which to think such conjunctions and variations. This is surely a grave mistake for any introductory text.
Each of the two essays in the text follows the same format. Each begins with a few pages setting up the framework of the essay and then is followed by a paragraph or two on the selected photographers. For example, Vaizey’s essay offers a flimsy overview of photography from its invention in a manner that reads like an abstract of a history of photography text. Even this overview, which combines historical and psychological aspects of photography into a mere five pages, has factual errors. She writes that “by the 1880s” George Eastman had invented his Box Brownie handheld camera. It was not until 1900 that he in fact did so. Vaizey is so quick to get to her “critic’s choice” selections that she does not in any interesting fashion set up the concept of portraiture. This refusal to develop the conceptual framework for her essay leads the reader to question the factual basis of what is offered as well as to question the critical assumptions made as she informs us about each photographer’s work and importance. Vaizey discusses Julia Margaret Cameron, Nadar, Alfred Steiglitz, August Sander, and others. But in the paragraphs on each photographer, she does not delve into the aesthetic or historiographic intricacies of their work or its reception by art historians and institutions. There is no reading or interpretation offered here, only a report of well-known information about these photographers that is better presented elsewhere.
A positive attribute of the text comes in opening pages of Blood’s essay on photography and the everyday. While neither the concept of the “everyday” or the “quotidian” is conceptually defined or developed in any way, Blood’s decision to begin her essay with a discussion of Robert Smithson’s “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey” (1967) does succeed in suggesting the difficult relations between a referent and a photographic image. In fact, Smithson’s notion of a “non-site” could have been developed much further in order to arrive at an operative definition of all photographic images as “non-sites” or aporias within any representational schemas. Moreover, Blood’s essay is more nuanced in that she connects the photographers she selects to one another. She begins with Atget and then moves onto Walker Evans, who consciously worked through Atget’s oeuvre; she discusses the Bechers and ends with Andreas Gursky, who studied with them. Blood’s choices and her narration create a viable and understandable thread that at least connects the photographers and their practices to one another, if not entirely to the theme of the “everyday.” This stands in contrast to Vaizey who freely moves in contiguous paragraphs from Diane Arbus to Don McCullin, a move that no framework as undeveloped as “portraiture” is here can support.
In conclusion, Photography and Art : Dreams and Documents is a frustrating little text that pretends not to be a “history of photography” but then offers precisely such a cross-section of thematic works and language as any art history survey text. The issue at hand is why a reader should turn to this text rather than one of the more substantial histories of photography or even one of the newer texts on photographic theory in order to introduce oneself to the aesthetic, conceptual, and historiographic richness of photography. With its predictable selections and absence of any historiographic or theoretical framework, I remain unconvinced of the role this text by Vaizey and Blood is meant to play in the current discourse and pedagogy on the histories of photography.
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