Public Image II: Back to the Future

Posted by on Mar 24, 2012 in A.E. Benenson | No Comments



In a museum someone steps between us and a painting to snap a photo. But it’s not just that our view is momentarily blocked, our sight-line is constantly interrupted by something or other in crowded galleries. It’s only with the sound of the shutter that we feel something more intangible and more disturbing has been interrupted; it’s the sound of the silent convenant of proper etiquette being broken. Even the shushed child implicitly understands: museums are temples for looking and contemplation, for the mystical experience of Art. We see the sign outside the gallery, photography prohibited, and we give ourselves a nod because are glad to see the museum enforcing our own sense of propriety.  We have forgotten it wasn’t always like this.

The early public museum would have been unrecognizable to today’s audiences. Not only were the earliest 18th and 19th century museums arranged in ways that now seem ridiculous (e.g. all landscapes, regardless of style, crammed side-to-side, floor-to-ceiling, in the same room), they were often imagined as extensions of academic or princely studios meant for use by working artists. For example, the Louvre, the first public museum, reserved first fifty and then seventy percent of its operating hours exclusively for artists who wished to copy from the collection (c. 1790s).

In a widely circulated letter from 1792, J.M Roland, the post-revolutionary French minister of the interior,  described similar political ambitions for the newly founded museum: “The museum ought to be open to the whole world and each [person] should be able to place their easel in front of whatever painting or statue in order to draw, paint, or make a model to their liking.” Founded on the rhetoric of the French Revolution, the public museum’s task was to manifest the most literal, material metaphor for the transfer of power from the Royals to the citizens and their republic.  The Louvre, of course, had been the palatial residence of the previous Bourbon Monarchy and the early museum’s collection was made up entirely of the artifacts they had collected (the next substantial era of acquisitions was only under another pseudo-Monarch, Napoleon I). More precisely, the founders of the Louvre imagined the public museum as a democratic version of the exclusive painting academies that had come before it. Copying was to be understood as the simplest and most obvious way by which the public could realize this abstract rhetoric of public ownership. Physical possession of the art objects was entrusted to the people’s representation, the State, but virtual possession of the images they depicted was intended to be freely distributed amongst its viewer-copyists.

Hubert Robert, Imaginary View of the Grand Galerie in Ruins, 1796, Oil on canvas

In what is probably the most famous painting of the early Louvre,  Imaginary View of the Grand Galerie in Ruins (1796), the director of paintings, Hubert Robert depicts a fictional post-apocalyptic Louvre empty except for a few forlorn scavengers and a single, heroic copyist who sketches what appears to be the last remaining work in the collection: the famous Apollo Belvedere sculpture. Through what would become the genre of the Sublime Ruin in the Romantic Age, the painting works as a didactic fantasy that projects an idealized version of the present into a sort of paradoxical, what-will-have-been future (the grammatical term for this tense is called, appropriately, the future perfect). That is through this imaginary looking-back onto the future, Robert is very clearly trying to say that the artist-copyist, the person who makes use of the museum like a studio, is the heir apparent to this new institution, and that they alone can sustain its future.  Whether it be new interpretations, or slavish copies, whether for academic purposes or in service of commercial demands, the early public museum, as embodied in the Louvre, was a place less for works of art than the work of (making) art. So what happened?

I think the two most important factors that worked on our collective understanding of the “purpose” of a museum began to crop up relatively soon after the turn of the 19th century: the maturation of Idealist Aesthetics and the birth of various public consumer spaces. Idealist Aesthetics maintained, for the first time, that works of Art could be thought of as perfect and complete representations of the human spirit, or nature. Accordingly, the emotional, spiritual, and aesthetic qualities of a work of Art could impart true and integral meaning that was separate from and beyond the everyday sensory experiences of life. The prevalence of these ideas, in the artists, museum administrators, and audiences of the time created the widespread belief that the museum was to be regarded as a place for the passive absorption of Truth from these extraordinary objects. The public no longer shared the museum with the metaphysical guru, the (male) Genius Artist, now they must come to it like parishioners to the church to hear Gospel.

In what would seem to be a paradox, museums were also being influenced by new forms of public commercial display and consumption. This was the era of the first World’s Fairs, shopping arcades, departments stores, and mail-order catalogs. And there was a remarkable amount of cross-pollination between the burgeoning museum and these co-developing commercial institutions: commercial catalogs frequently called themselves “Museums”, Museum administrators would proudly point out the price of works in their collections to visitors, the glass vitrine was invented in the arcade and transplanted into the museum as was gas lighting, ect.  Were visitors to Grand Expos and World’s Fairs touring museums or commercial conventions? Here factories showed off their new machinery next to motley displays of artifacts from the colonies; geological specimens shared floor space with marvels of urban architecture. In its own way then, public commerce display also encouraged a new type of passive museum spectator based not on the pilgrim but the window-shopper. These new figures of art appreciation must have felt strangely alienated from the material wealth on the display in the museum. On the one hand, they were presented with objects as if they were for sale at a store, that they could be owned for a price; while on the other, they were being persuaded by Republican rhetoric that they already owned these things.

I think this contradiction, which persists today, came about from the shift in the self-presentation of the museum as a space for seeing-copying to one for strictly seeing. While the museum remained happy to cloak itself in the Revolutionary Louvre’s ideal of the publicly shared studio, it increasingly re-orientated its practical structure to serve the interests of the passive, alienated consumer. And it’s my argument that photography offers contemporary museumgoers an unique opportunity to return to the historical, hybridized seeing-copying museum. Put another way,photography,more than any other medium, could allow the general public to reassert their shared ownership over the museum’s material wealth.  I think this is because Photography’s minimal definition is as an act of hybrid seeing-copying. Unlike drawing, painting, sculpture, ect. photography necessarily unites the act of looking with the act of representing. You can paint, draw, or sculpt something you aren’t looking at–something that you haven’t even seen, or may not be seeable, but the normal definition of photography requires the artist to make their representation precisely by looking and little else. Additionally, photographic representation can (but doesn’t have to) incorporate a relatively perfect, and infinitely reproducible copy of the image what it regards. Photography can be employed by anyone who looks, and it produces a potential infinity of reproductions.

It’s worth mentioning that though photography is usually either prohibited or severely restricted in today’s museums, almost all museums still theoretically allow visitors to draw, if not paint, from the collection (theoretically because–confirming the above history–almost no one does this or is explicitly encouraged to do this any more). What can we make of this implicit distinction? Especially when photography is technically much closer to the passive activity of seeing than any of these other mediums. I believe the line reveals a hidden institutional mistrust of the political threat of photographic reproduction hinted at above–the last remainder of the museum’s historical prejudice against a medium, whose (other) novel (aesthetic) premises have now been fully incorporated into the canon. Museum photography is the splinter in the eye of the museum’s incorporation of photography. In next week’s post, I’ll explore the reasons for and consequences of this institutional anxiety through a case-study of one museum’s abortive attempt to stifle digital photographic reproduction.


Some relevant sources:

Bennett, Tony, The Birth of The Museum: History, Politics, Culture. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Photography, a middle-brow art . Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1990.

Hooper-Greenhill, Eilean. Museums and The Shaping of Knowledge. New York: Psychology Press, 1992.

Poulot, Dominique. Une Histoire des Musées de France. Paris: Decouverte, 2005.

Poulot, Dominique. “La Naissance du Musée”  in Aux Armes et Aux Arts! Les arts de la Révolution, 1789-1799, ed. Philippe Bordes et Régis Michel. Paris: Adam Biro, 1998.

de Quincy, Antoine Quatremère. Lettres sur les préjudices qu’occasionnerait aux arts et à la science le déplacement des monuments de l’art de l’Italie, Paris 1796.


Public Image

Posted by on Mar 15, 2012 in A.E. Benenson | One Comment

This pretty much sums it up, Charlie Kaufman-style : A photograph of museumgoer taking a photograph of a painting that shows a painter making a painting. Thomas Struth, Museo Del Prado 7, 2005


A theory: photography alone has the potential to turn the public art museum into a community space. What I mean is that photography, unlike any other medium featured in the art museum, is a field of action where the artist and the viewer can convene: within the museum, there are photographs that have been taken by “artists” on the wall and there is also the potential for visitors to make photographs. We could call both these activities, together, museum photography. I got to thinking about this again because of the current exhibition of Eugene Atget photographs at MoMA, entitled Documents pour artistes.” The title is borrowed from a sign that hung outside Atget’s studio, which was meant as a sort of proto-artist’s statement meant for all those who entered Atget’s studio: welcome, here are some images you might find some use for. The problem is that MoMA has little interest in actually recreating the ethos of Atget’s original sign: the use of a camera inside the show, like in all other MoMA exhibits, is expressly forbidden*. It’s beyond ironic, it’s manipulative and condescending: MoMA wants to have it both ways.


The Artist is Present, Videogame version, click for link

They want the reputation of being a progressive, arts community that not only exhibits edgy work but brings their savvy audience into that fold. But the last thing MoMA wants is to actually engender a space where the traditional lines between the people who get their work on the walls and those who come to look at it can be blurred. Jesus, just think of the legal liability, alone. You can’t have people groping Marina Abromavic’s nude performers all willy-nilly, like they’re in on it; no, what you do is let them cool their heels on a 5-hour line first, then they can sit in silence for a few minutes across from the artist.  MoMA, like most museums, cares primarily about their public image, not images belonging to the public.

No photos please, but remember to visit our book store! (click for link to MoMA publication)

This was made painfully, hilariously, clear to me two years ago during MoMA’s 2010/11 Gabriel Orozco retrospective. The main gallery for the exhibition had been wrapped in a blow-up of a photo collage from one of Orozco’s early journals (it was also the cover image for the show’s catalog). The original images in the collage were taken from various National Geographic photo-essays. I dare anyone to show me a documented case of an artist obtaining proper licensing rights to paste some cut-outs into their journal. The photo was pretty clearly an act of so-called “appropriation” art, a century old genre of treating the wide world of images as a public trove for source material (like how Atget imagined his studio should work). And standing right smack-dab in front of the blow-up is that trusty old MoMA stanchion crowned with a little icon of a camera with a red slash through it bearing two words: PHOTOGRAPHY PROHIBITED. The message was clear. Orozco can make illegal copies of images and it’s art, in fact we’ll pay him to do it. But the general public better not get any ideas- those rules don’t apply to you; the best you can do is pay us for a book of these images, and then don’t forget to read the copyright license on the first page which tells you that you still can’t do anything but look. Come on, what do you think this place is? Did you think it was invented to collect a bunch of objects and images all for your sake?

Now there are lots of things artists are given the privilege to do in a museum that audiences are not, and lots of these asymmetries make a lot of sense: the artist Fred Wilson is allowed to re-arrange the museum’s permanent collection; Michael Asher is allowed to demand the museum stay open for 24 hours; I’m sure somewhere a museum has let Kanye West turn a gallery into a night-club. There’s no practical way to let everyone engage with the public space of the museum in these ways, and beyond that there isn’t a convincing political or historical rational for it either.

But I want to make the argument that photography is a special case. For a number of practical, political, and historical reasons photography is a field of activity where museums could and should allow artist and audience to converge and partake in a shared wealth of images and techniques. The public museum was in fact founded as a fiduciary for the general public and photography remains the most feasible way of realizing that historical commitment. In the following posts I’ll make this case in more detail and then I’ll look at a recent bizarre attempt by a museum to defend itself against photographic reproduction that ended up with them unintentionally producing an ingenious piece of conceptual art.




*edit: as a colleague pointed out to me, this is inaccurate and needs clarification: the use of still, non-flash photography for “personal use” in collection galleries is permitted at MoMA. “Personal use” would exclude using any photographs for (publicly and/or commercially) displayed artworks; for this reason, I would argue that “personal use” is a serious blunting of Atget’s “pour artistes”. The contradiction remains for the Orozco show, and all non-collection exhibitions. And the original argument, that museums like MoMA proscribe  an unreasonable asymmetry towards “museum photography” vis-a-vis artists and viewers, still holds and will be borne out more clearly by the following analysis.

Seeing Nothing

Posted by on Mar 10, 2012 in A.E. Benenson | No Comments

Below are some early notes for an article I intended to write about the atomic explosion at Hiroshima whose radiation burnt a shadow of the city, at the moment of detonation, into various surfaces.  Documentary photographs of the city after the explosion show the spectral imprint of a farm’s picket fence on the scorched fields, of a resident crouching on concrete steps; there is one (above) of a man aside a ladder, reportedly a house painter, blackened into the wood slats of a home.

I’ve decided to abandon this writing project because after I began I realized there was no respectful way to go on answering the questions I posed in my research. Theodor Adorno said there couldn’t be poetry after Auschwitz, I never agreed with this (later in life even he recanted), but I’ve come to the conclusion that there can be no art criticism about Auschwitz. The French film critic Serge Daney came to a similar conclusion in his article “The Tracking Shot in Kapo”. Written with an uncanny mix of lucidity and nostalgia during the final months of his life, the article reflects on an image from an obscure movie about the Holocaust, called Kapo, that Daney has only read about, that he has never seen–that he refused to see his whole life. The shot in question is a slow, elegant tracking shot across an electrified fence onto which one of the characters, Riva, has just thrown herself on to commit suicide. Daney insists that there are some events so horrific that they ought to only be seen through a kind of refusal of sight. Daney doesn’t mean that some events simply cannot be photographed, but that they must be photographed without the sort of obvious aesthetic pleasure, what he calls the “pornographic” quality, of the tracking shot in Kapo. As an example he cites a post-War Japanese film, Ugetsu, in a passage which is worth quoting at length:

In 1959, Miyagi’s death in Ugetsu literally nailed me, staggered, to the seat of the Studio Bernard theatre. Mizoguchi had filmed death as a vague fatality that you were able to see could and could not not happen. One can remember the scene: in the Japanese countryside travellers are attacked by greedy bandits and one of them kills Miyagi with a spear. But he does it almost inadvertently, tumbling around, pushed by a bit of violence or by a stupid reflex. This event seems so accidental that the camera almost misses it. And I am convinced that any spectator of that scene has the same superstitious and crazy idea: if the camera had not been so slow, the event may have happened off-camera and – who knows – may have not happened at all…Shall the camera be to blame? By dissociating the movement of the camera from the movements of the actors, Mizoguchi did the exact opposite of Kapo. Instead of a petrifying glance, this was a gaze that “seemed not to see”, that preferred not to have seen and thus showed the event taking place as an event, ineluctable and indirectly. An event that is absurd and nil, absurd like any accident and nil like war – a calamity that Mizoguchi never liked.

Rereading the Daney now, I’m struck by how often he mentions the tragedy of Hiroshima. Here it’s in his oblique choice of the violent post-War Japanese film Ugetsu; earlier, he lingers on the famous line in Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour, when the French protagonist’s Japanese lover tells her despite all her intellectual knowledge of the disaster, “You saw nothing in Hiroshima, Nothing.” Daney meant this as a lesson for filmmakers, but I feel as if it applies equally to those who make the images and those who look at them. This blankness before a photographic image of incomprehensible violence now seems like the only appropriate critical response. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look but it means that we are naive, and worse, cruel to think we understand.



-medium not film but world-out-there, in literalization a metaphor for photography’s effect onto real world; site specificity, only photograph that can’t be copied, moved?

-not a photograph, but a negative for photographs to be made from?

-Historical Avant-garde (rayograms)–cameraless photographs/negatives were a way of removing mediation- establishing that photography was not a technological process but above all else a chemical process of Exposure–act of being photographed is the act of being assaulted by light, extreme form.

-photographic negatives what is happening is play of absence and presence– that a thing is only captured by documenting where it is absent…negative space (negatives), this contradiction especially with atomic photograph where the subjects were both made present and absent by the radiation (“taken” as in a picture and as in by death). marking through absence?

-what is a photograph that immortalizes as it kills?

-an act of violence that automatically documents itself? more or less ethical form of war photography?


Flatness and The War

Posted by on Mar 3, 2012 in A.E. Benenson | No Comments




the underside of one of John F. Ohmer's large outdoor paintings, click for link



Ah Jean Dubuffet

when you think of him

doing his military service in the Eiffel Tower

as a meteorologist

in 1922

you know how wonderful the 20th Century

can be…

— Frank O’Hara, Naptha, 1959



Before Koons built his studio into the proto-Foxconn of painting and before Warhol rounded up a cadre of speed-freaks to sweat over silk-screens in his factory, there was John F. Ohmer.  Ohmer was almost certainly the most prolific landscape painter and installation artist of the 20th century.

At his peak he commanded hundreds, if not thousands of other artists in some of the largest-scale paintings and mixed-media installations in history. Ohmer’s prodigious career lasted only a mere three or so years in the mid-40s, during which time all his work centered on the question of flatness–how the flatness of the photographic image affected the flatness of the painted canvas. This single, all-consuming question prefigured a similar turn in aesthetic theory a decade later. Ohmer’s work was never collected, publicly or privately,  and it’s entirely possible that none of the paintings he worked on even survived the decade in which they were made. I cannot find a single published photograph of the man.

Better known as Colonel John F. Ohmer of The United States Military, Ohmer was responsible for camouflaging various military bases and war-time factories from photographic aerial reconnaissance on the West Coast during World War II. Among other efforts, Ohmer enlisted the help of Hollywood set-painters to paint giant tarps with bird’s-eye view illustrations of suburban and rural townscapes to be placed over any visible military-industrial compounds. Viewed with the naked eye, up close or even at some distance, the illusion is obvious, but when captured by an aerial photograph, the coverings appear (even to our CGI-jaded eyes) surprisingly realistic.


aerial photograph of the concealed Douglas Airbase (bottom half of photo)


Ohmer’s camouflage works by deceptively combining a technological feature of photography with one of its contingent social meanings. On the one hand, Ohmer’s work took advantage of a fundamental technological truth about the camera, namely that it’s mono-focal. Photographed objects are rendered in perspective but by a single lens and onto a flat 2D surface. The effect is that the space around and between things looks squashed, especially in cases like aerial shots where the depth of field is very shallow. At the same time for Ohmer’s paintings to work as camouflage when photographed, he had to assume that despite the apparent unreal flatness of any aerial photograph with a shallow depth of field, the enemy still believed in the literal truth of such photographs. This is worth pointing out because this belief in the so-called “reality principle” of photography–that it reproduces reality– is just that, a belief; it isn’t a technological fact of a photograph but  a contingent meaning we ascribe to the outcome of its technological facts. Some studies have shown that cultures that are uninitiated to photographs don’t immediately believe in their indexical truth value, while the advent of digital photographic manipulation has seriously eroded even our own faith in their truth. But if Ohmer could count on the Japanese’s belief in the literal truth of photography (and the very existence of their aerial reconnaissance program would have given him reason to do so), he could reliably use the flattening effect of photography to his advantage.  That is, as long as the Japanese expected aerial photographs of on-the-ground reality to look flat no matter what, that “reality” could be simulated with an equally flat painted canvass. Ohmer added some three-dimensional props to his tarps, like shrubs and rubber cars, but these were accents to a painted picture that had to be convincing in its own right.


underside of another tarp


The believability of Ohmer’s paintings rests on the peculiar fact that one medium can, literally, cover-up the shortcomings of another. I think this adds an interesting term to a contemporary dialog in media studies around what’s called “remediation”. In 2000, media theorists Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin coined the term “remediation” to describe what happens when one medium incorporates and reworks the strategies of another, usually older, medium. For example, when a videogame borrows a trope from noir cinema (e.g. L.A Noire). Bolter and Grusin go on to argue that digital media does this either in an attempt to prove itself as more capable of the embedded (redundant) medium or to borrow some of the referenced medium’s nostalgic charm. I think the above story about Ohmer can illustrate another operation of “remediation”: that the embedded medium (here, painting) can absorb and be elevated by some of the formal characteristics of the embedding medium (here, photography). This is another way to understand the illusion of Ohmer’s camouflage: the flat painting absorbs the reality principle of the flat photograph that captures it and therefore presents as real. Our means of understanding nestled media is such that we instinctively attribute the formal principles on display to the “last” medium, to the one we are engaging with directly. Think about how we look at a black and white photograph of something, even if we have never seen the depicted object before we are trained not to assume that it is actually black and white, but rather that the medium’s limitations have rendered it that way. Exception: when I was a kid, I asked my mom for a black and white dog like Lassie.


The critic Roland Barthes recognized something like this when he wrote in Camera Lucida (1980) that our naive belief in the trustworthiness of photographs “innocents” a photograph’s contents. Instead of “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link” the principle is something like “a chain is only as strong as its last link”. The contemporary artist Clement Valla has produced a series of images, Postcards from Google, which revisits this paradoxical effect. Valla has collected various instances where Google Earth has tried and failed to reconcile  satellite photographs of a contoured surface like a hilly road or a suspension bridge onto a 3D terrain map. Google’s problem stems from those that Ohmer tried to exploit: there is no good way to reproduce height/depth from a single bird’s-eye view photograph.


Clement Valla, from Postcards from Google Earth, click for link


Clement Valla, cont.

Clement Valla, cont.



The British actually came up with an ingenious solution this problem during World War II. Under the code-name Operation Crossbow, British pilots conducted a series of photographic reconnaissance missions over Nazi occupied territories, but instead of taking one photograph of each site they took two, offset to partially overlap. The two images were then recombined to form a single “3D” image in a way similar to how 3D movies are processed today. The resulting images allowed the British to accurately spot the protrusions of German V1 and V2 rockets saving untold lives.


reconstruction of an Operation Crossbow 3D photograph


It may sound strange to call this a story about wartime photography, because we usually reserve that term for the work of photographers who make war their content in some obvious way. In this case, I’m barely even talking about photographs perse: from the lost experiments of Civil War Balloonists to the Japanese who never actually flew missions over California, the photographs I’m interested in are essentially theoretical ones. But I think this is exactly what lets us get closer to the real stuff of the history of photography, because this history  both precedes and exceeds any given image, it’s about wrapping our heads around bigger questions concerning the historical production of forms and meaning.

Check back next week for the second part of this series where I’ll explore the accidental rediscovery of camera-less photography in the War’s dark conclusion.