Part I - Broken Windows: the turbulence and techniques of 1970s photography
Warning: Some images within this article feature nudity.
Like a precocious teen establishing their own identity by rebelling against their parents, one of the preconditions for artistic innovation in any epoch is a rejection of all that went immediately before. Yet perhaps more than any other decade, the years between the close of the 1960s and the dawn of the '80s are marked by an exceptional degree of curiosity, experimentation and antagonism towards the era's established photographic norms. There is much that we can learn from photographers of the period, both in terms of approach and technique. In this two-part article on 1970s photographic movements and methods we shall attempt to do just that.
As is often the case, several of the artistic advancements that took place within the world of photography during the 1970s were brought about by technological innovations. Perhaps surprisingly though, some techniques we'll look at here had already been around for quite a while - used in a somewhat different manner, or in another context. It was only due to shifting attitudes or the inventiveness and influence of a few talented individuals that in the '70s these approaches were to make a mark on the world of documentary and art photography.
Contrary to the marketing spin, 1970s photographic techniques can't simply be reduced to a few "vintage" Lightroom filters. If we want to gain a serious understanding of the photographic styles and methods that emerged in the '70s - and be in a position to make use of them creatively in our own photography - then we'll need to dig a little deeper. Rather than looking at technology in isolation, we need to pay close attention to the attitudes these photographers held towards the technologies they used. What's more, technique and approach are often dictated by the social, political and economic conditions of the times - even if this manifests itself as a reaction against them. In practice, technological advancement can rarely be separated from its social and historical context in anything but the most superficial of forms.
In order to learn about 1970s photographic techniques, we really need to look at the bigger picture and consider photography's position both within the art world and society at large at the time. With that in mind, this article necessarily provides something of an historical overview of the state of photography within the decade: examining some of the core movements, the dominant intellectual themes, the key technical innovations, and the most pressing social concerns of the period. Along the way, we'll hopefully pick up some inspiration, ideas, tips and techniques that we can make use of in our own photography.
Before we begin though, it's always worth keeping sight of the fact that - like years, months or any other division of time - a decade is a somewhat arbitrary unit of measurement (why are 10 years so significant, rather than say 5, 20 or even 13?). Artistic movements and technological developments pay no more heed to these categories than any other type of historical event does, and so an overly literal attempt to cleanly sever one decade from those either side of it will likely result in failure and/or historical inaccuracy. Cultural currents bleed into one another; they ebb and rise. Many of the methods and approaches we'll look at here existed in some form both prior to, and following, the 1970s. Some are still with us today - in varying degrees of popularity. In each case, however, inclusion in this article is justified by their emergence as a novel or dominant current, trend or history-changing event during the decade in question.
Since the 1940s, the photographic landscape had largely been dominated by the kind of socially-concerned, "humanistic" photojournalism associated with the likes of Dorothea Lange and W. Eugene Smith. Typically, such photographs were presented in the form of in-depth visual essays highlighting the plight of some less-fortunate sector of society. Photographers worked with portable 35mm or medium format film cameras, shooting in spartan monochrome, and adhering to rules of composition lain down centuries earlier in classical European traditions of representational art.
While the talents of an accomplished photographer were often highly regarded during this time, members of the photographic profession were invariably praised more as skilled technicians or fearless journalists than as artists. Certainly within the art world of the 1950s and '60s very few would have dared to suggest that photography be considered on the same footing as painting or sculpture. Photography was not art but science: the camera was a mechanical apparatus that could be employed by a human operator in order to capture faithful, unmediated impressions of reality. However, as mastery of the medium did not require the expressive hand or emotional flourish of, say, a painter, photography was generally not considered a tool for artistic expression.
Towards the end of the 1960's this was all to change, as art began to sever its centuries' old relationship with craftsmanship and the object. By the dawn of the '70s, manual, artisanal skills such as painting and sculpting were considered much less central to contemporary art production, making room for mechanical processes such as photography - and at times even doing away with process and material outcomes altogether.
The Golden Age of Street Photography
Although active since the end of the 1950s, and already quite well-known by the late '60s, street-photography legends Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander really came into their own during the 1970s. Not only was this the decade in which they produced many of their most innovative and iconic images, it was also a time in which their influence on a new wave of photographic practitioners was first coming to be felt.
While still mostly working in black and white, and using the unobtrusive 35mm Leica rangefinder cameras favoured by many of their predecessors, Friedlander and Winogrand evidently strove to turn the documentary tradition on its head. At times almost literally: compositions were skewed, dissected and untethered from their anchor points, resulting in disconcerting, fragmented and multilayered views that harness something of the incessant movement and frantic energy of life in the mid-century North American metropolis.
Gone too was the empathetic - and frequently also somewhat patronising - concern for the poor and marginalised social groups that had characterised most post-war documentary photography. Instead Friedlander and Winogrand opened their shutters to all echelons of humanity, celebrating the carnival of the New York streets as it paraded before them in its most eccentric guises.
Clearly no photographer is free from personal bias - and consequently no photograph will ever stand up to scrutiny as a fully objective witness. Yet 1970s street photographers were among the first to consciously embrace the medium's inherently subjective slant. Gone was the pretence of a detached, yet "concerned", reporting of the truth. Instead this was replaced with an exercise more akin to automatic-writing. A visual stream of consciousness. The camera-lens indiscriminately vacuuming up snatches of quotidian drama and assorted fragments of urban absurdity, before spitting them back out in the form of silver halides.
More than anything, these images testify to the relentless curiosity and idiosyncratic workings of their creators' minds. If neither Friedlander nor Winogrand displayed much concern for journalistic ethics or the straight reporting of facts, this was not down to professional negligence or a lack of responsibility, but more likely due to the realisation that such an endeavour was largely futile. So while many would of course still consider the work of these two masters of the street to constitute "straight" or pure documentary photography, any resemblance to earlier forms of documentary photography is somewhat superficial.
Where the documentary works of the 1970s most clearly begin to part ways with the humanistic photojournalism of earlier decades, is with regards to the photographer's intent: although neither Friedlander nor Winogrand made the questioning of photographic truth a central theme of their work, the images they produced suggest that they were both quite aware of the indexical limitations of the medium, even if not all that concerned by them. Indeed, working far removed from the shackles of journalistic veracity, both photographers appeared to be fully at ease shooting within these limitations.
As with all the photographers we look at here, Friedlander and Winogrand shot their most famous images at a time in which film photography was the only option. Film stocks, developing and printing techniques - and, today, postprocessing methods - obviously play a very important role in determining photographic results. However, when it comes to achieving a similiar look to Friedlander and Winogrand, the particular photographic materials they used is way down on our list of things to consider. Much more salient are the compositional approaches each applied to shooting his subjects.
One of the key areas in which we can learn from '70s photographers generally is precisely in their determination to transgress the accepted rules of "good" photography that the majority adhered to at that time. In the manner in which they so consciously set out to break with the formalist criteria of the past, Friedlander and Winogrand were no exception to this trend.
To the untrained eye, many of Friedlander and Winogrand's photographs give the impression of having been shot almost haphazardly. Random snatches of street-life. Yet in reality these images are no less deliberate or considered in their compositions than those of earlier photographers who so obediently followed more traditional aesthetic norms.
Whereas classic photography stressed adherence to the rule-of-thirds, an unobstructed view of the subject, and the need for elegant framing, Friedlander often used windows, door jambs, sign posts and other vertical elements of the environment to break up the frame in ways that are still disturbing to us now. He also liked to partially obscure the face of his model (at times himself: his selfies remain some of the most creative ever taken) with shadows, reflections, plants and even a lightbulb; or brutally dismember the subject, cutting their head and limbs out of the picture at awkward points.
With regards to the latter tactic, Friedlander's collection of nudes from the late '70s is a case study in inventive compositional anti-classicism that should be obligatory viewing for anyone taking up photography seriously even today. If the words "nude photography" bring to mind images of greased up bodies, soft focus effects and potbellied men with long-lenses, then Friedlander's very straightforward studies of the female form (including a young Madonna) reclining on a decidedly unglamorous couch in his New York apartment will be a total revelation.
Similarly, Winogrand's lazy verticals and lurching horizons would likely have horrified earlier generations of photographers, yet they communicate the dynamism and fast-paced aggression of late 20th century inner-city life in a way that no classically composed photograph ever could. The skewed, asymmetrical manner in which Winogrand often places key elements within the frame, while nonetheless still achieving a great sense of balance, testifies both to the degree to which these breaches of photographic convention were intentional and to his skill as a photographer.
Shooting in this apparently loose and spontaneous manner is not quite as simple as it looks though. For a start, it's never merely a matter of framing normally and then just tilting your camera off its horizontal axis before pressing the shutter. Rather, in order to achieve a pleasingly skewed composition, there needs to be a certain amount of negotiation between subject and framing.
This method is often about making a feature of the converging lines caused by perspective distortion, so you'll likely need to select a different vantage point to the one you would have chosen if framing more classically. Perhaps even one that further exaggerates the distortion. As converging parallels become more noticeable when using a wide-angle lens, a 28mm lens or wider can be a good choice for this kind of shot (but don't go overboard, as wide-angles also have something of an amateurish quality to them when used gratuitously).
Begin by making sure that your point-of-view in relation to the subject is not squarely front-on, and then try positioning one edge of your frame so that it is more or less parallel to a dominant element within the scene - one that according to classical rules should be either horizontal or vertical, but instead appears diagonal due to distortion.
Beyond this, it's really just a case of having fun with the graphic arrangement of all the diverse elements within your frame, paying particular attention to the layering of different planes to give a greater feeling of depth. One excellent way of stimulating novel compositional ideas is to impose a series of almost arbitrary restrictions (e.g. 'shoot five photos that don't show the subject's eyes') that require you to come up with creative solutions (e.g. composing the shots so that the eyes are covered by one obstruction or another).
The 1970s was certainly not a decade lacking in social, political or economic turmoil: the oil crisis; Watergate; revolutions, coups and civil wars; genocide in Cambodia and East Timor; anti-colonial wars of independence. There was certainly a lot to be angry about. Most prominent of all was the U.S. government's neo-imperialist war in Vietnam, which cast a funereal shadow across the decade extending far beyond the superpower's hurried and humiliating retreat from Saigon in April 1975.
Vietnam is considered to have been the last major military conflict to which photographers were granted total freedom of access. Since the late 1960s, hard-hitting, graphic newspaper photos of the atrocities committed by parties on both sides of the war had become an almost inescapable element of the daily breakfast and commuting routine for large parts of the world's population - much to the detriment of the U.S.'s public image both at home and abroad. Indeed, the gritty, explicit photographs and harrowing reports coming over the news agency wires during the late 1960s and early '70s would ultimately cost the U.S. a traumatic defeat. What's more, constant exposure to this stark and direct aesthetic inevitably also influenced many up-and-coming photographers of the time.
Parallel to some of the photographic developments taking place in the United States during this period, on the opposite side of the Pacific another group of street shooters strove to overturn photographic convention with at least equal, if not even greater, fervour. With much closer ties to their country's avant-garde arts scene than either Winogrand or Friedlander could boast, Japan's Provoke collective was a radical group of likeminded writers, critics and photographers that had emerged following the 1968 student revolts.
By the late '60s Japan was well in the midst of a "miraculous" postwar economic boom, partially under the guiding hand of North American neocolonial influence. This was a time that saw widespread protests against both the U.S.'s post-WWII control over Japan, and also the former's expansionist entry into the Southeast Asian theatre of war - an "intervention" in part made possible by the use of Japanese airbases.
Like all great artists, the Provoke group made work that reflected upon their times, in a manner entirely appropriate to those times. Provoke's eponymous magazine embodied much of the fury of Japan's radical underground movements of this period: young artists and intellectuals unhappy with the rapid pace of social change taking place in their country, and particularly troubled by the influence the Unites States exerted within the region militarily, culturally and economically. Although the magazine ran only very briefly, as an expression of raw energy and politically-channeled anger the three very intense and focused issues of Provoke remain unsurpassed in the history of photography.
Following Provoke's demise, the new decade saw the collective's photographic stars Daido Moriyama and Takuma Nakahira issue their own monographs: seminal bodies of photographic work that are almost as influential today as they were in the immediate aftermath of their publication. Tenebrous, grimy, at times verging on the sordid, the Provoke aesthetic pushed black and white film photography to a minimalist extreme. The urban centres, back streets and strip clubs of postbellum Japan are rendered in radical monochrome - a wholly fitting visual reaction to the acute division and discord of the times.
Unlike their North American counterparts, photographic truth was evidently a subject of central concern to the Provoke photographers. Yet, in contrast to traditional ideas of indexical photographic depiction, Provoke's project was an attempt to establish truth in purely photographic terms: impressionistic and faithful to personal experience rather than bound by objective facts or the logic of language. A fleeting and personal truth.
Perhaps this is why there's a strong sense of yearning in many of both Nakahira and Moriyima's images. The photographer skulks in the shadows, gazing towards the light and grasping at something just out of reach, often burned-out and indiscernible to the eye. It's as if they sought to capture and fix the ephemeral, while at the same time fully appreciating the impossibility of the task.
Nakahira clearly viewed Provoke's quest to free photography from the tyranny of the word as a fight to the death. Through his eyes, Japan is a nation under siege. Although largely depicting quotidian scenes of life in boom-time Japan, For a Language to Come (1970) feels more like reporting from a war zone: phosphorous skies, the white-out of a bomb blast, images shot while ducking for cover. Raw, immediate, bathroom-developed despatches from the frontline of social and political change. More street-fighting than street-photography.
Invited to exhibit at the Paris Biennale of 1971, Nakahira arrived in France without any work to show. Instead he spent each day of the exhibition shooting on the streets of Paris; and each night feverishly developing and printing the day's image-haul in the darkroom. Entitled Circulation, the work continued to evolve over the week, with Nakahira adding to the installation in the biennale on a daily basis. This was photography less as a form of depiction than as performance.
By the time the biennale closed, the installation measured 15 meters and comprised of almost 600 prints. At which point the artist destroyed the whole thing. Nakahira brought a rapid, journalistic way of working into an art context, documenting and distributing his experiences and impressions of Paris in the most urgent and direct manner possible.
As with Nakahira, Daido Moriyama's world is often equally bleary and antagonistic. All flaming highlights and vexed granulation. Although Moriyama shot plenty of stand-out images over the course of his career, much of his photography from the early 1970s is more about creating a collective impression over the duration of an extended body of work, rather than dazzling with any single self-contained shot. 1972's Shashin yo Sayonara (Goodbye Photography) captures the raw, relentless energy of a nation both reveling in and reeling from the breakneck speed of social and economic transformation: scratched negatives, extreme close-ups, body parts amputated by the frame, bleached-out subjects.
Moriyama has stated that he isn't in the least bit interested in the equipment he uses. In fact he spent most of his career shooting with a Ricoh compact camera that someone had given him: "Any camera is fine. It is only the means of taking a photo," he says.
Yet clearly the Provoke photographers had a very distinctive style. If it's not about the camera - indeed it very rarely is - then clearly it must be about the photographer. What were Provoke doing that was so different to everyone else?
Intellectually, technically and aesthetically, Provoke submitted the photographic image to maximum duress. Although there was nothing especially new about the photographic tools or chemistry they employed - 35mm cameras, black and white film - the group took these quite standard technologies to their logical extreme. The depictive capacity of photographic film stretched almost to the point of disintegration.
The Provoke photographers pushed the exposure-latitude of their film way beyond capacity. Indeed, from a technical point of view, what's most evident about these images are their severely crunched shadows and peroxide highlights. The world quantised to almost binary extremes. Nakahira's photos from this period often comprise of more black than anything else. Yet, like a moth, he was also drawn to the bright burn of streetlamps. Unable to cope with these extreme conditions, his images began to break-up under the representational strain.
While similar results can be achieved digitally, for an authentic Provoke look, there's really no substitute for fast-ISO black and white film pushed several stops - i.e. under-exposed in camera, and then over-developed to compensate - thus exaggerating both contrast and grain. Contrast can be further increased in the darkroom by means of graded paper or enlarger filters. However, unlike many of their cruder imitators, there remains a degree of subtlety to Moriyima and Nakahira's use of this technique, with certain images retaining mid-tones where necessary - at times just in select areas of the frame.
Many other commonsense photographic norms were transgressed too: focus is optional; camera-shake and motion-blur are not errors but creative tools; and classical rules of composition are thrown out almost entirely. An approach often summed up by the Japanese expression are, bure, boke (rough, blurred, and out of focus) which is indelibly associated with this generation of photographers.
Most importantly of all though, Provoke applied all the above techniques in an entirely novel context: the approach and methods of photojournalism transposed to a radical, politicised, and theory-led art context.
Camera as Paintbrush
Before embarking on a successful career in still life photography, Jan Groover had trained as a painter. It shows: her most well known body of work is a series of highly formalist, kitchen-sink photographic studies that, while somewhat reminiscent of early photograms such as those produced by Maholy-Nagy and Man Ray, clearly owe a much greater debt to classical still life painting.
Prior to her experimentation with the compositional qualities of cutlery and kitchen utensils, Groover made a number of photographic triptychs depicting urban and suburban America: often of big trucks parked in industrial environments, passing traffic on the freeway, or tidy clapboard houses. While the bland suburban homes, neat lawns and trimmed shrubbery all speak of a white middle-American yearning for a wholesome and traditional past, Groover treats these scenes with a distinctly modernist eye: formally, her triptychs are bold, graphic works that have more in common with the Bauhaus than bucolic Americana. These early works were clearly quite conceptual - often simplistically so - and yet at the same time unapologetically formalist.
Much of the success of Groover's suburban triptychs lies in the unexpected combination of content and approach. Presenting a familiar subject in a unexpected manner is a tactic that can be as rewarding today as it was when Groover employed it in the '70s. A technical or aesthetic procedure that might now result in tired cliché in one photographic discipline can prove thought provoking, even disconcerting, when applied in another. For example, we might tackle a portrait as if it were a landscape, or apply a raw documentary aesthetic to a fashion shoot.
Similarly, looking at the works produced by Lucas Samaras during the 1970s it comes as little surprise to discover that, before chancing upon his unusual photographic technique, he was already well known in the art world as a painter, sculptor and performance artist. Given the distinctly psychedelic - even psychotic - nature of his images, we might also conjecture that he was well known to many a purveyor of illicit recreational substances.
Using instant film, Samaras photographed himself performing to the camera in varying states of undress. He then took advantage of the fact that, behind its protective surface of Mylar, the emulsion of early Polaroids took many hours to dry. In the meantime, the chemicals remained highly malleable, allowing the artist to manipulate his image in an expressionistic, painterly manner.
At the time of their creation, neither Samaras' Auto-Polaroids from the start of the '70s, nor his Photo-Transformations series from the middle of the decade, were greeted by the art world with any great applause. However, over the years, these works have been re-evaluated, and are now seen by many as innovative, perhaps even prophetic, works of photographic art.
Samaras, too, blurred genres. By squishing around the chemical emulsion of the Polaroids with his finger, a pen, or other implement, he gave his self-portraits a distinctly painterly - if often also rather grotesque - quality. Alternatively, by scratching off background information, he was left with a blank canvas on which to apply more abstract and fantastic motifs, leaving his likeness floating on a sea of kaleidoscopic microdots and lysergic worms. Whilst the application of a few Instagram filters or a quick bit of doodling in Photoshop could now get us somewhere relatively close to these effects, to have done so solely by means of a primitive intervention in the chemical development process, as Samaras did, is another thing entirely.
Sadly, Polaroid's original instant film went off the market many years ago. In any case the drying time of Polaroid emulsion had been restrictively accelerated long before it went out of production - rendering artistic interferences such as Samaras's near-impossible. Clearly then, an exact emulation of his hallucinogenic selfies by means of analogue photographic techniques is not an option that is open to us today. However, in recent years a number of newly-developed instant films have come on the market and, although they are unlikely to give identical results, products such as those made by New 55, The Impossible Project, and even a relaunched Polaroid, are ripe for experimentation.
Really though, the most valuable lesson that we can learn from Samaras today is that the misuse and abuse of materials, technologies and techniques can often lead to new and unique discoveries. As a creative strategy, this is as potentially rewarding today as it was in the 1970s. We just need to be open to the idea of applying it to the technologies of our own time.
After over a century relegated to the little kids' table, the 1970s was the decade in which photography finally managed to secure itself a place to feast in the art world alongside the grown-ups. 19th century attempts to be taken seriously as an art form had seen photographers falling over themselves to imitate the expressive and pictorial qualities of classical painting. Although, as we've just seen, some 1970s experiments with a painting/photography crossover resulted in a certain degree of success, they did not enjoy unanimous reception as "serious" art. Ultimately it was only by competing on its own terms that photography was able to gain admittance to the hallowed halls of the museum and become the (commercial) art-world success-story that it is today.
But what might we mean by photography's "own terms"?
While questions concerning the nature of photographic representation may have been of little serious concern to street flaneurs such as Friedlander and Winogrand, other photographers that came to prominence during the 1970s made just such an inquiry the primary focus of their work - explicitly interrogating the medium's claims to deliver visual records of objective truth. In actual fact though, "photographer" is a term that few of these practitioners would ever have used in reference to themselves. Indeed many came from a "pure" art background and only arrived at photography by chance. Unlike Groover and Samaras however, their interests were rarely in the aesthetic potential of the photographic medium, but rather in drawing attention to the apparently commonsensical - yet frequently entirely erroneous - assumptions that the average person tends to make about photographic imagery: nothing less than an investigation into the ontological status of photography itself.
Some came from traditional disciplines such as painting or sculpture: due to photography's apparent inability to accurately (or at least satisfactorily) reproduce a likeness of their own artwork, a number of these artists found themselves asking hard-to-answer questions about the nature of the photographic medium itself. Others emerged from the conceptual, feminist, Arte Povera or Fluxus-influenced scenes of the late-1960s, where the art was frequently ephemeral and required photographic documentation if it was to enjoy a life beyond the brief duration of the initial performance, "happening" or other intervention.
These were artists whose allegiance to photography lasted only as long as it proved fruitful terrain for artistic investigation. A few of them - such as key Arte Povera players Giuseppe Penone, Alighiero Boetti and Giuseppe Chiari, or the Conceptualist Mel Bochner - produced as little as just one or two photo-based works before moving on to other territory. Conversely, there are others - for example John Baldessari and Giulio Paolini - who still employ photography in their work today, but as just one of several techniques in their repertoire.
For many it was the photographic act itself, rather than any visual outcome, that was of interest. In 1969, founding conceptual artist Douglas Huebler walked into Central Park armed with a camera and a simple idea, producing a work that foretold the direction that much photo-conceptual experimentation would take over the coming decade. Turning around each time he heard birdsong, Huebler pointed the lens in the direction from which the call emanated, and quickly fired off a frame. The value of the resulting snapshots clearly did not lie in their aesthetic or technical accomplishment, but rather in their status as evidence of the (almost arbitrary) photographic process itself, and the simple concept behind it. In 1971 Huebler began a project to "photographically document the existence of everyone alive" - an endeavour that, unsurprisingly, was still ongoing the day he died in 1997.
Heubler's photographic experiments might strike us as more amusing than anything else, yet they were inspired by serious concerns regarding the limitations of visual representation. And while there was often an element of irreverent humour or absurdity to much Conceptual Art, some of these artists embarked upon their inquiries into the photographic medium with almost scientific rigour. Of this latter kind, John Hilliard is undoubtedly one of the more interesting: as testified by the longevity of his career and the consistent quality of his output right up to the present day.
Hilliard's early work was essentially an attempt to reveal the photographic mechanisms which - although largely obscured from view - significantly influence our understanding of the scenes depicted in a photograph. At this time, Hilliard was immersing himself in the ideas of thinkers such as Ayer, Russell, Strawson, and Wittgenstein. Later augmenting this reading with the likes of Barthes, Baudrillard and Virilio. Although Hilliard says he didn't make direct reference to these texts as "manuals" for producing his art, he notes that they "doubtless reinforced an existing tendency for an analytical approach to working." Indeed, like many of his contemporaries in conceptual circles, Hilliard's work displays a distinctly philosophical stance towards his chosen medium: thinking about photography, by means of photography.
Works such as 60 Seconds of Light (1970) and Camera Recording its Own Condition (1971) turned the photographic apparatus back upon itself to question the photograph's long-established status as an objective, indexical document. Similarly, with Seven Representations - Colour Negative Film Boxes (1972), Hilliard photographed the packaging of several different colour film brands, in each case indicating one with a pointed finger and using that particular film stock to produce the photo. This work brought to the fore the distortions imparted by a process that, due to its mechanical and chemical nature, had until then been viewed by most people as inherently neutral.
Before arriving at this process of photographic self-questioning, Hilliard used the camera not as a method of making art in itself, but merely to document other artworks. However, in doing so, he'd became increasingly aware of the representational limitations of the medium. An observation that contrasted with many widely held beliefs about photography at the time: "In both the Sixties and the Seventies the general perception of the photograph would have been the same – that is, as a reliable and ‘truthful’ purveyor of the real. My own departure from this view was initially triggered by the practical necessity of presenting sculptural works through documentary photographs rather than directly. Clearly, one’s assessment of those works was then highly dependent on point-of-view, lighting and so on, and I began a body of photographic work deriving from that awareness." In practice, this meant artworks that revealed, or shifted focus onto, the photographic process itself.
Since its invention, the camera had been regarded as offering a direct and unmediated method of looking at the world. In so much as the surface of a photo remains invisible, or transparent, photographs could be considered windows onto that world: looking at a photo we see the view out the window, but not the window itself. Becoming increasingly distrustful of photographic imagery, Hilliard found himself asking the question "If I could see just outside the frame, is there something present which would change my reading of this image?" The logical culmination of this line of enquiry was Cause of Death? (1974), a work that shows four different crops of the same scene, each offering radically divergent explanations as to how the shrouded corpse depicted in the photo might have met its unhappy end. Hilliard explains his thinking behind this work:
"[P]hotography’s rectangle is always an edited field of view, different from the elliptical gaze of the eye and subject not only to the framing of the camera but to the further framing of the enlarger and to the cropping of the print. To promote that point, the four prints in Cause Of Death? are all selectively made from a single negative, the square format being effectively divided into nine smaller squares. The central component (depicting a body) is shared by each of the four prints, but added to in turn by a second square of imagery either to the top, bottom, left or right."
Although in recent years digital manipulation has done a great deal to erode our faith in photographic truth, Hilliard's Cause of Death? underlines the fact that we'd have done well to cultivate a similar degree of skepticism regarding photography right from day one. Indeed, the view "through" the window of photography has always been, at best, a partial one. The photo-conceptualists sought to draw our attention to this frame. At times by breaking it.
While the initial flurry of photo-conceptual activity of the early 1970s soon burned itself out, a lot of the work produced during this period was highly innovative and often posed important questions - not only concerning photographic representation but also about contemporary society and the workings of the human mind more generally. Whether due to deliberate imitation or just plain ignorance, much of what passes for art photography today merely retraces trails forged by these 1970s pioneers.
Clearly one thing that unites all the conceptual photographers of the 1970s, and the disparate works they produced, is their frequent rejection of precisely the kinds of aesthetic and technical standards so precious to many photographers both then and now. What can we learn from a photographic movement for which no-technique was often the technique?
As a source of inspiration to us today, the example provided by 1970s photo-conceptualism primarily lies in the artists' attitude and intellectual approach, rather than in any concrete methods. If we were to attempt to define the guiding principles of this period of photography, they could be comprehensively summed up by referring to a couple of short statements made by two of the movement's founding fathers. In 1969 Douglas Heubler famously said that "[t]he world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more". This rejection of the object and emphasis on the act would prove hugely influential both in the realm of conceptual photography and in the art world more generally in the decades to come. With the physical photograph losing importance, and focus instead shifting to the process of its creation, there's a certain sector of 1970s photography that quite clearly crosses over into the realm of performance art.
That same year, Heubler's colleague, Joseph Kosuth, argued that "[t]he 'value' of particular artists after Duchamp can be weighed according to how much they questioned the nature of art." I.e. according to Kosuth, a work of art should always contain a degree of challenge to it's own status as a work of art, pushing the boundaries of what is considered to be art more generally. Kosuth's assertion lay down the gauntlet to generations of artists to come.
The importance of the late '60s and early '70s Conceptual Art movement divides critics today. Some see it as having ultimately constituted an artistic dead-end, pointing to the fact that by the 1980s many of its leading figures had returned to working with more traditional media. Conversely, others view it as a highly innovative and experimental chapter in art history: one that set the agenda for subsequent decades by radically recalibrating what we mean by the word "art" itself.
These two positions are by no means mutually exclusive, however. Indeed there's likely a lot of truth to both. Certainly there came a point when contemporary art's continuous questioning of its own state-of-being risked becoming overly self-absorbed, cannibalistic even. Yet it seems only right to expect an artist, or photographer - indeed anyone adding more "objects" to the world - to cultivate a certain degree of self-awareness. Some artists working with photography in the 1970s saw meticulous examination of their own tools and methods as a necessary stage of development - not only in their own development as artists, but of the medium as a whole. As John Hilliard comments, there was "a need to look at the nuts and bolts of the various processes that artists were using, and that included photography. This might entail an almost scientific methodological rigour." However, Hilliard adds that by the middle of the 1970s this line of enquiry "had served its purpose and given way to more flexible approaches and a broader range of subject matter." At which point Hilliard and many of his more conceptualist colleagues shifted their focus elsewhere.
While this group of artists may have long since moved on from these particular inquiries, many of us today could still benefit from gaining a better understanding of our chosen medium by engaging in just such a critical process. Photographs are not merely pretty pictures, much less neutral windows upon reality. They are subjective statements about - and in - the world. Ones that gain their "meaning" not only from the scenes depicted but also due to the photographer's intentions and the contexts in which they are viewed and distributed. Like all statements, photographs have consequences. Photographers who willfully remain ignorant of the nature of their medium - proclaiming that they just want to take "good" pictures - are akin to a village idiot impulsively bellowing random gibberish and non sequiturs at passersby without a thought to the meaning of their words or the effect that these might have on listeners. Of course, the fact that an artist intended a particular meaning does not guarantee that the viewer will receive a corresponding message: once "out there", the author loses all further control over their images. Nonetheless, awareness of this state of affairs does not relinquish the photographer from all responsibility for their actions.
Although there's certainly room for a closer examination of those elements of photography that are unique to the digital age, photographers such as Hilliard and his conceptual colleagues of the 1970s so thoroughly explored the possibilities of an auto-critical and semi-scientific manner of working in photography that there is likely little to be gained from revisiting this precise terrain today. With that said though, what we can learn from '70s photo-conceptualists is to become more aware of the way in which photographic meaning cannot be entirely separated from its carrier, and to attempt to acknowledge this fact within our photographs themselves - no matter what kind of photography we may be interested in making. What this might mean in practice, however, is of course best left to each individual photographer to interpret in their own manner.
Inevitably the most exciting photography of each and every decade is precisely that which seeks to break the rules and overturn tradition. Yet the political and social awakening brought about by the late '60s student revolts, the accompanying explosion in counterculture, and the background of war and civil rights struggles, seems to have infused 1970s photography with an extra stratum of curiosity and venom. As we shall see in Part II, the upsetting of many long-entrenched societal norms during this period also lead to a greater degree of reciprocal mixing, borrowing and exchange between photographic genres. Not to mention the assimilation of colour photography into the realm of serious art.
Nigel Bennet would like to thank John Hilliard for his cooperation and assistance with the respective sections of this article. The information contained here is considerably richer, and no doubt also a great deal more accurate, due to his willingness to answer questions, clarify dates or check historical accuracy. However, fault for any factual errors should of course be lain entirely at the door of the author.
Nigel Bennet is an artist, writer and educator based in Oakland, California. He is currently adjunct professor of photography on Stanford University's Bing Overseas Studies Program in Florence, Italy.