On Criticality and Photography
During my first semester as a graduate student at SUNY New Paltz, I took a history of photography in contemporary art. It gave me a surprisingly (to me) large amount of insight into the subjects we went on to discuss in the general critical theory lecture course; the issues I had taken to be photography-centric showed up again and again, often at the heart of the conceptual issues which have plagued art theory across disciplines.
Reproduction and the aura, the archive, simulacra, appropriation: I can now deploy all of these words correctly in conversation. Go, higher education! While of course these things play out very clearly in photography, they are also naturally applicable to jewelry (well, all disciplines really, but the applied arts/crafts perhaps even more so). More to the point, photography has gotten deeply entangled with visual arts because of our need to document work, making it an extension of most artists' practice. And because the mountain is there, we need to subject it to critical theory. Or something. But would you be disappointed in me if I confessed I find it a boring topic?
Maybe I’m just being moody. After all, images are the currency of not just the art world but of global media and the internet. Living in the Upper Midwest (much as I love it), the only contact I had with fine art jewelry was through magazines, catalogs, show cards, and web sites. And really, few people who don’t go seeking it out ever encounter studio jewelry either on the body or on display; it just isn’t out there unless you are already traveling in very specific circles. As someone who has the bad habit of making things and then sticking them away I should take more of an interest in photography. There are a number of pieces of mine of which I’m quite proud that effectively exist only on the internet. So why am I unmoved? There are probably several reasons:
1.) Good photographs are a pain in the ass to take, and require a certain amount of investment. I haven’t had a camera I loved since the beat-up manual Nikon with the busted light meter I used in high school for my black and white photography class (using film, gasp!). I’ve almost got a half-decent setup now, but my digital camera is showing its age. It is hard to stress how much credit I give to people who not only take great photos, but also enjoy doing so.
2.) Image oversaturation in daily life. I do not want to see sepia-toned photos of your fucking lunch, or shirtless idiots in front of their bathtubs, or any of the other middling shit that crowds social media like obnoxious bus passengers; I just want to go home, ok? But even as the crap pours in, we are exposed to innumerable images with real beauty, even bordering on the sublime. Yet the volume becomes overwhelming, and I find my self clicking through fjords and sunsets and armor and kittens and sculpture and so forth, gradually building my tolerance for the breathtaking until it takes multiple, exotic baby animals frolicking under a rainbow to eke an “awww” out of me.
3.) The gap between image and object. There are plenty of things which are only made effective by the framing and temporal distortion of cameras, but I’m not sure jewelry works that way for the most part. The large, floating studio shot works just fine, and creates a viewer-object intimacy that would probably only occur by cupping the piece in your hands and examining it closely. However, rare is the image of jewel in relation to body which effectively communicates the interaction. I’m suddenly deeply conscious I am looking at a photograph when I see an artfully cropped impression on skin or sassily posing model. For some reason, I don’t have a problem with the “photo as window,” but a photo as both a document and a work unto itself rubs me the wrong way. Something about my expectation to be able to see through the photo to the subject comes into conflict with being brought up short by viewing the photo as its own subject, no doubt. I’m not suggesting artful/beautiful images or incorporating photography as a concept are to be avoided, but I’m apparently inherently inclined to resist some aspects.
4.) I’m less interested in critical theory applied to art and more interested in using art to examine things outside itself. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to draw up an Ouroboros sticking its head up its arse.