Burgin Chapter 5

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S.R. I wanted to come back, to focus a little bit on this question: You explained the difference between the political reason for the shift between painting and photography, but maybe you can say something about how, in your perspective, photography changed in the political question the use of photography since the middle, the end of the 70s to now. I think maybe that could be interesting.

V.R. Yes. In art. or?

S.R. Yes, in your perspective, from the perspective you already explained that is important for you, it was important to work in relation between photography and the image and I think their is a specific concern of how the image is working in the art field, and how the image is working in a broader field like advertising or public space.

V.R. Sure, yes. Your task is specific questions that we come with in.

S.R. Yes, I think it could be interesting to have, in your perspective, how you developed that in the former answer, how in your perspective the function of photography changed; in relation to that, how you see the image changed in the last 20, 25 years.

V.R. In the beginning, as I said – I'm leaving aside, for example "photopath", or "performative-narrative", early works of mine, which were squarely within that area of phenomenological interest, at least "photopath" certainly was. So leave aside those uses of photography, If we come back more to the use of photography as it began in the early 70s in my work – that was more clearly political and that was largely motivated by those considerations that I've already touched on – the idea of working with an image that was out there in the public domain, a kind of practice that was out there in the public domain in a way which painting was not and could not be; the photograph is part of the environment; it's difficult to go through the day without seeing one in one form or another. And the photograph contributes to the perpetuation, consolidation, re-affirmation of common beliefs and values, it contributes to what one time we would call »ideology«. That was the reason to move to photography and away from a practice, painting, that was confined to the art gallery, to its values which is largely economic, you know the market and so on. At that time there were basically two forms of photographic practice that were very obviously political: one was advertising, clearly, and the other was documentary photography; I worked with both those forms. I produced posters in which I reproduced a rhetoric of advertising but in a form of view – the Situationists would have said »détournement« – turning those forms as they were against themselves and making a formal study of rhetoric, analyzing advertisement from a rhethorical perspective; in a line of work begun by Roland Barthes and Durand, there is all that in France in the 1960s, and I carried that in my teaching. About that same time I moved out of an art school into a film and photography school, precisely in order to be able to base my teaching, because it seemed to me that teaching again is a form of political practice, and certainly a more effective form of political practice than any form of art practice ever could be. I also spoke about documentary photography: I actually moved into a school, the Polytechnical Centre London which is a kind of self-defining »political« school –  so the film and photographic practices there were very, heavily self-defining political, but in a traditional documentary mode; when I went there with a lot of French structuralist ideas; set about persuading people that the documentary mode was not a window on the world, that the truth was not reflected along with the light from the object; that there were complex and largely unperceived filters that intervene between the actual perception of the image and one's ideas. I started to break down this idea of a divide between advertising practices on the one hand and documentary practices on the other; the two were considered to be totally separate; set about to show how in fact they were not so different. So my own practices in the field of art were drawing upon documentary conventions, drawing about advertising conventions; and then, deliberately, and it sounds provocatively, mixing the two; so in those works from the early, mid-70s I would shoot pictures in a documentary style, black and white, taken in the street very often, or in a place of work, and then overlay text on them in the manner of advertising, often writing as if it were an advert or sometimes taking something directly from advertising and putting it into it. So it was like a kind of mixing of genres and practices that I was interested in. And the other reason for doing that was to again to make a hole in the gallery wall onto the outside world. That was the early 70s – things have changed totally; you don't need to make a hole in the gallery wall; the walls, in a sense, have fallen down completely; and it's not at all uncommon now for people who at one time would have been defined purely as advertising photographers... editorial photographers, who shoot for glossy magazines ... to have those people showing their work in galleries; ... or fashion designers take up a camera and exhibit in art galleries.... What's happened to the art world in the intervening 30, 35 years ... in a sense I'm responsible for that; a victim of my own success; what at one time would have been the specificity of art, the area of differentiation from the mainstream of the market society and the market economy ... the sense of there being a difference has completely been eroded, it seems to me. The issues cannot be what they were in the 70s; in terms of technology, things have moved along enormously, too... What's the status of documentary photography as classically defined as it would have been considered in the 1970s; ... Barthes said: history is what happened before you were born. Speaking of history... What's the status of a black-and-white film image and photograph in a world in which kids take pictures on their mobile phone ... internet; early days of the Iraq mess ... Abu Ghraib ... the soldiers also take pictures of routine atrocities and broadcast them; a great many of what passes for documentary photography, photographs in the newspapers these days are grabbed from the air, taken from video images ... other forms of digital photography... Technologically things have completely changed; economically, ideologically also ... which is why I cannot do the work now that I did then. The idea of being an artist and of »doing your thing« is totally ... unrealistic ... relation to the external world, because the world has changed so much.


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