Looking at Photography, ed. Stephen Frailey

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Damiani Editore (here). Hardcover, 8.2×9.8 inches, 204 pages, with 100 color and black-and-white reproductions paired with 100 short essays by the author. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: John Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs has proven to be a durable template for critical writing, whatever the subject. The format devised by the longtime MoMA curator in his 1973 book paired 100 images—a number that seems to be the agreed-upon ideal by other authors—with brief texts of between 750-1,000 words. These paragraphs, about the length of newspaper editorials, were longer than captions but terser than essays, leaving room for analysis of individual works along with biographic details and appropriate digressions about history, life, photography, and art. Unconfined by chronology and freed of the requirement to offer an overarching, tightly wrought argument, these serial observations had a genial informality, signaled by the title. Peter Barberie’s Looking at Atget (2005) and Geoff Dyer’s The Street Philosophy of Garry Winogrand (2018) are two recent books inspired by the unbuttoned tone of Szarkowski’s perspicacious classic.

Stephen Frailey’s Looking at Photography is the latest to adapt Szarkowski’s casual but sneakily discerning approach. Neither a comprehensive survey nor a revisionist history, this astute and compact book is a collection of musings about 100 figures, dead and living, who in Frailey’s opinion continue to guide artistic practice. The writing is, in his words, “a distillation of my thoughts and conversations about the medium that have occurred in and out of the classroom for the past forty years.”

Like Szarkowski, Frailey is a photographer himself. His constructions—esoteric in meaning and inspired by the seductions of Surrealism and Hollywood—were exhibited widely in the 1980s when he was also a player in the New York art scene as an assistant at the Mary Boone Gallery during her Soho years. Since then, and for several decades, he has continued to make allusive still-lifes and to teach photography at Bard College and at the School of Visual Arts in New York. (Full disclosure: I was a “mentor” for many years in his undergraduate program at SVA.)

One of his teaching specialties was fashion photography, and this penchant is reflected in his selection. There are more artists here who stage or fabricate images than who take “straight” landscapes or work in photojournalism or documentary. (The cover is one of Thomas Demand’s hyper-realistic still-lifes: a photograph of metal kitchen tongs resting on a plate of overlapping American cheese slices, a photograph that is a cunning illusion because all of the objects are made of paper.)

Frailey is not known as a writer on photography, and the audience for the book isn’t clear. The syntax is too ornate and the references too knowing for first-year undergraduates. He isn’t mapping the state of contemporary photography or promoting the superiority of one style over another; neither is he pining nostalgically for the age of analog or proselytizing for Photoshop. Rather, he wants only to download some of what he has learned over many decades and to reveal why he thinks what he thinks about some of his favorite artists. The appeal is directed at sophisticated art goers and collectors, anyone who could recognize works by Lucas Samaras or Marco Breuer or Anne Collier on the walls of an auction preview without having to consult the catalog.

The demographics of the table of contents is heavily skewed toward Americans and Europeans, with only two Japanese (Daido Moriyama, Hiroshi Sugimoto), two Africans (Samuel Fosso, Zanele Muholi) and no Chinese, Thais, Filipinos, Mexicans, Brazilians, or Australians. Fifteen of the 100 are no longer with us: Bernd and Hilla Becher, Sarah Charlesworth, Jimmy DeSana, Jan Groover, Peter Hujar, Robert Mapplethorpe, Mary Ellen Mark, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Helmut Newton, Larry Sultan, Deborah Turbeville, Brian Weil, and Henry Wessel. (John Baldessari was alive when the book went to press.)

Everyone is an established figure in the art or fashion world, with either gallery representation (present or former) or exposure in mainstream magazines. Not many of them are young. LaToya Ruby Frazier, Alex Prager, Ryan McGinley, Lucas Blalock, Taryn Simon, Trevor Paglen, and Viviane Sassen are the only ones under fifty. A third of the elect are women.

Self-imposed limits on number of participants always involve trade-offs. Lee Friedlander is here but not Garry Winogrand, Andreas Gursky but not Thomas Struth. Among the living, the exclusion of William Klein, Rineke Dijkstra, Mitch Epstein, An-My Lê, Abelardo Morell, Joel Meyerowitz, Rinko Kawauchi, Chris Killip, Paul Graham, Boris Mikhailov, Alison Rossiter, and Deana Lawson is regrettable, especially when Frailey has made room in their place for Prager, DeSana, Turbeville, Roger Ballen, David LaChappelle, and Andres Serrano. As for the illustrious dead, Roy DeCarava, Seydou Keïta, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, and Masahisa Fukase are a few who deserved a place. (I’m assuming some of them aren’t here due to budget constraints or rights issues.)

For those who can put such caviling aside, however, the pleasures of the text outweigh these imbalances. Frailey has insightful points to make about unexpected figures. He praises Mark Cohen for the “blunt force” of his pictures in working class Pennsylvania and notes that he has replaced “street photography’s choreographic complexity with a rude and grimy lyricism” and a “a surrealist’s scrutiny of the body” that is “claustrophobic, fetishistic, and groping; its effect vertiginous.”

The work of Roe Ethridge “dismantles, with a good deal of mirth and some cynicism, the relevance of a unique stylistic and sensibility and the position of the photographer as auteur.” His “flattening” of distinctions between genres “suggests an understanding of context and function in the determination of ‘meaning’ and a recognition” that all photographs have a “mutual resemblance and efficiency, ultimately, as a form of marketing.”

Wolfgang Tillmans’s “promiscuous grazing through photographic process and subject is not reckless nor indiscriminate, but a declaration of community and network. It is a generational sensibility formed by relation to the internet, both in its assertion of physicality and boundless sense of inclusion.”

Some of his remarks could provoke an hour-long classroom discussion of the sort that have been going on and have remained unresolved for decades. He uses Mary Ellen Mark’s photograph of The Damm Family in Their Car (1987) to raise pertinent questions about her pictures of the destitute, asking whether the “transformation of misery into beauty represents a moral contradiction, or a form of visual democracy. Is this recognition of high art and visual pleasure amidst squalor redemptive—an admirable humanist ethos to transcend suffering—or is it an idealistic device and a form of bourgeois reassurance; a seduction that mitigates a sense of outrage?”

Perhaps because he doesn’t claim to know the answer, he seems more comfortable with artists who don’t have to wrestle with these issues. He extols the “inexhaustible curiosity and mischief” of Marco Breuer, whose “photographic engagement exists without camera or lens but with exposed photographic paper and implementation of tools and gestures that probe its surface: folding, scraping, heating, burning, biting, sanding, incising, drilling; seemingly on the brink of destruction and misuse. This effacement is not with malice but to reveal radiant and unexpected beauty concealed in the laminate of the emulsion.”

Some artists are here due to his admiration for them and for their influence. I harbor a special loathing for Prager but can’t deny her high gloss set-ups of sex and violence have gained an avid following. I was happier to see that Frailey included two of his fellow long-time educators, Ellen Carey and Tim Davis, whose proficiency, inventive renewal of traditional practices, and dedication have not received sufficient praise from critics and collectors.

Frailey’s selection is an update of Szarkowski’s, whose choices came from the museum’s collection and dated back to the 19th century. By my count, Robert Adams and Friedlander are the only ones to appear in both books, fitting recognition of their staying power over almost 50 years apart.

With its high regard for exuberant artifice past and present, Frailey is also supporting an expansion of the possibilities for art. The first photographer discussed is Adam Fuss, the last is Zoe Leonard. Not as comprehensive or risky a project as Charlotte Cotton’s The Photograph as Contemporary Art (2014), Frailey’s book has the advantage of being more personal and elegantly written.

The reproductions are in general excellent but I wish the copy editing had been better. Several sentences don’t track, and there are a shocking number of typos. Frailey performs a valuable service in keeping alive the memory of Brian Weil, a photographer driven by the AIDS crisis to make art and then take social action. Readers and students could have benefited if the book had included fewer art world magnificos and more figures like Weil, who are no longer regularly exhibited or discussed.

These faults don’t detract from the many passages where Frailey’s passionate advocacy made me think again about certain artists, such as Nick Knight and Katy Grannan, whose pictures I may have underappreciated.

Would that more teachers might take the time, or be given  the opportunity, to reflect on, take apart, contextualize, brood about, and judge the work of their heroes and their peers in a book as handsome and open-minded as this one.

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One comment

  1. Ellen Carey /

    Terrific Book…

    I just go it, a wonderful and insightful review by Richard, and bravo to Stephen Frailey for all his hard work, hours and hours of this labor of love, it is a real gem!

    To Truth & Beauty @ 1/1/25 of a second!

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