History of Photography

“Everyday about 350 million photographs are uploaded on Facebook […] But: this doesn’t mean that people know more about photography than they did 20 years ago.”

Massimo Vitali: Everyday about 350 million photographs are uploaded on Facebook. Isn’t that a crazy number? Just think of the number of pictures taken every day, incredibly much higher. But: this doesn’t mean that people know more about photography than they did 20 years ago.

Lisa Ortner-Kreil: This sounds a bit frustrated. Are you pessimistic about the current status of photography and the way people look at photography?
M.V.: I am speaking of young artists today. Things are rapidly changing and in the midst of this change I do not see much of a will in putting forward new points. I do not see anybody doing what one should do. Everybody thinks differently about the way pictures should be taken or used. The point is, that everything starts with the knowledge of the history of photography and the history of art. Actually, very little is said. So my frustration comes from that. Nobody really cares.

L.O-K.: I think I get what you are saying. It is a bit this “anything goes”-principle. A very vague idea is sufficient. And here, I think, we can also speak about the current status of photo critique.
M.V.: Yes, vague. But I am primarily speaking of photography as art itself. It is like a big river. I don’t think I am doing varied things. I have my own ideas of course. I am not suggesting to others a way to take photographs, I am not naming. I am just saying: It is a very strange time.

L.O-K.: “Strange” meaning what exactly?
M.V.: In the history of art at a certain point during the political evolution of the late 60s and 70s people started experimenting with subjects in art which had not been used before. If we take contemporary art now – people start with different subjects. But this doesn’t make everything properly artistic. This is why photography has jumped on the wagon of contemporary art. Because it was not artistic. Exactly at this moment, the Düsseldorf school was ready with an important group of people and with some ideas, and they just got in, they were perfectly entitled to do this.

L.O-K.: Speaking of the Düsseldorf photo school, Bernd and Hilla Becher established a systematic approach towards photograph, Becher-pupils worked in big series, and this is something you do as well. You started your Beach series 20 years ago, is that right?
M.V.: Yes, it was after the Düsseldorf school took off. I was fascinated by the seriality, also by the fact that they used commercial photography to express themselves. The only problem is: 20 years have gone by. Very little has changed. Of course everything changes but on the other hand from the galleries, curators, commercial photo scene, we are still looking back to the 1980s, there is no new group of photographers like the Düsseldorf-school. I always think: Why is this?

L.O-K.: You mean we are stuck in contemporary photography?
M.V.: Yes, maybe this is also a commercial thing. Galleries want to keep cashing on. I don’t know. It is not a critique. But it is a bit of a critique towards young photographers. They often take it too easy and do things that are not so important and very superficial. When the Düsseldorf school started they went to this big commercial lab in Düsseldorf. All the posters they had in stations, airports were done in a certain way with a certain kind of imagery, so they were using this popular imagery to work on what they wanted to do. Today we are still using these 1980 imageries.

L.O-K.: Well, then what about Thomas Ruff? He is probably the Becher-pupil who followed the spiritual lead of Bernd and Hilla Becher in a very literal way. But still – later on he was the first to start working with found footage photo material. So he took photography to another level by taken the decision no longer of taking photographs himself but of using found footage.
M.V.: Yes, Ruff changed a lot, that’s right.

L.O-K.: Through his working method he is questioning the way in which we look at photographs.
M.V.: Absolutely. The Düsseldorf-group is constantly talking about the various layers of photography: How do we look at photography? This is why their photographs are more expensive. Because they talk about more things. The contemporary art world gives a premium to those who have a more layered, more complex work. I think working with found images is very interesting. I like it. But it is only one layer. But: Can’t we do a little more? I think that in the 80s we started with a deep knowledge of art and history of photography. But today: they take everything they can get.

“I also like to play with what is considered nice in photography […] I use all my knowledge of the history of photography and the history of art and I put something that I don’t really like

L.O-K.: Photography always was a democratic medium with all advantages and disadvantages. Photography had to fight many, many years in order to be accepted as “art”. But today nobody has to justify anything, photography is part of contemporary art, nobody would even question that. This is certainly also the merit of the Düsseldorf school. But let’s talk a little bit about your work. You have a painterly approach I would say when looking at the way for example in which you compose your photographs.
M.V.: I think my work is a bit contradictory. I am not a painter but a photographer and I like to be one. I try to be as distanced but in fact I’m not. In the end my pictures are all a bit too nice for what is considered a typical contemporary artist.

L.O-K.: How do you see the relationship between painting and photography?
M.V.: I like to mix. The serial attitude, the conceptual attitude. I also like to play with what is considered nice in photography. This is a blast for me. But I cannot help it. I use all my knowledge of the history of photography and the history of art and I put something that I don’t really like. Nice photography comes from the very beginning of photography where photographers were sort of kneeling in front of painters. Painters felt so superior. Pictorialism in photography is in my opinion still ruining the way in which we look at photography today.

L.O-K.: So photography in the first instance is a craft?
M.V.: My approach is very direct and honest. I don’t pretend to be what I’m not.

L.O-K.: You are often called the sociologist among the photographers. In your beach series we see people “enjoying themselves” at the seaside, in fact, sometimes you have the feeling that they are desperately trying to have a good time. This tells lot of things about our “leisure society”.
M.V.: People in my photographs are exposed, they are penetrated by the eyes of the photographer. They don’t hide. Swimming suits put an end to the theatre, the way people like to present a public image of themselves on the street when going to work, for example. In this way you can get a little bit deeper into understanding society.

L.O-K.: I find it kind of paradox that in your photographs you have the feeling to see everything and nothing at the same time. The photographs are extraordinarily brilliant and of very elaborate technique and often show crowds of humans.
M.V.: In fact it is all about the details. The point is: What do we do with those details? You have to be able to use the details.

L.O-K.: Collect the details? Are you a collector?
M.V.: Yes, definitely. Just think of the big data collections. The only difference is: I do not collect data. I collect pictures. The question is: what do you do with all the collected material? How can it be useful?

L.O-K.: So how can we imagine your working situation? What comes first?
M.V.: I have no preconceived ideas when I take a photography. The first thing is: research. I or one of my assistants do location scouting first. I use heavy equipment.

L.O-K.: So your photographs are the exact opposite of a snapshot.
M.V.: Yes. Even more, it is the exact opposite of discovering. You don’t have to travel the world to get extraordinary pictures. This was also something the Becher school taught me: Take a look at your immediate surroundings.

L.O-K.: What about the role photography plays at museums today? Here in Vienna we do have a lot of going on in photography, but still we do not have a museum entirely dedicated to photography.
M.V.: I don’t know if a museum of photography is such a great idea. Fotomuseum Winterthur does great things. You never think of a photography-ghetto there. Very few photography museums do the job they should do, Winterthur really is an exception. They don’t try to be funny, they don’t come up with the latest crap-trend.

L.O-K.: I got to know a very critical Italian photographer today…
M.V.: Yes, I am critical. Photography is plenty of things and it’s everywhere. I think it is extremely important to know the history of photography in order to be able to deal with the medium today.

Transcription of a talk with Lisa Ortner-Kreil that took place at the Café of Guesthouse Vienna, KunstMagazine Parnass, November 26, 2014.

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