A text to line edit, by anon

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By Anon

Photography and Conceptual art. The aesthetic of administration.

The following essay arose from two questions mentioned ad the end of my last essay. The first has a direct link with that essay wherein I tried to find a reason why we consider photography to be objective? I questioned myself how photography got it self accepted within the discourse of fine art? The second question has to do with a fascination that I have with the work of the Bechers. What where there ideas about photography and how important is there work for photography and its place within the art world? These questions let to the text underneath wherein I tried to describe how in the mid sixties of the last century Conceptual art arose and their relation to photography. Why did a lot Conceptualist work with photography? And what meant this for photography in relation to the art world?


The period wherein the Bechers started working was the post-war Germany in the 50s and 60s. In those days the majority people that tried to deny ideology, an ideology of anti-ideology, because of the horrific things that happened during the Second World War. Although the work of the Bechers can be seen as an industrial archaeological project, they tried to preserve the industrial architecture of their time because it was rapidly disappearing. But this isn’t only thing why the Bechers made their work, more than an archive is their work about: Objectivity. Their aim was to suppress their own subjectivity as much as possible from a piece of work. And they did this by: ‘This difficult and disciplined form of expression is achieved in the strict adoption of a constant, straight, composition, unchanged over nearly half a century.’ (Sarah James, p.51) The Bechers tried to increase this rejection of the ideology and identity for instants by not only photographing German industry but from all over the world and combining them al together.

In their work they created a typological arrangement in which the photographs together form a generic type. ‘The typological arrangement of their photographs enables the viewer to sense the similarities between each and the emergence of a generic type, whilst simultaneously registering all of the differences between the structures and their eccentric characteristics.’ (Sarah James, p.53) By showing their photos in this serial way and creating this generic type the subject, the industrial architecture, becomes more abstract. The work can be both seen as aesthetic and anti-aesthetic, for it isn’t picturesque but it is realistic in the sense that it shows us the beauty of the reality. The modernistic idea of aesthetic is to closely entwined whit ideology and therefore the horrors of the War. The photographs by the Bechers bear the same opposition as the concepts of subject and object (particular and general).

Photography before conceptual art.

Photography was mostly used in two ways one being the document and the other an artistic work of art. Pictorialism tried to make photograph that looked like painting with soft focus etc. but also later movements such as f64 still made very beautiful landscape photographs like painting the only difference being that the focus was razor-sharp, hence the f64. But to review not that much changed within world of artistic photography, for there was always an emphasis upon the beauty of the photograph. And that’s one of the reasons why photography was not really recognized by the fine arts as being art during the first hundred years of its existents.

Conceptual art.

Most of the Conceptual artist original had a sculptors background and all had teachers coming from the Minimalist movement. Within this movement there was al lot of discussion upon the status of the art object, but the object itself, the sheer fact that a work of art should be an object, wasn’t been questioned. The early Conceptualist disappointed with art world around the mid sixties started to reject the object and tried to make art that hat no physicality. ‘Because the proposal inherent in Conceptual art was to replace the object of spatial perception experience by linguistic definition alone (the work as analytic proposition), it thus constituted the most consequential assault on the status of that object: its visuality, its commodity status, and its form of distribution.’ (Benjamin H.D. Buchloh p.515) But also the counterculture of the sixties and new linguistic philosophy had played a role in the rise of Conceptual art. They wanted to make art more pure in being art instead of a commodity. To rephrase: ‘This move from is to why derives its content initially from two sources: linguistic philosophy’s emphasis on matters of truth as matters of sense and context, and minimalist sculpture’s recognition of the importance of context as a means of ‘seeing’ the artwork.’ (John Robberts 1997 p.17). Lucy Lippard calls this process dematerialization, because in her view a lot of the practises of artist around the 70s where dealing with this theme of dematerializing the art object but not where really collectively on the subject. She argues that most artists now considered Conceptualist had lot of different ideals but where al somehow related to the dematerialization of the art object.

To understand the intentions of conceptual art a bit better it is interesting to discus a temporal text written by Joseph Kosuth. He was one of the most purist conceptualist at the time. Kosuth hat the idea that a work of art is like a proposition, it ads something of conceptual value to the concept of art. After it has succeeded in its goal the work of art will be of no value anymore the concept of art, it will only be historical object. ‘In other words, what is important in art is what one brings to it, not one’s adoption of what was previously existing.’ ( Joseph Kosuth, 1969 p.233) Kosuth defines Conceptual art as the purist form of art because art only exist conceptually. In his essay ‘Art after Philosophy’ from 1969 he describes how and why all art after the first readymade by Marcel Duchamp can only exist conceptually: ‘This change (readymade L.W.) – one from ‘appearance’ to ‘conception’ – was the beginning of ‘modern’ art and the beginning of ‘conceptual art. All art (after Duchamp) is conceptual (in nature) because art only exists conceptually.’ ( Joseph Kosuth, 1969 p.232) One of the quotes that I’ve read in a number of texts discussing Conceptual art was this: ‘Works of art are analytic propositions. That is, viewed within their context – as art – they provide no information whatsoever about any matter of fact. A work of art is a tautology in that it is a presentation of the artist’s intention, that is, he saying that a particular work of art is art, which means, is a definition of art. Thus, that it is true a priori (which is what Judd means when he states that ‘if someone calls it art, it’s art’). ( Joseph Kosuth, 1969 p.232) Kosuth gives us his definition of art, something that is for him the exact definition of art: define what art is. He thinks that art should always question its own nature, it should be self-reflective.

Photography and Conceptual art.

But what role did photography play in this whole conceptual revolution? In the preface of the book ‘The impossible document’ John Robberts describes that within the foundations of conceptual art lies the conflict between iconophobia (the fear of images) and iconophilia (the love of images) that can be traced back to the Enlightment. Most of the Conceptual artist tried to break down the hegemony of the visuality but they couldn’t fully reject any visual image to present their ideas. Photography that’s being used up till this point in time as both document and pictorial art, but the aesthetic of the photographic document has never been used in an artistic context. Minimalist had already been using photography for just plain documenting of their sculptures within the context of for example a gallery space. The Conceptualist followed in their footsteps but they didn’t document sculptures, they documented their conceptual ideas or works. One very clear example of this is Bruce Nauman’s ‘Self-portrait as a Fountain’ a work that can only exist by being documented through photography. So through the conceptualist and their unquestioned faith in the claim of photography on the real, photography itself entered the world of fine arts: ‘The photographic interest of Conceptual artists bypassed the fine arts tradition of Alfred Stieglitz, the spiritualism of Minor White, and even the formalism of Lee Friedlander an Garry Winogrand. Instead Conceptualists plunged into an examination of publicly accepted notions of photographic truth. (Mary Warner Marien 2006, p.372)

Conceptual project collapsed in the mid seventies, it hat failed to demolish the status of the art object and was set aside as idealistic nonsense from the sixties. But Conceptual art project may never fully be realized it did change something in its appearance, one of those things is that it established the aesthetic of administration: ‘Just as the readymade had negated not only figurative representation, authenticity, and authorship while introducing repetition and the series (i.e, the law of industrial production) to replace the studio aesthetic of the handcrafted original, Conceptual Art came to displace even that image of the mass-produced object and its aestheticized forms in Pop Art, replacing an aesthetic of industrial production and consumption with an aesthetic of administrative and legal organization and institutional validation.’ (Benjamin H.D. Buchloh p.520)


The conceptualist wanted to dematerialize the art object in favour of more conceptual understanding of art itself, but to realize this they still needed to make artworks. Which was something problematic and so they tried to overcome this problem by choosing materials that where cheap and methods that where very clear in their form. Photography of course was one of these materials that where cheap and at the same time worked as an agency for the truth, the Conceptualist embraced photography’s claim on the real and used it in their advantage. Both the Becher’s and the Conceptualist worked with photography for its documenting power to shift the attention of the viewer, away from work itself and to something conceptual. For the Becher’s this was an objectiveness and fore most Conceptualist the idea of art itself. Both failed in a way in achieving their goals but created a totally new aesthetic within the discourse of arts, that of the administration and gave photography its way into fine art world. ‘By ultimately dismantling both along with the conventions of visuality inherent in them, they firmly established an aesthetic of administration.’ (Benjamin H.D. Buchloh p.525)

Research strands

Where I want to look further in is the way photography developed itself from this point onwards. Mostly with the emphasis on self-reflective photography within the realm of the fine art. Artist like Jeff Wall, Alan Seculla and the students of the Becher’s like Anderas Gurksy, Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth.


The Impossible Document: Photography and Conceptual Art in Britain 1966 – 1976. Edited by John Robberts 1997 ISBN: 1 871103 10 X

Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology. Edited by Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson 1999 ISBN: 0-262-01173-5

Conceptual Art. Peter Osborne 2002 ISBN: 0 7148 3930 2

Photography: a Cultural History Mary Warner Merien 2006 ISBN: 1-85669-493-3

Six Years: The dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972. Lucy R. Lippard 1973 ISBN: 0-520-21013-1

Subject, Object, Mimesis: The aesthetic world of the Becher’s Photography Sarah E. James

Abstract This essay describes how photography became accepted within the fine art world through Conceptual art. The Conceptualist used photography as a documentation method (photography’s claim on the real) to make their work more conceptual, which ultimately resulted in an aesthetic of administration and photography as a fine art medium.