Jan Estep, “Performed Photography: Making Things Public,” Public Art Review, Issue 36, Spring/Summer 2007, 45.
the issue for me is not so much the relationship between the two terms as separate formal categories, but the desire to share specific ephemeral or site-bound works in a more public way via photographic documentation. Many artists use the camera to document acts that could not otherwise be shared: anonymous interventions, obscure earthworks, transient events, personal and intimate performances. The acts that interest me most are ones that also occur in public places—in nature, on the street, among people—specifically, nonart contexts in which drawing attention to the art-ness of the event would define or limit the experience too quickly. Here photography can mediate the desire to make art that is private, gestural, or radically site-specific, and the desire for a wider audience.
In writing about her large-scale environmental work Sun Tunnels, remotely situated in the Utah desert, Nancy Holt describes the diminished status of photographic documentation. “Words and photographs of the work are memory traces, not art. At best, they are inducements for people to go and see the actual work.”*
Holt draws a clear line between the sculpture in its original context and its secondary representation. While documentation accurately records the work for prosperity and allows others to learn of it, it is not the same as experiencing the piece directly. Imagining through vicarious connection to a photograph is no substitute for the real thing. This distinction parallels the traditional division between a photograph and its referent: the perennial conundrum that photography both materially testifies to the factual existence of its subject and irrevocably reduces, transforms, and displaces its subject. At its heart is a fundamental contradiction: Photography is physically analogous with its subject matter, connected through the effect of atoms and light on sensitized material, and altogether other. Compared to life, a photograph is two-dimensional, silent, and discontinuous in space and time.
Still, photographs are how most of us do experience this kind of work. Rather than give us pause, artists and viewers alike recognize the dilemma of making work that aside from a select few can only be known after the fact. Purists might refrain from documentation, either choosing to keep their practice private or restricting access to a handful of people. But most artists choose to communicate more broadly and the camera is a convenient tool for this.
Artists such as Holt, who situate their works in out-of-the-way locations, rely on photography as a record of an otherwise autonomous event. Other artists work in a way that inextricably links the original event with the act of documenting it. They stage things—nontraditionally photographic things—for the camera. For example, between 1995 and 1997 Martin Kersels made a series of images in which he recorded himself tripping and falling in public places. The photos capture the pratfalls in all their funny, embarrassing glory. Viewing them, one thinks about the random passersby who witnessed his fall, whether they laughed or stopped to help or discretely walked on by. Part of the pleasure in looking, is that we are left off the hook, safely removed from the live event and whatever slight moral dilemma it may have introduced.
Artists Gregory Crewdson, James Casebere and Thomas Demand set up elaborate sculptural installations, which are photographed and then dismantled, their sole purpose to be transformed into an image. Even pictures as hurried and raw as those of Bas Jan Ader jumping off a house roof, Chris Burden getting shot in the arm, or Vito Acconci following strangers in the street—photos whose mediocre formal quality suggests an offhand intent and conceptual authenticity—are understood as produced for the camera. In all of these situations, the original impetus for the photos is a singular performative moment, often made in relative isolation or anonymity.
Such artists deploy a host of visual and conceptual strategies that involve photography to record some kind of behavior, be it performance, site intervention, sculptural prop, or ephemeral gesture. In most cases, we would not know of the work other than by its photographic record, but the degree to which a work needs photography for its existence varies. The dynamics at play here—between the documentation and the event, between the work and its reception, between art and its own record—become integrally associated with the meaning of the work. Making art that few people can experience directly, and the decision to document and share that work via photography, result in a multilayered experience that turns on photography’s ability to be in two places at once: the past of the event and the present of here and now. Having a creative practice that mirrors this doubling allows for privacy and publicity at the same time.
*Nancy Holt, “Sun Tunnels (1977),” in Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz, eds., Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 540.
Copyright 2007 Jan Estep