January-February 2003: Visual Modalities

Published in: January-February 2003 issue.


It is a commonplace that the invention of photography transformed painting, but it’s also true that its invention transformed society and people’s understanding of it. While photography’s literalism rendered the whole European realist tradition obsolete, it also provided a window on how real people looked, lived, and interacted. The democratic character of photography freed the depiction of human lives from the conventions of the canvas. And while early photography was necessarily “posed” due to technical constraints, it had the ability to present people warts and all—or rather, it lacked the ability to conceal these realities.

With the advent of photography, painting became increasingly self-referential, concerned with the art itself—or the artist. But photography has always been essentially about the subject rather than the photographer. We assume Rembrandt had a reason for painting someone with a tattered sleeve, but with a photograph we assume the subject really had a tattered sleeve—and all that that implies. When we look at old photos, we cannot help but think that we’re gazing into an authentic record of the subjects’ lives.

And what do we see? Photos as early as the 1860’s begin to show a range of human types and a variety of relationships that the beaux arts tradition in painting never revealed—images of two women tenderly touching or two men sitting on each other’s lap! I for one am struck by how soon after the invention of photography people started taking pictures of each other in the nude or even engaged in sexual activities (sometimes with manifest pornographic intent).

If nothing else, these early photos should dispel any lingering notion that homosexuality did not exist before the invention of the term in the late-19th century, as some theorists have maintained. What they show is that gay people have a long history—one that surely predates photography—and they offer an opportunity to peer into this history in an especially vivid way. Recent scholarship has been piecing this history together in exhibits and books, city by city—Boston, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and of course New York. The sexual history of the latter is celebrated in a large exhibit at the new Museum of Sex in Brooklyn (described here by David Steinberg) documenting a century of highly varied sexual practices both gay and straight. Another slice of history, that of Weimar Berlin, has been brought out in a book by Barbara Ulrich that reveals an era of unusual daring in both sex and art. The urge to capture a moment in time was taken up by the late Robert Giard (eulogized here by Allen Ellenzweig), who set out to photograph all the major gay and lesbian writers of the 1980’s and 90’s.

But the camera’s naïve realism has in recent decades given way to a photography that relies on highly staged scenarios or the use of special effects to produce a surreal or even a hyper-real result. Thus, for example, photographer Duane Michals (discussed by David Boyce) is known for his carefully scripted scenes and sequences that nevertheless tell a kind of “slice of life” story. It was Andy Warhol (see Martha Stone’s piece) who obliterated the distinction between painting and photography by importing photos into the formal space of the canvas. Warhol started as a commercial artist, and his technique of recontextualizing photographs to make a point has become a standard in advertising (see Ian Young’s analysis of HIV drug ads). The lingering sense that “pictures don’t lie” works its magic here to draw people into a world in which certain goods are consumed.