Although this acceptance of formal flexibility gives the artist a fair bit of leeway, just as with abstract painting or sculpture, it also places a heavy responsibility to convey something significant to the viewer. We'll accept that a painter meant for a palette to be jarring, for example, but that had better work toward a conceptual end of some importance or be beautiful despite itself.
Photography, as a medium, has broken out somewhat from its third-place standing behind painting and sculpture over the last decade. Consider what's happened in prices. The piece above, by Richard Prince (untitled, 1982, ektacolor print, 24" x 22.8"), recently sold at auction for US$576,000 (and it's an edition of 2). Of course, there are forces artificially inflating Prince's prices, but still...over half a million dollars. And that's not the most that's been paid for a photo either. Also consider what's happening in exhibitions. At MoMa recently, we've had major exhibitions by Thomas Demand, Lee Friedlander, and Ansel Adams. At the Met, exhibitions by Diane Arbus, August Sander, and Richard Avedon. And those are just the blockbuster exhibitions at the two biggest museums; there are many others. Photography has arrived.
Two of the major reviews in today's New York Times are about photography exhibitions. Roberta Smith reviews the Irving Penn exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in DC (see image at right). While Holland Cotter reviews what looks to be the absolute must-see photography exhibition of the year, "Young America: The Daguerreotypes of Southworth and Hawes" at the International Center of Photography. Here's a snippet from Cotter's review:
It's hard to find the right adjectives for "Young America: The Daguerreotypes of Southworth nd Hawes" at the International Center of Photography. So I'll just say that the exhibition of 150 or so mid-19th-century photographs is precious in the very best sense: literally beyond price, and almost, but not quite, beyond praise.
When photography arrived in America from Europe in 1839, it existed in two different forms. In England, William Henry Fox Talbot had developed a way of printing positive images from negatives onto paper; while in Paris, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre had fixed positive images on polished metal plates. Talbot's process had the advantage of yielding unlimited copies of images, cheap. The selling point of the daguerreotype was the staggering clarity and brilliance of its images: diamond-cut empiricism bathed in apparitional light.
And here's a few of the daguerrtotypes in the exhibition:
Alice Mary Hawes, ca. 1855. Gift of Alden Scott Boyer. George Eastman House.
Decatur, Sloop-of-War in Boston Dry Dock, ca. 1855. George Eastman House.