Robert Smithson, best known for his monumental Earthworks, like many artists of his generation championed a critical revision of the use of photography in art. In a discussion on Land Art in 1969, he is quoted as saying, "Photographs steal away the spirit of the work."With site-specific work that altered landscapes by moving earth, rocks, and soil to impact waterfronts, deserts and mountains, Land Art and Earthworks inherently favor physical experience and direct encounter over photographic representation. However, as Lawrence Alloway points out in his essay that accompanies Artists and Photographs, one use of photography is to provide "coordinates of absent works of art." Alloway explains that Earthworks can only be experienced by a very limited number of people while a photograph provides a document that makes ephemeral work accessible to a larger audience by providing “grounds for believing something happened." Land artists’ contentious relationship with photography takes on a humorous bent in Smithson's contribution entitled Torn photograph from the 2nd stop (Rubble). A primarily brown, red, and gray snapshot of dirt and rocks—“general rubble” as he calls it—is ripped into four square pieces. In keeping with his Earthwork focus, Smithson highlights the impossibility of containing and exhibiting earth. Additionally, the torn image of an inconsequential yet ubiquitous subject functions as a strong interrogation of landscape photography that debunks its traditional pictorial function and instead brings it literally and metaphorically down to earth.
Edward Ruscha provides Artists and Photographs yet another humorous, and somewhat absurd piece in the format of a fifty-two page artist book. Babycakes, with its light blue cover pages hole punched and pink ribbon bound with the title written in light green flocking, contains a black and white photograph of a few-month-old baby captioned with his or her weight (15 lbs. 8 oz.), followed by snapshots of twenty-one cakes or pieces of cake captioned by weight. Ruscha confounds one idiosyncratic gesture upon another, giving superfluous attention to the physical form of the book as a cute blue, pink, fuzzy lettered package and riffing off the convention of listing a newborn’s weight on a birth announcement transferring it to actual cakes in a tongue and cheek word play that is characteristically Rushca. Like many of his Pop-influenced text paintings that emphasize meaning, language, or humor, this book documents a pun in its depiction of mass produced packaged cupcakes (VanDeKamps Cupcakes—6 in a box—1 ½ oz. each), slices of jelly rolls, and tiered wedding cakes in display cases. With little regard for composition, lighting or sociological nuance, Babycakes is an ironic document, full of deadpan candor on its own terms.
I would like to see photography make people despise painting until something else will make photography unbearable. (Marcel Duchamp) In my opinion, you cannot say you have thoroughly seen anything until you have a photograph of it. (Emile Zola) These two quotes appear in Mel Bochner's Misunderstandings (A Theory of Photography), a manila envelope containing one "Polaroid negative” and nine handwritten quotes printed on index cards. Bochner collected these quotes around 1967, when he realized his conceptual work had moved increasingly toward photography. With this realization, he was compelled to research the medium with special interest in its history and the critical issues of discourse. Dissatisfied with the writings he found, encountering what he deemed “misunderstandings,” he began compiling a list of misunderstandings. Bochner added a few quotes of his own to the list further calling into question the authenticity and reality of every sentence found in the historical and academic record. Bochner titled this initial set, Dead ends & vicious circles. Turned down by both Art Forum and Art in America, he was told to submit the project to photography magazines at which point, he put the collection in a drawer and forgot about it. But the invitation to contribute to Goodman's Artists and Photographs portfolio provided an ideal opportunity to publish the piece. Along with the quotations, Bochner included another false document--a photograph printed as a Polaroid negative, which Polaroids do not produce. Playing with prevarication again, the image of the artist's extended arm and hand entitled Actual Size is a reproduction of his earlier series dealing with measurement and was originally printed to actual size. This 5 x 8 inch reproduction joins Bochner’s fabricated text setting up a constant presence of falsehood that requires viewers to think about photographic truth and question its uses.
Sol LeWitt, widely known for his conceptual wall drawings based on geometric abstraction, actually contributes an example of his somewhat lesser known photo work to the portfolio. In Schematic Drawing for Muybridge II, his practice of structuring ideas as drawings or sketches is clearly evident, through the presentation of a conceptual dialogue with 19th century photographer Eadweard J. Muybridge. Muybridge, working in the 1860s, became the first photographer to capture and analyze motion successfully using a sequence of photographs that were resynthesized to produce moving pictures on a screen. LeWitt pairs this exploration of the camera as a tool capturing movement and process with a much more traditional, but loaded art historical subject, the female nude. Printed in a horizontal line on a single rectangular card, the small black and white circular cropped photos offer a visual spatial progression. The photograph on the far left presents a long angled view of a nude female standing in a nondescript, darkened room. The subsequent photos capture the camera moving closer to the subject, narrowing the frame with each stop, until the final photo on the far right is an extreme close-up of the woman's navel. Interestingly, Lewitt designed this piece to be viewed directionally, encasing it in an envelope that withdraws from an opening on the right vertical edge, so the viewer will technically encounter the extreme close-up first. As the card withdraws from the envelope, each photo is evidence of the camera moving backward through space, visually describing more of the static female subject, which is a departure from Muybridge's construct of capturing motion of the subject to capturing the motion of the camera itself. Using a format fluidly aligned with the qualities of his non-representational, system driven conceptual work while subduing the inherent representational elements of photography, LeWitt draws more attention to the temporal and spatial process of the camera and photographic document over the traditionally lauded art subject.