Kevin Bjorke
Kevin Bjorke
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Randomly seen on my bookshelf this afternoon

The word of the day (well, Sunday) is “valorize,” rarely-seen in America these days and which I encountered twice in the same morning’s reading, in two different (non-American, ahem) texts on related issues, each written some forty years apart.

The older passage came from Pierre Bourdieu’s 1965 Un art moyen: essai sur les usages sociaux de la photographie whose title his American editors provocatively streamlined to Photography: A Middlebrow Art:

(This section from “Professional Men or Men of Quality: Professional Photographers” was actually written by Luc Boltanski & Jean-Claude Chamboredon)

For photographers, contact with prestigious professional groups is really an opportunity to photograph valorized objects. The major specialization as defined by the importance and nobility of the object photographed; so much so that a change in status may be accomplished by a change in specialization, which, becuase it involves neither special equipoment nor a different qualification, is simply a change in object. Invited to name, from a series of possible photographic subjects, those from which a ‘beautiful photograph’ could be made, photographers seemed to be guided, in their choice or rejection, primarily by the prestige suggested as the subject of a photograph.

Now let us jump forward four decades to a recent article by William A Ewing in The Guardian Weekend, concerning his new book reGeneration: 50 Photographers Of Tomorrow:

The traditional genres that have dominated art photography for a century are now largely passé. The nude, the classical portrait, the sublime natural landscape — all have been largely dismissed, or are fading away as meaningful categories. The nude — traditionally almost always female, youthful and inert — was entirely absent from the portfolios we looked at, and portraits in the classic sense (claiming to reveal the soul, or otherwise valorising the individual) have given way to studies of types: faces have been replaced by facades.

When the sociologists look, they see subjects valorizing the photographs (and photographers) — when art critics look, they see sociological types. I get the impression that Ewing (and his co-editor Radu Stern) are distrustful of “valorising” portraits, that they suspect that such pictures don’t really deliver on what they’re “claiming.” Well all pictures are fictions, yeah. And in this post-Becher world, taxonomies of appearance seem almost inevitable.

I don’t know the contents of Ewing’s book but suspect it contains portrait “facades” along the lines of those like Jona Frank’s High School series or Billy & Hells’s “neo-trivial” costumed clichés. Even the photographers themselves can be a typed group: Lumas lists part of its catalog as simply “Students of Thomas Ruff” (not a bad thing to be, but…). Yet wasn’t such collecting the spark that also illuminated such classic portraits as those made by August Sander?

(Never let it be said that I’m shy about reading too much into material I haven’t even seen yet, heh)

Even when portraits reveal a facade in addition to a face, they are still a record of that face, that time, of the relationshiup between the sitter, the shooter, the viewer — adding a sociological prism doesn’t change that, only (potentially) enriches it. If anything, adding emphasis on social typing emphasizes the idea of fixing value, not only for a class of persons but for each indivual, specifically due to the nature of their variation away from the classified norm. If this were not so, wouldn’t just one image per class suffice?

Personally I both trust and distrust the notion that a photograph can valorise the sitter. That a prestigious subject can smudge prestige onto the photographer is no surprise — how else to explain Ellen Graham? — but surely the other is just possible, if perhaps more rarely achieved. There are no shortages of humble subjects valorized by photographers, consciously or not — Strand, Winogrand, Frank, and Avedon to name only a handful — and even the pre-valorized may be transformed, as in Avedon’s tired Marilyn and his world-worn Eisenhower. Was it their sort of “pre-valorized” nature part of what inspired Dianne Arbus to call the “freaks” she photographed “a kind of nobility”?

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