View of Jeff Wall 1978 - 2004 exhibition at Tate Modern
View of exhibition Jeff Wall 1978 - 2004 at Tate Modern

Agency and Automatism: Photography as Art since the 1960s – Part 1

Agency and Automatism: Photography as Art since the 1960s – Part 2

Agency and Automatism: Photography as Art since the 1960s – Part 3

Agency and Automatism: Photography as Art since the 1960s – Part 4

Agency and Automatism: Photography as Art since the 1960s – Part 5

The AHRC project Aesthetics After Photography announces its concluding conference which aims to bring the two spheres of art history and philosophical aesthetics into dialogue at the point of their intersection around questions of agency and automatism in the photographic process. Such questions can be understood, art historically, in terms of the recent history of artists’ interest in the medium, particularly those conceptual and post-conceptual artists who value photography in so far as it brackets artistic agency and authorial control. This is manifest in the preference for unpretentious snapshot effects, documentary value, and deadpan anti- or a-aesthetic qualities in conceptual and post-conceptual art, as well as in uses of photography for the appropriation and recycling of existing imagery.

Similar questions of agency and automatism have arisen in recent debates in the philosophy of photography. Philosophers tend to start from certain assumptions about the mechanical, causal or ‘mind-independent’ nature of the photographic process that are taken to distinguish photographs from other forms of depiction. Given this starting point, a special case needs to be made for art photography, given its porosity to artistic intention. By now almost all have rejected the extreme conclusion that their underlying assumptions about photography as an automatic recording mechanism preclude the possibility of photographic art. Nonetheless, dominant conceptions of photography in philosophy still face problems doing full justice to artistic uses of the medium.

From an art historical point of view, this is ironic, given that photography arguably entered the mainstream fine art canon when artists turned to the medium to exploit the very features of its process that appear, from a philosophical point of view, to be in tension with its status as art. Such artists were interested in the non-art nature of photography as a new resource and horizon of possibility for artistic practice. That is, many artists valued photography in all the respects in which it seemed to evade, rather than mimic, art with a capital ‘A’. In view of this, one way to understand the foregrounding of artistic intentions in more recent large scale, often digital, art photography is as a rejection of this post-conceptual settlement concerning the automaticity of photography. Whether such practices go beyond conceptual photography or return photography to the terrain of pre-conceptual pictorial art remains much debated.