Conceptual Artists and the Photograph

A perspective on a Christopher Williams palm tree.

I attended an auction this past week.  Sadly not in person.  I enjoyed the familiar, and not so familiar images passing my screen, the sound of the gavel and the recognition that life still goes on, despite everyone being in their respective homes and having to share online.  Yes, the atmosphere is not quite the same, but the excitement of the duel between the last two bidders standing and the teasing and cajoling by the auctioneer to squeeze every last penny from them is still real and exciting. 

I was curious about a lot, shown below, by Christopher Williams.  I will be the first to admit that I did not know the photographer, nor have I paid any attention to his work on past occasions, where I might have come across him at an auction or in some other context.  But, I am drawn to this image, not because it is particularly good, nor because it is particularly well composed, but because it was estimated to sell for between US$15,000 and US$25,000.  Pardon me?  I took photographs like this when I got my first camera and went on holiday.  This is a photograph from the beach, with a couple of little swimmer’s heads and a big palm tree shot in Veradero, Cuba.  I seem to recall that Veradero is one of the main charter destinations in Cuba and as such, no doubt, this photograph has been done over, and over again using everything from colour film to digital photographs using traditional cameras and today probably an iPhone.  This is not a great photograph!  This is a postcard……  What gives?

Williams, Christopher – Punta Hicacos Varadero, Cuba. Chromogenic print

I started to dig a little more, looked up Christopher Williams and started to understand that this wasn’t actually about the photograph at all, but rather a work by a contemporary artist who, as a student of John Baldessari, works in entire installations, using references, which require a lot of work by the viewer and is highly experiential.  I found a reference in The Guardian newspaper archives, which described an installation at one of the leading galleries in London, the Whitechapel Gallery.  The reviewer happened to be my favorite Sean O’Hagen, whom I have written about before.  The knowledge he brings to this show, along with what he learned from the accompanying catalogue creates a deep experience for those that attend the show and embrace the homework required to fully immerse in the exhibition and the message from Mr. Williams.

So, why am I writing about this?  Well, at the same auction Graziela Iturbide’s ‘Lady of the Iguanas’, perhaps her most famous photograph, sold for $ 5,000, including the buyer’s premium.  You could also have bought Eve Arnold’s fabulous image, incidentally also from Cuba, known as ‘Bar Girl, Havana’ for $4,250.  Or, you could have bought Robert Frank’s ‘Chicago Convention’ for the same price realized for the Williams palm tree.  As a collector, but also as a photographer, there is absolutely no contest in my mind.  A postcard versus key works by key photographers in the Pantheon of 20th Century photography. 

I do not profess to know a lot about the photography resale market, but it is a reality that unfortunately, people buy names.  Some buy photographs, but many buy names.  This may well be the case here. Williams’ work has been taken out of an original context – an installation – where I am sure it made sense given surrounding images, colours of paint on the walls, the height at which the photograph was hung, the frame it was in, etc.  I question whether a conceptual artist thinks this isolated palm tree photograph is an appropriate representation of their work?  

I understand that prints of concepts and installations by Christo and Jean-Claude were sold to raise money to make the temporary installations happen.  I completely understand that an Artist has to eat and make money.  But what does a photograph mean that was once part of an installation, which on it’s own has no independent reference, or context?  What is it worth?  And how should we view it?  And who should buy it?

Sean O’Hagen describes Christopher Williams’ installation in the following way:  “…. to fully appreciate the layers of meaning and allusion at play here, one must be au fait with the postmodern art theory from which they emerge.” And later concludes: “How much pleasure you take…. may depend on how much prior knowledge of his work – and of art theory and of conceptual strategies in general – you bring to it.”  While, I often struggle with photographs, where I have to do a lot of homework before viewing them, this is of course taking things to a level well beyond most audiences, including me. 

When I enter a photography gallery, or museum exhibition, I skip the catalogue, any text on the wall usually located at the entrance, and go straight to the images.  I don’t even read the captions.  I want the photograph to speak to me.  I want to enjoy the quality of the photograph, the paper it is printed on, and the feeling it gives me when referenced to the sensibilities and knowledge that I have accumulated over the years as a photographer and collector.  Only after will I sometimes – not always – look at what the curator intended and why the show is hung the way it is.  But, that’s just me.

I will conclude by saying that a colour photograph, a little larger than a piece of photocopy paper, 10 3/8 by 13 1/2 inches to be exact, printed in an edition of 10, showing a well lit palm tree on a beach, on a sunny day at a tourist hotspot that looks identical to a postcard that I might pick up at the tourist shop in the all-inclusive hotel that I would probably be staying in, makes no sense to me.  I simply don’t get it.  Outside a conceptual installation, how can I possibly look at this photograph and coolly drop $10,000? 

Martin Parr made a book called Boring Postcards, which was exactly that; reprinted boring postcards.  Need I say more?