Fotograf Magazine

Tell the Truth, but Tell It Slant

The history of the last several decades has placed photography in a particularly contradictory situation. On the one hand, there is photography that has become part and parcel of art, comprised in the collections of the most important museums around the world and selling for astronomic prices, while on the other side of the spectrum there are myriads of documentary photographs we encounter daily and whose value more often than not coincides with the value of the transmitted information. It may not be an exaggeration to say that photography as an art and photography as a means of direct representation of lived reality are growing alienated from one another. To find a photographerauthor of Walker Evans’s caliber who could facilitate a link between these two worlds is much more difficult today than it used to be in the seventies, let alone in the thirties.

While we have witnessed many a defense of photography as art throughout history, in Why Photography Matters, Jerry L. Thompson (a photographer and Walker Evans’s principal assistant between the years 1973 and 1975) defends photography as photography. Already in the title of his essay Thompson takes issue with Michael Fried, who has published the voluminous Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008). Fried deals with photographers-artists such as Jeff Wall, Thomas Demand, Rineke Dijkstra, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, Candida Höfer and Thomas Ruff. In his significantly slim book, Thomson calls the aforementioned and their likes “studio photographers”: they are the personification of artists who adapt his or her work to the

demands of the market; at the same time, he likens them to the “pictorialists” who care only for what a picture looks like. According to Thompson, it is not the primary goal of photography to create arranged large-format “meant-for-the-wall” pictures that refer to the realm of art rather than to reality. To the contrary, its purpose is to contribute to our knowledge of the world we live in, to tell the truth, but as Emily Dickinson wrote – and Thompson cites this line in his essay – “tell it slant.”

Thompson reaches the conclusion that photography demonstrates its power not in the form of spectacular pictures, but simply as photography as such, based on detailed analyses of photographs by Eugèn Atget, Garry Winogrand, Marcia Due, Walker Evans and Robert Frank. The choice of work he has used for his argument reveals two things: first, how firmly his book is grounded in the tradition of photography, and second, how little attention is being devoted to anything contemporary. All of the photographs used as illustrations are black-and-white, the most recent coming from the nineties. The selection of images is matched by the character of the argument brought forward by the book. It presents a view of photography deeply rooted in tradition and well thought-out in terms of its ramifications. The skillfully argued theses at the same time force the reader to think through his or her own position. Many impulses for this kind of reflection can be found in the book; for instance, when the question of mutual relations between the notions of contemporary fashion and the spirit of the time is addressed. As an example of an object of pure fashion, Thompson cites texts by Susan Sontag, who consistently rejects the notion of the “old and familiar.” Yet based on the same pattern, we might just as easily say that Thompson’s ideas conform to another fashionable trend, conservatism, which to the contrary advocates the “old and familiar” and therefore the functional and tested. But then again, he does so intelligently, grippingly, we could even say provocatively, his attitude not excluding the possibility of other attitudes; he does not try to claim that the contemporary discussion on photography would be devoid of meaning and writes that photography “invites analysis from multiple points of view.” Thompson’s essay can thus be read as one answer among many to the question “Why does photography matter?” which makes the reader contemplate the function of photography in the present day. The book is too firmly rooted in its own photographic tradition to be able to show what it is that is interesting about photography in the year 2014. The offered solution – photography that comes into existence not just with view of art museums and at the same time does not belong entirely into the realm of journalism – definitely does not answer the previously mentioned question in full and leaves photography’s domain of activity open.


Jerry L. Thompson, Why Photography Matters, Cambridge, MA–London: MIT Press 2013

Hana Buddeus