Exercise 1.2: Photography in the museum or the gallery?

The very fact that the Open College of the Arts is delivering a degree module about landscape photography would lead me to believe that photography can be considered to be art, and that it has a place in the gallery.

However the debate about whether photography should be given the same attention as other media has existed since the first daguerreotype! The purpose of this exercise is to summarise Rosalind Krauss' critique about whether photographs are better suited in the museum or art gallery.

Photography's Discursive Spaces: Landscape/View, by Rosalind Krauss

From the outset, Rosalind Krauss' title of her paper, 'Photography's Discursive Spaces', intimates that there are opposing mindsets about the purpose of photography as a medium. She begins her article by referring to two, almost identical images, titled Tufa Domes, Pyramid Lake, Nevada. 

Cunningly, Krauss uses these two identical compositions to discuss the correct place for photographs. The first version (below), by Timothy O'Sullivan, shows the rocks appearing to be suspended in a hazy, dream-like state. The photograph lacks detail, whereas the second image is dismissed by Krauss for it's 'supplemental, chatty detail.'     

 Timothy O'Sullivan, Tufa Domes, Pyramid Lake (Nevada), 1868

Timothy O'Sullivan, Tufa Domes, Pyramid Lake (Nevada), 1868

 Photolithograph after O'Sullivan, Tufa Domes, Pyramid Lake, Published in King Survey report, 1875

Photolithograph after O'Sullivan, Tufa Domes, Pyramid Lake, Published in King Survey report, 1875

From looking at the two photographs it is clear to see that there are distinct differences between them, thus creating distinct preferences. However, by placing these images side by side on her paper, Krauss is dislocating them from their intended context. The second image is a lithograph which was to be used in a book about Geology. Therefore it is appropriate that the photograph contains a sufficient amount of detail in the rock, unlike the 'hallucinatory wealth of detail' that Krauss refers to in the first photograph. 

Subsequently it is the context that determines the photograph. If multiple copies of the second image are able to be produced, and it depicts the relevant geological features, then it must be considered to be a 'good' photograph. In her paper Krauss does acknowledge that they 'operate as representations within two separate discursive spaces, as members of two different discourses'.

Whilst reading how Krauss has referred to two discursive spaces, I wonder how she would interpret a possible 'third discursive space'. The screen. For example, a digital image can be viewed in a range of different contexts, and by different audiences. Almost identical images can result from an Internet search, enabling them to be viewed alongside each other. For example, by searching on Google Images for 'tufa domes pyramid lake' I generated the set of images below.

Google Image results for: 'tufa domes pyramid lake'.

Even with such a precise search phrase I have found a variety of interpretations the geological phenomenon. As well as manipulating the clarity of the water, attempts have been made to use vignettes, sepia, high contrast and varying viewpoints. All of these images are viewed out of the context that they were intended for. They compete for the viewer's attention on screen, with little success. Today's digital citizens look at images with a predetermined set of criteria. By entering a phrase on an Internet search engine, the viewer is intending to find their preconceived interpretation of the view. And with over 15,200 results retrieved in 0.52 seconds, there is a strong possibility that that image will be there.

Nowadays photographs have an ever-present identity in the virtual world. Their audience is much larger than that of people who pass through the gallery doors. Krauss discusses how exhibition spaces that were created in the nineteenth century led to an aesthetic discourse. The very act of fixing an image to a gallery wall gave it the prestige it required to be given the status of 'art'. Krauss refers to it as a 'signifier of inclusion'. After all, what was the point of art if it wasn't going to be hung on a wall to be appreciated, and to be sold. 

Krauss continues by highlighting the influence of the gallery wall in the composition of landscape painting, such as replicating the horizontal extension of the wall. Alternatively the modernist approach represented its own space within the exhibition arena. 

Photography encompasses many different fields, in the same way that painting does. Is Seurat any less of a painter for using dots, than Van Gogh? Does pointillism rely on the viewer to formulate the image? I believe the same can be considered for photography. The photographer is actively involved in the creation of the image, choosing the exposure and focus settings, as well as the angle of view. 

No where is beyond the realm of the Internet. Hazy images of far flung destinations are reachable at the touch of a button. Even before the dawn of the digital world, it would appear that when Krauss wrote her article, art was becoming out of favour. The title of the journal in which this article was published alludes to this: 'The Crisis in the Discipline.' Landscape art is locked inside the gallery, whilst the photograph has found it's independence on the walls of social media.

To summarise Krauss' paper, if it can be criticised it belongs in the gallery, and if it can be analysed, it belongs in the museum!


Krauss, R. (1982) Photography's Discursive Spaces: Landscape / View. Art Journal, Vol 42, No. 4 The Crisis in the Discipline (Winter, 1982), pp. 311 - 319