The “ça a été” of the “Has Been”

[Summer 1996]

by Robert Legendre

Recently I perused, not for the first time, La Matière, l’ombre, la fiction,1 a catalogue published to accompany the exhibition of the same name presented in the Colbert Gallery of the Bibliothèque nationale de France in 1994 and 1995. Jean-Claude Lemagny, the exhibition curator, wrote most of the texts in the catalogue. I delighted in the magnificent images in the volume, which evoked the memory of this fascinating exhibition.

And once again, I was struck by the clarity of the collection of texts and of the reasoning that underlay them. The stripped-down sentences provide free access to thought unfettered by this year’s fashionable academic precepts, in calm, self-assured prose that encourages the reader to see things differently.

Making a (criminal) simplification of the thoughts of a great man, I paraphrase imperfectly by writing that the photographic object persists and is. By reducing the importance of Ronald Barthes’s assertion it has been – an assertion tinted with a romantic attachment to the past, it must be said – the categorical compartmentalizations of photography become more dependent on artifice than on the intrinsic reality of the objects themselves, or on the intentions of their authors.

This view of things leaves no room for ambiguity as to where photography belongs in the art world. On the contrary: as in any form of art, certain artists are brilliant; a great number are easy-going, good-natured, and unexciting; and then there are those who, with the shame­­lessness of unlimited pretension, through numerous subterfuges and strategems, attempt to impose their “ultimate colour prints” upon us as works and as art.

This leads one to reflect on digital images, and to suggest some guidelines for distinguishing the photographic from that which is painted and drawn. The photographic is, necessarily, linked to a particular act and to specific analog or digital technologies, and the resulting works are grouped in a particular formal niche. The photographic medium has evolved on a technological level and is currently concerned with issues of affordability, convenience, and profitability. The conceptual models remain the same, as do artists’ areas of interest. And in a pinch the digital world offers portrait and landscape as vocabulary to orient the framing of our images; evidently, the terms vertical and horizontal are too vague to express such concepts (how would one describe the square viewfinder?).

The digital processing of photographic elements – and their assemblage into original visual objects – confronts us with a more truly new medium. The main features of computer technology are to liberate the artist (as technician) from many tedious tasks, while providing a range of supports that are incredibly efficient compared to those used by artists up to now.

It is more than computers or mysterious mutations of the photographic medium that contemporary artists must face every day. They must also face the universe of communications, which is undergoing exponential transformations. We might perhaps have predicted its vertiginous expansion by analyzing the history of communications since 1950, but then, perhaps we lacked perspective, as busy as we were with conceiving, developing, working.

The digital medium is a perfect match for the intangible worlds in our minds. The forces of diffusion and information generated by communication networks create a plethora of referents that encourage artists to go beyond the established rules. The is that was will perhaps be transformed into the will be. Theoreticians who followed as best they could the reality of the artistic œuvre since the mid-1980s may find themselves on the run. And yet, life goes on.

In September, Franck Michel will be keeping this magazine going as editor-in-chief. For me, it has been a joyful, never boring adventure. Every good thing must come to an end.

All the best,

Robert Legendre

1 Jean-Claude Lemagny, La Matière, l’ombre, la fiction, Paris, Nathan-Bibliothèque nationale de France, 1994, 192 pages.