An Interview with Dr. James Elkins

The School of Art will be hosting Dr. James Elkins as part of the Ryla T. and John F. Lott Endowment Funded Program on November 16 & 17.  Last semester, our graduate photography class read his book Photography Theory and “Camera Dolorosa” is included in this semester’s readings.  Dr. Elkins has been gracious enough to answer a few of our questions about the current discourse on photography:

Reading Photography Theory, one notices that most of the participants in the Art Seminar discussion, as well as those who commented afterwards, were theorists, not practicing photographic artists.  In which ways do you feel that this might have skewed the conversation?

Well, in unpredictable ways. I’ll say in my defense that the people who could make it to Ireland for that conversation were limited; and we did invite a number of artists to contribute assessments, but few did — and some of those were more artists’ statements than responses to the discussion.

This theme is a bit outside your immediate interest, but I’m editing a new series of books, following on the Art Seminar, and it has the same sort of format; again I’m having difficulty finding artists who are (a) willing to take time from their careers and work, and (b) willing to write responses to theoretical positions. It’s a difficult problem: there are limited, even vanishing, rewards for artists to take the time to come to terms with theoretical positions: the artworld doesn’t usually operate that way. (The normal way artists get into print is in interviews, like this one!)

But to your question: I imagine few photographs care as much about the index as certain scholars; and there were also excluded discourses, like Flusser and Bourdieu,  so that artists who work from those positions would have found it difficult to write assessments that responded in any comprehensible or direct way to the seminars.

Which concepts touched upon in the Photography Theory discussions would you consider especially relevant (or essential) for practicing photographic artists?

The conceptual chaos itself is significant. To a degree it means that there need not be any concern for theoretical discourse unless something in the work persistently reminds viewers of specific theoretical positions.

The Art Seminar portion of Photography Theory took place in 2005 and the book was published in 2007.  In what ways have your thoughts on the medium changed or been reinforced since then?

I have become less interested in academic debates! I’m mainly interested in the disarray of the debates than in the conclusions or positions themselves. I’ve written about this in the postscript to the series (it’s in vol. 7, Re-Enchantment).

After reading Photography Theory, and any number of the other photo theory books which have been published recently, one is left with the impression that the discourse around photographic theories has not evolved much in the last 30 years since Barthes’ Camera Lucida and consists of a rehashing of old ideas (e.g., indexicality, the punctum, medium specificity, and that there might be an ontology to photography).  What are your thoughts on why this might be and where photographic theory might be headed?

Well, of course I completely agree! When we held the panel discussion in Photography Theory, I told the panelists about my project on Barthes; and one of the panelists said, “Barthes! I thought we’d finished with him ages ago.” But as you’ve seen from my opening anecdote in the “Camera dolorosa” piece (the anecdote about Sunil Manghani, and how everyone at his conference was talking about Barthes), I don’t think we’ve moved forward. And as a PS: did you know Michael Naas is coming out with a book of Derrida’s writings on photography? About 6 essays, most (or all) previously published; but in a year or two there will also be a “revival” of his interests.

Photography theory is headed in a different direction. The people who exemplify it are scholars like Margaret Olin (her forthcoming book, Touching Photographs) and Shawn Michelle Smith (who writes on 19th c. photography). Both are sociologically-minded art historians, and are interested in the reception of photographs in particular social situations.

In what ways do you think Michael Fried is opening up the discussion about photography and why it matters as art with his recent book?

Really nothing. I have followed his work very closely for decades, so I say that without meaning it as a critique of his book: he is not connected to the great majority of writing on photography. His only connections are to some of the superstar photographers, and especially to Jeff Wall, whose theorizing has always been done within the existing discourse of art history.  Fried has always raised the bar on rational argumentation in art history, criticism, and theory; but here the question is who he is speaking to. I think his public will be, as it has been, a small circle of academic art historians, who can use and develop the positions he outlines. (I have an essay in Critical Inquiry responding to part of Fried’s book.)

Who are some of the photographic artists working today that you find most interesting, and who are some of the most noteworthy critics or theorists writing about them?

I like Marco Breuer! See the account in Six Stories from the End of Representation, my new book, which has a chapter on photography.

Many thanks to Dr. Elkins for taking the time to answer our questions.  His lecture, “The Place of Language in Visual Art” will take place at Texas Tech on Tuesday, November 17 at 7:00PM in English 106.

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