In an art world that no longer wants to believe in its own progressiveness, street photography, with its provocative sexual exhibitionism, seems to be taking over that role. It offers the romanticism of the photographer-artist who has access to worlds that viewers normally never frequent.
They are sometimes referred to as the children of Larry Clark: photographers who take pictures of young people from the various subcultures, where the usual norms and values are not necessarily adhered to. Drugs, sex and skateboards: these are popular subjects in new photography that has apparently had no trouble finding its way to the museums. This spring, four major exhibitions in Belgium and the Netherlands will be devoted to it. The question is, what lies behind all this attention. Is it an authentic attempt to open up the artistic field to exceptional photographic talent, or is it a popularist score-writing of the art world’s need to profile itself?
The New York-Boston Connection
Since the breakthrough of Larry Clark, it has been perfectly normal that marginalized youth are a focal point in photography and that they are idealized and eroticized. This development actually began back in the 1950s and 1960s with New York street photography. A new generation of photographers then took to the streets, photographed what was happening there and brought freaky and marginalized characters into view. Diane Arbus remains the great trendsetter of the genre. The breakthrough of her shocking photography in the 1960s went hand in hand with the Vietnam War, when America lost its carefully cultivated Arcadian innocence.
Arbus paved the way for a younger generation of photographers of the contemporary world, whose most important representatives were Lee Friedlander, Danny Lyons and Bruce Davidson, who in the late 1960s and early 1970s earned reputations of their own. It is this generation that Larry Clark connected with in the 1970s when he developed his own form of narrative photography, which was closely intertwined with his immediate environment and the young people with whom he hung out and used drugs.
In the 1980s, Larry Clark was joined by another new influx of street photography, with Nan Goldin as its godmother. This group is referred to as the Boston School and comprised a group of Goldin’s photographer friends, of whom David Armstrong, Mark Morrisroe and Jack Pierson became the most significant. Nan Goldin’s work focuses on three elements. It is strongly narrative and autobiographical, it is centred on human sexuality and emotions, and at the same time, it preserves a strong, socially critical undertone while bringing the lives of the marginalized and socially outcast (transvestites, drug addicts and AIDS sufferers) into view.
As far back as the early 1970s, Goldin was enthralled with the work of Diane Arbus and Larry Clark. Their work motivated her to let go of the academic tradition of the perfectly printed, faultless image. Another important influence was the New York underground cinema of Andy Warhol and Jack Smith. Nan Goldin brought these two traditions together in her project The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1982), a slideshow about the sex lives of herself and her friends. Its autobiographical and narrative character was a link to the work of Larry Clark, but she borrowed the idea of the slide show as a film narrative from filmmaker Jack Smith (Flaming Creatures, 1963), who due to lack of funds in the 1970s, switched from film to exuberant, exotic slide shows.
It is primarily the generation of the Boston School that forced the breakthrough of this sort of social photography into mainstream art and photography. In doing so, they levelled the road to rapid acceptance for all the later examples of street photographers who will be appearing in force this spring on the exhibition circuit. They include Ari Marcopoulos (b. 1957), showing at FOAM, Amsterdam, and Ed Templeton (b. 1972), at SMAK in Ghent. Fluorescent Adolescent, at Schunck, in Heerlen, presents an overview of a range of even younger photographers.
Ari Marcopoulos, who was still printing photographs for Warhol in the 1980s, is equally at home producing a photo reportage on a Beastie Boys tour as a series of photographs on youth culture, notably skaters and snowboarders, which he also videos (several videos will be shown in Amsterdam). Ed Templeton began his career as a champion skateboarder and entrepreneur (Toy Machine), along with being inspired by such combination skateboarder-artists as Mark Gonzalez, and also began recording his own life in photographs that he incorporated into books, including Teenage Smokers (1999). Templeton’s international breakthrough followed in 2004, with the travelling exhibition Beautiful Losers (San Francisco, etc. See METROPOLIS M, No. 5, 2006), the first retrospective exhibition of the newest generation of street art, in which it was clear that these young people were certainly adept at finding their way through the various media. Their work spans the design of skateboards, logos and graffiti to traditional painting and recording their environments in photographic essay form.
The most remarkable and undoubtedly the most artistically strong figure to give incentive to that genre in the 1990s was Wolfgang Tillmans (showing this summer at the Serpentine Gallery in London). He began as a kind of court photographer for his own (gay) milieu, and in part thanks to the trendy i-D Magazine, Tillmans became the leading figure of his generation. Other periodicals also began filling their pages with edgy photography, which often revolves around a sexual exhibitionism that ran parallel with the heroin chic of 1990s fashion photography.
Examples include Purple, Nerve, Vice, strongly linked to the skateboard culture, and the Dutch magazine BUTT. Thanks to these photographers and the publications they worked for, a certain synergy evolved between street art, design, film (Harmony Korine, Larry Clark) and photography, whose binding factor was more the milieu in which these artists operated than any shared artistic group sensibility. If, thanks to the Boston School, the new street photography has now become completely acceptable, artistically, then Tillman is the one who made showing this type of work at the heart of the art world possible.
There are also tendencies in the art world itself that have prepared it for the openhearted reception of the new street photography. The 1980s saw two remarkable phenomena. On the one hand, there was the rise of identity art, otherwise known as issue-based art, with a wave of artworks that primarily concerned hot political issues, and in which protest against the repression of all kinds of minorities took precedence over aesthetic qualities. Such personalities as Judy Chicago, Karen Finlay and David Wojnarowicz set the tone, together with the slogan-generated work of Barbara Kruger. On the other hand, in that same period, art also became enthralled by Reaganomics [the American neo-liberal economics of the Ronald Reagan presidency – ed.]. The art market exploded as an investment market. As a market, art is not so different from any other capitalistic sector and consequently suffers a chronic shortage of new things to market: new reputations, new art and whatever the next big thing might entail.
The result of this obsession with young artists was a succession of reputations of small talents blown hugely out of proportion, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jeff Koons and Keith Haring. The fear of missing the new, and with it the locomotive of art history, is also palpable in the Beautiful Losers catalogue. The authors point out the misunderstood character of street art and draw parallels to the way that groups of artists, such as the beat generation and pop art, had been rejected in the past by the dominant culture and the press. In the 1990s, according to the authors, history was repeating itself in the case of street art, which was also being confronted with rejection. Such a comparison, of course, proves nothing. Undoubtedly, there are often illegitimate – i.e., non-artistic – arguments involved with art being recognized or not, but that does not mean that the lack of recognition can almost per definition be seen as a mark of quality.
From a purely aesthetic standpoint, the Beautiful Losers catalogue contradicts its own claim. Looking at the specifically painterly aspects of the new street art, much of the work comes up short, from both the technical and the stylistic perspective. The visual language and the style still show the same affectedly primitive character of Jean-Michel Basquiat and the early Keith Haring, although the figures and the personal handwriting have certainly changed. There is, however, no remarkable aesthetic evolution. Street art works with a series of visual codes, an iconography and style that are completely unique to it. In that sense, the work itself is an indication that we are dealing here with folk art, in which tradition continues to be more important than innovation. It is in this regard interesting that Ed Templeton keeps his activities as a designer of skateboards strictly separated from his work as a visual artist. Templeton is moreover the first to express reservations about the quality of his painting: it is as a photographer that he creates his most relevant work.
In the new generation of street art, it is photography that most strongly distinguishes itself, and this is no coincidence. A photographer always remains partly an outsider, because the photographer observes and records a movement or group. The chronicling photographer of street culture, of whatever subculture, can never be an integral part of what he is observing. In this context, it is interesting that Larry Clark, as well as Ari Marcopoulos and Ed Templeton, three central figures in three generations of photographers, are consistently a generation older than the young people they are photographing. If they were once part of that youth culture, they have since outgrown it. But the prestige and the authority – the street credibility – that they enjoy amongst the younger generations guarantees them unique access to the backstages of that subculture.
Like Larry Clark and Nan Goldin, these photographers record living patterns, either in their own immediate surroundings, such as Ed Templeton, or by infiltrating otherwise closed milieus, such as the various projects by Ari Marcopoulos. As a result of Transitions and Exits (2000), his photographic project on snowboarding, Marcopoulos spontaneously has characterized himself as an anthropologist: he creates an image of a group of people by observing and recording their habits, traditions and stories. The element of access to the unknown is apparently crucial in the artistic success of this kind of photography. What matters here is the romanticism of the photographer-artist who is allowed into worlds where we cannot enter, but which we can experience thanks to his privileged position. The photographers show us what we would like to see and their audiences can satisfy their own voyeuristic curiosity.
Apparently, that secret access also satisfies a need for what I would like to call ‘cultivated outsidership’: the trendy pose of being there, being adventurous, having expanded horizons and travelling in exclusive circles, where membership is cool. In an art world that has repeatedly survived the pronouncement that art is dead by hip postmodern theory (usually proclaimed with a lick and a promise), but still bravely marches on, photography of this nature, with its provocative, sexually tinted exhibitionism, has an enormous potential as a sign of progressiveness. Although no-one apparently still believes in avant-gardes, in reality, people have the idea of being able to replace artistic avant-garde with sexual avant-garde.
This turn ran parallel with the rise of identity art and led to a wave of radical chic, from the dried-out look in fashion photography to the porn chic in the better films, such as Larry Clark’s Ken Park (2002) and certainly the omnibus film Destricted (2006). The new photography fits into this pattern: it gives all VARPs – Vaguely Art-Related Persons – a new edge, a new sense of exclusivity. The pose of sexual open-mindedness, from the anally relaxed metro-sexual to the gender bender, creates a new sense of being hip. You demonstrate your artistic alertness not by having an eye for art with real quality, but because of your refined vision of sex and lifestyle. It is because of this that Larry Clark can publish his photo essays in Vogue, where he can make the healthy all-American guys of house photographer Bruce Weber blush.
Nonetheless, the work of the two photographers is connected: one of Bruce Weber’s inspirations is the surfing cult that became culturally accepted back in the 1960s, in part thanks to a string of beach movies that also helped establish the career of Sally Field. Moreover, in his films Kids (1995) and Ken Park (2002), Larry Clark seems to have become a fan of the tradition that he himself helped create. These films are set in New York’s skateboard culture, not the drug culture where Clark grew up. It seems more likely that Clark has taken advantage of the new wave of street culture, where thanks to his reputation as a photographer of extremes, he has easy entrance to the bedrooms of the new wild ones. Here, he should not be denied a certain opportunism in the area of career planning.
This form of radical chic has made a number of careers possible, and despite the potentially cynical considerations in the politics of art that may have steered the work into the museums, we can be grateful that, thanks to them, the oeuvres of the likes of Boris Mikhailov and Slava Mogutin (from Russia) or Jeff Burton (from porno land) have also been able to cross the bridge into the mainstream, along with the fundamentally commercial Terry Richardson and the unsurpassed Gary Lee Boas, who combines this kind of ethnographic reporting with the false glamour of Hollywood and MTV.
The rapid rise of the youngest generation of street photography has probably more to do with political considerations in art (how should the art world profile itself when it no longer believes in visual art?) than with strictly artistic concerns. If the quality leaves something to be desired, the work can still be used for its – intentional or otherwise – documentary, ethnographic, anthropological or transgressive value.
Indeed, in this way, the registration of a youth culture assumes artistic legitimacy. Given the fact that many of these artist-photographers are still extremely young, this satisfies the demand for new, young art gods, as well as the desire of artistic insiders to be able to wallow in an atmosphere of youthful radicalism: an avant-garde in the absence of art. Whether or not a photograph of all those half-naked homeless people or skateboarders with hard-ons is still relevant art becomes, for various reasons, an irrelevant question.
Christophe Van Eecke
Ari Marcopoulos, FOAM, Amsterdam, 27 February - 16 June; Ed Templeton SMAK, Ghent, 3 April - 13 June; Wolfgang Tillmans, Serpentine Gallery, London, 26 June - 30 August; Deanna Templeton, Schunck, Heerlen (NL), 1 - 25 April.
translation: Mari Shields
- Essays by Alex Baker, Thom Collins, Jeffrey Deitch, René de Guzman, Carlo McCormick, Aaron Rose, Christian Strike and Jocko Weyland