In 1975, I started writing for newspapers in New York City. A graduate student in art history at Princeton University, I recognized that I was in the right place at the right time to experience an important moment in the city’s cultural history. Afraid to miss it, and to miss my own life in the process, I took a leave from my studies and plunged into writing bi-weekly newspaper columns, first for the Village Voice and later for the Soho Weekly News, chronicling the enormous energy of the Downtown scene and the embrace of photography by both the avant-garde and the art world establishment.
People read a lot in those days, and Soho itself – the Lower Manhattan neighborhood whose warehouses and industrial spaces had been transformed into living and working lofts by industrious (and often illegally squatting) artists — was a hotbed of debate, discussion and dissension about the role and meaning of contemporary art.
Being a newspaper writer in that place and that time was, simply put, a stroke of luck. Open and undertheorized, the photo field was just being discovered by the art world, and a large range of imagery fed several streams of artistic practice vying for attention on the streets of Manhattan. Art photographers, concerned photographers, photojournalists and fashionistas shared the stage with conceptual, installation and performance artists using the medium. Within this rich intellectual environment, articles (especially in newspapers) were like lightning rods. Every column published in the local newspapers was received interactively, as a challenge inviting agreement, disagreement, adoration or disgust. People on the street, in stores, bars, restaurants, galleries and museums felt free to offer opinions about our opinions. Community involvement, in other words, was the ground from which the extraordinary achievements of the Downtown artists grew, and it nourished art writing as well as art making.
I am reminiscing about this now because of Marta Gili’s invitation, her request that I serve as the Jeu de Paume’s Bloggiste for the next six months. It has been a while since I beat the pavements of Soho, but suddenly I am once again engaged in the dynamic world of journalism, though with a very different spin. Still living and working in Lower Manhattan, I am older now of course, and the world has changed. Issues I fought for in my youth – photography’s acceptance as an art form, for instance – are old news, now that the medium has pride of place in galleries and museums all over the world. Civil Rights and identity politics have taken different forms; diversity has a more international flavor now, and class divisions define the art world more sharply than before. Most important for this Blog, perhaps, is the fact that the whole process of human interaction has been redefined in technologically developed parts of our digitized world. Our so-called social networks both unite us and alienate us from the habits of sociability taken for granted in my youth. Face Time takes a back seat now that people build communities across continents, and political movements across classes and cultures. People still read, but in fits and starts, checking posts and tweets from myriad information streams; news sources are as dispersed as the people they serve, always on the move. This Blog will be published in Paris while being based in New York, but it will cast its net wide — to Africa, Switzerland, China and beyond — thereby reflecting the realities of an increasingly global art scene. Interactivity and reader response will no longer involve a shout-out in the streets of my neighborhood. Instead, comments will be posted in cyberspace, traveling in seconds from Portugal or Ghana or Brazil. I am thrilled to have the chance to “meet” these new, far flung readers, and to update my journalistic experience by learning to navigate within this brave new world of communication. Linking the Then of my life with the Now, I am hoping to highlight not only my own changing responses but the evolving nature of the interfaces that bind us to each other as well as to the increasingly complex network of our visual expressions.
Shelley Rice, “Image-Making” Column, The Soho Weekly News, 1977-1979
Shelley Rice, “Back to the Future,” Art Journal, Winter 2009, p. 78-87
Writing for the Soho Weekly News in the 1970s, my focus was on a local story, on the dynamism of the art scene unfolding in lofts, on the streets, in galleries, museums and alternative spaces throughout Manhattan and beyond. The work was pluralistic; the monolithic judgments and hierarchical distinctions between high art and low, avant-garde and kitsch, were unraveling in installation works, performances and conceptual projects throughout the city. The aim of my Soho News column was to unravel these distinctions further, to explore the role of Image-Making in the unfettered field of what is now called visual culture. Art works and ads, films and fashion photographs, photojournalism and installation works were “mobilized” by me: each week I would juxtapose icons of our image culture, using them literally as signs that could tell me who we were. In An Anthropology of Images, Hans Belting wrote that “we are not the masters of our images, but rather in a sense at their mercy; they colonize our bodies (our brains), so that even if it seems that we are in charge of generating them, and even though society attempts unceasingly to control them, it is in fact the images that are in control.” Believing something like this on the cusp of Postmodernism, I attempted to reunite art photography with its popular cousins, to animate images within the larger context of the visual field, in order to analyze the myriad messages that colonized our bodies and our brains.
Of course, Postmodern criticism and the establishment of Visual Culture as an academic discipline have rendered such a goal irrelevant. But the urge to understand the expanded field, to explore the mobility of images within the communication networks of contemporary experience, remains my primary focus as both a historian and a critic of photography. The parameters of the visual field have changed, of course. No longer divided into avant-garde and kitsch, high art and popular culture, its divisions and its links now manifest themselves within the international framework of what Okwui Enwezor has termed the Postcolonial Constellation. Local experiences and expressions have been enhanced by interfaces that are increasingly global, multicultural and virtual. Art historians are complemented by others studying photographs from different perspectives, and images are often hard to distinguish from information. Thanks to changing technologies and international circuits, pictures move literally and digitally from context to context, changing both material support and message as they beam from one continent or century to another, bouncing between audiences and interpretations with kaleidoscopic rapidity. These continual shifts in context, the movements in time, space and meaning that define the rough parameters of what critic Terry Smith calls contemporaneity, will be the focus of this Blog over the next six months. Which media, which messages are colonizing our brains today, and how? Highlighting specific images, issues and case studies, my invited colleagues and I will explore (and hopefully suggest new perspectives on) the possibilities and permutations of photography in what Lawrence Alloway called “the great holding pattern” of the present
Shelley Rice, Lawrence Alloway’s Spatial Utopia: Contemporary Photography as Horizontal Description,” Tate Papers, Issue #16, Autumn 2011
Shelley Rice is an Arts Professor at New York University, in the Department of Photography and Imaging and the Department of Art History. A historian and critic of photography and contemporary media, she is the author of Parisian Views (MIT Press, 1997) and the editor of Inverted Odysseys: Claude Cahun, Maya Deren, Cindy Sherman, (the book accompanying the exhibition at the Grey Art Gallery she curated with Lynn Gumpert which won the AICA Award for Best American Photographic Exhibition of 1999-2000.) The co-author of numerous books and catalogs like The Book of 101 Books, Candida Hofer in Portugal (with José Saramago), Vik Muniz: Obras Incompletas, Jacques-Henri Lartigue and Paris et le Daguerreotype, she has been a columnist for The Village Voice, The Soho Weekly News and Artforum. Her essays have appeared in many publications, including Art in America, Art Journal, The New Republic, Bookforum, Aperture, Tate Papers, Katalog, and Études Photographiques. She is the recipient of numerous awards, among them a Guggenheim Fellowship, grants from the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities in Washington, two Fulbright Senior Fellowships to France and Turkey, a Hasselblad Research Grant and the PEN/Jerard Award for Non-Fiction Essay. In 2009 she was the Dr. Carlo S. Fleischmann Visiting Scholar in the Art History Institute of the University of Zurich, Switzerland and in 2010 she was named a Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters in France.