Exercise 1.2: Photography in the museum or in the gallery?

Read Rosalind Krauss’s essay ‘Photography’s Discursive Spaces: Landscape/View’.  Summarise Krauss’s key points in your learning log (in note form) and add any Comments or reflections.

The essay was first published in 1982 in Art Journal Vol. 42, No. 4, pp. 311–19 but you’ll find it at: http://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/lklichfall13t/files/2013/09/Krauss.pdf (Amended from Errata)


  • Krauss uses the image Tufa Domes, Pyramid Lake by Timothy O’Sullavan as an example for the start of this essay. Krauss compares the original photograph with an enhanced lithograph used in a geological journal.
  • Krauss poses that the photograph has a more dream like quality and contains a mysterious beauty. (Krauss, 1982)
  • Krauss also states that the Lithograph is more detailed and dispels the mysterious beauty. (Krauss, 1982)
  • Krauss: “But it is clear, of course, that the difference between the two images-the photograph and its translation is not a function of the inspiration of the photographer and the insipidity of the lithographer. They belong, instead, to two separate domains of culture” (Krauss, 1982)
  • Krauss: “The lithograph belongs to the discourse of geology and, thus, of empirical science.” (Krauss, 1982)
  • Krauss: “And the photograph? Within what discursive space does it operate?– Aesthetic discourse”  (Krauss, 1982)
  • Krauss continues explaining that the Aesthetic discourse aligned itself around  the “Space of Exhibition” which was dominated by “The Wall” a surface on which to display the aesthetic. The space of exhibition had other features besides the gallery wall. It was also the ground of criticism, which is to say, on the one hand, the ground of a written response to the works’ appearance in that special context, and, on the other, the implicit ground of choice—of either inclusion or exclusion-with everything excluded from the space of exhibition becoming marginalized with regard to its status as Art. (Krauss, 1982)
  • “Given its function as the physical vehicle of exhibition, the gallery wall became the signifier of inclusion and, thus, can be seen as constituting in itself a representation of what could be called exhibitionality” (Krauss, 1982)
  • Krauss carries on to ask: “But did O’Sullivan in his own day, the 1860s and 1870s, construct his work for the aesthetic discourse and the space of exhibition? Or did he create it for the scientific/topographical discourse which it more or less efficiently serves? Is the interpretation of O’Sullivan’s work as a representation of aesthetic values-flatness, graphic design, ambiguity, and, behind these, certain intentions towards aesthetic significations: sublimity, transcendence-not a retrospective construction designed to secure it as art?4 And is this projection not illegitimate, the composition of a false history?” (Krauss,1982) This is probably the key question for the essay, I felt she finally got to her point here.
  • The essay then wanders into the subject of  stereographic images, taking lots of time to explain how popular they were and how they were organised (this becomes sort of relevant later) in an attempt to relate works such as O’Sullivan to this genera and use this as an example of the images being created for a different purpose than they were being appropriated for now. This seemed to be a long winded way of making a small point.(Krauss, 1982)
  • During this discourse Krauss repeatedly points out that the photographers of this era referred to their images as views, which is fitting for a stereoscopic image as the viewer places a device to their eyes and views the image.(Krauss, 1982)
  • In a discussion about André Malraux who explains that nineteenth century photography belongs in a museum she quotes: “Having decided that nineteenth-century photography belongs in a museum, having decided that the genres of aesthetic discourse are applicable to it, having decided that the art historical model will map nicely onto this material, recent scholars of photography have decided (ahead of time) quite a lot. For one thing, they have concluded that given images are landscapes (rather than views) and they are thus certain about the discourse these images belong to and what they are representations of. For another (but it is a conclusion that is reached simultaneously with the first), they have determined that other fundamental concepts of aesthetic discourse will be applicable to this visual archive. One of these is the concept artist with its correlative notion of sustained and intentional progress, to which we give the term career.” (Krauss, 1982)
  • Krauss goes on to use the term “Career” and expand this into the effort taken to build a career, how other trades would need a period of training or apprenticeship, and yet there are examples of photographers in the classification that came and went within a year, giving a lie to any idea of learning the craft. “The concept artist implies more than the mere fact of authorship; it also suggests that one must go through certain steps to earn the right to claim the condition of being an author, the word artist somehow semantically being connected with the notion of vocation. Generally, “vocation” implies an apprenticeship, a juvenilia, a learning of the tradition of one’s craft, the gaining of an individuated view of that tradition through a process that includes both success and failure. If this, or at least some part of it, is what is necessarily included in the term artist, can we then imagine someone being an artist for just one year? Would this not be a logical (some would say, grammatical) contradiction” (Krauss, 1982)
  • Further Krauss cites: “But this is the case with August Salzmann, whose career as a photographer began in 1853 and was over in less than a year.”   (Krauss, 1982)
  • Krauss further cites: “But other major figures within this history enter this métier and then leave it in less than a decade. This is true of the careers of Roger Fenton, Gustave LeGray, and Henri LeSecq, all of them acknowledged “masters” of the art. Some of these desertions involved a return to the more traditional arts; others, like Fenton’s, meant taking up a totally different field such as the law. What do the span and nature of these engagements with the medium mean for the concept of career?” (Krauss, 1982)
  • Krauss then talks bout the Oeuvre (Life’s work body of work), “And what of the other great aesthetic unity: oeuvre? Once again, we encounter practices that seem difficult to bring into conformity with what the term comprises, with its assumptions that the oeuvre is the result of sustained intention and that it is organically related to the effort of its maker: that it is coherent. One practice already mentioned was the imperious assumption of copyright, so that certain oeuvres, like Matthew Brady’s and Francis Frith’s, are largely a function of the work of their employees.” (Krauss, 1982)
  • Krauss turns then to the Oeuvre, the huge body of work created by Eugène Atget, looking at the way different bodies of people have tried to catalogue his work so that it better conforms to their ideals and proves itself to be art. “The assimilation of this work of documentation in to a specifically aesthetic discourse began in 1925 with its notice and publication by the Surrealists and was followed, in 1929, by its placement within the photographic sensibility of the German New Vision.20 Thus began the various partial viewings of the 10,000-piece archive; each view the result of a selection intended to make a given aesthetic or formal point.” (Krauss, 1982)
  • Krauss: “Yet, if Atget’s work is to be considered art, and he an artist, this collation must be made; we must acknowledge ourselves to be in the presence of an oeuvre. The Museum of Modern Art’s four-part exhibition of Atget, assembled under the already loaded title Atget and the Art of Photography, moves briskly towards the solution of this problem, always assuming that the model that will serve to ensure the unity for this archive is the concept of an artist’s oeuvre. For what else could it be?” (Krauss, 1982)
  • Krauss then quotes John Szarkowski, who recognised “that from the point of view of formal invention, the work is extremely uneven”  (Krauss, 1982) Szarkowski, poses several theories as to why this is –
    • “We could assume that it was Atget’s goal to make glorious pictures that would delight and thrill us, and that in this ambition he failed as often as not.” (Krauss, 1982)
    • Or ” we could assume that he began photographing as a novice and gradually, through the pedagogical device of work, learned to use his peculiar, recalcitrant medium with economy and sureness, so that his work became better and better as he grew older.” (Krauss, 1982)
    • Or “we could point out that he worked both for others and for himself and that the work he did for himself was better, because it served a more demanding master.” (Krauss, 1982)
    • Or “we could say that it was Atget’s goal to explain in visual terms an issue of great richness and complexity-the spirit of his own culture and that in service to this goal he was willing to accept the results of his own best efforts, even when they did not rise above the role of simple records.” (Krauss, 1982)
  • Krauss believes that to some extent all of the above are true “but the last is especially interesting to us, since it is so foreign to our understanding of artistic ambition. It is not easy for us to be comfortable with the idea that an artist might work as a servant to an idea larger than he. We have been educated to believe, or rather, to assume, that no value transcends the value of the creative individual. A logical corollary of this assumption is that no subject matter except the artist’s own sensibility is quite worthy of his best attention” (Krauss, 1982)
  • Krauss debates the inconsistency of Atget’s numbering systems, the order in which he captures images and the way he seems to return to the same place later, the numbering system has been seen as the key to decoding the work of Atget, the solution may not serve the desires of all the onlookers: “Yet the numbers are not strictly successive; they do not organize the work chronologically; they sometimes double back on each other. For researchers into the problem of Atget’s oeuvre, the numbers were seen as providing the all-important code to the artist’s intentions and the work’s meaning. Maria Morris Hambourg has finally and most definitively deciphered this code, to find in it the systematization of a catalogue of topographic subjects, divided into five major series and many smaller sub-series and groups.” (Krauss, 1982)
  • Further: “What is interesting in this case is that the Museum of Modem Art and Maria Morris Hambourg hold in their hands the solution to this mystery, a key that will not so much unlock the system of Atget’s aesthetic intentions as dispel them. And this example seems all the more informative as it demonstrates the resistance of the museological and art historical disciplines to using that key.” (Krauss, 1982)
  • And – “The coding system Atget applied to his images derives from the card files of the libraries and topographic collections for which Atget worked. His subjects are often standardized, dictated by the established categories of survey and historical documentation. The reason many of Atget’s street images uncannily resemble the photographs by Marville taken a half century earlier is that both are functions of the same documentary master-plan” (Krauss, 1982).
  • And – “A catalogue is not so much an idea as it is a mathesis, a system of organization. It submits not so much to intellectual as to institutional analysis. And it seems very clear that Atget’s work is the function of a catalogue that he had no hand in inventing and for which authorship is an irrelevant term.” (Krauss 1982)
  • In conclusion Krauss writes: “Everywhere at present there is an attempt to dismantle the photographic archive the set of practices, institutions, and relationships to which nineteenth century photography originally belonged-and to reassemble it within the categories previously constituted by art and its history. It is not hard to conceive of what the inducements for doing so are, but it is more difficult to understand the tolerance for the kind of incoherence it produces.” (Krauss 1982)


As an essay, this one forced me to dive deeper into myself, on my first pass all I saw was an irrelevant, piece on “is it art or not”, I don’t think this matters as the question is a purely personal discourse. I read the essay several times and found that by re reading and delving deeper into the ideas I found a better understanding.

The essay is written in a difficult style common in academic papers, it seemed to me that Krauss tried almost too hard to prove her point and ended up adding in some elements that just made the essay longer and delayed the point, much of the discourse on stereography felt this way to me.

The key message that comes from this essay for me is that there are many people in the “Art World” that want to label and categorise these older images in order to further their own ideas and agendas on what constitutes the aesthetic. Krauss was trying to bring us up short and make us think on the ethics of re-appropriating older works for new purpose outside the original intention of the creator. In this context it seems dangerous to me to throw the word Art around, she paints a picture of a sinister controlling element that comes from the organization of galleries and the space of exhibition that passes the power to decide what is worthy or not to a small bunch of curators. On reflection this can be seen throughout the creative world, people who make music only become famous by catching the ear of a record producer, the media decides what we see and listen too.

Do I think it is important to be able to say that Atget made his work for purely aesthetic reasons and was truly an Artist? Actually I really don’t care, I have a beautiful book of Atget’s work and looking at it gives me great pleasure, the sense of wonder his images give me is neither strengthened or diminished by the answer. For the up and coming Artist/Photographer it may be essential as without the favor of the curator the Space of Exhibition may never receive your work and by inference Krauss believes, your work would be marginalized as Art, in this I agree with her.

On a personal note the essay did more for me than purpose for which its content was intended, I learned a new way to read heavy essays and digest them, I found it much easier to read this essay and to assimilate its contents, the surprise was it included he use of an old kindle as well as a printed copy of the essay.


Krauss, R. (1982). Photography’s Discursive Spaces: Landscape/View. [online] City University New York. Available at: https://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/lklichfall13t/files/2013/09/Krauss.pdf [Accessed 31 Aug. 2017].