© Dick Blau. Face 1980
The “Intellectualization” of Photography:
Dick Blau’s Thicker Than Water: My Family in Photographs (1968-2015)
Recently, at the Medium photography festival in San Diego, I listened to a handful of talented artists discuss their work, the development of their creative processes, and the evolution of their respective photographic careers. After a particularly poignant lecture from an artist invested in bridging the gaps between art and science, humans and technology, a fellow attendee turned to me and asked: “Why do [photographers] always intellectualize when discussing their work?”
Trained as a critical theorist and contemporary art historian—both of whom are challenged to look beneath the surface on a regular basis—this question, despite its seeming simplicity, struck a chord with me. My instinctual reaction was to reply that photographers are not the only artists “intellectualizing” during discussions of their work. In fact, artists, art critics, and the like have perpetuated this kind of discourse for ages in relation to more traditional media like painting, and sculpture. But as I pointed this out, I wondered what exactly she meant by “intellectualize” and whether or not she was subtly criticizing our propensity to frame artistic, and more specifically photographic, discussions this way.
As I thought about the question some more, and began looking through Dick Blau’s part-autobiographical, part-documentary Thicker Than Water, I realized there were actually two parts to the question that I needed to address—parts that, coincidentally, fostered a deeper understanding of Blau’s photographs.(Image: © Dick Blau, Anna 1978)
First, what do we mean when we use the term “intellectualize” in the context of an artist’s lecture? And what does intellectualizing actually allow us to do? While “intellect” and “intellectual” are certainly relative terms, defined subjectively based on one’s own experiences, intelligence, etc., imbuing an artist talk with the intellectual implies a level of analysis that aims to expand on a work’s (or body of work’s) content and form. Put another way, to intellectualize art is to move beyond simply describing what one sees. Rather, it is providing context; it is explaining an artist’s process and creative motivations; it has the capacity to elevate the ordinary to the extraordinary.
Consider, for example, Blau’s Thicker Than Water: My Family in Photographs. Simple statements like: “We were living in Buffalo. She was standing at the bathroom sink…” and “Max was born, then Ruby…” break up page after page of photographs that oscillate between casual snapshot and staged portrait. They perpetuate and bolster a narrative directed by Blau and a series of life circumstances, adding some further explanation to images that individually and collectively have the capacity to speak for themselves (regardless of whether or not we pick up on what is being said). To intellectualize Blau’s project is to discuss this text/image form of his photo-book, and to address Blau’s decades-long investment in the creation of this body of work.
Secondly, perhaps this intellectualizing is particularly pronounced in relation to photography because of the technological apparatus inherent to the medium (here, I am not considering alternative photographic approaches to image-making like photograms, etc.). With the camera as a mediator between artist, subject, and photographic image, there is a paradoxically indistinct sense of separation between them. The artist, as a result, consistently navigates those divides and must address their project’s multiple components to successfully convey the shift(s) in meaning across, among, and between the layers in their work. As viewers and those left to engage with the artist’s photographs we depend on a certain amount of intellectualizing to adequately understand the complexity inherent in a photograph, photographic project, and/or sight itself.
Blau’s photographs, again, distinctly illustrate the complicated (read: intellectualized) relationships between artist, subject(s), apparatus, and photographic object. Throughout Thicker Than Water, he adeptly combines the intimacy of familial relationships and daily life with the detachment of a third-party observer. In one black and white photograph, we see Blau’s young son, Max, sitting upright in the bathtub toward the lower right corner of the frame. In the left-most part of the photograph stands Jane, Blau’s wife and Max’s mother. Both figures stare pointedly back at Blau, indicating an awareness of his presence in the space of the bathroom even as he remains representationally outside of the image. As the very photographer of his family, Blau is simultaneously implicated within the frame (as part of the family documented throughout this body of work) and set apart from the subjects photographed. (Image: © Dick Blau, Wolf Familty 1989)
Then, there are the images in which Blau, playing with reflections, composition, and sight in a tradition informed by artists such as Édouard Manet (A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1882) and Jeff Wall (Picture for Women, 1979), is actually included as both artist/observer and photographic subject/family member. One of the first few color photographs of Thicker Than Water depicts a teenage Max in the dressing room of a retail store. Reflected by the dressing room’s comprehensive set-up of mirrors and located centrally within the image, Blau photographs Max as he regards his appearance in the borrowed suit. While documenting the fairly mundane action of clothes shopping, Max’s portrait is made more complex by Blau’s intentional use of the dressing room environment and its corresponding mirrors.
(Image: © Dick Blau, Suit 2005)
From confrontational portraits of Heide to the casual observances of Jane, Max, and Ruby, Blau’s project is informed by a variety of emotions, photographic techniques, and family events—elements that allow us to discuss, at greater length, the content and form of Blau’s project and ultimately “intellectualize,” complicate, and personalize photography.
© Rachel Zimmermann
Rachel Zimmermann is a VJIC assistant editor and a contributor to VASA Exhibitions.