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The Origins of the Wall Accessory

Intro – Lens’ On Campus, November 1982

I’m an inveterate scavenger. Show me a rural garbage dump or an urban junk pile and I’m scrounging around, happy as the proverbial pig. I’ll even interrupt a walk or an outdoor social occasion to pick over a promising trash heap, much to the discomfort of well-bred companions. A certain fundamental impulse toward recycling, plus a childhood training in making do, is at the root of this. And I suppose that in some ways it’s my frugal, thrifty version of that all-American entertainment, shopping.

Fortunately, I live in a spacious house, which allows me to store these impulsive acquisitions until I can discover whether they actually have any useful relation to my life or are simply still-functional objects irrelevant to my needs.

For example, in this fashion I’ve acquired books — such as two handsome limited-edition illustrated volumes of Dickens which recently gave me a surprising amount of reading pleasure (I hadn’t encountered him since high school, and hadn’t enjoyed him then). And furniture — stools and chairs and the light box I constructed from parts of an enormous abandoned World’s Fair lighting fixture I came across in a field on Staten Island. Assorted lamps. My leather office waste basket, formerly a ladies’ hat box. Many photographs, of course, few of them valuable but most of them fascinating. (Not to mention half a basement’s worth of detritus on which the verdict is not yet in.)

There’s a small apartment building on the corner of my block which has a steady turnover among its tenants. Passing there one day I spied a mound which bore the earmarks of the hasty cleaning-out of a just-vacated apartment — and, as is my wont, plunged right in. Soon a glint of metal caught my eye, and with a little effort I extracted a picture in a large aluminum frame, roughly two feet by three feet in size. A genuine find! Sectional metal frames are getting a bit pricey these days, and here was a perfectly good one just begging to be put to use, free for the taking.

The image it encased appeared to be a lithographic reproduction of a watercolor portrait. The subject was a girlish blonde with blue eyes in a straw hat, holding a spray of flowers and looking coyly at the viewer — one of that rare race of people of the female persuasion who inhabit the covers of romance novels for adolescent girls and the photographs of David Hamilton. She was so fetchingly bland that the overall effect was offensively wholesome; and, since there was no signature on the print, I turned it over, expecting to find some appropriately mindless title (I had my money on “Springtime Reveries”) and the name of the perpetrator.

Wisely, he or she had decided against identification by name. In fact, there was absolutely no information whatever offered in regard to the image: no title, no indication of medium or reproduction method, nothing — as if, Topsy-like, it “jes’ grew.” There was, however, an official designation for the entire object (image plus mat plus backing board plus frame) which I held in my hands, and the appropriate nomenclature was right there in big letters on a white label pasted to the back. “WALL ACCESSORY,” it said, just like that, and in a flash I knew that I had found not just a bargain but a metaphor.

A person in my line of work necessarily comes into contact with a considerable amount of what we generically label art, and a fair cross-section of what’s known as “art photography.” At the outset this is tremendously exciting, because everything you come across is the first of its kind to you, and you couldn’t agree more with those people who tell you what a terrific job you have just looking at pictures all day.

At the next stage, patterns and tendencies start to become visible, quality levels are more clearly defined, and you are forced to the conclusion that — as in any field where intellect and creativity play a major role — at least eighty percent of the work you’re addressing, no matter how well-crafted and seriously intended, is technically mediocre and (to use gallery owner Lee Witkin’s phrase) intensely derivative. With this discovery the mystique dissipates, revealing that the job at hand is just that — a job — and one roughly analogous to that of the bottle-checkers on “Laverne and  Shirley,” except that their task is to filter out and discard the untypical and yours is to analyze and evaluate it.

A certain disillusionment sets in at that point. For some, it generates an embittered relation to the field, enough so in many cases to drive them from it. Others accept it cynically and decide to revel in the power prerogatives of those involved in “stoking the star-maker machinery behind the art photograph” (a slight paraphrase of Joni Mitchell). And a few, who continue to believe that there is something important and useful to be derived from the enterprise nonetheless, buckle in for the long haul.

The idiosyncracies of personal response notwithstanding, though, the underlying assumption here is that we’re talking about discriminating between various manifestations of the same thing, namely what we loosely label creative/serious/art photography. We may determine that specific examples or even large masses thereof are (depending on our vocabulary) good/bad, successful/failed, extraordinary/mediocre, but we take for granted that they share certain intentions: intellectual and/or emotional expression, perceptual inquiry, technical experiment, and several others on which we might agree.

But in the past few years I’ve witnessed the startlingly rapid emergence of a class of objects which has insinuated itself into and infected every arena of creative photography, from the gallery/museum circuit to the publishing realm. Physically, in themselves and in their presentation, they display many of the characteristics we’ve come to associate with the so-called “art photograph”: careful printing and toning, archival matting, and the like. (As a rule, anything encased in all-rag board and put under glass in a metal frame will look like Art.) Moreover, their subject matter tends to fall within the boundaries of what we associate with the history of visual art: the landscape, the nude, the still life, and so forth.

And there the resemblance ends, for these artifacts are not intended to engage the discourse of art or creativity on any level whatsoever. No meaningful gauge can be applied to them; since they take no risks by which they could be considered failures, it is impossible for them to succeed. Their intention is neither aesthetic nor anaesthetic (a distinction made in our time by such critics as Kenneth Burke and Anthony Burgess: the aesthetic is that which shocks the audience into reconsidering an established reference point, while its opposite, the anaesthetic, is that which soothes, numbs, and corroborates prior assumptions). Indeed, they are not actually meant to be looked at long or attentively, for under contemplative scrutiny their deliberate superficiality and formulaic structure fall apart almost immediately.

This is visual Muzak, specifically intended to occupy spaces which cultural tradition reserves for flat artworks, and carefully designed to serve that purpose without offending the sensibilities of anyone or arresting their attention even momentarily. Their purpose is to harmonize blandly with their environment without asserting any demanding identity of their own. In short, they are PHOTOGRAPHIC WALL ACCESSORIES.

Anyone who’s spent time with photography publications and exhibitions over the last five years can confirm the growing population of photographic wall accessories. The third- and fourth-generation imitators of Weston, Strand and Adams produce them by the gross. So do Jay Maisel, Ernst Haas, Gordon Parks and Lucien Clergue, among other old masters of the genre. Most contemporary still-life photography, particularly that done in color, falls into this category — not surprising when you consider that the still life as a form originated as decor for the dining rooms of the Dutch bourgeoisie. Certainly the emergence of a market for “art photography” in the American middle class during the past ten years has played a role in this development.

Yet what disturbs me most about this development is not the appearance of this ersatz form in the commercial venues for art photography, but its increasingly visible presence in the photo-educational system. Much of the photographic wall accessory material now on view and in print is the product of recent graduates of photo schools and departments across the country. More ominous still, the evidence I gather from the schools I visit, the student publications I receive in the mail, and the student portfolios I encounter in workshops, all indicates that more and more photo students are aspiring to the status of photographic wall accessory manufacturers.

Institutions are by nature oriented toward conformism and the avoidance of controversy, qualities for which academic art in general is notorious. And youth, like old age, tends toward conservativism. For exactly those reasons, though, it’s long been understood that the challenge facing those who teach students in art is one of forcing them to work past the regurgitation of cliches, the imitation of the already-established and the reliance on the safe, in order to plunge into deeper waters. It seems to me there is clear evidence here that many of today’s teachers of creative photography are surreptitiously converting that field into an adjunct of interior decoration. That they appear to be meeting little resistance in this effort suggests that many of today’s students of photography are ducking their own responsibilities — which surely include what used to be called tending the fires as well as what Duane Michals punningly describes as “derailing your train of thought.”

Unfortunately, when you get a lot of “genuine imitation” anything mixed in with the real thing, people begin to lose their ability to distinguish between them. The degradation of language usually follows close behind, and one enters the realm of the “wall accessory” — a locution matched only in my experience by that other contemporary classic, virgin polyester.

There’s little any one critic (or even a fluster of same — fluster being the collective plural form) can do under such circumstances except inveigh against the syndrome and excoriate specific examples thereof. Given my own personal predilections, however, the situation does give me something to anticipate with pleasure. Being by definition contentless and insubstantial, photographic wall accessories should prove eminently disposable — which means that I can look forward to salvaging their frames and all-rag backing boards from the dust bins in the not-too-distant future.

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