jurgen ostarhild
paragraphs on conceptual photography

In conceptual photography the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. when a photographer uses a conceptual form of taking pictures, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. the idea becomes a machine that makes the picture. this kind of photography is not theoretical or illustrative of theories; it is intuitive, it is involved with all types of mental processes and it is purposeless. it is usually free from the dependence on the skill of the photographer as a craftsman. it is the objective of the photographer who is concerned with conceptual photography to make his work mentally interesting to the spectator, and therefore usually he would want it to become emotionally dry. there is no reason to suppose, however, that the conceptual photographer is out to bore the viewer. it is only the expectation of an emotional kick, to which one conditioned to abstract photography is accustomed, that would deter the viewer from perceiving this photography.

conceptual photography is not necessarily logical. the logic of a piece or series of pieces is a device that is used at times, only to be ruined. logic may be used to camouflage the real intent of the photographer, to lull the viewer into the belief that he understands the work, or to infer a paradoxical situation (such as logic vs. illogic). some ideas are logical in conception and illogical perceptually. the ideas need not be complex. most ideas that are successful are ludicrously simple. successful ideas generally have the appearance of simplicity because they seem inevitable. in terms of ideas the photographer is free even to surprise himself. ideas are discovered by intuition. what the work of photography looks like isn’t too important. it has to look like something if it has physical form. no matter what form it may finally have it must begin with an idea. it is the process of conception and realization with which the photographer is concerned. once given physical reality by the photographer the work is open to the perception of all, including the photographer. (I use the word perception to mean the apprehension of the sense data, the objective understanding of the idea, and simultaneously a subjective interpretation of both). the work of photography can be perceived only after it is completed.

photography that is meant for the sensation of the eye primarily would be called perceptual rather than conceptual. this would include most optical, kinetic, light, and color photography. since the function of conception and perception are contradictory (one pre-, the other post fact) the photographer would mitigate his idea by applying subjective judgment to it. if the photographer wishes to explore his idea thoroughly, then arbitrary or chance decisions would be kept to a minimum, while caprice, taste and others whimsies would be eliminated from the making of the photography. the work does not necessarily have to be rejected if it does not look well. sometimes what is initially thought to be awkward will eventually be visually pleasing. to work with a plan that is preset is one way of avoiding subjectivity. it also obviates the necessity of designing each work in turn. the plan would design the work. some plans would require millions of variations, and some a limited number, but both are finite. other plans imply infinity. in each case, however, the photographer would select the basic form and rules that would govern the solution of the problem. after that the fewer decisions made in the course of completing the work, the better. this eliminates the arbitrary, the capricious, and the subjective as much as possible. this is the reason for using this method.

when a photographer uses a multiple modular method he usually chooses a simple and readily available form. the form itself is of very limited importance; it becomes the grammar for the total work. in fact, it is best that the basic unit be deliberately uninteresting so that it may more easily become an intrinsic part of the entire work. using complex basic forms only disrupts the unity of the whole. using a simple form repeatedly narrows the field of the work and concentrates the intensity to the arrangement of the form. this arrangement becomes the end while the form becomes the means.
conceptual photography doesn’t really have much to do with mathematics, philosophy, or nay other mental discipline. the mathematics used by most photographers is simple arithmetic or simple number systems. the philosophy of the work is implicit in the work and it is not an illustration of any system of philosophy.

it doesn’t really matter if the viewer understands the concept of the photographer by seeing the photography. once it is out of his hand the photographer has no control over the way a viewer will perceive the work. different people will understand the same thing in a different way.

if the photographer carries through his idea and makes it into visible form, then all the steps in the process are of importance. the idea itself, even if not made visual, is as much a work of art as any finished product. all intervening steps –scribbles, sketches, drawings, failed works, models, studies, thoughts, conversations– are of interest. those that show the thought process of the artist are sometimes more interesting than the final product.

determining what size a picture should be is difficult. if an idea requires three dimensions then it would seem any size would do. the question would be what size is best. if the thing were made gigantic then the size alone would be impressive and the idea may be lost entirely. again, if it is too small, it may become inconsequential. the height of the viewer may have some bearing on the work and also the size of the space into which it will be placed. the photographer may wish to place objects higher than the eye level of the viewer, or lower. I think the picture must be large enough to give the viewer whatever information he needs to understand the work and placed in such a way that will facilitate this understanding. (unless the idea is of impediment and requires difficulty of vision or access).

the picture can be thought of as the flat area occupied by a three-dimensional volume. any volume would occupy space. it is air and cannot be seen. it is the interval between things that can be measured. the intervals and measurements can be important to a work of photography. if certain distances are important they will be made obvious in the piece. if space is relatively unimportant it can be regularized and made equal (things placed equal distances apart) to mitigate any interest in interval. regular space might also become a metric time element, a kind of regular beat or pulse. when the interval is kept regular whatever is irregular gains more importance.

new materials are one of the great afflictions of contemporary photography. some photographers confuse new materials with new ideas. there is nothing worse than seeing photography that wallows in gaudy baubles. by and large most photographers who are attracted to these materials are the ones who lack the stringency of mind that would enable them to use the materials well. it takes a good photographer to use new materials and make them into a picure. the danger is, I think, in making the physicality of the materials so important that it becomes the idea of the work (another kind of expressionism).

these paragraphs are not intended as categorical imperatives, but the ideas stated are as close as possible to my thinking at this time. these ideas are the result of my work as a photographer and are subject to change as my experience changes. I have tried to state them with as much clarity as possible. if the statements I make are unclear it may mean the thinking is unclear. even while writing these ideas there seemed to be obvious inconsistencies (which I have tried to correct, but others will probably slip by). I do not advocate a conceptual form of photography for all photographers. I have found that it has worked well for me while other ways have not. it is one way of doing photography; other ways suit other photographers. nor do I think all conceptual photography merits the viewer’s attention. conceptual photography is good only when the idea is good.

„paragraphs on conceptual art“ is a text originally written by SOL LEWITT in 1967.
„paragraphs on conceptual writing“ is the SOL LEWITT text modifed by KENNETH GOLDSMITH, by replacing the word „art“ with the word „writing“.
„paragraphs on conceptual photography“is the KENNETH GOLDSMITH text modified by replacing the word „writing“ with the word „photography“ by JURGEN OSTARHILD in 2015.