I recently read an article in The New York Times by Michael Kimmelman, entitled "Walker Evans. Or is it?" (subscription required) about a series of photographs manipulated by John Hill, in collaboration with Sven Martson. These photographs are digitized enlargements of Walker Evans's famous FSA photographs of Alabama tenant farmers, including the celebrated portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs. It is a great article, one certainly worth reading. Kimmelman proposes some interesting possibilities regarding how one views a photograph. Ultimately, he poses the question of whether photography is closer to music and theater or to painting.
The reasoning behind Kimmelman's suggestion that photography is in fact closer to music and theater lies in the observation that both of these artistic endeavors are often left open to interpretation. Contrastly, paintings are what they visually are. The only aspect open for interpretation is in meaning. In fact, Kimmelman states, "Music and theater exist through their variety of interpretations." I think this is an intriguing and enlightening way of approaching the infinitely problematic medium of photography in the context of fine art. If a photograph -- more specifically a negative (or in this modern day a digital file) -- can be viewed as an object subject to interpretation, then art lovers are presented with a new avenue to investigate.
The fact that Evans's FSA photographs are in the public domain (see the Library of Congress) plays perfectly into this system of interpretation because they are openly available for Hill and Martson to manipulate. What these two artists have done is digitize and enlarge Evans's prints, and although I have not seen them, I am inclined to believe Kimmelman's claims that they are "seductive and luxurious" images. The problem, however, arises in how the viewer interprets these works. For example, do they become new works, after Walker Evans, or are they interpretations of his "original" photographs? This is a difficult question to answer, and perhaps one of the many hurdles facing the acceptance of photography as art. And while one must answer the question for themselves, the idea of these works as interpretations perhaps makes a stronger argument.
The correlation to Sherrie Levine's After Walker Evans photographs cannot be ignored. (And certainly Richard Prince's work, including Untitled (Cowboys #8) in the Modern's Collection, also comes to mind with its appropriation of a magazine advertisement, specifically a Marlboro ad.) Are these digital prints any different than Levine's radically controversial claim over Evans's photographs? Levine's re-photographs of Evans, and other modernist, male masters, question notions of authorship and originality that the autonomous work of art, and specifically photography, blindly claims. Maybe they are all interpretations of his work. But the problem arises, at least in my mind, in how, or if, one distinguishes between authorship and interpretation. If one is merely interpreting the work of another (here the analogy to music and theater comes to mind), then the result is not necessarily a new idea or even a new work of art, at least in the case of Hill and Martson. These reincarnations of Evans do not belong, in terms of artistic creation, to the digitizers. Rather, the work still belongs to the initial creator, still existing as a vision realized by the originator. It would not be unreasonable to view Levine's appropriations as interpretations as well. I would argue however that her work is more than interpretation. Her re-photographs ask the viewer to critically look at ideas of authorship and ownership; to lump Levine into this group would be to disregard the enormous impact her appropriations had on postmodern discourse. Whereas Hill and Martson are assuredly, in my mind at least, doing nothing more than re-presenting, even simply re-printing, Evans's work.
I think that this notion of interpretation in relation to photography brings up intriguing possibilities regarding how one views a photograph. What is perhaps romantic about this notion is the infinite possibilities for interpretations to be made for many generations to come. The real question is whether or not Evans's works are, as Kimmelman suggests, timeless in contrast to the technological inventions that have allowed these new interpretations to surface. I guess we will see if Evans's classic works are in fact timeless and enduring.