American Photographic Aesthetics in the Twentieth Century

Author: Salemme, Kevin
This study takes the theories of postmodernists such as Allan Sekula and John Tagg one step further by using their criticisms depicting modernism as contradictory as a starting point to generate a definition of modernism and formalism as a system of paradoxes. The book presents a history of modernism in America as a means of describing the evolution and multiplication of these paradoxes through the 1970s, and shows that the museum and gallery systems still rely on these aesthetics to perpetuate themselves as the authority on photography. The theory provided by this study collates and organizes chronologically the vast array of modernist and formalist writings throughout the 20th century.


“Writing from the position of both photographer and photo-historian, Mr. Salemme has here produced a key interpretive text. The author articulates a contradictory modernist core, consisting of five dyadic principles, with each chapter of the book constituting a thorough gloss of one of the binary pairs outlined in the introduction. As Mr. Salemme’s study progresses, the reader is made more and more aware of the circular logic in which American photographic formalism had to invest in order to mystify the photographic process. Mr. Salemme’s is an elegant, important, argument, as he weaves deftly through the contingencies of theory; the author marshals an important array of texts in ferreting out the subtleties of verbiage that both constitute and characterize American formalist photography and the ways in which it is discussed….Mr. Salemme’s achievement is all the more remarkable, as the author uses the orbital reasoning of formalist thought turned against itself, revealing in clear, jargon-free prose (and without succumbing to a self-confessional literary mode) that contradiction and paradox always underlay formalist discourse…. represents a significant contribution to the field of American photographic aesthetics.” – Monica Kjellman Chapin, Clark University

“His study will find an appreciative audience, not only among photography historians, but also among philosophers who study aesthetic systems…. Salemme’s work provides a coherent, lucid discussion of the paradoxes that have traditionally formed the poles of photographic aesthetics and which may be profoundly re-shaped by new ontological questions of photographic meaning….As photography was invented by artists and amateur scientists during the industrial revolution, it shared both the claim of technocratic accuracy and the aspiration to transcendent idealism. The medium has always oscillated between these two poles: indexical transparency and subjective expression…..Kevin’s study remains grounded in the world of film-and-chemistry-based photography, however, and rigorously interrogates the assumptions of the dominant theorists of twentieth-century photography in the U. S., including Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, Minor White and John Szarkowski….Salemme’s study is accessible, clearly written and thoroughly documented….many students of the medium will find it of great interest and aid in weeding out the troublesome claims made for the medium’s ‘inherent character’ by some of its most influential advocates.” – Deborah Bright, Professor of Photography and Art History, Rhode Island School of Design

“This book adds an important and much needed layer of discourse to the current post modern discussion on photography. As someone who is very familiar with the photography medium as an artist, educator, activist, and curator, I truly appreciate Salemme’s reorganization of this 20th century photographic aesthetics as a way to sum up the past century’s discussion and to move forward the current discourse in the 21st century. Salemme takes the discussion to its logical conclusion by introducing the variety of formalist paradoxes found in the American formalist dialog. This is what truly makes this book a useful critique of American photographic aesthetics.” – Kathleen Bitetti, School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Table of Contents

Table of contents:
Foreword by Monica Kjellman Chapin
Preface; Introduction
1. The Particular and the Universal
2. Creation and Discovery
3. Reflected Light and Revelation Beneath-the-Surface
4. Truth and Ambiguity
5. The Fleeting Moment and the Artifact
6. Walker Evans and the Paradoxes of Modernist Aesthetics
Summary and Conclusion
Bibliography; Index