Robert Rauschenberg: Photographs

Suffering today from the annual and unwelcome reminder of ageing (though the presents are nice) I got to thinking about Robert Rauschenberg, who died two days ago on May 12, aged 82.

As the New York Times obit by Michael Kimmelman says

“A painter, photographer, printmaker, choreographer, onstage performer, set designer and, in later years, even a composer, Mr. Rauschenberg defied the traditional idea that an artist stick to one medium or style. He pushed, prodded and sometimes reconceived all the mediums in which he worked.”

Although I have a book of his photographs (Robert Rauschenberg Photographs, Thames & Hudson, 1981, ISBN 0 500 54075 6) it seems to me that photography is the one medium about which this isn’t true, although of course he made considerable use of photographs in various mixed media works, both using his own pictures and solvent transfer prints from magazine images.

In the book Rauschenberg comments that he first took up photography as a young man, it was a “social shield“, covering up the perosnal conflict he felt “between curiousity and shyness“. In the interview published in the book with Alain Sayag, Rauschenberg says that while studying with Josef Albers (who he elsewhere said “was my best teacher, and I was his worst student“) at Black Mountain College in 1949 he became aware that he had to make a choice “I was serious enough or dedicated enough to know that I could not have at that point two primary professions“. Since at that point his photographic project “was to photograph the entire U.S.A., inch by inch” it’s perhaps good that he chose painting (later, in 1980-1, in his project ‘In + Out City Limits’, he did try to photograph at least parts of the country.)

Had Rauschenberg been as excited by other teachers at Black Mountain – perhaps Aaron Siskind or Harry Callahan, the history of art and photography would have been different.

Rauschenberg’s early photography was good enough for Edward Steichen to buy two of his prints – one a portrait of his friend Cy Twombly – for MoMA‘s photography collection – his first sale to a public collection.

The first group of pictures in the book are from the period when he had given up photography, and are perhaps the strongest, uncropped square format images with a strongly emotional content, although the often square-on approach to the subject and sensitivity to lighting carry suggestions of Walker Evans. His later work when he returned to photography (I think, from the evidence of the images with a 35mm SLR) in 1979-80 are more related to formal concerns and less personal, although many are still very interesting, concentrating largely on urban details. Many of them were from the project In + Out City Limits (1980-81) mentioned above, which was followed by other photographic projects, including Photems (1981/1991), and Chinese Summerhall (1982-83.)

Rauschenberg comments that for him photography is “a kind of achaeology in time only, forcing one to see whatever the light of the darkness touches and care” and goes on to state: “Photography is the most direct communication in non-violent contacts.”

Sayag asks him why he never crops, and gets this response:

Photography is like diamond cutting. If you miss you miss… You wait until life is in the frame, then you have the permission to click. I like the adventure of waiting until the whole frame is full.”

Rauschenberg was certainly a great artist, and had he devoted himself to the medium could also have become a great photographer.

Unfortunately very little of his photographic work seems to be available to view on the web.

Here is an example Untitled, ca 1952 though it is not in my opinion one of his more interesting images. There are also one or two fairly poor reproductions from In + Out City Limits: Baltimore, Los Angeles and a rather better exhibition poster for Los Angeles.

3 Responses to “Robert Rauschenberg: Photographs”

  1. ChrisL says:

    Are you aware of this excellent video (runs circa 23 mins) of an interview with Rauschenberg ?

  2. Thanks, I hadn’t seen it before, but I think that Rose doesn’t really get down to business, although there is always some interest in seeing great artists. I think he only really says anything of substance in the last minute or so of the video, which – apart from the goat anecdote – is really the only time he gets talking.

    Of course it says nothing at all about his photography!


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