Tim Keating Photography

Performance as Photography by Tim Keating

Performance as Photograph/ Photograph as Performance
The Value of Preserving Human Activity

Timothy Keating

History was slipping away. Like an unfixed photographic print exposed to the light, the images were growing dark and disappearing… one realized the past is almost impossible to reconstruct with accuracy. Even the history of our own century, involving the experiences of people who are still living, is becoming unavailable to us. 1

This statement refers to the limitations inherent in relying exclusively on memory as the primary means of recalling what has occurred during a performance. The inadequacy of memory has let increasingly to the need for performance artists to document their works photographically. Therefore, through the use of photography, certain human activities are preserved and rescued from the inevitable "process of fading." 2

Performance, as an art term, implicitly resists a definition. There are, however, specific parameters in which performance has been presented in a visual arts context. Performance has been called sculpture as activity. It is usually executed in public. Often, the artist employs the first person narrative. The content of many performances has been of a socio political nature. The performance exists as a microcosm of society and hence our condition as individuals is examined through a system staged by the artist. 

Documentation of the temporal art of performance has occurred in many forms: magazine articles, exhibition catalogs, video, film, and most importantly, self initiated publications. These media corroborations function as alternative exhibition spaces. Invariably, these publications rely on the photographic image to document and authenticate the artist actions. Paradoxically, a site-specific and time- specific activity is relayed to the viewing audience via the vehicle of the photographically induced offset page. This development has lead performance artist to become increasingly aware of the singular property of the photograph.

Are unique characteristic of the photograph is that one believes the image has an authentic relationship with existence. This relationship consists of the networks established between the three-dimensional space we occupy and the two-dimensional picture plane that chemically and optically represents it. Photographs are believable. A photograph functions as an eyewitness to our experiences. Again, an authentic aspect of the photograph is that the image has a point-to-point correspondence to reality.3 But that the artist can subjectively control correspondence to reality. 

Allan Kaprow was one of the most influential of the performance artists. In 1976, Allan Kaprow published an artist book describing an activity "carried out by a small group of couples, in Warsaw."4 These "activities”, as Kaprow calls them, where enacted without an audience and were experienced exclusively by those who were directly involved as participants. The book consists of photographs and a text that illustrate the activities. The photographs do not attempt to document these activities. The images are the result of a calculated posing by a professional photographer. The images are created separately from the performances. Thus the photographs function both as diagrams of the activity and as well pose questions about the supposed authenticity of the photograph as a document. 

Viewing one page of the book, we see two photographs separated by lines of descriptive text  (Fig.1). In the first image an arm reaches down and dusts a man's work boots with white powder. The arm is garmented in the plaid we know to signify a flannel work shirt. The other hand rests upon the knee of the corduroy work pants. Five negative footprints are left behind, clearly attesting to the man's path of movement. The second image depicts a woman, bending over and sweeping the negative footprints into a dustpan.

These photographs become a residue of the performance. They fix our perception of the event with clarity unprecedented in the visual arts. This fidelity of the image makes the "appearance of things" permanently available for reflective consideration. The functional value of the photograph for Kaprow and other artists is that a significant moment can be comprehended in isolation from its original circumstances. This allows for the premise that the value of photography is that it serves as a testimony to human aesthetic activity and permits us to assume that the representation of this activity must be studied if it is to have any lasting cultural significance. 

If it is true that many performances are eventually viewed as photographs, it is also noteworthy that many photographs begin as activities that are staged for the camera. This leads to some confusion of boundaries. But the question is not what photographs are, but instead what photographs do; i.e., how photographs are perceived, in what context and what their consequences are.

Photographs allow one to ruminate on the aesthetic actions of man. The ancient Greek meaning for the word aesthetic was perception through the senses and feelings.  5 Recently, the images of many photographers have tended to question our ability to perceive through the senses and feelings. These photographers intimate that the content of images grows out of the viewer’s ability to read the implications of the photograph. The works of John Divola, Graham Howe and Kenneth Josephson serve to alter our comprehension of the causal history of marks and gestures. Divola and Howe use spray paint to affect our understanding of the physical properties of light, how sculptural space is perceived and the possibilities of the photograph to present us with an illusion. Josephson poses a serious question about the function of the photograph albeit in a humorous manner. His print depicts a sharpened pencil that points to a line on the waist of the female model. Is this line the impression left behind by an elastic band on the models underwear, or is it the graphite of the drawn line? Is the photograph a record of external events, or is the function of a photograph to record the conceptual structure of the artist.

Gillian Brown, like Kaprow, confronts us with the two-part photograph (Fig.2). In the first, a woman is posed on a stuffed chair. The chair is white and has a black floral pattern. Next to the chair is a dark gray end table. Under the table is a black cat peering out of the dense shadows. The woman is dressed in white pants and a light gray shirt. A landscape in a white frame hangs on the wall above her head. The second picture in Browns pair appears to be an exact photographic negative of the first. However, clues exist which lead us to doubt our initial perception of this "negative" print. The cat has moved out from under the table. Time has elapsed. Traces of paint are apparent. Reassessing the information, we realize the tableau has been painted in order to appear as a negative. Like Kaprow’s document, aspects of our understanding of the meaning of the first image have been a erased by the second image. Yet, the second image, the erasure itself becomes it's own activity, complete with its own set of implications.

In the last few years, artist of diverse disciplines have engaged in the medium of photography. These photographs eradicate the traditional boundaries of art by eliciting diverse combinations of form and ideas that address specific human events in unorthodox ways. These prints are not merely objects to be viewed in a detached manner; they are referentially linked to the floor that the viewer stands upon, the buildings that they are shown in, and grow to include the process the constructs them. These images become open forms extending out in intention and finally, in their ability to document human actions that are the evidences of human thought. This performance artist Eleanor Antin has said, "history is fiction… documentation is not a neutral list of facts… It is a conceptual creation of the events after they are over.”6 


1 Michael Kirby, Futurist Performance (EP Dutton 1971).  Pg. vii, Kirby is commenting on Rossera Despero's lack of recall regarding her late husband's early performance work after his death in 1960. Her husband Fortunato Despero was a founding member of the Italian Futurist movement and as such one of the first performance artists

2 ibid

3 Leroy Searle. "The Imaginary Eye and the Place of Vision”. Exposure,18:1 1980. pp. 42–58 .

4 Allan Kaprow. Testimonials. 1976 (self- published artist book).

5 The ancient Greek word for this was eidos or idea.

6 Eleanor Antin, "Notes on Transformation," Flash Art, vol. 59, Mar/ April 1974, p 69.

Figs. 8&9: A negative is formed when millions of expose crystals are converted to silver by the developer.

Gillian Brown

Gillian Brown
Figs.8&9: A negative is formed when millions of exposed crystals are converted to silver by the developer. 1980-81
Silver prints
9 1/4 x 12 7/8 (each image)


copyright Tim Keating 2017