What to make of Fried's belated entry into the debate around photography? What exactly does a noted Greenbergian and champion of `post painterly abstraction' (Louis, Noland, Olitski) bring to the discussion of recent photographic (and despite the title, video) art? Fried's background as a critic is well documented and his antipathy to `theatricality' has been a leitmotif in all his writing dating back to his celebrated attack on Minimalism in the late sixties. Anyone approaching this book needs to be aware of his earlier work - partly because it will contextualise the debate and partly because Fried is continually referring back to his own earlier writing. The central point of this book is that contemporary Art photography in conceiving work `for the wall' has turned toward a form of `anti-theatricality'. He sets up `absorption' as the antipode to `theatricality' and uses the scale and compositional strategies of painters (such as those mentioned above) on the one hand and what one might call the quietude of French domestic genre painting (Chardin for example) on the other, as models of this. As such he seems to be trying to marry the theoretical positions of Clement Greenberg and Denis Diderot - the two cardinal influences on his own writings.
The book is ambitious in its attempt to frame a coherent model for work as diverse as that of Wall, Gursky, Struth, the Bechers, Dijkstra, Hofer, Delahaye, Streuli and various others. The strengths and weaknesses of the book seem to come from the same place; he isn't stuck in the critical rut into which much of the writing about these artists often seems to be stuck, but at the same time he is often bending over backwards not to use well established critical frameworks. In trying to frame a philosophy that aligns the artists covered with his own longterm concerns he ends up doing some pretty complex intellectual gymnastics. It is quite straightforward to see how some (though by no means all) of Jeff Wall's work employs (or depicts) `absorption' as a strategy. And it is with Wall that he is most persuasive, where his use of Wittgenstein is genuinely original and insightful. He has some striking things too to say about Douglas Gordon's film `Zidane'. But when he moves on to figures such as Dijkstra he is less convincing; it is hard to see how the frontal presentation/self presentation of her subjects is a manifestation of `absorption'. At its worst his discussion seems downright perverse: finding paradigmatic `absorption' and `anti theatricality' in for example Struth's group portraits, or the work of Thomas Ruff. At times he doesn't help himself by quoting (and dismissing) other critics whose readings often seem more plausible than his own at times convoluted and contrived arguments.
One is left wondering to what extent this book is a somewhat opportunistic attempt to reassert his long standing theses about `theatricality' via work that is currently fashionable and almost ubiquitous. Certainly he has picked on a group of mid-career artists (most of their strategies were first developed about twenty years ago) with secure reputations and doesn't stick his neck out regarding any younger figures, nor despite the title, does he set out how his ideas may translate into further developments for photographic practice. The inelegant title is of a piece with the rest of the book, often unnecessarily wordy, and also quite inconsistent, moving from a clear academic register to the conversational and back, sometimes in the same paragraph. Fried's fondness for self-quotation and his perpetual references to conversations he has had with the artists concerned becomes tiresome and somewhat self-congratulatory.
In sum this is an interesting read, by turns challenging, insightful and wilfully perverse. It has the merit of coming at its subject from an extreme and novel position, but it is not a book one could recommend to anyone who doesn't already have a secure grasp of the critical reception these artists have received elsewhere. In trying to pull all these artists into a coherent anti `theatrical' framework, methinks he doth protest too much.