A Very Self-Conscious Conceptual Review of Robert Cumming’s “Very Pictorial Conceptual Art”

by Bucky Miller May 28, 2024

Please allow me to begin this book review with a personal note on speed: I often wonder if I’m too slow. Common questions to myself include: Why am I being tailgated down this mountain? Should I have eaten that avocado a week ago? Was I supposed to read Dune? Is this reference to Dune already dated now that I’m ready to send this essay to Glasstire? What about this essay, anyway? It intends to be a review of Very Pictorial Conceptual Art, publisher Stanley/Barker’s (now somewhat) recent book of photographs by Robert Cumming. Problem is, several major sources have beaten me to the punch with their coverage. Hello to the New Yorker, hi to the Guardian, and good day to Mr. Raymond Meeks. Is there any reason to keep writing?

The cover of the monograph of the work of photographer Robert Cumming, "A Very Pictorial Conceptual Art."

Tardiness is not the only thing working against me here. This is the second time since I started reviewing photography books for Glasstire that I’ve come upon a publication that featured a text by David Campany. The thing about David Campany is that he doesn’t seem to miss with this stuff. His essay in Very Pictorial Conceptual Art gives clarity and trajectory to Cumming’s oeuvre and nails down what makes these decades-old photographs holler with relevance to contemporary practitioners. “In the rush to establish the histories of photography,” he writes, “it is the pictures that are difficult to classify that are often overlooked. But when those histories prove inadequate, as they eventually do, those are exactly the kinds of images that are rediscovered and reappraised.” Campany’s got this whole write-up covered, from a certain point of view, and it’s my job to tell you to have your library buy the book and then go give it a read. That said, I would still like to emphasize that Very Pictorial Conceptual Art is very good. So I will say a little more.

A small toy boat with a flashlight attached to it sits atop a table in a black and white photograph.

Robert Cumming, “Light Boat Leaves Paths on Night Pool/Light Paths on Night Pool,” 1975

Long exposure black and white photographs of light trails in a swimming pool at night.

Images from the series “Light Boat Leaves Paths on Night Pool/Light Paths on Night Pool,” 1975

Long exposure black and white photographs of light trails in a swimming pool at night.

Robert Cumming, “Light Boat Leaves Paths on Night Pool/Light Paths on Night Pool,” 1975

The best pictures to start talking about Robert Cumming might be the group collectively titled Light Boat Leaves Paths On Night Pool/Light Paths On Night Pool (1975). The first black-and-white plate depicts a small contraption on a table: a makeshift miniature paddle boat carrying a flashlight in little brackets on its deck. It is a descriptive picture of an object that does not exist outside the world that Cumming decided to establish in that very same photo. Then comes a series of pictures that show the boat at work. These are long exposures taken of a swimming pool at night as the light boat, with its light lit, moves around in it. They are relatively simple pictures of light trails, one of photography’s fundamental time tricks, similar to what one might get as their cousin “draws” with a sparkler on Independence Day. The light boat pictures are merely records of something that occurred, which just happens to be the course of a vehicle invented by the photographer explicitly for this purpose. The pictures feed themselves.

A person stands before a fireplace feeding playing cards into the flame.

Robert Cumming, “Cardhouse Row Feeds Fire,” 1974

Or maybe Cardhouse Row Feeds Fire (1974) is the place to begin. It depicts a figure on the edge of the frame inserting a long column of playing cards, attached face-out to a full-length 2×4, into a roaring brick fireplace. The cards that have already entered the fire have been carbonized beyond recognition and the ten of clubs is about to ignite. The person’s posture implies work; this activity will continue until all the cards have been gobbled up and turned to ash.

If reading that description was confusing, know that I am just as tangled up as I sit here writing down exactly what I see on the page in front of me. When a picture like this is introduced to language, it emphasizes how much Cumming was able to break reality within a single frame. Over and over again he invites us to indulge in his comfortable chaos. Photography is a medium whose history is highlighted by contradictions, and Cumming pulls off one of the most acrobatic: His pictures are just as adept at delivering veracity as they are at defying comprehension.

A black and white image of handmade mosquito sculptures. of

Robert Cumming, “Mosquito Field,” 1974

There was a years-long lag between when I first heard about Robert Cumming and when I finally saw his work in books. He was initially mentioned to me by my undergraduate professor William Jenkins when we were sitting in Bill’s red-carpeted office. I was probably explaining some project I was excited about and brought up the idea of making an enlargement of one of my photos. Bill paused for a bit. “‘Enlargement’ is such a funny word that photographers use,” he might have said, finally. Was it? He went on to describe a piece by an artist named Robert Cumming he’d seen once, a photograph of a board with a nail hammered into it. Bill said the picture was called Enlargement, which he thought was odd. But then there was another picture that showed a gigantic board with a humongous nail pounded into it, an oversized replica of the regular-sized one. The pictures were the same size, and in the pictures, the objects appear to be the same size. That piece is actually called Nail In 2” x 2”, And Enlargement (1975) and is not in Very Pictorial Conceptual Art. It does appear in The Difficulties of Nonsense, an earlier Cumming compendium that was released by Aperture in 2016. That previous book feels less precisely edited than the Stanley/Barker release, but is valuable as a broader catalog of Cumming’s photographs. The problem is it includes a handful of clunkers, pictures that were wisely cut from the much tighter and more recent publication. For a better overall experience go with VPCA. It is, as Campany’s introduction points out, a selection of photographs that Cumming hand-picked as his personal best.

Anyhow, Bill’s point in bringing up this encounter is echoed across Cumming’s most self-reflective pictures — by merely existing, photography makes a lot of fools. Perception itself gets pantsed, and time has rare encounters with futility (cruel time is used to dishing out this sort of blow, not taking it), but language is perhaps the easiest target of all. His titles are often deadpan jokes that do and do not tell you what you’re seeing. Take Mishap Of Minor Consequences(1973), a diptych that shows, in one frame, a bucket suspended from strings to make it appear as if it is flying off an angered chair, paired with a behind-the-scenes view of the same action shot fixed in its atemporal state (because it’s a photograph, of course). Or, there is Cardhouse Row Feeds Fire, which shows exactly what it says without leaving viewers any more certain as to what that is.

“Have you seen this guy’s work?” read the texts from my friends as they send me links to one of the aforementioned reviews, each of which might help indicate a broader resurgence of interest in Cumming’s pictures. “I think you’d love it!” Each time I explain that yes, I was familiar, I did quite like Robert Cumming, and in fact, I was supposed to be submitting a review to Glasstire about that very publication but was dragging ass. Though I had somewhat valid reasons for taking so long: Right after I received my review copy of the book, I moved to a new state and started a new job teaching photography to earnest undergrads at an honest-to-God university. I hadn’t taught since 2018 and my learning curve was steep. All the while, Very Pictorial Conceptual Art sat on my inherited desk in my Tennessee office, a handsome blue screaming to-do list full of unusual but generous pictures, photographic tongues in cheek.

Back in college, I learned that you could work your way out of not knowing what to say about a photograph by concentrating on the feeling of your feet on the ground. In Bill Jenkins’s office that meant digging my soles into some ratty red shag. The story of that flooring was a mystery, but it stood out because it had more square footage than the room. In one corner, instead of ending flush with the wall, the carpet curled up above and beyond the molding into a shin-high plush wave. Nobody questioned this gesture, as it seemed to have no author. I admired this flourish, and so when I graduated I asked Bill if I could trim a rectangle from the curled corner as a keepsake. He handed me his scissors. 

A camera is propped up on a table with its lens aimed at a wooden cut out of an apple

Robert Cumming, “Camera and Apple,” 1980

Now it’s come to pass that I have my own photography teacher’s office, at least for a while. My little souvenir from Bill sits proudly in one of the room’s corners. My floors are concrete so the carpet stands out; it looks redder than it did when there was more of it. I can’t help but think it feels like an idea that might have drifted across Robert Cumming’s desk on an off day. Insufficient Red Carpet. It makes me think of Bill, which is cool, of words like “memory” and “conjecture.” It makes me think of conversations like the one about Enlargement. More than anything, it’s a reminder to take all this seriously but lightly; we gather to explore ideas in these spaces and those ideas might steer a person’s heart toward delightfully unanswerable questions. 

Robert Cumming’s Very Pictorial Conceptual Art was published by Stanley/Barker in 2023. Find it here.

1 comment

1 comment

Colette Copeland June 11, 2024 - 14:11

Bucky–I really appreciate your infusion of humor in every piece you write. As a 20+ year adjunct professor of photography, I also appreciate your gift of reigniting the magic of photography through your perception and language. Sometimes I find myself feeling cynical and a bit jaded about photography. This was a delightful re-investigation into Cummings’ work. I am happy that you chose to photograph the book, emphasizing its object-quality, rather than presenting us with perfectly scanned images.


Leave a Comment

Funding generously provided by: