Fried discusses serious art photography from the late 1970's onward as it freed itself from the printed page and began to be made on a large scale for the wall. He considers how the consumption of a large image differs from that of a small image. Also what is the relationship between the photograph and the viewer/beholder standing before it. Many viewers look at a large photograph on a gallery wall differently than they look at it in a book, or as a small print. They may engage in a lengthy, more in-depth meditative relationship with the image.
He positions contemporary, large scale photography within the modernist tradition. He asks and answers the questions, why and how is contemporary photography important in the overall scheme of things? Fried discusses other questions at length such as what do photographs represent? Are they just mechanically/ digitally produced objects, what makes them works of art? Is the photographer's intention to make art sufficient to call it art?
"Theatricality" is employed when the subject of a photography looks outward and declares itself to an anticipated audience. "Anti-theatricality" or "absorption" takes place when the elements of a photograph are fully engaged in what they are doing and not dependent on the participation of a viewer or audience, yet paradoxically at the same time they are deliberately staged for the camera.
Fried draws heavily on the work of Canadian photographer Jeff Wall who he considers as salvaging the Western pictorial tradition and changing the course of contemporary art. He also compares and contrasts many other successful contemporary photographers such as Cindy Sherman, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff, Thomas Demand, to name a few, as they employ the theatrical in complex and contradictory ways.
Fried puts a lot of thought and effort into interpreting, analyzing, trying to understand and challenging contemporary photography. He presents a detailed, multi-faceted case and concludes that photography is now, even more so than in the past, at the cutting edge of contemporary art.
This book is not a light read since there are complicated academic references to art history, criticism and the philosophies of Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Hegel. But it is very insightful for anyone interested in a serious study of the role and status of contemporary photography in the world of art.