Is Photography Over?Tuesday, March 30th, 2010 by Bohoe
Photography has almost always been in crisis. In the beginning, the terms of this crisis were cast as dichotomies: is photography science or art? Nature or technology? Representation or truth? This questioning has intensified and become more complicated over the intervening years. At times, the issues have required a profound rethinking of what photography is, does, and means. This is one of those times. Given the nature of contemporary art practice, the condition of visual culture, the advent of new technologies, and many other factors, what is at stake today in seeing something as a photograph? What is the value of continuing to speak of photography as a specific practice or discipline? Is photography over?
SFMOMA has invited a range of major thinkers and practitioners to write brief responses to this question and then to convene for a two-day summit on the state of the medium. Participants include Vince Aletti, George Baker, Walead Beshty, Jennifer Blessing, Charlotte Cotton, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Geoff Dyer, Peter Galassi, Corey Keller, Douglas Nickel, Trevor Paglen, Blake Stimson, and Joel Snyder.
Vince Aletti, formerly the art editor and photography critic at the Village Voice, reviews photo exhibitions for the “Goings on About Town” section of theNew Yorker and photo books for Photograph. He was the co-curator of the International Center of Photography’s 2009 Year of Fashion, including the traveling exhibition Avedon Fashion 1944-2000.
Is photography over? To anyone who spends time looking at photographs in galleries, museums, art fairs, flea markets, books, and magazines, the question seems absurd, unthinkable. When photography seems to pervade, if not dominate, every aspect of our culture, what could it possibly mean? Sure, there’s been some anxiety about the continued survival of the medium at its most traditional — the modestly scaled, handmade, black-and-white print that once defined photography as art. Vintage work is fetishized, but does the black-and-white print have a place in contemporary practice? Ask Lee Friedlander, Judith Joy Ross, Robert Adams, and Sally Mann. The regular disappearance of favorite photographic papers, the recent dismantling of darkrooms, and the relentless rise of digital capture and output would seem to signal the end of a long, vital chapter in the medium’s history. But when virtually every antique process — daguerreotype, tintype, and cyanotype; albumen, salt, platinum-palladium, and wet-plate collodion printing — has been revived over the past few decades, there’s no reason to think gelatin silver will disappear totally anytime soon. There’s never been just one kind of photography, and now there are many.
Is the concern that the medium’s role as a reliable reporter has been so thoroughly undermined by computer manipulation and convincingly staged fictions that every photograph is thrown into doubt? If absolute truth were the only thing photography had to offer, it would have disappeared a century ago. Photography isn’t merely a window on the world, it’s a portal into the unconscious, wide open to fantasies, nightmares, obsessions, and the purest abstraction, as envisioned by Julia Margaret Cameron, Hans Bellmer, Man Ray, Joel-Peter Witkin, Laurie Simmons, and Adam Fuss. But this is a legitimate concern, and it’s a question of trust. Photojournalism is not over — if the response, both professional and amateur, to the attacks on September 11, 2001, didn’t make that abundantly clear, the public’s extraordinary appetite for the pictures did — but when everyone knows how easily and flawlessly an image can be manipulated, its credibility is constantly in question. But credibility is an issue for all photography these days; although a certain amount of skepticism is always in order, when every image is examined for digital imaging effects, doubt can be not just distracting but corrosive. So the public’s gullibility may be over, but photography, having survived a blow to its confidence, goes on.
What’s over is the narrow view of photography — the idea that the camera is a recording device, not a creative tool, and that its product is strictly representational — not manipulated, not fabricated, not abstract. But surely that notion died long ago, along with the idea that there was an important distinction to be made between pictures made by “artists” and everyone else with a camera. Thanks to pioneering curators and collectors like John Szarkowski and Sam Wagstaff, more serious attention has been focused on the broad range of anonymous, vernacular, and commercial work, opening up the field and enlivening the discussion. Photography over? More often these days, it feels like it’s only just begun.
George Baker teaches art history at UCLA and is an editor of the journal October. His publications on photography include the books James Coleman: Drei Filmarbeiten (Sprengel Museum, 2003), Gerard Byrne: Books, Magazines, and Newspapers (Sternberg Press, 2003), the essay “Photography’s Expanded Field (2005),” and a forthcoming book to be entitled Lateness and Longing: On the Afterlife of Photography.
The question is hyperbolic, overblown, risible. And yet, after the mannerism (indeed hyperbole) of most postmodern engagements with photography, there is undeniably what Frank Kermode called the “sense of an ending.” I am interested, like Kermode, in the directions and the possibilities that such narratives of photography’s end make possible; I am, specifically, interested in the connections that our current endgame narratives make to other such narratives and other such moments in photography’s history.
I think, for example, of Walter Benjamin predicting the rebirth of photography in the wake of the stock market crash of 1929, of his hopes for a return to the forgotten potentials of the medium before its industrialization. I think, too, of Walker Evans announcing the “reappearance” of photography around the same historical events. I think of Roland Barthes prioritizing similarly atavistic potentials of the medium at the moment of a later economic recession, that of the 1970s, which is also the moment immediately preceding the technological shift from the analog to the digital that we have subsequently witnessed. We exist today in a moment not unlike these — of historical and economic crisis, perhaps epochal transition, though it is too early to be sure — moments that provoked major rethinkings and reorientations of photography, in both theory and practice.
And so I have become interested in photographic forms that stage something like the sense of the medium’s ending, a dispersal that is also — strangely, paradoxically, impossibly — a form of return, to lost or forgotten potentials of photography. These dispersals and returns can be staged in forms rather far-flung from the medium-specific notion of a photograph; this is the development I have tried to trace with what I have called “photography’s expanded field.” I will simply offer up one of many potential examples: the artist Moyra Davey’s early photographic series entitled Copperheads (1990). Andreas Gursky’s 99 cent (1999) could be imagined as the series’ anti-type. Produced (again) during a prior moment of economic recession, Davey’s low-tech color images focus on the profile of Abraham Lincoln engraved on the United States penny, the cheapest, most devalued piece of American currency.Copperheads thus comprises an archive of silhouettes, a typology of portraits, pointing back to one of the origins of the photographic impulse itself, an Ur-form of the medium, we might say. And yet the kind of recursivity that Davey seeks is not self-reflexive or medium-specific; she locates photographic qualities in an analog outside of the photograph itself.
Basically worthless, the pennies that Davey depicts are “like” photographs in many different ways: they are objects of circulation and objects of use; they are objects kept close to the body, in wallets and pockets, and fingered by hands; they are tokens stamped with their time and date. They are small objects, miniatures, enlarged by the photograph’s innate habit of holding on tight to its object-world, progeny of the close-up and the zoom. They are obsolete, throwaway vestiges, but also keepsakes, collectors’ items, the useless avatars of blind luck or cunning thrift simultaneously. Indeed, eachCopperhead seems a memorial to photography’s eradication, or — what amounts to the same thing — its ceaseless dedication to that which is on the verge of disappearance. The works capture the immeasurable variety of the decay of each cast profile upon the penny’s surface, embodying meditations upon loss, erosion, and the slipping of a thing into the status of detritus.
And yet, in fixating on this image-loss, the Copperheads depict the penny as a receptor surface, a skin infinitely susceptible to wounds, gouges, and scratches — in other words, a site of contact, an object, like the photograph, endlessly open to receiving the marks of the world. They also depict the penny as a reactive surface, the site of myriad eruptions and chemical “blooms.” In recording this, Davey’s Copperheads mirror photography in yet another way: they are images of serial objects, replicas, all given over to the condition of absolute chance and singularity. And if each photograph seems an image of disappearance, a cast or imprint fading away before our eyes, the images’ condition as “last photographs” can also be reversed. For it is as if we gaze upon photograph after photograph of what seem to be “latent” images, a form at the point of its emergence, like a landmass surfacing from the ocean’s depths, an unknown object blanketed by deep but melting snow. The photographs are images of destruction and resurrection, loss and potential rebirth, at the same time. Arranged in a recent artist book devoted to the series with one photograph following the other, one image to each page, the typology is transformed into a kind of flipbook, a proto-cinematic device carrying the photograph and the image into other domains. It is another mode of photography’s “reappearance,” another form of the photograph’s periodic emergence.
Jennifer Blessing is curator of photography at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Most recently, she organized Catherine Opie: American Photographer, as well as two exhibitions for the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin: True North and Jeff Wall: Exposure. In addition to organizing photo-based exhibitions, she is responsible for developing the museum’s photography collection.
Photography has been over, finished, dead from its inception. As a medium founded in technological innovation, it is subject to the product life cycle, which is to say that every new device or process reaches a zenith of popularity only to be superseded by the next invention. The seed of each innovation’s demise is thus planted at its birth. Many writers have speculated on the unique morbidness of the photographic image, how it is suffused by death through its divided temporality: the subject before the lens, so visceral in the present, is long gone, such that every photograph becomes a memorial to the past. The melancholy intrinsic to the photographic image is reiterated in its physical form, as every viewer repeatedly witnesses medium obsolescence across their lifetime, bringing this knowledge to their experience of the work. This twin-fold characteristic of photography — both image and form indelibly stamped by time — has defined the medium since its invention. It is the ghost haunting the ecstatic enthusiasm that meets every innovation.
So yes, photography as we have known it is over, as it has been many times before. Yet there is still something that is “photography,” there is still something inherent to the medium. How do we define it? We could say it is “lens-based,” thus encompassing the moving image (video and film), digital, and virtual technologies, but cameraless photographs defy this definition. A related exception presents if we define the medium via its (mass) reproducibility, as the photogram is unique, and uniquely photographic. In the end, what makes a photograph a photograph is its ephemerality, its special connection to a moment in time that is always already lost. Indexicality as the defining characteristic of photography is a faith to which I subscribe. The photograph has a privileged connection to the past, which it seems to preserve like no other medium. Therefore, I would argue that all recording technologies (including lens-based, sound, and sensitized surfaces) ultimately have more in common ontologically with performance than with traditional painting and sculpture. All recording media document acts, and performance (art), if it is to be preserved, must be repeated or recorded. This argument informs the exhibition Haunted: Contemporary Photography/Video/Performance, which opens at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York at the end of March.
It also informs the collecting priorities of the Guggenheim. Ours is not an encyclopedic collection, so while I fully recognize the pressing need for research, publishing, and exhibition of historical photography, our mandate concerns contemporary issues and work. As a museum professional, what is at stake in the broad definition of photography that I propose is how to collect and preserve art that is inherently ephemeral, focused as it is on the momentary, and subject to the inherent vice of its relentlessly newfangled and rapidly obsolete technologies. Just as performances are reiterated via scripts, notations, and scores, it may be that contemporary recording technologies will require instructions for their re-fabrication by future generations. Already, rapid changes in platforms have required us, as an institution, to grapple with reformatting media-based works. We face related challenges with color photographs.
Philip-Lorca diCorcia lives in New York City. He holds the position of Chief Critic at the graduate school of art at Yale University from which he received an MFA in 1979. His work, exploiting the uneasy relationship between fact and fiction, has been collected and exhibited widely, most recently in monographic exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (2007), and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2008).
“Over”… like, “Dead”? Or, like, “Finished-for-now”? I don’t think Photography is dead, maybe slightly moribund, and it is finished as we knew it, but still capable of the surprise that we have become so inured to. There has been a protracted crisis of representation that has left behind a myriad of claims on Photography’s legacy and no sure future to proclaim. Most predictions are based on technical developments that alter the form more than the content. The delivery system is rapidly shifting but the content is little altered. The most realistic of mediums seems to be suffering from a detachment from reality. Photography’s role as a verification of the world is lost. Reality has become a parallel universe with photographers returning with different versions of what it truly looks like. And nobody really believes any of them. What is being called “abstraction” has taken the position that photography of photography or investigations of the nature of perception offer the only uncorrupted path to a truth worth knowing. After years of questioning the nature of photographic truth we have arrived at a place where truth is measured by the degree of the lie and the only thing positive is a double negative. Neologisms abound as artists vie to define something that doesn’t exist – something new. It has come to the point where everything is an instant cliché which is doubled by its expression as another cliché mediated by a computer. Thus the question: “Is Photography over?” I suggest Photography is just tired. The fatigue seems partly a result of its sudden over-inflation and equally sudden deflation: stress fractures in its credibility. I find that issue displaced. The real question should be “Is Art over?” To me, it is more like:”Was it ever relevant”? To that I say Photography has always been an unwelcome bedfellow to Art, which is for most of the world irrelevant, and Photography has been, and remains, relevant. So, if it’s over then the issue has to be looked at as either a precursor to the demise of Art’s sanctity, or the liberation of Photography from the threadbare criteria that Art History has imposed.
William James said, “Wisdom is learning what to overlook”. We now look at everything, including the invisible. Photography, a mechanical form of looking, is intrinsically limited in what it can show. There lies the wisdom. The current crisis is partially caused by attempts to extend Photography’s capability. Maybe it will succeed and show us something new we don’t really need to see, or maybe it will fail and be the wiser for it.
Geoff Dyer’s many books include Jeff in Venice, Death in Varansi: A Novel; and The Ongoing Moment, which won the International Center of Photography’s Infinity Award for writing on Photography.
Let’s start by enlarging the field of enquiry, by considering two responses that have nothing to do with photography — or with each other.
Philip Larkin was dismayed by the death of Duke Ellington in May, 1974. “Let us bury the great Duke,” he wrote to a friend, “I’ve been playing some of his records: now he and Armstrong have gone jazz is finally finished.”
Published a year earlier, Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City begins with Williams pondering an account from the 1960s of how the life of rural England — which had endured for centuries — had just come to an end, was over. This reminded Williams of something else he’d read, saying pretty much the same thing in the 1930s, which in turn put him in mind of a similar elegy from the early years of the century. And so he continued to chase this recently vanished past as it receded further and further in history, to William Cobbett, to Oliver Goldsmith’s “The Deserted Village” and so on. Ultimately, of course, we would end up in the Garden of Eden which retains its pristine beauty only because we were expelled from it.
The connections between jazz and photography are obvious. Lee Friedlander remembers his friend Steve Lacy saying that the time when he was cutting his teeth in the 1950s was a “Golden Age of jazz because all the giants were alive.” And Friedlander himself saw a parallel with his own medium: in 1950, he said, “85 percent of the history of photography were living people.”
By the Lacy-Friedlander standard Larkin was right. But Friedlander’s point is misleading because history doesn’t stop. (Plenty of important photographers weren’t even born back in 1950.) The tradition keeps extending itself even if, in order to do so, it has to mutate into something which may not look or sound like what has gone before. Miles Davis realized this. That’s why his response to Ellington’s death was to go into the studio and record “He Loved Him Madly,” a 25-minute, partly electronic Stockhausen-inflected elegy which would have appalled Larkin. And Larkin had been complaining about jazz being over — not from when Coltrane started ruining it with his “cobra-coaxing cacophonies” but from the moment it got to be truly great: with Charlie Parker who Larkin blamed, along with those other famous Ps (Pound and Picasso) for destroying poetry and art respectively. In other words, Larkin is a one-man symptom for the kind of elegiac recession identified by Williams.
In any medium certain periods are characterized by the production of a large quantity of material of a consistently high standard, rapid innovation and consolidation of the classic status of pioneers. Such phases can come to an end without the medium as a whole being over or finished — even if that medium is elegy-prone.
In Camera Lucida Roland Barthes famously claimed that photography was wedded not just to what was but to that which no longer is. This would seem to make photography uniquely disposed to self-elegy, but its history has been remarkably free of the elegiac. Which is a bit of a shame, frankly, because I had intended going back through its history to find Larkin-like laments and expressions of decline and to use these in a Williams-like way as inverse iterations of the continuing robust health of the medium. Such laments are few and far between. There are plenty of adverse critical reactions, announcements that a particular figure — Eggleston in the 1970s or Frank in the 1950s — is a disaster or an affront, but what’s astonishing is not the way such people have been vilified but the speed with which that initial revulsion reversed itself into acclaim and assimilation within a tradition that continues to advance.
If people have spoken of photography being “over” they tend to use the word in the way that Joseph Keiley (one of Stieglitz’s spokesmen) did in a 1906 issue of Camera Work when he said “the real battle for the recognition of pictorial photography is over.” This seems apposite in that the history of photography is the history of victories won and goals achieved. If photography is over it may be because of the thoroughness of its victories; like some warlord or general habituated to a life of battle there are no more wars to be fought.
Peter Galassi has been chief curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York since 1991. He organized Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century, which opened at MoMA on April 11 and will be shown at SFMOMA October 30, 2010, through January 30, 2011. In addition to the catalogue of that exhibition, his publications include studies of the work of Roy DeCarava, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander, Andreas Gursky, Nicholas Nixon, Aleksandr Rodchenko, and Jeff Wall.
Is photography over? I don’t think so. It’s a human creation that has turned out to be quite useful, like plumbing or language. Like all useful things, it keeps changing. And like all things touched by digital technology, it is changing a lot right now. But no matter how many new gizmos and apps come along, I doubt that photographs are more likely than pipes and words to become obsolete.
But we’re really talking about photography in the art world, aren’t we? One of the progressive myths of today’s art world is that what really matters is some core quality, idea, or experience of art — independent of the materials and techniques that brought a particular work into being. I call this outlook progressive because it has challenged hierarchies and eroded assumptions that tended to stifle rather than inspire curiosity and creativity. It certainly was good news for photography. Now that a work of art can be anything under the sun, the palette envy that gnawed so mercilessly at Alfred Stieglitz ought to be a thing of the past.
Hence the question at hand. If a photograph can be a work of art — no fuss, no muss — and lots of artists use lots of different stuff to make their art, isn’t it rather old-fashioned and parochial to be concerned with photography as such? Yes, of course.
And no. It may be that Stieglitz’s grumpy resentments are indeed a thing of the past (and if so, thank God, or whomever one thanks now that God is over). But Stieglitz’s work is still here. I get paid to believe that the past is relevant to the present, but even if museums were to evaporate, tradition won’t. Artists will make sure of that, and it is hard to believe that they will lose interest, forever, in all of the photographs from the time before photography was over.
And, whether or not anyone actually believes that all mediums have now become equal, is that any reason to suppress the distinctness of any one of them? There is a difference between anything being possible and everything being the same. It would be marvelous if each of us could be alert to all the different colors of the rainbow — that’s something to strive for. But it doesn’t mean we should dump every single can of paint into a one big vat. You end up with a rather unappealing brown, and it never changes.
Trevor Paglen is an artist and geographer. He has written four books and exhibits visual projects internationally. Paglen is a researcher in the Department of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley. He lives in Oakland and New York City.
“Photography,” for me, denotes a wide range of imaging practices sharing a common social, historical, and technological tradition dialectically enmeshed with the construction of practical reality. This includes everything from “art” photography to iPhone snapshots, from MRI scans to the infrared eyes of CIA Predator drones, and from surveillance cameras attached to facial-recognition software to minoritarian documentary practices from Rodney King to Abu Ghraib. In this sense, photography is ubiquitous and is only becoming more so. While photography has an obvious relationship to the production of images, it is perhaps less obvious what photography has to do with the production of space. I believe, however, that by understanding photography itself as a political and cultural geography, we may find a useful framework with which to think critically about imaging practices.
Much work has been done on the relationship between seeing, imaging, the production of truth, and the logistics of domination. Michel Foucault spent much of his career showing the central role of seeing and imaging apparatuses in the production of modern power/knowledge. In Foucault’s discussion of Bichat’s directive to “open up a few corpses,” or his well-known work on Bentham’s panopticon, Foucault consistently shows how the production of visual knowledge is inseparable not only from the exercise of power but from the production of space. Accompanying Foucault’s epistemic shifts are significant reconfigurations of space and politics: the site of medical knowledge moving from the lecture hall to the hospital or the spectacle of the gallows replaced by the softer power implicit in the panopticon.
Paul Virilio, for his part, characterized contemporary forms of state power as a convergence of imaging technologies (the “sight machine”) with coercion (the “war machine”) in such a way that the two have become increasingly indistinguishable from one another. By way of example, Virilio quotes US Under-Secretary of State for Defense W.J. Perry: “once you see the target, you can expect to destroy it.” For Virilio, like Foucault, the development and refinement of imaging technologies was indistinguishable from the exercise of power. For Virilio, the sight machine is composed of specific imaging practices; its history is inseparable from photography, film, video, and other imaging technologies and practices.
Implicit in these analyses is a spatial, as opposed to a strictly semiotic, account of photography. Instead of understanding photography in terms reminiscent of the “dark art” of photo interpretation (whose seminal contemporary case study, Barthes notwithstanding, is undoubtedly Colin Powell’s use of Keyhole spy satellite imagery to show Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that weren’t there), we can think about photography in terms of a spatial politics of imaging practices. In the case of Colin Powell’s presentation, for example, we can examine the architecture of seeing behind those photographs — the tens of billions of secret dollars, the vast and hidden landscapes of launch facilities, ground stations, aerospace factories, not to mention the vast secrecy and security apparatuses and even blank spaces in the law (such as the “state secrets privilege”) constituting only one aspect of the contemporary American “sight machine.” And this is only one example.
I’m proposing that we can open up useful ways of understanding photography by sidestepping well-worn discussions about the rhetoric of the image or the “politics of representation.” Instead, I propose an understanding of photography in which the performance of imaging and its attendant spatial politics are brought out. By understanding photography itself as an array of performances and landscapes, rather than a never-ending procession of unstable images, we may find a language with which to understand the contemporary ways in which imaging and reality are inescapably enmeshed.
Blake Stimson teaches art history and critical theory at the University of California, Davis. Recent publications include The Pivot of the World: Photography and Its Nation (MIT, 2006) and The Meaning of Photography (co-edited with Robin Kelsey for the Clark Art Institute and Yale University Press, 2008).
This may seem facile at first blush but my own guess is that photography is not over but instead is just beginning. Photography once helped to breathe new life into the means of representation it rendered obsolete, after all, and it is at least conceivable that the new media of our day are playing a similar role now by putting photography in the position that painting occupied at the moment it gave rise to Courbet, or Manet, or Seurat.
This begs the question about what such a photographic Courbet would be, of course, but we might expect it to be little concerned with anything that smacks of photographicity. Making medium into meaning was modern art’s proprietary trick and the salvation it garnered from its plastic advantage over mechanical image-making offers little more than techno-nostalgia for photography now. If it is to avoid the kind of quaint obsolescence that we associate with Daguerreotypes and such, photography will need to recast its mission at a remove from the superior powers of the new technologies — their greater plasticity, indexicality, reproducibility, distributibility, surveilling power, and even, perhaps, their superior capacity to engender puncta and pierce whatever residue remains of aura.
Photography’s future might be better served by modern art’s other preoccupation: its affair with bohemia and the cafes, garrets, and barricades that were only its most placard-like expressions. It is too simple to say that photography liberated modern art so that it could become the form of antagonism championed by the slogans épater le bourgeois and art for art’s sake because such antagonism had already been born with enlightenment — Kant called it “unsocial sociability” or the “propensity to enter into society, bound together with a mutual opposition which constantly threatens to break up the society” — but something like this was the case. This was photography’s philosophy rather than its science even though it never really lived up to the grandeur of Geist or Capital or the “will to power” in the ways that modern art’s “painting of modern life” often tried to. Its most enduring purpose was not giving form to history or alienation or ressentiment but instead giving expression to quotidian experience — in the society-portrait-cum-snapshot, for example, or the class-allegory-cum-nature-morte. Henri Lefebvre gave some sense of this relation when he said that the quotidian and the modern “mark and mask, legitimate and counterbalance each other.”
Instead of relying on the old 19th-century realism that carried through most of the 20th, thus, photography may be best served by looking back further to the 18th century’s public sphere in order to find its relevance for the 21st. Photography’s distinctive value lies more in its humble documentary function, its intimate examination and commemoration of everyday life, than it does in its obsolete technology. Think of the painterly attentiveness of Chardin as being more photographical in this regard than the photo wizardry of Moholy-Nagy or Man Ray. Put differently, we might find photography’s future in its role as a ritual form commemorating representation’s “unsocial sociability,” as Kant called it, or “the contest of meaning,” as it came to be named at the end of the Cold War. Such a ritual will only survive now if its philosophically minded performativity is given equal play with its scientifically minded criticality. The contest, in other words, can no longer only be about debunking mythologies but instead also about creating myths anew. Photography’s philosophy, its sociality, and even its politics were always a matter of quotidian affective labor much more so than the laboratory criticality derived from its technology. If it is to survive as a meaningful form of expression in its own right — by becoming the art that it has always wanted to be — my guess is that photography’s better adversary will be social media more than new media per se and its measure of success will be beating Facebook and the like at their own game of everyday life.
Charlotte Cotton is creative director for the proposed London space of the UK’s National Media Museum. Previously she was curator of photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum, head of programming at The Photographers’ Gallery, and head of the Wallis Annenberg Department of Photography at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She is the author of The Photograph as Contemporary Art and was the founder of wordswithoutpictures.org.
It is just one of those moments in culture when it feels neither risible nor disingenuous for SFMOMA to be posing such a question. It’s about time for photography as a culturally institutionalised, ghettoised, and, frankly, dull and acquiescent, photo-art-market-serving “discipline” to be over. I understand and appreciate the building blocks that its poets and seers developed as a discrete history of this slippery medium. I get why a weird melange of photographers, curators, picture editors, gallery directors, and collectors advocate still for all of their versions of what constitutes good photography to be culturally pre-eminent. And I recognise that their strident labouring on the coal face of photography’s legitimisation enabled me, when I started curating in the early 1990s, to just assume that photography had a solid role in cultural programming and discourses, and the war was over. This allowed me to be free to embrace other challenges such as how to unpack and engagingly narrate photography’s pluralism in ways that feel absolutely relevant to contemporary eyes.
But enough of this due deference to the historical quest of crafting an ill-fitting essentialism onto the concept of Photography. On a bad day, it feels as though the construction of photo silos within encyclopaedic and modern art museums — and also photography non-profit spaces — can take credit for photography’s cultural validation in the late 20th century but that those silos are, ironically, also guilty of being temporarily incapable of meaningfully responding to the massive shifts that are now occurring in image-making cultures. Now that the noughties bubble market for anything laminated behind Plexi has burst, the gallery (whether commercial or institutional) loses its status as the most desirable context for photography’s radical forward momentum. So how do we respond meaningfully to the mass energy of citizen photography or print-on-demand publishing if the canon that distinguished a very few from the ever so many is our overriding mandate? How can we shape exhibitions to reflect the contradictions and t.b.d.s of our time if our preferred model is the institution educating its public with reassuringly complete and hermetically sealed gallery experiences? How do we facilitate the life-changing, photographic epiphanies that our touchy-feely education programmes should aspire to if our potential participants have a better grasp than us on photography as a creative and social tool? Will national and regional collections of photography truly reflect the histories of the medium as they now unfold if they continue to co-opt in a token fashion anything outside its core canon, whether it be the commercial industries of photography, amateur, or non-Western practices, as a way of seasonally updating a super-tired litany of:
- Road trips
- Street poetry
- Illustrations of political and social issues
- Light-weight Conceptual Art
- The inoffensively and classically stylish
- The outputs of the persistent and charming
- The cheap stuff that contemporary art curators and collectors aren’t interested in
- The downright over-produced?
To borrow from the enduringly astute Noel Coward , people are wrong when they say that photography in art museums isn’t what it used to be. It’s what it used to be – that’s what’s wrong with it.
1. “People are wrong when they say that opera isn’t what it used to be. It is what it used be – that’s what’s wrong with it!”
Noel Coward Design for Living, Act 3, scene 1, 1932
Corey Keller is associate curator of photography at SFMOMA, where she has organized exhibitions on 19th-century scientific photography, Henry Wessel, and Larry Sultan, among many others. She is currently at work on retrospective surveys of the work of Francesca Woodman (2011) and J. B. Greene (2013).
The challenge of the question, “Is photography over?” is that it immediately demands a definition of “photography,” and perhaps even a consideration of what constitutes “over.” Neither is as straightforward as it might immediately seem. For the millions of people armed with camera-equipped cell phones posting on Flickr and Facebook, to question photography’s vitality must appear at best perplexing and at worst self-indulgent. Surely photography has never been more ubiquitous or more accessible than it is today; in his wildest dreams George Eastman could never have imagined the photographic possibilities currently available to the everyday user. A brief visit to nearly any museum of modern and contemporary art reveals that the camera is more than ever a crucial instrument in the contemporary artist’s toolbox. So what then is the problem?
Any discussion of photography’s “over-ness” necessarily evokes the ever-widening divide between digitally produced and/or manipulated photography and what is now (horrifyingly) referred to as “analog” photography. And, to be sure, the advent of digital photography has caused problems, not the least of which is the precipitous disappearance of traditional photographic materials and the birth of a whole generation of photographers unfamiliar with the darkroom or the qualities of an exceptional print, but it has also opened up so many possibilities that it cannot be dismissed out of hand as the death knell of the medium. (Although it is a subject for a longer discussion than can be undertaken here, I do take issue with the conventional wisdom that digital’s impact has been to undermine the inherent truth-value of the photograph; to argue thus is to ignore the medium’s fraught history.) I would argue that the critical challenge facing photography today is not so different from the crises it has faced before, and the failure to recognize this crisis as one of continuity, rather than of rupture, is in fact the greatest problem of all.
Alfred Stieglitz, America’s most vociferous champion for the recognition of photography as a fine art, faced a dual challenge at the turn of the 20th century: for photography to be a legitimate art form, he argued, it needed to be aligned with the lofty themes and craftsmanship of painting, and at the same time distinguished from the growing body of banal snapshots made by button-pressing Kodakers. His solution was to espouse a photography that disguised its mechanical origins, celebrated the hand of the artist, and threw a veil over photography’s connection to the facts and contingencies of the real world. As reactionary as Stieglitz’s Pictorialism now seems, is it really so very different from the current art world situation? Is it any surprise that as photography flourishes cheaply and easily everywhere else that the galleries are showing enormous color pictures (often staged or otherwise manipulated to demonstrate artistry), printed in small editions and sold for astronomical prices?
For much of the 20th century to self-identify as a photographer (rather than an artist) was to take a deliberate political stance, and remarkably, it still is, despite the enormously important role photography plays in both the art world and the real world. It is photography’s nagging relationship to the real world that has always been the stumbling block for art critics from Charles Baudelaire to Michael Fried. Photography is, however, different from most other forms of image-making, not just in its special representational qualities, but also in practical terms – it has always had a rich and vigorous life outside the narrow confines of the art world. After years of teeth-gnashing and hair-pulling we find ourselves back where we started, still without a language that embraces photographic production in its exquisite complexity, that recognizes it as a practice as well as a medium, that privileges neither its technological foundations nor its formal qualities, and that does not treat photography as merely a theory, but also acknowledges it as a body of objects with a 180-year history of its own. Even beleaguered Alfred Stieglitz, after nearly four decades of championing photography, finally concluded in Yoda-like fashion, “Art or not art. That is immaterial. There is photography.”
Douglas R. Nickel is the Andrea V. Rosenthal Professor of Modern Art at Brown University, where he teaches photographic history. As a curator in SFMOMA’s photography department from 1993 to 2003, he organized the exhibitions Carleton Watkins: The Art of Perception and Dreaming in Pictures: The Photography of Lewis Carroll. From 2003 to 2007 he was director of the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, Tucson.
Is photography over? At the risk of sounding like a lawyer, the answer to that question depends on what we mean by “photography” and what we mean by “over.” Observers have wrestled with a definition of photography for the better part of 175 years now. Technically, it is accepted as a process that uses light-sensitive materials to register an image. To the layperson, that registration further entails deployment of a lens or other optical device, and that image is supposed to be a recognizable picture. (Manufacturers use stencils and light-sensitive coatings on copper laminates to produce electronic printed circuit boards, but while the result is an image of the original pattern, and so by definition photographic, it is not a recognizable picture and therefore would not qualify to the average person as an instance of photography.) But since the everyday use of light-sensitive surfaces and optics to register images appears to be in no immediate peril, we must assume that, by “photography,” the question wants to point to something more sociological than technical in nature: a collective faith in the authenticity of images made by photographic means, the “analogic,” or an historical era that is characterized by that faith, or perhaps more narrowly, an era in the artworld in which the philosophical and esthetic issues raised by concern for that authenticity are brought to a condition of singular prominence.
By “over,” then, we must decide whether we wish to discuss an epistemological question of Western modernity — where did faith in the seemingly unique veridical nature of the photograph come from, and what conditions would come to alter or undermine that faith? — or if we want to analyze what conditions in painting and sculpture in the late 1950s could propose the mass circulation of photographic images (in print media, advertising, scientific documentation and snapshots) as iconoclastic vehicles for cultural critique, and why that critique may or may not now seem exhausted to artists and those who follow them. To put it another way, the question “is photography over?” requires a second question — “and for whom?” If “over” in the artworld operates according to a logic different from “over” in the larger culture, we must still entertain the possibility of overlap in the belief systems of artists and the general public. We must also ask what it means for a museum of modern art to be the cultural entity posing the question. But it would help to begin any conversation with agreement on what question we are actually addressing.
Joel Snyder is a professor in and chair of the Department of Art History at the University of Chicago and is co-editor of the journal Critical Inquiry. He writes on photography, the theory of representation, and the history and theory of perspective and optics.
Some Elegiac Stanzas
Photography, understood as a still evolving and expanding set of materials and a flourishing market for them, is more vital than it has ever been. Chemical photography, even in its present attenuated condition, survives and will probably be in use for at least another score of years, while the growth of digital photography is and will continue to be explosive in terms of the sheer number of still photographs taken daily; in terms of the already vast and constantly growing number of home-made and laboratory-produced prints; in terms of Powerpoint and other digital projection technologies, and finally and most importantly, in terms of the wide-ranging, on demand availability of countless photographic images (refreshed minute by minute) and circulating freely on the internet.
I take the question framing this conference as being aimed specifically at photography comprehended as a medium. While the commerce in photographic materials is burgeoning, the interest many people took in the medium of photography has been shrinking — in a state of atrophy for nearly two decades. Photography as a medium with a past, and crucially, a present, and a future is over and in my view is irrecuperable, even (and ironically) as the use of photographic materials dominates contemporary art production. And yet, little will change immediately: curators of photography in museums of art in the United States will keep on mounting exhibitions of photographs; galleries won’t miss a beat selling photographs dating from the 1830s and onward — while collectors, for their part will continue buying them (and the prices will rise); and students will still be taught the use of photographic materials in the setting of universities, colleges, and art schools.
What is in the process of fading away is the sensibility that was informed by the foundational groundwork and the above-ground scaffolding of the medium of photography and with their loss, the loss too of an audience for photographers who produce pictures that center on photography, reflexive pictures that simultaneously exemplify and expand what were once called “the peculiar possibilities and limitations of photography.” What has been called “pure” photography continues to have its defenders and collectors, curators and historians, but the audience it has today is generally limited to the audience it had. Some curators and critics want to believe that contemporary, photographically based art production is continuous with the old practices, traditions, and norms of the photographic medium and attempt to put, for example, the work of Nadar and Watkins, Evans and Sander in relation to Georges Rousse and Walid Raad, Wolfgang Tillmans and Candida Hofer. This sort of exercise corrupts our comprehension of both photography as medium and photography in the service of contemporary art. It bends history, undermines understanding, and blocks feeling, replacing vexing complexity with a smooth linear narrative. This is not the moment for anodynes.
More info at SFMOMA/isPhotographyOver.