Sunday, April 22, 2012

Is Photography Over?

It was interesting to read about SFMoMA's symposium Is Photography Over?  It seems like a relevant discussion for those involved in the field of photography to have, and SFMoMA seems like a good venue for it.  I was surprised to find out that it was sponsored by the Fraenkel Gallery.  In the opening remarks, Neal Benezra, the director of SFMoMA, mentions that the sponsorship is one of the more extraordinary things he has seen a commercial player do in terms of advocacy and education.

Jeffrey Fraenkel by Lee Friedlander

I do not think photography is over by any means, but I do think the field has changed, and will continue to change.  It's not like this anymore:

As Jennifer Blessing pointed out, change is integral to photography as a medium, especially given its dependence on the production of certain equipment, films, chemicals, etc.

This whole discussion made me think of John Cyr's project Developer Trays, in which he makes straightforward photographs of developer trays used by well-known photographers "so that the photography community will remember specific, tangible printing tools that have been a seminal part of the photographic experience for the past hundred years.  By titling each tray with its owner's name, I reference the historical significance of these objects in a minimal manner that evokes thought and introspection about what images have passed through each individual tray."

Is Photography Over?

Vince Aletti

Vince Aletti's point of view is optimistic, and I tend to agree with him.  Photography as a medium is certainly expanding, but perhaps instead of viewing it as the end of one era it is more productive to view it as the beginning of another.  As he points out, many kinds of outdated or antiquated photography are still being practiced, perhaps arguably more so now as a backlash against the overwhelming proliferation of digital images:

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.

In the age of digital manipulation, it is arguable that much of photography's power as true documentation has been lost.  Nevertheless, Aletti claims there is still inherent power in imagery.  What has changed, in his opinion, is a narrow view on photography.  

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.

Walead Beshty

Walead Beshty points out that the "crisis" being discussed in this roundtable discussion doesn't actually have much to do with photography itself, but rather with how photography functions within the academy and the institutions of Art.

In short, a medium is always relational, and the attempts to isolate and treat it as discrete is to institutionalize it, and to further attempt to place it within a larger schema is to institutionalize it a second time, rendering it further abstract...  So it seems safe to say that when we speak of a "crisis" in the way asserted above, we speak of the trouble in institutionalizing photography within a broader field as a discrete entity, here specifically the field of art, and whether or not this category, in and of itself, is still useful for these purposes.

Continuing, he writes, "Photography" becomes, in this instance, a way to name this institutional anxiety, and any perceived crisis is really that of the disciplinary structures applied to it.

It seems that this has always been the case with photography.  From its inception, both makers and critics have struggled with finding a place for photography to co-exist within a pre-existing structure of art.  Perhaps now it seems like more of a pressing crisis, as the field is undergoing massive changes, but Photography and Art have never had a truly functional relationship.

He criticizes the institutions, including graduate schools, for trying to so neatly divide photography away from any other type of art or history, arguing that these types of divisions are irrelevant to art-making and only serve the institutions that teach/engage with/profit from art-making. 

The questions posed for this conference neither relate to practices which we might call photographic, nor do they point to the theorization of those practices, as these practices are all specific sets of relations and do not operate at the level of abstraction. Instead the condition of "crisis" is realized on the level of abstract institutional categories invented to delineate one set of practices from another, a crisis pertaining to whether or not the current structure of disciplines is able to identify and dutifully manage the traditions they are called upon to preserve and maintain; it is about creating a criteria for what is excluded and what is included in the hypothetical warehouse called "photography". It is less a crisis for the medium, but more so a crisis of the institutionalization of art itself.

Jennifer Blessing
Jennifer Blessing had an interesting point in terms of what defines photography.  

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.

As she points out, photography has often been written about as having a connection to the past in terms of subject matter, but it also has a limited life span in terms of technology.  That is never more apparent than right now, as analog shooters struggle with dwindling film options and photographers working in the darkroom are slowly losing access to their materials.  Yet, in some ways, this is liberating and exciting.  Clearly photography will go on, one way or another, surviving a change in equipment and technique as it has done so many times before in its relatively short history.  

I was also interested in her take on photography from a museum/collecting point of view:

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.

PL Dicorcia writes about photography's inherent qualities and limitations in a way that is interesting. 

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. 

Hasn't this always been the case?  Again, due to the relatively limited amount of photographs in existence in the pre-digital age, was this fact lesser known or less widely embraced?

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...  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.

Perhaps it has simply become more difficult to distinguish between "art" photography and other kinds of photography.  As we discussed in terms of the internet, we now have more access to photography than ever before, which is both a blessing and a curse.

Peter Galassi

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.

Peter Galassi's writing was quite possibly my favorite.  Refreshingly, he doesn't seem to be worrying so much about where photography fits into our institutional structure, but rather acknowledges that it will go on, regardless.  His paint analogy is also quite perfect. 

Charlotte Cotton

Charlotte Cotton's points are, again, about the institutional approach to photography.  It is refreshing to read curators to write about the institution in this way.

It's about time for photography as a culturally institutionalised, ghettoised, and, frankly, dull and acquiescent, photo-art-market-serving "discipline" to be over.

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 [1], 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.

Though this discussion doesn't seem directly aimed at photographers themselves, I can't help but think about my own work in the context of these discussions.  Laurel Nakadate's critique this week, in which she immediately placed everyone's work in the context of the broader art world, also left me thinking in this vein.  Of course art-making is personal and unique, but to what extent do the institutions (colleges, galleries, and museums) shape the making of art?  Of course they have a financial impact, but they also have such a huge impact on the content and form of the art being produced.  It almost seems daunting to try to position oneself within this world, which is large now and getting larger by the day.  Are the old methods of the art world starting to vanish?  Are we moving away from exclusivity?  If so, is this a good thing, or simply a watering-down process?  Can the systems currently in place even support this kind of movement?  Arguably not, as Cotton writes.  Are the makers and producers of work moving at such a pace, and in such a way, so that the institutions can't keep up?  Are people fed up with the institutions and making work completely outside of them?  That is possible (financially) with digital photography in a new way. 

Corey Keller

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.

Corey Keller makes interesting points about photography and it's "over-ness."  I like that she pointed out, although briefly, the problem with all of the recent discussions around truth in photography.  There has never really been such a thing.

I also thought it was interesting how she compared Steiglitz's backlash against photography criticism (making pictorialist photographs that denied the technology and played up the artistry) to our current climate of the production of large photographs, often staged or manipulated to imply artistry and distance themselves from amateur photography.  I couldn't help but to think of Fried and his obsession with Jeff Wall's manipulations, as if knowing that it took someone two years to make a photo of a boring apartment makes it any more meaningful. 

I wonder what Nan Goldin would have been like had she been coming of age now.

And because, for some reason, I've got a thing for cartoons today, I'm going to end with this one.  It's a little bit of a stretch but it seemed relevant given that many of these writings are about the inherent tension between photography and the institutions that show, support, and collect it.

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