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'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 As he points out, many kinds of outdated or antiquated photography are still being practiced, perhaps arguably more so now as a backlash against the overwhelming proliferation of digital images: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.
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 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.