After having read with interest Joerg Colberg’s stimulating article about the conservatism we see in most contemporary photography and the trend for smart phone users to imitate old methods and effects with the click of a finger, I’d like to add a couple of reflections which I feel are inherent to understanding the first part of the question, linked to the conservatism in contemporary fine art photography, not only to explore Colberg’s stimulating point of view but also as an open analysis of what is happening in photography and the world of fine arts in the year 2012.
First let me say that I agree with practically all Colberg’s observations, spontaneously clear and open-minded as is his usual approach to the world of photography. The questions, doubts and comments, however, inevitably get a bit more ambiguous when he, or any of us, try and define what “pushing the boundaries” of a medium might mean. Obviously, we are all subjectively reacting to a complex field of thought. This area includes not only photography as we know it – the making of single images with some kind of camera – but all the complexity of mixed imagery we see everyday throughout our daily moving about, traveling, buying, looking, etc. In fact, his paper proposes so many important questions into the lime-light that I will be writing a number of articles to address some of the most pertinent, or at least those which strike me the most.
The merit of Colberg’s article really lies in his straight forward attempt to try and capture the confusion and change of meanings inherent particular to the photographic image happening around us, and within us, during this historical period. Just like the feminist movement changed not only feminists but practically all human relationships in most of the industrial world along with questions of gender identity for years to come, Colberg’s questioning is a valiant attempt to stop some of the free-flowing and free-wheeling subjectiveness of contemporary culture. He’s trying to call a spade a spade.
He’s right, photography’s “practitioners for the most part are incredibly conservative as far as the medium is concerned.” Most photographers imitate the past: past techniques, past visions, past histories. He’s right to accuse curators and editors. But then again, they’re all playing a different ball-game and the rules are fairly conservative. If you have to sell images in an open market, you can’t really sustain an avant-garde because you’d go bankrupt in an instant (Just push the button!) The general public is neither educated nor savvy, consequentially both curators and editors have to somehow confront their audience. In a period of cultural uncertainty (like ours), everyone looks to the past, it’s comforting and gives us some values to hold on to. But that is a sociological/psychological question which touches the meaning of culture.
For simple curators or editors (as confused as the rest of us), it is not within their role to be at the fore-front. Critics, on the other hand, should be in a better place to explore and, eventually, explain where visual expression is going. Unfortunately, even that group of practitioners often falls into subjective bargaining (at the expense of collective progress) in order to maintain their possibility to be published.
So in the end, everyone has their hands tied to some extent, which means that photographers pushing the medium probably don’t get promoted well. That’s the value of Colberg’s writing, he doesn’t have his hands tied so he can say what he wants, when he wants and how he wants to. And he has been doing a fairly good job at it for quite a while. As they say in France, chapeau (hats off).
To explore the question of whether photography is still a vital contribution to our visual culture, which, I think, lies at the basis of Colberg’s inquiry, please bear with me as I gallop through some history. Photography has been laying-back for a while. It began enjoying its newly found prestige around the early ’80s when “masters” were consolidated and the market of buying and selling photographic prints became the Fine Art Market for photography; real photography, very very serious photography, like the Masters: Alfred, Henri, Edward and Eugene (Steiglitz, Cartier-Bresson, Weston and Atget) . These, and many others, were followed by the “new” generation (now passing away) of Harry Callahan, Robert Frank, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon and the likes.
Great masters of contemporary photography who really stretched the meaning of the photographic image. But then the schools started kicking in. Large universities, first in the United States and then throughout Europe, started awarding degrees in Photography and the select few nominated from the past became the Baby Boomer generation of Fine Art Photographers exploding on our consumer culture. Reportage from Cartier-Bresson through Frank, Winnogrand and Friedlander became the communal language of photographic narrative. Add this to the knowledge of a university degree, the awareness of an ever expanding Whole Earth Catalogue and the hippy/68 revolution and you’ve got Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman and Martin Parr. Throw in the Gay Liberation and Consumer Culture Globalization and you get Pierre & Gilles and David LaChapelle (the former French couple being far more interesting than their American counterpart). Photography really has evolved quite a bit.
What does this show us: 1, photography has never stayed within it’s artistic boundaries. In the end, Steiglitz’s intellectual awareness and visual poetry are not more important than Weegee’s pushing a flash into someone’s face while watching someone die in a pool of blood. Steiglitz waxed about the profound emotional body that the photographic image could represent while Weegee was making twenty-five cents a picture along with photographic history while stomping on people’s feelings. Not very artistic at all, but Weegee did push boundaries along with Steiglitz, especially photographic ones. 2, this shows that the division, so dearly held by contemporary art photographers, between artistic and commercial photography has never been a guide line to quality.
It also shows us that technical innovation isn’t really at the root of cultural change. Fine Art photographers are the results of the massive diffusion of university degrees in photography. The default template is a teaching position somewhere and a personal exhibit every now and then to keep the prestige flowing. I’m not against any of this, I too have a degree in photography and I enjoy many fine art images, but I’m simply trying to describe somewhat objectively the complexity of the use of photography in today’s consumer/industrialized/globalized world. Just trying to help, Joerg.
Since Colberg starts with a cultural question (the value of contemporary photographic expression) tied to a technological invention (digital imagery), one could ask, what role has technology played in the recent past? What cultural difference would it have made if there was or wasn’t Kodachrome, spot-metering or T-Max technologies? Here, I think, is one of Colberg’s points that needs a little more clarity. I don’t believe that technology actually “drives” cultural change, as Colberg insinuates. It certainly can change working methods and linguistic possibilities. You could get deeper and richer colors from Kodachrome than from Ektachrome but that was a technical question. Did it really change the parameters of photography? A part from the exceptional use by National Geographic Photographers, did it change the “fine art” world very much? I’d say no. It didn’t have much of an impression. But, it’s true, the invention of the Leica 35 mm camera DID have an enormous influence on photographic history. So it seems that some technological changes do affect history and others less so. The invention of the 35mm format did, the invention of the 2 ¼ sq. format had much less of an impact. Has the digital revolution had a large impact on the history of photography? Colberg seems to think that we haven’t yet felt much of a change from the old analogic habits. I’d say that the digital revolution has been just that. It has changed the way we perceive an image. Now that is no small achievement.
So taking the very BIG step from there, has, or should I say, could digital photography mean so very much for the photographic language? My answer here is definitely yes, it could and has changed the meaning of photography. But where Colberg, and many with his point of view, look for the change isn’t necessarily where it’s happened. We can understand this question by looking at the examples Jorge Colberg uses to illustrate his point. He chooses people he feels are trying to change the meaning of photography and push its limits somewhat (something Colberg finds rewarding and meaningful), yet looking at the same authors (Marco Breuer, Gerhard Richter and Matthew Brandt), one could come to a very different conclusion.
But I should restate the question in order to be clear. Colberg feels (provokingly) that contemporary photography is nothing more than a mix of well established traditions, well executed, but very traditional. Not many are trying to see where digital expression could take us, they’re just using the digital camera in order to do analogic pictures more easily and in more difficult situations (lower light, for example). Ok. All true. Digital cameras give us far more lee-way in taking our photographs and permit us to make images where it would have really been impossible only a few years ago (100,000 ASA was not in Kodak’s mind in the mid 80’s). He also states that manipulation is not very new either, it’s been done by photographers since the invention of the medium itself. But there is a very large difference between a couple of photographers using multiple-negatives to manipulate imagery in order to narrate a story and millions of people using Photoshop each day to alter the meaning of images through manipulation. Digital manipulation changes the very meaning of the photographic image and here lies the real revolution which has already taken place.
The popular equivalency of photographic image = reality has been permanently altered. Everyone, or practically anyone who is visually literate, knows that they can never again trust an image in order to understand reality. All images are simply subjective representations. This used to be the basis for many university courses on visual culture, exploring the myth of photographic reality. Now it is commonplace thinking for anyone who has the merest understanding of photography, including children who don’t know how to write yet.
This new understanding is really a new reality, altering the way we perceive the world around us. It has opened a far deeper question as to how we now ascribe meaning to what we see. We no longer believe our eyes in practice. Reality is becoming a very weak substitute for the digital world of perfection and fantasy. Within this mental framework, we could see the photographs of Doug Rickard, taken straight from Google, in a very different light. Colberg’s confusing novelty with meaning, or equivocating uncommitted effort with some kind of judgement on the value of what’s being done is easily misleading and I think he’d be open to debating that.
What has already taken place is a mind-blowing revolution. Many photographers over the past twenty or thirty years have alluded to this coming change (Sandy Skoglund, Cindy Sherman) but digital photography has made it a shocking reality. The point is, you don’t necessarily see the effects of this change in art galleries or photographic exhibitions. Here, as Colberg states, the art world has, kind of, lost direction. To be a bit harsher, it’s missed the boat.
While young photographers are more and more smart-phone photographers, real photographers, those who do Fine-Art, those with a degree who have to justify their education, are becoming more and more autistic while playing in little corners in order to avoid the revolution taking place outside their world. Very often, narcissistic self-expression has taken the place of intellectual definition. This has impoverished contemporary photography immensely and this is where, I think, Colberg has so efficiently pointed his finger.
But the pushing of limits which Colberg provokingly asks for has, in reality, already taken place. It’s just that you can’t find it in abstract linguistic research which is what his three photographic examples seem to be playing with, but in the perceptive meaning of what’s being looked at. It is, after all, a cultural question and non necessarily a visual one. Mapplethorp, like Giotto, was revolutionary for the change in subject matter and not necessarily the change in technique.
I appreciate very much what the photographers, mentioned positively by Colberg, are doing, but their work is not pushing the limits of digital photography even sideways, it’s simply playing with technique and its visual impact together with the ever-lasting relationship of graphic signs to the unconscious. Unconscious semiotics. That’s what Abstract Expressionism did in the early 50’s in the world of painting, it’s also what ancient Sumerian ceramists did 4,000 years before the birth of Christ when they decorated pots and daily utensils with abstract signs, perceived as giving the objects in question a super-natural value and meaning, transcending the banality of daily existence. There will always be a market for visual tools which help us explore ourselves.
What photography used to do was help us give meaning to what happened around us. It helped us discover the world. Today, it often makes us yawn. The shallowness of much imagery is due to some of the factors Colberg speaks about; curators and editors trying to invent value by interpreting images they deal with or are asked to deal with; photographers not really exploring much of anything except their own infancy, childhood or back-yard. The real loss is that even they don’t see much meaning there either.