Wow, I wish I had more time to write because it seems that so many people are writing instantly about whatever is said on the web. Amazing. Well, I saw that Joerg immediately wrote another piece after I published my article the other morning on our blog, The Visual Experience.
I certainly don’t want to be the person to slow down the discussion nor mislead it into any dead-ends, so I’ll try and be forward moving, as we all wish to be. I’m sorry if Colberg felt that I hadn’t captured what he meant in my article, but I am simply trying to understand what he states because I find myself basically in agreement with his feelings, so I don’t what us to get tripped up on semantics. I do feel that he is trying to qualify photography and steer it away from any trivialization but if we keep the discussion at a colloquial level, sometimes words and meanings are used casually so I’d like anyone in the discussion to try and understand what each of us is saying.
To state, as Colberg has done in referring to my interpretation and understanding of his article, “…has nothing to do with my own thinking at all” is a fairly cut and dry thing to say when I’m trying to understand what phrases like
“…rejecting the rapid, vapid one liners our bang-bang-bang culture has come to rely on”
really mean. We all “kind-of” know what that means, but sometimes things have to be stated a bit more clearly. After stating in my original article that,
“…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. “
Colberg’s response on his blog on the 17th of July 2012 was,
“…The only problem is that for the most part, (what Rozzo says) is not true. It is a tiny little bit true, in a small number of cases. But the vast majority of people trust photography in the vast majority of cases perfectly well. “
Instead, he states in his blog of the 23rd of July 2012,
“…We all know that all photography is fiction: as a photographer you make choices, which influence the photograph enough for it to be more of a fiction than a fact. That’s photography for you. That’s just the way it is.”
Hey, wait a minute, didn’t you just criticize me for saying the same thing? My point is, I think we’re pretty much in the same boat with similar points of view. Sure we have very different styles, I’m much less the blogger and more formal in what I write, but don’t knock the guy on your side, it doesn’t make sense. Try and give me the benefit of the doubt, otherwise we’ll be in a senseless argument about semantics and we’re both more interested in what’s happening to photography. Forgive me for being straight-forward in public, but it’s simply my desire to not continually bounce off one article to another.
In order to further discuss the true questions facing photography, I would like to offer a change of context, so to speak, because so many voices are trying to re-collocate the world of photography into a more meaningful relationship with existence, in a way back to it’s most promising days between the late fifties and the advent of digital photography. I think that photography after WWII occupied a cultural and intellectual space that, maybe, it will never occupy again. It was a driving cultural and intellectual force, photographers from Robert Frank onwards had consistently jolted our visual sensibilities and forced us to look at the world no longer through the objective eyes of truth-seeking photographers (be they artists or photo-journalists). Frank and his followers, like Gary Winnogrand,taught as to look at the world through totally subjective eyes which distorted the superficial reality we had taken for “real” and, using the intrinsic elements of photographic syntax, had distorted reality into feelings, vision into glimpses, images into narratives.
I won’t go into the history from that point on, but trying to restore the dignity and, above all, the cultural importance that photography once held in our fragmented, industrial, modern lives seems to be a senseless quest. It’s like wishing to eliminate all the coffee mugs in the world because in ancient times the decoration on a mug held profound spiritual significance whereas in our world, any visual expression gets slapped onto a coffee mug so someone can fill up their kitchen shelves. So should we get upset about that? Going further with my analogy, will painting ever again have the cultural and psychological force that it held for intellectuals over the centuries? Maybe, but probably not. It’s just not the time anymore. And any amount of money spent on building white walls on which to show these “masterpieces” won’t restore their importance to our cultural awareness, they are now history and are important as building blocks for our own culture, but they don’t necessarily overwhelm our emotions as they did for some viewers in previous historical periods. (I realize that many art lovers will cringe at this statement, but please bear with me, I’m only trying to capture the general shift in the cultural importance of painting. I realize that many will still be moved by a Pollack or a Bacon. I personally am moved by Antonello da Messina.)
Many will mis-interpret what I have just written. I am not advocating that photography can not seek a new place in our culture nor that it can no longer hold cultural interest. On the contrary, I believe it can and I see that manifest every time an image impresses me or offers me a new way to see something. It will always take a good mind and an able practitioner to make a great image, they just don’t happen by themselves. But if I were looking for a media in which to throw my creativity today, I would choose photography more as a personal exercise than an artistic medium. There are historical periods where certain media are predominant and others where they simply fall by the way-side. That doesn’t mean they are no longer viable means of expression, it simply means that they are seen less and less and influence fewer people. Take a look at lithography, ceramics, tapestry, all great expressive media that today exist in a niche. A beautiful and exciting niche, but a niche all the same. Photography too, I feel, is becoming a niche, albeit a very wide-spread one.
So getting back to photography, we have a medium which has grown up, expanded, absorbed sub-cultures and vulgar use. It has integrated the family snap-shot into a more general culture of visual literacy, it has taken all of its grammatical errors (out-of-focus, blur, over and under-exposed, grain, scratches, etc. etc.) and integrated them into a new visual vocabulary just like Hip-Hop jargon has modified the use of the English language for millions of people. We’ve even added Instagram and the world of digital filters and manipulation. But during this linguistic evolution, the precious beauty of single images has often slipped away under a deluge of eye-catching imagery thrown upon us by more and more media. As I stated in one of my previous articles, the “role” of photography has changed. It is no longer needed to explain the world to us, we no longer look to photography for illumination or understanding. Like the paintings on a museum wall, photography still offers beauty and truth, history and suffering, spiritual awareness and vulgar description. It’s just that the magic of photography has fallen into the hands of millions of people who wouldn’t have been interested in mastering the complexities of the photo-chemical process which sustained photography up until the digital era. And with this democratization, the magic has fallen away. Photographs are hardly ever seen as photographic prints. We rarely can witness the three-dimensional magic of an 8×10 contact print. Today we see a photograph on our monitors, at 72 dpi in RGB. It simply has another meaning, another context, another feeling. We might see a digital print and, on some rare occasions, the original 8×10 contact. But for many, it doesn’t satisfy after having seen the richer contrast and saturated tones of the same image reproduced on a color monitor.
Just as our ears have become accustomed to listening to mpg compressed music with boosted bass, the real sound of musical instruments is for some a disappointment. I remember seeing original prints signed by Edward Weston and some of them simply looked better in the books I had bought: deeper blacks with a little more contrast. It’s a question of habit. We all know that photographic manipulation can make anything more exciting. The question is what are we used to seeing and what are we used to giving meaning to?
Add to this that the sources of imagery have multiplied and with their multiplication, they have changed, the public has changed, we all have changed. So what photography does today is really not what it used to do. It fulfills other realms of our existence. Like objects or brands, photography has become another medium of simple emotional expression where anyone can play and create images. Some make meaningful images and most making superficial ones.
With this I’m not saying that images can’t have the power they once had. They can and some do. Our looking at images from another culture give us enormous amounts of information and new ways of evaluating reality. It’s just that the means of viewing those special images are no longer clear. Great images are on millions of blogs, they are in millions of PDF webzines, they’re on Instagram and in The New York Times digital edition. But there is no more Life magazine to do the editing. There isn’t another John Szarkowski to call the shots. We’re all more equal, all capable of choosing and all more educated than once before. So most people consider themselves visual literate because they can react emotionally to an image, just like they do with a product or a movie, but visual literacy is a more complex question. It has to do with how we attribute meaning to things, to everything: from words to objects, from rituals to images. So our debate about photography is an open one. We simply have to try and edit what people say, understand what they are trying to say and see if their thoughts can help us along in our understanding of the world around us. We’re all becoming more visually literate but as we become so, traditional myths dissolve. Like in our secular society, there are fewer and fewer guide-lines to follow, fewer masters to imitate so people look backward to the past. They look to well-known masters, to old looking photographs and even to “filters” which can give meaning to a glance, history to a snap-shot. Welcome to the anxiety of post-modern photography. Any and all comments are welcome.