Photography After Photography (Further Down the Rabbit Hole)


It might be time to turn around and reject the tyranny of consumption, to instead embrace the promise of photography. And rejecting the tyranny of consumption here explicitly includes rejecting the rapid, vapid one liners our bang-bang-bang culture has come to rely on. Instead, we need to re-aim for some depth, we need to re-aim for an investigation of the medium (especially the digital part).


Edward Rozzo wrote a response to my Photography After Photography? (A Provocation). I’m very much interested in continuing the debate, because I think there is something to be gained here. Rozzo and I seem to be in agreement about various things, but of course it’s always much more interesting to first talk about what we can’t (yet?) agree on. (more)

The first topic I want to talk about is one of the biggest myths that is currently making the rounds in photography circles. To quote from Rozzo’s piece

Everyone, or practically anyone who is visually literate, knows that they can never again trust an image in order to understand reality.” (emphasis in the original)
This is the “people don’t trust photography” any longer argument. It sounds incredibly convincing, doesn’t it?

The only problem is that for the most part, it’s 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. There are billions of photographs on the internet now. If everybody really did not trust photography how about these following questions: Why do people still take photographs? And why do people then upload these not trustworthy photography onto the internet to share them with other people? This literally makes no sense.

I mean think about it. You’re on a plane, say, and you take a photograph of the tray table in front of you with your iPhone, using Instagram (it’s interesting how Instagram seems to just invite those kinds of photograph). Do you then really think about how that photograph, even though you know full well that it was obviously manipulated, is not trustworthy? Or you’re on vacation and you take some snapshots of your partner on the beach - do you then send an email to your friends or family with the photographs and the disclaimer: “People, these photography cannot be trusted?” Upon receiving your holiday snapshots how many of your friends or family members will call you, in obvious distress, to ask whether you really were where you seem to be claiming you were, given that the photographs cannot be trusted? Do people scroll through their photographs on their iPhones, muttering “Oh, look at all these lies!”?

The majority of photographs are being taken in casual ways these days, with iPhones/cell phones or with little digital cameras. They’re being uploaded onto Facebook or whatever other online sites people use. Nobody loses a second of sleep over the trustworthiness of all those billions of photographs. As far as I can tell people are not awake at night, tossing and turning, losing sleep over the fact that they are misleading their friends and family with their Instagram photographs!

Of course, there are photographs that most people don’t trust, but that’s a very, very small fraction of images. For the most part, we are only talking about images used in a news or advertizing context (there is more and more overlap between those two, but let’s not go there). People don’t even worry about obviously manipulated photographs in art galleries, because nobody expects to find the truth and only the truth in an art gallery. It’s very important to realize this, because most writers about photography will tell you that people mistrust photographs. As a blanket statement that’s simply baloney. It’s taking what we know from a tiny little corner of the photographic universe, to apply it to the rest.

So when Rozzo argues that digital photography has changed our understanding of photography, for the most part that’s not true. In fact, since so many people take so many photographs now and happily “publish” them on the internet, we could even argue that people trust photographs more than ever: Now everybody is happily sharing their photographs with the world! Hey, world, look at these photographs! I sat in seat 34A on my flight from New York to Charlotte, and here’s a picture to prove it! (Yeah, I know, people will actually say “prove” even though we all “know” that photographs don’t prove anything - what’s wrong with people?)

This also blows a huge hole into the idea how the meaning of photographs is produced. I don’t want to spend time writing about this here. But I’m happy to argue that the meaning of a photograph is social construct. Now given that that’s the case, the fact that reality is somehow reflected in the photograph often has precious little to do with the actual meaning. Thus digital photography is not changing our perception of the world at all. You can write as much about Photoshop as you want, but the simple fact remains that most people still think that what you see in a photograph is, well, reality (even if they manipulated the photograph themselves). However, what might be changing our perception of the world are the technologies that allow us to disseminate the photographs. We just have to be careful not to confuse digital photography with the technology that disseminates it. In very few cases is there some actual overlap.

An obvious case of overlap is provided by Instagram, where the sharing is as much part of the process as the actual taking of the photographs. But when you look at Instagram photographs taken by the artiest fine-art photographers or by editorial or commercial photographer you realize that they take and use Instagram photos just like everybody else. So if there is a “mind-blowing revolution” (Rozzo; my own mind isn’t quite so blown) it has everything to do with how or where we see and share photographs. But it has pretty much nothing to do with whether or not the photographs were produced using film or a digital sensor. As I said earlier, the fact that cell phones have cameras now is actually way less important than the fact that we all carry telephones with us now (I grew up in a world where that was not the case). And I really want the means of dissemination separated from what we’re actually looking at.

We’re now left in the most curious situation where not one, but two of the most frequently made claims about photography turn out to be, well, not true. As I explained elsewhere, if everything has indeed been photographed already (let’s pretend that’s the case), the dictatorship of novelty falls away, to open up opportunities for depth and discovery. And even though it is often stated that people mistrust photography, the actual opposite is true for most areas of photography. So our post-postmodern hand-wringing about the state of the medium seems oddly out of place. At least in theory this should be the best time for photography, not one where there’s an industry of people attending “Photography is Over” seminars.

I have the feeling that we might want to move on from both the postmodern and the post-postmodern ideas of photography. The former are much more clearly formulated, while the latter are often little more than knee-jerk reactions. But we’re all very familiar with the ideas, while the actual applications in photography all too often leave quite a bit to be desired. I’m under no illusion that this proposal will get anywhere, though, because postmodern thinking is still thriving in art schools (people have tenure, ideas don’t).

But even if we ignore the fact that large parts of photography appear stuck in ideas that haven’t fully caught up with photographic reality, there is another problem, which Rozzo describes as follows

“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.” (emphases in the original)
I want to ignore the distinction between “smart-phone,” “real” and “Fine-Art” photographers here. But the main charge is quite hefty, and I agree with it. I think this is an area we need to explore and talk about as a community, even though of course we might as well acknowledge that narcissistic self-expression seems to run across what we think of our culture. Add to that the fact that on the internet, photography currently seems to focus on what I call one-liners, and we’re in a strange spot. Where is this taking us? How can we get away from this (assuming we’d want to get away from it)?

It seems that given we have the internet at our disposal we could initiate change easily. For a start, we could stop focusing on one-liners and start exploring the medium internet and how it can be used for photography. There have been some attempts, using Tumblrs; but I don’t think those ideas have been taken far enough. If you think of Magnum’s attempts to work with the medium (“Postcards from America”), it still feels way too much like a simple way to advertize something rather than an attempt to create something that, as a collection of seemingly disjointed parts, is bigger as a whole than its parts. This is most unfortunate given that Magnum managed to get a lot of exposure for the projects, something that a group of unknown photographers would have never got.

But the general idea is good, I think, and there is the core of something that a different group of people might pull off more successfully. Make no mistake, in part this would mean going back to what photographers were doing years ago, namely serializing work. Serialized work would, by construction, move away from the simple idea of daily consumption - some project today, something by somebody else tomorrow - and I believe it would thus enrich the experience of photography online. And serialized work would also subvert the Facebookization of the web - the incessant focus on PR and instant, quick excitement. Serializing work, in a meaningful way, would try to alter the attention economy - inviting viewers to move away from the incessant flood of one thing here, one thing there to seeing one thing slowly develop, over the course of days, weeks.

Of course, my suggestion will probably result in people complaining about a lack of time. Where to find the time? Well, but then let me ask you why I should care about your photography at all when you don’t have the time to engage with me or anyone else (aka your audience) on a level that deepens the understanding of your work. Isn’t that what you’d want to spend your time on? Maybe it’s time to re-think some priorities?

Other people will probably point out that we don’t seem to have the attention span for this any longer. Guess what? Nobody is too old to re-learn something. The real question is whether people have an interest in it. It’s fine if someone is not interested in this. But please don’t pretend it can’t be done.

Now if any of the above is correct (a big if for many people, I’m sure), then photography is in a pretty great state, or at least in a state that has many more possibilities than problems. I’m not going to deny the various problems (I’ve written about them). But we have a pretty amazing couple of mediums - photography and the web - at our disposal, and we seem to have run into the wrong direction.

It might be time to turn around and reject the tyranny of consumption, to instead embrace the promise of photography. And rejecting the tyranny of consumption here explicitly includes rejecting the rapid, vapid one liners our bang-bang-bang culture has come to rely on. Instead, we need to re-aim for some depth, we need to re-aim for an investigation of the medium (especially the digital part), and we need to stop all that hand-wringing about things that are only true in our very small, dingy niche of the photographic universe.

photo: Instagram image kindly provided by Andrew Hetherington - thank you!