Ping Pong with Michael Itkoff, Round 3



Round three of the ping-pong chats with Daylight Magazine’s Michael Itkoff centers on what comes - or might come - out of the impact of technology, the web and the Great Recession on photography. (more; image courtesy Douglas Ljungkvist)

Jörg Colberg: In our last conversation you brought up that SFMoMA panel asking “Is Photography Over?” I’ve never understood how that question makes even any sense - photography seems more alive than ever to me - so maybe I can find out from you why photography might be over or dead?

Michael Itkoff: A lot of interesting thoughts were aired at the symposium but I think the question may be overly hyperbolic. If anything, we are entering an era of visual saturation where photographic expression is becoming nearly as commonplace as the written word. Perhaps, in that sense, the notion of photography as distinct from other notational strategies may be in the process of becoming outmoded. Check out the popularity of iPhone apps like Moe’s Notes which allows the user to casually record an image, written notes, video, audio and even a GPS location in seconds. Suddenly the flaneur is a gumshoe and the derive is directed (by satellite)!

Digital technology has greatly effected the industry and employment of the photographic image but surely this has not ‘killed’ the medium. Visual information is being recorded and shared in ever more cavalier and intimate ways which will continue to impact the arenas of cultural production, including the worlds of art and photography. In my opinion, the increasing prevalence of photographs in communication will increase our reliance on, and the power of, the photographic still.

Of course, many newer models of digital SLRs capture HD video in addition to stills with beautiful clarity which may threaten the hegemony of the static image. I am intrigued by work that seems to fall in between the still and moving image (like Warhol’s screen tests to take one example). What are your thoughts on the photographic still versus moving image?

JC: In 1981, Bill Gates supposedly said “640K ought to be enough for anybody.” He denies that he did, but we could easily find other predictions about the future that involved technology and that in retrospect look incredibly foolish. That’s one of the reasons why I’m so skeptical of all those claims about photography and digital technology, about whether, for example, the iPad is going to vastly change how we view photography. I do believe that we will probably witness some changes brought by digital technologies, but I think if we want to say something about what they will really be we better wait and see.

I think that photography is doing just fine. In fact, I don’t think there has ever been a better time for photography. I know, there is a lot of nostalgia about photography from the past, and supposedly we’re now being flooded with photography, but I really can’t figure out what the problem is supposed to be. As much as I like to look at some of the classic photography, the idea of going back to a time where all you can see are small, grainy b/w prints on the wall makes me, well, shudder.

I don’t think that video will have much of an impact on photography. I really don’t. All those SLRs with their HD video basically are produced because camera makers have run out of options what to add on to their devices to justify having yet another camera model out. Here’s the thing. There’s a reason why when you go to an art school, you have to pick whether you want to do photography or film making. I’m not very comfortable with the idea that photographers might now think they’re all film makers just because their cameras allows to do them that. Becoming a good photographer is an incredibly painful and tough process, and the same is true for becoming a good film maker. It’s possible that there will be some people who will excel making videos and shooting stills, but I think those people will be the rare exception. And, frankly, I’d rather not see a good photographer becoming a mediocre film maker.

I’m curious now, in what ways do you see the still image evolving or changing?

MI: Thats a toughie for sure! I certainly agree with your point about the different challenges facing photographers and filmmakers but am confident that the trickle down technology will help to drive forward the creative possibilities. Witness the ease and accessibility of digital video vs. 35mm film. Of course, it means there is plenty more crap produced but also that more people have the ability to play with the mediums and, possibly, stumble into brilliance. The dangers of plurality in this age of amateurism are clear but, speaking personally, my forays into video have only furthered my understanding of the photograph.

In terms of the evolution of the still image there are a lot of ways I could foresee things developing. To take one tack, I would say that we are moving towards the visual depiction of everything, a true simulacra (this TED talk on Photosynth is a bit dated but still fascinating…) That said, the technological trend toward increasing information is clear-more megapixels on each subsequent model of camera. Clifford Ross’s work seems to anticipate this obsession and I am also reminded of the Powers of Ten project.

Each time I look at the Empire State Building and catch a flashbulb pop I take pleasure in the fact that somewhere in that anonymous tourists snapshot is my smiling mug. But there is also something disturbing about appearing in hundreds of photographs just by walking around a popular tourist spot like Times Square. The political implications of sousveillance are exciting but give me a break…

I am digressing but I think the trend toward the increasing depiction of visual information has created a counter-trend toward the minimal/conceptual and the abstract. In the near future both areas will prove ripe areas to explore. There are also the social ramifications of self-representative activity to consider in relation to our late-capitalist society. The boundaries between commercial aesthetics and artistic practices are continuing to blur into the realm of fine art. The superflattening trajectory of art and commerce strikes me as dangerous terrain - especially when artists depend on the vicissitudes of the larger economic system for their ‘goods’ to be ‘traded’.

In any case one thing is sure, the reliance on fickle fads is folly. What are your thoughts on this? Are there any recent trends in photography you find particularly egregious?

JC: It might be just me getting older, but I don’t really worry about what you call “fickle fads” any longer. Fickle fads, after all, have one redeeming quality: If you just wait a little bit, they’ll go away. What is more, one of Newton’s laws of gravity seems to be valid here, too: for every thing happening, there is something else happening that pushes against that.

And what eventually happens always ends up being just so much more mundane. In that sense, we are really living more in a kind of Philip K. Dick world. In Dick’s novels, there exists a lot of future technology, but all the rest is just like in our own lives. So there are automatic sliding doors that can speak, but they’re coin-operated. To make matters worse, if you’re out of cash and try to talk the door into opening, you’ll have to have an argument with a door about how you’re always out of cash etc. And that’s what make that kind of science-fiction so believable - after all, when you have to “talk” to an voice-controlled “customer service” unit on the phone (“Your name is Shmurglepurtz. If this is correct, say ‘yes’”) that’s proto-Dickean, isn’t it?

80% of all new technology seems designed simply to annoy us - or maybe that’s just because I never read any manuals. But the remaining 20% are where it gets interesting. So for example, taking images of some location from all over the web and then constructing some virtual reality from that, for me is part of the 80%. Looking at some constructed image of, say, a place like New York’s Times Square isn’t even close to what it feels like and looks like to be there. But I can’t wait to see what the 20% of that application might be. Or maybe I should say that it’s 19% and 1%, because the 1% is what truly creative artists produce, that’s the counter-push I was talking about above. That’s where the fun is.

So you’re right, there is a lot of problematic stuff in the photo world. But at the same time people are working on all these great new ways of producing images. And great images will always be great images. I don’t know what it is. I almost want to think that humans have lived with images for such a long time that the way images work has been stamped into their brains. That might not be true (because there haven’t been enough generations since the earliest cave paintings), but it would explain why images have such power over us.

I mean if you think of Sergey Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, when you watch the scene where the baby stroller rolls down the stairs, that works in completely different ways than the still image of the screaming nurse that was shot through the head. There’s a whole different quality in that image. That quality will always be there, regardless of what kind of technology people will have at their disposal.

But something that does bother me a lot is how art and commerce have become more or less inseparable. I noted that Daylight offers grants and prizes - but somehow, you need to raise the money to be able to hand it out. How is that working out? How much time do you actually have to spend on fundraising? And has this become harder in this “Great Recession”?

MI: I love that scene in Battleship Potemkin. I do believe that photographs can effect us in profoundly visceral ways and we can learn much about the world through images themselves, whether as a result of evolutionary hard-wiring or simply the efficacy of photographs to provide a semblance of reality. Humans are not alone in being swayed, check out this video of an octopus responding to video. The simulations used in military training and virtual reality experiments often employ the most simplistic imagery to profound effect.

To answer your question, as Daylight is a non-profit organization with NEA support, I like to envision its relationship with the larger economic system as a snake eating its own tail. We help put money back into the industry directly in the form of cash awards but also in the form of content generation and distribution. Of course, we do rely on the photographic community for support by, for example, requiring submitting photographers to purchase a copy of the magazine. We could certainly put more energy into development work but, in the context of the financial downturn, survival is success. Sure, the material rewards are few but having the privilege to work with images and ideas is incredibly fulfilling in its own right.

I feel as if there may actually be more opportunities created by the cultural belt tightening, not least in the way of alternative venues for the exhibition and distribution of photographs. While institutions large and small feel the pinch its truly an exciting time to be operating in the margins. Have you come across any promising projects (photographic or otherwise) that have arisen as a result of the recession?

JC: Apart from some gallerists now offering portfolio reviews and courses I haven’t. Whether it’s a good idea to target artists in a recession to generate income I don’t know. But I’ve noticed this trend more and more recently, that it’s artists who end up paying. You only have to look at newspapers - the corporations behind them rake in decent profits, but the rates for photographers are being cut. I’ve heard of a blogger charging photographers to list them. Make no mistake, I know very well that bloggers have to make some money, but charging the photographers - instead of, say, the photo editors who use the blog to find photographers… That’s the part of the commercialization of photography that irks me the most: Somehow, it always seems as if photographers end up paying.

From talking with people I know I’m not alone with this sentiment, but you don’t hear it much in public. When I speak with commercial or editorial photographers, many of them are complaining about the conditions of their work getting worse and worse, but there always seems to be someone who is willing to photograph for even less. As long as that’s happening things obviously won’t improve for photographers. And of course, there now is the vast pool of the general public, where someone will be only too happy to sell a lucky photo to a newspaper for a soggy sandwich and the three seconds of perceived fame.

I’m mostly dealing with the art world, of course, but it’s not a paradise for photographers there, either. But I have to say, some people just started doing things, regardless of whether times are bad or not. It seems to me that independent book publishing has recently become more and more attractive for people. I’m not talking about on-demand here, I’m talking about people producing their own books, using small printers etc. I love that. In fact, I’m working on doing it myself.

That’s one of those things where the internet has really been helping people: If you produce a book and you think there must be fifty people who will buy it, it’s much easier to find those fifty people now. There’s the Independent Photo Book blog Hester Keijser and I started, and from what we’ve heard people are selling books as a consequence of having it listed there.

So that’s kind of the exact opposite of that whole iPad business: A lot of people are talking about how the iPad will transform photography (I can’t wait for the Dickean reality of the iPad!), and there are all those other people, producing actual books, on actual paper, some of them even on paper usually used for newspapers, to disseminate their work. Beautiful!

There would be a considerable irony in physical objects becoming more popular as the world as a whole moves to the web - of course, I have no way of knowing what things will look like in twenty or even fifty years.

But regardless of how this will develop, the big question always will be how this all will be funded, and I’m pretty pessimistic about that right now. The recession hasn’t exactly helped people, and it looks as if even under a supposedly marginally “liberal” government, the US budget for the arts will basically remain very, very low. So it’ll all come down to the private sector - will the web transform arts funding? Will it help arts funding?

MI: I think of Paypal donation buttons, internet research tools, and track-able 990 forms and it quickly becomes clear that arts funding has been transformed by the web. If you are speaking specifically about corporate support for the arts I would venture to say that its not really a part of most companies philanthropic concerns. Most companies satisfy their charitable giving needs by implementing volunteer programs with their employees in local communities where the business is based. Those companies that do become involved in support for the arts usually do so by way of collecting which is great for the artist but, of course, the relationship between corporate art collections and exhibiting institutions contains its own problematics.

I love the Independant Photo Book effort and the push-back towards physicality has a lot of momentum right now. Perhaps with print on demand publishing it is becoming possible to bypass these institutions altogether. Or, better yet, a middle ground can be posited, an interface between the institution and the individual where the strengths of both can complement each other… I also take issue with the financial burden being layed by institutions on the photographer to publish, exhibit, and promote work. Nonetheless, large editions of printed matter remain one of the hardest things to find funding for and the unique independently produced publication really depends upon word of mouth (publicity) and distribution to see the light of day.

This weekend at the NYPH I saw an interesting presentation of books at the DutchDoc!Space. Book covers were held to the wall by metal brackets allowing viewers to flip through without shoving it down their pants. The editions were expensive so this seemed to be a happy medium of giving viewers a sense of (slightly frustrated) tangibility. The panel discussion between Jason Houston (from Orion Magazine) and Eirik Johnson was also pretty interesting. In addition to all of the exhibitions it was super fun to catch up with some old friends.

(Brian Ulrich toots his horn or Late Night with Brian Ulrich)

It was good to run into you there, did anything cool catch your eye in DUMBO or over in Chelsea?

JC: I loved DutchDoc!Space - I thought it was one of the two highlights of the festival (Kessels’ show was the other one). Let me come back briefly to art funding. I think there’s a fundamental problem here, and of course it’s very possible that I’m simply not getting it. But what I seem to be sensing is that photography (and art in general, but let’s focus on photography) somehow is not relevant enough for it to be one of those things that really needs to get funded. And I do understand that, at least to a certain extent. What bothers me, though, is that a lot of people think that funding art basically means supporting hoity-toity people who work on irrelevant or offensive bullshit. That’s the essence of right-wing talking points.

But I find it shocking how mainstream that idea really has become. It’s almost one of those jokes that you can tell if you don’t know your audience, but you’re aiming for a laugh. Of course, there are some of those hoity-toity people around; but I’d be more than happy to argue that the majority of photographers are not working on something that’s just irrelevant, quite on the contrary. There are so many photographers who work on projects that really contribute - or actually could contribute - a lot to our culture, and who have to struggle to get by.

I really think we - the people who are covering photography in some way (you via Daylight, me via the blog) - have the obligation to try to get the word out what funding for photography is really all about. Which is, of course, a tough sell. But it’s important, because indirectly, funding photography actually does contribute to trying to make this world a better place. There, I said it. How successful photography is to achieve that goal we talked about earlier. I don’t know. But just over the past few weeks I’ve come across a number of amazingly talented young artists who have been working on things that simply blew my mind. And I find it important to hold up those artists as examples of what the funding of photography will do: It will not only help those artists, but it will also allow each and every one of us to be exposed to amazing photography, photography that will transform us.

MI: I like what you are saying about the massive influence/relevance of photography in helping transform our experience of the world - in this we agree completely. I think the argument about what is or is not relevant or a contribution to culture becomes a bit tricky but its worth a look. In terms of lobbying for the power of photography there was recently a great initiative at the Smithsonian called click! Photography Changes Everything which features short essays that highlight how ‘photography changes our world’. Im also a sucker for the Pictures that Changed the World books. They serve as ammunition for my general belief in the centrality of images in todays world. Plenty of schools are now offering Visual Studies or Media Studies programs that look specifically at this issue as well.

Back to relevance: in my mind almost every image has some sort of statement to make, a contribution, if you will. The question is: what’s at stake? What’s being said? Is the image, or the publication, simply propping up a life of vapid consumption? Relying on textured surfaces or celebrity skin to sell ever more product to ever more people? So much of what is being produced today, from slick fashion spreads to explorations of the medium itself, seems to skirt around meaning while replacing it with ironic references and winkwink allusions. I am not making an argument for didactic politically oriented work so much as I am arguing against work that celebrates—revels in—the status quo of surface. Youth culture is more than clothes, more than a Bacchanalia of excessive consumption. Lifestyle photography can be amazing but, more often than not, its saccharin sweetness makes me slightly nauseous. As does paparazzi work. As does most (not all) fashion. But these genres are hardly irrelevant.

The question is, relevant to what? And to whom? And why? And what of relevance without referent - where does abstraction fit?

JC: This is a whole ‘nother can of worms here, isn’t it? I personally prefer to stay away from such debates, though, mostly for two reasons. First, while I have some ideas what is relevant other people might simply disagree. And spending time on debating what is relevant is one of those meta-debates that carries a significant risk of endless naval-gazing (“Is photography over?”). Second, I sometimes find that what I think of as irrelevant ends up having some sort of relevance anyway, often in ways that nobody can foresee. It’s art we’re dealing with here, and art often tends to behave in very surprising ways. So I usually don’t think too much whether something is relevant.

It is true, the consumption might be very vapid, but that’s just the way it is. That’s our society. That’s the choices we made, and we can’t switch them off by means of photography. It would take a lot more than a change in photography to move us away from vapid consumption - for example, the technical gizmos we talked about earlier are all about vapid consumption. An iPhone spot on TV is basically only about all the great things you can buy after you spent money on your iPhone (and “service” plan, which is incredibly expensive).

I do believe that trying to make people feel bad about their choices is not a good approach. They feel pretty bad already, and the last thing they need is a reminder. This brings me to a point, something I’ve seen various times online recently, where people complained about some photographers not making their point of view more obvious. The argument is that, essentially, photographers who don’t openly say “This subject matter is just terrible” are trying to get away with something. And I don’t think that’s necessarily true. While there are some people who might be wishy-washy enough, contemporary photography lives from not preaching and from trusting the audience to come to their own conclusions - which might even different from what the photographer had in mind.

So what I’m thinking is that instead of having more debates about relevant photography and how to educate people about the evils of the world, we actually need to have less of that, trust viewers more, and instead focus on bringing more work in front of people. I’m sure you disagree with that, don’t you?

MI: No not necessarily. The Chris Jordan work we spoke of in an earlier discussion may be more pointed than Eirik Johnson’s but it is debatable which is actually more effective at conveying an idea. I think that relevance is an appropriate term to describe work that interests me: photography that is somehow engaged with the world. There are many ways to think around and visually share ideas which is why the job never gets old - i love to look and i love to learn.

I believe in allowing viewers to make interpretations but I probably would not say that I implicitly ‘trust’ them to properly read and understand an image without contextual support or elucidation. I dont think that ‘more work’ is the answer and it is really our job to provide a context where quality work can be curated and showcased. Our contribution, in addition to simply hosting material, is (through our selection) to share a value system based on our interests and intent.

Our society may seem to be irreversibly oriented around consumption but I do not believe this is a permanent condition inherent to civilization or even capitalism. The gospel of consumption is undeniably sweeping the world-the citizens of ‘developing’ countries surely envy our easy excess and disposability-but there are other ways to exist. My friend Phil on the Akwasasne Mohawk reservation told me of the Great Law of the Iroqious which focuses decision-making around what would most benefit those seven generations in the future. This mindset, which posits humans as stewards, would help clarify the myopic, short-term, profit-based thinking endemic to modernity.

With the rise of digital technology information has become one of the most highly prized commodities, and rightly so. Knowledge is limitless and infinitely reproducible. The fact that we are all now writing and photographing may make us more mindful of the relationship between labor and production. Despite Apple’s emulation of traditional economic models of planned obsolescence I feel strongly that digital technology, and a society oriented around information sharing, will move inevitably towards sustainability.

Perhaps our love of the photographic image will allow us to continue to consume something that has less environmental impact and is more sustainable. On sale now: A new image! A new idea! Appearing on computers made with 100% post-consumer recycled cardboard via the global data cloud…