OpEd: Getting Drunk at Photography’s Funeral

“To that I say Photography has always been an unwelcome bedfellow to Art, which is for most of the world irrelevant, and Photography has been, and remains, relevant. So, if it’s over then the issue has to be looked at as either a precursor to the demise of Art’s sanctity, or the liberation of Photography from the threadbare criteria that Art History has imposed.” – Philip-Lorca diCorcia

After a nice walk around Greenpoint, I bought a cheap bottle of wine to mourn the death of photography.  I’m not really sad but death is scary, and alcohol makes the scary go away at times.  I read all of these short essays and arrived at two conclusions:

  1. Some of the essays were written by individuals that are clearly more educated than I.
  2. Geoffrey Dyer and Phillip-Lorca diCorcia speak a language I can understand.

Given these conclusions, I think it’d be best if I attempted to address option number 2.  Last week Paul Graham’s essay was a spark that caught on amongst photographers and photography enthusiasts. I’m always interested to see how these mini-memes travel around the web, especially in the tight living quarters that photography inhabits.  I always try to make connections between these memes to see if a bigger idea is swirling around.  I don’t have clear evidence, only hunches, hearsay and speculation, but my intuition is pointing in a certain direction.

When I look in that direction I see that photographers who appreciate, are obsessed with, and passionate about ‘straight photography’ are realizing there’s something happening on the web.  Sure, you can attempt to get involved in the larger fine art conversation, and make the case for ‘photography’ but why waste the energy?  Especially when you can connect with your audience directly through the web?  What’s more important? Fine art legitimacy or connecting with people who find value in your work and appreciate it?

This is a game that has been played out already in the music industry and more and more in the film industry.  You can spend your time, effort and money to buy a chance at making a splash or you can grind it out and build your audience individual by individual.  It’s certainly a gamble.  But I wonder what the ultimate rewards are.  Even if you make a splash, get a big gallery show, sell some prints and receive validation, the machinery will ask, what’s next?  More than likely a huge amount of pressure coming up with something to maintain your status. Because that’s what the machinery demands.  If you can’t supply it, there are plenty of eager photographers nipping at your heals.

I don’t have any problems with taking this path, I just question whether when it’s achieved if it’s as fulfilling as people suspect.  So what about the alternative?  How do you sustain yourself by building support through the web?  I’m not sure. If I had a secret ingredient I’d write a book and charge everyone for it, since the “how to make money online” industry seems be where it’s at.  What I do know is that building connections with people that appreciate your work is rewarding.  Participating is rewarding.  Shooting the shit is rewarding.  Collaborating is rewarding.  Speculating on the future is rewarding.  Self-publishing your work is rewarding.  The game is rewarding.

“If people have spoken of photography being “over” they tend to use the word in the way that Joseph Keiley (one of Stieglitz’s spokesmen) did in a 1906 issue of Camera Work when he said “the real battle for the recognition of pictorial photography is over.” This seems apposite in that the history of photography is the history of victories won and goals achieved. If photography is over it may be because of the thoroughness of its victories; like some warlord or general habituated to a life of battle there are no more wars to be fought.” – Geoff Dyer

Being a bit of a digital utopian, I can’t help but be optimistic despite my pessimistic disposition.  Photographers are winning the war.  The fact that someone like me could write a post like this and even reach ten people who might care and agree is testament to the power that can be harnessed through the web.  Every day I chat with photographers who are doing things, organizing shows, editing Flickr groups, developing ideas for magazines, showing new work in embryonic stages, connecting with new photographers, and on and on.

I’ve been working on an LPV feature with a photographer whose been photographing for 30+ years.  He discovered Flickr a year or so ago and has been showing work from the archives as well as new work.  Since he’s jumped online, he’s been re-invigorated.  Photography has always been alive with him, but this new outlet has sparked something within him.  And it’s not about gallery shows or widespread recognition, for him it’s about the “camaraderie and energy you get photographing with like-minded souls.”

la fotografía es la vida, la vida es un juego

  • http://bryanformhals.com/ Bryan Formhals

    @Jade: Thanks. I do most of my writing here. I do have a blog but it’s mostly dedicated to my own work, and such things…

  • Jade

    @Bryan, I just loved reading your lament, your quasi-rant and or manifesto above. Do you have a blog anywhere? I’ll check further above but you certainly posted a good one here. Write-on!

  • Jade

    How can the statement: “photography is over” be true when the new photography and imaging is just beginning at the start of a new century in a new millennium? We have new technology and it only perfects on a frequent basis, imaging capabilities photographers a hundred years ago could only dream. It is thrilling to be alive … See More during this time and to participate in creating with the new digital technology and with the use of very affordable equipment at that. We need to respect the past and treasure black and white and the pioneers who lived and created a hundred years ago and look forward to creating the new photography and imaging for the next one hundred years and beyond. One time period and group of pioneers, male and female builds beautifully on the other, today and going forward in the future. By the way and contrary to popular belief, Jazz music is not dead either :)

  • http://www.ianaleksanderadams.com Ian Aleksander Adams

    aren’t there museums just for painting? or just for woodcuts? Assemblages only?

    I think photography has been just another tool for a long long time.

  • chuck

    I didn’t work my way through all of those, although I’m amazed at how little the verbiage has changed in the 30 years since I was in grad school (how many times can you use the word “reification” in a paragraph? Well, not fair, since I actually thought Beshty made a lot useful points.) I think what this boils down to for me and maybe others not in the academic sphere is that if photography just becomes another tool in the box of art media – it doesn’t get its own department/gallery/section – those of us not really interested in creating in other media and worse, mainly interested in shooting once and not staging/compositing/printing on concrete, whatever, will be condemned to the world of the Totally Uninteresting. Not even just the utilitarian, but almost all the way to useless. I know that’s irrational and demonstrably not true, but there’s something about the whole, probably pointless, discussion that makes me feel that way. I like the analogy to music and film and I do believe that the web has created something that nettles academia (seen in terms of its business interests) in that it represents the return of the citizen artist. Lawrence Lessig is fun to read and listen to about this stuff.

  • http://bryanformhals.com/ Bryan Formhals


    Maybe I’m taking that for granted? But it’s certainly at the core of everything. If you can’t find the joy in simply walking out your door and making photographs, then everything else is rather pointless.

    Just being out there searching for, and making photographs is the most rewarding part of photography for me.

  • http://mjulius.com Michael Julius

    Very nice essay, Brian.

    Maybe it’s a given but I would add that taking pictures needs to be rewarding. It seems strange that it’s not in that list.

  • http://www.andresalegria.com/blog/ andrés alegría

    i concur and feel much the same way. i think a key point here is, “the game is rewarding.” it is (as long as the term “game” isn’t taken out of context). participation is rewarding, encouraging, and engrossing. and the more it is, the more the war is won. and the more the war is won, the less relevant it becomes, at least for those winning. who are, by definition, tending to be in the majority. then, though that conversation may continue (or not), it ceases to be important.

  • http://www.camdenhardy.com Camden Hardy

    I would argue that photographers have already won the proverbial battle. We’ve already been accepted under the umbrella of “art”; the problem is that there is a rather vocal group of photographers who didn’t get the memo. The result seems to be a self-ostracizing effect that became painfully obvious to me at SPE this year. I’m beginning to feel like I no longer belong to the photography culture.

    What I’m seeing in academia as a grad student is that the segregation between photography and other “art” is strongly discouraged, which is how I think it should be. By continuing the conversation of photography as “the other”, we’re not really helping the cause; we’re merely perpetuating the problem. The sooner photographers stop outing themselves and just join the party, the better.