I met Amelia Coffaro two years ago when she invited me to review at the ASMP fine art portfolio review. We’ve stayed in regular touch since then and would meet up every few months to catch up. She’s from Wisconsin, I’m from Minnesota so we both spoke midwestern. A couple weeks ago we met for a drink in Park Slope and chatted about photography, astronomy and the busyness of life in New York. She mentioned that she was flying back home to visit the doctor, which concerned me of course.
Last week she learned that she has Stage III Inflammatory Breast Cancer. She’s 28 and doesn’t have health insurance, like many freelancers in New York’s creative industry . Now she needs our help. Our mutual friend, the talented Elizabeth Griffin has done a wonderful job organizing Project Amelia. That’s where you can DONATE money to help her offset the costs of her expensive treatment. If nothing more, please consider liking Project Amelia on Facebook.
Amelia is a kind, generous, creative soul with big plans for her life. Right now, she can use all the support she can get from photoland.
Image Saturation, The Internet, and the Anxiety About It All
We need to realize that whatever we want to call this activity – selecting, editing, curating – it needs to be at a core of something that will take us – and photography itself – to a new level, a level beyond the shallow, mindless consumption of photographs that the representation of the medium on the internet has turned into!
How to proceed? I don’t want to pretend I have the answer. There is no such thing as the answer. Instead, I want to propose one answer, one approach to evaluating photographing, because that is what we have to do: We have to evaluate photography, make a decision about what deserves to be seen more widely and, crucially, what does not deserve to be seen more widely.
One of the criteria I often employ when looking at photography is to ask: What is at stake here? What is at stake for the photographer, what is at stake for the viewer?
My feeling is that anxiety about too many images takes its particular form from the specific technological and cultural situation at a given time, but is at heart more or less a constant: to put it crudely, the problem is that photography and related technologies have a disruptive impact on what is special. (There’s probably a better term, but I can’t think of it offhand.)
A special person or place, when subjected to mass reproduction and distribution in image form, may become less special, or the way in which it is special, and to whom, can be totally transformed. A special image — whether distinguished by technical innovation or the artist’s style or perceptiveness — is easily mimicked, which eventually removes the special, distinct quality of it, aside from its historical precedence. The stunning moment of beauty and insight becomes the standard subject.
Of course, this effect is inextricable from the basic appeal of photography in the first place, which from the beginning has included the (relative) ease, affordability, and reproducibility of the images it makes possible. The camera has always been a turnkey solution to the problem of the unique. It disrupts the economy of meaning that determines what is special, because it is and always has been a tool for exactly that purpose.
Of course, the presence of perennial problems and purposes does not mean the medium stands still. Rather, they play a persistent part in shaping its progress, for better or worse. I think proliferation anxiety tends to drive a kind of arms race of innovation — an always-escalating quest for new or new-seeming or newly-rediscovered subjects and techniques to distinguish the photographer who puts them to use before they have a chance to become cliches.
Unfortunately, different parts of the audience relate to the medium differently, and react to to its changes at different rates. A great deal of effort and attention goes into knowing what things to be over, and when. And when it comes to rediscovering the old — well, it can get awkward when one person’s current/continuing practice is someone else’s antique novelty. Under such conditions, it’s inevitable that photography’s audiences will grow farther apart, and their vocabularies, judgments, and desires become less mutually intelligible.
I think in the case of photography as art, the result is an incentive to move toward the abstract, the conceptual, and the technical, farther afield from the common use of photographic tools — and away from the devaluing impact of naive imitation by the masses. That certainly seems to be an implication (spoken or unspoken) behind some of the predicted futures of photography. (Alternatively, of course, the naive products of the masses can be laundered back into relevance through appropriation by some credentialed party.)
Like most of us, I have different criteria for evaluating photography depending on the context and genre. On the web, it can certainly get confusing, but rapid consumption on the web doesn’t bother me, in fact I enjoy it. Viewing photographs on the web is only one aspect of my experience with photography though. I don’t need the web to fulfill all of my photographic needs and I’d never expect it to do so.
There are going to be more magazines and more Tumblr’s, and they’re going to cultivate their own criteria for what has value and what has meaning. Some will be interesting and some will be redundant and not so interesting. What’s at stake is different for different people. I’d rather embrace that diversity and deal with some mindless consumption, than have a few authoritative sources determining it for me.
Can the process of publishing and sharing on the web be refined? Certainly. We need to keep experimenting and adopting new best practices. Its been this way for at least the last 12 years. Perhaps we’re at a turning point but I don’t think so. I think we’ll be discussing these issues for the foreseeable future.
Links of Note
I am left wondering if there is anything that the editors of Aperture don’t find to their liking, so that what they may regard as their openmindedness eventually seems a little like mindlessness. The issue is titled “Hello, Photography,” and I detect a note of desperation in the forced jollity of that greeting, as if photography were some monster to be assuaged with a show of good cheer. The desperation is not unfounded, because in a world where photographic images are ubiquitous a photography magazine can seem redundant if not irrelevant.
Frederick Sommer, a photographer whose work is sometimes as remote from ordinary reality as anything dreamed up in the digitalized imaginations on display in the new issue ofAperture, announced in Aperture in 1971 that “It is with sensitized surfaces, rather than with photography itself, that I am concerned. The sensitized surface has an honesty, an inevitableness; it just can’t do anything else.” Of course the literally sensitized surface was a function of the old analog photographic technology, and that is more and more a thing of the past, although there are stalwart practitioners and there will continue to be. Nevertheless, I think that something in Sommer’s idea of the essential sensitivity of photography as a method and a medium offers a key to the future.
What is lacking in a lot of the new digital hi-jinks is precisely this abiding sensitivity to the way that the world affects the artist.
In the opening of Issue 6, I ask ‘what’s the point of a photography magazine?’ I’m not sure my essay will answer that question, but it will illuminate the direction I see LPV going the next few years.
Not necessarily. Blogging can be a comfortable pursuit. By that I mean you can have total control over what you publish. There’s no rule to say that comfort should be disrupted.
That said, if blogging becomes too isolating then I think you might be missing out. But, most bloggers I know have increased their activities out in the world due to their online pursuits.
[Bryan] Formhals at LPV produces a magazine. Tony Fouhse has just released the photobook Live Through This, which for years was just a blog project. Joerg [Colberg, of Conscientious] emphasizes the importance of the photobook to his students; he is a teacher at Hartford because of the reputation he built through Conscientious. Roger May, I just heard, is working on a book. John Edwin Mason should definitely curate a photography exhibition; it’d be flawless and challenging. BagNewsNotes runs salons and public lectures. Maybe your question is phrased incorrectly? I think bloggers are trying their hand at a whole host of other formats. And I applaud them.
If we look at it another way, I think it is a good challenge for anyone who is looking at a lot of photography and/or issues to think about structuring information. We all want to have an impact right? Well that depends not only on the content and the message but how it is delivered. I think our community of photobloggers have learnt from one another and many are well placed to try anything they want to put their minds to. Hell, they’ve got the passion and the discipline.
The digital age has complicated the issue of distance from such scenes by bringing more of them to light but with lower personal risk and involvement. Professional photographers no longer have to gamble their lives in war zones, and we don’t have to pay publications to show them to us. Anyone with a cell phone and a Twitter account can report in real time from a battle front, as has been happening in Syria.
Frank spent his time off wandering New York and photographing what he found. “Like a boxer trains for a fight,” Frank says, a photographer needs to practice by getting out and taking pictures every day. “It doesn’t matter how many he takes or if he takes any at all. It gets you prepared to know what you should take pictures of or what is the right thing to do and when.
I fully embrace terms like “documentary fiction,” “post-documentary,” “expanded documentary,” etc. The thing that’s worth pointing out with these terms is that fiction is more of a frame than anything else. The problem with work that purports to have documentary intention is that the work adheres to unrealistic and slippery definitions, codes, ethics, and assumptions. Social documentary work tries to evade these adherences by foregrounding narrative and human qualities, the implication being that the emotional tenor helps expand what we might consider to be documentary.
The death of the “decisive moment” has been on the tongues of writers for years. “F/8 and be there” would be replaced with simply “be there.” In a way, it turns photojournalism into even more of an extreme sport. You don’t have to worry about using the camera, you just have to be willing to put yourself into increasingly harsh environments to get images of things that would likely otherwise go unrecorded. In fact, some photojos have been using camera phones in conflict zones simply to help them blend in better. This is further along in the evolution.
Clayton Cubitt: I think photography is moving towards seamlessness. The future of photography won’t be about capturing a decisive moment by timing a shot perfectly. Cameras will capture everything – thirty or sixty frames per second. Then you choose. Like a DVR for life.
Tokion Magazine: Doesn’t that sound like cheating?
Clayton Cubitt: If you think a photographer’s creativity comes from their shutter finger, then it’s cheating. But if you think the creativity comes from the setup, the perspective, from the editing and the craft, then I think it’s no big deal.
How to explain Magnum’s willingness to compromise its integrity? It’s directly related, I think, to the crisis in photojournalism. Agency revenues have fallen off the cliff. Jobs for photographers are all too scarce. Nobody’s quite sure what to do next.
The ideas of Antonio Gramsci, the great Italian activist and political philosopher, can point the way. In an effort to explain the political turmoil that led to the rise of fascism, he said that: The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.
Gramsci was writing about a very different sort of crisis — there are no fascists here. But, asSteve Jones has suggested, his ideas are certainly useful when thinking about crises in, say, popular culture. That is, we shouldn’t be surprised that morbid symptoms appear as photographers and photo agencies struggle to adapt to the crisis caused by decline of newspapers and magazines and the rise of the internet, social media, and citizen journalism.
- David Lynch Talks About His 99 Favorite Photographs at Paris Photo 2012 [Open Culture]
- ‘Revealing the Beauty, Wonder, and Struggle Within Everyday Life: Interview with “Oculi”, Australian Photography Collective’ [Erik Kim Blog]
- “Elliott Erwitt: My Photographic Home” [Leica Blog]
- ‘The Very Rapid Rise of the Very Precocious Photographer Olivia Bee’ [The Cut]
- “Swiss photographer in legal battle to publish photobook” [BJP]
- “The Last Clinic Highlights Evaporating Abortion Rights in the U.S.” [Raw File]
- “Stop Talking Shit About Stock Photography” [Hyperallergic]