Nobody could say that Photography wasn’t thriving, it is cheap, easy and accessible to make, simple to share and distribute around the world in seconds. Photography has become a central part of our online social experience, the general public are doing workshops, talking about photography on forums and twitter, publishing books of their own photographs through online platforms, some are even selling their weekend snaps through Getty and other image libraries. Everyone is a Photographer.
Imagine a world were we can all solder copper pipe together and fit a radiator, the job of ‘plumber’ would cease to exist….is that what has happened to the Photographer?
Certainly professional commercial photographers are struggling in a reduced market but the crisis with photography goes far beyond that, the role of photography as a cultural entity has and is changing, those of us who love the power of the still photograph are operating in a world where everyone is re-evaluating the value and role of the photograph, what it can and should still be required to do, what opportunities still remain to contribute to it’s historical legacy in a meaningful and not just gimmicky, attention grabbing way.
The development of photography over the last hundred years has been dynamic, thrusting and progressive, like an atomic explosion of creative energy, photographers building on and reacting to what has preceded them. From early explorations of the possibilities of the medium to document, record and communicate our world through a subjective use of the camera to comment and express ourselves, upwards it continued…through large scale German deadpan objectivity, back again to the US and a decade of Staged Narrative creations and expanding out into a huge broad mushroom cloud of manipulation, citizen journalism, recycling and remixing, flickr, Blurb and the era of ‘Everyone as Photographer’. A huge democratic ubiquitous cloud of digital imagery available to all continually expanding outwards, blocking out the sun, bigger and more stifling with each new day, no longer individually observable images with their own qualities but an amorphous unedited mass no longer thrusting upwards with power and energy and direction but spreading out, copying, replicating and engulfing everything.
The detonation of photography is over and around the world photographers, curators, gallerists, publishers, commentators, reviewers and festival organisers are all asking…What Now?
In April 2010 SFMOMA held a symposium asking ‘Is Photography Over’ , this year the Aperture Foundation ran an event titled ‘What Matters Now’, at this years Arles Photography Festival was the exhibition ‘From Here On’ and this week FOAM gallery exhibits ‘What’s Next’ an installation of all the photographs uploaded to flickr in 24 hrs.
Photography is not Dead, it’s just having an identity crisis.
“What is the value of continuing to speak of photography as a specific practice or discipline?” SFMOMA summit.
Photography is clearly in a time of self interrogation and questioning, it seems no longer to be clear what a good photograph is, what the values, significance or meaning of a good photograph of the future might be. There is a sense that there may no longer be a role for what were specialist ‘practitioners’ of photography because there are no longer good or bad photographs. There are so many Photography awards, grants, competitions, festivals, exhibitions, magazines, books, Apps and so much noise about the medium that nothing can be hailed as special or significant or as contributing. New projects and stories are launched, spread, discussed, digested and disappear back into the mushroom cloud inside 24hrs if they are lucky. This then raises the role of the expert, we are all experts and none of us are experts because in the mushroom cloud of photography we are all blind and disoriented.
'What's Next?' Image Courtesy of FOAM via Creative Review.
The situation reminds me a little of when people talk about global warming and pollution destroying the Earth, I always think, the Earth will be absolutely fine, it’s the humans you need to worry about….well I think Photography is going to be fine but I’m not so sure we need photographers anymore or anyone to tell us what’s worth looking at.
The Aperture Foundation event in September this year sought ‘Proposals for a New Front Page’ implying that there was no longer anywhere to go for a consensus of what was ‘important’, there was no longer a Front Page. Now that we are all producers of photographs we are also the active curators/aggregators of our own photographic rosters of photographers and galleries of images, we favourite and share and link and tweet the pictures that move us so that we can return to them and express our curatorial choice to our peers. As Steve Mayes, the Director of VII and a participant in the ‘What Matters Now’ event concludes “an active reader (viewer) is what matters now” in the creation of their own “individualized front page”. The net gives us the tools to reach into the billowing mushroom cloud of imagery and select, link to and order images from it for ourselves. The schooled curators of institutions no longer earnestly present photography to us, we reach in and take what we want and reject what we don’t want.
This environment leaves the traditional creators of photographic images in a new and challenging position, I’m not talking here about the commercial formula photographers that shoot cars, packshots and girls in frocks….I’m talking about those who have something to say with the medium apart from ‘buy me’. I have noticed recently a lot of very self conscious photographic projects that are trying to get noticed by being crazy or shocking in a simillar way to what we saw in Art when it was floundering. There is something immature about this constantly pushing on photography’s boundaries like a teenager.
Like all of the ‘Photography on the Couch’ style events I listed, this post will end on the fence without offering a way forward. It may sound like I am griping about the situation when in fact I am not. It remains a fantastic time full of opportunities for young photographers, it’s just that those photographers may work in chemists, wait tables or manage databases instead of having studied photography and they already have a following for their work online and almost certainly the Directors and Curators at SFMOMA, Aperture Foundation, Arles Festival or FOAM will never have heard of them. The days of institutions led by John Szarkowski like characters directing the medium with their offers of shows are long gone. In this era we all elevate the worthy with the click of the mouse.
UPDATE: David Campbell visited some of these ideas in July in his post: Photographic anxiety: should we worry about image abundance?