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Photography on the Couch.

November 14th, 2011

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?

12 Responses to “Photography on the Couch.”

  1. Rob Boler

    I don’t want to see anyone thrown out of a job, but I’d say that rights have to be earned, and the problems (I refuse to use the business-speak-crap ‘challenges’) brought about by changes in photography are little different to the problems faced by all sectors of society. And apart from the speed, is there anything significantly different nowdays to how change has always been?

    The ones who survive are those who adapt. In addition, changing situations always open up new avenues, which are as available to existing togs as the new.

    From my point of view, there are certain pro’s (such as those in the press and war categories), that the great unwashed like myself could never ever match in terms of competence, determination, bravery, etc. But there are plenty of pro’s who I feel are on thin ice. So instead of getting upset about new kids on the block, or, those who want nothing more than their 15 minutes of fame (like myself, I admit), I think it would be better for such pro’s to assess their relevance to the ‘new’ world, and, continue to prove that they are still the best people for the job.

  2. Nick

    Rob, my argument/observation above is not really about jobs in terms of paid work it’s more about roles, the role of photographer and if it’s still a relevant definition, even the war photographers you mention couldn’t compete with the twitter reports and images coming out of Egypt for example.

    You are right that “those who survive are those who adapt”, I am asking if adaptation means doing something else altogether because photography has reached it’s creative and technical limits, it’s not progressing, it’s topped out as in my mushroom cloud metaphor.

  3. john lizarazo

    Nick you bring up an interesting point.. “photography has reached it’s creative and technical limits, it’s not progressing, it’s topped out…” This may be true for the genres in photography, but not images themselves. As society changes, perceptions change, and an image is all about the photographer’s and the audience’s perception. Photographic creativity will be alive and well 50 years down the road. Photographic genres may be the same in the future, which in a sense adheres to your point – the genres are maxed out, that could be why it may seem we’re not getting anywhere creatively after such an explosion of images in the past 100 years.

    The larger idea about the role of photographer in the future.. its a tough question to answer. I imagine we’re at a point right before the equilibrium of the photographic job market (and in a much larger sense, the transition between analog and digital). I believe somebody’s personal visual language (how they would literally interpret things visually given an idea) will become much more prominent …. after all photography is just a new way of communicating, just much more stylistically 8-)

  4. Adriana Almagro

    Personally, I think that besides technological, marketing, and laboral changes (but not excluding them from, and always in relation with, this vertiginous situation), I wonder what is changing deeper in the relationship with the image, as editors, photographers, readers, as public? … as people who think that has something to say with their pictures: which was the relation that we supposed to have with the image until now? Because it seems to be something lost, or at least something out of order…something like social sence set (even a commercial sence) lost…which generates a big uncertainty about those new relations under construction now…

  5. Blake

    Great drawings, Nick. Are they yours.

  6. Nick

    Thanks John, I think changing society will always provide new subjects and stories and of course every individual photographer has their own unique vision and approach…and that will, I am sure, continue but anyone and everyone is now telling these stories and being an artist/communicator with the camera….there’s no quality control, its ‘all good’.

    I see people with absolutely no experience teaching photography and people with shocking folios of work offering workshops or giving folio reviews, it all goes these days….and that’s fine..but it does result in a ‘dumb democracy of photography’.

    Where’s the quality? show me the quality?

    Blake…I commissioned my in-house illustrator, you should get one.

  7. Joseph Camosy

    I’ll proffer a prediction:

    The way forward for photography will be as a language in a post-post modern world. The next great leap forward awaits the arrival of a language which allows for shared subjectivity and perspectives. The current explosion of photography has the effect of making everyone a photographer, which means that everyone is now on the fast track for learning the basics of visual literacy and criticism. No longer mere consumers of images, but now as makers of images, everyone is becoming “literate.”

    But what are people trying to say? We have multiplicity upon multiplicity, but eventually this chaos will become self-organizing and patterns will either be revealed, OR some bright folks will come up with a paradigm which can show the organizing patterns in the mass of confused, broken and subjective imagery being created by everyone. What is subjectively interesting is the charged image. With mass photography, the individually subjective becomes manifested collectively and fed back. When this phenomenon is understood, photography will be able to take on new functions, perhaps even as a kind of psychopomp.


  8. David Simonton

    “I’m not so sure we need photographers anymore…”

    Say what?

  9. Christophe Dillinger

    hasn’t really been a progression of styles, just refinements, which little by little has brought it nearer to other art forms.
    Nowadays, art is multidisciplinarian. Artists work with sculpture and sound, with installation and painting, with participatory events and film. They feel that there is not one media that can on its own translate their need for communication and creativity.
    Photography needs to follow this path, I think, in order to remain valid as an art form and not becoming sclerosed, ending up as a poor, diluted tool to show reality. This is being done by people reworking photographs, or taking photographs of processes and concepts, or manipulating the media in a non photographic way. Photography, I feel, needs to become part of something, it needs to allow itself to lose its pretension to unicity and lose its -probably undeserved- status of priviledged visual media. It needs humility.

  10. David Simonton

    Photography-for-photography’s-sake will never be irrelevant. Neither will music, dance, literature, painting, etcetera, etcetera. And those forms rarely if ever have had to withstand the onslaught of diminishment and misunderstanding the medium of photography has.

    Photographers (some of whom consider themselves to be artists) think and feel that what we are doing is challenging, fulfilling, worthwhile, and important, if only to us; and something we are willing to “risk [our] lives on,” to borrow a phrase from the photographer (and MacArthur Foundation Fellow) Robert Adams.

    The fact is that photography—straight photography—is a respectable medium. And serious people take it seriously: “[It] is simultaneously photography’s great advantage and its Achilles’ heel: that it is the easiest medium in which to be competent. Anybody can be a marginally capable photographer, but it takes a lot of work to learn to become even a competent painter. Now, having said that, I think that while photography is the easiest medium in which to be competent, it is probably the hardest one in which to develop an idiosyncratic personal vision.” —Chuck Close

    “Photography has reached its creative and technical limits.” Even if that’s the case (which, given the medium’s history, is unlikely) it is so beside the point! The reach of human creativity, no matter an artist’s tools, is limitless.

    There is yet another move afoot to belittle the medium. But today, at a point in time when peopl supposedly in the know should know better, it’s even worse. While we’re at it, some naysayers are saying, let’s obliterate the history of photography as well.

    A contributor over on The Online Photographer recently contended, “I would suggest that in time, people like [Alfred] Steiglitz, Minor White, Harry Callahan, Robert Mapplethorpe and others will be lost in time….” In response some commenters proceeded to congratulate him for his “courage” in doing so! When the foundation of one’s argument is built on the remains of what has just been torn down, well, it’s a sad day for discourse on this honorable art form.

    And what’s that you say, Mr. Dillinger? That photography needs to be more humble? Might I suggest in turn that y’all go find yourself another whipping boy.

    Photography—art photography, photography-for-photography’s-sake—is not going away any time soon. Its practitioners appreciate its complexity. Simplistic arguments and assessments simply don’t do it justice. But photography is tough, and toughened—it will survive this latest round of trivialization and dismissal.

  11. Photography In The Digital Age

    […] good food for thought. From Nick Turpin's website, "sevensevennine" (779) Photography on the Couch | nick turpin on street photography Blog Archive Photography on the Couch. I just wanted to share this with fellow DPS'ers who may be wondering about the future of […]

  12. Peter Haken

    Great comments , opinions…Photography will always have a place… some images are once in a lifetime snap shot, if they were not captured photographically then they would only last in that persons eyes. Equipment gets better and better every year..we all just have to be more creative.

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