Book Discussion Group Recap: The "Quiet" Photograph

© Stephen Shore, Room 316, Howard Johnson's, Battle Creek, Michigan, July 6, 1973

I am joining Flak Photo and creator Andy Adams to host an online community conversation on the Flak Photo Books Facebook page focused on essays from Gerry Badger’s recently published book of essays, "The Pleasures of Good Photographs."

This public discussion provides a structured setting for expanding our understanding of the essays by reading collectively. All are welcome to join in! The conversation will continue the week of June 11th with the essay "Elliptical Narratives: Some Thoughts on the Photobook." (page 221) A full reading schedule can be found here.

I am following up on these community conversations with posts here on fototazo that will recap the ideas we discuss.  These follow-up posts will necessarily be an abbreviated selection given the length and quality of the conversation in the community discussion threads. In many cases, what arose from the conversation were questions and ideas to continue to explore, and not necessarily conclusions or consensus. My goal with these follow-up posts is to pull out threads from the weekly discussion that can be applied beyond the individual essays to inform our general understanding of the medium itself.

The follow-up post to the essay, "Literate, Authoritative, Transcendent: Walker Evans's American Photographs" can be found here and to "A Certain Sensibility: John Gossage, the Photographer as Auteur" here. This post is on "Without Author or Art: The 'Quiet' Photograph."

A dominant theme in all of this week's threads was the tone of the essay. Readers – save one - noted the more aggressive, less impartial writing in this essay.

London-based photographer Pete Massingham wrote, "It seems to me that more than anything, this essay reveals the limitations or parameters of Badger's analytical ideology. This essay is clearly riddled with contradictions and bias...Unfortunately, a subjective, emotional bias sometimes permeates through his work at the expense of critical objectivity - no matter how well it is disguised by fine words." Contributor John Armstrong added, "I sense a tinge of resentment, almost bitterness, in his book that may have to do with his perception that the artworld has definitively rejected the very kind of photography that he likes most."

 I wrote, "I keep comparing him to [Geoff] Dyer and [Robert] Adams and keep feeling like both Dyer and Adams do a great job of 'showing' the reader and letting the reader participate by observing the evidence the two writers present; I feel Badger 'tells' us the evidence and this attempt to be persuasive through force is off-putting, even for someone like myself who is sympathetic to the arguments and the positions he wants to defend."

Looking past the issues around critical objectivity in the essay, we discussed the main concept of the "quiet photograph" itself. Badger defines the term with words such as calm, modest, measured, grace, economy, and reasonable. He then reduces the work that he considers to define his term: no photography with propositions about art, no expressionist tendencies, no big prints, no heavily worked prints, no "self-consciously mediating between reality and image" (i.e. no readily apparent style).

Our conversation considered whether the "quiet photograph" was based in technique, form, or content. Armstrong wrote "I initially thought that Badger's 'quiet' thing was basically a formalist thing, i.e. defined by properties you could detect in a picture without knowing anything about the photographer or the circumstances of creation. But after reading the essay again I now think it's really mostly about that photographer's attitude towards his (Badger's preferred pronoun) practice and photography in general. I don't know whether he believes you can 'read' the attitude from the work, but my belief is that you can't."

Massingham countered, "My take on this is that the quiet photograph has everything to do with the photograph itself," and that "The quiet photograph has a lot to do with pace, not necessarily in recognising it as an example of that category, but in deciphering or appreciating its attributes."

In a corollary conversation, we discussed Badger's decision to define the quiet photograph outside of art photography. I asked whether participants thought that was problematic for us as photographers who, generally, have fought to be taken seriously as artists, not craftspeople - as peers of painters more than anything.

I also asked readers if the definition Badger employs necessarily needs to be as narrow as he makes it. Could work that shows an interest in personal expression or concerns of art be made in such a way that could be calm, meditative, honest, modest? Or is all intent towards expression necessarily "operatic," "desperate," and "arty" as Badger writes? And all photography interested in the dialogues of the art world “making noise”?

Armstrong wrote that Badger's position creates a binary choice: a photograph is either art or photography, but can't be both, and that this position is extreme.

Photographer and educator Dawn Roe agreed, "Badger’s narrow definition absolutely undercuts the usefulness of the term in question. Rejecting en masse photographs that are large in scale or engage in conceptual modes of serial imagery, for instance, disallows considerations of the relationship between form and content in this type of work – relationships that may well fall precisely under the umbrella terms set up by Badger in terms of a modest subtlety."

I added, "Badger goes awry for me when he tries to argue this set of values is unique to a very specific type of image, and then insinuates across the essay that other types of photographs cannot have those qualities - that no photograph can be 'quiet' if it deals with art or shows an expressionistic tendency; it can't be subtle, modest, restrained, that it's desperate for attention."

Finally, educator and photographer Angela Kelly wrote, "Badger in his desire to extol the virtues of the quiet photograph loses sight of his own argument offered in other chapters, and hurtles down a defensive path which is entirely unreasoned and unnecessary."

Texas-based photographer Pugilist Press countered the thoughts by writing, "The quiet photograph is narrowly defined and that at least works in favor of the essay. Narrow definitions are useful definitions. Nebulous definitions give us nothing to push against, pull along, cleave, or dissect. And to be clear, nowhere does he state that the artists or their work are neutral, he speaks of maintaining the neutrality of the camera."

The group also explored the perception that many major online forums for photography, including the Flak Photo Network and Flak Photo Books that this discussion is being held on, are slanted towards photographers making photographs, not art, at least for the terms of Badger's essay.

Pugilist Press wrote, "I think that in a space like Flak where we are all aficionados or practitioners, it is easy to forget that we exist as a bubble within the art world and though we are supposed to share space and engage in a common dialogue things have very different values inside and outside of this bubble. Names like Adams, Lyon, Gossage, Moriyama, Levitt, Parr, Evans, Shore, Winogrand are a lot more important inside than outside. Names like Demand, Wall, LaChapelle, Ruff, Sekula matter more in the wider art world. The bubble is porous and can be difficult to locate, but it is clearly there."

Armstrong introduced the idea of “static” and “dynamic” pictures with static correlated to, but not the same as, quiet photographs. He explained, "A number of people (including the teacher of a class I took a few years ago) make a distinction between static and dynamic pictures (or rather define a spectrum from totally static to highly dynamic.) It generally has to do with the sense of movement or unfolding drama in a picture, though it sometimes has a low-level cognitive aspect in how your eye floats around the picture. (In static picture it focuses on one thing or migrates from thing to thing, where as in dynamic pictures it will do a sweep along an axis).”

Puglist Press raised the issues of a "camera’s logic":

     The camera records all objects and subjects with complete neutrality. Point of view and
     allegiances are revealed by the photographer's formal decision at the moment of exposure. This
     is what I got from the essay at least, and I do think that there is something to be said for
     maintaining the way that the camera 'thinks.' You can violate that logic and still make great
     work but why accept the violations as status quo?

     This is what is happening outside of the editorial/documentary world. The violation is becoming
     the status quo, the camera's logic is bypassed more and more and for someone for a deep love
     for that type of photography this ain't exactly a golden age.

The issue of arbiters of taste was raised again, as it was with the John Gossage essay.

Massingham states, "A lot of how we perceive and what influences photographic practice and comment, is down to the critics - those aficionados of taste who, through a combination of persuasive argument and financial clout promote specific styles or approaches of work that they feel is relevant or that has mileage at any given point in cultural history." He continued by asking us, "Who are the arbiters of taste, and how do they gain prominence?"

Puglist Press responded with an interesting idea: "I don't think that the distinction [between American and European work] is Badger's. I might be completely wrong about this but I think that the distinction is actually a cultural accident. Europe never had a Szarkowski with the full weight of something like the MOMA behind him / her. That is a very singular instance and it has colored fifty years of dialogue, much of it aggressively since the 80s. I do believe that there are some definite American elements to the MOMA program but without certain key people in key places the whole thing could have evolved quite differently. Quiet photographers abound in Europe, but they were never the big names. No Szarkowski to exalt them."

Finally, we ended the week with a critique from Armstrong of Badger and his writing. He wrote:

     I believe the approach is bad for photography.

     It's a extremely conservative, even reactionary approach that seeks to return to a photographic
     age that's past, and probably for the better: a purist, parochial, exclusivist age dominated by
     formalism and detachment from / indifference to the practical realities of the world. It was the
     age of the masters, but it was also the age of the superannuated camera club, obsessing as ever
     over the issues of legitimacy and self-definition as it squirmed in its awkward middle place
     between art (i.e. painting) and popular photography. It was an age whose ideal was a form of
     photography so pure that no one except the photographers trying to make it and a few
     connoisseurs could appreciate it (or be bothered to try).

     It's not possible to return to this age because it's over. People – photographers – can try to
     recreate it, but, even if they succeed, what will they have accomplished?