6.14.2012

What Is Progress in Photography Today? (A Response)


Joerg Colberg published an article this week on Conscientious entitled “Photography After Photography? (A Provocation).” It’s a call to look forward in photography, to pull ourselves beyond the stasis, nostalgia, and conservatism that he suggests have lead us to a current existential crisis in the medium. He challenges us directly to confront the situation: “Who – or what – can move photography forward, looking forward?”

Colberg’s article has done its job to provoke thought on the state of the medium – I saw it reposted a dozen times yesterday – and I hope it encourages more debate on the important questions he asks.

I share a sense of (at least a degree of) crisis in contemporary photography with Colberg, but I see how we ended up with this crisis slightly differently. In this article I’ll look at this difference, then – more importantly - move on to the challenge of his question.

Colberg writes about how photographers liberated painting from the “existential burden to depict” and asks who – or what – will do that for photography. My view is that this has already happened with the revolution brought on by video in the 1960s. I see the contemporary problem of stasis actually resting in a sense of exhaustion in the exploration of the medium itself and the possibilities of form and content in the ensuing 50 years, as well as a dependence on outdated models for measuring progress in the medium.

In the 1960s video removed photography from its primary role in the depiction of events in a way similar to what photography did for painting at the turn of the century. This process started with JFK’s assassination and the advent of television as a primary vehicle for relating news events. Since then, photography has largely moved into a role of meditation on events and their aftermath and has also increasingly explored itself and its properties (there are a number of other reasons for this as well beyond this conversation). In the same way photography allowed painting to move ahead, to break down boundaries of color and line and form and eventually the canvas itself, video has done something similar for photography.

In response to this liberation, over the last 50 years photographers have pushed and pulled the boundaries of the medium in terms of technology, form, and content. We have fought for color photographs as fine art, made prints the size of Niagara and as small as pennies, used light boxes and hung installations, crapped on photographic paper in the dark and exposed it to light, made collages and called it documentary, questioned authorship with selections of vernacular photography published under our names, and called highly-wrought HDR landscapes fine art phot...actually, thankfully we’ve left that one line standing.

During these 50 years photography has also done what every field of study or artistic practice does as it ages. It has moved beyond major foundational discoveries, innovations, and bodies of work into investigations of increasingly specific minutia. Just like today’s new biology Ph.D. with a dissertation on the communal migratory patterns of an obscure bird, we’ve photographed the micro-corners and social margins of the globe as part of our exploration and expansion of the boundaries of photography, from the Shaolin Monks of Mexico to the Nannies of Patagonia.

We have explored the medium itself, accepted and explored new technologies in photography, broken almost all formal taboos and explored almost all manner of minutia of content; the question becomes...what next?

With more and more photographers and less and less space in the medium in which to break any fresh ground, and considering the medium has long defined progress by innovation and the “new thing,” where are we headed? With everything photographed, as Colberg writes, where does a sense of progress come from?

Is this the death of a medium as some commentators on photography have theorized? My reply, at least, is only if we view today’s medium with the mentality of the past.

Beginning when Alfred Stieglitz fought to elevate photography to an art form, all the way through the revolutions that video enabled, we have hinged a sense of movement and progress in photography on a series of ruptures of technology, form, and content – the liberation of color, the push against depicting lived reality, the advent of the digital age. The problem and root cause of today’s sense of stasis is that we continue to look almost exclusively for further ruptures to see progress.

Advances in technology and form (as well as fresh content and context provided by living in an ever-changing world) can still provide a quick hit from the pipe of progress, a momentary sense of advance, but this is an increasingly difficult and somewhat desperate avenue to follow. Google Street View projects, projecting negatives onto grass as it grows, Hipstamatic, infrared aerial surveillance film – the work may push the lines a little bit further, but they are no longer part of a rebel advance, these are no longer major ruptures, we have no avant-garde.

It is vital that we have these projects and that we, as photographers, explore all avenues – we just can’t burden this work with the same expectation for a sense of progress that we’ve previously used to judge photography. Part of the reason is that modernism and post-modernism were successful projects in the sense that our mentality in contemporary society has changed: new technology, form, presentation, and content is absorbed and accepted almost immediately as familiar; additionally we have a heightened self-consciousness about the medium and its properties.

This crisis we feel is one of photography arriving at middle-age and continuing to look at it as we did when it was a teenager. Our medium is all grown up now and we need to be realistic about where it is in its trajectory.  Continuing to look for progress along these lines of rupture, seachange, and the ecstasy of the new results in all sorts of frustrating trends in contemporary photographic dialouge – from the “death of photography” to cynicism to a nostalgia for the Golden Era of growth to a conservative belief in what is possible in the medium.

So let’s get back to the question – then what IS progress in contemporary photography? Changing our model of evaluating the advance of the medium and appropriately seeing where photography is today in relation to its history. We have refined a language over the last 50 years of testing, challenging, pushing, and nurturing – now let’s define progress in terms of the increasing skill and sophistication with which we use it. A definition of progress needs to be moved to a sense of a photographer’s ability to present fresh visual conversation flowing from the creative combination and balance of technology, form, content, and a consideration of the context in which its made.

We are still far from having mastered how to do this. How many photographers are capable of a thrilling, creative, masterful employment of the elements of the language we have developed? How many provide a fresh vision by their unique play of these four cards? It’s rare in relation to the number of photographers working today. It’s an insanely fascinating, difficult game we’ve developed. There is a lot of ground still to cover in photography – it’s just not in terms of the “new” – it’s in how we combine the established variables of photography with increasing eloquence and move beyond formulaic combinations of these elements to create – in response to another question Colberg asks – a photography that is not just a new variant of the old, but instead something genuinely new.

In some ways, we’re in the strongest position we’ve ever been – we have the most at our disposal, our language is at its most highly developed. We are liberated from boundaries and limiting notions of form, we have gone through questioning the medium itself. We are free of the pressure of living with an avant-garde – we no longer have to stick to a style of working to be considered current. We can move beyond the search for new ground via technology which frequently results in work that feels gimmicky. Everything – from 35mm photographs of our cats to large-format industrial landscapes to square medium-format deadpan portraits – is equally cliché or equally full of potential for being combined eloquently into a fresh vision that we can term progress, depending on the hands its in.

We are at the moment for photography to be able to speak as eloquently and as richly as at any point in its history. Finally, our limits are ourselves. What a great time to be making photographs.