Progress and Problems, Part III

In posts one and two I’ve argued progress matters in art photography, but that we need to change how we consider the idea of progress to fit the contemporary historical moment. Today I want to build on those ideas and move into an article by Joerg Colberg on Conscientious that has generated conversation entitled "The digital revolution has not happened (yet)."

Colberg’s post boils down to an intriguing question: just where are the digital-based projects that take advantage of the inherent properties offered by a new technology to push the boundaries of the medium in ways not possible with analog?

I’d like to respond by first framing expectations. Whatever truly revolutionary element I would hold out for in the digital era for photography I would place in the broader impact of digital technology on the field and culture, and not in the actual making of images.

The digital era has brought massive change to photography, in how we make images and how we distribute images. Given this is obvious, let’s just list a few changes, some of which Colberg mentions in his article as well: the rise of citizen photojournalism, online image sharing, an exponential increase in images created, the further democratization of photography by lowering the bar of technical proficiency and costs, the embedding of metadata in images, and the explosion in the number of photographers considering themselves professional and the subsequent destruction of the traditional commercial photography market.

The main consequences of the digital era on photography have been broadly established by now and will continue to profoundly influence our medium for decades. This – in my view – was the “revolution” part of the digital revolution. No sense messing around with words, let’s light the fire: I believe that the “digital revolution” has largely happened already in photography through broader impacts on the field, not the actual production of individual projects and images.

In terms of projects and image-production, digital forms another link in an ongoing historical chain - dry plates, Brownie, Leica, Polaroid, etc. - and now digital. This chain has been about making cameras smaller, cheaper, more portable, and easier to use and digital has generally been developed, approached, and used in line with these expectations of previous new technologies. All have tried to maintain the quality of image of previous generations of cameras as much as possible while making photography more convenient. The Brownie, for example, put a camera in a lot more middle-class hands; that was its revolution. Similarly, dry plates eliminated the hassle of mixing chemicals in the field allowing more people to take more photographs and for them to travel to new places to take them. This was its revolution; not a particular photographer or project.

So in terms of expectations from a digital revolution, I'm not holding out for something shockingly new and shiny in terms of a project or image or a new genre of photography. What I hope for is an increase in the use of digital photography to create new form and content that harnesses the advantages of a new technology to speak in a new way that move the lines of visual communication forwards. I think that is possible with individual photographers and projects.

This brings us back to Colberg's question: where ARE the projects taking advantage of the properties of this new technology to create content? He’s on to something. There aren’t many.

As an exercise – how many 35mm digital photography fine art projects can you think of? And inside of that group, how many could not have been made with an analog camera and how many are actually using the new opportunities digital offers to create images (not including post-production manipulation that’s a whole other conversation)?

Not many. Why is this?

First off, this question doesn't ask about projects investigating the medium itself – projects where the subject is digital glitch or fringing, halos and strange digital color. Those types of projects are horrible necessary investigations of technology, but aren’t what we’re getting at.  There are a number of these projects already, and I believe projects where technology is also the subject are of limited potential as an avenue headed “forward” because they don’t use the new technology to say something new in terms of visual communication.

In exchange, going with Colberg's example of Nan Goldin we have someone who used the advantages of a smaller, cheaper, more portable technology to work with her everyday life and relationships. That’s what we’re after – the weaving of technological change into new form and content, projects that have been allowed by a technology that are not exploring the media itself, but exploiting the smaller size and increased portability and new aesthetic features of the newest camera evolution to create fresh visual communication.

There are some great projects that work with digital cameras, though not perhaps as many as you would expect. Elinor Carucci, Mark Powell, Phil Toledano to start a list. These projects, however, don’t answer Colberg’s call to take advantage of the inherent possibilites of digital – all could have been made with analog. One project that I believe DOES use digital capabilities to create new content is “a shimmer of possibility.” Paul Graham uses the high burst capability of the digital camera to create questions around “the moment,” framing, and the relationship of cameras to cinema that would have been hard, if not impossible, to pull off with an analog camera and a motor drive. This, however, even if true, is an exception to the rule.

Part of the reason might be the fact that digital cameras haven’t completely followed the trends of technological innovations of the past. Digital SLR cameras are not actually cheaper, more portable, or smaller than analog cameras. Only digital point-and-shoots and cell phone cameras continue the technological trend of smaller, cheaper, more portable and those cameras, at this point, continue to have fairly severe quality limitations. Perhaps when time brings them more quality, projects will be generated that use their inherent abilities to provide new form and content. Additionally, the larger digital SLR’s do offer ISO advantages, burst modes, perhaps facial recognition technology...but we’ll run out of items on this list quickly. Digital isn’t THAT much different from analog in terms of the ways a camera makes images.

Moving beyond a few speculations around the new technology itself, I think we are more likely to find answers hidden in the implied question behind Colberg’s question. He uses the conversation around the lack of projects taking advantage of digital properties to hint at something broader - why does photography feel “stagnant and anemic” today?

A qualifying statement is necessarily before I reply. First, there are a lot of great images being created right now, as Colberg says as well in his post. I would say there are probably more quality images being made today than at any point in history on a year-to-year basis give the sheer volume of photographers, the level of visual sophistication we’ve developed during the last 150 years, and the variety of modes of working available to us today as established over the course of photographic history.

So the question of “stagnant and anemic” isn’t about the quality of images; I think it's rather about the way those images relate very closely to images of the past and to each other, about how they orient themselves. Why do we seem to see the same projects over and over? The same types of images? And especially when we’ve just been handed a major new technological toy?

As I’ve said in parts I and II of this post, there needs to be an understanding that progress will be more limited in photography as photography grows older as a medium, and that progress is about a creation of fresh modes of working and visual communication by a photographer, not a movement. The situation needs to be considered correctly in terms of expectation and history.

That being said, let’s get to a list of possible answers to Colberg's question that I hope will provide for reply posts and further conversation on other sites. I would eventually like to expand on some of the following points as well as separate posts.

Not in any particular order:

1. Group-think due to social media and the centralization of information. As a cut-and-paste from a question I asked Blake Andrews in an interview recently: The social dynamic of the photography community in comparison with other visual art forms is a very particular and highly developed one. There are very few painting or sculpture blogs in comparison with photography blogs. Photographers also seem to me much more active on Twitter and other social media forms than other visual artists. And I'm not aware of an equivalent to online discussion spaces like the Flak Photo Network for other art forms.

With all this in mind, I think of a quote from a recent interview with photographer Gregory Halpern: "Photographers can sometimes be the most conservative and least ambitious of visual artists."

I'm wondering if all this connectivity, all this common intake of information, all this drinking from the same well results to a degree in homogeneity of thought and more of a tendency for group-think than other artists in other art forms. Why is the photography community so integrated socially as compared with other mediums? Is this something that makes us more prone to being conservative in our thinking, to homogenization and to group-think?

2. The limited guardians of the gate. Photographers attend reviews that don't exist for other art forms that in large part are about networking. Many of the same reviewers appear at Santa Fe, Photolucida, FotoFest, etc. The number of major photography blogs is actually fairly small, a dozen or two. Thankfully we’re not in the John Szarkowski era (nothing against him at all) in which a single person is really the definer of what is considered quality and contemporary in photography. However, the people in charge of selecting work to show in well-considered venues is not very large – and they mostly know each other and I believe are influenced at least to a degree by each other. We remain a community of too few guardians, and a lot of those guardians have a fairly similar vision.

If you give me a photograph, I think I can pretty much tell you if a certain blog or reviewer or gallerist or editor will respond to it and thereby predict your “success.” On top of that - and this is where the problem lies - the image's chances of success are fairly consistent across many of those venues. Seen a lot of the same names across a lot of sites, galleries, and at the top of awards lists? Out of hundreds of thousands of photographers? That’s not good.

3. Issues in the broader cultural zeitgeist. As John Armstrong noted in the recent Flak Photo Books conversation based in Gerry Badger’s “The Pleasure of Good Photographs” and as Colberg noted in his reference to Simon Reynolds, there is an almost fascinating lack of cultural movement in the 2000s across all disciplines, not just photography.

Think of how quickly you can associate music and art and a cultural atmosphere with the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s...now try the 2000s. It’s not for a lack of issues – September 11th, Obama, the Arab Spring, the US involvement in two wars, global warming, religious warfare, the dawn of smart phones.

4. The Numbers Game. I am not sure how the increase in the number of photographers is actually affecting photography production, but I am sure that it is.

On one hand, I can believe that to differentiate themselves, photographers are more than ever searching for new modes, new forms, new ground in order to claim space in the contemporary landscape.

On the other hand, I can equally believe photographers are scared by the numbers game into conservatism. To find acceptance and modest reward, I think a lot of photographers ape a type of work they’ve seen, ending with a formulaic conservatism to their visual ideas. This gives the impression of seeing the same project repeatedly, or seeing an image and being able to believe one of three dozen photographers could have produced it.

5. The Moat Theory. I believe part of why the art world sticks to medium and large format film has to do with keeping a barrier between themselves and the masses. How do you create a unique visional idea against the billions of digital images created every day, many of which will be more interesting than what any one single photographer can make? By not playing the game and keeping away from digital completely. Stay with equipment that’s more expensive and less convenient and therefore less used that produces a different “look” from the masses. The flip side to this is a lot of art photography is now using the same tools resulting in a similar look, even with a wider choice of potential tools.

This also, helpfully, allows us to produce larger prints that gallery’s can then theoretically make more money from, making us a more marketable commodity.

6. Problems of geographic diversity. Who’s your favorite Colombian photographer? Favorite Israeli? Favorite Egyptian? Favorite Brazilian...that's not named Salgado or Rio Branco? Ironically, in the digital era of information-sharing, there is far too little work being produced outside of the US and Europe being seen internationally. How many photo blogs focus on South America? On Africa? On South Asia?

Living in Colombia, I can say first-hand that it’s to a degree about volume and quality of production, but that the bigger problem is that what is being produced is not being distributed. The last true barrier in photography is geography.

Sadly, I also believe the aforementioned moat theory, to the degree that it's true, also has an unintended consequence. The line drawn between art photography and the digital masses also largely cuts off the international photography world who works digitally and in 35mm, resulting in a more homogenized photographic vision. Photographers from parts of the world beyond the US and Europe are frequently cut off from medium and large format as a possible mode of working by a lack of ability to purchase and use supplies. As a case study, I live in a Latin American city of over two million people and there is not one lab in the city for me to develop medium or large format film. I believe this results in work from these areas being seen by some - but absolutely not all - venues as less serious.

7. The Hustle. Photographers are being increasingly asked to pay for promotional materials by galleries, pay to publish our books, pay for portfolio reviews, pay for contests, pay for the chance to have someone look at our work, rent the gallery space...all of these expenditures may be making us more conservative in terms of what we produce, especially in combination with the idea of the limited number of guardians of the gates. Given how expensive photography is as a medium and how more and more expenses are being shifted to photographers from galleries and publishers, it makes sense to make your expenditures count by looking at present models of success and producing work you believe a gallery will be interested in showing or a publisher in publishing.

8. The Watered Down Theory. It’s possible that there is just as much imagery being created that is pushing against trends and creating visual progress, but that today we have to sift through so much material that it feels like stagnancy.

This is a starting point list of possible ideas; I'm sure that there is more to be added. This post has gotten long - I will cut this off here, but will make a summary post taking into account all three of these other posts hopefully later this week.