In my series of posts, I’ve argued that photography, as part of the western tradition in the visual arts, needs “progress” because of its function communicating ideas within our culture. We need to create fresh, challenging work that forms new modes of speaking in order for the language to remain vital. This stands in contrast with other cultures – I used Southeast Asian art as an example - in which fidelity to existing models has been historically more important than innovation.
I’ve also suggested in my posts that photography has reached an historical moment of maturity; correspondingly, “progress” will be more incremental and will happen along many visual fronts by small groups of photographers or by individual photographers. The modernist age of revolution, movements, and the avant-garde as well as the postmodernist age of “anything goes” should be replaced by a moderated model of progress that takes into account this maturation of the medium and our contemporary historical moment.
This moderated idea of progress proposes that a photographer and their body of work be judged in relation to the innovation and strength of their own artistic proposal and their abilities to combine existing elements into innovative, exciting, fresh, and challenging images, not by any singular, overarching cultural visual agenda or idea of “progress.” Photographers and their images should be their own limiting factor, but the “progress” of the photographic language matters, and some images and projects strengthen and expand our ways of using the language more than others.
I do not hold out hope that digital photography offers us a way to return us to an era of revolutionary leaps in the photographic language itself. I see the digital “revolution” in photography rather in terms of the broader trends of the digital era. As for individual digital images and projects, however, I think Colberg has a good point in that there have not been a lot of projects taking advantage of the new ways of making images offered by digital photography.
His point – in combination with comments he has made in other posts and on Twitter – hints at a broader question about the reasons behind a sense of stagnancy in the growth of the photographic medium today. I agree with Colberg’s conclusion, at least to a degree: contemporary photography has become dominated by trends that many – but by absolutely no means all - photographers are following and there is too much backward looking. I looked at a list of eight possible ideas as to why that might be; I am sure there are more. In fact, A.D. Coleman’s writings on the problems of today’s MFA programs would be a good addition to that list – I think he has put his finger on a real issue.
These ideas of “stagnancy” and “crisis” are played out on the meta-level and about creating an atmosphere for thinking about and viewing images. There are fantastic photographers making incredible work today – I would argue perhaps more strong images and projects than at any point in history. The sense of “stagnancy” is a criticism towards SOME of today’s image-makers, but not all. It’s also a reflection of a larger cultural sense that neither modernism nor postmodernism is satisfying anymore and a reason to look for new ways of framing progress in a way that will allow us to appreciate how some photographers today ARE pushing questions and ideas in our medium that are keeping what we love to do and think about vital and relevant.
I’ve received a number of interesting emails and messages on these posts – a couple of them have raised a flag at the use of the term “progress.” In short, I agree it’s a loaded, problematic word. I have tried to use it carefully and to explain my use. I’ve couched it in quotes or tried to refer to it as “narrative of progress” because it is, at the end of the day, a cultural narrative we tell ourselves about history; there is no “fact” of a singular, linear, monolithic advance of our culture or our visual language.
When I talk about “progress,” I have used it to signify the expansion of a language, not necessarily the progression of overall quality of a particular project or photographer in relation to what came before.
For example, Robert Frank’s photographs – to use the example from one email exchange – are not necessarily progress in relation to Walker Evans’. Frank’s introduction of new ideas in how a camera could be used to expand the types of images that could be considered art helped to grow our visual language. Simply to have repeated Evans’ ideas would not have done the same. That is how I see the “progress” of a language. Other word choices – such as “evolution” - are equally loaded and problematic. I would welcome another term. After thinking a bit about it, a possible choice would be to simply use “change” instead of “progress.” It’s obviously less loaded, and gets across the idea that a language needs to keep shedding its skin and combining in new ways to avoid stagnancy and repetition.
We live in the era we live in – photography is grown up. We can choose how to judge it and talk about it, however, in a way that accepts this fact while remaining aggressive in what we demand from the medium in terms of its growth and optimistic about its future. These posts have attempted to suggest a way to do that.
I hope Colberg is right in holding out for another revolution in photography. As he says, we can’t rule this out. It would be fantastic. But I’ll go with my odds.