Progress and Problems, Part II

In part one of this post, I began an argument that progress still matters in art photography. Today I’m going to give that argument a little more context and tomorrow I'm going to take on questions and statements about the “digital revolution” made by Joerg Colberg in an article published on Conscientious entitled “The digital revolution has not happened (yet)?” in which he asked for responses to his writing.

Last month I wrote a post in which I agreed with Colberg that I feel a sense of crisis in contemporary photography - at least to a degree. (As an aside, stating a “shared sense of crisis” means I do not feel “all is fine” with the situation, as Colbeg suggests that I do in his subsequent post.)

I wrote this because I perceive a tension between on the one hand the legacy in our cultural psychology of living with an artistic social contract for over 500 years that calls on "progress" and unique individualism as a model for judging art and, on the other hand, historic realities - the end of the modernist avant-garde and the era of revolutions followed by the (perceived) end of the postmodern questioning of hierarchy and progress. Compounding the tension of this situation is that it is playing out against a backdrop of a number of complicating trends in contemporary photography that I will discuss tomorrow in the third part of this post.

I think there are at least three potential responses to resolving this tension between our contemporary historical moment and our cultural psychology in regards to the idea of progress.

One would be to maintain a modernist line – look for revolution, look for a singular movement, look for a rupture with the past that would signal a clear “advance” of photographic history and allow us to continue a faith in unlimited progress and the unstoppable human march defined by the modern era. Colberg’s article on the digital revolution pursues this line of searching for a way forward: “digital photography might simply be too young for us to see something that is truly revolutionary.”

A second response would be to accept the postmodern questioning of the “grand narrative” of progress in Western culture and accept an end to the idea of “progress” completely. A follow-up to Colberg’s article by photographer and writer Lloyd Spencer, for example, does just that: "Does any art need a sense of direction anymore? We are curious about change. We admire innovation but I am really not sure that the very notion of a 'forward' has not itself past its sell-by-date."

I see issues with both of these responses. With the modernist response, I think we can fairly say there’s been a wide, consensual conclusion that the age of movements and revolution is over – and the last 40 to 50 years have proven that out. This is despite the fact that in many ways Postmodernism has allowed the narrative of progress to continue for several more decades by building a contrasting position to Modernism. Ideas of “anti-progress” have been – or felt like – a continuation of the narrative of progress.

Yet backing the postmodernist anti-progress position doesn’t seem to fit the contemporary condition either. Some images remain fresh, remain aggressive, and combine existing elements to break into new visual territory. Others rehash tired visual clichés. Discoveries and evolutions in new combinations of technology, form, and content continue and do so in an ever-changing context. A skepticism of ideas of hierarchy and progress leaves us lacking a way to differentiate between these images and trends. “Does art need a sense of direction anymore?” is a great question, but I would argue the complete destruction of progress and hierarchy by postmodernism leaves us with a soup of undiscerning equality.

My proposal for a solution is what I see as the third possible response to the situation – modify the idea of progress itself to assimilate the idea that photography has become a “mature” medium while moving back from the extremes of modernism and postmodernism to swing back to a middle position between the two. This potential solution stays with the paradigm of progress and individualism, but applies that paradigm of progress to a photographer’s - not a movement's or revolution'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.

This model moves beyond the singular narrative of western progress and hierarchy, while avoiding the postmodernist credo “anything goes” which negates a sense of direction, progress, or hierarchy while providing a potential excuse to remake (and remake with irony), not innovate.

This proposal gives us a way to maintain optimism in the medium and in its future. In the same way the “anti-progress” of postmodernism can be seen as part of the narrative of progress, I think a model of “hybrid progress” in which we can accept movement forward along many visual fronts while retaining the idea that there are areas of photography more explored and exhausted than others, images more explored than others, and images better made than others strikes a balance that demands new ideas in visual creation without burdening our psychology with the idea we need revolution for progress.

Photographers can and should pursue everything. Asking how fresh and original a vision is remains a valid and fundamental question - it's just that we no longer have to ask if its following a certain mode of making images as part of the question. Ironically, after leading a ten-week discussion on Gerry Badger's book "The Pleasures of Good Photographs" on Flak Photo recently and frequently disagreeing with the author, there is a quote from the book that states what I'm saying well: "I know all art is a reassembling of preexistent signs and modes, but there are imaginative and fresh ways of doing it, and there are stale ways of doing it." (243)

Colberg wrote that my framework lacks passion and that it is “free of ambition” – I would reply that passion has no place in this – this is about assessing what’s going on objectively and proposing a way to non-cynically address the idea of crisis. And that - I would say - is easier to call too ambitious rather than not ambitious enough.

Part III will be published on Tuesday, July 17th.