27 November 2012

There He Goes Again - Sean O'Hagan on the Dire State of Contemporary Photography

'The Library of Chained Books,' Hereford Cathedral, Hereford, UK, 1992.
Photograph © Chris Killip.

Every year at this time the short list is announced identifying the contenders for the Deutsche Börse photography prize. You can find the 2013 press release here. And with clockwork regularity we are immediately treated to a misguided lament from Sean O'Hagan at The Guardian. You can find this year's installment of his annual complaint here. I have commented on O'Hagan repeatedly here in the past. Our views converge nearly never.

I do think that I finally have figured out why O'Hagan's views so regularly seem misguided. Consider the opening and concluding passages from his comments on the 2013 Deutsche Börse short list:
The only surprise in the just-announced shortlist for the Deutsche Börse photography prize is the name Chris Killip. He is the only documentary photographer on the shortlist and the only one with a substantial body of work stretching back over several decades. He probably won't win. The other three contenders – Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, Mishka Henner and Cristina de Middel – are contemporary artists who use photography as part of their practice.

[. . .]

Killip is included in the Deutsche Börse shortlist for his series of photographs, What Happened/Great Britain 1970–1990?, which chronicles the decline of working-class industrial communities in the north-east. Does the Deutsche Börse photography prize 2013 shortlist reflect the state of contemporary photography? Probably. Should it be renamed the Deutsche Börse photographic prize? Yes.
I will note that virtually every year the nominating committee puts forward at least one photographer who does relatively straightforward documentary work. O'Hagan's lament is simply mistaken on that count. It is no surprise that this year's short list contains someone like Chris Killip.* That, however, distracts me from our underlying disagreement.

It strikes me that O'Hagan thinks of photography in terms of a pile of images. In that sense he misses the fundamental point (lifted from the inestimable argument of philosopher Patrick Maynard) that photography is a technology for depicting people, places, things and so on; it is a tool for making marks on surfaces, marks that we use to amplify our ability to envision and imagine the world. Having missed this point, O'Hagan goes on and on about why this or that photograph or pile thereof does not "really" count as photography. But he is missing the point in a truly fundamental way. Each of the nominees this year - Killip included - is using photography for some purpose. Failure to grasp the basic pragmatics of photography leads O'Hagan to make his truly dim closing recommendation.
* To avoid muddying the waters, let me be clear that I quite like Killip's work. Unlike O'Hagan, I simply do not think that his approach to photography exhausts the legitimate range of possibilities.

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