05 December 2007

"I don't want to go on the cart" ~ Is Photography Dead?

What follows is a brief essay from Newsweek~ "Is Photography Dead? ~ that is, I think, interesting insofar as the author grapples with matters of truth and fiction in photography in reasonably sensible ways and does so in a mass-circulation periodical. The essay was prompted by two current exhibitions (mentioned by the author) and is accompanied by a slideshow of images taken from the shows.

I think the concerns the author raises revolve around how we understand the genuinely theoretical difficulties that inflect common conceptions of "truth" and "reality" and "fiction." This is a topic that I hope to take up in the near future. Let's just say here that when photography emerged in the mid-19th Century, its practitioners adopted traditional conceptions of truth that would shortly be called into question by pragmatists like Charles Peirce and John Dewey whose work has been revitalized in different ways by contemporary philosophers like Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam. The pragmatist view has never adequately been taken up into the conventional practices of either photographers and critics.

For now, I want to leave you with this scene from Monty Python & the Holy Grail:

The Dead Collector: "Bring out yer dead." [a man puts a body on the cart]
Large Man with Dead Body: "Here's one."
The Dead Collector: "That'll be ninepence."
The Dead Body That Claims It Isn't: "I'm not dead."
The Dead Collector: "What?"
Large Man with Dead Body: "Nothing. There's your ninepence."
The Dead Body That Claims It Isn't: "I'm not dead."
The Dead Collector: "'Ere, he says he's not dead."
Large Man with Dead Body: "Yes he is."
The Dead Body That Claims It Isn't: "I'm not."
The Dead Collector: "He isn't."
Large Man with Dead Body: "Well, he will be soon, he's very ill."
The Dead Body That Claims It Isn't: "I'm getting better."
Large Man with Dead Body: "No you're not, you'll be stone dead in a moment."
The Dead Collector: "Well, I can't take him like that. It's against regulations."
The Dead Body That Claims It Isn't: "I don't want to go on the cart."
Large Man with Dead Body: "Oh, don't be such a baby."
The Dead Collector: "I can't take him."
The Dead Body That Claims It Isn't: "I feel fine."
Large Man with Dead Body: "Oh, do me a favor."
The Dead Collector: "I can't."
Large Man with Dead Body: "Well, can you hang around for a couple of minutes? He won't be long."
The Dead Collector: "I promised I'd be at the Robinsons'. They've lost nine today."
Large Man with Dead Body: "Well, when's your next round?"
The Dead Collector: "Thursday."
The Dead Body That Claims It Isn't: "I think I'll go for a walk."
Large Man with Dead Body: "You're not fooling anyone, you know. Isn't there anything you could do?"
The Dead Body That Claims It Isn't: "I feel happy. I feel happy."
[The Dead Collector glances up and down the street furtively, then silences the Body with his a whack of his club]
Large Man with Dead Body: "Ah, thank you very much."
The Dead Collector: "Not at all. See you on Thursday."
Large Man with Dead Body: "Right!"

Any effort to pronounce a large-scale social, political and artistic practice such as photography "dead," predictably will elicit comic replies. I suspect that Mr. Plagens will be asking plaintively if the 'Dead Collector' can indeed come back Thursday for many weeks into the future.

Is Photography Dead?
By Peter Plagens | NEWSWEEK
Dec 10, 2007 Issue

How is that even remotely possible? The medium certainly looks alive, well and, if anything, overpopulated. There are hordes of photographers out there, working with back-to-basics pinhole cameras and pixeled images measured in gigabytes, with street photography taken by cell phones and massive photo "shoots" whose crews, complexity and expense resemble those of movie sets. Step into almost any serious art gallery in Chelsea, Santa Monica or Mayfair and you're likely to be greeted with breathtaking large-format color photographs, such as Andreas Gefeller's overhead views of parking lots digitally montaged from thousands of individual shots or Didier Massard's completely "fabricated photographs" of phantasmagoric landscapes. And the establishment's seal of approval for photography has been renewed in two current museum exhibitions. In "Depth of Field"— the first installation in the new contemporary-photography galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, on display through March 23—the fare includes Thomas Struth's hyperdetailed chromogenic print of the interior of San Zaccaria in Venice and Adam Fuss's exposure of a piece of photo paper floating in water to a simultaneous splash and strobe. At the National Gallery of Art in Washington, "The Art of the American Snapshot, 1888–1978" (up through Dec. 31) celebrates average Americans who wielded their Brownies and Instamatics to stunning effect.

Yet wandering the galleries of these two shows, you can't help but wonder if the entire medium hasn't fractured itself beyond all recognition. Sculpture did the same thing a while back, so that now "sculpture" can indicate a hole in the ground as readily as a bronze statue. Digitalization has made much of art photography's vast variety possible. But it's also a major reason that, 25 years after the technology exploded what photography could do and be, the medium seems to have lost its soul. Film photography's artistic cachet was always that no matter how much darkroom fiddling someone added to a photograph, the picture was, at its core, a record of something real that occurred in front of the camera. A digital photograph, on the other hand, can be a Photoshop fairy tale, containing only a tiny trace of a small fragment of reality. By now, we've witnessed all the magical morphing and seen all the clever tricks that have turned so many photographers—formerly bearers of truth—into conjurers of fiction. It's hard to say "gee whiz" anymore.

Art and truth used to be fast friends. Until the beginning of modernism, the most admired quality in Western art was mimesis—objects in painting and sculpture closely resembling things in real life. William Henry Fox Talbot, who produced the first photographic prints from a negative in 1839, immediately saw the mimetic new medium as an art form. Talbot wanted only to be able to "draw" more accurately than by hand. In fact, he called his first book of reproduced photographs "The Pencil of Nature." For at least a century thereafter, any photograph with a claim to being art had in its DNA at least a few chromosomes from Talbot's "The Open Door" (1844), a picture of a tree-branch broom leaning just-so-esthetically against a dark doorway. Of course, great photographers have never merely recorded visual facts indiscriminately, like a court stenographer taking down testimony. They've selected their subjects carefully and framed their views of them precisely, in order to give their pictures the look of "art." Later in the 19th century, "pictorialist" photographers used soft focus, toothy paper, sepia tones, multiple negatives and even scratching back into the image as ways of getting photographs to look more like paintings.

Soon, photography escaped the exclusive grasp of the professionals and moneyed hobbyists who could afford its cumbersome equipment, and the public began to take its own pictures. In the 1920s, small, inexpensive fast-shutter cameras like the Kodak Brownie appeared. By 1950, according to Kodak, nearly three quarters of American families owned cameras and took 2 billion photographs with them. By the 1970s, they were taking 9 billion pictures a year, most of them quick, informal snapshots. To be sure, some masterpieces did emerge—mostly accidentally—from this Everest-size heap of images. The person who pointed his Brownie at the woman in "Unknown [photographer], 1950s" in "The Art of the American Snapshot" probably didn't anticipate that she'd cover her face with her hands just as he clicked the shutter. And he (or she) couldn't predict that the result would be a great composition—long fingers and angular elbows set against the gentle downhill sweep of a field—and a wonderful metaphor for photography's tango with the truth. What the inadvertently great snapshot shared with the work of realist artist-photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans in the 1930s and '40s, and Diane Arbus and Robert Frank in the 1950s and '60s, was that the people in them were who they looked like they were—raw-boned farmers, gritty miners, harried housewives, burly bikers—really doing what they looked like they were doing.

In the late 1970s, however, the concept of fiction in photography reared its little postmodern head. "The big change in attitude from realist photography," says Lawrence Miller, who owns a prominent photography gallery in New York, "was when Metro Pictures [one of the hippest galleries in SoHo] showed Cindy Sherman in 1980." Sherman's fictional self-portraits—fake "film stills" with the artist posed as a negligeed blonde on a bed, or a dark-haired femme fatale in a chic apartment—weren't photography's first turn away from the straight, nonfiction reportage most people think of as great photography. But her pictures represented something new in the way that photography was considered as art. It wasn't just for reportage anymore. The Talbotian esthetic door was now fully opened for photographers to make photographs just as well as to take them. The advent of digital technology only exacerbated photography's flight into fable.

We live in a culture dominated by pixels, increasingly unmoored from corporeal reality. Movies are stuffed with CGI and, in such "performance animation" films as "Beowulf," overwhelmed by them. Some big pop-music hits are so cyberized the singer might as well be telling you to press 1 if you know your party's extension. Even sculpture has adopted digital "rapid prototyping" technology that allows whatever a programmer can imagine to be translated into 3-D objects in plastic. Why should photography be any different? Why shouldn't it give in to the digital temptation to make every landscape shot look like the most absolutely beautiful scenery in the whole history of the universe, or turn every urban view into a high-rise fantasy?

Photography is finally escaping any dependence on what is in front of a lens, but it comes at the price of its special claim on a viewer's attention as "evidence" rooted in reality. As gallery material, photographs are now essentially no different from paintings concocted entirely from an artist's imagination, except that they lack painting's manual touch and surface variation. As the great modern photographer Lisette Model once said, "Photography is the easiest art, which perhaps makes it the hardest." She had no idea how easy exotic effects would get, and just how hard that would make it to capture beauty and truth in the same photograph. The next great photographers—if there are to be any—will have to find a way to reclaim photography's special link to reality. And they'll have to do it in a brand-new way.

© Newsweek, Inc.

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Blogger Keith Dannemiller said...

Photography's 'special link to reality' lies in it's accuracy, but that has nothing to do with the truth.

Keith Dannemiller

05 December, 2007 14:22  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Keith, Thanks for the comment. I'm interested to know if you can cash out the notion of accuracy in a way that does not ultimately invoke some conception of objectivity, reality and ultimately truth or truthfulness. Jim

05 December, 2007 14:43  
Anonymous oneeyeskinny said...

*I want to bring Hand Tinting back in the main stream. Since we have our computers and high tech soft ware we fail to realize that computer generated imagery or photos are not the same as in the past. The reason is, that the computer lacks Zone "A" and Zone "B". Its merely a copy. All computer generated photos or prints will oxidize or fade. The sole purpose of making Photographs are to record and document historical events. Archiving Photos that are computer generated defeats this goal. In museums you will only find Black and White Photos, they know that any other type of print won't last long enough to achieve their objective.
*When we look back in the early 1800's we see images that were produced that still exist today. What if our Great masters used pixels to record there Art. They would have never dreamed of wasting there time and effort to gain fame by employing methods other than the Classical techniques to create their Art. When history is written, those who have negatives and Hand developed Prints will have works of Arts that will be priceless.

06 December, 2007 00:21  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have commented on this elsewhere, I half agree. I have narrowed it down to the surreal and/or trying not to try look that has encompassed contemporary photography for several years. As Eric said I dont feel photography is threatened, I just feel maybe photography needs to take a step back to its classic intention which is to capture. I also feel that this contempoorary photography maybe needs to be given its own area in the art world and refered to photo illustration as some say. As in “I am a photo Illustrator…” or “I am a photographer…” Are we ready for that designation? This is just meant to be a little constructive criticism. I can not be the first to think of this, can I?

06 December, 2007 01:20  
Blogger Michelle said...

Hi Jim and others,

I find Plagens to be much too loose in his terminology. He's really only talking about the narrow field of fine art photography, not photography in general or even any other types of photography. Many uses of photography do adhere (for the most part) to his description of the way he says it used to be, as "a record of something real that occurred in front of the camera." Examples are news photography, mug shots, ID card photos, photos of houses for sale, architectural photography, social documentary, and on and on.

Photography is a medium or a tool, like paint or a pencil, used for incredibly diverse purposes. There is now also a trend in fine art photography for some to call themselves artists (who use photography), not photographers, in order to make sure their work is judged as other art is -- in relation to technique, the canon, and other art world concerns, not in relation to how well they depict "real life".

It seems that uses of photography just keep proliferating. Many still focus on capturing something that happened in front of their lens while others use it to create something they see in their imagination for the purposes of fine art. I really think this is all a non-issue and find Plagens' piece to be unenlightening and pointless -- he seems to be creating a problem where there isn't one.

However, I do believe that Jim will have something insightful to say "around how we understand the genuinely theoretical difficulties that inflect common conceptions of 'truth' and 'reality' and 'fiction,'" which I look forward to.

I also have a question: did the first photographers really think they were recording the truth any more than photographers do now? Or is this a modern myth? They must have been even more aware than we are now of how much a photo is constructed through choosing a particular composition, technique, subject, framing, and the way the image is exposed and printed because it was so much more labor intensive then. And anyway, it was common to manipulate and to create composites as is well-known, so did they really adhere to traditional conceptions of truth? I would be curious if anyone has seen any scholarly work on this. Perhaps early photographers' writings would be helpful in this regard.

What are the "traditional conceptions of truth" that Dewey and Peirce called into question?

all the best (and sorry for writing an essay!),


06 December, 2007 11:43  
Blogger windycitycameraphile said...

Is photography dead? I don't think so. It is a bit strange to link digital photography and Photoshop to the beginning of the end for photography. For some fields, such as photojournalism, I do agree that photographers must be careful not to modify the image to the point that they are making history rather than reporting it. And I don't care for some works of art that started with a photograph, but with software end up looking more like a cartoon or a Dali painting.

But for any work of art, be it literature, a painting, the cinema, or a photograph: the truth lies both in the eye of the creator and the viewer. We all have our own frame of reference and set of experiences that affect how we interpret the work of art.
With the advances in digital cameras and film, I think the art of photography is accessible to more than it has ever been today.

As someone that still loves to load up a roll of Tri-X black and white film in my camera, or on another day take out my digital camera, I feel photography is very much alive. So grab that old film camera out of the closet, or that brand new 12 Megapixel DSLR, and lets go out and takes some photos for all too enjoy! Who's with me?

Michael Watry

10 December, 2007 01:38  

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