Some remarks about Bert Stabler’s ‘I Don’t Like Photography’


General Photography

Issue #5 of Proximity Magazine contains a piece by Bert Stabler entitled I Don’t Like Photography. It’s a remarkable piece that starts out asking why “fine art photography is so frequently dull and distasteful, so paralyzed by moribund subjects and forms?”

Stabler sees “art photography as hemmed in by three ‘P’s: painting, poverty, and Pentax.” The first ‘P’ I find a bit intellectually lazy (“From its inception, photography established itself as art by trying to move into the space abandoned by painting.” Oh yeah?), but the other two cover areas that I addressed on this blog - albeit not in one place.

About the second ‘P’, Stabler notes “From Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange to Diane Arbus and Richard Avedon, to contemporary work by Paul Graham, Nan Goldin, Jesse Kotler, and Chris Verene, there may be some mumbled apologia, but the assumption is that we are ennobled by the images of people whose bondage and suffering ultimately undergirds our liberty and comfort - and whose misery deeply fascinates us. ‘Poverty’ describes a voyeuristic urge to claim that the same authenticity that is projected on to the anguish of a suffering face applies reciprocally to the image, its maker, and its viewer. […] For the most part […] we are treated to an endless minstrel parade of homeless veterans, junkie drag queens, sideshow refugees, depressed suburban loners, trailer-park residents, and various other contemporary mutants deemed undeserving of dignity.”

I will admit (I said this in a different case) that I have a very deep unease about, for example, Jessica Dimmock’s The Ninth Floor for exactly this reason: I have no doubt that the photographer cares deeply about the subjects, but the end result, the mix of poverty, drug abuse, and sex (at least one photographs shows the subject having sex in drunken and/or drug induced haze) strikes me as failing what it might be supposed to achieve. And I think this needs to be talked about. Again, it’s not about the photographer’s intentions, it’s about what the end results really do.

Looking at big, beautifully framed photographs of drug users in fancy art galleries has always struck me as, well, let’s say a bit weird.

I also see this discussion as part of the larger discussion about the role of photojournalism and its focus - given that at least some of this work is done by photojournalists (harping on the distinction between “fine art” and “photojournalism” in this case seems especially out of place).

Stabler’s third ‘P’, “‘Pentax’ denotes the fetishization of equipment, techniques, and software, everything from pinhole cameras and photograms to clever Polaroid processes to high-end old-timey analog large-format film cameras to elaborate exposures to messing with reality in Photoshop. Not that these aren’t legitimate ways to make images, but the same kind of elevated cultural status is rarely claimed on behalf of a ceramicist, glassblower, low-rider enthusiast, etc., whose skilled and/or ingenious approach to their craft results in a remarkable decorative object (jazz is an interesting exception, but I’ll leave music out of it). Really, this is another aspect of the obsessive quality of photography—the desire to see and possess results in compulsive behavior. And yet, depicting recognizable things in unusual ways does not on its own, perhaps, equal a conceptual vision.”

If I hadn’t blogged about the medium not being the message so often that by now I sound like a broken, completely worn record, I’d write something about this, but I don’t think I have to.

Unfortunately, I found the rest of Stabler’s article somewhat disappointing. Maybe trying to re-affirm his credentials, the author resorts to quoting the usual suspects (Lacan, Foucault, Adorno). If one needed proof that inserting postmodern philosophy into discussions about art does little (if anything) to further our understanding of art all that much, here is one. It sounds grandiose and learned, though. Oh, and I’m sure people - especially academics - will disagree with me.

But I do think that debates about photography - of which there are many, some silly, others important - need to address these issues, and hopefully the slightly provocative I Don’t Like Photography might provide another trigger.

I’ll write about my ideas about Stabler’s second ‘P’ at some other time.