Photography After Photography? (A Provocation)


Now that we’ve done all that stuff that you can see in history-of-photography books, now that we’ve become obsessed with re-creating that past over and over again - how can we turn around, to look at and move into the future?


Photography liberated painting from the existential burden to depict. With the advent of photography, painting was finally able to move sideways and forward, blossoming in all kinds of directions. Who - or what - is going to do that for photography? (more)

Photography has finally arrived at its own existential crisis. It is far from being over - no medium is ever over as long as there is just an ounce of creativity left on this planet. But photography has long been running in a circle. Over the past ten years, it has increasingly become dominated by nostalgia and conservatism. Even the idea that we now need editors or curators to create meaning out of the flood of photographs ultimately is conservative, looking backwards when we could, no we should be looking forward.

Who - or what - can move photography forward, looking forward?

Ironically, it is digital photography that has resulted in the current stasis of the medium. Given the possibilities, it is quite amazing to see how little digital photography has qualitatively changed photography. Quantitatively, oh sure. The number of photographs taken has exploded, especially since there are now cameras in places where there weren’t any before. You wouldn’t have a rotary phone with a camera in it or attached to it. Now, everybody has at least one camera, so we’re all photographers - or so we are being told.

There’s a lot of talk how making photographs has become so much harder given the state of things, given there are cameras everywhere. But then, if you are complaining about that - doesn’t that show the limitations of your own creativity? What can you photograph when every picture has already been taken? Well - isn’t it liberating to know that every photograph has been taken already, so now you can really take your photographs?

It’s one of those circles we’re running in.

I’m sure I don’t have to explain how the whole idea of using archives, of editing and/or curating is ultimately not moving photography anywhere at all. It’s stasis. I’m sure curators will disagree - but what would one expect to hear from someone paid to do those things? As much as I personally enjoy creating meaning out of an archive - in whatever way - it is not moving the medium itself forward, unless the curation is done in ways that were not possible before. And what we’re seeing, so far, is just that: Statis, doing what people have done before.

Even looking at Google Street View (GSV): Here we have something that is very different from what people in, let’s say, the 1970s had at their disposal. But all the work coming out of GSV essentially is just what people were doing before. Except that now it’s done on the computer, whether it’s creating your haha street photography, your bleak and utterly predictable view of the declining America, or whatever else. It’s all fine, but it doesn’t move photography forward one inch. It only looks new. But just because it looks different, because your haunted poor figures crossing some road in Detroit are pixelated doesn’t mean that there is a qualitative difference. It’s like the “new” soap that’s new because it says so on the box.

In fact, I think that it’s actually in the analog area where artists are producing the most interesting work right now, where artists are attempting to move if not forward then at least sidewards. Whether it’s Marco Breuer’s Condition, evoking Gerhard Richter style abstractions, whether it’s Matthew Brandt’s Lakes and Reservoirs, these kinds of artists are trying to escape the narrow photographic confines we’ve built around ourselves1.

The digital equivalent of Breuer’s or Brandt’s work is whatever is being created on “smart” phones, using “apps” - fake analog images. But the digital world falls crucially short here, for more reasons than one. First, there really is nothing at stake. There is no artistry here other than the application of some software filter that in a very deterministic way makes your new digital photograph look old. So there is no chance. Art without a trace of chance, a trace of an accident isn’t art. No artistic risk, not art (just ask William Wegman’s dog). What is more, it’s deeply reactionary, but in an uncommitted way. You could, for example, buy a real old camera and stuff film into it, to create your genuine old-timey photographs, but that effort isn’t even made. It’s a pointless nostalgia, where you’re yearning for just that one aspect of the past without all the rest. In contrast, Breuer and Brandt really break down their images. It’s real, there is no going back.

So where does that lead us? I don’t know. How do we get to use all these new tools to create photography that is not just some new looking variant of the old but, instead, something different, something genuinely new?

Painting erupted once its burden of depiction was lifted. Maybe as photographers we can do our own lifting, realizing what it means, for example, to say that every photograph has already been taken. Seen in that sense, photography could maybe be the first medium to move forward because it has made itself obsolete, at least to some extent.

Now that we’ve done all that stuff that you can see in history-of-photography books, now that we’ve become obsessed with re-creating that past over and over again - how can we turn around, to look at and move into the future?

1 The irony here is, of course, that the art world has a much easier time to understand this kind of work, because it more obviously looks like art than a simple photograph. Add to that the irony that in Breuer’s case, it’s a photographer now emulating a painter - the latter having successfully navigated the possibilities of a medium vastly changed by the former’s progenitors.

Update (13 June 2012): Having seen various people think that I’m singling out photography, presumably somewhat unfairly, it’s time to make this very clear. Photography is a form or art. Any art form needs to evolve. Otherwise, there’s stasis, and stasis in art is death (just ask any jazz musician). These kinds of debates are being held in other art forms, too - it’s not just a photography thing.

The one thing that seems unique to photography (maybe this is just me not being familiar enough with other art forms) is that its practitioners for the most part are incredibly conservative as far as the medium is concerned. So I could have also asked whether photography will survive the conservatism the vast majority of its own practitioners have come to embrace. I currently doubt it will. To use jazz again, with its current wave of nostalgia photography is at risk of becoming the Dixieland of the visual arts.

image: Untitled (1-1/17), from 1/n (Synchronicities #1), © 2012 J.M. Colberg

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Joerg Colberg is the founder and editor of Conscientious.