Is Photography Over Finally Over?
In addressing the role of museums and curators as narrative-makers, Corey Keller noted that she and her colleagues try their best to “complicate” what might otherwise be an overly tidy story of photography’s history. This sense of necessary untidiness, alluded to by my fellow reporters, also characterized the symposium’s discourse in ways that alternately helped to identify critical issues and undermine the coherence of a given dialogue. Nevertheless, as Dominic Willsdon observed in concluding the event, there were “these moments, these flashes, when suddenly something quite urgent and important [would appear],” only to dip beneath the surface again.
A great deal of this urgency came from the audience, whose astute comments and pointed questions stirred the panelists to react. To keep them from receding into the rear-view mirror too soon, following are what for me were some of Friday’s most memorable moments:
— A woman from the audience who noted that with all the anxieties over aspects of photography being lost, the reason we remember and value images is the individual behind the camera, not the camera itself: “Of course there are going to be losses—there are losses in the world of words too. We don’t have too many people writing plays in iambic pentameter anymore. But that’s not too much of a loss. The loss is that we don’t have Shakespeare.”
— George Baker’s passionate insistence that something vital has indeed been lost in photography’s transition from analog to digital. (This brought to my mind a gripping exploration of the larger cultural and social ramifications of our increasing dependence on digital technologies by PBS’s Frontline called “Digital Nation,” which can be seen here: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/digitalnation/)
— Geoff Dyer’s wonderfully elliptical, Dyeresque tale about Lee Friedlander wandering a bleak, unphotogenic world in search of the last remaining rolls of film, told in response to a question about whether photography’s traditional place, à la Walker Evans, as the most literary of the visual arts was still valid in the digital age. Those who weren’t present will have to wait for the release of symposium’s video or the forthcoming book for better context than that which I’m able to provide here, but the moral of the story was that there will always be someone that comes along who is capable of rehabilitating a tradition that might seem completely exhausted. To which Charlotte Cotton responded, yes, one can still make interesting photographs within an older tradition or with historical materials, but it means something quite different to do it now. When a 26-year-old photographer, for instance, is stashing away 4×5” sheet film in 2010, what does it say about his practice?
— An actual 26-year-old photographer and self-described former artist from the audience who worried that his work was being “policed out,” falling through the cracks between the established categories of “artist-using-photography” and “photojournalist.” This seemed to resonate with a discussion later on of a recent statement by the photographer Paul Graham, whose work could be considered an answer to whether the literary tradition in photography as embodied by the work of Walker Evans can still have relevance:
“…what of those who work today with equal commitment and sincerity, using straight photography in the cacophonous present? I will not name names here, but for these serious photographers the fog of time still obfuscates their efforts, and the blindness j’accuse some of the art world of suffering from, narrows their options. It means their work will almost never be considered for Documenta, or placed alongside other artists in a Biennale, or found for sale in major contemporary art galleries and art fairs. This does not just deprive the public of the work, and the work of its place, it denies these artists the self-confidence that enables them to grow, to feel appreciation and affirmation, not to mention some modest financial reward allowing them to continue to work. It is also, most importantly, seeing the world of visual art in narrow terms.”
(Graham’s full text can be found here: http://www.paulgrahamarchive.com/writings_by.html)
— “The art of descriptive photography”—a new phrase coined by Peter Galassi to describe what we formerly (and problematically) understood as “straight” or “documentary” photography.
Struck Dumb by BRUCE CONNER: A Reminiscence
Seeing Apsara DiQuinzio’s recent incredible post on Bruce Conner’s LOOKING GLASS (and other works) partially inspired the following recollections:
I first encountered BRUCE CONNER on a visit to the 90’s Dogpatch incarnation of Canyon Cinema. I was tagging along with my good friend, filmmaker Timoleon Wilkins, who had many legitimate reasons to be there, all of which provided me cover for the purposes of scoping out the facilities of this legendary distributor of truly independent cinema. Following Tim into the darkened chamber, I was forced to halt suddenly when a strange, yet friendly-seeming, wizened fellow approached Tim bearing a jar packed with a mysterious, dark substance. After a minute of conversation between my friend and this likely wizard, during which Tim kept referring to him as “Bruce”, it began to dawn on me (BRUCE?!!) — yes, this must be BRUCE CONNER. The proffered jar was a container of sugar-free jam someone had given him as a present; he’d brought it by Canyon as a likely site of targets for re-gifting. I don’t remember if he had any takers, but in years to come, after boning up further on BRUCE, I’d come to associate the slightly fevered, yet benign and generous glint in BRUCE’s eye with his presentation to Marcel Duchamp of his soon-to-be-famous TRAVELING BOX. Fool that I am, I hadn’t the receptivity, and restrained, but quietly avid curiosity the sometimes Rose Sélavy is said to have displayed in seizing hold of the strange and marvelous BOX. Having no chess-player’s eye for the historical big picture, I, not for the first time, sidestepped opportunity, and failed to accept the gift. To this day, I regret at not being able to point up to a corner in my pantry, and say “Yes, there rests SUGAR FREE JAM JAR“, and watch as this info sinks into the consciousness of awe-struck guests… A few more anxious minutes passed, and BRUCE slipped away into the afternoon…
Truth be told, finding myself in the presence of BRUCE CONNER, I was totally dumbstruck. I’d first seen his films in Austin, Tx. many years before, starting with MONGOLOID and AMERICA IS WAITING. These films were clearly made by a sensibility of scathing, all-consuming vision, not to mention maniacal determination. Was BRUCE CONNER the South Pole’s Santa, attended by a sneering army of manic, post-punk elves? All I could find out about BRUCE at this point was that he was a man in his 50’s living in my native San Francisco who suffered from a liver condition liable to cause his death at any moment. The years passed on, I saw more BRUCE CONNERs, and was left dumbstruck every time. This man who lived with mortal disease was clearly IMmortal, beyond the laws of petty, average men. His films and other works were made by someone who could see through walls, into secret, previously undisclosed realms. Conner’s cosmic x-ray vision penetrated into the depths of the sea, and into the hearts of mystery-laden sirens. It was unknown to me whether his major limbs were capable of superhuman acts, but his hands joined bits of film, paper, stockings, doll parts, wood, etc, etc, etc, like a mad swami who’d discovered cosmic consciousness in the yoking together of physical fragments, by which material and ephemeral universes would become ONE. No wonder finally encountering him left me dumbstruck…
Stepping on Brecht’s toes…
I was an unabashed fan of The Wire, one of the very greatest shows ever on tv. I’ve read all of Richard Price‘s books, who was a chief writer for the series. I’ve looked forward to the debut of Treme, (accent on the last syllable, like flambé), the new HBO series put together by most of the folks who did The Wire. So far it’s been okay, with some great visuals, great acting, some good writing. It’s about the impact of Katrina on New Orleans. But I’ve had an itch that’s something is amiss and this afternoon, after standing on a street corner in the cold for half an hour, I think I figured out what it is.
Remember how everyone joked that Avatar was Dances With Wolves in space? Well I think Treme is Avatar in the ghetto. All the cops in Louisiana as portrayed in Treme are venal, predatory and racist, just like the corporate looters in Avatar. The corporate interests in Avatar want to pave over paradise for some McGuffin chemical or other; in Treme it’s the real estate interests that want to tear down the black neighborhoods in the interests of gentrification. The scientist played by Sigourney Weaver in Avatar has her equivalent in Melissa Leo’s lawyer: both characters are professionals who “get it,” and struggle to maintain some kind of ethical stance while being part of “the system.”
The Moment Before Photography Is Over
Five Questions: Allison Smith
Five questions to SFMOMA artists, staff, or guests. Local visual artist and educator Allison Smith is the creator of the SMITHS project. Her Arts and Skills Service program continues through the spring with talks, conversations, workshops and activities. Join Allison this Thursday evening for SMITHS: Arts & Skills Service: On Shell-Shock, or Ammunition and Ornament.
Do you collect anything?
Yes I do. I have a collection of Trench Art which is art made by soldiers during WWI. It’s a collection of decorated artillery shells that were expended bombs that soldiers collected secretly and illegally on the battlefields during WWI and hid them in their trenches and made them into art. I don’t collect a lot of things but that’s one thing that I collect.
If you could steal any artwork in the world to have up in your home, what would it be?
What do I want to live with? I think right now the art object I most covet in the world would be a jacket by a woman named Agnes Richter who was a German woman who was institutionalized. She took her hospital uniform and she tailored it and embroidered her life story onto it, to the point that you can’t even read it anymore. The text is obscured by so many layers of writing because women were not allowed to have pen and paper but they were allowed to sew. She sewed her story on the interior and exterior of this jacket. I’ve never seen it in person, but it’s one of the most beautiful and compelling objects I can think of.
I would have a problem stealing it but I would really want to touch it. I almost want to wear it, but I don’t think I could fit into it, it’s probably really petite. I would really like to be in the presence of it and if I could look at it each day in person it would change my life.
What do you listen to while you work?
Often I just like it to be really quiet. My favorite thing to listen to while working is the MoMA audio archive. There are amazing MP3 files that you can download, to listen to different artists talk about their work. You can actually go to the archive and hear Duchamp talk about ready-mades. A really good idea of radio in the studio would be to listen to an archive like that. That’s probably my favorite listening experience that I’ve discovered in the last few years.
What’s your favorite tool?
Oh! There are so many great tools. I love so many tools. One of my favorite tools is a rotary cutter. It’s one of the best tools ever. That’s the first one that comes to mind, but I love any kind of specialty tool, especially if it relates to textiles. Sometimes I am attracted to the tool thinking I’m going to use it to do something and I never learn how to use it but I just love having the tool. Or, I realize I’m in a place that I can get that tool that you can’t get anywhere else, and that’s very seductive.
What should I ask you?
What’s my favorite dessert? The problem is I could talk for two hours about desserts. My friends call me a dessert queen because I really love desserts. My favorite desserts involve caramel and salty nuts. It could be caramel with sea salt, that’s really good, or PayDay candy bars, but I really like the crunch and the chew together. I really love baklava and I love ice creams with caramel and nuts, like butter brickle or pralines and cream.
In a Fairfield Porter frame of mind I hopped a bus over to the edge of the Tenderloin, where an energetic new gallery, Ever Gold, has taken root at 441 O’Farrell Street. Two young white male artists have worked up a show called American Cinema.
The invite was cute, with Bob Dylan as “Alias” in that Peckinpah film facing down Al Pacino as Serpico. Dylan stands to the left representing the West, old and new, and Pacino on the right, as though to hold down the NYC territory. Ryan Coffey lives and works in San Francisco, while Jason Grabowski hails from Brooklyn. He tells me he brought all his work in a package on the plane, even his collection of what other galleries might call “artist’s frames.” (more…)
Is Photography Over? Friday afternoon session reports
This week SFMOMA hosted a major symposium on the current state of the field of photography, with two intensive panel discussions Thursday evening and Friday afternoon. Yesterday’s reports are here. The initial texts from the symposium participants are here. Other blog posts addressing the question “Is Photography Over?” can be found here.
Sarah Miller and Brendan Fay
If the first session of “Is Photography Over?” was structured to highlight differences among panelists and between panels, the wide-open format of the second session served a different function. In three hours of free-wheeling and wide-ranging conversation—passionate, energetic, but also punctuated by dropped questions and dead ends—what became most apparent, and most interesting, were the gaps and asynchronies between the panelists and their audience. We sensed general agreement on all sides that broad shifts in contemporary culture provide the occasion for reconsidering museum practices—the need for museums to function as “sites for conversation” and not merely as repositories for objects, as Charlotte Cotton and Doug Nickel agreed. The twist, perhaps, was that new imaging practices and forms of distribution were hardly the only topics of conversation.
In their closed-door session on Friday morning, we learned, the panelists had settled on four issues of major concern for their ongoing discussion (all oriented toward photography’s present and future, for those looking for a final verdict). Dominic Willsdon suggested three of these as the topics for public discussion: the transition to digital technologies and distribution; the mutating belief systems and modes of perception we bring (or will bring) to photographic images as digital technologies become ubiquitous; and the lingering sense that “photographers” and “artists using photography” remain two distinct camps, generationally and conceptually. Willsdon then acknowledged the group’s fourth key topic, the role and politics of “institutions” vis-à-vis photography, but also shared the group’s concern that such “shop talk” was inappropriate for a general audience.
It was fascinating, as a result, to watch the audience continually force that issue back into view. Institutional practices and policies were part of what this audience came to discuss, and in concrete terms: in relation to economics and the market, or the physical experience of objects within the future of the museum. There was a general sense that this fourth topic, the question of institutional choices, bears directly on how we understand the shifting connections among the other three. If the general idea of “sites of conversation” has become a key model, here’s a working hypothesis for the next experiment: the particular site matters.
Institutional issues sparked some intriguing and productive musing on museums’ future roles. Will digital photography force a sea change in the “experience of objects” to which museums have long been dedicated? Conversely, will the haptic and social qualities of digital imaging force a change in our notion of photography as the optical art par excellence? How will displays that seek to present a “history of photography” (like MoMA’s galleries) be inflected by the medium’s extraordinary diversification? Will museums—and all the rest of us—learn to explore an “aesthetics of uncertainty” in and for photography, contra the literalism and certitude we’ve long associated with the medium?
But institutional topics also served as vehicles for frustration about the transitions taking place. A number of inquiries and complaints concerned the relationships between art market economics and the imperatives of contemporary museum collecting and display: what combination of forces drives a market for huge, spectacular, expensive photographs that seem to repudiate photography’s (putative) earlier function as historical witness? Another significant thread of audience comments revealed resentment about the ever-growing critical apparatus that seeks to situate photography within contemporary art: an apparatus, it was alleged, that “artists-using-photography” respond to and benefit from in producing arcane or self-indulgent conceptual work, and from which traditional “photographers” who document the “what the world looks like” are now marginalized. For their part, the panelists were provoked more than once into unified repudiation of laments for photography’s ethical and credible past, pointing out that such convictions about the medium and its functions had always relied more on myth than reality.
Looking forward, the clear flashpoints and missed opportunities within the conversation are probably of equal significance. George Baker, for example, continued to ask us to linger on some crucial questions: What will we miss when chemical photography has no purchase on our culture anymore? What life experiences did it intersect with? Can nostalgia be a critical vehicle for grasping what photography has been, culturally and artistically? The confrontation between these questions and the attachments, investments and beliefs voiced by the audience was tantalizing, promising. But in this multivocal format—quite effective in other respects—we could only catch a glimpse of other potential conversations to follow.
This is all to the good. This experiment in public/private discussion provided a useful and provocative complement to other recent cross-sections through the objects, practices and disciplines surrounding “photography.” It’s an admirable beginning, full of lessons for future attempts, and it confirmed that the questions under discussion were the right ones. Above all, thanks are due to those at the museum for their foresight, organization, and effort, and to the participants for their generosity—and endurance. And since a print-on-demand publication is expected to follow, we can’t even say that “Is Photography Over?” is truly over.
After two hours of closed-door discussions Friday morning, the symposium’s thirteen participants—looking slightly enervated perhaps from the rigor of their deliberations—filed onto the stage of the Wattis Theater and sat in a single row.
SFMOMA’s Dominic Willsdon, one of the moderators, began the afternoon’s plenary session by summarizing the primary motifs that seemed to keep coming up in that morning’s debate. This was followed by over two hours of an open forum that included incisive comments and questions and from audience members.
Like the increasingly complex and expanding definition of photography—upon which the panelists were not ultimately able to agree—the public forum was so intriguing and wide-ranging and that for now I will only be able to provide a small window into the Friday’s proceedings. (Please check back for additional posts in the days to come.)
One of the motifs that came into play, that surprisingly was not as prevalent in the short position papers the panelists submitted in advance of the event, was the rise of digital technology in photographic practice.
Peter Galassi noted that while the prevalence of chemical photography is on its way out, what hasn’t changed is the fact that a photograph is still made by fixing an image from inside the camera. The rise of digital photography, he argued, ensures photography’s future.
Philip-Lorca diCorcia, however, proposed that digital processes have in fact had a profound effect on contemporary practice. Many photographers, who are increasingly having labs produce their prints, end up spending more time correcting the files that digital photography gives them. Walead Beshty agreed, lamenting the fact that as photographers interact less and less with the physical materials of photography, they are depriving themselves of discovering what those materials might be capable of beyond verisimilitude to, or an enhancement of, analogue photography. How long will it take, he wondered, for artists to develop and explore the unique attributes of digital materials and tools so that digital photographs (which an audience member later predicted would no longer be qualified as “digital” in a few decades’ time) will have a look of its own, distinct from the way photographs have looked until now?
In the end, the two-day symposium made possible a rare and generous exchange between a group of articulate and distinguished panelists that is not likely to be assembled again anytime soon. Even if the only consensus reached was the fact that photography is changing, and will continue to change, the debate over the role of institutions, the challenges facing photographers, and what exactly has been lost revealed in fairly clear outline the major issues facing institutions, photographers, and our perception of the photographs they make.
Sarah Miller is the 2010-2013 Terra Postdoctoral Scholar in American Art at the University of Chicago. She is writing a book about the multiple and diverse inventions of the concept “documentary” in American modernist photography.
Brendan Fay is an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities in the Department of Art and Art History at Stanford University, currently working on a book on photography and abstraction c.1950.
Joshua Chuang is the Assistant Curator of Photographs at the Yale University Art Gallery. Most recently, he organized the exhibition First Doubt: Optical Confusion in Modern Photography and has edited monographs on the work of Judith Joy Ross and Mark Ruwedel. He is currently at work on a traveling retrospective exhibition and related series of publications devoted to the work of Robert Adams.
Thanks to all for attending, reading, listening, participating. As Brendan & Sarah noted above, a print-on-demand publication is indeed forthcoming.
Is Photography Over? Day One Report, Addendum
Joshua Chuang sends this brief addendum to this morning’s report.
Apropos of the symposium’s first day, here is an excerpt from an afterword that John Szarkowski penned for a 1998 reprint of Lee Friedlander’s classic first book, Self-Portrait. Friedlander, by the way, was also in the audience last night.
“I once happened to attend a conference, designed to wring from photography its deepest secrets, and later to publish them in five (I think) languages, not including, of course, the language of photography, which is too difficult, ambivalent, ambiguous, or mysterious to be broken to pull in harness with languages that have dictionaries and grammars. In spite of the apparent hopelessness of the problem, the conference was attended by critics, aestheticians, other philosophers, social scientists of various specialties, prophets, and politicians, most of whom seemed dedicated to the proposition that the group might, if it put its common shoulder to the wheel, determine what photography ultimately meant, so that the question could by Sunday morning be declared dead, and never again waste the time of the panelists.
The program might have proceeded smoothly toward its goal if Friedlander had not been invited, but he was. He was also, if my memory serves me correctly, the first speaker on the program. I use the word speaker in the nominal sense, for he began by saying that he had nothing to say about his pictures, but had brought three Carousel trays of slides – three hundred and sixty pictures – to show, and would be happy to try to answer any questions that the audience might have. The pictures were carefully and intelligently chosen, and arranged chronologically, and the slides were beautifully made, so that it would have been possible to lean back and take pleasure in the view that an important twentieth-century artist had formed to describe the evolution of his own career. But this would have been rewarding only to those who believe that pictures have a life, and a life history, of their own. To those (perhaps half of those assembled) who believed that it was the function of pictures to provide ancillary proof to truths that might be formulated by wise blind men, it was deeply distressing to be asked to sit and watch pictures without dialogue or sub-titles for ten minutes, then fifteen minutes, without having been given a text that one could agree with, or disagree with, or agree with in part, with wise, witty, delightful exceptions, citing St. Augustine or Groucho Marx or Walter Benjamin or Jacques Derrida or others who, however innocent of any complicity with or even knowledge of the sins or the provisional triumphs of photography, were called upon to bear witness to its ultimate possibilities. Friedlander (perhaps innocently, or perhaps with some higher Metternichian sophistication) had momentarily foiled the philosophers and the politicians and the social scientists by giving them nothing but pictures, which was not quite the grist their mills needed.
After twenty minutes or so of this embarrassing mismatch, a public-spirited auditor in the back of the room decided to sacrifice himself by asking what was obviously a ludicrously irrelevant question, but that might serve to get the intellectual ball rolling. He asked: “Where did you make that one, Herr Friedlander?” Friedlander, obviously pleased to be asked a question that he could answer without compromising his own standards of precision and concision, promptly responded that the picture in question had been made in Toledo. Friedlander was in fact so pleased with the question (which did not concern his life in bed, or his political commitments, or his insights into the ultimate secrets of life), that he announced to the audience that he would be happy to identify the place at which each of the remaining quarter-thousand pictures were made, and he proceeded to do so: “Memphis … New City … Phoenix … Cambridge … Jackson Hole … Syracuse … etc.” As Friedlander continued his recitation of place names a considerable part of his audience seemed to sink into a progressively deeper confusion, perhaps in some cases due to the perception that so many great ancient cities seemed to have sunk so low. Finally another voice, polite but firm, asked whether it was really relevant that he had made this particular picture in Chattanooga. Friedlander considered the question for a moment and, with a respectful seriousness of manner that I have no reason to believe feigned, said yes, he thought it was relevant that the picture had been made in Chattanooga, because if he (Friedlander) had not been in that city he would not have been able to make that picture.”
[Many thanks to the Matthew Yeager of the Fraenkel Gallery for sharing with me his enthusiastic rediscovery of this text.]
Is Photography Over? Thursday Evening Event Reports
This week SFMOMA is hosting a major symposium on the current state of the field of photography, with events last night and this afternoon. Today’s reports on last evening’s discussion are from Joshua Chuang, Assistant Curator of Photographs at the Yale University Art Museum, and Sarah Miller & Brendan Fay, both postdoctoral fellows, at the University of Chicago and Stanford University, respectively. They’ll follow up tomorrow with more on this afternoon’s discussion. The initial texts from the symposium participants are here. Other blog posts addressing the question “Is Photography Over?” can be found here.
Is photography over? Ever since SFMOMA announced that it would be assembling some of the field’s most prominent historians, critics, curators, and practitioners to answer this provocative question, there has been much speculation as to what the question itself was really asking. Given the energy coursing throughout the Phyllis Wattis Theatre (which, along with two overflow rooms within the museum, was filled to capacity), it was clear however—even if the scope of the question was not—that there were more than a few people who felt that something was at stake.
In an effort to keep the initial discussions focused, the symposium’s organizers astutely decided to divide the thirteen participants into two successive panels jointly moderated by SFMOMA curators Dominic Willsdon and Erin O’Toole. The first consisted of critic Vince Aletti, art historians Douglas Nickel, Joel Snyder, and Blake Stimson, curators Peter Galassi and Corey Keller, and photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia, and the second featured art historian George Baker, artists Walead Beshty and Trevor Paglen, curators Jennifer Blessing and Charlotte Cotton, and the writer Geoff Dyer.
Acknowledging the deliberate provocation of the symposium’s title Corey Keller, who conceived of the event, kicked off the proceedings by issuing a hope that issues of semantics (what is meant, exactly, by the terms “photography” and “over”?) might be sufficiently ironed out so that other substantive questions might be addressed. If there is something over in photography, Keller asked, what is it? And if that aspect of photography has truly passed, does it really matter?
As a curator working with a university museum that is situated, both functionally and physically, at the intersection of a school of art and a department of art history, I came to the event with a particular interest in the outcome of the exchange. Yale’s undergraduate photography classes have been perennially oversubscribed for years, yet the central question on minds of the school’s MFA photography students seems to be: how do I make my work feel new after everything has already been done? Is a love of the medium and its capabilities enough to perpetuate photography’s relevance?
Yes, according to diCorcia, Aletti, and Galassi. If photographs being made today continue to offer cultural and emotional meaning, even with a more sweeping public knowledge of how easily photographic content can be manipulated, does it make a difference how they were made? It does for Snyder, Nickel and Stimson, who by and large felt that there has indeed been something lost—a particular sensibility, depth of investment, a certain satisfaction to be derived from photographic images being made and disseminated today in the context of art galleries and museums.
Seeing so many curatorial colleagues from other institutions in the audience brought to mind the inescapable fact that this discussion was taking place within the context of an art museum, a point that was discussed at length by the second panel. Was all the anxiety about something coming to an end actually emanating from institutions themselves rather than the creators of these things we call photographs? Are institutions with segregated photography departments truly able to provide their audiences with a context that is robust enough to present the increasingly varied ways in which artists are using photography in their respective practices? (This question, incidentally, was one that was also posed earlier this year in a closed-door session by the Museum of Modern Art’s photography department.)
Given the passionate and at times heated exchanges of the symposium’s first day, I’m eager to hear what gets agreed upon—if anything—during this morning’s deliberations.
Sarah Miller and Brendan Fay
“What is at stake today in seeing something as a photograph? What is the value of continuing to speak of photography as a specific practice or discipline?” This symposium was convened under the sign of a single, overarching question—inflammatory yet utterly benign; can we call it pustular?—but it’s these secondary questions that have assumed primary importance. Do these questions really constitute a single line of inquiry? Does the answer to any one necessarily entail a particular stance on the others?
Corey Keller described the symposium’s title as a “blunt instrument,” and it’s been an effective tool for drawing investments and assumptions out into the field of play. The position papers paid blissfully scant attention to questions to digital technology and truth, instead zeroing in on art photography in art museums as the key topic—and institutional structures, framing contexts, and constituencies as the key issues—when these kinds of questions are advanced by this kind of institution.
Two other anticipatory questions arose from the setup and published responses, although the initial round of discussion intensified rather than resolved them. First, what’s the supposed urgency of this exact moment? Why is the question for 2010 one of photography’s existence or continuation, as opposed to its theory or its meaning or the state of research (as asked elsewhere across the last decade)? Second, what’s history’s place in the discussion? When we debate “photograph” and “photography” as labels for either artistic production or social practice in the present moment, do we take it for granted that we’re also rewriting historical categories?
Does photography deserve our nostalgia? The panelists were nearly as divided on nostalgia—is it a negative attitude or a positive one?—as they were on photography, making the question multi-dimensional. Both panels found themselves circling the question of a meaningful history, in particular a connective history. Is there a narrative that can hold the history of photography together with its present—or are we better off without one?
Some were adamant that photography is fundamentally continuous, while its materials and technologies continue to evolve, while others felt that the question itself (“Is Photography Over?”) might be the meaning of photography now. Douglas Nickel and George Baker both asked, in different ways, what is useful about the sense of crisis, the question of obsolescence, the worry over ontology. Can we ask what is desirable and interesting to us about a given technology, or historical construct, or attitude, at a given moment? As Geoff Dyer wondered, why isn’t photography more elegy-prone? Some scorned nostalgia; others sought to reclaim it. Mostly they debated: if we’re nostalgic, for better or worse, what are we nostalgic for? What’s lost in photography, and what continues in new guises? For what do we need the past, or a sense of tradition?
A number of participants on the (more contentious) first panel sought alternate modes of continuity: Vince Aletti feels photography is vital as ever as a way of engaging the world, though its techniques and materials evolve; Peter Galassi argued that photography is getting along just fine, although we ought to realize that photography and talking about photography are two different things. Talking, he said, won’t resolve any of the present questions about making, but we still see evidence of photographers’ mining the medium’s tradition and vocabulary in their work. (For Keller, a bit more evidence, at least when it comes to print quality, would go a long way; for Philip-Lorca diCorcia, nostalgia for technique as such can only function negatively.) For Joel Snyder, on the other hand, these notions of continuity in photography—defining photography as continuity—amount to an intellectual disservice, masking profound disparities among historical and contemporary sensibilities, concerns, modes of production and display, and demands placed upon image-makers by audiences and institutions. Blake Stimson suggested we put aside one tactic—defining photography according to its unique technology-delimited aesthetics—and look back to an equally foundational tradition of its sociality in order to make sense of its current potential both quotidian and critical. All were willing to accept photography as a coherent abstraction, much more so than on the second panel.
The second panel, by contrast, was quite comfortable with photography’s dispersal into a broader category of “imaging practices.” Charlotte Cotton was most direct about the potential consequences, linking widespread cultural shifts—in who’s making images and how they’re disseminated—to the need to rethink older models of institutional authority. And the panel culminated in questions about how our existing infrastructure, both institutional and intellectual, might illuminate what’s happening now. In other words, it’s not just lens optics or stillness or ‘the photographic’ that’s at stake here. The big questions have as much to do with museums, perhaps modern museums specifically. They’re questions about balancing stewardship and historical interpretation with new acquisitions and real-time cultural interventions, about material history in the live feed. We spectators won’t know the ‘official’ questions addressed in today’s closed-door morning sessions until the public afternoon gathering, but the basic challenges seem clear.