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.
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.