This month SFMOMA hosts a major symposium on the current state of the field of photography. Thirteen thinkers and practitioners will convene for a two-day state-of-the-medium summit, in advance of which they’ve each been asked to respond to the symposium’s central question: Is photography over? These texts will be used to kick off the opening panel discussion on Thursday April 22. We’re also featuring three additional responses here at Open Space, today and the next two Mondays, opening the debate to public discussion in advance of the event. Today’s contributor, W. J. T. Mitchell, teaches English, Art History, and Media Studies at the University of Chicago, and has been the editor of Critical Inquiry since 1978. His recent books include What Do Pictures Want?, Critical Terms for Media Studies (with Mark Hansen), and the forthcoming Cloning Terror. He is currently working on a book entitled Teachable Moments: Race, Media, and Visual Culture.
IS PHOTOGRAPHY OVER?
Another So-Called Crisis
W. J. T. Mitchell
As you can guess from my subtitle, I am a little grumpy about the premise of this symposium. Inflating the critical debates surrounding photography to the level of crisis hurts my critical ear. There is a crisis in the Middle East, a health care crisis in this country, economic and ecological crises that threaten the whole world. The United States came close to a constitutional crisis during the lawless regime of the Bush administration in the first eight years of the millennium.
To speak of a crisis in photography in these times seems to impoverish the term, especially when one considers that “photography has almost always been in crisis.” One wonders why the “almost.” Were there a few brief moments—the era of “straight” photography?—when photography was not in crisis?
And if something is “almost always” in crisis, how does one tell when the crisis is of any particular urgency? Is there something special about the on-going never-ending crisis of photography in our time? If it is a re-casting of the old dichotomies and fruitless questions “is photography science or art, nature or technology, representation or truth?”—then I want to say that the answer to all these questions is simply “yes.” Photography always has straddled these dichotomies; it is both science and art, nature and technology, representation and truth. And in that sense, it is just like painting, which as Shakespeare tells us in the Winter’s Tale, already played across the boundaries between art and nature, magic and technique—“an art as lawful as eating.”
Most of the so-called crises in photography that I know about were based in misunderstandings of the nature and range of possibilities of this highly flexible and protean medium. The question of whether photography was an art was demolished long ago by Walter Benjamin, who declared it a false question to be replaced by the real question of what the invention of photography had done to the nature of art. The other notorious crisis of our time is the question of whether the onset of digital photography has somehow eliminated the claim of photographs to give accurate, indexical, truthful representations of reality. This view was revealed as a blind alley the minute people started trusting digital photographs to give them accurate, indexical, truthful representations of reality—that is to say, right away.
I do think photography has a history, and a future as well. It is far from over. It is just getting started. Painting (at least in Australia) has endured as an unbroken tradition for over 20,000 years. Photography could last just as long if there are any photographers left to make photographs, or (an even more urgent question) any human beings left to look at them. When one thinks of photomontage, photograms, photographic pictorialism, and the infinite resources of digital photography and digital imaging more generally, the notion that photography might be “over” seems just a bit hasty.
If by the notion of crisis, we mean that something terribly interesting and complicated is happening to the medium in our time, then there should be a lot to talk about. Michael Fried thinks that photography has become “an art as never before,” a claim that deserves serious attention. At the outset, it raises a puzzling ambiguity. Fried surely does not mean that photography was never before now seen as an art. The claim to artistic potential emerges very early in the history of the medium. What he has to mean is that certain contemporary photographic practices engage with the values of art in quite a new way, or that art itself has come to mean something new as a result of certain changes in the capacities of photography. Or, to put it bluntly, one is now allowed to look at photographs in the way one (or at least one Michael Fried) has taught us to look at paintings, as densely composed, deeply absorptive compositions that compel aesthetic conviction. Since some of us were already looking at earlier photographs that way (among others) it does not feel to us that the earth is moving under our feet. On the other hand, I think it terribly interesting to ask what it means to “see something as a photograph,” especially something that doesn’t look like a photograph at first. (The same goes for painting, as Stephen Melville has shown in his marvelous essay, “As Painting”). I don’t know, however, “what is at stake today” in doing this. Perhaps very little. Perhaps this symposium will provide us an answer.
Chicago, March 13, 2010
PLEASE NOTE! Due to overwhelming interest only a limited number of tickets will be available at the door on the day of the event, on a first-come, first-served basis. More details are here. During the symposium, we’ll also post morning-after event reports here, so do watch the blog.