Is Photography Over?

April 19, 2010  |  By
Filed under: 151 3rd, Essay

Unknown, _Untitled_ (Man reflected in mirrors), n.d. | photograph | gelatin silver print. Collection SFMOMA, Gift of Gordon L. Bennett

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 this Thursday, April 22. Throughout the month, we’ve been featuring three additional responses here at Open Space. Very pleased to have a post today from Sandra Phillips, the senior curator of photography here at SFMOMA. Look for day after event reports this Friday and Saturday mornings.


If photography is over, it might be useful to remember when it seemed as though photography had just begun. In 1964 I was a very serious young painting student who had grown up in New York and visiting museums was a part of my life as well as my study. One day I discovered the Steichen Center for Photography at the Museum of Modern Art—the experience shocked and surprised me: looking at the pictures was fun (and maybe a relief from the high seriousness of painting) and also surprising. What were photographs doing there in a museum? For me they posed a problem.

It became a habit—whenever I visited the museum, after dutifully scrutinizing the paintings I would check in on the photographs. But they remained a problem, they were incalcitrantly of the world, they were not, seemingly could not be subsumed into an artist’s personal vision. That was true even of my favorite, Edward Weston—try as he might (I thought) that pepper was still a vegetable, it could be cooked and eaten, but it couldn’t be “art.”

I think I had a glimpse into the dual world photographs at that time inhabited when I saw the (now very famous) exhibition, New Documents. I remember only the first room, small and narrow, because it had Diane Arbus’s pictures. I remember my school friend nudging me to look at the man on the other side of the room—who was spitting at her picture, “A Young Man in Curlers.” It was a shocking thing to see, certainly, but what it made me realize was that the man was enraged by this person—that this young man with manicured fingers, posing as a woman, holding a cigarette without acknowledging a sense of shame was the object of the visitor’s anger. It occurred to me that the “problem” of photography’s alliance with the world might also be its unique, rare power.

Now we know that photography is also Art—we have succeeded in crossing the old established silos that protected the integrity of each form of artmaking. I would be among the first to admit this achievement has been to everyone’s benefit, everyone who cares about looking at art. Artists who are also photographers—what we now call artist-photographers—can be given important shows in museums, and their power and originality is widely acknowledged. No one in the 1960s or 1970s, now so long ago, even dreamed of making a “living” as an artist—or in this case, as an “Artist-Photographer.” Those photographers were a very small group of friends and most of them were doing editorial work, or writing, or some few, teaching. Being included in a museum show was an event, not a career path. While I would never want to fight those battles over again—and we fought them tooth and nail—it might be appropriate to remember the modesty associated with the medium of photography, and the awe of the world the photographers shared, and what might still be useful from that. Long ago, in 1975, Bob Adams wrote, “Pictures should look like they were easily taken. Otherwise beauty in the world is made to seem elusive and rare, which it is not.”


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. For those unable to attend, we’ll be posting morning-after reports here on the blog, this Friday and Saturday.

4 Comments

  1. Bruce Campbell Says:

    Of course Photography isn’t over – nor is it likely to be as long as the medium is available as a resource for artists to draw on (so to speak). The idea that its over is as silly as those who started expounding that Painting was dead towards the end of the last millennium!

    In David Hockney’s recent documentary “A Bigger Picture” which follows his return to painting in his native Yorkshire UK over a two year period, for the first 90% of the doc he repeatedly expresses the opinion that its now the time for plein-air painting to supersede photography, given that most painting since the renaissance was based on a camera eye’s view of the world, so no more photography for him. Then at the very end he’s seen combining digital camera images with paintings to make prints, which prompts his interviewer to say “I thought you said you were finished with photography?” to which David Hockney replies “Wasn’t it Sickert who said “never believe what an Artist says, only what he does.”!

  2. Stan Heller Says:

    While photography is not “over,” is definitely has transformed in the digital age. The alchemy of the darkroom has been replaced with astonishingly powerful software that gives the creator much more power over the image than in previous times.

    As has been noted elsewhere, the use of photography as a tool for historical documentation has come into question, thanks to the ease with which images can be manipulated.

    (Imagine what Joe Stalin would have done with Photoshop. Better yet, don’t.)

    The perception of photography is changing. The camera, once the arbiter of truth, has been taught to lie with extreme conviction. While this is not new, it has accelerated to the point where almost every image we see has been modified or enhanced in some fashion.

    One door closes. Another opens. Photos still are the most reliable means of documentation. Now, more than ever, they are also “the stuff that dreams are made of.” The art form is not dead. How it will be used is in rapid transition.

    I think that is what evolution is all about.

  3. william thornton Says:

    The more pertinant question, to me ,is what happens now the photography can be art? Now that photography may absorg techniques of mass medias, it may begin to have meaning and get away from the narrow notions of deciding it’s relavance, its previouses uses as propaganda and its relavance to diseminating information. (Stalin didn’t need Photoshop.)
    The questions advanced by Painting and Sculpture give us an opportunity to mind meaning in the act of observing. Questions of lying abound and always have. So? Those tricks and neither new nor valid to the bigger issues. All Art lies!

  4. Jan Leonard Says:

    The photo you show of the man reproduced 5 times with use of mirrors, do you know anything about it?

    We have a picture very similar to this one. Taken in 1946, during the war in NYC by Lane Studios. The man shown may be a military man, ours is in military uniform. Seems this was popular during WW 11.

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