April 05, 2010

Is Photography Over?

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 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.

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.

Comments (15)

  • Why its time to get serious about where value is; what society is, what it has become and why the important people in Art – curators of important institutions and artist need to lead the way now that our rulers have proven to be morally void with-in a delusion. And THAT includes photography.




  • lyle rexer says:

    All you have to do is spend a little time with kids to understand that “photography” cannot really die because it is not a single thing — it has multiple uses and audiences, and those are changing, or rather, the use of images in our culture is various and expanding. It strikes me that the debate — and certainly the characterization of photography offered by Fried — resembles something Frank Zappa once said, about ” a couple of old farts sitting around talking about rock n roll.” The most moving, funny, evocative, mysterious, challenging images are being made right now — just as they were 160 years ago.

  • Vance Maverick says:

    So, having stirred up this unusual flurry of comment, will the poster be following up? Or was this a drive-by?

  • “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.”

    I’ll drink to that.

  • This is a great topic and requires a nuanced answer. Photography, as with painting and other traditional form of art media, are exceptionally difficult. There are so many “fine art photographers.” How many more Nan Goldin knock-offs do we need? How many girls in prom dresses in a corn or hay field do we really want to see. So, the problem with photography is that so much “new” photography has been seen before.
    It is imperative for a fresh photographer to bring a new concept to the table. This may be based on subject matter (very difficult) or new ways to use the medium of photography. Personally, I find “nonobjective” photography, such as that of Erika Blumenfeld or Ellen Carey (when she is at her best) to be exciting and fresh.
    Photography sometimes seems like it could come to a close. For example, many of the well-known contemporary German photographers are doing little more than taking the architecture, etc. of previous German photographers and simply providing larger prints that are in color. That, in my opinion, is quite dead.
    But there will be creative artists who will find new ways to say new things….Unfortunately, we are inundated with photographic images. Blumenfeld’s light recordings are exceptional in content and are exquisite in their elegance (& minimalism). Why not explore minimalist concepts though photography – as one possible avenue?
    Stretch beyond the familiar & new things will come.

  • Any art form / technique gains and loses exponents from time to time as artists find other ways to express themselves. Future artists will no doubt use photography in ways we cannot foresee, to express concepts we are unaware of.

  • Photography doesn’t happen without a photographer. With in the art world, which is feudal and a tight hierarchy if there is a problem it has to be seen within that context of ‘who has the power to give value’ and wider still – the influences upon them which in power institutions are financial and of the wider world. The question is for them – how photographers are incentivised or not ? As one artist said to me today: ‘it really is amazingly unregulated, and like the wild west. Being an artist you have no control’

  • I agree with the assertion Michael Fried makes when he states that photography has become “an art as never before”. Photography has always been an artistic medium the requires technological tools. The inclusion of digital tools to the medium of Photography has only broadened the means for expression for those Artists that use photography as their form of art making.

  • Brian Routh says:

    photography is changing …..it is embracing digital media and becoming enhanced as the tools change…..it has been changing since the first camera……with the introduction of new and improved lenses, shutters, lighting techniques, darkroom and optical effects and now digital enhancement, photoshop, software and computer applications…….it is never over therefore………maybe for those artists who cling to the past and old techniques, who feel threatened by new ideas and new tools and improvements…….maybe they might feel that something is over……..but not to me……I am forever excited about the changes in digital media……..and I’m an old fart!

  • We have barely scratched the surface of what photography can express in a universe of unlimited potential.

  • Maybe I’m thick: As long as a moment hangs, still, on a wall in an image. As long as, in course, I am stopped by THAT moment and moved to tears. There will be a need, use, purpose, a need for art. As long as there is a need for art. As long as Weston, Callahan, Maholy-Nagy, Sudek, images exist, people will be moved to photograph. Whether or not the direction of the art is good or bad will be an issue for the ages not for us. There, Maggie.

  • alex calder says:

    modern technology is helping PHOTOGRAPHY not to be over, ins’t obvious?.
    but, what the hell! art forms are in the eyes of the beholder.

  • Brent Jones says:

    “Photography is a way of feeling, of touching, of loving. What you have caught on film is captured forever… it remembers little things, long after you have forgotten everything.” ~Aaron Siskind

    And it will never die and long as we have an eye, to keep a moment in time, even something little and sublime. It ain’t goin’ away, tomorrow or any day!

  • Vance Maverick says:

    Ugh, I botched the comparison too. Make that: I also don’t buy the claim that Jeff Wall or the students of the Bechers have made the art in photography more salient or important, rather than bringing on a new genre of photography.

  • Vance Maverick says:

    Minor point: if you’re referring to Fried’s title, it’s worth quoting it exactly: “Why Photography Matters As Art As Never Before”. It’s not ambiguous. But that doesn’t affect most of your response. I too don’t buy the claim that Jeff Wall or the students of the Bechers have brought a new kind of art into the world, rather than, say, a new genre of photography.

See all responses (15)
Leave a comment

Please tell us what you think. We really love conversation, and we’re happy to entertain dissenting opinions. Just no name-calling, personal attacks, slurs, threats, spam, and the like, please. Those ones we reserve the right to remove.

Sign Up

Join our newsletter for infrequent updates on new posts and Open Space events.
  • Required, will not be published

Dear Visitor,
We regret to inform you that Open Space is no longer active. It was retired at the end of 2021. We sincerely appreciate your support and engagement over the years.

For your reference, we encourage you to read past entries or search the site.

To stay informed about future ventures or updates, please follow us at

Thank you for being a part of our journey!