April 12, 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 featuring three additional responses here at Open Space. Today’s contributor, Okwui Enwezor, is a curator, writer, and critic. He is the Artistic Director of Meeting Point 6, a multi-city exhibition project taking place in Beirut, Amman, Damascus, Cairo, Tunis, Tangier, Brussels, and Berlin between 2010 and 2012. Enwezor is founder and editor of Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art. He was Dean of Academic Affairs and Senior Vice President at San Francisco Art Institute (2005-2009), and Artistic Director of Documenta 11 (1998-2002). He serves as Adjunct Curator at International Center of Photography, where he is currently completing work on two exhibitions, The Rise and Fall of Apartheid and Sun in their Eyes: Photography and the Invention of Africa, 1839-1939. His most recent book is Contemporary African Art Since 1980, with Chika Okeke-Agulu.

Photography and Societies in Transition
Okwui Enwezor

Photography has had a checkered history within the institutions of art, namely in the museum of art. This symposium proceeds with a three-pronged question, each of which progressively degrades the very conception of photography as both a thing in the world and a way of seeing that world. In asking the question: Is photography over? We need to be reminded that, not too long ago, the photograph did not enjoy the same disciplinary or epistemological status as painting and sculpture in the hierarchy of mediums within the museum. It was not until the late 1980s and 1990s that such major American museums as the Guggenheim Museum and Whitney Museum of American Art officially acknowledged photography as part of the mission of the institutions. And we are already aware of the oft-repeated (if erroneous) statement that the first time color photography was presented at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, was on the occasion of William Eggleston’s exhibition there in 1975. While I am fully cognizant of the fact that the conception of photography has very little to do with the museum, we need to be reminded of the blighted history of photography, be it as medium connected to art or one connected to other disciplines in this regard. This is where I chose to pitch my tent. In this sense, rather than addressing the various aporias that seem to feature in the questions addressed in the symposium, it would be important to discuss the troubled nature of photography in relation to the broader culture.

I will use one example to make my case, that is the nature of photography to documentary realism and the manner that the South African artist Zwelethu Mthethwa responded to it. Mthethwa’s practice raises a parallel question: how do diverse cultural practices engage with the legacy of photography? Given the history of documentary realism in South Africa where photography served a remarkably oppositional function, such a question is bound to be answered differently than it would be in San Francisco. One major critique of documentary realism at the height of apartheid in South Africa was its overdependence on dehumanizing spectacle, which focused on the trauma of the victim and the truth-telling agency of the photograph. How do we compare such dichotomy in the face of the idea that photography may be over? Photography’s agency in this regard was exemplary of the legacy of the medium in its conception of the space inhabited by the other, and the anthropological logic that subtended its mode of looking at the other, namely the absence of coevalness between the instrument and the subject. From this concern emerged the icon of the victim.

Zwelethu Mthethwa, Untitled, From the series Interiors, 1995-2005, chromogenic print mounted on plexiglass.

It strikes me that before foreclosing the effectiveness of photography or to ask whether we have reached the end of photography, we should address the diverse manifestations of photography in societies in transition where its powerful effects of seeing is constantly battling different logics and apparatuses of opacity. All through the years of apartheid, photography was at the center of this battle between transparency and opacity, thus lending the medium a far more discursive possibility than it would have enjoyed as purely an instrument of art. One can in fact, argue, pace Georges Didi-Huberman, that in the context of apartheid photography was an instrument of cogito.

In South Africa, for the critics of documentary realism or anthropological realism, especially black artists such as Mthethwa, documentary realism was always at the ready to link the iconic and the impoverished with little recourse to examining its spectral effects on social lives. Because of this, documentary realism generated an iconographic landscape that trafficked in simplifications, in which moral truths were posited without the benefit of proven ethical engagement. In a sense, photography suffered from myopia. It was a troubled medium.

Zwelethu Mthethwa, Untitled, from the series Sugar Cane, 2003, chromogenic print mounted on plexiglass

Many artists, writers, and photographers alike have wrestled with this critique. As have the audiences of art and literature. Like most art produced in extreme socio-political situations, South African art under apartheid was beset by an anxiety, as it was in many instances guided by social responsibility. This can also be summed up as the anxiety of humanism. It was in response to the question of dehumanizing aspects of black and white documentary realism, with its grainy, distancing effects, that color photography became instrumental for Mthethwa. His conception of color proceeded from the assumption that color restored life to the subjects. In other words the immediacy of color generated another order of proximity (coevality) to counteract the distance of black and white documentary realism (anti coevality). His conception of color was initially derived as a means to keep at bay documentary realism’s dehistoricization and subordination of black South Africans to the logic of pictorial empiricism. If we are to carefully examine the claim by Mthethwa that his renunciation of black and white and employment of color draws a distinction between traumatic realism of the victim and the social agency of the subject, it would be important to focus attention on the dialectic between color and the development of a kind of critical humanism in photography. This to me is fundamental to what is at stake in terms of photography and societies in transition.

Comments (9)

  • uche James-Iroha says:

    There will always be practitioners continually trying to contextualize life in two dimensional medium.Photography is the most willing of the mediums especially in contemporary Africa.The challenge however is that this is a totally alien medium where chemistry,film,camera and paper are imported.without knowing it African Photographers are continually looking for an indigenous authentication for photography.

  • The blog has been quite impressive. The aspects discussed like the very point whether the photography had got over, have been good as well.

  • Ariel Goldberg says:

    In the responses to Is photography over I have found a reflex to group, question, and then advocate for certain photographies.

    The work of image tags, search terms, and how we are learning to find and retrieve through those new forms of captions, are completely dependent on the process of categorizing. While at the same time photography is in a state of complete un-grouping, where the original can be pasted into multiple contexts and completely shift in meaning.
    The Abu Ghraib photographs, in the effort to understand and think about their production and effects, were put on view in traditional art spaces at ICP and then traveling to the Andy Warhol Museum in the show Inconvenient Evidence in 2004/5.

    This building of and collapsing of categories speaks to me as a sort of infinite loop of dialogue between text and image, a form of a caption emerging working tirelessly with no word count.

    I’m interesting in how Photographs of “societies in transition” add to, overlap and challenge my own sprawling categories of photographies into witness, information, art intention, tool, memory, facts-in-identity-crisis, entertainment, evidence.

    Enwezor speaks of how photography suffered from myopia, from the oversimplification of subject as victim or as other that may halt anything other than passive viewing. This state for photography I think is being chipped away at, especially in the proliferation of camera ownership and camera usage, especially when the subject’s own arm wraps around to take their picture.

    “The blighted history of photography” that Enwezor reminds us of is linked to what I believe is the underestimated power of photography in its recent explosion of versatility and visibility that digital has allowed. The ownership of singular photographs is spreading with its multiple opportunities for copy, web presence, and infiltration into the memory. The Internet is on the list of USA Today’s New Seven Wonders and I would also put photography there.

  • John Rapko says:

    While I am fully cognizant that we need to be reminded of the oft-repeated (if erroneous) statement that the anthropological logic that subtended its mode of looking at the other, namely the absence of coevalness between the instrument and the subject generated another order of proximity (coevality) to counteract the distance of black and white documentary realism (anti coevality), this can also be summed up as opacity.

  • Is there a different way of making photo images today ? sure people word articulate to a difference but
    essentially its a box that you look through to compose an image. The image circle is cropped to a rectangle and many in the art world are tied to using a tripod – one reason is technical – bigger images require a precise technique which places further limitations on developments in methods of making an image using a camera based technology. Hence you see the same type of image making. I have seen different methods but almost all are even more limiting to a realistic way at articulation – they end up being almost a gimmick.

    There are also limitations in peoples minds – that an photographic image has to be made in a certain way – the camera has to go to the eye, you stand still, compose and take the image.

    If your dealing with human suffering being brought to the fore, then please give it to me any way you can so long as its technically good it will not be dehumanizing by black and white film grain or poor contrast. The issue there for me is – is anyone listening or prepared to do anything ? ie Rwanda. The terrible reality of suffering bleaches out nuanced issues of photography articulations. Grey scale is different because we see in colour – In a bit more detail – it may be described as dehumanizing if you have what might be described as bad technique and use a 400 ASA film pushed to 1600 ASA and all the problems of printing through an enlarger that photo-shop has now removed. The black and while images of that time are about a technique of black and white photography of the time. It is seen everywhere not just in Africa.

    And I think you definitely need to discuss the problems for young photographers coming out of art/photo courses and how they can make any head way when they are faced with pay for review and pay to enter competitions. Frankly we have a situation whereby photographers/artists are marketing targets whether for information or ‘administration fee’s’. Or just bare faced – if you want to show your work to important people in this world you have to pay and what that does to incentive.

  • Vance Maverick says:

    Point taken, Suzanne. I would be interested to read comments from people who are conversant with the terminology. And I would be interested to read abstracts — if you have any — from participants who answer Yes to the title question of the panel discussion.

    Thanks, Corey; striking that the real first date is so much earlier than the legendary one.

  • For the curious: the first show of color photography at MoMA was of Eliot Porter’s work in 1943.

  • Hi Vance,
    I appreciate your ongoing attention to Open Space. I’d like to point out that Open Space works to include a lot of different kinds of writing and speech, and that not every post is going to be of direct interest to every reader. The Is Photography Over series is an extension of a somewhat more academic (perhaps) panel discussion that will be taking place in a couple of weeks. Rather than keeping all of those texts behind glass, so to speak, we’re including some of them on the blog, as a way of inviting people into the conversation, if or as they feel comfortable doing that. I take your point that this particular text isn’t written for the broadest possible audience, however that’s not its job. One of the great things about Open Space, in my opinion, is that it doesn’t make assumptions about the range of experience of its readers. And now back to the discussion at hand, if we can—

  • Vance Maverick says:

    Interesting to learn Eggleston wasn’t the pioneer. A brief web search suggests that the first exhibit of color photography at MoMA was Ernst Haas, in 1962. Maybe there’s something else further back? (I wonder if, for example, Laura Gilpin showed an autochrome.)

    I like these photos. As in a lot of effective color photography, you can see they work visually by marshalling their color into bands. I’m afraid the text is pretty opaque, though — language like “subtended its mode” will exclude most readers.

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