Marvin Heiferman | Marvin Heiferman | Friday, 22.11.2013

How, Where, and When Will We Really Talk About Photography?

In an earlier post where I marveled over the almost unimaginable number of photographic images made daily, some commenters here and on Twitter (where I’m happy to see these posts bouncing around, too) remarked that it was time to get over being amazed, alarmed, or fetishizing what is, in fact, an undeniable pile up of pictures. The gist of some of those responses was that the bulk of those images are made privately, don’t circulate widely, and aren’t particularly good or meaningful in the first place. The message seemed to be that if photography is a deep and fast-moving river, stay close to the shoreline, mind your own business, and you’ll avoid drowning. And while that strategy may work very well for some, it doesn’t for me. My point was, and is, that those crazy and escalating numbers are not to be ignored; they directly reflect the ways our change use of and relationship to photography. They do need to be spoken about.
Eric Kessels, Photography in Abundance, exhibition at FOAM, Amsterdam, 2011 (installation view) © Erik Kessels / Gijs van den Berg / Caters News
Interestingly and a few days later, I came across an article on the British Journal of Photography’s website, covering a fantastic project that presented a photographic deficit. Libération, the French newspaper that often tracks and insightfully reports upon photography, chose to delete all the journalistic images that were supposed to run on the opening day of Paris Photo, in order to draw attention to “the calamitous situation press photographers now find themselves in, especially war photographers who risk their lives while barely making a living.”
To coincide with Paris Photo's opening, French newspaper Libération has chosen to remove all images from its 14 November issue.
Libération’s goal was, as the paper noted, to “give photography the homage it deserves.” It was a smart and elegant move (and perhaps, too, homage to a different reverse tactic employed by the recently deceased Sarah Charlesworth in her late 1970s and now-classic series, Modern History.)
Figuring out how, when, where and why we can pay homage to photography is something that has been very much on my mind lately. From 2008-2010, as I did the groundwork for Photography Changes Everything and in years since, as I’ve travelled and talked about that project, what has become clear to me is that if photography seems overwhelming to some and unruly to many as we seem to greedily consume and produce more images, and as the medium is in the midst of redefining itself, we need to track the phenomenon and question the consequences of all that. “The more I thought about what photographs are,” Susan Sontag wrote over forty years ago in On Photography, “the more complex and suggestive they became.” And it stands to reason that the more photographs we make and have to deal with today, the more it behooves us to explore what that ubiquity says, what it means, and what it demands of us.
If we agree that photography is central to who we are and all that we do, the questions I’ve been asking myself are where, when and how we can best talk about photography. If our experience of and in the world is not just described by images, but actively shaped in the process of our making, sharing, and communicating through them, we need to be focusing on what photographs do as much as we do on what they look like.
Where should or where can that happen? In past decades, as I noted in Photography Changes Everything, the most sustained and promoted discourse around photography has taken place in the worlds of art and art photography and has been preoccupied with images made as art or the handful of vernacular images that get upgraded to that status. That needs to change.
If photography is, as art historian Geoffrey Batchen described it, “a sprawling cultural phenomenon inhabiting virtually every aspect of modern life,” but one “consistently left out of its own history,” we need to fix that. We either need to rethink programming in traditional venues or create new ones where more vital conversations about photography as it’s now being lived and used, can take place. An open-ended attitude toward picture-making was something many once believed to be the domain of artists who could be counted upon to stretch the limits of what image making was and might mean. Today, that’s not necessarily the case, as Douglas Rushkoff noted in a talk at the Seven on Seven Conference at the New Museum in New York, last year:
(Watch from 7:25 – 9:45 minutes)
We need to be thinking more broadly and across disciplinary lines to explore what photography was, is, and where it may be going. We need to acknowledge the consequentiality of photography and how photographs actively shape identity, communication, and trigger social, political, and cultural change. We need to talk about photographic ethics, what they are or should be. We need to be teaching children, from their earliest years—and not just in art classes or if they become university and graduate students—about what it means to take a photograph or look at a photograph and understand what happens next. We need to get people to think beyond what photography is and talk across disciplinary borders about what photography is becoming.
Most importantly, we need to talk about what literacy means today. Reading and writing alone longer define 21st century literacy in a world where images and language are intertwined and of equal importance. Visual literacy, which includes having the necessary skills to understand where photography’s power actually lies, is something we pay lip service to, do little to teach, and not nearly enough to promote. And as the number of photographs made daily keeps growing, which it will, that is one more thing that needs to change.
A related article of interest: “What Did You Think of What’s Going On in this Picture?”