Is Photography Over? | Trevor Paglen | Monday, 03.03.2014

Is Photography Over?

A few years ago, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art held a conference about photography – for a photo conference, it had the odd title “Is Photography Over?.” Curators Sandra Phillips and Dominic Wilsdon posed the question as a challenge to panelists, audience members and the world at large. The two-day symposium was an attempt to shake up conventional institutionalized discourses about photography and to be an opportunity to think about what, if anything, has “changed” about photography over the last decade or so.

From my point of view, the fact that the world’s leading photo-curators would even pose such a question turned out to be more illuminating than most of the symposium’s content. Wilsdon and Phillips’ provocation reflects a deep-seated uneasiness among photo-theorists and practitioners about the state of their field.

To me, traditional approaches to doing-photography and thinking-about-photography feel increasingly anachronistic. Looking out at the photographic landscape that surrounds us – the world of images and image-making that we inhabit – it seems obvious that photography has undergone dramatic changes in its technical, cultural, and critical composition. These changes are difficult to make sense of within photo theory’s existing critical and practical framework; hence the question “is photographer over?”

In the first instance, the rise of digital photography and image-processing software has fundamentally altered the craft. Digital cameras are cheap and ubiquitous; image-processing software (whether on-camera firmware or applications like Photoshop and Instagram) has made it extraordinarily easy to produce an image-quality that was previously only possible with years of specialized training in equipment, shooting technique, and printing methods. The de-specialization of photography is an area of much concern among curators responsible for sorting out what’s worth paying attention to, and to practitioners who’ve seen their ability to make a living get much, much harder (witness the near collapse of photo-journalism as a profession). In this sense, perhaps the advent of digital photography and automated image-processing means that the traditional craft of photography is largely “over.”

On the cultural side, the digital “revolution” has meant an upheaval in the photographic landscape. What is the place of photography in society when there are now well over 250 billion photographs on Facebook (with an additional 350 million added daily), where the average person sees over 5,000 advertisements a day, and where photography has come to inhabit the very core of our “technological a priori.” Photography has become so fundamental to the way we see that “photography” and “seeing” are becoming more and more synonymous. The ubiquity of photography is, perhaps ironically, a challenge to curators, practitioners, and critics. Why look at any particular image, when they are literally everywhere? Perhaps “photography” has become so all-pervasive that it no longer makes sense to think about it as a discreet practice or field of inquiry. In other words, perhaps “photography,” as a meaningful cultural trope, is over.

The landscape of traditional photography theory and criticism is in a similarly contorted shape. On one hand, the digital revolution and landscape of ubiquitous image-making has created a situation where curators and critics specializing in photography have to define the field exceedingly narrowly in order to have an ‘object’ of discourse at all. In order to have anything to curate, critique, or discuss, a very small slice of the photographic landscape has to be carved out and isolated for discussion, such as “fine-art” photography, “documentary” photography, “historical” photography, even “analog” photography. As a consequence of narrowing the objects of inquiry so dramatically, the critical discussion around photography ends up inevitably admitting only a very small range of photographic practices into its purview. Consequently, critical discussions take shape around a small range of photographic images and practices which are extreme exceptions to the rule. Photography theory and criticism has less and less to do with the way photography is actually practiced by most people (and as we will see, most machines) most of the time. The corollary to this narrowing of the field is that traditional conversations and problems of photo theory have become largely exhausted. Simply put, there is probably not much more to say about such problems as “indexicality,” “truth claims,” “the rhetoric of the image,” and other touchstones of classical photography theory. And what remains to be said about these photographic “problems” seems increasingly extraneous to the larger photographic landscape that we inhabit.

As a matter-of-course, the state-of-the-field that I’ve described in a few hundred words here is blunt, without nuance, and bombastic. There are, of course, numerous exceptions to the broad outlines above. My point in doing this is to simply sketch out some possible reasons for photography’s leading thinkers and practitioners to ask whether “photography is over.” Given the dramatic changes that have taken place in the photographic landscape over the last decade or so, it seems perfectly reasonable to ask whether a traditional notion of “photography” is over.

But if a traditional understanding of “photography” is ill-suited to making sense of the 21st Century’s photographic landscape, then how do we begin to think about what “photography” has become and is becoming?

Over the next few weeks, I want to begin thinking about how to begin thinking through the 21st Century’s emerging photographic landscape, and the ways both photographic practices and photographs themselves are changing. To do that, I want to start from the beginning by developing an expanded definition of photography, and exploring the implications of that expanded definition.

I’ll start by introducing the idea of photography as seeing machines and explore questions such as: How do we see the world with machines? What happens if we think about photography in terms of imaging systems instead of images? How can we think about images made by machines for other machines? What are the implications of a world in which photography is both ubiquitous and, curiously, largely invisible?

Without question, the 21st Century will be a photographic century. Photography will play a more fundamental role in the functioning of 21st Century societies than 20th Century practitioners working with light-sensitive emulsions and photographic papers could have ever dreamed. So while in one sense photography might be “over,” in another, it’s barely gotten going. And we haven’t seen anything yet.

Stay tuned.