Future Histories | Steffen Siegel | Thursday, 23.04.2020

The Bigger Picture

Do you read histories of photography? I am not referring to casual reading – an article here, an essay there. Rather, I mean whole books or even tomes. Perhaps I should ask more precisely: Have you ever read a “History of Photography”? From cover to cover? When I go to another city or travel to another country, I usually browse the bookstores and check the corner with photo literature. Quite often, it causes a little jealousy: the neighboring shelf with film literature tends to be much larger. Are movies so much more popular than photography? Nevertheless, publishing houses dealing with photo literature seem to feed three (and only three) book genres: instruction manuals (“How to become…”, “How to improve…”), catalogs on great photo artists (Richard Avedon, Nan Goldin, and, more recently, Vivian Maier), and finally, histories of photography. The first two genres may not challenge my fantasy, the third one, however, is different. Involuntarily, I always start to wonder: For what kind of audience are these books made in the first place? Who will buy, let alone read them? Or do they merely serve as practical but somewhat useless gifts?

At Folkwang University in Essen, Germany, where I have been teaching the history of photography for five years now, we regularly use our seminar discussion to talk about older and more recent publications that we think are worth reading. Yet, I cannot remember that anybody ever recommended one of those histories of photography. Perhaps we violate an expectation that we should address more actively – the question of reading comprehensive overviews. After all, we want to work as knowledgeable photo scholars. Thus, it certainly would not hurt to take a look at the two hundred something years that have passed since those first ideas and techniques of image-making came into being that we so quickly label as ‘photography.’ This handy umbrella term has always referred to a large number and soon a plethora of different photographs. They lead – on a more theoretical level – to a diversity of photographies.1For more than a decade now, a scholarly journal has been published under this unusual and yet logical title. The first issue of Photographies came out in March 2008 and has been published, since then, three times each year.

Whoever speaks of photography (in the singular) usually means more than a single image, a particular context, a specific purpose. Photo history is a heterogeneous, multiple, uneven field. How should, and could, we reduce it to a common denominator? Things become even more complicated when we put them into a historical perspective. This, however, is precisely the reason why those books called “The History of Photography” are so interesting. Even though the indefinite article “A History” has recently become a modest commonplace in this genre, the challenge remains the same: How can we show and tell the bigger picture of photo history? Another question lingers behind it: Is there an appropriate form that we could find for and apply to such a bigger picture? If showing and telling always implies that much more is left unseen and untold, what models are there for dealing with these kinds of tensions?

None of these questions are new, and they are not reserved for an interest in photography. Anyone trying to write a history of literature (philosophy, art, film, music, etc.) will face the same set of challenges. However, our interest in the photographic may differ regarding one particular aspect. At some point, academic disciplines with their conventions, rules, and traditions have evolved for all those subjects – except for photography. It is worth mentioning that the discussion of possible “Photography Studies” is quite a recent phenomenon. At Folkwang University, we also use this expression to combine our two master programs on photo practice and the theory and history of photography. Furthermore, a genuinely comprehensive handbook on this very subject just came out. 2Gil Pasternak (ed.), The Handbook of Photography Studies (London: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2020). Nevertheless, there is no distinct academic discipline called “Photography Studies.” At least not yet.

Don’t get me wrong. From my point of view, working on the theory and history of photography is particularly promising precisely because it has never entered the safe haven of one academic discipline to drop anchor there – for better or worse. After all, academic disciplines are called like that because they tend, sooner or later, to discipline their subject. Writing photo history always was, still is and should remain a nomadic activity, especially now, as the photographic practice so amazingly proliferates, and its objects achieve more and more prominence in so many different circumstances.

In the beginning I asked: Do you read histories of photography? Most of us probably answer: rather not, especially not from cover to cover. We look something up from time to time, but nothing more than that. When posing this question, however, I did not think so much of rarely consulted compendia. Instead, with this blog series, I would like to invite you to join me in pondering over those frameworks that we continue to presuppose for our research. When I speak of “Future Histories,” I do not have a project in mind that could lead to the next “New History of Photography” – a book of that name was published more than twenty-five years ago by a team of writers, led by Michel Frizot. 3Michel Frizot (ed.), Nouvelle histoire de la photographie (Paris: Editions Adam Biro, Bordas, 1994). Both the English and German translation followed in 1998. Instead, I wish to return to the term ‘history’ and the practice of expansive historiographies to stimulate a thought model. I am interested in playing with the sheer possibility (maybe even the desire?) of drawing the bigger picture once again, despite all legitimate doubts.

Could we ever win such a game? I do not think that it matters. For the time being, I am more interested in the poetics of its rules. What are the structures and limits of historiographies that attempt and challenge the grand récit of media history? One thing, after all, seems to be self-evident: We must rewrite the essential rules to sketch out any photo history. For a long time now, the field of photographic practices has become remarkably open – and it has always been much more diverse, global, hybrid, multifunctional, and contradictory than we could learn from any existing textbooks on photo history. Perhaps I should have asked at the beginning: Which photo histories do we want to read in the time to come? It may be likely that any answer to this question will no longer lead to voluminous books. In any case, results are not as decisive as any conversation on them could be. The more polyphonic the discourse of “Photography Studies” will be, the bigger the picture will become – even if this means letting go of the somewhat nostalgic idea of relying on one single frame for this thing we call the “history of photography.”