Future Histories | Steffen Siegel | Wednesday, 15.07.2020


When Fotomuseum Winterthur invited me to contribute to its blog “Still Searching…,” I had no hesitations regarding the topic I wanted to suggest. Indeed, we are still searching – for suitable forms of historiography for the photographic. I should be more precise: we are still searching just because it will be impossible to end such a search. Our subject – so broadly addressed as ‘photography’ – is remarkably diverse and complex. Furthermore, we have only recently witnessed (and we still do) how quickly and fundamentally ‘photography’ is developing and transforming. A year ago, I was talking to a radio host. He asked me to comment on photography’s future and how it could look like in ten or twenty years. Being full of hesitation, I had almost no choice but to smile. I am sure this did not make for a satisfactory answer; certainly not on the radio.

During the past weeks, I have mainly tried to discuss various occasions of inadequacy. I have been interested in looking at some forms of writing that have become a regular habit: the large-format compendium, the art history of photography, national photo histories, and finally attempts to tell photography on television or for the cinema. There is no question that all my reckoning is little more than a brief sketch of a much broader set of problems. Yet, I am not interested in drawing a complete map of photography’s historiography (how could this be even possible?). Instead, I wanted to follow different paths within this territory: well-known connections, on the one hand, less established trajectories on the other. From my perspective, it is still necessary to draw maps as precisely as possible for the media territory we call ‘photo history.’ However, there is also no doubt that we have to continually revise both: the borders that relate photography to other media and the ramifications within the field of photography.

The team led by Michel Frizot already addressed the question of how to redraw this map in the best ways possible. More than three decades ago they tried to write a “new history of photography” which led to a book from which we can still profit. Even if we have found, in the meantime, some reason to be critical with such a “new history,” there is one thing, however, that we should undoubtedly exclude from our criticism. Sometimes we may refer to “the Frizot,” but it is the result of extensive collaboration. A large number of historians have participated in this endeavor. Only the co-authorship of very different scholars with different academic (and national) backgrounds made it possible to present such a well-researched multitude of topics within just one book. Already in the 1990s, the time of the singular, all-knowing storytellers was up. 1Michel Frizot, “Ein Buch als Geschichte und die Geschichte der Bücher. Zur Konzeption von ‘La Nouvelle Histoire de la Photographie‘”, in: Fotogeschichte 17 (1997), 64, 27–30.

Without referring directly to this “new history,” five researchers have recently pursued a project whose title alone leaves no doubt about its methodological merits: Ariella Azoulay, Wendy Ewald, Susan Meiselas, Leigh Raiford, and Laura Wexler summarized their joint work as a “Collaboration.” Together they were looking for “A Potential History of Photography”, as the subtitle suggests. The results of their research were available in various exhibition spaces. Designed as a collective experiment, the composition of the team makes one thing clear: When we talk about the history of photography in a broader sense, a variety of disciplinary perspectives has become mandatory. Thus, artists, scholars, and curators worked together on a project that we can take as an invitation to participate and to engage with. The show consisted of sketchy beginnings that require more detailed work; we will come across open ends and explicitly marked blanks. As an exhibition, “Collaboration” was designed to open up a conversation that had just begun, and that should continue far beyond the exhibition space.

The form chosen by this team was of captivating simplicity. A square divided into nine fields of equal size provided the space to collect material: drafted thoughts, sketches for more extensive representations. The overall structure of nine squares within one square allowed many different ways to arrange the ideas. Images were as crucial as texts, and it was not by accident that some of those fields remained empty – not every aspect is well-researched, and we cannot tell all parts of photo history coherently. We have to expect ‘negative spaces.’ In “Collaboration,” this became directly visible – something which does not happen often enough. Arranged as an installation in the museum space, visitors could go from panel to panel and choose the chapters they preferred. In the center of the room, there was a table that we could aptly call a possibility of going into the details of further footnotes: Here you could sit down to read photo-historical books. In this way, it was possible to delve deeper into the topic on the surrounding walls.

When I visited this exhibition at the Ryerson Image Center in Toronto, together with Susan Meiselas and Laura Wexler, I was impressed by this experimental gesture. It is a very productive way of tracking down the potentials of photo histories. I asked my colleagues for their permission to copy this model since I wanted to adapt it with the master students at the Folkwang University of the Arts in Essen. Some months later and in the context of a master course entitled “How do we write the history of photography?,” we tried to deconstruct this question. Almost every single word of this seemingly banal question has its weight. Our answers led to more posters consisting of nine fields and to more collaborations. This rectangular grid proved to be particularly helpful framework to formulate first answers to our very large-format question. Instead of completed construction work, these posters call for individual building blocks. Sometimes they lead to more detailed narrations, and sometimes the elements are only loosely connected to each other. If you take the formal principle of these squares seriously, you can work with these tableaus in almost all directions.

We cannot decide for ourselves whether our unofficial satellite exhibition in Essen has succeeded in living up to our role model. And indeed, the themes presented at Folkwang – about thirty altogether – are no more than a random excerpt from a much larger whole of potential photo histories. The beginnings of Chinese photography were as much part of it as the history of the photocopier, the digital future of the family album, and lost pictures, old and new. However, the most important result of such a collaboration is not so much a new canon of themes, but rather the joint practice of a gesture that helps to consider the idea of redrawing the map thoughtfully. Around 1989, when the 150th anniversary of photography (rather, what some have defined as such) was celebrated, an unmanageable number of books appeared. Most of them wanted to tell, once again, photography’s history from A to Z. 25 years later, in 2014, this was no longer the case. I am optimistic that we will not need another anniversary (whatever this may be) to give future histories of photography a more open, multi-layered, complex, in short: more appropriate form.