5. How, Where, and When Will We Really Talk About Photography?
Published: 22.11.2013
in the series Marvin Heiferman
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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?”


10 comment(s)
Peter Burleigh
Posted 24.11.2013 at 15:20

Hi Marvin, I certainly like the idea that photography changes everything: it is a rupture of light into the world that cracks time, dislocates space, makes objects.

Photography changes everything that’s true, but at the same time hasn’t photography itself changed? Actually, if we take a step back, even this simple reversal is problematic, for it assumes that there is, that we have, a clear idea of what photography is.

This is where the whole problematic of the instantaneity, directness, immediacy, yet slippery illusiveness comes to a head. Photography is not a one-dimensional domain, a kind of flat collection of practices and behaviours which now produces an inordinate amount of images. If it exists at all, photography is multi-dimensional and essentially virtual. That is, all the different images that are made carry around photography in them and all the images made are an instance of photography, inter-weaving a huge net of actualization of light and the virtual flows of technology, desire, history within them. In this kind of understanding, a photograph is both problem and solution in one.

Looking back to the history of naming photography is also telling and maybe this is where our current difficulty with coming to terms with a photography (just one) or Photography (a Big one) stems from.

Talbot first called his process photogenic drawing, to then quickly adopt within a matter of a few months, possible weeks, Herschel’s suggested term photography.

–genic — (from the OED) ‘generating, producing the thing or effect specified by the first element’

compared with –graphy — (from the OED) denoting processes or styles of writing, drawing, or graphic representation

Isn’t this where the whole problematic of the photogenic starts—Talbot’s first name suggests not only the generation of a material drawing but the act of production of light itself, or to put it another way the actualization of light: two operations at once. Light becomes seen as a “drawing” and a drawing is made. The quick switch from –genic i.e. producing, to –graphy writing meant that photography as it became known was henceforth wrapped back up into modes of writing, of symbolic representation, when actually it is a form of signalisation: a process that through a semi-automatized set of technical steps makes images which picture the world, yes, are of the world, true, but more importantly are in the world.

Perhaps it is only now that it becomes noticed that photographs are not messages without a code, analogue representations of something already given, a kind of lift or transfer of the material that surrounds us. Photographs are a becoming of our world, and are becoming ever more so.

So while I agree with you Marvin that photography changes everything, I think we need to think how we can change the way we think photography, and go further than raising its value, or rescuing it from canonization. We need to think photography as GENIC, as producing, rather than GRAPHY, as writing. In this way, a visual literacy should not be about reading images to find a referential truth that lies behind them, but in asking questions about generation, distribution, circulation, reformulation, accessibility, voice, difference and repetition.

It might even not be that visual at all, but an essentially immanent what-do-ness that belongs so strongly to the photogenic.

Urs Stahel
Posted 26.11.2013 at 18:00

As Marvin Heiferman writes “most importantly, we need to talk about what literacy means today.”

A symposium in Lucerne will do just that. So, everybody living nearby, please join the series of lectures and a talk on visual literacy and the study of images organized by ASIP (Association Suisse des Institutions pour la Photographie) and Camera Arts, the new branch of study on photography and its context in the arts, in design, media and culture at the Hochschule Luzern.
On Friday, December 13, 2013, 3 – 8 p.m. (@Hochschule Luzern – Design & Kunst, Baselstrasse 61b, 6003 Luzern, room 206)
More info as well as a sign-up sheet can be found here:

David Campbell
Posted 27.11.2013 at 11:39

Marvin, interesting as always, even if your summary of earlier responses to your posts conflates a number of those points.

Speaking for myself, I certainly believe that too often analysis begins and ends with breathless citation of the global numbers of picture production. Too often the references to global numbers assume an automatic and widespread public importance that has not been demonstrated. Of course we must consider what those numbers mean, but given that most of those images are made privately and don’t circulate widely (those points are backed by evidence), we have to be precise in our analysis. Another bit of data from this week underscores this: Snapchat users now make and send 400 million pictures a day. 70% of those users are women. And 88% of those pictures are sent by the users to one recipient only. The strong desire to make imagery by Snapchats users (who I think number approximate 50 million), the gendered nature of production, but the overwhelming private circuit of distribution, demand a lot of thought before we can reach conclusions about collective impact.

Being clear about what is going on in global image production cannot be construed as claiming those social media image "aren’t particularly good or meaningful in the first place." By definition images made for private use are meaningful in some sense for the users. So we need to keep all the elements you refer to analytically distinct to begin with, especially if we are - and I totally agree with you here - shift focus to the question of what photographs do and the process that make them work.

Peter Burleigh
Posted 03.12.2013 at 12:04

Two points: again it is not the quantity of the images, but the kind that is relevant. SO that the selfie image is easily made and pictures oneself is the key issue. In addition it is the speed of their distribution and shrinking half-life that might make them different from other digital images. In a post-internet manner they are just a given that slices off the real into indivisible moments that are pushed away by an acceleration forwards. The Cartes-de-Visite phenomenon around 1859 radically changed photography on two counts: its relative ease of mass production AND that images could henceforth be held, touched—thus becoming currency in affective exchange. Just as Cartes-de-Visite carried their own making in themselves, so the selfie carries the marks of its being: instantaneity and selfhood. The numbers are relevant intensively in that the phenomenon is widespread, but not relevant in their astronomical size which is merely extension.

photographe mariage suisse
Posted 28.11.2013 at 13:03

I feel like today's photography is not really seen as a true way of making art for "normal" people. Since it is now so easy to take snapshots in a fraction of second, why would you like to go further into composing an image. It has become a tool for popularity, to always appear on the internet with twitter and facebook. It is not about showing a great image, it is about sharing what you are doing at that instant. This shows a drift in the overall perception of photography and will lead to an important switch in professional photography for customers because they are accustomed to seeing bad pictures, snapshots and do not want to see why working more on an image is critical to make beautiful imagery.

Educating clients has become such an important part of the photographer business that you cannot be successful if you are not taking into account this drift in today's society.
photographe mariage suisse | LunaCat Studio

Peter Burleigh
Posted 03.12.2013 at 12:29

Most of the aesthetics of 20th-century photography are available to Instagram users, for example, who can use smart technology to make their images look sweetly like Wolfgang Tillmans, William Egglestone, Nan Goldin, James Nachtwey… Just choose your filters. The question is whether the pictorial qualities of the “classic” photograph—Anselm Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Daidō Moriyama, for example—are at source photographic. What is recognised as quality in the photograph can often be put down to painterly aesthetic that has little to do with the photogenic, and a lot to do with the received canonical history of art. Concrete photography of the kind that Susan Derges or Vera Lutter operate clearly has quality, is pictorial yet also concretely photographic. These sorts of images, and this sort of practice is illustrative as just about as far as you can get from the cellular phoen image. Although the mobile phone image is at the other end of the spectrum of received photographic values, it is no less photogenic—it still ruptures time, displaces space, actualizes the virtual: is a zone of intensity.



Pete Brook
Posted 09.12.2013 at 20:35

The question as it is phrased “Where and when will we really talk about photography” opens up a wide challenge into which everyone will insert their preferences for how we should collectively and fruitfully deal with *knowing* photography.

I agree with Marvin two-fold. Firstly, art galleries and (particularly) museums focus on limited discussions; it’s long time these discussions are put in their context. The discussions in galleries (commerce, aesthetics, fashion) and in museums (history, social and cultural validation by assumed consensus) shouldn’t be trashed but accepted as a tiny, tiny part of our required discussions.

Secondly, I think Marvin is right to call for visual literacy curricula in schools that are as sophisticated and complex as the ways images are used, distributed and consumed.

As Peter said, discussions on finding “referential truth” are far less important than knowing why images are appearing on our devices, streets, screens, in institutions etc.

Imagine education that uses photographs and their existence as entry points to scrutiny of citizenship, consumer culture, gender studies, politics and foreign relations, advertising, economics, and so on and so forth. Currently, and particularly for younger citizens, photographs may sometimes be introduced as primary resources or appended to debate, but what if images were used as jumping off points to delve into the very fabric of our society, PR, propaganda, relationships between the self and the state?

For many, it is not until people get to tertiary education that visual culture studies and similar programs adopt such an approach. It shouldn’t be radical and even though it requires some more rigorous critical analysis, isn’t critical thinking what all our educators, jobs-makers and politicians are calling for in our world of global competition? I share that call (except I might prefer critical thinking to produce dissenters to the capitalist system instead of efficient workers for it!)

Still today, many colleges teach a chronological History of Art (often, with associated Western biases) that focuses on historical event. Speaking from personal experience, my Masters in Art History ran until the mid-1970s. I don’t think this is good enough.

I appreciate Peter’s break down of the differences between GENIC and GRAPHY. Images are creating and shaping society, not merely describing it. It’s happening NOW, among us. All citizens need to be versed in the processes of this — down to even to the simple stuff like how online banner ad revenues are made and determined based upon page views, for example.

The sooner we can introduced citizens, namely school children, to how images are manufacturing our social consciousness the better.

Marvin Heiferman
Posted 10.12.2013 at 15:38

As I’ve been traveling around and talking about photography in museums and universities this past year, I’ve been stressing the visual literacy issue. And the sense I’m getting is that the time has finally come–even if the issue has been bouncing around in the background for decades and as traction now because of all the talk and first-hand experience people have with the large numbers of images being made and shared–for people to recognize that it is time to do more with and around the issues.

From my part, I’ve been working with Charles Traub, chair of the MFA Photography, Video and Related Media program at the School of Visual Arts, and Dan Feigelson, a literacy expert and administrator in NYC’s Department of Education to organize a week long intensive of interdisciplinary seminars and lectures that will take place in NYC next June. I’ve also been working with the Carnegie Museum of Art, as part of it’s recently launched Hillman Photography Initiative, where we’re developing a year-long visual literacy and public outreach project that we’re just now working out the details of, and will launch in early in 2014. I’m excited (given my populist streak) to see what happens if we succeed at pushing the kinds of discussions we’ve been having here out in front of an even broader public.

On that front, if anyone out there knows about interesting visual literacy projects that are up and running, please share your comments about them here.

Chase F. Neal
Posted 20.12.2013 at 05:03

The aesthetics of photography is a matter that continues to be discussed regularly, especially in artistic circles. Many artists argued that photography was the mechanical reproduction of an image. If photography is authentically art, then photography in the context of art would need redefinition, such as determining what component of a photograph makes it beautiful to the viewer. The controversy began with the earliest images "written with light"; Nicéphore Niépce , Louis Daguerre , and others among the very earliest photographers were met with acclaim, but some questioned if their work met the definitions and purposes of art.

LunaCat Studio
Posted 23.01.2014 at 15:47

Indeed the fact that photography could/should be a simple representation of reality is debated but commonly sensed as normal. But in fact, if you really look at the scientific facts, photography is nothing like a real representation of reality. The light is going through lenses that are changing perspective, shape and so reality is not true anymore on a photography.
After, this is a matter of artistic decision to try to make the photo look like reality or not!

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