There is nothing to be regretted about this state of affairs for it results in an attractive drama. Will x or y capitulate? How, up to now, have they resisted? The best art photography sails closest to the wind or deliberately runs most risks of assimilation. Art photographers, some of them at least, recognise the danger and court it. A lot of art photographers, of course, present themselves as eccentrics, do-gooders or life style devotees but they can be ignored for they run no serious risks.
The assimilative problem, with all its creative possibilities, began to emerge in the 1960s. There was a huge visual culture even then but it didn’t count for very much in the final analysis. In photography at least there was a well founded belief in strong pictures, and you can still hear its echoes today. A strong picture was one which got closest to the Word. It had to be a revelation vouchsafed by providence. There are a lot of good examples of providential photography in The Americans, for example: especially some pictures of holy people on the banks of the Mississippi in communication with the beyond. The photographer didn’t have to be a believer, but that was the culture in which high photography took place. Advertising and the commercial genres really didn’t matter in that kind of fundamentalist context.
What intervened so decisively was the linguistic moment c. 1970, most closely associated with the writings of Derrida. The linguistic moment promised chaos for it was marked by scepticism towards the kind of guaranteed meanings on which we had previously relied – that is, the ‘transcendental signified’. The regime of truth was challenged and overthrown, even if not immediately. In the newly established play of signifiers photography’s talented visionaries could only feature as quaint archaics. The linguistic moment introduced deconstruction which proposed that firmly held beliefs were often undermined by the language in which they were articulated. This kind of thinking had been developed in a literary context and didn’t seem quite appropriate to the visual arts. S o there was an asymmetry between this persuasive new way of thinking and those arts which couldn’t make much of it.
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Published in Photoworks Issue 7, 2006
Commissioned by Photoworks