Installation view of From Here On at Rencontres d'Arles

Ideas Series: Why Photography May Not Matter As Art As Never Before

Photography has changed as a result of digitization. In contrast to the expense involved in buying and processing film, to produce and to view digital photographs costs almost nothing.

With cameras a standard feature on most mobile phones, many of us have them on our person for the majority of the time. This means that many more people are taking many more photographs of subjects and in situations they would not have photographed before.

The internet has dramatically increased opportunities to publish images, and for others to comment and respond. This has unsettled traditional distinctions between professionals and amateurs, and eroded the boundaries between the producers and consumers of images.

This radically expanded photographic landscape can sometimes appear a fragmented and disorientating space, as multiple and contradictory perspectives risk unsettling notions of objectivity and singular photographic truths. The effect is compounded by the ease with which digital photographs can be manipulated using Photoshop. As Sean O’Hagan suggested, in a round table discussion published in issue 15 of Photoworks, it is easy to see how such changes might result in ‘a crisis of the image’.

 

Gerda Taro [Spectators at the funeral parade of General Lukacs, Valencia], June 16, 1937 Negative © International Center of Photography

Gerda Taro [Spectators at the funeral parade of General Lukacs, Valencia], June 16, 1937 Negative © International Center of Photography

 

 

While many have been happily uploading and commenting on photographs online for years now, it seems to have taken ‘The Photography World’ longer to recognise the implications of such changes, particularly here in the UK. This can, in part, be put down to the tired debate regarding photography’s artistic credentials, fuelled for decades by the Tate’s uncertainty about collecting and exhibiting photographs, and finally put to bed by Simon Baker’s appointment as Curator of Photographs and International Art last year. In a different vein, the contested role of social networking sites in fuelling the Arab Spring has helped to foreground the importance of a networked society for the study of photography.

While some noted a changing photographic culture more than a decade ago, and such debates have gained momentum in recent years (through the publication of Fred Ritchin’s After Photography in 2009, for example), it seems likely that 2010-11 will be remembered as the period when the penny finally dropped for the network of curators, writers, organizations, festivals and academics responsible for shaping and sanctioning what is deemed by some to be culturally significant in photography.

Last year’s Format festival proposed a new relevance for street photography in the age of CCTV and camera phones; FOAM magazine has launched a year-long series of events and debates aimed at addressing the question of ‘What Next?’; and we have adjusted our editorial approach at Photoworks in order to try to look beyond art photography to a wider, changing social photographic landscape.

The stated aim of the 2011 Rencontres d’Arles—probably still Europe’s most important photography festival—suggests its organisers have set out along similar lines. In his introduction to the festival catalogue, its Director, Francois Hebel, explained that ‘the world has changed’ along with ‘photography—and its public’.

While such changes were addressed directly by a small proportion of the exhibitions, they loomed unavoidably over the festival as a whole (and perhaps, too, over the culture of photography exhibitions and festivals more generally). In particular, we might question what the appropriate roles for the photography museum, gallery and festival are, now that photography has acquired new forms of social and cultural ubiquity, distinctions between amateur and professional appear less clear, and the internet has introduced new and participatory modes of photographic practice?

The exhibitions at Arles suggested a number of possible answers. The first is well illustrated by an exhibition of photographs by the Mexican artist Fernando Montriel Klint. Klint makes large-scale photographic tableaux in the manner of Jeff Wall and Gregory Crewdson. Measuring more than a meter in height, and resulting from intricate processes of staging and construction, these photographs demand to be viewed on the wall through their material similarities to painting, along with their apparent difference to pictures made and shared more quickly and unthinkingly by the masses.

 

© Fernando Montiel Klint Artist in the Studio From the series Nirvana 2008

© Fernando Montiel Klint Artist in the Studio From the series Nirvana 2008

 

Such images aim to communicate little about the socio-cultural specifics of their subject and much about the private fantasies and ‘vision’ of their maker. It is an idea of museum photography that has begun to feel increasingly specific in its agenda. The museum provides a world apart from the white noise of images circulating in mass culture, where great artists display great pictures for viewers to look at and (hopefully) think about.

Alternatively, the gallery can be used as a site to revisit more functional forms of photography. This year’s festival suggested two approaches to this task. Firstly, these images are provided with a new autonomy through their framing and isolation on the wall, in a manner in which issues of form and artistry can take precedent over use or informational content.

In the Espace van Gogh, for example, Miguel Angel Berumen curated an exhibition of photographs depicting the Mexican Revolution, for which the captions were provided as an additional A3 booklet. It was striking how many visitors opted to ignore this textual element altogether, and look at the images alone.

 

Enrique Metinides, '101 Tragedies'

Installation view of Enrique Metinides, ‘101 Tragedies’

 

Enrique Metinides’ ‘101 Tragedies’ (billed on the text panel as the ‘101 Tragedies of Enrique Metinides’) brought together a collection of visually compelling photographs of murders, car crashes and attempted suicides by the esteemed Mexican photojournalist. Slickly framed and mounted on yellow walls, the aestheticisation of their violent subject matter was unavoidable.

An alternative approach was suggested by an exhibition of photographs commissioned and published by The New York Times Magazine. Curated by the magazine’s Picture Editor, Kathy Ryan, the show aimed to open up and newly contextualise the images.

Although large prints appeared in frames, these were shown alongside copies of the original magazine spreads, faxes, letters, contact sheets and related ephemera that, together, provided a narrative account of their production and reception: be that through sycophantic letters from Gregory Crewdson to Gwynyth Paltrow asking her to model, telegrams concerning Giles Peres’ time in Iran, or a letter from the magazine’s owner to its staff following the first issue published after 9/11.

A similar approach was evident in the Mexican Suitcase, which has toured for the first time to Europe following its initial show ICP in New York. Here, viewers were presented with contact sheets made from recently discovered negatives of Gerda Taro, Ropert Capa and David ‘Chim’ Seymour showing the Spanish Civil War.

 

Mexican Suitcase

Installation view from ‘Mexican Suitcase’

 

These were shown alongside prints, texts and the picture magazines in which the images originally appeared. In such examples, the physical space of the gallery or museum becomes the site within which photographs are opened up and explained: replacing the formalist and medium-specific concerns of the modern and contemporary art gallery with an approach closer to the educational remit of a history museum.

 

© JR Robert Evans, from the series The Wrinkles of the City, Los Angeles, USA, 2011

© JR Robert Evans, from the series The Wrinkles of the City, Los Angeles, USA, 2011

 

Of the four ‘manifesto’ exhibitions, which aimed to respond directly to a photographic culture transformed by digitization, ‘From Here On’ and ‘JR’ provided the more compelling propositions. JR has subjected photography to the interventionist logic of street art, pasting large-scale black and white posters in various locations. They have included huge portraits of Israelis and Palestinians on the either side of the dividing security wall and portraits of young people from Paris’ housing projects pasted on the walls of the city’s richer districts.

At Arles, JR was represented by a photo-booth, in which visitors could have their own picture taken on the understanding they would reintroduce this into the urban landscape. While the project lacked the (mild) political critique suggested by the specific subjects and locations of the previous works, it still suggested a model through which photography’s role in the museum might be rethought and subject to a more participatory format. Here the institution serves as a form of laboratory within which artists and curators try to shape behaviour beyond the museum walls.

An inverse approach was suggested by the curators of From Here On—Martin Parr, Joachim Schmid, Erik Kessels, Clement Cheroux and Joan Fontcuberta—who opted to transpose fragments of online culture into the gallery and onto the wall. The exhibition centred on a new generation of artists who have taken the online world of images and the possibilities of digital culture as their subject matter (with mixed results – speaking to the artists and curators, there is a clear sense that this is a form of practice in its infancy).

Here, the gallery provides artists with the space in which to frame and call attention to aspects of photography’s non-art applications. The majority of the projects exhibited can be divided into two forms: those which look down the social spectrum at the online photographic habits of the masses and, less frequently, those who look up this spectrum towards the use of images by cultural, economic and political elites.

In the case of the former, artists swerve between a Pop-orientated aestheticism and a pseudo-ethnographic impulse. Most frequently, the work sets out to highlight the uniform, absurd or perplexing aspects of amateur online practices (in work by Corinne Vionnet, Thomas Maillander, Andreas Schmid and Penelope Umbrico, to name a few).

 

Penelope Umbrico 8,799,661 Suns From Flickr (Partial) 3/8/11 2011 Courtesy of the artist

Penelope Umbrico 8,799,661 Suns From Flickr (Partial) 3/8/11 2011 Courtesy of the artist

 

The problem lies in the distinction between high and low culture upon which this work depends, and the self-congratulatory and knowing character it prescribes for the former in relation to the photographic behaviour of the latter: a form of understanding that sets this particular cultural elite apart from those apparently too busy producing and sharing photographs to engage in this kind of self-reflection.

The contrast between the (potentially radical) participatory model provided by the internet and the (more conservative) broadcast model of the gallery was also clearest in this work. (In a panel discussion during the festival’s opening weekend, Simon Baker suggested that, stripped of the interactivity of the web, such work risked feeling like ‘a residue’).

The second group of artists aimed to answer back to the authority yielded by photographs, setting the comic, subjective and non-instrumental presence of the artist against the camera’s beaurocratic and official instrumental applications (in work by Jens Sundheim, Tony Churnside and the Get Out Clause, Kurt Caviezel and Mocksim, for example). While these observations and interventions offer some relief, or signal the aesthetic potential of such imagery (particularly that drawn from Google Street View), their intentions appear more playful than political.

 

© Mishka Henner NATO Storage Annex, Coevorden 2011

© Mishka Henner NATO Storage Annex, Coevorden 2011

 

Miska Henner’s ‘Dutch Landscapes’ series breaks from this mould: noting the highly aesthetic character of the locations censored by the Dutch authorities on Google Earth and using captions to reveal what these have been used to conceal. Pavel Maria Smejkal’s work also suggested a more thoughtful agenda. Taking iconic photographs of violent incidents, Smejkal used Photoshop to remove their bloody spectacle. The remaining landscapes are striking both in the familiarity they retain, and in their capacity to reintroduce a sense of locality and specificity to images that, at least for a ‘photography audience’, are usually consumed in terms of their iconicity.

The high point of the exhibition is Claudia Sola’s ‘Being There’, which suggests an alternative attitude towards the mass of images circulating online. Consisting of a four-image split screen projection, viewers are led rapidly through a collection of pictures drawn from the Web, along with the artist’s own photographs (although it is impossible to tell the two apart).

Set to an unpretentious soundtrack, the order of the pictures suggests a narrative progression from couples to marriage to children to religion to war to pornography to consumption, while the split screen model allows for these aspects to be contrasted, compared and juxtaposed.

The images then move away from the social and cultural towards the physicality of the body, showing scars, brain scans, and microscopic images of cells, before suggesting a form of synthesis through pictures of tatoos (images of bodies moving into images of images on bodies).

The projection approaches mass culture in a spirit of empathy and understanding, rather than irony and difference, but also succeeds in foregrounding the place of an online image world in mediating these rites of passage, events, and understandings of human behaviour: revisiting the Family of Man through the critical lens of twenty-first century spectacle.

The unavoidable symbols of the recent changes to photography are the notorious photographs from Abu Ghraib. The manner in which they changed, or represented changes to, the roles and significance of photography within culture cannot help but shape understandings of how institutions should aim to respond to this new photographic landscape.

The significance of those pictures lay not in what they looked like, in aesthetics and issues of form, but in issues of instrumentality, information, and use: why they were made and by whom; the abuses they depicted and why these took place; how the leaking of the pictures resulted in new functions, offering a damning form of insider testimony; and, more generally, how changing technologies have shaped such possibilities.

While the photographs’ pixelated amateur appearance has provided a new visual form to ideas of photographic authenticity, this was determined by the social roles and specificity of the images. In contrast to the spectacle and aesthetics of wall-mounted prints presented without explanation, the images resonated owing to the larger narratives within which they were inserted: narratives regarding production, circulation and use.

In Issue 14 of Photoworks, Ian Jeffrey described recent artists’ privileging of form over the informational content usually provided by text as photography in its most ‘unsupported’ state. Set within a changing photographic culture, the inadequacies of this kind of aestheticism and the relativism of meaning it promotes become all too apparent.

Based on the example of Arles, it seems that museums and galleries may find their most meaningful roles in the promotion of informed modes of participation, discussion and the critical understanding of images through the provision of context, explanation and narrative.

 

Published on 12 July 2011
Written by Dr Benedict Burbridge, Deputy Editor of Photoworks