Is Photography Over?

Last week, I attended a panel discussion at the SF MOMA on this question. That’s kind of overstating it. I just showed up  and watched from the crowd.  This is how the SFMOMA curators describe the event:

Photography has almost always been in crisis. In the beginning, the terms of this crisis were cast as dichotomies: is photography science or art? Nature or technology? Representation or truth? This questioning has intensified and become more complicated over the intervening years. At times, the issues have required a profound rethinking of what photography is, does, and means. This is one of those times. Given the nature of contemporary art practice, the condition of visual culture, the advent of new technologies, and many other factors, what is at stake today in seeing something as a photograph? What is the value of continuing to speak of photography as a specific practice or discipline? Is photography over?

SFMOMA has invited a range of major thinkers and practitioners to write brief responses to this question and then to convene for a two-day summit on the state of the medium. Participants include Vince Aletti, George Baker, Walead Beshty, Jennifer Blessing, Charlotte Cotton, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Geoff Dyer, Peter Galassi, Corey Keller, Douglas Nickel, Trevor Paglen, Blake Stimson, and Joel Snyder.

Perhaps the question was too broad – Corey Keller, the organizer herself (one of SFMOMA’s photography curators) described it as a “blunt instrument” meant to provoke and instigate. But instead I think it left the participants confused about what they were supposed to be talking about. Although they seemed unhappy about it, the conversation first broached the question of whether or not photography is art – which seems to me to be irrelevant, really. It is if it is and it isn’t if it isn’t, right? If you don’t know that it’s art when you look at it, it’s unlikely to be art.  Although I did like Beshty’s comment that you hear people say things like “I like photography but I don’t like art-photography” but you never hear them saying “I like painting, but not art-painting. ” Because its true – photography occupies a different ontological relationship to the life of a person than painting ever will, and people feel differently about it.

And that comment maneuvered the conversation into more  of a discussion about what constitutes the practices of photography in contemporary society, and historically. And luckily, too, because this is a much more interesting conversation.  Photography should and does refer to a wide range of practices, many of them occurring incessantly and ubiquitously. Your picture, for example, has likely already been taken a few times today – when you took the train to work, when you bought a soda from the grocery store, when you walked into your classroom or office building. The world is mapped – you find your way – via the photographic processes of Google’s satellite imagery. These types of images are being produced and reproduced all the time. We live in a world made up of images.

And with the spread of imaging equipment – $100 bucks says you have something that can make images in your pocket right now – we are starting to become even more active participants in this world/image-making. Photography thus has an ontological important in our lives – we see and act as though in the process of image making and already posting/sharing/re-experiencing. Memory making. It’s possible to think of image-making in this way as the unifying structure of our experience.

This is what i took out of the panel discussion – at least this was what seemed productive about the discussion. Of course, there were some elegiac moments in the conversation (the decline of rigor of craft in the works of successful contemporary “art photographers,” the disappeareance of dark rooms all over the world, the replacement of ‘mechanical’ photography by ‘digital’ photography, etc. ). There was plenty of discussion about Facebook – I liked one person’s comment (I forget who) who said that the experience of seeing photography on Facebook is like the experience of a Hallmark card – a prefab “emotion” vessel which you fill with the arbitrary specificities of your experience.

But overall, the general feeling was positive  – that photography is a useful and fluid concept that is, if anything, expanding to mean more and make more meaning. If you’re interested, each panel participant submitted a short written response to the question “Is Photography Over?” and that can be read at:http://www.sfmoma.org/pages/research_projects_photography_over They are really well thought out and interesting.

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