This conversation was originally published in FOAM: What's Next? #2 - http://www.foam.org/whatsnext
AS – Aaron Schuman
AS: One thing that I find fascinating about what’s happening right now – and I suspect that this will gain importance in future – is that rather than photography representing the capture or culmination of something, it’s becoming a form of instigation. For me, the most interesting works coming out right now – even if they’ve been formalized in the form of a book, an exhibition, a print or a website – represent the beginnings of something. They’re not simply an end result, or the remnants of something that has past and been preserved in silver gelatin, emulsion, or ink; they’re starts, sparks, or seeds from which many other things might grow.
CC: Perhaps that’s something that could be credited to this digital phase in our culture – not just in terms of the web, open-sourcing, or crowd-sourcing, which all present dynamics that offer participation – but even on a rudimentary level. For photography, maybe it’s about how photographers no longer have to self-censor or edit themselves because of analogue limitations, such as the number of frames on a roll of film or the cost of a sheet of film. The endlessness of digital capture is actually loosening photography up, and allowing it to be lots of different things, rather than simply a culmination or condensation of something.
AS: Absolutely. The technology has shifted, but also the way in which people encounter and engage with photography has shifted. Rather than there being a limited supply of information and images, there’s this overwhelming torrent that we all have to sift through on a daily basis, and the process of editing itself is becoming internalized by everyone. Just within the last year, there have been so many incredibly complex and original photographic projects and books, rather than simply more typologies and traditional narratives. Photographers are cobbling together loads of information in a really intricate, and often open-ended, non-linear and puzzling ways, but they’re not solving these puzzles for the reader or viewer; they’re entrusting their audience with that power. I was so excited, and surprised, by the recent success of a number of these very challenging projects. The fact that these kinds of works are being embraced indicates that there is a burgeoning audience for these sorts of photo-involving puzzles, which I find incredibly encouraging. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that people now recognize that their audience is a little bit more experienced and capable in terms of sifting, editing and finding meanings within complex collections of information.
CC: That’s such a brilliant point to make. Do you think that’s related to the ascendance of a type of authored photographic practice in which a photographer jumps between photographic genres and styles – almost like a vocabulary of styles – rather than an allegiance to a particular signature style; the subject is the vocabulary.
AS: Yes, and I think that the ability to engage with the viewer or reader in this way is just becoming a reality. Of course, there are certain examples where photographers in the past have been able to do that, but for the most part the photographers who have been included in the canon seem to be those who have a signature style or a clear consistency in their work. It’s only now that you see people such as Paul Graham being canonized; photographers who are willing to evolve and change with every new project, so their signature style becomes that they are ever-shifting, diverse, dynamic, experimental, and perpetually new. They do everything in their power not to be pigeonholed, whereas in the past I think that many photographers were desperate to be pigeonholed.
CC: …I think that we’re finally getting over the notion that photography is democratic.
AS: Could you explain why you think that photography is not democratic?
CC: One way that you could define photography in terms of democracy is that anyone can make a picture; billions are made every year, so it’s clearly very easy, and I’m happy to admit that photography is very democratic in terms of its rendering. But as a meaningful cultural force it should not be described as being democratic, because culture is a process of defining what’s good – what’s resonant – and that’s not determined by a democratic or even an empirical system. So I’m not happy with the idea that, just because it’s easy to render a photographic image, anyone can make a great, culturally resonant photograph. Those processes are not democratic; at some point there is an elitism involved, and I think that such elitism is only a problem if you think in terms of its high-art version, in which there are millions of reasons why you might not be allowed entry into that world. But a group of people who all really get the same thing – whether its photography, or music, or skateboarding, or whatever form of collective culture – if that’s elitist, it’s in an entirely different league. It’s about self-elected elitism rather than the elitism of an establishment.
AS: I feel like it’s a very exciting time for photography right now, because people who are truly invested in the medium are working incredibly hard to find out what else can happen within it. As a result, it seems that much of the detritus that has surrounded photography in the recent past seems to be disappearing.
CC: How would you characterize the ‘detritus’ that you’re happy to be rid of?
AS: More recently, I would include the notion of photographer as ‘artiste’.
CC: Yes, so over!
AS: The super-ego-driven, ‘genius’ aspect of photography seems to be evaporating. Yes, people are still canonized – which I’m just as guilty of participating in as anybody, and there are certainly figures in the medium whom I think are deserving of such a distinction – but the notion that canonization is the primary driving factor for living, working practitioners is becoming irrelevant. To be honest, I think that phase in photography went by pretty quickly – before 1965 it wasn’t really an option, and now it’s collapsing, so it only really lasted three or four decades. And to a certain extent, that’s a relief to me, because I feel that people can now get on with the business of making work that that is really important to them, rather than trying to satisfy a very narrow marketplace, or chasing fame and glory. So that’s one aspect of photography that I think, or at least hope, is disappearing.
CC: Yes, I agree with almost everything that you’ve just said. I do fetishize revolutions and moments of radical change; I really enjoy them, and I’m enjoying this moment. But there’s a part of me that worries that, actually, it might be the ‘same old, same old’. This potential for photography’s liberation might come from the fact that photography is no longer a default form of social media communication, and that type of freedom I totally agree with. Photography as we learnt it and appreciate it is not actually relevant to most of the images that get made in the course of daily life. So the liberation as it’s discussed in the cultural field is no longer bogged down with whether photography is legitimate or not, whether it’s a lesser form, or indeed whether it is able to pull that disingenuous punch that it’s a democratic art form. So there’s this lovely safety of the fact that photography is not a default form, therefore is creatively interesting in terms of what it can speak of, how it speaks, and who uses it; that is really interesting. So like you, I’m excited with that terrain.
CC: I’m genuinely concerned about the number of young people that are pursuing degrees in photography, presumably thinking that the success criteria in this medium stems from joining the canon of photography as contemporary art, and then make a living out of that position. Such aspirations are founded upon a disingenuous idea – that photography is democratic, and therefore everyone has a fighting, almost entrepreneurial chance to be a leading light in this ‘democratic medium’ – when in fact both these aspirations and the art market are not democratic whatsoever, but are about being the one lifted from the many. So I am genuinely worried about what we are training students to do, or what they’re going to participate in, if such degrees continue to be dedicated to this notion of photography as contemporary art.
AS: I think photographic education has reached a crossroads. One direction leads down the vocational route – whether that’s training people to be jobbing photographers or art careerists – and there’s a lot a pressure for it to go this way, promoting photography as a commodifiable skill. The other direction, which I think could be much more promising, is that instead of the focus being on a career in photography, the focus could be on the subject of photography itself. This medium is rapidly becoming one that parallels the written word in many ways – it’s embedding itself within culture, and within digital culture in particular, as an important form of communication, with its own vocabularies and variations, its own visual languages, dialects, grammars, accents, applications, and so on. But when people choose to study subjects that centre on the written word – Literature, Classics, Philosophy, and so on – their intention is not always to be the next great novelist, philosopher or epic poet; their interested in trying to understand how a particular medium has been used to communicate ideas. If this approach could be applied to the photographic medium, both in terms of its historical and critical studies and in relation to students’ own practice, it could be incredibly liberating. Instead of it being a discipline, photography could become a fully-fledged subject. I think that expectations would change dramatically if it was approached in this way, but of course it’s scary for institutions to promote a visual medium as something other than ‘Art’. For me, it possesses incredible promise as a subject – just because it’s a visual discipline doesn’t mean that it has to sit exclusively within a fine-art educational construct or context.
CC: Yes, and also that strength of photography to be both fully determined by its context – whether it’s the page or the gallery wall or the mobile phone – but at the same time to be a subject that’s independent of such contexts.
AS: Photography is often seen as this thing that piggy-backs on top of other things, whereas plenty of other things can – and do – piggy-back on top of it. And that’s how I’d like to see it develop, as a subject, in the future.
CC: Sometimes when I get overexcited about this dematerialized moment, I think, ‘Could you consider photography as a way of thinking?’
AS: Well, whether you’re a photographer or not, the second that you put a camera around your neck – or even pull out your phone and turn on the camera function with the intension of taking a picture – your response to the world, the way you interact with it, and the way you think about it all change dramatically. I think that’s a very simple example of something that can happen on a much greater scale over a long period of time, and might not be limited to people who are making photographs, but could include people who are looking at and engaging with photographs in an considered and critical way. It’s a way of tuning into something.
CC: I suppose that every subject has a way of fine-tuning your way of seeing and thinking. Perhaps because photography has been embroiled in all of these other arguments and has been such a grey, ambiguous terrain, we’ve only reached that stage where we’re realizing that this is actually a subject in and of itself. That only becomes visible once photography stops being a default medium, or just a tool, or just about context.
CC: We’re definitely out of that phase when discussion centres around whether you’re an ‘artist using photography’, or a ‘photographer’. Doesn’t that feel completely irrelevant now?
AS: At what point did you first feel that this debate had become irrelevant?
CC: Even when I was writing The Photograph as Contemporary Art, around 2004, I felt that it was over as a debate, or at least I was no longer remotely interested in having that debate. But the point at which it was really over for me was last year, when the contemporary art market imploded completely, because that terminology is only important if the locus is the contemporary art market. I don’t think that contemporary art is the centre of things anymore.
AS: But to a certain extent, your book – The Photograph as Contemporary Art – was responsible for centring photography within that context for the current generation of practitioners, and still remains important to students in terms of figuring out where photography is located. Do you feel that the book is relevant anymore?
CC: Well I wrote the new chapter about a year and a half ago. In the book, I clearly sidestepped trying to validate photography as contemporary art and just said, ‘It is; that war is over.’ And then each chapter started with historical precedents that at the time were unexpected, like Cindy Sherman or Jim Welling. For some people, those artists constitute what photography as contemporary art is, but I was saying that they are actually historical precedents who initially got the ball rolling for all of the more recent artists, who were born around 1965-1970.
AS: But could you write a book like The Photograph as Contemporary Art now?
CC: No. I could only write it now if ‘Contemporary Art’ was understood as a museological term for a period in art-making that, for most museums, started around 1965 and ended around 2010.
AS: So we’ve come to the end of the ‘Contemporary’ period?
CC: Maybe. I’m certainly finding that the work that most interests me today doesn’t sit within that field. I think that the very nature of the time that we’re now living through has led me to change my opinion about lots of things profoundly. And to not change your opinion about something that is shifting so radically is to not be really and truly invested in it.
CC: The idea of photographic practice is changing as well. I think that now there is a greater positive reception to photographers blogging, writing, editing or even curating shows; photographic practice now incorporates all of these stages within it, and these disciplines don’t have to be separate, but instead, can be a part of your practice.
AS: The barriers between those disciplines are certainly beginning to dissolve –we’re all editors, we’re all photographers, we’re all curators in once sense or another. Of course, this type of multi-disciplinary practice has always existed throughout the history of photography – Steiglitz ran his gallery, 291, published Camera Work, wrote many essays, and of course made his own photographs – and there are plenty of other photographers who have operated similarly. But in the course of last two or three decades there has been a certain amount of pressure to specialize, not only in photography but within all fields. The multi-disciplinary approach seems like it’s only just now becoming available and relevant again.
CC: It feels like its available widely because, in a sense, we’re a digital culture – that’s what we do. And equally, it becomes more available in a time when we’re a little bit less hopeful that the art market will be such a determining factor within photographic practice. Because it only makes sense to specialize or be perfectly consistent when your end product is a commodified thing. It makes no sense if, really, it’s about who you’re going to talk to today, or what are you’re going to think about today.
CC: Photography isn’t alone in this – all of the business models are crumbling. Look at the studio system within the film industry, or record companies within the music industry. Every established creative industry is going through crisis, and that means that creativity shifts. That said, each industry has it’s specifics, and perhaps the crisis is going to be less dramatic for photography because it was never particularly profitable in the first place, and there was never really a fixed economic model within it. There was never just one or two routes into it, and for me, that was one of the reasons that I wanted to work in photography – not because of its professionalized front, but actually because its obvious that many people come from somewhere before they get into photography. People come from different directions, subjects and disciplines, and that means that photography can be this opinionated, resourceful and not necessarily conservative form. That’s really interesting to me.
AS: But the question is where is its outlet. If it’s no longer viable in an art market or print market, then where do all of these pictures go, and how do you make them something that’s effective.
CC: That’s about personal aspirations. The issue of, ‘Where’s my round of applause?’ or ‘Where’s the reflected glory?’ is something that we answer very differently depending on who we are. They’re questions that we all ask ourselves, but we each find solace in different places. So ultimately, if your solace comes from a paternalistic structure – ‘Dad’ – that is going to pat you on the back, than of course it’s a shocking to think that Dad might no longer exist. But if you’re like me and don’t give a shit about Dad, then it’s really up to all of us who still care about photography to give ourselves a pat on the back, firstly for simply being here at this amazing moment. For people who make experimental work or like pulling out a really funky edit of found images, the thrill is not that some esteemed museum might put it in a display case. It’s about the twenty people that you meet who go, ‘I totally got what you were doing.’
CC: I suppose that, as a person who’s got a vested interest in institutional space, this is the perfect moment for institutions to redefine what their space gets used for, and who programmes it. Some people would say that the role or obligation of institutions, in terms of photography, is to provide the physical space in which to see, experience and to collectively enjoy photographs as a physical object. I’d say that another responsibility of the institutional is to provide a place where small groups – say, twenty people who see things in a very complimentary way – can come together to share their work, edit their magazines, organize talks, forums and discussions and so on - which is, of course, not so very different from what photographic workshops and camera clubs did in previous decades.
AS: That’s great; the institution as a place for instigation, rather than a place where work goes to in the end – a place that offers an opportunity for development and experimentation as well. But it seems like museums and institutions might not necessarily be willing to take those risks.
CC: I feel really lucky to be working within a science museum, which is streets ahead (or streets behind, whichever way you want to think about it) arts institutions, because they understand experimentation – they understand the idea of the laboratory, and they’re comfortable with the notion that the jury may not be entirely out on something. And in fact, that offers wonderful opportunities for exhibition and discussion. To me, all of these feel like perfectly valid uses of institutional space. Furthermore, ninety-nine percent of visitors to The Science Museum say that they are not specialists in science, which is phenomenally liberating because it means that both the public and the institution rely on one another in order to complete the meaning of this place.
CC: One of the worst things that happened during photography’s engagement with contemporary art is the feeling of inadequacy that was fostered – a profound desire to be a part of this very particular ‘cool’ clique, which was simultaneously accompanied by an understanding that, because you genuinely liked photography, you’d never really be one of the ‘cool kids’.
AS: It seems like photography is in the process of shedding that sense of inferiority completely, if it hasn’t done so already. To me, the medium appears to be rapidly gaining maturity and confidence – it’s thriving, picking up momentum, and plenty of brave, dynamic, pioneering projects are flourishing. Plus, let’s face it – photography is so cool.
CC: It’s so not!
AS: [Looking around at Charlotte’s shelves] I really like your books.
CC: [Laughing] Well, that pretty much sums it up…
SEESAW MAGAZINE: "What's Next? - Aaron Schuman & Charlotte Cotton", by Aaron Schuman